(Photo by Glynns Thomas)

Women in Leadership: Rachel Zillner

Our annual salute to women at the top of their field

Back Article Mar 15, 2024 By Marybeth Bizjak

This story is part of our March 2024 issue. To subscribe, click here.

Rachel Zillner

CEO and co-founder, Clutch

She’s the self-described “girl who fixes broken things.” As the CEO and co-founder of Clutch, Rachel Zillner oversees a fast-growing business consulting firm that helps organizations fix what’s broken. It’s a skill she learned early. Born and raised in Sacramento, Zillner started working at 10, answering phones and booking cars for her dad’s limousine company. By the age of 16, she was driving the limos and handling collections and marketing as well.

After high school, Zillner went to work in the credit union industry, first at Golden 1 as a teller and back-office employee, then at SAFE, where she was a call center supervisor with a gung-ho attitude and a record of success. Over 13 years at SAFE, she built the company’s financial education program, launched its community banking division and fixed underperforming sales teams.

But in a feedback session with a boss, Zillner was told she was “too much,” and an executive coach encouraged her to dial it back. She took that advice and poured her after-work energies into opening an escape room with her husband, David, and brother. (They opened two more escape rooms before selling the business.) Realizing she’d hit the wall at her day job, she convinced Anne Descalzo, her ride-or-die colleague at the credit union, that they should strike out on their own. In 2019, they started Clutch.

“I really wanted to create a work environment where people can show up as their full, authentic selves.”

At first, they focused not on what they would do but how they would do it. “We were very intentional,” says Zillner, describing how she and Descalzo sat on her kitchen floor with sticky notes to come up with the company’s core values: connection, optimism and drive. Having once been criticized as “too much,” Zillner yearned to hire and empower people like herself who don’t fit the corporate mold. “I really wanted to create a work environment where people can show up as their full, authentic selves,” she explains. At Clutch, employees set their own hours and don’t have to come into the office. “I have no intention of telling my employees how they have to work,” says Zillner. “I truly believe we’re going to change the world with this different format of being radically flexible in our work environment and letting people chase their passions.”

Clutch helps clients with staffing, training, event management, marketing, technology, business strategy and more. During the pandemic, the state of California hired Clutch to establish a COVID-19 call center that fielded 6 million calls in multiple languages. Clutch also created programs to supply relief medical workers to hospitals and to bring vaccines to Californians who couldn’t leave their homes. In addition to government entities, Clutch services nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity and businesses like Sutter Health and Folsom Ranch. “Startups make great clients for us,” says Zillner. “It truly doesn’t matter what the problem is. It could be, you know, designing new toilets. It’s not the problem; it’s the approach.”

In 2023, Clutch was ranked No. 1 on the Sacramento Business Journal’s list of fastest-growing companies, and the firm, with 160 employees, recently moved into a 60,000-square-foot space in Rancho Cordova. Zillner and Descalzo are working on a number of new things, including a coworking space, a venture capital fund, a business accelerator and a book on limitless thinking.

Zillner’s goals are both big and, at the same time, simple. She wants to travel more. She wants to learn new things. She wants to spend more time with friends and family. (She has two daughters, Paisley, 11, and Pepper, 9.) “I want to have beautiful life experiences,” she says. “And I want to do good work.”   

Get all the stories in our annual salute to women in leadership delivered to your inbox: Subscribe to the Comstock’s newsletter today.

Recommended For You