Clockwise from top right: Angela Sheldrick of SWT; Liliana Madrigal of ACT with the ASOMI women of Colombia; rhino protected by Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
How They Do It
The women founders and directors of wildlife charities have won their conservation battles against all odds. We can’t think of anyone better to inspire us with their life lessons and motivational mantras.
No one said changing the world was going to be easy. But in the male-dominated sphere of environmental conservation, fighting for idealistic visions and demonstrating success while being answerable to governments, local communities, boards and donors is especially tricky. Over the years, Chantecaille has gravitated towards many charities founded or overseen by women, with 10 ongoing partnerships. “These women are amazing,” Sylvie Chantecaille says. “Every day they give their life to saving these endangered species. To be able to support them has been a great joy for us.”
In honor of International Women’s Day, we reached out to our female charity bosses for their best, most inspiring career truths. They include: Lisa Hywood, CEO of the Tikki Hywood Foundation in Zimbabwe; Stephanie Dolrenry, co-founder of Lion Guardians; Angela Sheldrick, CEO of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya; Stephanie Fennessy, co-founder of Giraffe Conservation Foundation in Namibia; Suzanne Roy, campaign director of the American Wild Horse Campaign in California; Karen Eckert, executive director of Widecast; and Liliana Madrigal, co-founder of the Amazon Conservation Team, our newest partner.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever received?
Always be humble and never make the other person feel uncomfortable. –Lisa Hywood, Tikki Hywood Foundation
I spent a lot of time in my early career looking for a mentor; however, I have never found the perfect role model. So I realized that nobody is perfect, but you can also learn a lot from not-so-perfect role models. I have also realized that if you don’t want to be criticized then you better don’t do anything—so I am quite the opposite: I believe you better try your best and sometimes deal with the consequences. –Stephanie Fennessy, Giraffe Conservation Foundation
Where there is a will, there is a way. My mother used to say this to me growing up and I’ve applied it to our conservation efforts. When it feels impossible to find peace between hungry lions and understandably angry livestock owners, and I feel like giving up in the face of all the conflict, I remember these words and believe that if we have the will to dig deep, fight hard and compassionately, that we can find ways for people to live peacefully alongside large and sometimes troublesome, albeit magnificent African lions. –Stephanie Dolrenry, Lion Guardians
“Don’t be intimidated by lack of experience – jump right in.”
— Suzanne Roy, AWHC
“If you want to write, write.” When I was in my early twenties, I got a job as a receptionist in the office of the Lt. Governor of New York and the press secretary took me under his wing. The advice he gave me about learning to write by making it a practice (doesn’t matter what you’re writing—letters, journal, articles, fiction, etc.) was a gift because it helped me to develop one of my most important strengths: the ability to communicate ideas in a compelling and clear way. It’s good advice for people just starting out in whatever their chosen field: don’t be intimidated by lack of experience—jump right in and realize that becoming proficient doesn’t happen overnight. –Suzanne Roy, American Wild Horse Campaign
One of the greatest influences in my life was Alvaro Ugalde, the late Founder of the National Parks Service of Costa Rica. Once, sitting in the middle of Manuel Antonio National Park, he told me to pursue work that brings joy and one that does not compromise your personal values. If you chase jobs for the pay alone, you’ll be in a nonstop competition. But when you work in line with your personal values, even the hard times aren’t too hard to bear, and bring joy. –Liliana Madrigal, Amazon Conservation Team
There are two. One was a direct piece of advice from Richard Reed, of Innocent Drinks. He said, “The competition are your friends. Don’t imagine them to be unfriendly, imagine them to be friendly. People are actually good.” He also said that you have to be very good at knowing what to say no to. It can’t be yes all the time. As an optimist it was a very good piece of advice. And the second one wasn’t given directly to me, but I’ve really applied this mantra since reading Richard Branson’s book: “Ideas first, money second.” –Ruth Ganesh, Elephant Family
What has helped me the most is being an artist. I did art at university and the creative side of me has been the greatest gift I’ve been able to bring to the work that I do, because so much is presentation and getting your message across in a way that is engaging and embraced. When you have such incredible animals and stories to tell, having an artist’s training is a perfect ingredient. –Angela Sheldrick, Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
Clockwise Second caption, from top right: Stephanie Dolrenry of Lion Guardians; a wild mustang protected by AWHC; Laurie Marker of CCF.
What’s your secret to getting your voice heard, especially in a male-dominated field like conservation?
If you believe in what you have to say and speak your truth, you will not have a problem being heard. –Lisa Hywood, Tikki Hywood Foundation
Most importantly: don’t be too precious, don’t take yourself too seriously and don’t get offended easily. I am a doer and not a talker. Let your actions speak for themselves rather than talk a lot about your work. Show through your actions who you are and what you stand for. –Stephanie Fennessy
I think having your voice heard is less about gender roles and more about making a case for the safeguarding of non-human life. Humans don’t always find it easy to honor, or even make the necessary space for, our fellow creatures. Making that case requires a community of voices—policymakers, scientists, managers, rangers, donors, media, industry and concerned citizens all need to rise together! Without our united voice, the voiceless have no chance at all. –Karen Eckert, Widecast
Persistence, empathy, courage, strength, resilience all with a very healthy dose of humor. –Stephanie Dolrenry
Speak the truth, communicate clearly, and don’t back down in delivering your message. –Suzanne Roy
Just knowing I’ve had incredible support and love, probably founded on the fact that my mother was a force of nature. She was comfortable in who she was in her feminine way, in her dresses and mud baths. Just being real and who she was was enough, and for me too. –Angela Sheldrick
A huge part of it has been by using art and color and creativity to make people smile. Bigger ideas and self assurance that you’ll make things work. –Ruth Ganesh
How do you deal with setbacks or other obstacles to progress?
There is a mountain of heartbreak in conservation. Each animal is precious, but I understand that in what we do it is two steps forward and 10 back, but as long as there is hope, there is a chance and I will take that. –Lisa Hywood
Focus on your achievements, not setbacks, always have a plan and stay in the game. –Suzanne Roy
Conservation is the work of the angels; it’s not for the faint of heart. The setbacks and obstacles are legion, and when you solve one, the next one is already on your doorstep! For the most part I deal with setbacks by keeping my eye on the ball. What’s the end game? What are we really trying to accomplish? Second, I always take time to celebrate the little successes along the way. Success breeds success, and if you shout success from the rooftops, my experience is that it will inspire more success. Third, replicate what works! Network, communicate, release ego and share everything you know. What has worked for you will likely work for others, don’t waste time reinventing the wheel. Finally, do what you can do—and do it to the very best of your ability. The person alongside you is also doing the best she can do, and so it goes forward onward. We all just have to keep working—the world depends on it. –Karen Eckert
I focus on the present and acknowledge that the past was all stepping stones, some simple and others challenging, some linear and others winding, that brought me to the positive things going on in the work and my personal life. Celebrating, remembering and honoring the accomplishments is akin to charging batteries, knowing that the power will go out sometimes, and having that store of energy keep us going through the inevitable dark times. –Liliana Madrigal
Setbacks are progress, they are learning opportunities. I use them as chances to reflect and adjust. –Stephanie Dolrenry
Some days are just very frustrating and it is easy to become disillusioned, but there are so many positive things happening in the world—you just have to take the time to look for them. –Stephanie Fennessy
“I focus on the present and acknowledge that the past was all stepping stones”
— Liliana Madrigal, ACT
Given that your work is your life and your life is your work, how do you stay happy, balanced and healthy?
Laughter… laugh often and loudly. Sing and dance. Try not to worry what others think. Know yourself and believe in yourself. –Stephanie Dolrenry
I have learned to ask for help—something that doesn’t come naturally to me. –Stephanie Fennessy
Take time each day to re-energize by enjoying the beauty of nature. For me, getting outside, birdwatching, spending time with my animals and appreciating the beauty of where I live gives me energy. –Suzanne Roy
I’m lucky—I’m living close to nature, I’m breathing exquisite air, I’m watching life form every day. I have my tonic around me every single day. –Angela Sheldrick
Above all, I try to remember all the blessings every morning and every night. I am also hyperactive so I need to move constantly. I eat very simple, healthy meals in keeping with my Costa Rican roots. I exercise every day (yoga in the morning, I walk with my dog Grover to work, I go to the gym, garden, listen to all kinds of music and I dance even if it’s by myself in the house). I also love silly jokes, New Yorker cartoons, and sharing a good bottle of wine with my family and friends. –Liliana Madrigal
I’ve always been at war with this idea of balance. It’s very difficult. If you want to get something done, you can’t expect balance. If you’re really trying to bend the world to your will, forget about it. Accept that you’re not going to have balance if you really want to be happy. –Ruth Ganesh
Clockwise from top right: A pangolin rehabbed by THF; a sea turtle protected by Widecast; Ruth Ganesh of Elephant Family.
It has been said, “Empowering women changes the world.” Have you found this to be true?
The more mature ACT becomes and the older I get, I find that working with women as leaders is not only important for all the reasons we know, but also that the outcomes are much more impactful, long lasting, and rewarding. Their primary motivations are their families, communities and in general, women are concerned about social justice issues, children, food security, etc. –Liliana Madrigal
Yes, if we are given the platforms and confidence to be true ourselves. We have the abilities to love and care for children, men, each other and the world around us, even in the most difficult of situations. When you empower a woman, she usually turns around and empowers all those near to her (her children, family, community). –Stephanie Dolrenry
I think that women are literally the key to saving the world. Look at the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, and her compassionate and excellent leadership on human rights and climate change. Or Greta Thunberg, whose wakeup call to the world is actually being heard. Unfortunately, there are still serious challenges to the full empowerment of women in leadership. We haven’t yet broken through the patriarchy that perpetuates war, human and animal suffering and climate destruction, but we are making progress. Thank goodness there are powerful women who have a vision and plan and keep moving forward toward that goal! –Suzanne Roy
The data clearly show that educating women, giving more financial autonomy to women, and making the world safer for women solves a myriad of problems. That said, in the field of conservation, I believe that we must empower everyone. –Karen Eckert
For me it is about what the person brings to the table regardless of gender, race or religion. –Lisa Hywood
Absolutely, this is particularly true in the African context. African women are the powerhouses of this continent. They do most of the work and make a lot of domestic and community decisions, even if that is not always obvious. And strong women raise good sons—their influence on the next generation is huge. –Stephanie Fennessy
Do you have a personal mantra?
Breathe –Lisa Hywood
Persist! Recognize that some of the issues that we work on have a 20 to 25-year arc from the time they’re brought to public attention to the point when changes in public attitudes and behavior leads to real change. –Suzanne Roy
Give to receive and receive to give back—it’s about reciprocity. –Liliana Madrigal
The journey is comprised of one step at time. Live in the moment but have a general direction, values, etc for your safari of life. I often say “cross that bridge when you get there.” –Stephanie Dolrenry
Grab life by the ossicones. –Stephanie Fennessy