If you’ve never played squash, all you need to know is this: the fast-paced racquet sport could be described as essentially turbocharged chess—challenging both mentally and physically. And the more skilled the players, the more strategic the game. Just ask Wayfair executive Marcy Axelrad, who will be speaking on a panel at the State of Innovation on June 16 about her other high-pressure sport—scaling talent and culture. Outside of work, she’s spent a lot of time swinging her racquet on a four-walled court in Boston, striking a hollow rubber ball. And in fact, it’s how she got her job at Wayfair, too.
As senior director of global talent operations at Wayfair (NYSE: W), Axelrad leads the Talent Management and Learning and Development groups, which encompass everything employee-centric—including on-boarding, benefits and perks, engagement initiatives, training and immigration. She’s been with the Boston-based e-commerce firm since 2011, and previously practiced law—counseling companies on all aspects of employment law, employee relations, compensation, benefits and contracts. But it was while studying at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, that her love of squash was ignited.
According to Axelrad, squash is pretty popular in Canada—and at the time she was attending college, much more so than in the U.S. She didn’t have time to try out for any teams, but she still picked it up, playing frequently with friends when she wasn’t in class or studying.
And when Axelrad moved to Boston, she took her enthusiasm for the sport with her, playing at Sports Club LA (now Equinox). Shortly thereafter, she joined a local squash league. As it turns out, her athletic hobby led to a professional opportunity: It was during a match about 10 years ago that she met Wayfair co-founder Niraj Shah. It was pretty evident right away that Axelrad was a fierce opponent.
“I’m pretty competitive, ” she told me in our phone interview, laughing. “I didn’t have the most ladylike language on the court.”
But that definitely didn’t negatively impact Shah’s opinion of Axelrad. She stayed in touch with him, and when she saw an ad four years ago for a job at CSN Stores (Wayfair’s former company name) years later, Axelrad reached out to him and booked an interview. She quickly landed the role.
Axelrad says she still plays squash at least twice a week.
“The intensity and the pace of the game are my favorite aspects, ” she told me. “You’re in a relatively small space, and the game is highly strategic, and extremely intense because of your proximity to each other, and the speed at which you need to move in order to get to the ball.”