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Sara Nathan: “Day in and day out”

Each of us is raised in our social bubble and with varying degrees of exposure to societal challenges — issues related to social justice, inequality, poverty, the environment, climate change, and much more. It is essential for tomorrow’s leaders that they break out of their bubble at a young age to engage with these issues and have […]

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Each of us is raised in our social bubble and with varying degrees of exposure to societal challenges — issues related to social justice, inequality, poverty, the environment, climate change, and much more. It is essential for tomorrow’s leaders that they break out of their bubble at a young age to engage with these issues and have hands-on experience working and living alongside people from different backgrounds. This ensures that our future leaders gain humility, empathy, and a commitment to caring about the community around them.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Sara Nathan. Sara is the President & Chief Executive Officer of Amigos de las Américas, a nonprofit organization that empowers lifelong leaders who share responsibility for our global community. For two decades, Sara’s work has centered on building educational experiences and hands-on service opportunities for students across the Americas. Sara earned her M.S. in International Development from the London School of Economics as well as a B.S. in Conservation and Resource Studies and a B.A in Spanish and Portuguese from the University of California, Berkeley.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I grew up in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area in California. I credit the first impactful step on my career path to a neighborhood friend growing up, Derek Besenfelder. When we were in 8th grade, Derek had a fall out with his parents (as we all did from time to time) and was required to go to a youth group to make up for his actions. I was a shy, “normal” kid, while Derek knew just about everyone in high school. In any case, Derek called me to join him at the youth group. Neither of us were formal members of this group, and we just happened to attend a meeting as the group was planning their annual trip to Mexico, to the border around Tijuana. We ended up going on that trip, which was the first time I left the country. The stark contrast in wealth between the outskirts of Tijuana and San Diego or my home community ruptured my reality. This experience sparked my interest in learning Spanish and getting out into the world. Upon reflection, it is amazing how one experience with travel can have such an impact.

In high school, I joined AMIGOS for a summer living with a host family in Costa Rica. I returned with AMIGOS for five more summers in Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and Paraguay, and spent a year studying in Spain and the U.K. International experiences have been central to my path.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

2020 has certainly proven to be the most interesting and challenging year yet. COVID-19 caused a total business interruption for our organization, and in mid-March, we decided to cancel all of our international programs, which incorporate deep immersion and host family stays. This year has been about facing total disruption and pivoting to ensure survival through the pandemic. Of course, we first reduced expenses and moved to conserve cash. But we are also investing in staff to innovate and build new relevant programs that can run in this time and mobilize support from our community of donors and stakeholders to ensure we can continue. For an organization that is very attached to our interventions — the programs we have been running for 56 years — this year has been about managing disruption and fueling innovation to achieve our mission in whole new ways. This has been a start-up experience in a very precarious time.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Well, perhaps a slightly embarrassing mistake would suffice. In 2015 our organization was celebrating the 50th anniversary, and we held the first gala in quite some time. We had stopped doing evening fundraisers, and we were reinventing the wheel again. New to the Houston gala experience, I made the mistake of publicizing the event as “Black Tie Optional.” Having spent most of my life in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was not familiar with Houston’s gala scene. Some guests came in tuxedos and gowns and others in more casual attire. Many of our experienced gala goers were very frustrated. I alleviated the situation by choosing to go to the event in a gown myself. The lesson here is always to get feedback from those who have experience!

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Day in and day out, our purpose is to serve as an accelerator for youth innovators who wish to tackle the significant challenges we face. More than ever, we need to be building bridges across divided communities and cultures, both within and outside of the United States. The next generation wants to create solutions and improve our communities, at home and abroad. Our role in empowering leaders who share responsibility for their communities is critically important, today and for our future. And that, we firmly believe, is more important and needed than ever.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

While we have over 30,000 alumni, each with their own story, one particular student jumps to mind. Bryan was a Community Impact Project volunteer this summer in our virtual program. He signed on from Costa Rica and joined peers from across the U.S. and Latin America. He wanted to support his peers during the pandemic, and so, inspired and trained by his participation in AMIGOS, he founded Stand2Learn, which gives one-on-one math tutoring services and other support to students. He shared with us: “We are basically giving math tutoring to 60 students because we have been seeing a lot of academic challenges during the pandemic. And we really wanted to increase our learning-at-home skills. And that’s something we have been doing. It has been amazing, the result that we have gotten.”

AMIGOS is full of stories just like this. Volunteers find new passions, make a meaningful impact, and are even inspired to pursue lifelong careers in fields such as global health, public service, and education after their AMIGOS experiences.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Each of us is raised in our social bubble and with varying degrees of exposure to societal challenges — issues related to social justice, inequality, poverty, the environment, climate change, and much more. It is essential for tomorrow’s leaders that they break out of their bubble at a young age to engage with these issues and have hands-on experience working and living alongside people from different backgrounds. This ensures that our future leaders gain humility, empathy, and a commitment to caring about the community around them.

I ask our politicians, celebrities, business leaders, and thought leaders to make sure that real-life experiences that break down barriers are woven into our educational requirements. The three asks I have are:

  1. Build off-campus non-classroom experiential learning focused on service, cultural humility, and leadership into required school curriculum. Ensure our educators receive the training they need to support and lead these learning programs. I encounter many, many schools and programs that are doing this well. Let’s make it universal.
  2. Promote, demand, and fund programs that foster bridge-building amongst youth from diverse backgrounds to re-sew this country’s fabric. Our communities are divided. The only way we will build relationships is by bringing youth together to dialogue and address the challenges around us.
  3. Provide grants for students to participate in service and immersion programs, starting in middle and high school.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I believe that every person has endless leadership capacity that can be realized. A leader maximizes the resources they have been given and the opportunities around them, not just for themselves but for the greater community. It is showing up and putting in the time, effort, and passion for learning, re-learn and make a positive impact for others — whether it be on a work project, in your community, in your neighborhood, or for your family. Leadership can happen in any place or format. It is stepping up and outside of yourself to make or inspire a change, however big or small.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Spend a bit of time every day reaching out to supporters and stakeholders. In non-profit it is your job to meet as many people who can support the mission as possible. I had an advantage in that I joined the organization as we were launching a capital campaign. There was no choice but to meet with countless alumni and supporters. But this needs to be explicit.
  2. Work will always be there tomorrow. Take time for yourself. Take time to maintain your friendships and be with your partner or family. A job will end, but your friendships and family will be there on the other side.
  3. Seed ideas and opportunities with stakeholders and your team consistently, via meetings, communications and meetings. This helps everyone come along. Even if there is opposition, the dialogue is easier when people are informed of potentialities, and the discussions enrich the process. And, even more important, what you end up with is a much better idea than you started within the beginning.
  4. The trust and relationships you build will be everything and make or break your plans and vision. Your team is everything, and your board, stakeholders, and supporters will join you when you build a strong relationship.
  5. Never ever forget to say thank you. Countless people will go out of their way to support you and the organization. Never forget to say thank you.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

This is not a new idea, but I firmly believe that we should require every high school student or graduate to engage in community service and cultural exchange, whether here in the U.S. or abroad. Through this we will deepen our understanding of each other and instill a commitment to community. In a divided world and here in this country, I believe this is more important than ever before. The barriers between our youth along lines of race, gender, income, culture, and language, to name a few, are so many. At a young age we can bring people together in ways that transform their outlook, respect for one another, and perspective forever. I believe in a movement for national service that starts with students at the high school age, before their independent life journey begins.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Since early on in my career, my favorite saying is, “You need 100% of ideas to get the 10% that will fly.” I imagine I borrowed the concept from something else I read. I think believing this has enabled me to have confidence in creating new things or opening new doors. Of course, you hope you have a better success rate than 10%, but I think you get the idea.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Tough question!

  1. Lately I have been reading about the philanthropic work of Mackenzie Scott and her commitment to the Giving Pledge. I would love to sit down with her to share our vision and work, and hear her advice, and see if there might be some way to partner to expand programming to more students across our country.
  2. Since I joined AMIGOS in 1997, I have been a massive fan of Shakira. My admiration for her work grew 100-fold when I met with the staff at the Fundacion Pies Descalzos in Colombia (Barefoot Foundation) and visited one of the schools her foundation built in Barranquilla to serve economically disadvantaged youth. She has utilized her platform and voice for positive social impact in Colombia and throughout the Americas. I would love to sit down with her to share our vision and work, and hear her advice, and see if there might be some way to partner to expand programming to support more youth agents of change throughout the Americas.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

The best place to find me lately is on LinkedIn. If you follow me on Instagram, you will find images from my life and family, with a little work sprinkled in. On the other side of being CEO, there is you. I have not let this job take that away.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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