First Days In America: Female Entrepreneur Danell Wilson-Perlman

Jul 12, 2019

Danell Wilson-Perlman brings female entrepreneurs back to her home country of South Africa for an immersion program that connects them with other female leaders they can learn from. She lives in Reno now and remembers her arrival to the U.S. for our series “First Days in America.”

“America was never on my radar,” Wilson-Perlman said. “I always thought America was never an option because growing up in South Africa, we were sanctioned for years.”

Danell’s home country of South Africa first experienced apartheid in 1948 after the National Party took power. Under the National Party, the apartheid policy segregated and discriminated against South African citizens on the basis of race.

Even though Wilson-Perlman was raised in South Africa, it wasn’t until college that she met people outside her small, white farming community.

“I’ll never forget the first night,” Wilson-Perlman said. “I’m walking up the stairs and then the Zulu girls came running down and in their culture, they don’t wear tops--but that was their culture. And I’ve been living in this bubble even though I lived in this country, but it’s amazing how you are not seeing what other cultures in your own country are doing and that it’s okay for them to be different.”

Despite experiencing culture shock in her own country, she still wanted to leave South Africa and see other places. Wilson-Perlman focused on getting a visa to the United Kingdom after college graduation. But then a friend called one night and told her, “‘Well, there’s this new opportunity and you need to sign up,’ ” Wilson-Perlman said.

Danell Wilson-Perlman holds photo of herself from the first time she went to Washington, D.C. Strangers took the photo for her and sent it to her parents in South Africa.
Credit Olivia Ali

After she sat up all night debating, her dad urged her to apply. He felt the work study program would give her more stability compared to moving to the UK by herself without a job.

“This was a 24-hour, crazy decision with hundreds of students applying and I laughed it off,” Wilson-Perlman said. “I didn’t think I would get chosen. So that was it, and literally less than a month later, we were on the next plane to the U.S. We didn’t even make it to our graduation ceremony. We were shipped to the U.S.”

When she first came to the United States in late 1994, Danell says it was a “wake-up call” to live in a country with freedom of speech, uncensored media and a wide variety of foods at her disposal.

“I remember going to Safeway for bread and I stood in the aisle and said, ‘Okay, I just want, like, a white or wheat,’ ” Wilson-Perlman said. “And there was, like, two aisles of it. That was vividly in my mind. Everything was just such huge variety.”

Even though she only came for a short work-study program at a ski resort in Truckee, she knew she had to return to the United States.

“My degree was in tourism and travel management,” Wilson-Perlman said. “I always felt that, especially in America, I would get the most experience in my field.”

She said her father offered to help her launch a business at home, but “I needed to return overseas to get more experience. That’s why I came back.”

Wilson-Perlman returned to the United States in 1997 after the ski resort sponsored her visa. Shortly after moving back, she met her husband, Ron. Wilson-Perlman later joined her husband in co-owning Reno Tahoe Limousine and Reno Tahoe Transportation and continues to operate the business in Reno.

Even as her transportation company was thriving, she found a new passion in 2016.

“I had women entrepreneurs come up to me and say, ‘We want to go to your home country but you need to take us, and we don't want to be a tourist. We want to go and experience the country and we want to learn from other women entrepreneurs,’ ” Wilson-Perlman recounted.

In response, Wilson-Perlman started African Skies Travel to share her home with entrepreneurs. She says the two-week cultural immersion program is a way to educate, empower, exchange and collaborate with women entrepreneurs.

“They come back to the U.S. and their whole reaction is and feedback is, ‘Africa was the teacher and we were the students,’ ” Wilson-Perlman said.

Wilson-Perlman uses her new business venture as a way to connect her two homes. “I’ll always have two countries in my life,” Wilson-Perlman said.

“My mom always explained, she goes, ‘You’re a tree. Roots are in Africa and your branches are in America.’”

This story was produced by Olivia Ali, a student at the Reynolds School of Journalism who participated in NPR’s Next Generation Radio program, which mentors student reporters.