Neal Petersen Q&A
YOU’VE OBVIOUSLY EXPERIENCED A GREAT DEAL OF SUCCESS IN YOUR LIFE. WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS YOUR GREATEST ACCOMPLISHMENT, AND WHY?
I have several, so it’s hard to put one above the other. The first is surviving Apartheid in South Africa. It was a very harsh era in my country of birth’s history. It had a profound impact on my intolerance of injustices. I cannot stand seeing injustice in the world and feel strongly about empowering women leaders and holding people responsible and accountable. The second accomplishment will be achieving my goal to race solo around the globe. It took me 18 years of focus, tremendous energy and efforts, sacrifices, hardwork and overcoming numerous barriers to achieve this. Third is being married to Darlene. We have celebrated now over 19 years together, and it was just like yesterday. I look at the life we have built, the adventures shared together around the globe, the people we have met and the places we have lived. We truly have built an incredible life together coming from poverty and our individual challenges, to today owning a large ocean going yacht, two homes – a Caribbean home and in America, so many places we have traveled and explored. Our life together is more than I have imagined, and there is so much more we want to do together like sailing to the South Pacific or spending more time in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Morocco,Thailand and the places we love.
LIKE EVERYONE ELSE, LIFE IS NOT ALWAYS SMOOTH. CAN YOU TALK ABOUT A SETBACK OR TRAGEDY YOU’VE ENCOUNTERED, HOW YOU DEALT WITH IT, AND THE IMPACT IT HAS HAD ON YOU?
I tried to get sponsorship for my yacht races for years and was not successful. The goal was to raise money, to have a competitive racing yacht, and try to break records. Did not happen. I had to take my original home built boat that a SA newspaper dubbed the “Floating coffin” as it was odd shaped and I lacked so much gear, and modify it to qualify for the race around the world. I was capsized, dismasted, holed by a freighter, suffered enormous gear failure. People looked down on my campaign as it was such a shoestring budget. Little did we all realize what incredible training all this became which enabled me to finish out my racing career with pride, confidence and a true sence of accomplishment against all odds. I have filled volumes of books, a PBS television documentary on my career was made and I get invited to speak in exotic and interesting places all over the world. I will be speaking in Austria this June, and have an ongoing contract with one of the fastest growing tech companies to help them move to the next level. Coming from my background, and today sitting at the table as an equal with world leaders, CEO’s, global investors, change-makers and visionaries, was unimaginable as a kid.
DO YOU SET ASIDE “ME-TIME” IN YOUR CALENDAR, AND WHAT DO YOU DO IN YOUR SPARE TIME TO RELAX?
Yes, we do quite frequently. We set time to go sailing every year or to be at our Caribbean home. I still love sailing after 35 years on the water. I don’t like so much working on the boat, but it’s a part of the process and I do love the results of getting something fixed by being innovative to keep going. We were on our way from the Caribbean to the South Pacific and around the world when we were asked to consult with a global tech company and we put our plans on hold for one year. Part of the negotiation was that my work schedule is flexible so that we can do other activities including sailing. If we extend the contract, our commute will be from either Tahiti or Hawaii next year instead of the Caribbean where we spend our sailing and living time.
WHAT’S THE MOST MAGICAL PLACE YOU’VE DISCOVERED WHERE YOU CAN GO TO CHILL OUT?
It is our home in the mountains of the Dominican Republic. We built this home in 2010 and upon buying the land – before we started to build, I began developing the gardens. We have wonderful cirtrus fruit, coffee, cherries, avocados, pommelos, oranges etc. Four years ago I planted exotic clumping bamboo that originated in 4 different countries. Now the Sacred Bali bamboos from Indonesia are framing the stunning view of our tropical home making a statement of welcome to our paradise. We have two big waterfalls on the property that we can easily walk to. I just love watching things grow, or picking something in the garden to eat or juice.
DOES PHILANTHROPY PLAY A ROLE IN YOUR LIFE, TO WHAT EXTENT AND HOW?
Yes. I don’t like the formal non profits as so many charities have such high expenses . I prefer to look around my communities and step in and directly help. It may be supporting dental clinics for people who have never seen a dentist in their life, or being on call to our neighors to take a youngster or grandmother to the hospital and quietly just having their medical bills taken care of. We have a long term employee, who has a young daughter that came to live with him. He is a single father from Haiti. She is 11 years old and had very poor schooling in one of the most remote corners of the western world – rural, mountainous Haiti where there are zero roads. For her to get to school she had to cross a big river 5 times each way. If it rained the river was too dangerous, so school was closed. She barely got any schooling. When she came to live with her father, she spoke no Spanish and had to begin in first grade at a Spanish local school. We bought school uniforms and she now attends a public school. I would rather invest my time and resources in young girls like this and give them a springboard, than give money and not know the impact. When we are sailing, we are always looking at opportunities to speak in a local school, or prison. Anywhere, where we can make a difference.
WHO IS ON THE GUEST LIST FOR YOUR IDEAL DINNER PARTY, PRESENT OR PAST?
One person who has impressed me most recently is Ruth Bader Ginsburg for her stand on equality and womens’ rights in the Supreme Court. I would have enjoyed meeting Nelson Madela for his work on uniting South Africa. Bill and Hillary Clinton would be wonderful guests to debate on global affairs, as we have so many things to disagree on, but find a way to make a positive impact. Then of course, Barak and Michelle Obama. That would be another long night of discussions of unfinished work. Morgan Freeman and I can talk about sailing.
CAN YOU OFFER ANY WORDS OF WISDOM FOR OUR READERS?
Be curious. It’s not just about you. If we listen, we can learn so much more. There are no dumb questions. Don’t be afraid to question, be unconventional, controversial. If we were less judgmental, but instead open-minded and tolerant, we can find common ground on things that we may look at differently. Most important, we need to understand what is happening in our climate. As a sailor, I’m seeing deeply concerning changes to our oceans and weather. We need to take better care of our real home…Mother Earth.