Michele Rae ’74: A pioneer from the first class of Fairfield women

by Virginia Weir

When her mother dropped Michele Rae ’74 off at Fairfield in the fall of 1970, she told her daughter that these would be the best years of her life. “She was right, as usual,” said Rae. “What she didn’t say — but I suspect she knew when she’d encouraged me to attend a Jesuit school — was how it would affect the rest of my life.”

That fall was the very first semester that women began to attend Fairfield. They were housed on the first and second floors of Loyola Hall for their freshman year. “There were about 125 women in my class,” Rae recalled. “I think the biggest adjustment was for upperclassmen who were used to an all-male environment.”

Retrospectively, Rae said she thinks her experience as a member of the first class of women at Fairfield helped prepare her for her career in international manufacturing operations, where there were very few women in leadership positions.

“Jesuit education taught me to think within a moral, ethical framework,” Rae noted. “Throughout my career, this has influenced how I conduct myself and do business, as well as my selection of companies. At the time, during my college experience, I just thought, ‘Yeah, this is what college is.’ I didn’t realize until much later how special my Fairfield Jesuit education was.”

After receiving her undergraduate degree in economics, Rae went on to earn her master’s in business while working as a buyer and planner of Navy aircraft avionics systems at the Department of Defense in Philadelphia, and began a long and successful career in the field of operations and supply chain management, with a focus on international development.

Rae joined Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in New Hampshire in 1979. At that time, DEC was the world’s second largest computer company. Over the next 19 years, she had increasingly responsible roles, and ample opportunity to travel around the world — a pattern that has continued to this day. She managed master scheduling and materials planning for DEC’s international manufacturing operations in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan.

In 1989, Rae moved to Chihuahua, Mexico, for two years as plant materials manager of the start-up DEC manufacturing plant there. “It was a great experience living and working in Mexico,” she said. “I was single then, and among the ex-pat community, it was highly unusual to be a woman who wasn’t accompanying her working husband. The people are wonderful — very warm and caring. It was important to them that I be happy living in Chihuahua.”

After Mexico, Rae went to work for DEC Australia as manufacturing and logistics support manager.

It was time for a change, and in 1998 Rae and her husband Dan Swinehart moved to California. For a few years, she was director of worldwide operations for Handspring, a Silicon Valley startup and inventor of Treo, the first true smartphone. She continued this role at Palm following their acquisition of Handspring.

Since 2007, Rae has been the senior director of worldwide logistics for Plantronics, the company which designs and manufactures the headsets used by everyone from airline pilots to cell phone users to call center agents. Rae manages the company’s global supply chain network and handles all distribution center operations and freight worldwide around the world.

“I can’t imagine not working in a global environment,” Rae said. She likes the way her work is highly cross-functional, both strategic and tactical, and she can see her direct impact to the company’s bottom line.

“I really enjoy working with the people in other countries, and immersing myself in other cultures as much as I can,” Rae said. “I try always to be a good ambassador for America!”

Over the years, Rae has turned international work travel into opportunities for further adventure by extending her stay and exploring.

Rae’s description of herself as “an outdoor enthusiast and aging athlete” is an understatement. She and her husband have gone scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef, the Coral Sea, Belize, Fiji, Mexico, Hawaii, and all around the Caribbean. They have also hiked on five continents. Rae enjoys cycling, and especially the challenge of hill climbs. In 2010, she trained for and completed “The Death Ride” (aka “Tour of the California Alps”) — 126 miles, with 15,000 feet of climbing over five mountain passes.

An avid skier, Rae was president of the Fairfield University Ski Club in her junior and senior years. She and her husband ski 35 days a year, mostly in Beaver Creek, Colorado, where they have a second home. “One of these years, maybe after I retire, we’ll spend our summer in Chile, skiing!” she said.

Pictured above: Michele Rae ’74 at Stone Creek Chutes at Beaver Creek, Colo., doing what she loves best.

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