Part 1: Carol Rattray (’78) on Her Cornell Experience and Career Transition from Finance, to Philanthropy and Entrepreneurship

I recently attended the Women in Leadership Career Panel – featuring  Naomi Kelman (’81, MBA ’83), Franci Blassberg (’75, JD ’77), Carol Rattray (’78) – and was fortunate enough to have Carol Rattray share her journey starting as a Cornell student like us to transitioning careers  from finance, to philanthropy and entrepreneurship. Though her story might seem to cover contrasting careers, like most events around us, they are more intertwined than what meets the eye. 

How did Carol’s Cornell experiences shape her future, in both intended and unintended outcomes?  When and how did she shift from 3 seemingly disparate careers?

Carol Rattray - zoomdojo founder

My career path from finance, philanthropy and now entrepreneurship, may appear to be unconnected but in fact, are linked together partly by plan, partly by accident but more importantly by a fundamental philosophy, whose origins can be traced back to my Cornell Days.

When I came to Cornell I had a vague, rigidly narrow notion about what I wanted to be when I “grew up”. Almost immediately after arriving on campus, I was introduced to endless possibilities. With eyes opened wider, I quickly opted out of my original career path. I appreciated the availability of choices, but I especially loved the supportive environment which allowed me to pivot and change direction. Cornell instilled in me the confidence to embrace change.

Through my academic studies, I also gained an important skill, critical thinking.  Finance was a lot like college, an introductory course (Bonds 101) building up to higher level coursework (kagonuke obscure Japanese financial structuring 400). The critical thinking skills developed at Cornell enabled me to effectively absorb and utilize the various financial tools, legal frameworks, industry and market knowledge that I was required to master in order to negotiate and create complex deal structures, to do deep dive analysis and make solid investment decisions.

Social responsibility was also something I learned to deeply care about at Cornell. I arrived at Cornell during the beginnings of the environmental and feminist movements and tail end of the Vietnam War. It was a period of social and political unrest. I participated in many related campus discussions and activities. Cornell was definitely the place to understand what went wrong and do something about it. The experiences gained from my extracurriculars left a very strong imprint.

As an investment banker I only had time for work. Then, an unexpected move to Asia gave me a chance to take a break from finance and to switch direction and incorporate service to others back into my life. I started by taking trips around the region to check out what was going on, doing my due diligence if you will. While on a trip to Vietnam, with nothing to do during a long ride from airport to hotel, I chatted up one of the only other passengers on the bus. She turned out to be doing incredible work in Vietnam through her family foundation. Thoroughly impressed, I wanted to do what she was doing. Several years later, thanks largely to an investment in a Chinese tech start up which went public, I had the seed capital to create and fund a new foundation (that’s another story), and thus begin my career in philanthropy.

Rewinding back to Cornell, I learned my MO1 was change. In fact, I’ve changed careers again as a tech startup entrepreneur, a new chapter directly linking me back to Cornell. Mind you, change has risks, you have to accept the possibility to fail. But, foreseen and unforeseen successes make up for down moments. And with that understanding and mainly positive experiences under my belt, I continue today to practice what I learned up on the hill years ago.

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Tune in for Part 2 on how Carol started her philanthropic foundation, how Zoomdojo came to be, and how Cornell is intertwined in it all.

[1] MO: short for “modus operandi” – method of operating or functioning or a person’s manner of working.

Carol Rattray is Managing Director and Co-Founder of Zoomdojo, a tech startup which provides career planning advisory services and related online resources for college students and recent graduates. Since the mid 1990’s, she has been investing, and advising primarily start-ups, in China and in the US. Previously, Rattray was VP in the Capital Capital Markets Groups at Bankers Trust Company (now part of Deutsche Bank). In philanthropy, Rattray is a Co-Founder of the Rattray Kimura Foundation, a  private foundation focusing on education. Carol studied Asian Studies at Cornell and received a MBA and MIA from Columbia University.