Lisa Rolls ’89

African Queen

By Leigh Brown Perkins

Lisa Rolls

Anyone who’s been chained to a desk knows the daydream: quit your job, buy a one-way ticket to a romantic outpost, reconnect with nature, become insanely happy. End of dream. Back to reality.

But for Lisa Rolls, it was no daydream. It became her reality.

“I always had this hankering to go to Africa, and when I finally made it to Kenya, it was such a soul-enriching experience—wild and mysterious. I knew I had to come back,” she said of her first visit in 1995, which was followed by several years of African vacations. “This calling to live in Africa needed to be fulfilled.”

So Rolls ditched a high-level media career in New York City and set off to give the continent a six-month trial. That was 12 years ago. “I love the rawness of it,” she said. “Life here can be amazing or it can be really hard. There is a huge gap between rich and poor, and a great struggle between the growing population and wildlife. But it is real and spontaneous and like nowhere else on earth.”

Rolls immersed herself in Kenya’s wildlife and tribal culture. Her vision was to create a safari company that catered to professionals with wanderlust who wanted authentic (if pampered) experiences. Rolls enrolled in Kenya Professional Safari Guides Association, becoming one of only two American women to earn an official guide license. Her lifelong friend Cindi Crain left her New York publishing life behind too and joined Rolls to form Virgin Bush Safaris. “When we started, we were a bit of an oddity: two American girls out in the bush,” Rolls said. “The local guides didn’t take us very seriously, but we’ve earned their respect.”

They’ve done so in part by offering customized packages with equal emphasis on luxury and adventure. Clients forgo jarring bus rides for small-airplane transport to each experience, which might include tracking elephants with warriors in Samburuland, picnicking in the Masai Mara as wildebeest migrate, or horseback riding under the gaze of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Moving to Africa may seem like a radical departure for a girl raised in suburban America, but there were definite signs. Born in Sarasota, Rolls was a chronic adopter of animals—turtles and starfish and whatever else she found. And Rollins, where she majored in English literature, “nurtured a sense of curiosity and possibility in me. I still believe a curious mind is essential to a fulfilling life,” she said. She then took advantage of a graduation gift from her parents: a trip for her and Crain anywhere in the world—except Africa, which they thought too dangerous for a couple of girls traveling alone. But on their way through Spain, the girls caught a glimpse of the forbidden continent across the Strait of Gibralter and promptly (and rebelliously) caught the ferry to Morocco. Getting their feet on the African soil created “a defining moment for things to come.”

Although that first camel ride deepened her fascination with Africa, Rolls returned to New York City to begin her 10-year career in advertising and media. Specializing in entertainment marketing and partnerships, she launched brands like the Discovery Channel and E! Entertainment Television, and, as a senior vice president of Burger King’s global kids business, managed film partners like DreamWorks, Paramount, and Sony Pictures. Every free moment, though, was devoted to off-the-beaten-path travel. “I was 31 when I made the permanent move to Africa,” she said. “I had done the material life already and all the stuff didn’t mean anything to me any more. I liked advertising, but I had done it, completely. And ironically, my mom, who had been so worried about my passion for Africa, moved there with me.”

With a ready-made client list of friends and colleagues from New York, Virgin Bush Safaris flourished, offering more than a dozen safaris a year. Rolls, who lives in Nairobi, married a diplomat from Finland who works for the United Nations. In true global style, they were wed on the back of an elephant in Sri Lanka. They have a 4-year-old daughter, Zoe, and a 1-year-old son, Reid. “Being with my family out in the bush, watching them experience their own nature reality show—that’s the perfect day,” Rolls said. “But it’s also perfect to have a great, rewarding day at work.”

Rolls also serves as a consultant to the United Nations Environment Programme headquartered in Nairobi, developing their creative outreach strategies and engaging celebrities as goodwill ambassadors for global environmental causes. She said it feels great to be able to dovetail her safari life with her former life to help the greater good and ultimately help protect a place and way of life that is quickly changing.

“The farthest hinterlands of Kenya can now communicate instantly with the rest of the world, and it’s inevitably altering the culture. There are cell towers in the most remote places and foreign companies building roads where none existed just a few years ago. As with any change, there are positive and negative aspects. I feel very fortunate that I arrived in Africa when it was a wilder frontier, but the magic is still here for the taking if you have an intrepid spirit.”