There’s been a lot of building going on at Rivian. The electronic vehicle manufacturer prides itself on “building the future for our kids and our kids’ kids,” a vision fueled by a dedication to sustainable energy. To do that, the company has done extensive work building up its real estate portfolio that now includes a planned second manufacturing plant in Georgia; the operating manufacturing plant in Normal, Illinois; and a historic theater in Laguna Beach, California.
As Rivian’s senior legal director of real estate and construction counsel, Nicole Sakhleh has successfully helped to advance the company’s forward-thinking vision by doing some building of her own.
Sakhleh, who started at the company four years ago as its only real estate and construction attorney, has managed to develop construction and strategic support aspects at all stages of real estate development. In doing so, she has not only supported the company’s efforts to create physical spaces that thrive, but something that will last a lot longer: a legacy.
“As I watch all the success Rivian has had since I first started—going from 3 locations to about 150 and seeing the impact we’re making and how it’s propelling others to prioritize the EV space—it’s great to be part of this transition of what the future will be,” she says. “And it’s a transition that’s required; we’ve got to do something about it now.”
While she has always strongly believed in Rivian’s vision, she admits that the early days at the company were “scrappy.” She joined at the same time as key facilities leaders amid ambitious company goals and few resources. Together, they worked to set themselves up for long-term success while managing day-to-day needs. For Sakhleh, that meant coming up with templates, negotiating documents, working cross functionally with various departments, and managing the onboarding of outside counsel.
All the while, this happened during a pandemic in a house with two kids and a baby on the way.
“It was nuts,” she says plainly, noting it was an opportunity as much as it was a challenge. She got a chance to build the company’s real estate and construction legal team from the ground up and build cross-functional relationships with other company leaders.
“We had to figure out ways to strength our relationships, to move forward, and to rely on each other,” she says. Sometimes that meant having virtual meetings to build rapport and respecting each other’s time while working long hours.
These were key experiences in Sakhleh’s development of her servant leadership style. Today, she leads her team with a mind towards collaboration, supports her team members’ growth in their roles and careers, and helps them feel like they belong and are supported.
“As a team lead that wants to make a particular culture, it’s very important to make sure that everybody knows that there is space for everyone,” she says. “It’s not you or them. We win together and lose together. If a team member is over capacity, someone else is jumping in to take something off their plate.”
“When a company grows at lightning speed and needs extensive real estate expertise to do so, it takes real leadership to navigate the professional challenges and speed of the deal flow while also taking care of your team. Nicole shares our own emphasis on innovation, excellence, collaboration, and inclusion, and she does it with the highest level of integrity and intelligence,” says Meredith Katz, shareholder and cochair of the Chicago Real Estate Practice at Greenberg Traurig.
Her collaborative approach has been a driving force for assisting the company with its expansion goals through key projects, such as the renovation of the production plant in Illinois. As the company modernizes the facility, Sakhleh supports multiple teams in facilities, supply chain, EHS, and manufacturing sectors to plan the expansion and the renewable and sustainability options for powering the plant.
Another key initiative she’s working on is the rollout of Rivian’s second manufacturing plant, which will be a multibillion-dollar investment that will provide 1,500 jobs.
“It’s a really exciting project,” she says. “My team worked with the state to get one of the biggest incentives packages in history for the state of Georgia.”
Sakhleh credits much of her success to lessons she learned from previous work experiences. She started her career as an associate attorney at Potestivo & Associates and at Wood, Kull, Herschfus, Obee & Kull. There, she learned to understand the needs of her clients and to communicate with them efficiently. At General Motors, a company where many of her relatives worked, she met mentors who were important to her development. She also learned “how to function in a company that had it figured out,” she says.
“They had processes, procedures, and best-in-class practices, so learning those early on have been lessons I’ve taken with me and leveraged in my current role,” she adds. Her advice for those aspiring to follow in her footsteps is to create a network and to take nontraditional roles.
“Sometimes you learn more in those roles than you could ever expect,” Sakhleh says. “It is important not to be focused on job titles but opportunities in a role. Give yourself space to be a continuous learner. Also, don’t be afraid to bet on yourself.”
Greenberg Traurig is proud to provide legal services to Rivian. Working with Nicole Sakhleh and her in-house legal team, we have seen firsthand the passion and integrity that they bring to their work. Our real estate practice is comprised of more than 700 real estate lawyers from around the world. We deliver diversified and comprehensive counsel for property acquisition and investment, development, management and leasing, financing, restructuring, and disposition of all asset classes of real estate. Our partnership with Rivian is one we highly value, as their dedication to innovation, sustainability, and leadership reflects our own.