From Intern to CEO, fostering a strong leadership mantra and driving conservation for future generations
“Still today, when I get off a plane in Madagascar, it fills me with life and joy smelling the air. Stepping off a plane in Victoria Falls, being hit with that humidity, you can smell the wilderness and the magnificent waterfall at the same time. Driving in an open vehicle through the bush is an exceptional thrill and walking or riding within the same nature connects me to earth, my thoughts and in the end reality and what is important in life.”
- Katja Quasdorf
Travel Essence Magazine caught up with Katja Quasdorf to hear more on her professional growth in Southern Africa after migrating from Germany, and how cultural exchange, team building and commitment to conservation are integral to her success in entrepreneurship and leadership upon co-founding Hideaways Africa – a collection of bespoke properties and luxury safari experiences across Southern Africa. Passionate about the evolution of female leadership in Africa’s tourism landscape, conservation, and community impact, Katja had this to share about her journey and attachment to the continent of Africa…
1. Katja Quasdorf. We know your story, but we'd love for our readers to get a sneak peek into your early years and how they shaped your work ethic. Do share.
Yes, the story that most people get hooked on is my journey from intern to CEO in 11 years at Hideaways and Jenman African Safaris. I am originally from Germany and grew up in former East Germany. This shaped me, not so much because I actually lived under that regime but that my parents and family and grew up within that regime which moulded their way of living and their values.
As a result, I grew up overcompensating with hard work to gain acceptance and approval from family and teachers or managers. Added to that, us Germans are known for our blunt communication. Continuing my professional life in Southern Africa, I quickly realised that this single-minded approach won’t allow me to connect or build teams. I needed a fast-track cultural change and adaptation of attitude when dealing with people. I am grateful that I took this step about 10 years ago and for the people that pointed out my missteps on my journey.
2. In East Germany, what were the widely accepted views of women in the workplace, and how do you think this has sustained your transition working in Africa over the past few years?
In my family, women have always worked. Women were generally, (to a certain degree) as valuable as men in the workplace; this resulted in me believing that women get the same opportunities. Having now been exposed to more global business and the world of mentorship, I see the real struggles that women all over the world and from all ethnic backgrounds face.
I am not saying that I haven’t come up against this ‘male-wall’, however my mind never took me to a place where I thought I found myself in limiting situations due to my gender. The story in my head was that I didn’t have enough experience or didn’t work hard enough. The barriers I’d experience were as an end-result the same, however my reasoning for it was different.
3. Let's talk passion and creating an experiential brand. What drove and your business partner’s vision when you started the company? How do you believe your collective vision has evolved over the years?
Having built a tour operating business over the course of eight years, we were eager to create a brand that has more sustainable impact such as employment and creating opportunities in key areas that our guests visit and to have more influence in our guests’ experience. Essentially, we wanted to be the makers of the entire experience we create for travellers.
Hideaways’ vision is to create life-changing experiences. We believe in tourism being a driver of conservation. When we talk about life-changing experiences, we take a holistic view. We believe we have the responsibility to create change in views and opinions of travellers, by providing an unforgettable, yet educational experience and at the same time impacting their future conversations. Hideaways thrives on creating sustainable opportunities for employees and communities adjacent to our safari lodges and camps by providing employment, sustainable work through our foundation, and through collaboration. Furthermore, we focus on positive change through landscape conservation. “Creating life-changing experiences” is an apt description of travel and business choices contributing to positive change in Africa. I have the desire to influence conversation around the dinner table for our travellers, partners and employees – rethinking and improving our impact on nature and on each other.
The year of the covid pandemic has affected Hideaways as intensely as it has other tourism businesses across the world. We had a great start to 2020, hoping for it to be our best year yet and wishing to raise funds for many of our conservation and community projects through our bed night levies. Unfortunately, due to intense travel bans, this was not possible. However, our teams on the ground managed to look after our concessions and wilderness regions and we were able to welcome many local guests back as of September 2020 and hope to host many international guests in the months to come. Sharing again our passion for Africa, people and conservation and showcasing the healing experiences that Africa can be. Fundamentally we have our teams and communities to thank for their resilience and trust in Hideaways for working through this challenging year. We now find ourselves at a place of opportunity and change as we emerge from Covid. We have just expanded our lodge portfolio in Botswana and there are exciting future plans on the horizon which we hope to share with you soon.
4. What do you believe has helped you shape your leadership mantra in a people-centric industry over the years?
Someone once said to me: “I want to see myself through your eyes, because you see more of me than I do; and then I know where to go.” It is always humbling to receive honest and positive feedback about how you influence people. It helped me realise that as much as I was learning, I was also impacting people around me at the same time while I was developing my approach to leading teams.
Having to engage into a cultural shift at a very early stage in my career truly shaped how I interact today. I practise listening every day, at work and at home and believe me, it doesn’t always come naturally to me. It is one of the hardest things to focus on hearing someone out completely before allowing your mind to form a response. This has helped me realise that people are complicated, and situations are complex and that my assumptions don’t always apply. The act of listening has opened me up to relating to others and with that, mobilise others.
I used to describe myself as a ‘critical thinker’, but I am in search of a better word for this. I am not a critic, but it is important for me to illuminate ideas and situations from every angle. Listening to a diverse mindset is an integral part of that. I have learned that you can’t always come up with the perfect answer but listening carefully to people who hold different levels of experience, opinions and thoughts and also utilising tools that are available to us today, allows us to eliminate bad answers and make a better decision even though it may not be perfect.
This debating, not fearing to talk about failures and less desirable outcomes also allows me and my team to adapt or improve our decisions even after having made a call when more information comes to light. One could describe my leadership style as one of ‘consensus’ in that sense as mostly decisions are made in debate together. This also implies that outcomes are not based on my preferences but certainly on the values I hold.
5. Talk to us a little about these values? What values guide how you do life in general?
I try to be guided by courage and wholeheartedness. As an Enneagram 6 (personality test), most things I do are motivated by creating safety. In my world that plays out in such a manner that I need to make decisions and find the best solutions quickly. In my position though, tough decisions must be made often that jeopardise my immediate need for safety. This is when I call on being courageous – despite feeling the fear and anxiety I choose to do “it” anyway because there is something more important at stake; it’s choosing something that matters over being safe and secure.
I want to know that I have lived fully and that I give my whole (and open) heart to everything I do and engage with – from conservation, to my professional life, my friends, family and of course business. My team asked me the other day: “If you could claim a phrase or word for 2021, what would it be?” I responded: “Emerging with intention.” I love what I do and the impact that I can have on so many levels through conversation, guidance, thoughts, and actions.
6. Now let's switch gears a little bit and talk travel. You've spent a good chunk of your life in Africa. Why travel and why is Africa so important to you?
I believe that we have a responsibility to look after the wilderness areas that we have inherited and feel that through travel and the work that I have engaged with over the past 15 years, I have a true opportunity to influence people to question the impact they can make, not only through their travel choices but also through their lifestyle choices. It goes back to swaying the conversations around the dinner table I mentioned earlier.
Africa is important to me because it has shaped me, and I believe the continent has the ability to shape others. It’s what we can see and learn from nature, wildlife and from the people, their tribes, and cultures. There are traditions and beliefs that I know to build immense cultural and personal strength; people live in ways that have been ‘forgotten’ in other parts of our fast-paced world.
Gaining an understanding of nature and the circle of life that we can witness in wildlife-rich areas is to our personal benefit and indicates what negative impact it will have on our life if we don’t start protecting what is left. Naturally, we thrive to reconnect with nature, yet often we forget that we are nature. I believe that travel shapes you, makes your heart fuller and opens your mind to live a more engaged, wholehearted life forming a better understanding of cultures, beliefs, and ecosystems.
Still today, when I get off a plane in Madagascar, it fills me with life and joy smelling the air. Stepping off a plane in Victoria Falls, being hit with that humidity, you can smell the wilderness and the magnificent waterfall at the same time. Driving in an open vehicle through the bush is an exceptional thrill and walking or riding within the same nature connects me to earth, my thoughts and in the end reality and what is important in life.
There is not much else I can add besides: engaging with people from different backgrounds and connecting to nature in an open, real, and non-industrial space is what brings me creativity, joy, and a passion I can’t find anywhere else. As we are part of nature it doesn’t come as a surprise that many of us feel the same way when they travel to Africa for the first time and continue to return many times over.
7. How do you believe the travel industry has impacted business decisions and more importantly, propagates consciousness in global travellers?
There is part of the travel industry that has started to engage in different conversations and re-write the story of tourism in Southern Africa and East Africa from Big 5 focus to travel that focuses on experiences, learning, conversation, conservation, healing and overall being more sustainable. In the same way the word ‘luxury’ has been redefined.
Key stakeholders in certain areas have started to collaborate despite the fact they are competitors for a shared vision of conservation and community impact. The Conservation and Wildlife Fund in Hwange National Park is only one example of this. A conservation trust that focuses on protecting Hwange National Park and its borders for its wildlife and surrounding communities through raising of bed night levies from operators in the park. Communication of such initiatives is more visible now in relevant travel media, which consciously and subconsciously has started influencing decision-making of travellers and industry partners.
Safari camps are opening and refurbishing, keeping not only their carbon footprint in mind but also how they empower females and communities at the same time. Private companies have started to collaborate with and communicate to government institutions to further drive positive change on a macro level.
Especially for travel in and around Southern Africa, East Africa, and parts of West Africa the topic of how we can make sustainable business decisions that look after our planet is more visible today than ever. Initiatives are being created that are inclusive and provide guidance so that barriers of entry are lessened.
We are not there yet and there is still a long road ahead of us but today it is easier than ever before for travellers, tour operators and travel agents to choose an African experience that holds the values of conscious travelling. I have chosen to only surround myself and foster strong relationships with businesses, people and institutions that share this vision of an exciting future of tourism that drives change, inclusiveness, and opportunities.
8. Which destinations are your favourite across the continent and how has your exposure to them influenced your journey to date?
Cape Town is my home but also a place where I soak up drive and urgency to impact. There is a true sense of entrepreneurship, change, female leadership and connection of business and nature in this place. It is always evolving, and the basket of new and varied experiences is ever-growing.
Travelling for a month through Zimbabwe and seeing different corners of this beautiful and diverse country was just … wow! I had the immense luck to travel with my former colleague Thomas, who not only showed me his country through his eyes but also allowed me insight into how his life’s journey has been impacted by the country’s struggles and gave me a first-hand history and cultural lesson. Zimbabwe, after South Africa, was the country that really lit up my passion for learning and growing by listening to people and stories.
Staying with Zimbabwe, I had the opportunity to spend 12 days in Gonarezhou National Park in October 2019. I had been at a turning point in my personal life’s journey, and it was the first time in many years that I disconnected from any communication and screen for an extended period of time (if one can call 12 days that!). That part of Zimbabwe holds something so truly special that is almost too difficult for me to put into words. It is raw, wild, diverse, the Chilojo Cliffs have a truly spiritual energy. It was also here where I could witness the impact of collaboration of a national park with a network such as the Frankfurt Society. It sparked true excitement for the future of safari tourism.
And then there is Madagascar – the diversity of this country and island, its numerous tribes, languages, customs (fady’s) and traditions is something so foreign to the world I have grown up in that it truly sparks my curiosity and I love challenging my comfort zone. The mix of Asia, Africa and old influences of Europe is a true magic potion to open one's eyes, mind, and heart.
9. You're passionate about projects that foster social consciousness, wildlife conservation and environmental preservation. Do share with us a little more about your Foundation - GROW AFRICA, and the launch of PROJECT PENYA. How have they impacted you and the communities you serve, and secondly, how can our readers get involved in supporting the work you and your team are doing?
Sometimes it is truly hard to openly speak about how little of the world and people’s struggles I knew when I embarked on my professional journey. Our Foundation Grow Africa was founded already a few years ago by the business and focused on educational trips we facilitated and provided for local schools in and around Cape Town. In recent years we have expanded our collaborations, projects, and work into other countries that we operate in.
Project Penya is a project we started in 2018 in the community of Dete bordering Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. “Penya” means "shine" in the Shona language and this project's core objective is to empower entire generations of teenage girls to have a brighter future. I did not know that girls in rural areas miss up to 25 % of school due to humiliation and stigma related to menstruation simply because they do not have access to or cannot afford basics such as sanitary pads. There is a lot of shame and taboo for these girls attached to this.
We first heard about this from a safari lodge in South Africa (Dulini) and after speaking to them I asked for guidance and help to bring this project to Dete. We started off by providing girls with reusable sanitary pads and panties and have then expanded to hosting annual life skill workshops that don’t only focus on menstruation but also on leadership, communication, and growth. Early 2020 we hosted a workshop with which we enabled women from the community to sew these sanitary pads and panties which we purchase from them rather than import from South Africa.
When staying at our properties in Hwange National Park, we charge bed night levies which contribute to the Conservation & Wildlife Fund’s efforts to protect the national park and its periphery specifically through their antipoaching work. To donate towards projects such as Project Penya and others, travellers can visit our website or simply ask our consultants at the time of booking. Additionally, you will see that our teams on the ground will engage safari enthusiasts into conversations around our community work during their stay if they see interest.
10. 2020 was a year that challenged us all to rethink how we do live, work, relationships, and personal growth. What's next for Katja?
When we set our intentions and created personal and professional plans for 2020, we had no idea what this year would hold. But in 2020, having ‘no idea’, has been taken to a new level.
It was a year of heartbreak, exhaustion, hope, despair, reflection, learning, unlearning, and relearning.
We persevered and built resilience; I am grateful to my team who dedicated their valuable time and passion to not only help our guests and agents, but also our communities, rangers, lodge staff and each other to get through this year.
After 15 years at Jenman Safaris and Hideaways, I have taken the courageous leap to spread my wings and open my eyes to discover what else the world of travel, leadership and conservation holds for me. Hideaways will be led by a team of creative and dedicated minds from this place of opportunity into its next chapter while the business emerges on a path of creating conscious travel experiences.
For myself I am hoping to learn, impact and dedicate my passion, mind, time, and heart to continuing to shape the world of leadership in travel and conservation. I am excited to see and create opportunities and emerge into 2021 with intention, a strong heart, and an open mind.