Yolan Friedmann, EWT CEO


With all the challenges facing our country, and our environment, which ones keep you awake at night and why?

South Africa is faced with massive challenges generally and despite some of those not emanating from the environmental sector, they do spill over. So the issue of corruption means that there is less money to be spent on environmental issues and so our planet suffers; with escalating crime, our staff and colleagues are exposed to risk whilst they do their work in remote areas, or the travel, or even in their personal lives. I have seen first-hand the stress that this puts them under and the costs associated with paying for increased safety and protection. The loss of critical skills with young people emigrating also effects our sector severely and we have lost too many talented people to other countries as a result of crime in South Africa. Our future as a stable, thriving society and economy keeps me awake at night.

What unique strengths and characteristics do you believe women have, that add value to being a person of influence in the environmental sector?

By nature, women tend to be more consultative and like to work in teams. We can lead, and we can also follow, and we generally know when to do either or both. We are able and willing to ask for help and to admit when we don’t know the answers, and to show strength and leadership in finding them, together. I think that this creates a more dialogue-based approach to finding solutions, which is vital in the highly complex world of conservation. Nothing in the conservation sector can be solved with linear thinking, and one must integrate social, economic, environmental, political, cultural and ecological imperatives with science and compassion and sensitivity, and this requires continual juggling and consultation. Women tend to be better jugglers, in my opinion, and understand the need to balance shifting priorities – we tend to be able to lead from the front as well as the back. Our sector has also required massive skills and capacity development over the past years, with the need for human development being at the core of increasing environmental awareness and action. Women have thrived in this environment which is evident by the increasing number of civil society action groups caring for the earth, in almost all neighbourhoods these days, which are mostly lead by women.

Are there any women in conservation who inspire you?

They all do! Every one of them is drawn to our sector because they are passionate, want to make a difference, are willing to work long hours and sacrifice a lot personally, and care for the earth and all its inhabitants so yes, they ALL inspire me!

Do you have a female role model?

These change all the time as one learns from different people as you develop and events in your life require adaptation and growth. But I always admire my female friends that are entrepreneurs, who create jobs, who create beautiful things and change the lives of their employees and friends; who are selfless and caring and never falter; who are strong and compassionate and honest and flawed and always wonderful! They know who they are 😊

What advice would you give to young women of today?

Be willing to do anything that is required of you to make your first job really count. Don’t be stuck on what role you believe you should play and what your qualifications have prepared you to do. In today’s competitive market employers are looking for team members who are willing and able to dive in and do anything that is required and who add value to the organisation as a whole. If you add value, you will have a thriving career. Today I see too many young people asking what is in it for them, and this puts employers off. Post-COVID, we are also going to see the end of the silo employment position and the emergence of more circular, integrated roles that continually shift and form part of different teams. You must, therefore be willing to be flexible, and you must add value as a person before you can rely on your skills set alone. Other people have the same qualifications as you do so you need to offer a lot more than just your degree. In an interview, how about asking the employer what THEY need and how YOU can add value to them?

What has your time working with the EWT taught you?

Way too much to write here… I have worked in every role in the EWT – from volunteer to CEO, so every position has taught me different things. But from where I sit today I would say that I have learned to work with (and not hide) many female traits that I often used to think would work against me as a female leader in a very male-dominated sector (at the time). These traits include compassion, humility,; consultation, teamwork, the ability to lead from behind and not be ego-driven, being just as happy, if not more so, when your staff are in the limelight and get all the accolades, admitting when you are wrong, and owning up when you don’t have all the answers. I have surrounded myself with people who all know more than I do and my greatest lessons have come from working with them, listening to them, seeing things through their eyes, making them better at their jobs and serving them, and knowing that as their leader, that is my role.

Can you share a bit about what you do? What does a typical workday look like for you?

These days it’s 12 hours on a laptop, like everyone else I suppose. Under ‘normal’ conditions, I still spend a lot of time on emails and in meetings, writing documents and approving things like marketing and fundraising material, budgets, contracts etc. My role is mostly on corporate governance and strategic development, but I do get to interact with my conservation teams every day, which is good for my soul! I get into the field a few times a year, but it is never enough, but again, my role is to facilitate my staff getting to do the fieldwork as they are the experts. I come from a strong field and technical background, so I miss getting my hands dirty! I also spend a lot of time liaising with the media, our partners, stakeholders and supporters. I like to be creative, so I work closely with my fundraising and communications teams. I work closely with my Board of Trustees and am ultimately responsible for ensuring that our strategy is sound, meaningful, and implemented as planned. My role is to find the resources to get the work done, establish the partnerships that make us effective and empower the team to make the magic happen.