It began innocently enough, with friends looking for travel advice. Two decades later, Deborah Calmeyer is leading ROAR AFRICA, the safari company that focuses on women's empowerment, community development, animal protection, and conservation. Here's her journey.
What do you do?
I am the CEO and Founder of ROAR AFRICA, a company specializing in ultra-luxe African experiences — rewilding souls and enhancing lives while saving wildlife and wild spaces. I oversee an all-African team — of which 85 percent are female — that provides the most comprehensive and discerning range of storybook experiences in thirteen countries in East and Southern Africa. Unique in the industry, our operational activities are handled in-house, providing a seamless and uncomplicated experience from the moment our clients step off the plane. We consistently create new, cultivated, and unusual offerings for our international clientele, all in service of preserving the people, animals, and environment of our fragile and extraordinary land and ensuring our vision — “If African women rise, wildlife will thrive” — is achieved.
How did you end up here?
Twenty years ago, I moved from South Africa to New York city. People would hear my accent and tell me they always dreamed of going on safari. They would inevitably ask for my help and wanted me to look at their travel itineraries. As I was organizing their trips, I started to sense the value I brought as a South African was much greater than someone who was just selling the destination. It made me one hundred times more dialed in and connected. I also came to understand how hard Americans work and saw that their vacations were extremely precious to them. It was these realizations and experiences that led me to start ROAR AFRICA. However, the business was also a solution for my dad, a retired animal scientist. I suggested he get his guiding license, and I would send him a couple of trips a year to deliver. So I went on to start this little website, which I remember cost me $2,000, and had a launch party in my New York City apartment. The first year, I did four trips. Quite a contrast to the more-than 300 trips a year that we organize now.
What's a typical day like for you?
A very early start so I can catch the remaining work hours in Africa. It’s full speed ahead until around 2 p.m. when I work out with my trainer or have a French lesson. Then it’s talking with clients, dreaming, planning, imagining…sharing my in-depth knowledge of how to create the perfect African experience for each traveler. Sometimes it’s working with photographers or planning content creation and filming; other times its arranging fundraising trips with WildAid or women's empowerment work. I spend a lot of time working with the media as well on messaging about what responsible travel really is, and why travel to Africa is so important and how life-changing it is for people.
Everyone should have meaningful interaction with animals as often as possible. To spend time in nature and appreciate the immense beauty of the wild would give a better understanding that we are all connected and part of it, not apart from it. So we must protect it.
Prominent in your messaging is the idea that “if African women rise, wildlife with thrive.” How so?
While it was always our purpose to have a positive impact on conservation and communities throughout Africa, over time this mission has fine-tuned itself even more. I have always believed that as women, hospitality is in our DNA. But this doesn’t mean that opportunities for women in the safari industry should be limited to back-of-house roles and reservations. ROAR AFRICA’s female-centric approach is a new model for the African luxury travel sector. Most of our highly proactive operations and sales staff are women, and we contribute time and resources to women’s empowerment as well as conservation. We have pioneered the womens empowerment movement in the safari industry by shifting the narrative and using the power of perception. I created and launched our inaugural Women’s Empowerment Retreat in 2019, which now runs annually and is proven to be the biggest change agent for women in the industry. Finally, lodges are now hiring women in lead roles as general managers, rangers, trackers, pilots, and even anti poachers (Kenya, South Africa, and Zimbabwe have all-female anti-poaching units). Many women are finding new career paths that don’t end in the kitchen because we have shattered the western and tribal glass ceilings for them by demonstrating on these retreats that all the roles can be fulfilled by women. And showing this not only to the women but also to the men that work in the industry.
Tell us more the Women’s Empowerment Retreat.
Designed as an inspiring learning journey of self-discovery and realization, ROAR AFRICA’s annual Women’s Empowerment Retreats celebrate pioneering female change agents shattering western and tribal glass ceilings, both in the male-dominated safari industry and beyond. Guest speakers include African women as well as global female thought leaders who share their success stories and careers in traditionally male-dominated arenas such as conservation, aviation, hospitality, and various commercial industries. A version of TED WOMEN on a luxury safari experience amidst the incredible expanse of the wild enhances this extraordinary adventure which fosters personal growth and wildlife conservation. Our next retreat takes place in Rwanda in February 2022.
How do you ensure that all your trips have a positive impact on the community?
Our commitment is to ensure that all travel is 100 percent offset and supports initiatives that make a positive social, economic and environmental impact in Africa. We only work with people and properties who share our vision of sustainable travel and whose ethics echo our own. The power of our partnerships with local communities and on-the-ground organizations lies in our combined creative output — one that seeks to deliver health, housing, employment, and the skills requisite for conservation and gender empowerment. We imbue every curated journey we design with a sense of humanity — an intangible, undefinable quality, but one with the power to sustain us all.
Sharing in-depth the challenges Africa faces is threaded into all our trips. Americans by nature are extremely philanthropic and understand we are all interconnected. If we do not care about our environment, we are all at risk. If anything, Covid has taught us this. The kind of traveler we attract cares deeply about understanding not just where they are going to but how they can make a difference. We have had travelers financially support The Girls College of tourism, funding fifteen new students each year and supporting the tracking academy; and funding Dr. Lucy King’s Elephant and Bees project, which she shared at TEDWomen. The last Womens Empowerment trip resulted in half a million in funding for five documentaries that will be shot in Kenya. We also offer an annual scholarship and intern program for one Zimbabwean student each year at the Girls College of Tourism.
Weirdest thing seen on travels? A baboon stealing a client’s purse in Cape Town and eating all her birth control pills.
What’s a misconception people usually have about traveling in Africa and going on safari in particular?
I never knew how misguided people were about the distances from one destination to another in Africa. Most travelers to Africa have no sense of the length of time it takes to travel through Africa. I often get asked by clients if they can visit Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and South Africa in seven days. People don’t have a sense of how far apart these countries are and how long it would take to visit them all in one trip.
Safaris are typically expensive vacations, and thus not accessible to many travelers. On the one hand, the steep fees support communities and conservation. On the other hand, it would be a shame if only rich people could experience the magic of a safari. How would you address this discrepancy?
Everyone should have access to nature and wildlife. We are all part of it, not apart from it. There are varying levels that allow access for all different price points and enough tour operators who can arrange this. Even if one has to camp in a campsite and self-drive, this is all still possible. People should be encouraged and educated on how to do this. It should begin at schools with field trips.
Share a career highlight.
Flawlessly executing the trip we named The Greatest Safari on Earth last August during the pandemic. This first journey of its kind aboard Emirates’ only executive private jet debuted the most revolutionary travel product in 50 years. I am humbled and heartened by its great success and the symbol of hope it represented for all of Africa. The life-changing journey introduced a new level of travel, and it is already sold out for 2022 and 2023. I have had to add another one each year to accommodate the demand.
If you could wave a magic wand and fix one thing about your work or the world you live and work in, what would it be?
It would be to enable every single person to have meaningful interaction with animals as often as possible. To spend time in nature and appreciate the immense beauty of the wild would give a better understanding that we are all connected and part of it, not apart from it. So we must protect it.
What is most rewarding about your job?
Seeing how I empower African women and how so many people believe in themselves today in this industry. That they will follow their dreams and become pilots, rangers, trackers, conservationists … the possibilities are endless. Nothing is impossible, and if you dream big and address people’s questions, you never know what you can create.
FUN SPEED ROUND!
Favorite destination: St. Barts.
Dying to visit: Raja Ampat.
Bizarre travel rituals: Only ever take carry-on.
Always in carry-on: Bose noise-silencing headphones.
Concierge or DIY? Concierge.
See it all or take it easy? Take it easy. I like to absorb and take time to really be in a place.
Weirdest thing seen on travels: A baboon stealing a client’s purse in Cape Town and eating all her birth control pills.
Favorite childhood travel memory: Being all alone in the swimming pool at Chirundu at our holiday house in Zimbabwe when a big bull elephant came to drink from the pool.
Everywhere I go, I check out the supermarkets and pharmacies. I love studying other countries’ products.
I always bring home a candle. The scent always transports me back to the place I bought it.
I travel for the freedom.
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