A well-known fact, but deserved introduction to Rachael Chong is her title as CEO and Founder of Catchafire. Although Rachael has had many stories written and interviews conducted about her success in starting an organization, along with her unique and fascinating life adventures, there are still a few things you may not know about her. In fact, I learn something new and inspiring about Rachael with almost every conversation. This interview was no different.
Rachael’s passion for helping others began at a young age. She had her first inkling of her future passion when she was 8 years old. Moving to China from Australia along with traveling all over Asia, Rachael saw many people living in poverty around her. “There were kids like me, but they had profoundly different lives,” Rachael said as she recalled an 8-year-old boy begging for food and money on the street. These experiences made Rachael believe that everyone should have the same opportunities no matter who they are. “There needs to be a leveled opportunity playing field,” said Rachael.
From that young age of 8, Rachael began a life of continued and diverse volunteer experiences. She volunteered in Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya doing AIDS education awareness and also became an art mentor in a small school. Rachael’s favorite experience came when she had the opportunity to take eleven undergraduate students to volunteer for BRAC in Bangladesh. She exposed the students to microfinance and working on projects pro bono. She could see it changing their lives. Keeping in touch with these students even today, Rachael finds that they are still living their lives with an ethos of giving back. One student even ran a benefit marathon in Antarctica. With all these volunteer experiences, Rachael is still looking for more in the future.
Rachael believes that a good experience opens a mind to possibilities of how much you can achieve as an individual, and that’s what she loves most about volunteering. When you volunteer you may think, am I really making a dent in big problems? “A good volunteer experience would lead you to feel—yes!” said Rachael. Her idea of pro bono should make every volunteer feel empowered and inspired to do more, and this is just one of the many goals she hopes to see Catchafire accomplish. She hopes that someday it will be common conversation to meet someone new, and to automatically ask not just what they do for work, but also what they do pro bono. At a recent holiday party, Rachael felt very hopeful when over half of the people she met had a positive response to this question.
Rachael has had a wide variety of living situations. In college, she roomed with her Catchafire colleague Jane Slusser. Rachael said that Jane was “a good roommate, very neat and considerate.” We’ll hear more about this from my interview with Jane next week. She also spent a college semester in Arizona living in Columbia University’s biosphere (a replicate of land on earth that was originally designed to house people living on other planets in the future). Rachael thought this was a great experience to take advantage of, and she enjoyed living and studying around nature. Of all her homes, Rachael loves New York the most because it has so much opportunity. Her love for New York has caused Rachael to do a lot of exploring in her rare spare time. Finding new places to eat, checking out museums, exhibits, and new music, she loves how much creativity exists in New York.
Of course, Rachael’s greatest passion is for Catchafire. Her advice for others who are considering starting their own organization is to be resilient. “It requires everything. Without being prepared you won’t be successful. You can see the potential, but the work to get there never ends. It’s a sprint and a marathon,” Rachael said. It’s important to have a viable business plan, which requires a lot of research. You must also be self-aware. Find your strengths and weaknesses, and then find others who can round out your weaknesses. “You must be able to fall and pick yourself up. You never hear about the failures, but there are many out there, more than there are successes.”
All of these hardworking characteristics is what has gotten Catchafire to this point, and continues to help it everyday. The idea behind Catchafire’s name gives inspiration to remembering the importance behind all of the work. Catchafire is the name of Rachael’s favorite music album by Bob Marley. She compares it with volunteer experience in that it is transformational with songs like “Stir It Up” and “Lively Up Yourself.” “It’s about finding fire in yourself,” said Rachael. She hopes that volunteering helps add that spark to help each person find that passion.