How to achieve despite the odds? Sometimes you have to get off the island – literally as well as figuratively. Rhonda D. Eldrige proved herself time and again before turning her life skills into an organisation that has helped thousands of others. Read her story of rags to riches here.
Humble is a word that Rhonda uses to describe her upbringing. I have asked immediately prior what is her race, not for this article but because I am building a database of diversity in blockchain and I am on the lookout like a magpie for the most interesting additions to my collective. In answer she says just "plain ole black" and my heart soars. Here I have an impressive interviewee – a black woman of humble beginnings now featuring prominently in blockchain. It is a total vindication of my belief in blockchain; namely, that it can benefit and assist anyone who has the passion to succeed.
In fairness to Rhonda, she made that steep climb in the traditional finance world first but what she has achieved in ordinary finance will surely explode in new finance.
Rhonda was indeed born in humble surroundings to a single mother in the Bahamas. Her mother worked all her life as a maid but believed strongly in education as a way out of poverty. Two more siblings arrived but her mother could not afford to keep them at home and they were raised by their grandparents. It is hard to fathom a choice such as this which could only be made in the most extreme financial distress.
“Naturally this separation led to a difficulty between me and my two siblings. We grew up not knowing each other but, as adults, we have become friends and help each other where we can. My sister’s children are doing really well, all working abroad (China, Singapore, and the US) and I am very proud of their achievements. But it has taken time to bridge the gap.”
Rhonda and her mother lived initially in a two-room home on cinder blocks with no electricity, indoor plumbing or facilities, which was locally known as over-da-hill, aka “the ghetto”. Afterward, they moved to a larger four-room wooden house on cinder blocks - initially with no electricity, water or indoor facilities – and still very much over-da-hill. Rhonda went to the local primary school and she did not, according to her own testimony, apply herself very hard. In particular she just could not get maths. This admission is also a signpost to another truism: sometimes understanding needs a time and place to click in. For Rhonda and maths in her early childhood, this was the case.
Rhonda’s mother worked many jobs and earned enough to finally send Rhonda to a private school. This was a huge personal effort, if not a Herculean achievement, for her mother. Accordingly, Rhonda took the opportunity, was cognisant of her mother’s sacrifice, and began to shine as the top student throughout middle and high school. She graduated high school with top grades at the young age of 16 but, without financial means to attend university, was told by her mom to find a job to pay her share of the rent and food at home. However, the effort made by her mother was not unappreciated and so Rhonda enrolled for night school pursuing a diploma in banking receiving the top awards on completion.
Here she discovered that she now had a huge aptitude for maths, in particular algebra and later calculus. I quizzed her during the interview about this point – how had things changed?
“Two reasons,” she tells me. “The first was that I realised I needed to work hard at school; once I did things came easily. The second was that to succeed I needed to get off the island.”
Her economics professor, Eve Poiter, the first Bahamian to receive a Chartered Financial Analyst designation, agreed. She had a top student in Rhonda who was excelling at economics, constantly earning near 100% in exams – a sign to encourage her as a student. She would also hear similar comments from other professors at night school at the College of the Bahamas.
‘’Leave the island” took on a new urgency and Rhonda, inspired by such encouragement, began looking for scholarship opportunities. She came across a flyer for the Tomlinson Scholarship Foundation which sought to support young academically strong students who were financially unable to afford study aboard. They offered a full scholarship to the top universities in England and Canada at the time. Rhonda applied for it, writing an essay on why she should be awarded the scholarship. She applied to two on the list of seven and was accepted at both the University of Western Ontario and Queens University in Canada, deciding to pursue a Bachelors of Commerce (Hons) at the latter.
Again she excelled – you will by now note this is a common theme – and after three and a half years she finished and was recruited on the milk round by PWC, Toronto. She was seconded to work back in the Bahamas while taking her final Canadian Chartered Accountancy exams. She gained experience primarily in insurance and banking in the financial services area.
Following that, she was recruited by a large Dutch private bank, Pierson Heldring & Pierson, which become Fortis. Her entrepreneurial and results-driven mindset caught the eyes of global heads who asked to be part of Fortis’ Young Professional Programme. She established and expanded the local fund administration arm of the bank, organically and through the acquisition of two local companies. Fortis was the fund servicing pioneer at the time and Rhonda seized the opportunity to cultivate a growth mindset in her staff (mostly Bahamian, mostly women, and mostly single mothers) in her executive team. She was appointed Managing Director in the Bahamas in 1999 and was named a pioneering woman in the Bahamas in 2002.
Her rise was not unnoticed and soon she was invited to join the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO) in the Bahamas as its first female member.
She met her husband a few years earlier, welcoming their first child a year before being transferred to New York in 2003 to oversee all hedge fund relationships in the Americas working in fund administration, banking, custody and credit, “another getting off the island moment.”
“By 2003 I was based in the US, building the bank’s brand, getting new customers, cultivating and leveraging a vast network. I was passionate and committed to having a strong relationship with our clients and industry players. Everything was going well – well, until 2008, and then everything blew up.”
Into the financial crash went a major health scare with Rhonda diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I had two responsibilities during that crisis – keeping my clients stable and calm and keeping myself well. I turned to new forms of medicine, incorporating treatments like “healing hands” into my day. I needed to keep myself calm too. And I was. Our team closed some major deals and we lost no clients.”
Rhonda survived the crisis, the two bouts of cancer, the bank blowing up and amidst this perfect storm decided to adopt a new-born baby from Florida. The process was serendipitous and within seven months her family welcomed her home. Rhonda took two months off, returned to work but only lasted one week. It was time for another chapter.
“I had gained a new life perspective and it meant not working for a large corporate anymore. I wanted to get my hands dirty paving a road of my own, whatever that would become.”
Rhonda began looking at startups using the entrepreneurial skills from educational sessions and mentoring in YPO and wisdom imparted by her former boss of nine years. “While I was with Fortis I learnt a huge amount – but I learnt it for myself and prided myself on my interpersonal skills. Fortis challenged, embraced and supported me tremendously. These I transferred to the startup marketplace.
“I feel very strongly that we are the job, the work, the value – we make it ours. But in a corporate world you are a bird in the nest waiting for work to come in. As an entrepreneur you have to learn to fly and this I went for hell for leather.”
It was this stage that Rhonda began to think more about the disruption that the crash had wrought on people’s lives, her former clients, and then, when looking at her personal health crisis, she knew she wanted to help other people to get over a hump, and to find a new way of going forward when all else seemed doomed to failure.
As a result she founded HarnessAP.org, a non-profit social enterprise. The AP stands for All Possibilities.
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“We help mid- and executive-level professionals GET UNSTUCK by providing events, workshops, resources and tools to harness infinite possibilities in the new economy, cultivating a growth mindset to discover their next act,” she says.
Using her own personal experience, Rhonda was able to extrapolate into a general zeitgeist backed by big data. About 65% of the global workforce will be impacted over the next five to ten years by the fast pace of combinatorial technological changes, disrupting personal well-being, families, the mind, communities, industries and linear careers at a pace that humans are unable to adapt, retrain and retool with 21st century skills.
Here her organisation really looks to support those who are going to be disrupted or wavering in work displacement.
“The most disrupted professionals are off the radar, disconnected and disillusioned, i.e. they get stuck with negative societal impact,” explains Rhonda.
“Harness All Possibilities is a call to action to address transformational changes on a community level, collaborating with compassion, purpose vision and positive social impact.”
HarnassAP is a trusted network community of mentors and subject matter experts, self-awareness tools and 21st century educational programs designed to encourage, guide and support in-transition professionals and future planners to embrace a life-long learning mindset, future-proof skills and positive creative thinking for self-reinvention.
The events and topics attract a diverse group of gig and non-gig professionals (early stage entrepreneurs) and businesses curious and passionate about social impact.
“While meetups started in the New York tri-state area, we are focused on scaling through collaboration to expand our national and international network to help in-transition professionals. I already have close on 8,000 personal stories of people who have faced huge challenges and have overcome them. These are the stories that help the community thrive.”
Rhonda met blockchain in 2015 at a talk and discovered the light for HarnassAP, she felt an immediate attraction. Everything HarnassAP is becoming has a parallel in blockchain, both in recognising the imminent change and in looking for ways to include people in the new systems.
"I began educating myself in earnest in 2015 and by 2017 held our first blockchain event in Connecticut, a 7am breakfast meeting. A small group but some had travelled one or two hours to be there. We began holding other events and were surprised at the interest with 50, 100, 200 people signing up over time for blockchain. Soon our events were sold out and that’s when I knew this was the sector for me and others like me seeking their next act. It was a natural step or shift given my compliance experience in traditional finance and feeling the need to bring not only that but my passion for strong relationships to blockchain.
“I don’t code but I understand business.”
Rhonda is now consulting with an Irish regtech blockchain firm, Gecko Governance, is an advisor, connector, and entrepreneur exploring a few collaborations in the space. She has found her very own niche and married her financial talents with blockchain.
She is also very concerned with another main thrust: getting women in blockchain. She is part of a closed Facebook group called CryptoChicks where women share with integrity. Here she is an ambassador and more recently officiated as a judge in a New York event.
“I met the organisers and was very impressed. Men and women work very differently. And they also work very differently with the opposite sex. Part of our education process is to take the best from the difference and to blend it.
“If a woman enters a room, especially as a professional, she needs to own that room, make it hers. And then, when she opens her mouth, she’d better come with some smart comments. We are all capable of doing that but sometimes we have been taught as women to stand back or be less confident. Ambition in women is not valued as much as in men – this has to change too.
“I think sometimes women deal better with disruption than men: after all, we have children and most likely take time out of our career to parent. But while we are good at adjusting we are less adept at finding our confidence to return to work or to what might replace work. I think we are standing at a critical age for work and investment in our communities. And we all need to pull together for us to succeed. All of us to succeed.”
LinkedIn: Harness All Possibilities
For more information or to contact Rhonda, please visit her linkedin profile