Pirate Fights & Treasure Hunts: Charting a Unique Career Pathway

Cooke Scholar Ian Ralby


We’re excited to share career insights from Cooke Scholar Alumni as part of our Cooke Conversations blog series. In this post, Ian Ralby explains how he became an international expert on maritime crime. After graduating from University of Maryland Baltimore County, Ian attended The College of William and Mary’s Marshall Wythe Law School as a Cooke Graduate Scholar. He has also completed and MPhil and a Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge. Here, Ian shares his insights on developing a unique expertise and a meaningful career.


What are you up to these days?

Simply put — I fight pirates, traffickers, smugglers and thieves. I have developed niche expertise in maritime crime, and I work all over the world helping states, regions and organizations to address the spectrum of illicit and undesirable activities that happen on, in, beneath, and around the water.


Where do you work?

To do this work, I wear several different hats. I work part time for the U.S. Government as Adjunct Professor of Maritime Law and Security at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies — a U.S. Department of Defense institution; I work part time as a Maritime Crime Expert for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s Global Maritime Crime where I focus primarily on the Caribbean as a region and on several specific issues: floating armories, oil and fuel crimes and the protection of submarine cables; and the remainder of the time, I work as CEO of my own consultancy, I.R. Consilium — a family business through which I work for a mix of governments, international organizations, foundations, think tanks and private entities on a diverse array of matters at the intersection between law, security, governance and development. In addition, I am a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, a “Key Opinion Former on Maritime Security” at NATO, and a member of the Board of Directors of the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship.


How has being part of the Cooke Scholar community inspired or supported your career?

I was in the original cohort of Graduate Scholars in 2002, and it is amazing to look back on how different the world was then. I still have the printed “face book” of my fellow scholars — a far cry from the digital platforms available today. As social media had not yet come to fruition, I suspect many of us from the early years are not as closely linked as some of the more recent scholars. That said, I have always valued the relationships I have been able to maintain with both people from my year and from later generations.

Furthermore, I have always felt that the generosity of the Foundation came with a responsibility — the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation took a risk on me, invested in me and supported me, and I therefore carry with me a duty to validate that risk, investment and support by being of value to the world. The rare advantage of leaving law school without debt meant that I had a chance to pursue opportunities that would make an impact, even if they did not immediately make money. I hope that I have, so far, lived up to the aims that Jack Kent Cooke had when he set up the Foundation.


What attracted you to your current career path?

My career path so far has been a treasure hunt — an approach my mother taught me. I have always followed the clues and stayed open to where they might lead. I never expected to end up where I am today, doing what I am doing. But I never could have imagined doing anything so interesting, exciting and rewarding. If I had tried to stick to a path that I designed for myself, I know that my life would be no where near as rich with experiences and relationships. So the attraction, I would have to say was incremental — I take each step, one at a time.


Can you tell us about any college experiences (in or outside the classroom) that have had an impact on the current work you do?

In my second year of law school, I took “Admiralty Law” — not something that would ever be helpful for the bar exam, but something that sounded really interesting. I loved it, and I really enjoyed the professor whose main job was as a maritime lawyer at a major law firm. I used to try to chat with him before and after class, not for improving my grade, but simply because I found the subject matter fascinating. At the end of my third year of law school, I ran into that professor in the lobby of the school and he asked what I was doing after graduation. I told him I did not know, as I had not felt terribly inspired by most law jobs. He asked for my GPA and class rank and after I told him, he asked if I would like to stay in Virginia and work for him. That was how I became a maritime lawyer — a vital element of career path that has led me to where I am today.


What advice would you give students looking for their first professional work experience after graduation?

Be humble. No matter how well students did in academia, they have a ton to learn in order to excel in the professional world. Being arrogant, entitled or self-centered will quickly negate the opportunity to get the sorts of experiences that make a real difference — both for a career, and for the world. Humility, dignity, graciousness and extremely hard work are the keys to both finding that initial experience and then making the most of it in order to continue to progress toward a dynamic, meaningful and enjoyable career.

People — particularly those younger than me — thought I was crazy for doing the amount of unpaid work I did over the years, and for working as hard as I did for little pay or recognition. But at this stage, I can honestly say, that without those experiences, I would not be able to do the incredibly interesting things I do today. So be humble and always do the best work you possibly can — the reward will come.


What’s something surprising about your day-to-day work?

Very rarely do I have two days that are remotely similar. I am constantly working on new issues, and almost always on the move. In 2018, for example, I took 97 flights and worked in 31 countries on six continents.  But I think what most people would find surprising is how unglamorous that travel is and how much I actually work. Last year, I averaged 80 hours of work per week for 52 weeks. While I love what I do, that is an intense pace. I am glad to have gotten to a point now where the pace is more manageable, but I spent years working like mad to be able to get to do work I love and work that improves the lives of people around the world in different ways.


What can a person do to test the water before making a career move?

I often get asked “How can I do what you do?” And I say “You can’t.” My point is not to dissuade people, but to say: it is the unique collection of experiences and skills I have amassed over the years that allow me to do what I do. Right now, there is no one else I can point to who does exactly what I do.  So my advice to anyone is to amass their own unique sets of experiences and skills based on what interests them and carve out their own niche based on their own expertise. That does not, however, mean that they have to enjoy everything they do. Sometimes unrelenting hard work, drudgery, tedium or even boredom are necessary.

Furthermore, expertise is not about knowing a bit about something, or even a lot about something. It is, on the one hand, knowing something inside and out, and on the other hand, being comfortable with what you don’t know. As a society, we have devalued expertise, so it is important that Cooke Scholars recognize the vital importance of expertise, and that they not be afraid to do the long, hard work to pursue it.


What do you find most challenging about your current position or industry?

I work at the front lines of some of the most worrying security concerns facing the world today. As difficult as it is to keep up with the level of innovation among criminal and terrorist groups, I think what I find most challenging is the degree to which people — politicians, leaders, the general public — are blind to the matters that most affect their day-to-day lives. I am fond of the expression: no shipping, no shopping. I challenge anyone to go a full day without using something that has spent time on a ship.

Similarly, cutting a cable the size of a garden hose that is just resting on seabed, could create catastrophic chaos. We rely on the internet for everything from taxis and restaurant bookings to financial transactions, communication, navigation and air traffic control, yet most people have no idea that as much as 99% of that internet comes from submarine cables. I come across so many worrying issues that have foreseeable impact on our lives that could be thwarted if we took proactive approaches to addressing them. Unfortunately, though, we often have to wait for a crisis before the general awareness is sufficient to tackle those matters.


Finish this sentence:  I wish I’d known…

Jack Kent Cooke.