Growing Leaders founder makes the most of her natural gift for teaching

Sallyann Della Casa is the founder of the Growing Leaders Foundation, but that’s not how she introduces herself to an audience. “That sounds flat”, she explains. “So I tell them that I wake up leaders. I develop programmes to awaken people’s potential. Immediately, ears prick up.”

According to Ms Della Casa, people will make a judgment about you in the first seven seconds so it’s important to have a mantra that’s 12 words or less and make it exciting to ensure they listen.

The 37 year-old “Dreamer-in-chief”, or “Lead Tree Shaker” as she is known to her students, is now hosting a series of sessions on presentation skills. The five 90-minute workshops, which she refers to as “brain dates” are being held in venues in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

They are just another event in Ms Della Casa’s career that has taken her from lawyer to leadership guru, setting up the Growing Leaders Foundation in 2010.

Today the company employs seven staff to train leaders in the UAE, as well as 15 more spread between the Caribbean, India, Qatar and Pakistan as well as North America, where her programme is licensed to the NGO “Kids and the Power of Work” (Kapow).

Her teaching stints so far this year include mumpreneur classes at the Impact Hub, corporate responsibility sessions for 65 global leaders at DP World, and presentation skills training for finalists at the World Youth Summit Awards in Brazil. Yet Ms Della Casa does not possess a single teaching qualification, nor a formal education in leadership or curriculum design – something she does not consider an issue.

“My gift for teaching grew out of an intense love of learning”, she explains. “I am that child who asked ‘why?’ five times, and coming from a female in a very traditional family, that was not very accepted.”

Her family, who are from Trinidad and Tobago, emigrated to Canada when she was 11 and the entrepreneur was later sent to boarding school in Switzerland.

After graduating from secondary school at 16, Ms Della Casa studied political science, Italian and French at university, later notching up a Juris Doctor in law.

At 21, she opened a law practice in Florida and spent the next nine years practicing law. “I hated every moment of it. My aunt was the first president of the senate in Trinidad and Tobago, so there were certain expectations. Being a lawyer was my way of being accepted by my family.”

By the age of 24, she had several attorneys working for her but she admits to spending most of her time volunteering as a teacher for Kapow.

“I noticed that the material wasn’t connecting to the kids and started writing my own. That’s when I first realised I had a gift for programme writing,” she recalls, adding that her ideas were later incorporated into the curriculum.

Despite these achievements, by 30, Ms Della Casa felt she was not living up to her potential. “I was this revered young lawyer, but I was on the wrong mountain. I knew I had to climb down, but I did not know which mountain to climb back up.”

She closed her law practice, returned to studying, this time in urban planning and real estate development, and later headed to Trinidad and Tobago in 2009, after a 15-year hiatus. There she began writing curricula in leadership and testing it out in communities of mostly at-risk, disadvantaged young people. “I made friends with one of the prison officers and started teaching in the youth jail,” she explains. “Everybody thought I was nuts.”

This led to launching the Growing Leaders Foundation, to take the leadership curricula she had written and roll it out on a global scale – firstly in schools in Trinidad and Tobago. Later she licensed it to NGOs and social enterprises for free and to companies for a US$4,000 annual fee. More than 20,000 children have gone through her programme in the past two years.

Then in 2012, she was approached by organisations and corporates in Abu Dhabi to train their staff.

This encouraged her to relocate to Downtown Dubai 18 months ago with her hotelier husband. She now charges a $5,000-$6,000 fee to corporates in the UAE, to cover training and licensing of her material and project management for a year.

The entrepreneur says her career journey came full circle during a trip to Trinidad and Tobago in April. Waiting at a set of traffic lights, she spotted a former jail student. “I opened my car door and came out and he hugged me. He said: ‘I have a job now and I’m saving up to buy a cooker to make popcorn to sell. I’m doing good. You should be so proud.’ It’s moments like that, that I know I am truly making a difference in the lives of others.’”

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Jessica Hill

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