People Connector, Cape Town, South Africa
Robyn is tough as nails (trust me I've seen this girl throw a punch and perform 20 burpees in 30 seconds). She breaks up her time between North America and Africa and has an honest, vulnerable heart that is full of wisdom. Most importantly Robyn is welcoming with her time, generous about giving kind shout outs to her friends and family and is eager to connect people. It is through her that I met another WOW Woman, Sine.
Robyn has an awesome job of raising awareness about inspiring social enterprises by identifying and reaching out to the start up organizations who are in most need of a boost from sponsorship. She is a one-woman show at work and she shines with optimism and potential - I'm glad our paths crossed!
2. Where is your hometown?
Dix Hills – Long Island, New York.
3. What is your profession/career/title/self-label/designation?
I am an NGO Director and Consultant. I am also a Global Citizen. Feminist. World-Traveller. Expatriate American. Proud resident of Cape Town, South Africa.
4. What was the journey like to get where you are (in life and career wise)? What are some accomplishments you’re most proud of?
To think of a few words to describe my journey to get where I am, I would have to say: Messy. Unpredictable. Scary. Beautiful. And ultimately: Perfect. For me.
Here’s a VERY long story short:
I grew up a happy, privileged, overachiever on Long Island and went to college at Emory University (in Atlanta, USA). I did gain a world-class education and what became my guiding passion for community building and social change. But I also gained depression, insomnia and a whole lot of weight and unhealthy habits. Thanks to my incredibly supportive family (goodness, I love you)– and a bunch of AP college credits from high school, I was able to graduate a year early.
Since I hadn’t studied abroad during my shortened college experience, and also because I didn’t know what else I’d do at 21- I decided to go on a 5-month program in Cape Town, South Africa, a place I had fallen in love with on a brief trip a few years earlier. I thought it would be a cool way to hopefully have some of the fun I’d missed out on in college and help me do the soul-searching I needed to decide my next step while feeding my wanderlust.
What’s that saying: ‘be careful what wish for’?
Almost immediately upon arriving in Cape Town, still quite broken from my dark college years, I found everything I had hoped for and things I didn’t even know to hope for. The friends and fun and love and freedom and adventure awaiting me in Cape Town - in that critical moment- not only changed my life, but saved it as well. I found a job with an amazing organization called Ikamva Labantu that has worked for over 50 years to empower thousands of people in Cape Town’s township communities. It was a volunteer opportunity, which turned into a part-time and then full-time job and officially jump-started my career in the Nonprofit world with a focus on Development and Fundraising and deepened my understanding and love of South Africa and its communities.
After over two years of living in an ultimately unsustainable but beautiful Cape Town bubble, I begrudgingly returned to New York to get my Master’s degree in Non-Profit Management. The 7 years that followed my initial return to New York made up the majority of my 20s and honestly, they have blurred together – for better or worse. During this time, I returned back to South Africa nearly every year for months at a time. I maintained relationships there that I sometimes prioritized over making new ones in New York. I had friends from South Africa visit me at home.
I got progressively better/ more senior jobs with Nonprofit organizations in New York all doing great work in South Africa and other African countries – and had some great travel opportunities to places like Zimbabwe, Rwanda, The Gambia and Zambia. I went from volunteer to intern to fellow to project coordinator to Director of Development and then Director.
My career was advancing but my life was at a standstill in other ways.
I had two homes and my heart and my head were always split in two places. Having two homes sounds like a lot but it also meant I never really had one whole home. I never really settled or committed in either. I struggled every time I came home from South Africa and every time I prepared for a trip to go back. Old demons like depression and anxiety and unhealthy habits plagued a lot of my time living alone in New York City and my beautiful, beautiful family dealt with a lot just to remain supportive of me and my continuous decisions to go back and focus my work in South Africa– even though they didn’t agree and worried about my future.
In my final job in New York, from 2015 – the end of 2017, I was the Director of the US office of Ikamva Labantu (that first organization I worked for in South Africa).
I had gotten really healthy physically and mentally. I had a lovely apartment with a big private deck in the Upper East Side (fully decorated with South African memorabilia). I was dating and really enjoying New York - finally. But something was always missing in my identity and in my life, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
And then on November, 9th 2016 Donald J. Trump was elected President of the United States of America. God, I hate writing that sentence.
Obviously, and along with the rest of the country, I was completely and totally shocked and horrified. Amidst the heartbreak and chaos of election night, I sent a text to my best friend Julia that just said “This is it, I’m done, I’m going back to South Africa” without even thinking much about it and certainly without any plans to back it up. And about 6 weeks later, I had a job offer to return to Cape Town to run an organization called 5 For Change - empowering up and coming social enterprises in South Africa. And the rest is history…
I have struggled with leaving and arriving and with leaving again, and arriving again. I have had as many problems as a person can have with my visa, which is still up in the air. I am still adjusting to living back in Cape Town and building a whole new life.
South Africa has dealt with SO many issues in the past few months. Presidential scandals, resignations and transition. Cape Town’s #DayZero water crisis, which is finally looking a bit more hopeful and manageable these days.
I say this all to explain that it has not been a fairy tale when I come back to South Africa and I still haven’t been able to fully settle just yet. Life isn’t about linear moves or black and white decisions and my journey is no exception. But…I Just cannot deny that when I am in South Africa, no matter what is going on….I am absolutely living my best life. The best life I am capable of and the one in which I am most hopeful for a beautiful future. And the fact that I fought for so hard and so long – and am still doing so – to get (back) here forces me to be more grateful, more present and more fierce every single day to manifest the life I’ve always dreamt of.
5. What did you study in school?
I did my undergraduate degree in Political Science with a Fellowship in Community Building and Social Change. Then I did my Master’s in Nonprofit Management.
6. How is your life different from what you pictured at 20?
I had so much fun with this question because I realize I could never have even pictured this life at 20. I genuinely don’t think I ever considered living outside of New York let alone America. I definitely didn’t know that I could be living this crazy life in Cape Town.
I think I probably also thought I would follow a more ‘traditional’ route as far as meeting a husband in college, getting engaged, married, buy a house near my parents and have a kid by the time I’m 30. There’s nothing wrong with that route – obviously – a lot of my best friends from high school have done exactly that and are so happy (Hi Gab and Lyss!). I realize now it was just never for me.
There is a quote from Cheryl Strayed that speaks so much to my answer to this question and probably to all women’s answers to this question:
“I’ll never know and neither will you, of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore”
The concept of those lives we didn’t choose, or the ones that didn't’ choose us being our ‘sister lives’ completely emancipated me when I was feeling stuck in a world of ‘should have, could have’. How beautiful is that???
7. What was your biggest disappointment and plan to overcome it?
I think I have been disappointed, or at least disillusioned with the impermanence of things. Just people or relationships or moments in time or certainties you have about yourself or the world that seem like they’ll never change…and then they do. Isn’t that the beautiful thing about youthful naiveté?
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had more and more experiences of seeing these ‘permanent’ things prove impermanent. The first few times it happened to me, I’ll admit it really threw me for a loop and had me questioning everything! But my plan to overcome it – and it is admittedly not a perfect plan – is to practice more gratitude and mindfulness and to put more value on the current moment than on the sentimental. The moment we’re in is so beautiful and things change for a reason – it is often such a blessing, so my plan is to go with the flow and not fight the flow.
8. Advice for other women?
Embrace the breakdowns, it’s how we get to the breakthroughs. Have as many as it takes.
Travel. A lot. And Authentically.
SELF. CARE. IS. KEY.
Don’t compare yourself to others. Especially on social media – do social media cleanses frequently, whenever you can!
Find your tribe. And love them with everything.
Be your own hero when you need rescuing. Don’t give that honor to any other person, place or thing.
Have so much fun.
9. Knowing what we know now in current political climate, can women be "all that we can be" in today's world? What is the way forward, as you see it for "feminist values"?
Absolutely we can!
And all women are so many things. Society always wants to box us into categories: success/failure, smart/naïve, strong/weak, traditional/radical, Madonna/Whore etc. But so many of us are all these things and more – on any given day.
I think it is such an exciting time to be a Feminist – and I think this moment is just getting started. But just as ‘woman’ doesn't mean just one thing, I don't think ‘Feminist’ does either. When it comes to ‘Feminist Values’ I think it is so important for us to leave space for women who make different decisions than us and to realize that those decisions aren’t any more or less feminist or right than ours. The woman who dresses modestly for personal or religious reasons and feels empowered by it and the woman who dresses in a sexy or provocative manner and feels empowered by it – those women are equally feminist and equally fierce. I think a moral judgment and a measurement of each others’ feminism tends to happen, and I think the way forward is growing past that.
Feminism isn’t real unless it is intersectional, I believe that with all my heart. That’s the one exception to the ‘no right or wrong way to be a feminist’ argument which I also believe. Being a feminist who doesn't recognize, uplift and support the lives and voices of our black, trans, disabled, immigrant, international or otherwise marginalized sisters does not work. At all.
Lastly – sex positivity. Sex-positive, intersectional feminism is my kind of feminism.
10. Where in the world do you feel “tallest” (i.e. where is your happy place)?
I definitely have two: one for each half of my identity.
One is at home on Long Island with my family and my beloved doggy Shayna. We (my parents, sister, Shayna, and then a beautiful extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins, baby cousins and close friends) are all together –likely outside by our pool having a BBQ or inside watching TV in my parents’ big bed.
The other isn’t hard to guess. It is here in Cape Town. On a very special or on an ordinary day. Staying up late at night in a courtyard talking about nonsense in Observatory with my special people; walking the Seapoint promenade by myself on a sunny afternoon; having a Friday night dinner with my friends who run DineWithKhayelitsha in someone’s home in Khayelitsha and stopping by the shebeen on the way; just here living. Cape Town frees my soul and makes me the tallest I’ve ever been. Taller than I thought I could be. It’s probably why I’ll never really leave.
11. What extra-curricular activities/hobbies are you most proud of? Why?
Definitely fitness. (I know I mentioned it a few times, but I have struggled so much since my college years with health, fitness, weight, self-esteem, all of it. I wanted to make sure to include it in my journey not only because it has been central to my own personal struggle, but because I think it is such a plague for all of us women and can be a paralyzing and life-defining, if we let it!!)
So, it wasn’t until I truly fell in love with Fitness that everything changed for me. I had been on ‘health kicks’ and diets before – but they felt more like punishments. Learning to LOVE and CRAVE workouts and the feeling of getting stronger and reaching goals and taking care of myself….has just been the biggest game changer for me.
I love to do High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) classes, crazy trendy themed boutique classes, spin, kickboxing, classes on trampolines or anti-gravity boots, athletic training etc. My MOST favorite thing to do is dance. I danced my whole life and stopped during college when I was in a dark place, and getting back into dancing has just been the biggest gift. I remember my first Zumba class when I started my fitness journey a few years ago – I wore such baggy clothes and hid myself in the back row – I was hiding even from myself in the mirror! But now, I love to go right to the front row and even trained to be a Zumba instructor.
So…not only do I genuinely love all of my crazy fitness and dance classes just because they are fun and make me feel great and help me achieve my fitness goals, I actually feel so much pride in myself for getting myself ‘there’ physically, mentally and spiritually. There were definitely days where I could never have pictured it. Pride is the best thing a woman can feel about herself and fitness does that for me every time!
PS. My FAVORITE dance classes in New York City are by Mitchell Wayne Productions. He does Beyonce Dance classes (my specialty) as well as Rihanna, Britney, Christina, Burlesque and so, so much more. My favorite workout class in Cape Town is Sweat1000.
12. What do you want to be when you grow up? Future goals/challenges?
There’s a lot I still want to accomplish professionally, personally, physically…here’s a few on my list:
I want to raise over R1million for 5 For Change beneficiaries.
I want to run the whole Seapoint Promenade without stopping.
I want to get really strong and recover totally from my back injury.
I want to start and run my own Grantmaking Foundation in my family/grandparents’ name.
I want to become a South African Permanent Resident and Citizen. I want to be a mom. I want to own a house.
I want to get my family to come visit me in South Africa.
I want to learn Xhosa.
I want to teach my own full Zumba class.
I want to travel. Everywhere. But definitely to a safari in East Africa, to Greece and to Brazil.
13. What fears are you still hoping to overcome?
Fear of failure is a big one that I know is very common. It is one I conquer and then have to re-conquer all the time. In work, in life etc.
If you could truly overcome this one, I think you could be unstoppable.
And disappointing others! That is a fear that just came with the Matzoh Ball Soup in my close Jewish family – we just want to make everyone happy and proud at all times. I’d love to let that one go a little bit.
14. Anything you'd do differently if you had another go at life?
So this is a tough one. I truly do believe that cliché saying of “I wouldn’t change a thing because it brought me to exactly where I am today” – and I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. But yeah, with the benefit of my 30 year old hindsight, I would do a few things a little differently if I truly had another go….
I would have made the leap to officially move to South Africa earlier. I spent years and years agonizing over the decision - and going back and forth just so I didn’t have to make a decision- and I see now that it really didn’t serve me. I think it also caused pain for a lot of people in my life on both sides of the pond, so I don't regret the decision or the process, I would have just expedited it! The lesson I learned though is to follow your heart and to jump all the way in before it is comfortable – because the most worthwhile risks will never be comfortable!
15. What inspires you?
You do, Olga! Wow Woman does. Women using their creativity and passion to amplify the voices of others. So inspiring.
Women really do inspire me.
New relationships, new friendships, new knowledge and ideas that bloom out of nowhere….it is the most exciting thing and it can happen at any minute.
16. What are you hopeful about?
17. What are some ingredients to a good life?
Tribe. Truth. Travel. Treasure. Love Love Love. Also dogs and little kids. Instant positive vibes. Doing Mitzvahs / Good Deeds / Random Acts of Kindness / Giving / Philanthropy / Service!!
18. What advice would you give your 14-year-old self?
The world is big. Bigger than you realize. Get out of your bubble and find out how big!
Grandparents. Cherish and love them even more than you think you should and even more than you think you can. One day, before you are ready, they won’t be here anymore.
For the love of god: the boys you are dealing with in high school are trash and NOT worth your precious teenage time. Go learn a language instead of spending all night fighting with one of them on AOL Instant Messenger.
Fall in love with fitness as soon as you can. It will save you.
You. Are. Going. To. Be. Okay! Enjoy every minute of the ride.
19. What are you reading now? (what books do you gift most and what are your favourite reads?)
Right now I am reading Oprah Winfrey’s ‘The Wisdom of Sundays’. There is absolutely no way to overstate the extent to which Oprah has guided and changed and beautified my life.
There are so many great ones! Some that I like to gift to others, especially my badass lady friends are:
You are a Badass! By Jen Sincero, Long Walk To Freedom by Nelson Mandela, Love Warrior by Glennon Melton Doyle and all the reads by Roxane Gay.
20. Who is a WOW Woman in your world who inspires you and why? Can you nominate three women you know who perfectly fit WOW WOMAN description?
Sinesipho Njeza – from Dine With Khayelitsha J
Julia Firestone – my best friend from home, currently moving from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. She is a leadership coach for badass do-gooders and trailblazers. She is also a development and social impact specialist and consultant with focus areas including: literacy, international education and Africa.
21. Where can others find you/your work (links to websites, blogs, etc.)?