By Nasser Khan for the Trinidad Guardian
Dreamer in chief and lead tree shaker, The Growing Leaders Foundation (GLF) is the manner in which she signs her correspondences. Sallyann Della Casa (nee Sawh) is the wearer of many hats in a world that she is determined to change, starting with the young citizens here in T&T and further afield in Dubai, where she maintains a second base due to her husband’s work commitments.
GLF writes and mobilises leadership programmes into school curriculums for students and teachers globally. The foundation’s publication Lead Up (http://leadupmagazine.com) is the only youth-based leadership publication in the market today. Della Casa describes herself as being “imperfect in every way,” but each misstep gets her closer to the perfect step.
According to Della Casa, “No child can ever be a failure. Failure often is a much needed detour or a delay to warn us that we were probably going down the wrong road in the first place; it gives us the opportunity to begin again—just more intelligently this time. Failure seems to be the best way to find our courage and bring forth the greatness within us. And failure, if we look closely, is an event, never a person.”
Q:Where were you born and where did you grow up?
A:I was born in T&T in the 70s (do not ask an exact date because for the record I will be 35 for the next ten years). My parents had a business in El Socorro and most of my very childhood was spent being around them and their business. I attended St Lucia’s Private Primary School, had a brief stint at Curepe Presbyterian under Mr Oudit in Standard Five after I wrote Common Entrance, since my parents thought I was not going to pass. I did end up passing for St Augustine Girls…and everyone exhaled. I did one year there, and then I left T&T for boarding school abroad.
Interesting surname, what is its background?
Della Casa means “of the house.” My husband is Italian. We met for 20 minutes some 16 years ago, during his airport layover in Miami. After 20 minutes, I knew I would marry him. For eight months he flew to Miami every weekend to take me on dates, and on my birthday eight months later we got married in Maui. I got the fairytale as they say.
What schools/institutions did you attend?
I am blessed really to not only have experienced T&T schools, but I also went to Bishop Strachan in Canada, University of Toronto, Franklin College in Switzerland, Lynn University in Boca Raton, University of Miami and St Thomas School of Law, Florida. I became a lawyer at 21 and really excelled in the school environment. Who would have thought, after all I was sent for Mr Oudit to be straightened up if I had failed common entrance. And here I am today, with the foundation in school environment every day teaching young people how to dream bigger and say it out loud. Funny how life works out.
Who are the people who influenced and inspired you the most, in your career and in life in general?
In my early childhood, it was my aunt Linda Baboolal. She was a first for so many things in T&T for women and went to medical school with five kids at home under ten years of age (which I only learned in the last few years). My uncle Wayne, too, was like a hero to me, exerting a calming influence. Other than that, for me it has been books mainly. In no way is this to offend anyone or my parents who have all impacted me, but I was always a “brain misfit,” and the “very traditional” adults around me in Trinidad had no clue “what to do” with the things that I would say as a child. Even then, I would announce big plans (that seem impossible) and then go jump off the cliff to go get it. This did not go over well with adults who simply wanted their child to fit in. So yes, books have always been there for me. Even my foundation’s name came from a Robin Sharma book, where he talked about the countries that would take over this world order will be the ones who grew leaders faster than others…sirens went off in my head.
What advice would you give to the young people of Trinidad and Tobago?
Be curious about everything. Travel to as many different places as possible. Only believe what you see with your own eyes. Life gives us all a second chance called tomorrow, so keep moving. Trust your own intuition above everything. Smile at strangers for no reason, just to say “I see you.” Kindness wins every time. Be fearless and the universe conspires and helps you. Those of us destined for greatness get the biggest challenges always. Have faith and believe in miracles…should I continue?
When and how did you get into what you are doing now, and what was your inspiration to start the foundation? When was it started? Where is it based?
I had a crisis when I turned 30. For five years straight, leading up to it, I would write every January 1 in my journal: “I am not living up to my potential…” But the thing is I was not sure what to do about it. And then life happened, and it forced me to find my purpose. I went back to school to do my Masters in Real Estate Development and Urban Planning, an area I did not even know I had an interest in and loved it. During that time, I was also reading like crazy and doing so much introspection. At some point it dawned on me that for my entire legal career, since 2003 I was always out teaching and volunteering for a programme called Kids and the Power of Work. In fact I was redesigning their curriculums, opening up new educational alliances for them etc. In a very indirect way, I had been practicing all along to do my foundation’s work, and I did not even know it. I started the foundation in 2010 after my dad passed away, and I did it in Trinidad in many ways as a continuation of his and my mom’s commitment to community.
What is your schedule like for the near future, or the next year? What are your plans for the future?
I plan six months at a time. And it is this simple measure I use, “I am not growing if the upcoming six months looks like the last six months.” This is not only in activities and things but also people. And you can imagine how I drive my foundation staffers mad with my constant “tree shaking,” since most folks like things to “remain the same.” We have taken the foundation into Barbados. Our impact numbers increased tenfold, reaching over 13,000 Caribbean youths. We are introducing social enterprise as a third way to the T&T arts, business, education and food community through four events we are having December 1-7: The social enterprise Hive we are hosting is inspired by Dubai Social Enterprise week which happened in February this year. We are calling it a “HIVE” because like a bee hive the most important task that benefits both nature and humans is to pollinate. Successful pollination depends more upon the strength of a colony than the number of adult bees within it. Our pollinators aka panelists are social entrepreneurs who will share their expertise and address over the course of four events the issues they have faced in areas of art—at Medulla Gallery, today at 6:30 pm; business—at the Lok Jack Business School, tomorrow at 6:30 pm; education—at Woodford Square, Tuesday at 3:30 pm; food security—at Upmarket/Woodbrook, Saturday at 6:30 pm.
Then in February I head out to the Middle East for six months. The largest school system in the world—GEMS—just green lighted us to go into their Asian schools (they have over 10 million students globally), the National Bank of Abu Dhabi just approved our programmes to be part of their 2014 corporate social responsibility roll out, not only in Dubai but across the Middle East region. Our University Leadership Field Study programme is about to take off since our first beta at the Abu Dhabi University in May this year was extremely successful. I have begun licencing my programmes to other training companies globally in order to scale up faster. Our programmes are now part of the Dubai Chamber of Commerce etc. So the next six months, I will not be in the Gulf of Paria region but on the other Gulf coast.
What goals and/or ambitions do you still have?
The list gets longer every year. Without a doubt, I want Growing Leaders programmes to be impacting globally, like yesterday. In fact when I go back to Dubai in February I plan to start conquering Africa, India etc. I want to develop an animated series of our leadership lessons so every child can access it from anywhere. I need to finish my book “Am I a Leader” and get it published. I wish to sit and have a real pow wow with the two Bills…Clinton and Gates. Also Branson and Oprah. I would like to have Growing Leaders Academies all over this globe. I need to get some kind of degree in leadership at some point, since somebody might ask. I have already prepared my Nobel Prize speech just so I leave some evidence to the future children of T&T that I once existed. Shall I continue?
Who are some of the younger people who are actively involved in your crusade, if we can call it that?
The average age of folks I surround myself with gets younger and younger every year, because I surround myself with those who have not given up on their dreams. In Trinidad and Tobago there are some amazing young women who will make some bad leaders in the near future, if given the chance. Giselle Mendez of the Volunteer Centre of T&T is one to watch. Giselle Roberts, director of business Development at the TTMA is a brilliant young lady, Analiese Moonsammy of the Back Pack project is another sharp civic minded young woman, Charlotte Elias is such a tremendous support for all women, Lisa Roop, an engineer at Repsol who volunteers and coordinates for my programme etc. And then the “ladies who rock” circle in Dubai, Sheena Khan, you might know her, of the Change Initiative, Fereshteh Amary of Social Enterprise Week, Media Nocenti of C3 etc. I am truly blessed but make no mistake, in the last few years women in leadership roles in T&T have taken a huge hit. Just look around and you will see we have lots of women in powerful positions who do not see it as their duty to uplift and bring up younger women. And after getting rid of the weeds, I can truly say I have a garden full of brilliant women, younger and older, who use their hand to lift each other up. How cool is that?
Describe yourself in two (or more) words, one beginning with S, the other with D…your initials?
Sincere, Don’t mess with her!