In May, HerChesapeake welcomed Eastern Shore native and active conservationist Laura Sanford. As part of our guest speaker series, Laura spoke with us about the unconventional path she has taken to become the Director of Advancement and Administration for the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy. (Laura also serves as president of the Corsica River Conservancy, which coordinated a cleanup HerChesapeake members attended this spring.) We were struck by her love of learning, her willingness to take leaps, and her honest remarks about what it’s like to be a woman in her field.
The following interview has been edited and condensed.
HerChesapeake: Tell us about your experience leading the Corsica River Conservancy and motivating those around you to get involved in restoring this waterway.
Laura Sanford: I have strong family ties in Centreville, and on the Eastern Shore, you’re either a “been there” or a “come here.” There’s a lot of tension between these two groups, and I have the advantage and disadvantage of having a foot on both sides as an environmentalist farm girl. The most successful thing I’ve been able to do is to speak to both of these sides.
How would you characterize your leadership style? Does it change with the different hats you wear?
I’ve been described as a “servant leader,” which means I’m there to help the people that are working for me with whatever they need. I want to be there to help other people grow. As president of the Corsica River Conservancy, though, I’ve had to be a little more forceful when it comes to guiding volunteers and making decisions.
Has anyone close to you ever questioned your career decisions? If so, how did you respond?
My mother questioned my decision to leave the Queen Anne’s County Board of Education, and questioned my decision to leave the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to go back to school. My parents both retired at 55, and kept telling me, “You really want a government job.” And I’m like, “I really don’t want a government job.” It held me back, but there was a point where I realized if I was going to do something, I had to do it, and if I failed, I failed, and I have failed many times.
Can you talk about an instance where you’ve failed and how you overcame it?
When I went back to school, I wasn’t working. I took out loans to pay for school and ran my credit cards into a hole that I would have a hard time getting out of. Ironically, my mother helped me set and live by a budget, giving me hell when she came over and saw new face cream on the counter.
Did you ever have a hard time interviewing for a new position outside of your current field?
I applied three times for three different positions with the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy. I took one that I was overqualified for because I knew I wanted to work there, and had to do it to get my foot in the door. The environmental world is small, and it’s a microcosm on the Eastern Shore.
How did you use your connections to find new opportunities and advance your path forward to follow your passions?
I don’t think I’ve used them enough! I have used them to get impressive references when applying for jobs, and those went a long way in enabling me to transition.
Do you have advice for someone who wants to change her career?
I think you know when you’re ready to take that risk. Look ahead to your future and ask, “What do I really want to be doing?” Some things I fell into; you can see what you fall into or make a conscious decision that “this is what I’m going to do and I’m going to go for it.” Be open to your future and what the possibilities are. You don’t have to take a direct line to the Executive Director position. It’s usually a very winding path, unless that’s what you’ve set your mind on.