Thomson Co-founder Judi Wineland on Women’s Empowerment

Written by Thomson Safaris

 Thomson Co-Founder Judi Wineland with a group of Maasai women and children in Tanzania.

When Judi Wineland started her career in travel, the odds weren’t exactly in her favor. While there was a small surge of female entrepreneurship in the U.S. during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the field of adventure travel was still largely uncharted and completely male-dominated. She knew that starting a company would be a challenge – one that she boldly accepted.

She founded Overseas Adventure Travel in 1978 before shifting her focus to Tanzania. By the time she founded Thomson Safaris with now-husband Rick Thomson, it was 1981, and she’d already established herself as a gifted entrepreneur.

“Barely any women were starting businesses back then,” Wineland recalled. “The idea that I was going to not only start an adventure travel company, but invest in Tanzania – a country that few Americans were traveling to in 1981 – was hard for people to wrap their heads around.”

judi wineland in ngorongoro crater tanzania in 1981Wineland in the Ngorongoro Crater sitting atop the original safari vehicle used in 1981.

Still, Wineland pushed ahead with her vision, working with Thomson to start Thomson Safaris, Ltd, the Arusha-based operations and Thomson Safaris, their Boston-based headquarters. Since then, Tanzania has become a world-renowned destination for safaris, with its unrivaled wildlife populations and rich cultural tapestry that continues to fascinate visitors. Thomson Safaris was a success; a win that all women in business could celebrate.

thomson safaris landrovers in tanzania35 years later, guests peek out the top of the new and improved Land Rover, the custom luxury vehicle used by Thomson today. 

But while gender barriers were being challenged in the U.S., women in Tanzania remained woefully undereducated and overlooked in the job market. In response to this, Wineland made it a point to work with Thomson to hire and train women in Tanzania – and the effort paid off. Today, the majority of upper management positions in the Arusha office are held by women, including Camping Division Manager Rose Ngilisho, who has been an integral part of the team.

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Camping Division Manager Rose gives a tour of the Thomson Nyumba Camps.

In addition to supporting equal hiring efforts, in 1996 Wineland and several past Thomson travelers started Focus on Tanzanian Communities (FoTZC), a non-profit organization that supports a number of community-requested projects, including female entrepreneurship training. Multiple small businesses, including a maize-grinding service and several beading/crafts cooperatives, are now thriving.

maasai women learning business fundamentalsA skilled instructor leading entrepreneurship business training for a group of women.

Furthermore, a new Community Conservation Bank (COCOBA) project has taken off, which blends micro-finance with environmentally friendly income-generating activities, like bee-keeping or raising chickens. Women invest in their own success, learning sustainable practices and providing services that will be consumed by local communities as well as the tourist industry.

maasai woman in beading workshopA Maasai woman participating in a beading seminar, a part of the COCOBA project to support female entrepreneurship.

There’s still a great deal that needs to be done to help empower Tanzanian women, and Wineland remains dedicated to the cause.

“The country has given me and Rick so much, from the very first time we visited all the way through to the present,” said Wineland. “I hope to continue to give back some small fraction of that.”

judi wineland and rick thomson in tanzaniaThomson and Wineland at a Thomson Nyumba Camp during a recent visit to Tanzania.