We often hear about people who do things related to what they state is their “passion”. They may volunteer at various locations or donate to worthy causes, all in the name of passionate endeavors. When we find our real passion and true calling, we feed into it so that it will grow and thrive. I have found that to be the case for many of the individuals with whom I have spoken for feature articles. One such conversation was with Corporate Athlete, Mentor, and Leadership Guru, Rhonda Vetere, the Global Technology Icon who has transformed dozens of organizations. Several months ago as part my ongoing series on the importance of travel, I had the chance to speak with Rhonda to learn of her success as a powerhouse female executive and how the work she does is beneficial to customers in the industry. She told me about the various places she has travelled and the many wonderful things that she learned while there. What caught my attention was how Rhonda made it a point to “share her heart” with the world. The sheer enthusiasm she demonstrated as she spoke about her trips to Africa, China, and India were so prominent in her voice that it was impossible not to take notice. As a runner, Rhonda has tread many miles of pavement, but no part of her trek has been more spiritually enlightening or life changing than the journey she made to Tanzania, Africa. The interactions she had with the people there touched her soul so deeply, that Rhonda decided it was imperative to travel there again. That time is now. On October 17, after only three months of intense planning, Rhonda will return to Tanzania to take part in a three day, fifty-five mile run through the Serengeti. There is more to this trip than simply running; it is to connect with Tanzanians who have become part of her family and to disconnect from the fast paced world that moves too quickly for most of us to enjoy its richness and beauty. I relished in conducting this interview because with each word Rhonda spoke, I could hear the joy and excitement associated with the giddy anticipation she has to soon land in familiar territory. There she will run as if the wind cannot catch her and sprint as though her distance is unmeasured, to again lovingly embrace those she befriended months prior.
Rachel: I know that you have taken several trips to Africa and you are going again. Tell my readers why this particular trip has been an inspiration to take.
Rhonda: This particular trip has been an inspiration to take because I was there during the May/June time frame. I evidently helped kick off this Women Empowerment event with children because I went out for a run to train for an Iron Man. Little did I know that had never happened before. They said I was the first woman to run through the Serengeti with armed guns just for recreational purposes, but I was training and I needed to do it. Literally I was coming back, I was landing, and then doing an Iron Man Race. I did that twice with armed guards; I ran two days back to back. It inspired me because of two things: not just the race, but the people that worked at the resort. Men and women, Rachel, said that they have always wanted to pick running back up and they hadn’t, but they were running with me. My first day I had one waiter run with me and three armed guards literally with guns. The second day I had about six people, so I inspired the staff; the manager let them run. I inspired them to get back into shape, literally. They have been running since I left there and I’m going to see them back in Africa, not because they’re part of the run (it’s a women’s run), but because I’m going there a day early to see them because they feel like family. We connected and I want to help them. We just embraced each other. For this trip I’m going back because of this 55 mile run through the Serengeti. Then I’ll be speaking to kids in the community on self-esteem, discipline, and wellness. They’re going to run with me for I think up to six miles, but the run is 55 miles through the Serengeti. So this trip inspired me to go back one, because I want to help others. Two, spread my heart and soul, like you mentioned before, around the world. Three, continue to give back. Four, not lose a sense of purpose, which in life I think it is very important: to not lose a sense of how you can impact others in a powerful meaningful way. You know, walk the talk and actually do it and it warms the heart to give back. Literally it’s going to be about another week. The run is very intense. It’s three days. It’s not something that you’re just doing to do it. It’s compacted, so hopefully that gives you a lot of details.
Rachel: It does! I wanted to ask when you said that the people who were in the area said that they wanted to start back running, why were they were not running previously or what made them stop running?
Rhonda: I asked the waiters that and they said that they work too much. So I was able to run during their work day, which was 6:30 in the morning. They met me for running. I said “Why haven’t you run before? You have the bodies of runners and you like to run. It is a relief!” They said, “Oh my family… I work too much…” They just couldn’t fit it in their schedules, but when they did it they realized how much they missed it.
Rachel: Did that have any impact on their health by cutting back on their running?
Rhonda: Yeah, they said they just felt worn down when I started asking them, “Why haven’t you run before? Quite frankly when you look at them, Rachel, I mean, when you see someone you know a runner’s type. I mean, they were runners! They weren’t obese people; they were runners!
Rachel: So they just did not have the time to make to do something they already loved.
Rhonda: Yeah! They could not make it priority. Now they can! We Instagram each other! I am only going out a day early so I can spend time with them at the resort and I am going to take them for a run.
Rachel: You said that you are going a day early and I would imagine that there is a considerable amount of planning that has to go into it. Walk me through how you have to plan to make something like this happen.
Rhonda: One, you have to take time off from work because it is three months later. I already have the yellow fever shots and every shot so I am very fortunate that way. I already had all of the shots before my first trip to Africa because of my work travels around the world. You have to make sure you have that yellow card for your yellow fever passport. That’s a big planning step because often people forget that card and they won’t allow you in the country. Two, keep healthy, not injure myself. Three, mentally plan for it because when you get to Africa it’s spiritual. It’s wholesome and mentally you need to be prepared for it. It’s a different way of life in a more what I call a ‘high touch life”, which I really value, with morals. You have to tell your family and friends you will be out of pocket for a week. In today’s technology world even though you can get a signal, you really want to be present in the moment so you have to prepare for that. You have to delegate your work and make sure all of your bills are paid. You have to do everything in advance. I’ve been planning for three months…it seems like a year, but yeah, it’s been three months.
Rachel: Well, since June, it’s been a little over three to four months. How do you feel you have grown since your last trip there?
Rhonda: I have grown wanting to give back more. Wanting to make a difference. Wanting to know that it’s important to make priorities like this. I made sure I didn’t cancel. I had many opportunities to cancel out of this. I have stayed on my word that I am not ever going to wander on this trip, meaning some people make plans and then say, “Oh my gosh! This is too big of a trip on top of work!” They make all these excuses. I have grown because they have kept in touch with me, Rachel, and shown what an impact I have made on their lives since my first visit.
Rachel: I can see how them staying in touch would make both sides feel like family because they did not say, “Well she came for a moment and then she left and does not think about us any longer.” By you going back, it is truly a testament of your commitment to them.
Rhonda: Yes and [I am leaving] a day early to go with them because they are not going to be on the run with me. Thank you for picking up on that!
Rachel: Let’s think about three words that you could use to describe this trip. You can even make them phrases if you would like.
Rhonda: Full contact values. Friendship. I would say friends were made out of that. Enduring. Genuine. Fun!
Rachel: All of this is because of the relationship that you have built.
Rhonda: Yeah. It’s adventuresome, too. I mean, running through the Serengeti, most people would be tacked on to that, but I’m more about the relationships. Everyone thought I was crazy because you can die from this with the animals. This is not a zoo with cages. It’s in the middle of the Serengeti!
Rachel: Is this a run that you orchestrated or is it an organized run that several people will take?
Rhonda: I think it was going to fall through. It started with the (Singita) Grumeti Fund**. It was on and off, on and off, they still won’t tell us…
Rachel: So there could be anywhere from two additional people to twenty?
Rhonda: That’s right!
Rachel: When you go, what message do you want to share with the people you are going to see in the coming weeks?
Rhonda: The community of children alone I want to speak to them about self-esteem, discipline, coming from nothing and making something out of your life, not giving up, and being motivated.
Rachel: Motivated to do what?
Rhonda: Their dreams and not giving up!
Rachel: How often do you think they get to hear someone talk about not to give up on their dreams?
Rhonda: I don’t think at all! When I visited that school, Rachel, when I was there… I don’t think this is a normal occurrence for them at all. They do not really have any female role models that have done exceptional things. So when I talk about the self-esteem piece, it gives the girls a message that they can achieve whatever they want!
Rachel: Now I am going to boldly ask this. How do you think they will perceive your message as realistic coming from a woman who is considered to be part of the majority ethnicity, as opposed to seeing someone who looks like them? There are times when students might think, “Of course she can say this because she is privileged.” How do you think your message will be accepted?
Rhonda: It’s interesting because I was not privileged growing up. I did not have everything handed to me. I’m not that type of person and that’s why I’m going to make sure it’s very grounded. That’s why I feel whole heartedly about speaking like this. I was not a silver spoon girl, let’s put it that way. I worked for everything and I will tell them that. That’s a great question, Rachel!
Rachel: I think that’s good for them to see. I have often talked with my students and even though some of my students look like me, they have said “Well, you can say this because you’ve done so well.” I have to go back and share with them that my family struggled. There was a point where my father did not work and my mother had to be the breadwinner for our family. I have done a lot to get to the point where I am so I look like a success story. It’s really important for children to see that even though this success story is standing in front of them, this success story did not start this way.
Rhonda: Yes, spot on! Spot on! I can’t wait to speak to them. I really can’t. I can’t wait to see the children.
Rachel: I know they are going to be excited!
Rhonda: I hope so! I know they will be! We will get them excited!
Rachel: When you make trips like this are you Mrs. Vetere or are you Rhonda? Talk to me about that identity.
Rhonda: RHONDA! I am Rhonda and if a child feels like he or she can’t say that and keeps saying “Ms. Vetere”, I’ll say, “Well, you can say Ms. Rhonda.” Usually it’s Rhonda. I’m the same as you. I put my pants on like you. I don’t like that formality. I think that breaks down a lot of barriers, to be honest.
Rachel: You make yourself so much more relatable by being able to do that and you’re not untouchable in that way.
Rhonda: I can’t stand when people say “Mrs. Vetere”… or “Madame” even in a restaurant or “Miss”. There’s a difference!
Rachel: Most people are trying to be polite, but they don’t even realize that most of those labels often come with a stigma related to them.
Rhonda: Yes, yes, yes! We are going to break down that stigma and barrier immediately!
Rachel: Rhonda, who do you wish you could take on this trip and why?
Rhonda: I wish I could take my mom on this trip because she taught me everything and fought for everything. That’s the reason why I can’t [take her] because she’s ill and wouldn’t make the trip. I wish I could take all my close girlfriends on this trip so they could have their eyes wide open, but it is a huge time commitment, Rachel, and it is, quite frankly, a monetary commitment as well. I would want to take everybody in the world to learn from it. That’s the short answer!
Rachel: Who is having the opportunity to go with you?
Rhonda: Well actually I had two Olympic athletes that wanted to go with me. They can’t because they qualified for the Olympic trials. Lauren knows the two other people going. Once you get into this you have to say, “Oh I have to do this and this and this….” I went Africa with my best friend a few months ago. She’s like me: OCD, buttoned up, details, planning… She planned that trip a year in advance. You have to bring someone that can travel globally and this is not a social event. This is a serious event. You could get hurt, you could get injured. The only ones I reached out to were athletes for the Olympics and they are so bummed they can’t. It’s not like I did a wide spread net and said, “Oh girl can you come?” You have to run 55 miles. Not many people can do that.
Rachel: They can’t! I am so proud of the six miles that I am able run. Fifty five miles is a major feat! I am excited because I know I can’t do 55 miles, but I get such a sense of euphoria when I run. Three years ago I couldn’t run like this, but I’ve gotten to the point where I can keep going. I do not have speed, but I can keep going for a certain distance. That makes me really proud. Every chance I get I try to get medals in honor of my mother so I can add to my collection.
Rhonda: That’s good! You should continue. It’s all about longevity, not speed.
Rachel: Let’s talk about misconceptions. There are a lot of misconceptions that people have if they have not been to a place before or they are unfamiliar with something. They tend to fall toward whatever stereotypes are most available to them. What you would you say is a misconception that Americans have about Africa in general and Tanzania specifically that you want to share to provide clarity?
Rhonda: Everyone says it’s dangerous, high crime, [with] people in the city. That couldn’t be further from the truth! I felt safe there. The people were welcoming. The smiles were warm and genuine. I did not feel threatened or unsafe at all.
Rachel: I think that for Africa in general, people will just make a blanket statement about every place there.
Rhonda: Even in Nairobi, [people warn you], “Don’t go out at night!” I didn’t feel like that at all. I’ve been in worse places. Even in the states, in Pennsylvania. I was just at an office there this week and it has the number one crime rate. I felt more unsafe there than I did in Africa or anywhere. They wouldn’t let me walk to a car without a police escort or anything. It was ridiculous.
Rachel: Alright! Let’s talk about give and take. I know that you are always giving of yourself. When you travel, for any trip, what do you leave behind as a piece of yourself that is spiritual, material or other and what would you say you return with from your trip?
Rhonda: I would say I leave a part of my heart and my energy back with whomever, and a memory because I’m all about experiences not things. I think that’s an important part of life. I leave with that because people always remember how you treat them. And then what do I take? I take the moment and the feeling with me. I guess that’s true because I’ll never forget how I felt when I met them and ran with them. I’m going back!
Rachel: Do think you will have that same sense of euphoria that you had when you first went?
Rhonda: I do because I’m going to that same resort where I met them, but where I’m running is different. So it will be a different experience, but I think it will be a deeper relationship because I think I’m going to meet some of their family that are coming to the resort. It will just be different!
Rachel: You will be able to come back with a different story to tell! What are your five favorite things about this location?
Rhonda: Oh gosh! About Africa? The Serengeti? I would say I love the genuine smiles. I always come back to that. The animals. The freedom. The FREEDOM! You don’t see buildings; it’s all nature. I think that’s wonderful. People are living in the moment. They’re not stuck on their devices. Let’s put it that way, Rachel. They truly value their relationships.
Rachel: That’s a very big thing that they’re not addicted to technology.
Rhonda: They’re not at all! I hadn’t seen one of them [using technology]. Which was hard at first because of my career and life. I think it was fascinating from a cultural, mental stimulus perspective to watch people live without any devices.
Rachel: When you think about the people who are going to end up reading the article, there are always people who needs inspiration. Maybe they did not know they were going to get the inspiration from reading this and stumbled upon the article. What do you want to tell them?
Rhonda: Take the moment to live life! How’s that! I could come up with a thousand excuses about not taking this trip, but pausing to take a moment to give back is important.
Please note: Rhonda will travel to Africa on October 17, 2018 for a three day, 55 mile run. This interview took place before that trip and speaks towards what she will experience while there. Visit https://www.sonima.com/fitness/fitness-articles/serengeti-girls-run/ to read about the exciting upcoming run that Rhonda will embark upon with other amazing women!
** To learn more about the incredible work that the Grumeti Fund is doing in Africa, visit www.singitagrumetifund.org.