Whitecaps executive Rachel Lewis keeps her eyes on the big event

A profile of the COO of the Vancouver Whitecaps FC

Photo: Rob Kruyt

While completing her master of business administration degree in 1999 at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Rachel Lewis came to a serious fork in the road. She had been tasked with getting a summer internship, but was coming up dry in finding something she was passionate about.

“They were all very traditional business internships,” Lewis said. “There were no real opportunities, and I was applying but I wasn’t getting anywhere.”

Lewis finally landed an interview with a carpet manufacturing company. Her area of focus at UBC was strategic management, so she figured she might be able to get something out of the work. The day after she interviewed, the company called to let her know she hadn’t got the job.

“I think it was one of those moments in your life,” she said. “I was gutted that I couldn’t even get a job at a carpet manufacturing company. And I called them back after I’d calmed down and I asked them why I didn’t get the job, and they said, ‘You just looked completely disinterested. It wasn’t that we thought you couldn’t do the job; you didn’t look like you wanted the job.’ And it was kind of a moment for me.”

Lewis knew they were right – she didn’t want the job at all. Carpet manufacturing didn’t register as a blip on the radar of her interests. But what did move the needle on that radar was sports.

Born in 1974, she’d grown up in a sports-crazed household, and volunteered with a youth group in Vancouver. Lewis was surrounded by community events, tournaments and get-togethers as far back as she can remember. 

“I loved organizing the big events, the weekend events where people would come from all different cities and come together. And so I started thinking as a teenager that I might be interested in working in the event space.”

But it wasn’t until she’d entered the graduate program at UBC that she took her first big step toward the sector. Shaken by losing the carpet manufacturing job, but now more motivated than ever, Lewis linked up with a fellow student who was interning for free, helping set up and run the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) Air Canada Championship that summer in Vancouver. The only problem was that the position was unpaid, something Lewis said she was undeterred by.

“That was part of the challenge,” she said. “There were job offers for MBA candidates, but there wasn’t anything I was really passionate about. [The PGA] said there was a $500 honorarium to basically get to and from work and that was it. But they also said, ‘You’re going to get the chance to roll up your sleeves and get dirty.’”

Lewis dived in, working long days and sometimes sleeping in her car so she could be close to the course. With sports and events management, she knew she’d found her calling.

“It absolutely solidified for me that I was on the right path,” she said. “It was something that I was passionate and excited about.”

Lewis said not being paid for her work during the internship was not ideal, adding that the issue of unpaid internships has continued to provoke controversy, especially as millennials jostle for career opportunities.

“There is this real challenge right now and I actually think it’s unfortunate,” she said. “But I do see a lot of doors closing because of this emphasis for all internships to be paid. I looked at it as an opportunity. I was desperate for an opportunity and I was really prepared to do whatever it took.”

Lewis’ internship paid off in a full-time job with the the Air Canada Championship in 2000, as the tour manager for two years before the event closed due to financial troubles. Lewis was energized, however, and she knew what career path she wanted to follow. She worked for a year for the Ladies Professional Golf Association Women’s Open in 2003 before being recommended to the headhunter for the Vancouver Whitecaps Football Club.

Whitecaps majority owner Greg Kerfoot was looking to fill some positions, and Lewis was hired to lead the events management side of the organization. The team was competing in the United Soccer League First Division, but Kerfoot and company already had their sights on Major League Soccer (MLS) and building a new stadium for the club.

“I had grown up going to Whitecaps games and had really fond memories of going to BC Place and Empire Stadium,” Lewis said. “Those were special moments for me, so it was kind of cool to hear someone wanting to bring the Whitecaps back to the glory days that I remember as a kid.” 

In 2005 Kerfoot approached Lewis and said the team was pursuing a downtown waterfront stadium. The Whitecaps had been playing at Swangard Stadium since 1987 and were looking for a new home in the heart of Vancouver to increase the team’s profile. The plan was to build an open-air stadium just north of Gastown. Lewis said she was more than excited to help spearhead the project. However, it never came to fruition. Lewis cited “politics” as one of the main reasons for its failure.

“There was a lot of misguided fear that maybe the stadium would cut Gastown off from the waterfront,” she said. “Our view and vision was that it would bring it closer and unite it.”

In late 2008, after being named the Whitecaps’ chief operating officer, Lewis was pregnant with her first son and the Whitecaps had just submitted a bid to join MLS. Lewis had planned on taking a short maternity leave, and in February she was walking in Queen Elizabeth Park with her new three-month-old son when she got a call from president Bob Lenarduzzi. He said he “had some good news and bad news,” Lewis said.

The good news was the Whitecaps were successful in their MLS bid, and they would join the league for the 2011 season and move down to BC Place stadium. The bad news was that Lenarduzzi needed her to come back to work as soon as she could.

“It was like, ‘Wow, this is real. We’re doing this.’ And for me there wasn’t a question in my mind that I wanted to be back for every moment of that. I love my children and they’re the most important thing to me, but I love my career and it was one of those moments that you may only get once in a career, to be a part of something like that.”

Whitecaps co-owner Jeff Mallett said Lewis is probably the employee at the Whitecaps who most personifies the club’s vision and ideals, and carries a rare capacity for focus and attention to detail.

“Rachel has the unique ability, at a moment’s notice, to zoom out on the long-term vision and strategy – and then in the next minute zoom in on what needs to get done to achieve the current plan,” Mallett said. “Our honour is at the very centre of our club, and Rachel personifies that and leads by example.”