April 11, 2022

Tisch Center Panel: Tourism Social Entrepreneurship - Leading with Purpose

On Friday, April 8th, the Tisch Center hosted a lively and interactive discussion with visionary leaders from Planeterra, Intrepid, and Wheel the World, moderated by Yasmin Yusuff, President of NYU’s Hospitality, Tourism, and Events Society (HTES), and Professor Cindy VandenBosch, who will be teaching tourism social entrepreneurship this fall.

Last Friday, the Tisch Center held a Social Entrepreneurship Panel with special guests Sara King (Intrepid), Camilo Navarro (Wheel the World), and Jamie Sweeting (Planeterra).  All three panelists spoke with humility and passion, inspiring the students and attendees with their commitment to their work in social entrepreneurship.  While each of their companies plays a different role in the realm of tourism, they all agree on the importance of authenticity within their work and the immeasurable impact that tourism can make on the world.  “There are two parts to social entrepreneurship: social impact and travel”, Navarro said, “[It’s about] recognizing that there are big problems that need to be solved…and you can use tourism to do that.”

When asked about how they each go about solving those problems, Sweeting said, “travelers don’t often understand social enterprise…we like to call it ‘community tourism’—it’s community experiences/enterprises that are owned, led, and run by communities themselves. This lifts up disenfranchised communities that can’t necessarily benefit from tourism on their own and need a bit of a hand up but can still offer unique and incredible experiences for travelers.”

“We try and partner with communities and work with them to create deeper immersive experiences,” King said, “Villagers getting access to electricity, being able to pay for their children’s education through that kind of model, etc. We look at it through a multi-layered approach.” This is evident in King’s work, as well as Navarro’s and Sweeting’s, as they all took time to note how they’re constantly pushing themselves/their companies to grow and change, helping more and more people.

The word “successful” is certainly fitting for all three panelists, though Sweeting had an interesting take on its definition: “The way we measure success by the number of communities we’re improving, the number of people we’re lifting up.” King and Navarro agreed, noting the impact that they can make on all different types of communities that they were never able to reach before.  Part of this is due to the pandemic, as COVID forced the issue of digitizing many of their approaches and turning toward technology.

“We have been lucky enough to have more opportunities than challenges”, Sweeting said. “Working on making the world more accessible…it’s also about preparing the future for all of us”.  In March of 2020, Planeterra was working with 92 communities.  Now, they work with 379 communities in 80 countries.

All three noted that it took the pandemic, where they were not able to go anywhere, to look back on all those years before and learn from them; they had to take stock of what was working and what wasn’t. “It helped us to stop and evaluate where we were and how we could increase impact going forward”, King said, “Perhaps we needed to think bigger”.

And think bigger all three of our panelists did.  Intrepid, Wheel the World and Planeterra have all grown greatly since the pandemic, thanks to similar mindsets. “Instead of focusing on what was out of our control, we focused on what was in our control”, Navarro stated.

“We went back to our people on the ground who live in these communities and listened to them: where did they think the issues were in these communities?” King noted. Sweeting said something similar: “The key is to go to where they’re at, understand what their challenges are and develop meaningful tools and experiences that uplift them.”

Technology seemed to be the key factor in growth when it came to how these companies have succeeded, and how they will continue to grow going forward.

“I see huge potential for tech in the tourism social entrepreneur space”, Sweeting said, “We want to make our products accessible to communities all over the world.”  He went on to talk about a new platform his company is using that’s going to make it much easier for communities that are currently struggling with a digital divide.

Navarro also commented on the subject: “Technology is not a something itself…it’s an accelerator of a process… Technology is using the paper and pen that we started with and constantly improving that. It’s the mindset to make everything more efficient to make the overall impact bigger.”

“It’s an exciting time for social enterprises,” King added. “The access we have to connect with our customers with social media channels. It’s so accessible, it’s at people’s fingertips.”

Travel businesses are realizing there are huge populations of people that they weren’t addressing before.  “Every booking means we are changing the world”, Navarro said, “because some of these people are traveling for the first time or were traveling very poorly before they traveled with us.” Technology helps them to achieve these goals.

When asked what advice they would give students who are eager to make change in the travel/tourism world, Navarro said, “focus on what you enjoy doing…that one thing you’re still thinking about, that problem that really bothers you. [Whatever you do], do it with passion.” King and Sweeting agreed, as Sweeting joked, “I work bloody hard but I don’t have a job! It’s just what I do.”

If this is a subject that interests you and you’d like to continue the conversation, don't miss Professor Cindy VandenBosch's fall course, Social Entrepreneurship!   

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