Rachael Chong, Woman Entrepreneur, Catchafire

Chong1I was introduced to Rachael by someone who could be nicknamed the Mayor of Downtown NYC.  How could I say no?  I met Rachael for breakfast and we talked for two hours.  I was beyond impressed.  We walked to the corner so I could catch a cab and just before I got in she said to me, "will you be my mentor? I only have men mentors and I need a woman."  Again, how could I resist? 

We met again in a month.  I asked if there was still an opportunity to invest in the first round because if I was going to be involved in Catchafire and be her mentor, I needed some skin in the game.  She had not completely closed out the first round which happens often because as the companies start ramping up the amount of time spent raising money gets overwhelming and many raise enough of the first round and just take a breather before returning to call it a day.  I was thrilled to become an investor in Catchafire so it worked out for both of us which makes for a good relationship.

Rachael was born in the Cambra area of Australia and lived there until she was 8.  The family owned high end restaurants that were descimated in the market crash of the early 90's in Asia.  Her Mom decided to take a job in the foreign services moving up to be the highest ranking diplomat who is Chinese from Australia.  Impressive considering that there is certainly plenty of racism as well as chauvinism so being a top woman Australian Chinese diplomat gave Rachael a good role model to learn from. They moved to to China right after the Tianman Square event starting in Beijing then to Gangzhou and back to Beijing. They lived behind International walls.  One hundred students in Rachaels graduating class that represented sixty nations.  She had no concept of race relations, a third culture kid.

Rachael moved to NYC to go to Barnard for college.  She convinced Barnard to let her study abroad for one semester of her freshman year.  That meant going to live in Biosphere where she lived in the middle of the Arizona desert with fifty kids from all over the nation.  They studied earth and stars watching the planets rise and set from their handy NASA telescope. Biosphere was an enclosed ecological system that studied life systems which was a pretty radical project.

That summer she spent working for Shell thinking that she would change the world from within that organization.  Not so easy.  Sophomore summer she spent doing credit derivative sales and trading at Goldman Sachs.  Junior summer she moved to UBS to do sales and trading to investment banking and they offered her a full time job after graduation.  A complete change from Biosphere.  Rachael grew up in an idealistic world not knowing that the world is not a utopia.  So coming to NYC and getting into a tough business and working 80 hours a week was eye opening.  She knew that her real goal was to use the markets to create social change so being inside a bank was the perfect track to learn.

Rachael wanted to use her skills as an investor as a volunteer but the only thing that was available was a day of building homes.  It made no sense to her.  Why isn't there a platform for this?  She quit banking when the thoughts about Catchafire began to seed and took a job in micro-financing.  It was poverty alleviation that she was passionate about and took her banking skills to work on that.  She had put away some money and wanted to work at Finca International.  They didn't have anything for her so she took a six month pro-bono job in their DC office which opened up opportunities for her while she applied for graduate school. 

She got into Duke for graduate school in public policy.  Before going to Duke she took off for six months and went to Central America traveling through Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama etc chilling and surfing.  After her first year at Duke, Rachael landed an internship with Brac which turned into a job.  Brac is the largest non-profit in the world serving over 140 million people worldwide.  They asked Rachael to work with another woman, Susan Davis, to create a foundation and raise capital for their African expansion in 2006 in the USA.  A great opportunity so she put off finishing her second year of graduate school.

It was this expansion that the real roots for Catchafire took hold.  In order for them to grow quickly in the US, Rachael reeled in her personal friends to do pro bono work for the cause.  She got each person to do small projects over the course of nine months so she and Susan could focus on raising the funds.  After nine months they had raised $40 million and the foundation was set.  She realized how empowering pro bono is and the capacity it has for non-profits.  Without those friends doing the small pro-bono projects they would have never been able to have this kind of success.

Rachael returned to Duke to convince her professor to let her write her thesis on Catchafire.  Her argument was that Wendy Kopp did the same thing and now we have Teach for America.  Can't argue with that.  She spent an entire year focusing on the space and opportunity before graduating in 2009.

Rachael returned to NYC and started Catchafire.  I love the tagline, Give What You Are Good At.  The organization has provided almost $6 million in services for non-profits.  The company is on their second round of financing.  Non-profits and social enterprises are paying Catchafire for access to a data base of professionals.  We help them craft their projects to insure success.  All the companies that have worked with us so far have been delighted with the pro-bono work that has taken place.  It is  a win win for everyone.  Catchafire continues to grow as we have rolled out to Boston and more cities are around the corner. 

I love the model.  A profit company that does social good and in turn that helps both sides of the coin. Rachael's story is inspiring.  She is a smart saavy entrepreneur who has shown to be capable of not only scaling a business but managing a growing organization.  I wouldn't be surprised to see Catchafire become a household name just like Teach for America.  Just watch. 




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Comments (Archived):

  1. awaldstein

    I love this idea.Lots of people, myself included, want to get involved in non profits that touch their passions and don’t have this connection.Smart company. Smart investment.

    1. Gotham Gal

      thanks. i think so too!

  2. Rich Caccappolo

    GG,couldn’t agree more – Rachael is impressive and Catchafire is a great idea because it helps both sides of the coin.  What struck me when she first told me about the company was her realization that non-profits and social enterprises require assistance in defining their projects in terms that volunteers can understand, e.g., “development” means one thing in the tech world and another in the non-profit world.   Glad you are involved with Rachael and her company.Must have been a great connector who put you two in touch…ThanksRich

    1. Gotham Gal

      ha. yes…you are a great connector.

  3. Rohan

    Smart smart smart. I really like the idea. Be nice to see this done globally since a lot of the projects (I’d imagine) can be done on a computer?And I guess you’ve been having a busy couple of weeks. Gaps between blog posts.. 🙂

    1. Gotham Gal

      this is absolutely a global business….

      1. Rohan

        What do the city launches refer to, then? Catchafire continues to grow as we have rolled out to Boston and more cities are around the corner.  

        1. Gotham Gal

          we are slowly rolling out cities around the country and connecting with the non-profits in those towns. certainly the volunteers can be virtual and we are training the non-profits on how to use those virtual volunteers.

  4. rebeccastees

    Ha!  Biosphere has played in my imagination for years!Good luck, RachaelIf you need some help in SF,  I’m here!

  5. Sharon

    Very inspiring. Your excitement is infectious and I can see why… 

  6. Burvy

    I think you might mean Canberra (The Capital of Australia) not Cambra.

  7. Christine

    Good luck Rachael! (from another Australian in New York).