Home Economics: Darys Estrella Mordan '92 Shaping Her Country's Financial Future

By Heather Appel '99

When Darys Estrella Mordan ’92 left Santo Domingo at age 17 and came to the United States, she planned to return home within a few years and pursue something more than the traditional path expected of most young women in the Dominican Republic—getting a degree, then marrying and supporting a husband’s career. Twenty years later she is finally fulfilling her dream of coming home on her own terms.

She has returned in grand and historic style, serving as CEO of the Bolsa de Valores, the Dominican capital markets exchange—the first woman ever to have held such a position in Latin America.

Estrella Mordan grew up in the small mountain town of San Jose de Ocoa, two hours outside the capital city of Santo Domingo. When Hurricane David destroyed the town in 1979 and turned the schools into temporary shelters, her family moved to Santo Domingo, where she attended Catholic school and graduated, at age 16, at the top of her class.

Estrella Mordan then moved to New York City and lived with an aunt in Queens. She studied English on tape and enrolled at LaGuardia Community College. A teacher there encouraged her to apply to Vassar’s Exploring Transfer (ET) program, a summer intensive for high-achieving, community college students, and she transferred to Vassar as a sophomore in Fall 1989—coincidentally the same year the Bolsa de Valores in the Dominican Republic was founded. Her career journey eventually would lead her back to her native country to head that very institution.

Estrella Mordan majored in Hispanic Studies, participated in the International Students Association and the group that later became Poder Latino, and cultivated a close-knit group of friends, mostly international students like herself. “Vassar gave me exactly the foundation I needed to become the strong, confident business leader I have become today,” Estrella Mordan says. “Vassar taught me to be quick on my feet and how to learn — in any situation.”

After graduating from Vassar, Estrella Mordan was recruited by Deltec Asset Management, a New York-based hedge fund that was looking for a bilingual graduate from a top school. Having grown up in a country where the value of the peso could fall rapidly, making staples like eggs and bread more expensive overnight, Estrella Mordan didn’t need a background in economics to understand how inflation, devaluation, or interest rates affect the economy. She stayed at Deltec almost eight years, rapidly working her way up from trading assistant to vice president and traveling all over Latin America. “I was introduced to presidents and finance ministers, and I loved it because you never had time to be bored. There was always the possibility of a crisis whether there was a devaluation in Brazil or if the president of Ecuador was impeached.” She was typically the only woman among delegations that met with heads of state and banking officials in places like Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil, and Argentina. In these male-dominated settings, some women find themselves mistaken for assistants. But not Estrella Mordan. “I’m very assertive,” she says. “I’m not shy. I have a strong personality, and when I walk into a room, people know I’m not an assistant.”

After graduating with an M.B.A. from the University of Michigan in 2002, Estrella Mordan joined Goldman Sachs & Co. as a vice president in the Fixed Income Currency and Commodities Division.

In 1997, Estrella Mordan was invited by the Council of the Americas to participate in a roundtable on financial services in the Dominican Republic, and went on to co-found Dominicans on Wall Street (DOWS). This organization brought together financial and legal professionals to help promote best standards and practices for a more global investment environment in the Dominican Republic.

As an indication of things to come, in 2004 Latina magazine named Estrella Mordan one of 10 under-35 “Latinas on the Verge.” When the board of the Bolsa de Valores recruited her to become the CEO, she and her husband faced a major decision: should they uproot themselves and their three children and trade a comfortable life in New York City for a much less predictable one in the Dominican Republic? “But at the same time it was kind of an easy decision,” Estrella Mordan recalls, “because how could I say ‘No’ to being CEO of the exchange?”

Since its founding in 1989, the Bolsa de Valores is just now becoming a true economic force. Estrella Mordan took over at a critical moment, after the passage of the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA), which eliminates tariffs on 80 percent of U.S. exports and phases out tariffs on the remaining goods over 10 years. The agreement requires a higher level of transparency by all participants in the marketplace, which Estrella Mordan says will lead to safer business practices and promote competition. Under the agreement, businesses will have to find ways to modernize and compete more effectively. As Dominican businesses strive to meet international standards, the result will be more external investment in the country; and Estrella Mordan is there in part “to bring the investment culture in line with these expectations.” She is responsible for setting standards for the exchange and meets regularly with the main players in the market place: the brokerage houses, the government institutions, as well as the International Monetary Fund and the U.S. Treasury. “I’m dealing with the central bank on an ongoing basis,” she says, “I’m dealing with the Superintendency of Valores (SIV), which is the equivalent of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in the United States, and if brokerage houses were to do anything wrong, I have to take action.” As with the SEC, the SIV is responsible for enforcing transparency and good business practices among the companies that trade on the exchange.

The Bolsa is a capital markets exchange, as no stocks are listed yet (although the exchange platform is set up to trade stocks when companies are ready to come to the public market). So far, it is a 100-percent fixed income market; only commercial paper, notes, and bonds are traded. Estrella Mordan, who took over the exchange in April of this year, hopes to create a new investment culture in the Dominican Republic and build the exchange into an actual stock market. Since her arrival she has seen a law passed allowing pension funds to buy government paper directly, whereas previously they only invested in commercial banks. And already the exchange’s trading volume has increased from close to $1.6 billion when Estrella Mordan took over in April, to almost $8 billion at the end of September, a dramatic increase of 400 percent in only six months. The market players have been receptive and respectful of her strong credentials, Estrella Mordan says. “People have been focused on where I came from—Goldman Sachs on Wall Street—and what I can bring to the table as a proven leader,” she says. “It brings a credibility to the job.”

Her country has changed a lot since she grew up there, Estrella Mordan notes. “The amount of urbanization is astonishing, which creates a whole set of burdens on infrastructure and services, not all of which are being adequately met.” Estrella Mordan has encountered mixed reactions to her move. “My parents think it’s great; my siblings think I’m crazy,” she said. She’s the oldest of four, all of whom followed her to the United States and stayed. “Even when I signed my contract they still didn’t believe me,” she added. “They’re still in shock.”

Having gotten her professional start in the United States, Estrella Mordan says she is “trained and accustomed to American expectations, behaviors, and practices.” Returning to the Dominican Republic has made her “appreciate even more how top institutions push the envelope for best practices and stay on the cutting edge of innovation,” she says.

Oswin Eleonora ’93, a close friend, says Estrella Mordan herself has changed very little from when he first met her at a Vassar salsa party. “From the moment you meet Darys, what you see is what you get,” he says. “Small, but a very big heart, feisty. You can tell right when you meet her that this is a tough lady.” As a senior vice president of Acision, LLC, a large telecommunications enterprise, Eleonora can relate to the challenges Estrella Mordan faces. “That’s what we talk about — how you balance your ambition and your slight addiction to the adrenaline rush of being under pressure, with a family and kids,” he says.

Having three children has made Estrella Mordan an expert at this balancing act. She already had two when she earned her M.B.A. When she established herself at Goldman Sachs, she put her foot down about working nights and weekends so she could spend time with her family, a rare move in the corporate world. “Selfishly, she hasn’t wanted to compromise being involved in her community or having a family,” says her husband, Andy Wilson ’92.

Darys Estrella Mordan '92
Darys Estrella Mordan '92

Even now, Estrella Mordan says the biggest perk of her current job is being able to go home for lunch, which she tries to do every day. She and her family have an apartment in the Piantini area of the capital, which she describes as Santo Domingo’s Fifth Avenue, with restaurants, shops, and the business district all nearby. While her work is demanding during the week, she makes time on the weekends to take the family to the beach or to explore the countryside. She also feels lucky to have been there to celebrate her grandmother’s 94th birthday this fall.

Though at first Estrella Mordan’s kids had a rough time adjusting to life away from New York, life in the Dominican Republic isn’t so foreign for them: they used to visit often for vacation, they spoke Spanish at home, and they grew up eating Dominican food. All three — Yan Diego, 10, Maya Isabel, 7, and Javier Alberto, 2 — attend The St. George School, an international school that offers an International Baccalaureate program. While they don’t fully understand what their mother does, says Wilson, “Every time they see her name — and sometimes their own — in print, they say ‘Mommy’s famous! We’re famous!’”

Modest as she is, Estrella Mordan recognizes the huge opportunities before her, and the chance to shatter stereotypes. “Professionally speaking, I think this is an amazing opportunity,” she says. “It’s still a very male-dominated society — you don’t see a lot of women in top executive positions.” Constantly in the spotlight and running the Bolsa in this small country is a roll-up-your-sleeves and jump-right-in operation that takes a special kind of personality. “I have to wear many different hats, and I have become a generalist in everything having to do with the markets — from technology, law, international agreements, regulations, personnel management, budgets, and marketing to how to make sure we stay online, even when the electricity goes out.”

Estrella Mordan’s main aim is to put the Dominican Bolsa on the world’s financial services map. Meanwhile, she would also like to demonstrate that a woman from a developing country, through hard work and merit, can stand tall with the leaders in any business and in any country.

Heather Appel '99 is a freelance journalist in New York City.