Women in Business: Namasha Schelling, Executive Director, African Rainforest Conservancy

03/21/2015 09:00 am ET | Updated May 21, 2015

Namasha Schelling was born in Ifakara, Tanzania to a Swiss father and Tanzanian Mother. Namasha got her Bachelors degree in Biology at Virginia Commonwealth University and a Masters in Environmental Management at Harvard Extension. She started out as an Environmental Health Organizer at Clean Water Action, then a Project Coordinator at the Harvard School of Public Health, and is now the Executive Director of the African Rainforest Conservancy (ARC). Her career objectives have always been to pursue a long-term career in poverty reduction though sustainable development.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I am the eldest child in my family. I always had to look out for my younger sisters. This made me comfortable with making decisions that could effect others. From a young age, I knew the heavy burden of responsibility for others and it helped me learn how to influence people in support of a common goal.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position as Executive Director of the African Rainforest Conservancy?
Before I came to the African Rainforest Conservancy (ARC), I worked as the Project Coordinator for a Principal Investigator (PI) at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). The PI's ability not to micro-manage my every move, allowed me to gain the confidence I needed in my own skills. By the time, I came to the ARC, I was used to making executive decisions and taking ownership of my successes and mistakes.

What have the highlights and challenges been as Executive Director of the African Rainforest Conservancy?
The biggest highlight so far has definitely been my trip to Tanzania where I got see the work we are doing on the ground first-hand. I was so impressed by the impact we have had on the villagers living in and around the Eastern Arc Mts.

The biggest challenge so far has been getting used to being the Boss. I had no idea how much work and how stressful it is to be the final decision-maker for an entire organization. Every probIem is my problem.

Tell us about the African Rainforest Conservancy & any new initiatives that you are working on.
Founded in 1991, The African Rainforest Conservancy (ARC) works alongside its field partner, the Tanzania Forest Conservation Group (TFCG), to support a network of more than 200 villages in 6 mountain and coastal regions throughout Tanzania that are protecting 3,000 km2 of forest.

The ARC's mission is to raise funds for grassroots conservation projects and to generate awareness of the environmental, economic, cultural, and social roles of African forests. The funds raised by the ARC are critical because it is unrestricted funding, which allows the TFCG :
To retain staff who excel, even when project funding ends
To maintain a presence in sensitive areas between project cycles
To respond to opportunities and critical situations as they arise
To remain true to its mission even when these differ from current funding 'trends'
To try new approaches more experimental than large donors are ready to finance
Currently, we are working on raising funds for the Uzungwa Scarp Forest Reserves (USFR), a high biodiversity area with numerous endemic species. Unfortunately, the USFR is in crisis right now with rampant illegal logging, hunting, and wildfires. When I went to Tanzania, I met with the TFCG Project Coordinator for the USFR, Francis Fanuel, and he showed me the villages next to the reserve and all the work that still needs to be done. I was humbled by his passion for the area and his perseverance even though there currently are no funds for him to continue his work.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking to start their own business?
I see so many men starting their own businesses, and yet, all the smartest people I know are women. I think men are raised to be more comfortable with failure, to try again. The truth is you never know if something will succeed, but if you don't take a risk, nothing will happen. The advice I would give a woman starting her own business is don't be afraid to take risks and fail, failure is a part of getting to success.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I find myself maintaining a work/life balance when I wake early and go to the gym, then start work early, and get home early to eat and go to bed. But of course this rarely happens... I just try not to beat myself up too much about it and live in the moment.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
We need more women in leadership positions changing social norms and helping pass laws that protect women. I can't pick just one issue...I think the two biggest issues for women in the workplace are maternity leave and equal pay. I can't believe it is 2015 and women still earn less than a man for the same job and that all employers in the US aren't mandated to give women at least 3 months paid maternity leave.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have been blessed with many mentors in my life, who have helped me make sense of this crazy world, especially at times when I needed the direction most. It has been helpful to see through others what success can look like and how one can come back from defeat.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire all the mothers out there that make hard decisions every day in order to take care of their families. There are so many mothers, even the US, who don't have access to basic resources like healthy food, clean water, and healthcare for their families, and yet they keep on trying to survive. These are female leaders I admire...

What do you want to personally and professionally accomplish in the next year?
Professionally I would like to raise enough money at our next Artists for Africa Gala on April 22, 2015 at Tribeca Rooftop in NYC to hire 2 more staff members and in turn broaden our strategic goals.