If every business, and every city, operated with the same philosophy and values that the Saint Louis Zoo organization does, led by people like Cassandra Brown Ray, the world would be a much better place.
Cassandra Brown Ray, of St. Peters, began what she calls her “blessed journey” with the Zoo 28 years ago as a staff accountant. Early last year she was named Chief Financial Officer/VP of Finance. She has the distinction of being the first African American and the first woman to hold that role at the Saint Louis Zoo. Cassandra is passionate about gender equity and serves as the diversity and inclusion team leader for the Zoo.
Cassandra earned her MBA from Lindenwood University and her undergraduate accounting degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She currently serves on Lindenwood’s Board of Directors, as well as the Duo (therapy dogs) board. She’s also a past member of the Francis Howell School District Finance and Operations Committee.
In her role as CFO, Cassandra says her greatest challenge – and greatest reward – is to apply the Saint Louis Zoo’s Values and Keys, or guiding forces, that steer every decision made at this “city within a city,” as she calls it.
“It’s been rewarding to be part of the team that helped develop the values and the keys for the Saint Louis Zoo,” says Cassandra.
“We have limited resources, so planning for the best and highest uses for our finances is key…with caring for the animals as our first priority. Everyone here is dedicated to that,” she says.
“The three top principles we operate on are: Animals Always, People Matter and Operational Excellence. These guide every decision we make.
“The challenge comes in when we have so many amazing, creative ideas, goals and dreams from staff, volunteers and our governance, and we have to fit all of that into a financial plan and forecast.”
But that ends up being the most rewarding part of her job as well, says Cassandra.
She says their key values include openness/transparency, integrity, and using creativity to plan for the best and highest uses of the Zoo’s resources. Those resources include their people.
“Because without our people, we can’t provide the world-class care for the animals. And without operational excellence, we cannot get the highest and best use of our resources.”
Cassandra says that another rewarding part of her job is working with amazing scientists and conservationists who are dedicated to protecting animals.
“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. My hope is that in 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 without them doing what they needed to do.’”
A major project that Cassandra has been involved with is planning for the new Conservation and Animal Science Center in North St. Louis County. Using privately donated funds, the Saint Louis Zoo Association purchased 425 acres in north St. Louis County (Spanish Lake) in 2018. The new Saint Louis Zoo North Campus will include a Conservation & Animal Science Center and public attractions that will connect people with nature and animals.
“There is so much work to be done over the next few years, but 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 says.
An exciting new exhibit at the Saint Louis Zoo is the Primate Canopy Trails, an $11.5 million, 35,000-square-foot outdoor expansion of the Primate House. Construction began in 2019 and is scheduled to open in 2021. Primate Canopy Trails will consist of eight new outdoor homes for primates – lemurs, Old World monkeys and New World monkeys.
"Being outside is critical for primates' well-being, and this new habitat is a demonstration of the Zoo's commitment to providing quality animal care," says Heidi Hellmuth, Curator of Primates.
Another exciting development coming soon to the Zoo is the birth of a new baby elephant! Asian elephant Rani is due to give birth this Summer. The Zoo’s bull elephant, 27-year-old Raja, is the father. He was the first Asian elephant ever born at the Zoo in 1992, and this calf will be his fifth offspring.
There are so many awe-inspiring aspects of the Saint Louis Zoo, and now we add its leaders, like Cassandra Brown Ray, to the list.
She is truly an inspirational leader, to the community as well as to her own two children, who no doubt admired her ability and motivation to earn her MBA while well into her career. She says they would all sit and study together in the evenings. Her kids, who graduated from Francis Howell Central H.S., have now both earned their college degrees. Cassandra truly leads by example.
She currently lives in St. Peters with her husband Quentin - her high school sweetheart – and their pugapoo, Yoda.