Sara Safari

Climbing Everest and Empowering Women: Sara Safari Is on a Mission

If you are like almost every human who has ever lived, you haven’t climbed to the highest point on the continent of Asia: the summit of Mt. Everest. Neither has Sara Safari.

Unlike you, Safari has climbed the highest points on the other six continents. And it’s likely that sometime in the next few years, she’ll finally reach the top of Everest and thereby become the first Iranian woman ever to have summited the highest peak on each of the seven continents.

It’s not like she hasn’t tried to reach the top of Everest. The first time she tried, she was partway up the mountain – clinging to an ice axe – when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal. Great boulders of ice rocketed past her head. Other climbers were struck, and an avalanche buried part of Everest base camp. In all, twenty-two climbers died, and the adventure turned to a nightmare as she tried to escape the mountain alive. But then she made plans to try again. Before her second attempt, she broke her arm. The third time, she was getting divorced and couldn’t leave the U.S. And now this year the global pandemic has thrown off her plans yet again. “It’s like every year that I’ve been trying to go back, something happens,” she says. “I receive this gift from the universe that tells me, Okay, stop, you’re not going this year.

These setbacks don’t bother Safari, in part because her mission has become about so much more than just climbing. She has used her expeditions to raise over $200,000 for charities on each continent she has climbed in. And since the 2015 earthquake, she has become deeply involved with Empower Nepali Girls, a nonprofit organization on whose board she sits and for which she has done much fundraising.

Today Safari is hard at work doing something that might even be harder and more rewarding than climbing Everest: finishing her PhD dissertation at Antioch’s Graduate School of Leadership and Change. She is doing participatory research – “now because of the pandemic, it’s virtual participatory research” – with young women in Nepal. This project will culminate in creating a leadership workshop together with them. If she can pull it off, this will be the culmination of a dream to help young girls across the world feel empowered and ambitious in a way that she wished she had been as a child.

Childhood in Iran
Sara Safari grew up in a middle-class family in Tehran. Her father was an engineer, but they still could only afford a two-bedroom house. Safari shared a bedroom with her sister while her other two siblings had the other bedroom. “My parents had to sleep in the living room—they didn’t even have their own bedroom,” says Safari, who says that as she and her siblings became teens and “still had to share bedrooms, it was really hard.”

She excelled at school, where she was encouraged to focus on math and science. “They don’t want the students to be very creative, to think outside the box.” Her school was both rigorous and deeply religious. 

At home, the situation was not much different. Says Safari, “In my family, my extended family, we don’t have any person that is thinking outside of the comfort zone, the traditional zone. Everyone is living very traditionally, normal, straight kind of life. So I never had a role model or an example of a person who continued their education through their PhD, who worked with nonprofit organizations.” Instead, her parents told her, “If you want to be anybody in life, if you want to be useful, you either become a doctor or an engineer. That’s it. Or a lawyer.” She decided to become an engineer.

Moving to the United States
When, after high school, she and her family moved to the U.S., she enrolled in El Camino College and found that she excelled. High school in Iran had been more rigorous than the version attended by her American peers, such that despite learning English on the fly, she got straight A’s in basically every class. “Even though I didn’t know any English,” she says, “Everything was so easy that I didn’t even need to know how to speak English to be able to do well in all those classes. Except writing. My writing sucked.”

Adapting to life in the U.S. was not always comfortable. “Everything was a huge shock,” she says. “Going to the grocery store and seeing 100 types of cheese, I was like, ‘How can I choose? I have no idea.’ I hated it at the beginning. I had to spend an hour trying to find one cheese. Can’t you just give me one option?” Even more dramatic was getting used to seeing public displays of affection. “Watching people kissing was the weirdest thing. In the street, people kissing! I was shocked.”

At the same time, she recognized that there were much greater opportunities available to her in the U.S. than there had been in Iran. She threw herself into her schoolwork, transferred to UCLA, and eventually graduated with a master’s degree in Electrical Engineering.

Working as an Engineer
Out of school, she found a job as a systems engineer at Raytheon. It was an important job, and it made her feel appreciated. When she was offered the job, she didn’t negotiate her pay. She explains, “I was so excited that somebody was giving me a job because it’s so hard for women in Iran to get a job. And the fact that somebody’s actually giving me a job, the fact that somebody’s actually respecting me and counting me in, and I’m not invisible anymore, and that somebody is valuing my knowledge—I was like, ‘Whatever.’” She felt that she needed to be grateful just to be hired. “I was so scared. I was like, What if I ask for more money and they say, ‘No,’ and I don’t have a job.

The job allowed her to imagine that soon she would accomplish the immigrant dream that she could “get a big paycheck and get to the house and the car that I always wanted.” At the same time, she started to realize that there was other work she might rather be doing. She imagined “escap[ing] down and hav[ing] a smaller place and a smaller car but higher quality of life, being happier.”

Her hand was forced when one day, in the course of a casual conversation, a male coworker doing the same job as her revealed that he was being paid fully 30% more than her. “So my income was two-thirds of his,” says Safari. Her reaction was to ask “How is this even possible? Are you joking?” But he wasn’t joking. He had negotiated a pay scale vastly higher than hers.

It was the last straw for Safari, who decided that she had to leave her job. “It was hard,” she says. “It was really hard, because I had to change a lot of things in my life. But I was happy because I felt like I’m not a slave of the system anymore.”

The Seminar
Safari had taken a seminar her final semester at UCLA that stuck with her all the time she worked as an engineer. “In this seminar they talked about interpersonal communication and leadership skills,” explains Safari. “They started talking psychology, relationships, past relationships, why we do things the way we do things, how things are coming from our past. All that.”

The seminar opened her eyes to “this whole huge part of life and human beings and relationships that I never ever explored… I was always in the dark, I had no idea why things were happening the way they were happening. I just thought, ‘I don’t know, I don’t understand it. I’m just going to stick with my work, get good grades, graduate, get a good job, and then get a car, and then get a house, and then get married and have two children, and then I’ll be done. That’s it.’ That was the whole life that I pictured. And I just thought that if anybody does that then it’s fine, this is the end of it.”

The seminar suggested that another life was possible, and now that she had quit her stable career path she knew she had to seek it out. She started teaching engineering at CSU Fullerton and began looking for a program where she could expand her leadership skills. “I just thought that this door opened up and I had to use it.”

Studying Leadership
Her path led to Antioch’s Graduate School of Leadership and Change (GSLC). She began thinking about how she could make an impact on the world, using all of her skills and ambition to change things for the better. Her classes were engaging in a way that math and physics never had been, and she learned from both her teachers and her classmates.

Soon she had decided that she needed to start climbing literal mountains. And raising money. And talking about what she was doing. Public speaking. Fundraising.

When she finished her master’s degree and started in on her PhD, she began teaching her own classes in leadership, public speaking, and communication at the Southern California Institute of Technology.

Of her experience at the GSLC, she says that studying at “Antioch was one of the best decisions I have made in my life.” In particular, she has learned so much about how to pass along skills. “Watching our faculty transfer their knowledge to students has been an inspiration for my dissertation and my talks internationally.”

Expeditions and Fundraising
Safari now wears many different hats: mountaineer, brand ambassador, inspirational speaker, leadership teacher, and advocate for women’s rights. This has largely followed from her project of climbing to the highest points on all seven continents. These adventures—including a noteworthy time when her fellow mountaineers in Antarctica all had their tents blow away and had to hunker down for the night in hers—are fun to talk about and share pictures of, but they also enable Safari to bring attention and funds to important causes around the world.

She gave a TEDx talk about her experiences in Nepal and the nonprofit Empower Nepali Girls (ENG). And she also has published a book, Above the Mountain’s Shadow, the profits of which are all given to ENG.

Dissertation and Goal for Changing World
The big dream today is to finish setting up a leadership workshop for college-age Nepali women. As she does this Safari will also complete her dissertation and finally have her PhD in Leadership and Change. She is using a participatory action research (PAR) methodology, a framework she learned at the GSLC that she explains as “a methodology that includes the participant in the design of the project. So it’s not like me, here, sitting in the United States, designing something for women on the other side of the planet. No. They are in every single step of the design, evaluation, action, planning, learning, redesigning, doing all of that again together—we are in this, and they are participating.”

This is vital, because Safari hopes that the workshop will last for years to come. “I want them to this next year for themselves, and the year after. I don’t want them to be dependent on me. So we are creating this together.” The dream is that for these dozens of young women in Nepal, unlike for Safari, they won’t have to wait until their thirties to discover that their true calling is leadership.

Also: she’s going to climb Everest.


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