An Interview with Diana Birkett Rakow

Board Member Diana Birkett Rakow

PacSci is excited to welcome Board Member Diana Birkett Rakow as a guest author for the PacSci Blog. Diana Birkett Rakow is Alaska Airlines’ Vice President of External Relations and leads the airline’s government affairs, corporate communications, and community relations teams in Alaska, Hawaii, San Francisco and Seattle. She is passionate about sustainability, creating momentum for change through multi-channel campaigns, programs, and issue advocacy, inside companies and across communities.

You are on the PacSci Board of Directors as well as Vice President, External Relations at Alaska Airlines. Tell us a bit about your background and why science, education, and community inspire you.

I’ve always loved science. My brothers and I used to “go exploring” at our grandparents’ house and enjoy bush-wacking woodland paths, and my best friend in elementary school and I mixed all kinds of concoctions on the playground hillside with plants and more to see what would happen. Later, I was a chemistry major in college and while the protocols were more disciplined (even when it was the aim to set something aflame), the principles of exploration and curiosity were the same. I went from chemistry to art and art conservation, to health care and now to aviation, but through all of it have been drawn to learning and believe that when we’re driven to explore and learn we will better understand the people and world around us and be able to make a positive impact. That’s why I believe in PacSci – it’s all about inspiring, enabling, and celebrating that curiosity in all of us.

Tell us a bit about the work that you are doing to create change inside and outside of companies through programs and advocacy.

One of the cool things about Alaska Airlines is that we have a bunch of leaders who’ve grown up at the company – maybe started on the “ramp” as a ground services agent getting aircraft in and out and managing bags – and are now in maintenance, flight attendants, pilots, or even vice presidents. The point is the ability to change and grow, in this case within the company. But it’s our aim to extend that. Let’s say you grow up in Sea-Tac, Kitsap, or the south Bay Area. Maybe you’ve never thought about a career in aviation because you haven’t had a model for it – but why not? Or maybe your strength and future passion is to be a teacher or musician, an engineer, or public servant. Whatever the destination, our aim is to inspire, empower, and equip young people – especially those who’re underrepresented – to imagine and realize their opportunity. Russell Wilson is a rare and living example of this, and a hugely important partner in inspiring kids. So are PacSci’s Discovery Corps youth, Highline High seniors, Seattle Promise Interns, Juma Ventures employees, and many others.

Talk about the importance of girls and women in STEM, and inclusion in general in the workplace. Why is it so important?

Honestly, I’ve tried not to think of myself as a woman in science or a woman in business. I changed my name when I married and believed I could without consequence because I’d be known for results not for a name. Some of that’s a bit naïve, as I soon learned, but I still believe in the principle. I played co-ed ice hockey and tucked my long ponytail into my jersey so see if I got more passes (you can guess). My parents said I could do anything I wanted, and I believed them. Sometimes I don’t anymore. A couple years ago I entered a whole new industry – aviation – and that a humbling change. I had to start from scratch understanding the business. But then I look at my daughter, and I want for her to also believe that anything is possible, and so I press on.

The truth is, we’re better as any given industry, team, or society when all people know and can realize their potential regardless of gender, race, economics or place of birth. From a business perspective, it means we’re more open to new ideas and better understand the diversity of our customer base. From a societal perspective, it means literally more people included in economic opportunity.

But too often that’s not actually the case; gender, race, economics or place or birth lead people to expect certain things and not others, and when that happens, we miss out. That’s why I believe we must invest in girls and women in STEM in business and beyond. We must also invest in people of color, people with disabilities, and any group that’s underrepresented. But it’s not going to happen without intentional focus on inclusion, so we need PacSci and the companies and individuals who are investing to expand access and ensure that more young people believe these paths are open to them.

Tell us about the work that you are doing on behalf of Alaska Airlines within and around Puget Sound? Why is corporate and personal responsibility important? How can we encourage responsibility within our communities?

The bulk of my career has been in government, nonprofit advocacy organizations, and nonprofit business with the last few years in a publicly traded company. What I’ve learned is that when you take a long-term perspective of value and your work is based on a long-term purpose of delivering value to all those who depend on you, the sector doesn’t matter. In fact, businesses have the responsibility to create jobs and innovate, grow a diverse talent pipeline, and expand economic opportunity. But whether a business or an individual, the point is to think broadly about responsibility.

My husband Jeff and I have been thrilled to support PacSci for the better part of a decade, before we had kids and before I was on the Board, because of its ability to challenge and inspire us and others to appreciate the small things like a butterfly’s delicate flight or to think big through an engineering marvel like trains or space travel. That that’s something in which we should all be willing to invest. And it’s something that doesn’t happen without our investment. It’s just that basic: as a business or citizen of this innovative and thriving region for whom an equitable economy is still elusive, we must all invest and be accountable to our communities.

Letters written to Alaska Airlines

What initiatives is PacSci pursuing that are particularly important or exciting to you?

PacSci is an especially cool place because it’s a business on the frontline of innovation, as well as a community-based organization on the frontline of social impact. These angles are both connected and interdependent, and both very worthy of support. I love it that PacSci leadership, with Will Daugherty (President & Chief Executive Officer) and Diana Johns’ (Vice President of Exhibits) championship, were willing to experiment going beyond traditional “big exhibits” to things like incubating local start-ups for experimentation and beta-testing. Experimentation is what we espouse, so shouldn’t we live it? The VR experiences in Building 4 are another of my personal favorites.

But I also believe deeply in PacSci’s Access to Science Pipeline, starting with camps and Science on Wheels in Title 1 schools and extending through Discovery Corps program that provides job experience for college and career readiness. Whether these young people wind up in “science” per se or the world at large, we’ll have better critical thinkers and cognizant citizens that have been impacted by PacSci.

What do you see other institutions doing that makes a difference?

I love it that so many companies are joining in – Amazon’s recent commitment to PacSci’s Science on Wheels program, Smartsheet joining us at a significant level at the 2019 Foundations of Science Breakfast, Pemco’s recurrent support for the arctic and climate-focused Curiosity Expo, Gates Foundation global health Science in the City series, and more. These companies each see “curiosity and critical thinking” from a different angle, but all know that it’s essential to our future as an adaptive part of society and humanity. And there is room for a lot more…

Are there any success stories you can tell?

I am proud of the Science on Wheels program, as well as helping kids from Highligh High School visiting PacSci. These thank you notes were so meaningful to us at Alaska Airlines.

Let’s talk about the future. What can people everywhere do to promote inclusion in the workplace as well as in their communities?

Well, part of it is just being clear WHY it matters and WHAT you’re doing to do about it. Inclusion is not something that happens on its own, and it’s not just about seeking diversity. Inclusion is about actively working to listen to and include those who aren’t naturally like you. Imagine what might happen if we were all genuinely, truly curious about other people, about issues, about how things work and how they can be put together whether in a biotech lab or in the PacSci Tinker Tank? Personally, I know I have a lot to learn about how to more effectively contribute on this path, and every time I hear from kids who’ve been impacted by PacSci’s programs or colleagues or others in the community, I’m inspired to keep at it.