“Do you hear that sound? The sound of the wheels? That sound puts a smile on my face.”
A deep whirring noise fills the car as Rita Picarra—Microsoft Portugal’s chief financial officer—drives across the 25 de Abril Bridge in Lisbon, Portugal.
Three lanes go each way across the suspension bridge, and Rita is driving in the far-left lane, traveling southbound. Her electric car’s wheels roll across steel slats that look down 230 feet into the Tagus River, a massive waterway that opens to the Atlantic Ocean.
“I always drive in this lane so I can hear this noise. When I was a child, that sound meant my family was about to have so much fun. We were going to the beach!”
As a child, Rita would roll down the window of her father’s red Fiat 127 and lean out to catch a view of the river as she flew past. She was on her way to Costa da Caparica, a beach where the Picarra family—Rita, older sister Susana, mother Celia, and father Tony—spent nearly every weekend.
Today, Rita has invited me—along with a photographer and a videographer—to join her as she visits the same beach. Costa da Caparica is where she feels most connected her with parents, who have both passed away yet remain the strongest influences in her life—a life she dedicates to making sure that everyone around her feels included, loved, and supported. Where everyone feels like family.
Two months earlier
Building 25 café
“Talk to the Portugal employees,” Drew Wilkinson, the leader of Microsoft’s Worldwide Sustainability Community for employees, says as we eat lunch at Microsoft’s headquarters.
It’s a rainy spring day, and I’m meeting with Drew and his cofounder Holly Beale to learn more about employees taking up their own causes around environmental sustainability.
“We find that when someone thinks of a great idea, employees in Portugal have probably already done it,” Drew laughs.
I follow-up on Drew’s lead through more phone conversations with my colleagues in Microsoft’s Lisbon office. He’s right: all the conversations I have—on topics ranging from environmental sustainability to inclusion to philanthropy—point back to the same person: Rita Picarra.
Rita’s childhood home
Serra das Minas, Portugal
Two months later, Rita greets me outside of her childhood home in Serra das Minas, a suburb of Lisbon. I’ve traveled here to meet Rita to understand firsthand why my colleagues keep talking about her influence and impact.
Except for one call and a few emails, we’ve never met. As my car approaches her building, I see Rita: her face lights up as she excitedly waves and jogs—almost skipping—toward me as I scramble to unbuckle. She’s already made me feel like an old friend.
We stand front of her family’s apartment, one of the first buildings built in Serra das Minas, many years ago. Rita suggested that we meet here because she says it’s the best place to get a sense of her background—to understand her roots, the ways her parents influenced her, and how and why she feels a calling to lift up those around her.
“I’ll tell you about the lessons my mother and father passed on to me—to have autonomy, to understand my place in society, and to take responsibility to use that place to help others feel valued and loved,” she promises.
As we stand outside, Rita explains that her mother, Celia—always the pragmatist—decided to forgo spending money on a nice wedding dress in favor of a down payment on the apartment.
As the neighborhood grew into a suburb of Lisbon, her dad, Tony, helped build and maintain the community. When Rita was two years old, he founded an organization called Associação de Famílias e Amigos como Parceiro Social da Serra das Minas—a nonprofit that provided social opportunities for the neighborhood’s children as the area changed and gentrified.
“Father wanted to get all children in the neighborhood together—no matter your background, no matter what your parents did, no matter what street you lived on. He wanted to see everyone playing together and to have the chance to be happy.”
Soon, the Picarra home became the center of the neighborhood. Kids gathered in the parking lot in front of her family’s apartment to play games and be together.
The Picarra family’s two-bedroom apartment is located just above the parking lot on the second floor. From there, Celia kept an eye on her girls.
“We were always having so much fun that we never wanted to eat. Mother would put snacks and sandwiches on a blue string and lower the food down from our bedroom window so we wouldn’t have to come inside,” Rita laughs as she mimics taking the food off the string.
We walk to the building’s secure front door; her sister, Susanna, still lives here. Rita rings the bell a secret number of times, “That way, they know it’s family.”
As we ascend the stairs to the apartment, Rita tells me more about her mother, Celia, a teacher who Rita describes as both the nurturer and the authoritarian of the Picarra family.
Every morning from childhood until the girls left the house, Celia would wake them with breakfast in bed. But she also expected order and tidiness in her house, so much that Rita and Susanna called her “Vassourinha,” which means “Little Broom” in English.
“My Mom always said, ‘You must clean your own room many times until you know how to have a well-cleaned room. And then in the future, even if you aren’t the one cleaning, you will understand what goes into making a well-cleaned room.’”
She connects it back to her leadership style: “You have to know how to do something—and what it means—before you can ask someone else to do it, too.”
While their Serra das Minas apartment was the center of the Picarra family’s world on weekdays, weekends were spent camping at Costa da Caparica. There, sharing a single-room tent—far from the distraction of the cities and work—Celia and Tony taught their girls about nature and about family togetherness.
“Even now, everything that I do draws me to the water, the beach, nature,” Rita says. “My parents started taking me beach camping as a baby, and I feel like part of me goes dead when I’m not close to the water.”
“And, hey, we should go to the beach now, right?” Rita says. So, we get in her electric car and head toward Costa da Caparica, across the 25 de Abril Bridge.
A former competitive surfer, Rita took up the sport when she was 14. Back then, few females surfed in Portugal, she explains.
“When I’d find another girl on the water with me, it was instant friendship.” But being one of the only girls in the waves was hard. Other surfers told her to get out of the water, to go home.
“Why shouldn’t I be out there?” she remembers thinking at the time. “I’m entitled to learn just as anyone else. It looks fun, and it is fun, and it’s what I wanted to do. I just stood up for myself. But it wasn’t easy.”
Rita taught herself how to surf by practicing on her bed, but she soon became so dedicated to surfing that she went pro, becoming a pioneer for women in the sport.
And yet, she was always humbled by the sea. “The ocean can kick your behind. You try and you try, and you can’t. And then you try and you try again, and you still can’t. But then the first time you catch that wave, and you ride it unbroken. . .”
She sighs as she looks at the horizon. “I can’t even describe it.”
On land, Rita shows just as much determination. A planner who calls herself “by the book,” Rita knew from an early age that she wanted the freedom and security that a good paying job could offer. Plus, she wanted to see the world. So, she applied herself, and she studied hard.
So far, it’s worked out: her life has taken her to live and work in Seattle, Paris, São Paulo, Miami, and Madrid. “Mostly importantly, I was doing the things I loved: talking with new people and sharing experiences with others,” she says.
But Lisbon is home, and a big reason she lived in all those cities so was to get the experience she needed to land what she calls her dream job as chief financial officer for Microsoft Portugal.
“It’s because of Rita.”
Just as I’d heard, Rita Picarra is ubiquitous, almost legendary, in the hallways of Microsoft’s Lisbon office. Many employees are quick to credit Rita for helping them grow and make a difference in ways they never imagined.
For example, when Rita realized that the Portugal office had not yet established an organization for their LGBTQI+ employees, she founded and mentored a fellow employee—Sergio Matos—to lead it.
When employees Clara Mansilha and Matilde de Jesus Jacob Alves wanted to start an environmental sustainability chapter within Microsoft, Rita was there to guide them as they launched and grew it into a more than 100 person organization that is considered by fellow employees—including Drew and Holly back in Redmond—to be one of the most successful changemakers for sustainability within the walls of Microsoft.
“Rita taught me that if you want to do something, you do it—and you don’t wait on someone to do it for you,” says Clara.
Rita’s camping and surf beach
Costa da Caparica, Portugal
As we hike into the sand dunes of Costa da Caparica, the family’s old camping spot, Rita reflects. Days like today are bittersweet for her—at once a celebration of memories and at the same time a reminder of life’s fleeting nature.
“We only live once—and sometimes we don’t live that many years,” she says, her eyes misting as she thinks of her parents. “We should enjoy life now and never leave it for tomorrow.”
It’s like surfing, she adds.
“When you ride a wave unbroken, it’s the force of the sea that is moving you. You are so in synch with it that you can ride it.”
But don’t be fooled, Rita warns. “You only ride it because it allows you to.”
And that’s the greatest lesson that Celia and Tony taught her and that the force known as Rita passes to her family, to her Microsoft coworkers, and now to me:
To ride our wave—unbroken, with joy, and with friends—for as long as we can.
Photography by Rodrigo De Medeiros; videography by Rodrigo De Medeiros and Steven Heller.