Darys Estrella Mordan: Investing in Her Roots

Her decision to come home was unexpected. Thirty-nine year old up-and-comer Darys Estrella Mordan never anticipated that her next high-flying career move would bring her back to her native Dominican Republic. After all, she’d had a good home in the United States since she was 17; she had earned a BA at Vassar and an MBA from the University of Michigan, and then briskly climbed the ladder on Wall Street, starting at Deltec Asset Management and ultimately landing a VP position at Goldman Sachs.

In 2007, however, she jumped at the chance to helm the Bolsa de Valores—the Dominican Republic’s capital markets exchange—and, during her first year, oversaw an 821 percent increase in trades. By this past spring, the exchange had already posted more than $10 billion in trades—a 500 percent rise over the same period in 2007. As a result, Estrella Mordan was recently named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. Diversity Woman spoke with Estrella Mordan about how she is changing the island’s business culture—as well as coping with some culture shock.

Diversity Woman: What kind of ambitions did you have growing up? Did you always want to be in business?
Darys Estrella Mordan: My parents always told me that I could do anything I wanted. My dad was a radio producer, and my mother ran a candy business from our home: she supplied candy to all the supermarkets in Santo Domingo. I wasn’t so much interested in business, but when I was a little girl I would think, “I want to wear a suit, be the boss.” If I told you I knew exactly what I wanted to do, I’d be lying.

DW: How did you land in finance?
DEM: When I was graduating from Vassar, Deltec was looking for a recent grad fluent in Spanish. I didn’t know what a bond or a stock was, but during my interview they were asking me questions about inflation and devaluation—and growing up in Latin America, you don’t have to be an economist to know what that means. They made me an offer for their Latin American desk because they knew they could train me in finance.

DW: Even so, you entered a pretty tough arena. What helped you move up so fast?
DEM: I have the kind of personality where I don’t get intimidated easily. I was 25 and meeting with the financial minister of Brazil or [President] Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. There I was, in meetings with all these guys who could be my grandfathers. Having that exposure so early was huge, but I was able to rise to that occasion, to show that I could be a leader.

DW: How did the position with the exchange come about?
DEM: I was a founding member of DOWS [Dominicans on Wall Street] and was president for two terms. I wanted us to have an annual trip to the DR—have meetings with presidential candidates and top business people—to better relations. We’d make suggestions—just humble opinions as people with international experience—and that’s how I got to know the movers and shakers in the DR. So when this position became available, they thought of me. It wasn’t an easy decision to quit Goldman Sachs—I loved it there—and move my family, but at the same time it was easy. The challenge of helping to build this exchange really attracted me.

DW: The DR-CAFTA [Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement], implemented in 2007, reduced tariffs and increased the need for business transparency. But how do you want to affect the exchange yourself?
DEM: One main priority is to increase the volume of transactions coming through the exchange. Before, volume was going outside the exchange—people would make transactions on the phone and there was no transparency that way. A lot of companies here are owned by families, and they’re not used to giving up control. My dream is to have equities listed. We still need to do a lot more promotion, too. I’m always on TV or in the paper, just trying to promote the market culture, which didn’t exist here before.

DW: How is the business culture different in the DR compared to Wall Street?
DEM: At Goldman Sachs, if I had a problem, it was solved in 30 seconds. Here, we don’t have the same resources or personnel, and we’re dealing with things like the electricity going off five or six times a day. The generator kicks in automatically, but I remember one time, we were doing some trades, and the generator didn’t come on, so I called maintenance, saying, “I can’t function without electricity. You look for somebody to fix it now!” It took them 10 minutes. It happened only once, but that was one too many times.

DW: How does the business community there treat a woman in your position?
DEM: There are very few executive women. When I came here, some people already knew me, but being U.S. educated and having the Wall Street background really helped. People listened to me. I am convinced that if I had always stayed here, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

DW: How have your U.S.-born husband and three kids adjusted?
DEM: They’re happy now. My older son, who’s 11 now, was mad at me for a while—he didn’t understand why I had to take him away from his friends. My little one, now three, was two years old when we got here, so he doesn’t know any different—he actually acts Dominican, which is funny. The culture here celebrates boys being more aggressive—a girl is supposed to behave a certain way. But, I tell my eight-year-old daughter, “You could be president of this country if you wanted.” DW

Katrina Brown Hunt is a Diversity Woman contributing writer.

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