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May 21, 2020

Alumni Q&A: Rachel Ryan

2020 Spring Faegre Drinker Alumni Rachel Ryan

Name:Rachel Ryan
Firm Background: Joined Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP in March 2012. She was a member of the firm’s Health Care group and a resident in the Albany, New York, location.

What are your chief responsibilities and priorities at your current position?

I’m the chief operating officer (COO) and general counsel at Dogwood Health Trust, a philanthropic foundation that was created from the sale of Mission Health System, a legacy Drinker Biddle client, in January 2019. Dogwood’s mission is to dramatically improve the health and well-being of all people and communities in western North Carolina. It is different than most foundations in that we do more than write checks and hope things get better. Instead, we use an approach we call “Philanthropy 3.0” – we use data to identify issues where we can quantify change (such as closing racial education disparities or increasing the number of affordable housing units), then we work side-by-side with regional partners such as nonprofits, county governments and other agencies to co-design programs that will move the needle on the indicators we’ve selected and help create systematic change. We’ve only been in existence for a little over a year and our senior management team joined in the fall, so we’re in the process of working with our board to figure out our specific strategic goals and what the measures and metrics will be in areas such as housing, economic development, education and health care access. Then, we’ll work with our partners in each area to design programs that will reach those goals.

As COO and general counsel, all of our operations team reports to me. That includes HR, Finance, Legal and IT. I also manage all of the real estate matters and other general operations and administration issues.

Can you tell us a little bit more about how you landed the position?

One of the first clients I worked with when I joined Drinker from another firm was Empire Health Foundation. Anthony Chang was president of Empire Health Foundation at the time. He and I worked together for years and, when he became the CEO of Dogwood Health Trust, he offered me a position on his leadership team.

How did your time at the firm prepare you for your career with Dogwood?

A lot of what you do as general counsel is figure out how to mitigate risks for the organization. For example, with COVID-19, we had to work very quickly to design and launch a host of different programs. From a legal perspective, I had to assess the risks around those programs in real time. Being part of a big firm like Drinker (now Faegre Drinker) gave me multiple opportunities to work with lawyers from across the firm and develop relationships with partners in areas including Labor & Employment, Bankruptcy, Health Care, et cetera. So, as projects came in at Dogwood, I was able to reach out to my old colleagues at Faegre Drinker and get the information I needed quickly. I knew I could trust that information and their expertise.

What have been the biggest challenges you have faced as a result of the pandemic?

Our team has worked 12- to 15-hour days, seven days a week, putting together a full variety of programs to address the pandemic. Prior to COVID-19, we were much more focused on things such as leasing additional space for the staff, recruiting, and figuring out floor plans and where to put people as we grew. Then, COVID-19 hit and we had to rethink our priorities. We had to figure out how we were going to work from home and build a team and culture in a remote situation. We are still thinking through how to reopen in a way that will make people feel safe about coming back to our office.


In addition, there were specific projects that the operations team engaged in during the pandemic. For example, the program team decided to source and purchase personal protective equipment (PPE) for our region because we were concerned that there would not be enough PPE if a surge hit. Once all of those purchases were made, the program team looked to operations to figure out, “How do we distribute all the PPE into the region?” We had to become a logistics team and push out hundreds of thousands of pieces of PPE. We cover 18 counties and a tribe, so it was a huge undertaking in a short amount of time. There were legal aspects of that work as well, which included preparing grant agreements with releases and waivers. I worked with outside counsel, including Neil Olderman, Mark Phillips, Marilee Springer, Edan Shertzer, Carrie Siegrist, Joe Miller and Ted Lis from Faegre Drinker, to get through it all. Another segment of the program team focused on purchasing COVID-19 tests for the region’s health departments, which required us to work with Mark and Ted to dig deeply into the validity of the tests and the test manufacturers.


Now we’re starting to move from crisis strategies to longer-term strategies. As a result of COVID-19, there will be certain strategic areas that will be a higher priority for us to address in the more immediate future, particularly around the creation of jobs, economic development, housing and even the Census. In North Carolina, our response to the Census request is on the lower end compared to other states and that impacts significantly the amount of federal dollars that will come in over the next decade. One issue we’ll be talking about more with our board is how much we’re willing to invest in programming aimed at getting those Census numbers up.

How are you staying on top of the ever-changing legal landscape with all these new priorities?

The updates that Faegre Drinker sends out are helpful. I read those on a regular basis. Our team is also pretty effective at getting on top of what’s happening. We use a tool called Slack, where people are constantly posting updates about what’s happening around testing or PPE and guidance for reopening. We’re trying to share information internally as we come across it.

Beyond Slack, what tools are you using to help people stay connected to one another?

We are taking advantage of Zoom a lot! We recently had a “Bring Your Child to Work” day, where we invited everyone to a Zoom lunch, and we had pizza delivered to every employee’s home at the same time. It was really fun. Everybody’s kids were on Zoom, we all introduced our cats or our animals and just chatted. Those little things go a long way. We have virtual celebrations when people have birthdays, and we really encourage people to reach out to one another whether on Zoom or by phone – just chat, catch up or have a coffee talk. This past week, we sent cookies to everybody to show our appreciation for all the hard work they’re doing. We’re always thinking about how we can show our staff how much we appreciate them and how we can facilitate ways for people to connect. Every other week, we also do a “pulse” survey to get a sense of how people are doing. We ask a handful of questions that range from, “Is there anything you need to make working from home easier?” to “How do you like working at Dogwood on a scale of one to 10?” And if it’s not a 9 or a 10, what can we do to make that experience better? It’s not easy and I know a lot of people are eager to get back to the office.

Are there any resources that you’ve found helpful for yourself in this unprecedented time that you can share?

One of the best things that I’ve personally done during this is, to the greatest extent possible, spend lots of time outside and use technology to connect with people in my personal life. I’ve had many virtual happy hours that have been great.

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