Rachael Zoe Miller ’88

Founder, Rozalia Project for a Clean Ocean, and CEO/Co-Inventor of Cora Ball

What advice would you give to a girl graduating from Williston today?   

My advice is about getting advice because Williston graduates have an amazing opportunity to connect with Williston alumni all over the world, and that is an opportunity worth taking advantage of. When you have a challenge that you can articulate, whether that is about what steps you should take on something big picture like stepping stones toward a career goal or you have a specific, more tactical question, I suggest you talk to a variety of people in a variety of fields, who are a variety of ages, those who use the same pronouns as you and those who use different pronouns to you. Clearly, they all need to have had some experience with your question, but the diversity of their experiences will help you. Then, you have the opportunity to take little bits from each of these people and weave that advice into something that, not just makes sense, but inspires you. I think of this process as a little like doing a watercolor painting, but travel sketch style…you start in an art store and you get all the pieces—paper, ink pens, pencils, and a heap of colors. Then, you find your subject—a beach, a building, a boat, a tree, some people, a puppy! Next, you use a little bit of everything…some pencil that probably gets erased, the ink pens to give it structure, and then a little bit of the colors, some need mixing but rarely would you use all of the blue, for example. The most successful way to collect advice for me is to think of it in a similar way. The main idea comes from you and your experiences, but then you collect your colors (in the form of conversations) to create a pallet and take little bits from color. They may even need mixing and then you make the final decisions. And what you make, will really never be an exact copy of what others did, but that is the beauty of it.

What motivates you in your work and life?

I am wired to get a very energizing surge of happy chemicals (the natural ones, like endorphins and dopamine) doing a variety of activities: nearly all human and wind-powered watersports, solving problems, seeing other people accomplish something they find difficult, organizing projects (events, expeditions, research, education), and connecting people to our natural world—lakes, rivers and the ocean, in particular. Because of this, I have been very lucky to enjoy easy-to-come-by motivation. The parts I find challenging are the in-betweens, the mundane tasks that are necessary to make the above possible. When my energy for those tasks gets low, I find that I can fill it back up with motion—literal motion in the form of a wing foil session, a paddle on a surfski (ideally with waves) or a mountain bike ride; or figurative motion in the form of completing an expedition, submitting a research paper or even giving a presentation.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

  1. Experience More than Marinas

After college, I did an Olympic sailing campaign. I didn’t make the Olympics but learned heaps and had the privilege to race in places all over the globe. Luckily, early on, a gold medalist told me the one thing she regretted was that all she saw were marinas. She’d forget what country they were in—and she warned me not to let that happen. So I didn’t. I made it a rule that whenever I travel, I take a bare minimum of one morning or afternoon to really experience a place. That time has been some of the most valuable time I’ve spent, first traveling to compete and, more recently, for conferences and events worldwide.

  1. Hope is Not a Strategy

When everything is going well on a sailboat, it is magical. But, as the captain, there are a lot of parts and pieces and people and weather and water that need to be understood and monitored. You have the ultimate responsibility for the people, the vessel, and in our case, the mission. I have a great friend who is a tall ship captain and he once articulated an important point. Sometimes, usually in the middle of the night and when it is a dark and stormy night, you hear a sound, a repetitive, questionable sound. You are warm, dry and happy in your bunk and know you should go check it out but really don’t want to. He said that every time you get up and do the thing you know you should, but don’t necessarily want to do, you are putting a little bit of good in your “black box”. Because someday, you will need all of that goodness. In the case of the mystery sound, the worst thing that can happen is that you get wet and cold, don’t find the problem, and stay awake, keeping an eye on the boat until morning when you can figure it out in the daylight. The best case is that you save people’s lives. Whatever happens, the effort is worth it. I also think of this as an example that hope is not a strategy. Lying in your bunk, hoping that the sound is not a bad one is a terrible plan. Getting up and fixing whatever is amiss and then hoping your data/knowledge-based repair is a good one, makes more sense. We need hope, but only after action.

  1. “What do you need?”

Recently, a group was pitching me. Up to then, I had only been in situations where I was doing the pitching. In this case, I was being shown a piece of ocean technology, and it was super cool. The demo ended and we were chatting, but nothing was really happening. No ask. So I asked, “What do you need?” and two extremely intelligent people answered, “Um.” At that moment, I had some important revelations that echoed advice I heard in a pitch camp/accelerator program for the Cora Ball. One: I asked, which means I really wanted to know. There was no point in pretending it was just a show and tell without an agenda. Two: They should have had a specific and relevant answer ready (not $1 million dollars or an intro to a venture fund, neither of which I could have given them). Three: OMG, I think I’ve answered “um” when asked the same question. These revelations happened in time to enable the best expedition we’ve had to date: The Hudson River, Mountains to the Sea, Seafloor to the Sky, Microplastic Sampling and Technology Expedition. I’d been trying to fund it for two years. Just at the right time, one of our corporate partners asked the question, “What do you need?” And I had an answer, “I need $20,000 for a ground-breaking, high-impact expedition to sample the water, soil and air along the entire Hudson River from the mountains to the sea.” They gave it to us and the expedition happened! I think this advice holds true for anything you need, not just funding, but the more specific and ready your ask, the more likely you are to receive.