Sandra Vaughan
Home | Gutsy Leaders | Stories of Gutsy Leaders | Sandra Vaughan
Sandra Vaughan

East Africa Operations Coordinator, Grand Circle Corporation

As a teenager growing up in Kenya, Sandra Vaughan had one dream for a career: to become a jockey. It was a far cry from her current role as East Africa Operations Coordinator in Grand Circle Corporation's regional office in Arusha, Tanzania. How fortunate that a shocking decision by her father when she was 18 took her off the racecourse, and on course for a job that today she loves "inside, outside, and upside down."

Out of Africa …
In Kenya, Sandra's father worked as an accountant and "very famous target rifle shooter for Kenya," and her mother was a missionary and midwife. Sandra attended a boarding school set amid a 50,000-acre pineapple plantation, where "if you wanted to escape from school, there was nowhere to go," she laughs. "It was a pretty safe environment."

As a teenager, she spent every Saturday riding racehorses, and by age 16, she assumed that being a jockey was her destiny. That is, until the day she turned 18, and her father appeared at her door, and, as she puts it, "told me that 'over my dead body will you ever have a career in horses.'" Instead, unbeknownst to Sandra, he had enrolled her in a hotel management school in England. On July 1 of that year, he put her on a plane bound for the U.K., where he had not only enrolled her in school, but also found her accommodations for the first year. "He gave me a hundred pounds and told me to go on and get a job, and get a career," she recalls.

Hotel management had never even occurred to this young woman who, as a child, had loved horses and whose favorite subjects in school were biology and geography. Sandra explains, however, that her father picked that particular career because he felt that tourism was a field in which Sandra's being a "Kenyan-born national" would give her job security.

Sandra did complete the three-year course, followed by two years of training in Trust House Forte management. The day she completed that training, she went to a travel agent and booked a ticket to return to Kenya. But something unexpected happened. "At ten o'clock, I met a chef from the hotel, and at noon I canceled my ticket," she recalls. "I'm still married to him."

… And Back
That kind of instant decisiveness would eventually bring Sandra back to Africa, but not before spending 18 years in England in the career her father had chosen for her. Within the hotel management industry, she did everything from managing conferences and four- and five-star hotel banquets to serving as a food and beverage manager in high-class restaurants. "I covered it all," she says.

Then, seven years ago, her sister got married in Tanzania, and Sandra and her husband went to Africa to attend the wedding. Two days after returning to England, they put their house on the market. Sixteen weeks later, they flew back to Tanzania for good. "Everyone says I'm just like Nike," Sandra laughs, "because when I want to do something, I just do it!"

Sandra became acquainted with Emily Newman, Grand Circle Corporation's East Africa Area Manager, soon after arriving in Tanzania. Emily immediately saw that Sandra had value to offer the company, and, beginning in November 2010, she came into the bookshop Sandra was then managing part-time, encouraging Sandra to leave the bookshop and come to work with her. In January 2011, Sandra finally asked Emily what the job entailed. "She told me about [Grand Circle] Foundation," Sandra says. "She thought I'd be the perfect person to back her up in Africa with Foundation work." Sandra started the job on March 1 of that year.

No Ordinary Job
In her role as East Africa Operations Coordinator, Sandra certainly has plenty to keep her busy. About 40% of her job involves managing OAT's three tented camps in the Serengeti. Another 10% of her job entails "backing Emily up in as many ways as possible," she says.

But fully half her job relates to Grand Circle Foundation and includes such duties as project management, working with travelers who are inspired to donate, coordinating cultural immersion activities for OAT's "Day in a Life" activities, and generally, as she puts it, "looking after the dollar to make sure nothing gets frittered away but that everything gets used appropriately and properly."

How has the job worked out so far for Sandra? "It's like a glove. It fits me in every way possible. I just love it," she says. Part of her satisfaction with the job lies in the commitment of the company as a whole to the Foundation. "To dedicate a whole day to a 'Day in the Life' is mind-blowing," she says. She appreciates the cultural exchange that occurs when American travelers mingle with the people of a local village, visiting a school and experiencing local life firsthand.

Just as meaningful to Sandra is Grand Circle's commitment to encouraging villagers to keep their traditions and customs alive. "It's important that we try to protect these local customs," she says. "The Foundation is very conscious of the fact that we don't want to spoil it." As a result, Sandra reports, Grand Circle Corporation is "much loved" in Tanzania, and she often gets calls from villages vying to host visits from OAT's small groups. "They welcome us with open arms," she says.

To Sandra, the travelers, too, are unlike other travelers. "Any other travelers just come for the wildlife or the beach, not the cultural interaction" she says, "but OAT travelers really, really want to come for the learning." In fact, when she asks OAT travelers at the end of their safari adventure what they enjoyed most, many put people and culture first, wildlife second.

Playing the Devil's Advocate with Donors
Many of these travelers are inspired to give back on their own, and for them, Sandra is the person "on the ground" in Tanzania who makes those dreams a reality. "I try to be devil's advocate," she says. "I give them the good, the bad, and the ugly about what will work or what won't work."

For the past two years, for example, Sandra has been instrumental in the Pets Providing Pedals project of Naomi and Mark Hughes of Hamilton, Virginia. In this annual project, the Hughes raise money to buy bicycles for schoolchildren who otherwise would have to perform the roundtrip to school on foot, in addition to doing chores their families need to survive. For three years, the Hughes provided bicycles for children and teachers at the schools in Karatu, Tanzania.

This year, however, Sandra had a different idea. In all, 250 bicycles were to be given away, and Sandra thought that a donation of some of the bikes to a newer Foundation partner, the Tarangire Primary School on the outskirts of Tarangire National Park, would be beneficial to the Maasai children attending school there. Tarangire is 62 miles away from the Karatu, where the bikes were being presented, so the 100 Maasai children who would receive them had to travel by bus to attend the presentation ceremony.

"It was the biggest eye-opener the Foundation has seen this year," Sandra marvels. Many of the Maasai children "probably had never been on a bus, probably had never been farther than a kilometer down the road, and here we are saying, 'Just hop on the bus, go a hundred kilometers down the road, and you'll get a bicycle,'" Sandra says. "I can never put into words how much we accomplished by involving another community."

Hatching "The Chicken Project"
Perhaps even dearer to Sandra's heart is something she calls "The Chicken Project." To Sandra, the most rewarding projects are those that help a school become self-sustaining. School funding is usually not adequate in Tanzania (Sandra cites one school that received $20 in January as its entire budget for the year), so finding ways to raise money is essential.

With that in mind, on February 27, the Foundation purchased 200 hens for the Bashay Primary School in Karatu, built a henhouse and chicken coop, and provided vaccinations, veterinary care, and chicken feed—all with "100% support of the school," Sandra declares. In another month, the hens will begin laying, and after a total of six months, they will produce an anticipated 160 to 170 eggs a day, which the school can then sell to the local lodges and hotels in Karatu. Sandra estimates that this activity will earn the school a much-needed $500 to $700 a month. "The kids get a lot of enjoyment out of looking after the chickens," she says. "And they also see them as a Visa card. They don't have to end up in a pot."

It is Sandra's dream that the Foundation will "put the Chicken Project everywhere we go," she says. "I want to put the chicken recipe in all the schools, to empower them to earn." Her other dream is to give all schools the tools they need to enable children to "go forth and excel"—including such basics as pencils, chalk, and "a book in every child's hand."

Confidence Regained
The chance to work at her unexpected dream job is only one of the things that made Sandra and her husband's impulsive decision to move to Africa so fundamentally wise. For example, Sandra has returned to horseback riding—something she never did during her years in England.

Living in Arusha also gives Sandra, her husband, and their two daughters (ages 14 and eleven) the chance to get out into the wilderness, "which is why we came back to Africa," she points out.

Perhaps most importantly, in Africa, Sandra has been able to regain something she had lost in the U.K.: her self-esteem. "I had a difficult job in England. I was bullied and victimized in the workplace and lost all my self-confidence," she reveals. In her current job, however, "I've gained a huge amount of confidence," she says. "Suddenly I can lead and enjoy what I do. I have no trouble talking to travelers and communities, no trouble traveling on my own—something I would never have been able to do."

According to Sandra, it all comes down to one thing: "Wherever you are, if you truly want something, you'll be able to achieve it."

Featured in our June 2012 E-Newsletter. Read the full issue here.