Olympic medallist and MBE, Crista Cullen went from scoring goals for gold on the hockey field to applying conviction to conservation.
Realising that success is made from creating a winning team culture, she built The Tofauti Foundation drawing on her passion and willingness to help her african roots with the ethos, ‘Using Education as a vehicle to benefit Communities and Wildlife in Africa.
Ahead of the Tofauti Foundation Ball on the 19th September, we sit down with Crista to talk resilience, life lessons and teamwork both in her sporting life and at the Tofauti Foundation.
1. What led you to start the Tofauti Foundation?
The reason Tofauti all started was to make a ‘difference’ – that is what the term Tofauti means in my native tongue of Swahili – it was about knowing how to be a part of a team and trying to recreate that in a new environment that could take me into my other passion of Conservation. I was fed up of talking about helping, and just wanted to do it.
2. How do you build resilience, both as in your athletic career and with local communities in Africa?
It is a journey, like most things are, it is a partnership and a buy in, all fundamentally built around Trust. When you take the field on one of the biggest games of your life, you have to believe that tactically and technically you have the game that can beat the opposition. It is no different in Africa, you have to build up the trust between yourself and your partners on the ground that work with the communities so that they are supported and nurtured, but also know when to step back and allow them to flourish.
3. One of the pillars of Tofauti is to empower local communities: what are the tools you equip people with?
There is not one solution that fits all, we are only as good as our last project. We will learn as we go, and we do not boast to have the solutions. What we are willing to offer is time and more importantly effort, people deserve at least that. It is about understanding, of culture/heritage and the dynamic of the problems holistically. If we want people to change, we have to nurture that change, this is not an overnight solution, this is a longer-term vision, with individuals that I hope will then take the reins of their communities and led them all to a better existence.
4. What is the meaning of life?
I am no specialist, but I think our meaning for existence is to leave this place better than we found it. We all are capable in whatever way we can to do a little bit more. I am by no means perfect, trust me, but I do believe that we have a purpose – to make an impact in whatever it is that makes us passionate.
5. Who or what is your greatest love?
My greatest love is helping people/animals, when you believe in what you are doing and know that it will yield results, the achievement is euphoric. It makes you crave more, the smiles, or the freedom (for the animals) makes all the struggles worth it. I mean this from helping build cultures/leadership in businesses here in London, to making inroads back home in Africa on Tofauti projects.
“Africa relies too heavily on donor funding, so let us help them through education and personal support not necessarily always financial, this will leave a better longer lasting solution based ethos, rather than dependence.”
6. What are your tips to achieve teamwork, both in sport and at work?
Investing time in your people. We have to know each other at our best and at our worst, so that when there is a vital decision to make your teammates know how to support you, or challenge or in fact nurture the situation. Our hockey team knew each other implicitly, knew what to say and how to say it, we showed our vulnerabilities. This is not always the easiest thing to ask people to do in the world of work, but from the environments I have been successful in, you need to be willing to expose yourself to allow people to better understand you. Only then can you build the trust mechanism that provides your purpose.
7. Where is your happy place?
I have a few actually, but watching the sun go down in Africa, all dusty and feeling like I have achieved something. A little place called ‘poacher rock’ (not anymore) on the Galana Conservancy where I spent a lot of my childhood, nothing better than sitting there having a glass of wine watching an African sunset.
8. Which lesson has been the hardest to learn?
Failure, hands down in the hardest lesson. Along with accepting failure – not sure you always achieve this. But, in order to take on challenges albeit in sport or business, you have to accept that failure is a genuine consequence of taking the risk. Still is not always easy to just accept.
On the 19th September, Crista brings together the world of sport and conservation or the Tofauti Foundation Ball; hosted by Clare Balding OBE, an evening to come together, have fun and make a difference. Learn more and book your place at this exclusive event here.
Written by - Severine Etienne