Rebecca Parkes Headshot

Rebecca Parkes never shies away from a challenge. From running a boatyard in high school to consulting internationally and now serving as the chief operating officer at Boston-based health care nonprofit, T1D Exchange, she’s constantly pushing herself. That drive was instilled in her from as far back as she can remember.

Parkes, who was raised in central Connecticut, grew up with an extraordinary respect for education and a drive for high performance. Beyond pure academics, what influenced her professional path was her work running a sailing school throughout high school and college and playing lacrosse at Davidson College.

“The rigor of being a college athlete, the structure required, and the way I was expected to conduct myself shaped my professional life, in addition to what I learned in a traditional liberal arts environment,” Parkes says. “In high school and college, I served as a sailing instructor over the summer and ran it as a business. I developed professional skills and learned to look at things from a macro level because I had a lot of responsibility, from preparing boats for the season to marketing and then teaching the actual lessons.”

After college, Parkes moved to New York City, where she got involved as a volunteer with the local YMCA chapter and learned about how fundraising and philanthropy broadly serve as a great social impact. She was later recruited to join the parent organization, the YMCA of Greater New York, as the major gifts manager of a large capital campaign.

To help her prepare for the transition, the YMCA sent her to New York University to complete a fundraising certificate program. The job helped build her confidence and was excellent training for a career in nonprofit and health care fundraising. It enabled her to interact with donors and the organization’s executives and board of directors.

Since her first development job, in 2005, Parkes has focused her career primarily in nonprofit leadership and strategy both in-house and as a consultant, mainly in the health care and life sciences field. That led to her current role as chief operating officer for T1D Exchange, an organization that uses data and real-world evidence in its mission to improve the lives of people with Type 1 diabetes. She has broad responsibility, overseeing financial planning, revenue, fundraising, partnerships, grants, human resources, and marketing and communications.

After joining T1D Exchange, Parkes decided to hone her business skills by enrolling in Harvard Business School Online’s Leading with Finance course, in 2018, and then, in 2019, Disruptive Strategy.

Parkes says the timing of taking Disruptive Strategy was fortuitous. Her organization was going through a turning point in strategy development as it approached its 10th year and was undertaking a full change in organizational leadership. During that period, Parkes worked with the organization’s board of directors to bring a new lens of strategy to the organization and maintain confidence with its partners and key stakeholders.

“Disruptive Strategy challenged me to always consider new ways to address obstacles,” Parkes says. “While the course is geared toward large corporations, it helped me think differently about what strategy means, how to develop and implement one, and how to engage an organization through a changing strategy.”

The program’s flexibility helped her juggle a demanding job and young child. She liked that there was some structure, however, and that her peers had the same deadlines. She notes that being paired with others to complete assignments allowed her to learn from people in different roles from different parts of the world. Together, they shared different ways of looking at the same problem.

“Disruptive Strategy helped me ask the right questions about a challenge and figure out what to do, even when sometimes the lesson is to stop doing something, or that the best thing is to do nothing,” Parkes says.

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One of the challenges Parkes and her organization have more recently experienced is the acceleration for the adoption of telemedicine. Parkes was able to apply the lens she learned through Disruptive Strategy to see how sometimes it takes a huge event—in this case, a pandemic—to quickly change the way people can adapt to something new. One of the silver-linings of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is that the world has been thrust into telemedicine as the only option for treating many ailments, with patients and care providers stuck at home—something she believes will have a long-term benefit.

“It’s unfortunate that it took a pandemic to force the broad adoption of telemedicine,” she says. “But for people with diabetes, this could be extremely beneficial since there is a day-to-day aspect of managing the disease, and going to a doctor's office, frequently, is impractical.”

In addition to continuing her work to advance the mission of T1D Exchange, Parkes hopes her professional future will allow her to continue to build skills in motivating organizations and individuals to think about how to make an impact and drive sustainability.

“I have always been looking for ways to improve and challenge myself,” Parkes says. “Taking courses at HBS Online was a natural step in that process.”

Are you interested in advancing your career? Explore our six-week online Disruptive Strategy course and learn more about how you can craft winning strategies for your organization.

Michele Reynolds

About the Author

Michele Reynolds handles brand marketing and PR for Harvard Business School Online. Prior to HBS Online, she led communications for TripAdvisor and Gazelle and has been widely quoted in national media outlets, including CBS News, Reuters, and The New York Times. Michele earned her bachelor’s degree from St. Bonaventure University. Outside work, she spends time with her teenage daughter, plays tennis, and visits her enormous extended family.