As a Normandy High School student, Cassandra Brown Ray loved working as a bank teller at then-Northwestern Savings and Loan (now U.S. Bank) near Lucas Hunt and Natural Bridge roads. Most of all, she liked getting to know the customers and helping them with their financial needs, she said.
“My mother was a vice president at that bank and, long story short, she was a boss,” Ray said. “I decided that I wanted to be a boss and major in accounting. I never turned back, and it’s been quite the journey.”
Ray graduated from University of Missouri-Columbia with her accounting degree and went to work for then-McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) and later for General Dynamics Corporation as an internal auditor. When General Dynamics decided to move its headquarters to the Washington area in 1991, Ray didn’t want to follow so she applied for other jobs. She got two offers — one from a CPA firm and one from the Saint Louis Zoo.
“There are a lot of CPA firms, but there is only one world famous Saint Louis Zoo,” she said.
She had a plan to work at the zoo for two years, have a baby and then move back out into the corporate world. “And I just really fell in love with this place,” Ray said.
She joined the zoo in 1992 as a staff accountant and then served as the controller/director of finance starting in 1999. Ray had an “amazing manager,” who cared about her and helped her rise through the ranks, she said. Earlier this year, Ray was named the zoo’s chief financial officer, becoming the first African-American woman to hold that position since the zoo opened in 1913. She loves that she gets to work with scientists, doctors and people who are dedicated to protecting animals.
“Who would have thought graduating with a degree in accounting to look for a job at a zoo?” Ray said. “But the opportunity presented itself in The American, as an ad looking for a staff accountant. That was just the beginning of not only my relationship with the zoo, but also my relationship with The American. So this is kind of a full-circle moment here.”
On November 21, Ray will receive the 2019 Nonprofit Executive of the Year Award at the St. Louis American Foundation’s Salute to Excellence in Business Awards and Networking Luncheon. It will be held at the Hilton St. Louis Frontenac.
“Cassandra is the perfect CFO – she’s smart, number-savvy, and has a questioning mind,” said Jeffrey Bonner, Dana Brown president and CEO of the zoo. “The best CFOs know what’s important, but more importantly, know the right questions to ask and when to ask them.”
Over the course of Ray’s 28 years at the zoo, the giraffe — her favorite animal — went from being of “least concern” by conservationists to being critically endangered. Giraffe numbers across Africa fell 40 percent between 1985 and 2015, to just under 100,000 animals, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The fact that they are entering a “silent extinction” is horrible and unacceptable, Ray said.
“When we wake up in the morning, we are on a mission because we have a zoo that we have to care for but we also have a future that we need to build a foundation for,” Ray said. “And my hope is that many years when I’m no longer here, they will look back and say, ‘What they did back then was foundational and there is no way we could have saved as many animals or as many habitats because they did what they needed to do.’”
A major project that Ray will be involved with is planning for the new Conservation and Animal Science Center in North St. Louis County, made possible by passage of Proposition Z last November.
“This will give us space to breed animals and an incredible opportunity to experience species in habitats that may be incredibly similar to going on safari,” she said. “There is so much work to be done. I work with a team of incredible leaders, and they all want to do so much to advance conservation right in line with our mission.”
Ray is passionate about gender equity, and she is the diversity and inclusion team leader for the zoo. She serves on the Board of Directors for Lindenwood University, where she earned her MBA. She is a graduate of FOCUS Leadership St. Louis (2014) and a member of the inaugural class of the FOCUS Impact Fellows, a team charged with developing and implementing an action plan using the 2015 Ferguson Commission Report as a guideline.
Ray has been married to her high-school sweetheart Quentin Ray for 28 years, and they have two children, Taylor and Jaylen. One thing she always tells her children is: “Live your best life. You get one, so let’s really make it worthwhile.”
The 20th annual Salute to Excellence in Business Awards & Networking Luncheon will be held Thursday, November 21 at the Hilton St. Louis Frontenac, with a networking reception at 11 a.m. and luncheon program at noon. Tickets are $100 for Preferred/VIP seating and $75 for general admission. Call 314-533-8000 or click here to purchase tickets.