Frustrated by the lack of opportunity to volunteer her professional skills, Rachael left corporate finance to serve the greater good through microfinance. While at BRAC USA, an affiliate of the largest nonprofit organization in the world, Rachael created a strategy to effectively mobilize volunteers while freeing up the President and CEO’s time to raise money. Fresh off her success with BRAC USA, Rachael founded Catchafire, a New York City-based social mission business and certified B Corporation, with the vision to connect professionals who want to use their skills for good and nonprofits who need access to those professionals to build capacity within their organization. When she’s not busy running the world’s first and largest online pro bono service provider, Rachael also contributes her time to write for the Huffington Post.
Q: Please share with us the story of how your professional journey began and has brought you to where you are today.
A: After college I went into investment banking like many of us did back then. While I was there, I had the brilliant idea to stay sane by volunteering my newly minted finance and business skills. Only problem was that for the life of me, I couldn’t find an appropriate skills-based or pro bono volunteer opportunity. I thought it was crazy that people who wanted to give their skills couldn’t find a way to do so. That was the seed of thought for Catchafire. I later left banking for microfinance and helped to start up a nonprofit where we used pro bono very effectively to build the organization quickly. From that experience I learned that pro bono is a highly effective and leveraged way for social good organizations to not only get a lot done but to also build capacity for their full time staff. Understanding both sides of the problem, I started Catchafire, an online platform that connects social good organizations to professionals who want to give their time and skills pro bono. We are scaling up pro bono and making it possible for every social good organization to access high quality professional talent, and we’re making it possible for every talented professional to give what they’re good at.
Q: Who is a leader that you have great respect for and why?
A: Fazle Abed is the Founder of BRAC, and he is my living hero. BRAC is the largest nonprofit in the world. It is a poverty alleviation organization that serves 110 million people throughout Asia and Africa. BRAC employs over 100,000 people, and through its innovative solutions, has solved massive social problems such as the tuberculosis epidemic in Bangladesh in the 1970s. BRAC’s holistic approach to poverty alleviation is unprecedented in regards to its scale and success. Interestingly, Dr. Abed founded BRAC when he was in his forties. That alone is inspiring. Most inspiring of all is that when one sits down with Dr. Abed, he is your friend, he is your friendly next-door neighbor, he is the man with kind eyes and a disarming smile. One would never guess that Dr. Abed is one of the most important men of our time. A knight. A Nobel Peace Prize nominee multiple times over. A man who has received dozens of honorary degrees. A true hero. Dr. Abed’s humility rivals and enhances his greatness. To me that is truly inspiring.
Q: If a business has several, viable ways to grow and innovate, how do you pick the best road to take?
A: Prioritize your options and then build fast and iterate. You want to test, learn, fail and iterate as fast as possible. Start ups are highly resource constrained, but they also have the ability to be extremely nimble. Use this nimbleness to your advantage to constantly innovate, but also keep your eye on the prize and be guided by your mission.
Q: What’s your best advice for an entrepreneur in an early/bootstrapping phase?
A: Bootstrapping is completely to your advantage. Operating under limited resources forces you to be laser focused simply because you can’t afford to make careless mistakes. You don’t have enough cash to be stupid. This is a great exercise. If you can bootstrap your way to the next phase of your business, you will build a confidence that will allow you to believe that you can take on anything. You’ll need this irrational level of confidence to take it all the way, so don’t be shy – build your confidence.
Q: I love the quote “the bigger the vision, the smaller the first step”. Right now, what is the big vision you have for your career?
A: My vision is to change the world for the better in a really, really big way. Catchafire has the potential to create a more efficient and effective nonprofit / social good sector and build a movement of socially conscious, action-oriented, talented individuals. I couldn’t imagine a bigger goal or a cause I care more about. My vision for Catchafire is a life vision not only a career vision.
Q: How much time do you spend on networking versus focusing on the internal affairs of your business (such as management, strategy, ideation etc)?
A: It depends on what phase the company is in and where it needs me most. At times (for instance, when I’m fundraising), I spend most of my time networking, learning from mentors and building my knowledge from the best people I can find; but most of the time I’m focused internally on leading and operating the business. I always pepper in time to meet new people, especially people who I can learn from, who have interesting stories, who can push me and grow me.
Q: What do you believe makes a great brand?
A: Authenticity and substance. A great brand should be a reflection of a great product. You should focus on building your product or service first. Making that great, and then it will be easy to build a great brand.
Q: What simple things in life today bring you joy?
A: The outdoors always, without fail, brings me joy. The natural world has everything I need – beauty, peace, dynamism. It is necessary for me to escape “into the wild” occasionally. The outdoors reminds me of the bigger picture and somehow helps me make sense of what is sometimes a manic life.
Q: In your opinion, what are the top values that make up a meaningful relationship?
A: Trust, Love, Mutual respect, Playfulness, Constant learning from the other
ON Cooking & Food
Q: If you were stranded on an island and could have an unlimited source of 3 foods (and calories were not a concern), what would they be?
A: Yogurt, Pears, Granola