Katie Dreke is Senior Director of Global Brand Innovation at Nike where she is responsible for pushing the future of brand experiences and services across multiple categories and initiatives. Her career began with a passion for technology and a love for challenging and testing ideas. Katie’s work life spans across digital, branding and experience design as well as time spent living abroad with her family in Amsterdam and Sydney. Along with her enthusiasm, stamina and healthy sense of humor, this breadth of experience has provided priceless perspectives that she attributes to much of her success.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Definitely an astronaut.
In fact, I still want to be an astronaut.
Maybe there’s still time…?
Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
My dream scenario is an informal gathering of my favorite characters from books. I have a pretty hyperactive imagination so the folks I meet in the pages of books feel so tangibly alive that I will often miss them bitterly once the story is complete.
I want to talk with Toby (‘Oryx and Crake’) about her journey from lost soul to sage matriarch, and share a beer with William Mandella ('The Forever War') to ask what it feels like to experience time dilation, and how we might prepare ourselves for this to become a more regular cultural occurrence in the near future. I would love to talk with Kirsten Raymonde (‘Station Eleven’) about how it feels to live in a world that’s experienced such a hard-reset, and if she feels it made humanity better or worse for it in the end. And of Esther Little (‘The Bone Clocks’), I would try to learn from her thousands of years here on Earth, hopefully catching a glimpse of what she sees as the key themes of our big-picture human journey.
Honestly - it would just be darn cool to see them walking around, to hear their voices and accents, to debate and learn from them, to watch them interact with each other, and to be able to embrace them farewell at the end of the evening.
When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
Too late. Too early.
I’m tired most of the time, and I should probably do something about it.
But I most likely won't.
What is your favorite time of the working week?
The thinking I do in the car on my way to work.
Caffeine in the hand.
NPR on the radio.
Wheels kicking into gear.
Can you briefly explain your career path to date?
In a nutshell: Gut-driven and non-linear.
As a student, I wasn’t one of those kids who always knew what they wanted to DO or BE when they grew-up. I tried a lot of things, and luckily had parents who provided me the space to crash around for a while until I ultimately started to gravitate toward topics I felt strongly curious about, and proactively began to chase experiences I wanted to have.
Very early in my career I gravitated toward technology, and my first job out of university was at a software company in Seattle. I’m so thankful for that first job as it was formational and foundational in many important ways. The corporate culture was amazingly respectful and progressive, the CEO was a legend we all admired for his coding skills as much as his mountain climbing prowess, and I was allowed to get under the hood of the products as much as I had an appetite for. Everyone was super geeky and smart and friendly - we had a guy who hosted a solar powered automotive club on Thursday nights at the office, and another guy who plotted all the bike commuters miles on a huge map in his office - I absolutely loved it.
It was there that I learned how to speak the language of tech. How to speak it with people who understand it far better than I do, but also with those who don’t understand it at all. I didn’t realize it at the time, but learning this ‘translation’ skill would become a valuable recurring theme in my working life.
From software I moved into the creative agency world of digital firms, branding firms, graphic studios, advertising shops, product/service design consultancies – essentially exploring all variations within the brand experience spectrum. Some of my job-hopping was based on opportunity and desire to try something new but some was due to the dot-com bubble bursting pretty dramatically in Seattle, and I was laid off more than once. From this I learned how to toughen up, and how not to take work too personally. It’s just work after all, and the most important roles you will play in your life will happen away from the office.
During one layoff period I managed to cobble together a solo backpack trip in Senegal for two months. I visited a girlfriend living ‘en brousse' on a Peace Corp assignment and by shadowing her acquired a healthy dose of reality to balance out all the first-world drama and inflated entitlement of the dot-com industry. It was like humanity-medicine, and has remained an important touchstone for me since.
A few years later my kiddos entered the picture, and work took on a new meaning. It became something that often tore me away from my children creating discomfort and emotional discord, but also something that filled me up with kinetic energy and a way to maintain an independent identity separate from the roles of ‘Wife' and ‘Mother'. That complex duality entered my life when the children did twelve years ago, and it’s something I continue to wrestle with. I suspect I always will.
Newsflash! Creative agency work is wonderfully organic, but doesn’t mix well with parenthood. Kids crave structure, routine and predictability. Creative development is unapologetically chaotic and refuses to be scheduled. Especially when the children were small, I found that trying to make the two things work in harmony was an insanely comical exercise that often led me to feel like I was failing miserably at both ends of the equation. Luckily, I found a magical home during this time at 'Wexley School for Girls' where we were small enough, the founders were progressive enough, and I was at the right stage in my career, where I could hand make a style of work that left me feeling career and home fulfilled during the wobbly early years of new parenthood.
Once the kids got a bit older, I began to feel an irrepressible itch to do something new and scary, to shake up the routine. This led to a 4-year stint working abroad in Amsterdam, and another 2 years in Sydney Australia. I can honestly say, I learned more during this 6-year period than the 15 years prior. More about creative work, more about international business, more about the human experience, and so much more about myself as well.
Living abroad can often seem glamorous from afar, but in reality it's quite lonely, disorienting, sometimes scary, frustrating, and just plain ugly. It challenges everything you’ve come to rely upon as ‘fact’ and ‘true’, and leaves you feeling stupid and humbled more often than you’d like. But ‘oh!' the intoxication of the new and unknown! Seeing your home country with the eyes of a foreigner, learning a new language, making a strange city your ‘home’, celebrating unfamiliar holidays, meeting the most interesting people — honesty, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Do it.
In 2014 our family returned to the Pacific Northwest and I’m now working at Nike in Portland. Being brand-side is a whole new adventure in itself, one I relish and enjoy immensely. Nike is a complex organization where gorgeous quandaries and one-of-a-kind opportunities litter the ground all around you – there is no shortage of great work to be done, and I love working for a company that holds such an exceptionally high bar. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Onward!
What motivates you?
Fresh angles on old ideas.
Surprises, disruptions and misfits.
What advice would you give to someone at the start of their career?
Listen to your gut and follow your adrenaline.
Everything is interesting to someone who is interested.
Even shitty tasks/projects/clients/managers offer a learning experience more valuable than gold.
Roll up your sleeves.
Smile. Positive vibes matter.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My beloved family unit.
What do you believe has been the key to your success?
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
That it’s short, too short for bullshit and sour grapes.
Get in there, get some fucking great work done, and go be with your friends, family, nature.
What do you believe to be the secret to rising up to the top?
Walk the walk.
Bring people with you.
Foster a wicked sense of humor.
Be an anti-fragile-multi-headed-hydra.
And - be willing to walk out the door when the love is gone.
I have no idea, but everything is so full of possibility right now, I absolutely can’t wait.