Rachel Shepheard, 28
Lives in: Melbourne
Living in Melbourne, you sometimes have the feeling that there are far less than the fabled six degrees of separation orbiting around you. So in many ways I’m surprised it took me so long to meet Rachel Shepheard, my Friday Best partner in crime.
Our worlds collided several years ago while working at a publisher in Melbourne. Rach tells me she read about me before she met me and, as it turns out, I had heard about her, too. My manager at the time looked genuinely stunned after interviewing Rach for the newly available publicist role at our publishing house. She told me of a girl who had been working in remote communities in Africa, interning at a small press in New York and had her sights set on a role in independent publishing. She was already talking of one day running her own publishing house.
This was how I met one of the first women my age who seemed able to articulate her vision for a leadership role and wasn’t afraid to say it out loud.
I, of course, couldn’t help but wonder: where does this gusto come from? I could barely decide what to have for dinner with much conviction. During our conversation for Friday Best I discover this drive is just part of the Rachel Shepheard DNA. It has taken her from a stage in Melbourne’s Western suburbs all the way to a remote fishing village in Africa and back again. Like all of us, she’s still looking around at the world, wondering if she’s doing any of this right. And she’s hungry for more: more honest chats, more laughs and more spaces where we can just get on with being whoever it is we are.
What stood out to you as a kid growing up in Australia?
As a little kid I remember being exceptionally shy. Very prone to blushing! But even though I was very shy, the thing that I always did was perform and some of my strongest memories are of shows my friends and I, or my sister and I, would put on for our family. I loved it and I’d be fine while I was up there. But when it came to being a social little kid, that’s where my shyness was most apparent. And that was something that kind of slowed me. It was something that followed me all through school.
I also happen to know you were school captain in your final year of high school. How did that work with being shy?
I think that I took a lot of the performance thing into that. Whenever I had to do a speech or something like that I would kind of switch myself on and I’d do what I had to do. So, they’re kind of two separate identities really. I’ve always had a thing where at some point I will decide I want to do something and I don’t see any other option for myself. And on my first day of high school I saw all the former school captain’s names on the wall and I turned to my best friend and said, ‘I’m going to get myself on to that wall.’ [Laughs]. I found it fulfilling and I found it a safe space. So, again, it became a way to move away from having to try to be a certain person.
At an all girls school there’s a lot of pressure to fit in and it was a kind of escape from that. It was also a Catholic school, so that was interesting because I’m not a practicing Catholic but there was a lot of work done to instil in us a sense of giving back. A lot of the work I’ve been drawn to since has been inspired by that sense that you’re supposed to give back to the community.
At some point I will decide I want to do
something and I don’t see any other option for myself.
So tell us about what happened after you left school?
I left school thinking I wanted to be a lawyer but didn’t have high enough marks to get in to Law so I did a Bachelor of Arts at The University of Melbourne and then in my first year I did a creative writing subject. I remember this moment when we were sitting around in a tutorial and someone was reading out their work. We were giving feedback and that was my first experience of editing. I really fell in love with the idea of that process—of finessing something and making it better.
I started being really interested in this idea of being able to make money in an ethical way and that’s what drew me to independent publishing. [After my Arts degree], I did a Masters of Editing and Publishing and that prepared me a little for the publishing industry. I think it would have prepared me more if I had gone back and done it once I’d started working in publishing because nothing really sinks in at university, you know? All these things I thought I was learning for the first time [when I began working at an independent Melbourne publisher] they had actually taught me at university. I just didn’t connect it.
Another decision that I made in high school was that I wanted to work in a developing country and do something there. So when I came to the end of my Masters and I found myself working at a company in the academic publishing space in quite a senior position, I kind of felt like I’d come as far forward as I had ever imagined at school. I’d finished university. I’d got a job. The next bits I realised were uncharted and completely up to me. So I made the decision to save all my money and take off around the world starting with a ticket to Kenya. It was my first big trip away from home and I left indefinitely. I thought I would be gone three or four years but then things change, obviously.
I interned and worked in Kenya for nine months, travelled around eastern Europe, spent a winter in Scotland then did a bit more travel before ending up in New York where I interned at a small poetry press for five months before coming home. I worked very hard in Kenya, probably the hardest I’ve ever worked because it was seven days a week most weeks. We worked on a range of projects including with ex-poachers on alternative income projects and on conservation projects in the nearby marine park and forest, but I spent most of my nine months in the community, teaching and working with community groups on various projects.
A car hit me in the leg while it was changing
lanes. I just remember the driver, Boniface
was his name, and my friend Fran turning
to look at me, they seemed to be
saying, ‘Oh my god what have you done?’
How did you find teaching?
Teaching I always loved. I loved the public speaking element of it, I also loved conjugating verbs, and I never felt nervous. Which was weird!
What I loved and also found frustrating about teaching—and I would describe myself as an idealistic teacher—is that I imagined being able to kind of connect with all students but that’s just not possible. And that was particularly true in Africa, particularly with the girls, which was unexpected for me. But it was a conservative Muslim community and I was a female teacher so there was politics that went along with that. But it was an incredible experience and I really felt accepted and part of the community by the end. I made some wonderful friends there, I learnt a lot (mostly about myself) but it was very challenging too. I was young.
After three months I had a really scary motorbike accident. We were racing through the city of Mombasa to get the ferry back to the village. There were three of us on the bike and none of us were wearing helmets.
A car hit me in the leg while it was changing lanes. I just remember the driver, Boniface was his name, and my friend Fran turning to look at me, they seemed to be saying, ‘Oh my god what have you done?’ The bike just fishtailed and we went down and skidded across two lanes of traffic. The bike was pressing on my leg and I thought my leg was about to break, because I could feel the pressure increasing as we were sliding. And then I distinctly remember thinking I was about to die, because I had no helmet on and there were still four lanes of traffic bearing down on us.
Somehow we survived. We ended up standing on the side of the road and hundreds of Kenyans just came out from everywhere. At least, in my memory, it seemed like hundreds. Boniface had already taken off in pursuit of the car to get a registration number so it was just my friend, Fran, and I standing there and the toothpaste from Fran’s bag had burst and there was this white stuff all over us and that really flipped out everyone who came to help us. Everyone was pointing at us saying, ‘What is this?! What is this white stuff?!’ [Laughs]
I was quite shaken up from that experience and I never quite recovered my full energy levels. Other crazy stuff also happened. There was a big village fire, a cholera outbreak and all these hugely dramatic events but you just recover and keep going on.
I think travelling was probably the most
important thing I’ve ever done in terms
of putting the last nail in the coffin of shyness.
Did your vision of Africa and Kenya match with what actually happened?
I think it just normalised for me so quickly that I forgot whatever vision I’d had. I’d wake up in my banda, which is a kind of hut with no walls and a thatch roof, and there would be bugs in my bed, I’d have rashes from millipedes and would be sticky from showering in salt water, and then I’d get up and work all day.
Whatever my vision of working overseas was when I was in school it definitely wasn’t a very conservative Muslim community on the Kenyan coast. But it’s not something I would change for anything.
I think travelling was probably the most important thing I’ve ever done in terms of putting the last nail in the coffin of shyness. Every day, after I left Kenya and was travelling around Europe, I was on my own. Every day I had to make new friends, get used to entering intimidating situations. I learnt to look people in the eye more, really.
I just realised that everybody seems intimidating until you’ve had a conversation with them. I am still intimidated by people, but over the course of those two years I actually felt myself turn a corner very distinctly. The first year was very tough and the second year I made a decision that, You can do this and you can be very happy doing this.
And everything changed once I made that decision. It just makes you miserable feeling inadequate in a crowd so why do it? I was also learning through repetition. I could look back and say in my first month or so in Kenya I found this many staff members on the project intimidating. Three months later I was one of those staff members and I could sense people approach me with the same hesitation that I’d experienced.
So you could see there was no utility to that feeling at all…?
Yeah, and that everyone had it.
I find it such a relief to be able to say
I don’t know something or that I feel
a particular way about something and
not worry about what people will think
of me because of it.
What advice would you give then to someone who does experience those feelings?
Everyone still has their vulnerabilities, even as adults, you know. In that way, we’re all still exactly the same.
I know that I feel comfortable talking about my inadequacies now because I don’t mind them as much. I find it such a relief to be able to say I don’t know something or that I feel a particular way about something and not worry about what people will think of me because of it.
The best advice would be to not be embarrassed about anything that you don’t know. For me, that’s where a lot of shyness and intimidation came from—thinking everyone knew more than me, had done more than me, were more worldly than me.
You see a lot of that in the workplace. You go to work somewhere and everyone assumes you have the same knowledge they have. And then they’ll be talking about a particular thing and you don’t know what they’re talking about. But when would you have ever learnt that? It is absolutely ok not to know what people are talking about when you enter new situations.
And that’s why I think asking questions is important. You should be able to be unashamedly ignorant about a particular thing, because why the hell shouldn’t you be?
What qualities do you now most value in people?
I think an ability to listen.
I’ve seen a lot of people now professionally who are completely unable to listen. And don’t take on board anyone else’s ideas.
They’ve already asserted the way they think something should go and then it’s like a barrier you can’t break down.
You make a recommendation the first time and that’s wrong for these reasons. You make a recommendation a second time, and it’s still wrong. Even though there’s still something at the back of your mind that says, I’m sure this should be done this way.
Everything might work.
So the people who I most admire are the people who have the confidence to listen to other people’s ideas, give people a go. You know, everything might work, so there’s no right or wrong answer. You just have to take a risk.
We were saying earlier that a woman will always justify a pay rise to herself before she justifies it to someone else. How do you think we can stop having these intense conversations with ourselves, and see just how much we’re worth? How do you see it changing?
I don’t know. I think we’re still a very long way off much changing.
Currently I work remotely and so I have a rented office space in Melbourne. I share that space with a company that is staffed entirely by men. Only the receptionist is a woman. That’s it. When I was first being shown around, it was explained to me that both the toilets were unisex toilets because there was only one girl. So it seemed unfair to give her, her own loo.
This isn’t unusual—not the loo thing—the lack of women in the workplace thing. I think to myself, Where are all the women?
I think to myself, Where are all the women?
It’s like we’re in a different place. And then it starts to look to me like we’re still building on very traditional gender roles. Why are the receptionists female? Why are the managers male? I find it all very strange and difficult.
So how have the past few years changed you? From your early 20s to now?
I think I haven’t really worked that out fully but those years away and the years since have changed the way I think about my future, in that I’m not so brutally ambitious.
I think I’ve learnt that good things will happen if you just keep working away. And now for the first time in my whole life, I can’t say I want to do that particular thing at that particular time in order to feel successful. And I’m quite ok with that. I feel like I meet a lot of people who just want to make lots of money. And I just think, to what end? What’s the point of that?
On the subject of working hard, I read
somewhere recently, ‘You have as many
hours in a day as Beyoncé.’ To which
I thought, Yeah I do!
I still want to do loads of different things, and I am still ambitious, but I try not to think of it in the same black and white, brutal way I used to. Things don’t happen in the order we’re told they do at school. It’s ok to take life as it comes.
On the subject of working hard, I read somewhere recently, ‘You have as many hours in a day as Beyoncé.’ To which I thought, Yeah I do!
But you can replace Beyonce with anyone. Anyone that you think has achieved all the things you’d possibly like to. You have the exact same amount of time as they do. They might have more resources—like in the case of Beyonce, yes she has millions of dollars [laughs]—but you still have as many hours in the day and as much capacity to dream.
Something else I have worked out about myself over the last little while is how efficient I am, as are many women. We are so, so efficient. It is amazing how much we can get done. We’re also inherently insecure.
I hope [Friday Best] helps people realise that we’re not doing anything wrong, that everything happens in its own time and that we’re all interesting in our own ways and successful in our own ways and absolutely going through the same battles as one another.
I think at the moment I swing back and forth between living to work and working to live and eventually I hope to have them just be exactly the same thing. Just that I would love something so much that both sentiments can be true and it’s all one and the same.
And lucky last, what should we be talking more about?
Ingrained sexism. This drives me crazy. It drives me even more crazy when I can’t articulate it to a male without seeing his eyes roll. It’s not even the workplace I’m talking about, it’s not even the representation of women in the media…it’s more base than that.
I would like to not to be yelled at on the street, or propositioned from a moving vehicle, or rubbed up against in a crowded train just because I am a woman and therefore fair game. For anyone that has read Tina Fey’s Bossypants, I felt her reaction at age 13 to someone yelling ‘nice tits’ out of a car window was appropriate. You’ll have to read the book to find out.
Things I Love
Reading and sleeping basically make up
the ingredients to my perfect holiday.
But more than that, sleep for me is so
important to being a functional, healthy
person. I work better when I am well
rested, my brain is sharper and I get more
done. I don’t believe in burning the midnight
oil, it’s not worth it. Eight good hours
is better than twelve with your brain
at half mast.
I think what I mean by this is
that I love not really knowing where
exactly I’ll be in a few years time
but knowing I am the one making it
happen, and that it will be whatever
the sum of my decisions are now.
That’s exciting for me. Life is long, much
longer than we all realise and there’s so
much opportunity for wonderful experiences.
There is no better exercise for the brain.
There is no better way to live 1,000 lives
within your own. You can read a book and
be transported to just about anywhere on the
planet. You can access information about every
type of phenomena. You can grow your
understanding of yourself and your own
psychology. Totally amazing.