Sara Stender Delaney '00 Leads Business and Nonprofit for Nourishment and Healing
Years before founding a nonprofit in Rwanda, Sara Stender Delaney '00 grew up in Vermont among a family of entrepreneurs.
"I had seen a lot of family members build small to medium-sized businesses," she recalls. "I had small businesses as a kid, and ideas of what I wanted to develop. I was a natural entrepreneur." Her childhood was also shaped by an emphasis on health, wellness, and living off the land. "I was that kid who brought whole grain homemade bread to school," she says. "That's how I was raised."
Drawn to Simmons for its Boston location and the immediate connection she felt to the learning environment, Stender Delaney worked and traveled for a year before beginning her studies as a Psychology major. "Learning about psychology is helpful for every field, but I wondered, what am I going to do with this degree? I knew I wanted to make a difference in the world. " While she appreciated the concepts she had learned, by sophomore year she was ready for a change. "I wanted to choose a major that would get me on a career path to building businesses and organizations," she says. "I learned so much as a Management major that I use in my work today. It's amazing how much knowledge I retained. I even saved a couple textbooks."
At Simmons, learning about leadership and reading The Female Advantage: Women's Ways of Leadership by Sally Helgesen (Currency, 1995) made a real impact. "It got me thinking about how we can create change in the world, how to be role models to other girls and young women, and the importance of women in leadership," she recalls. She wants to show women that "we have it in us to go out there and be what we want to be and do what we want to do. We can choose something meaningful to create a full life."
After graduation, Stender Delaney was an intern at a company focused on mergers and acquisitions. "I was excited to learn about different industries," she says. "It got me thinking about venture capital. How do companies actually grow and scale? What is the need for investment, resources, and support?" She was still thinking about how she wanted to make an impact in her career, and on the world. "A lot of companies start out with an idea to solve a big problem. It doesn't have to be a social enterprise to do that."
It took another eight years to figure out what she wanted to do. "Nutrition and environmental issues were in my mind. That's in my blood," she says, recalling this emphasis throughout her childhood. "I had to get clarity on my specific path and purpose."
Stender Delaney found that purpose when she learned about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Given her own struggles with unresolved trauma, she wondered how the people of Rwanda had managed to survive; many of them young children who had lost family members to violence. Determined to find out, she moved to Rwanda in 2009 to run Heaven, a restaurant founded by Josh and Alissa Ruxin. "Josh was a professor of Public Health at Columbia and started the Millennium Village project in Rwanda, and now owns one of the best resorts in Rwanda, called The Retreat," she adds.
"The goal [at Heaven Restaurant] was to create a hands-on training facility for orphans who had lost parents in the 1994 genocide," says Stender Delaney. The participants were given access to resources and trained in job skills for careers in hospitality. Stender Delaney learned the value of community, especially vital in response to trauma. "I ran that business for nine months, and it completely changed my life," she says. "I worked with incredible Rwandans and discovered Rwandan tea!"
Once back in the U.S., she planned to return to Rwanda with a different set of professional skills. "I realized how important it is to take responsibility for our own mental and physical health in order to show up as the best, most grounded leader possible," she says. To do this, she got to look at her own history of trauma. "This catapulted me to a new dimension of my own healing and inspired me to work with genocide survivors to offer trauma services and learn resiliency so other women could heal and go on to live their lives."
She began by founding the 501c3, Africa Healing Exchange, providing trauma healing programming, and developing the Restoring Resiliency model. "It was developed in layers," she says. "We began by providing culturally-relevant skills for trauma healing, then added entrepreneurship training and emergency relief services with our primary partners in Rwanda." She then established her business, 3 Mountains, with Sarilla — alcoholic-free sparkling teas — as the primary brand. "We incorporate service into everything we do," she says. "It's good for our sense of self-worth and good for business, and hopefully good for the people we're partnering with. People have provided help for me, and I try to pass that along whenever I can."
How did Simmons help to get her where she is, now? "We focused a lot on team building," she recalls. "In graduate school, there was a lot of teamwork expected. [When I started working] It was not new to me at all, but some of my colleagues [found it] challenging. Simmons prepared me with standard procedures, like rotating roles within the team. Those basic business skills can serve every leader, and it's something I learned at Simmons."
She also learned that the role of "leader" isn't necessarily appointed. "It's not a position or job title, it's a way of showing up in the world. To be a good leader, you need to know how to follow. You don't have to be the loudest person in the room; you can lead with kindness. Everyone has different types of leadership skills — there is no one cookie-cutter model. I have to tune into who I am at the core level as a person, and [think of] how I honor who I am as a unique individual. A lot of these seeds were planted while at Simmons, and now it's all connected."
Stender Delaney feels motivated to grow Sarilla into a billion dollar brand, to show others that it's possible. "Not a ton of women out there have built unicorns. I want to show my son, my family, and other women that you can win in any industry. It's not a stretch goal — there are food and beverages companies doing over a billion dollars in revenue. For me, it's a mindset challenge every day, to keep showing up with the mindset needed to get to the next level." While 3 Mountains isn't a charity-model, the extra profit would help her scale and expand programs that have shown to be productive on a small scale. "We have a regenerative farming program with 50 women in Rwanda, and we've helped them create their own branded product. We want to be able to expand their farm. We want to be as profitable as we can be, knowing what the money can do to help people."
For her own part, Stender Delaney uses gratitude to balance out her big goals. "If you're moving goalposts, you'll never quite arrive," she says. "I try to celebrate the wins of each day, and think of what I'm grateful for. Most of the pressure is pressure we put on ourselves."
For current and prospective Simmons students struggling with decisions about their futures, she suggests not to expect perfection. "There are no mistakes," she says. "The decision you make today is not forever. I changed jobs a lot in my first five to seven years after college." In her experience, even a decision you later regret is better than inaction. "Do something to develop a sense of self worth," she advises, "even something local, like volunteering part-time. Something that adds meaning to your day. It will give you a sense of purpose."