In a time where so many are ready to jump off the plank from their 9-5’s rooftop in exchange for the entrepreneurial lifestyle, what characteristics are necessary to “make it?” Some business experts or tech gurus say success relies on the uniqueness of the service or product developed. Others insist upon passion and perseverance as prerequisites for success. Simon Sinek, in his famous Ted Talk declared entrepreneurs and startups must “find their why.”
Amy Merrill, co-founder of Journey, a benefit corporation that gives people the chance to fund their own transformative travel opportunities, possesses not only specificity in her vision, but something else entirely. More than knowing why she does what she does, Merrill knows for whom she does what she does. And that’s what makes Merrill not just an entrepreneur, but a social entrepreneur. Along with co-founder Taylor Conroy and in collaboration with non-profit TECHO, Merrill developed Journey to create social impact for Journeyers, and the communities traveled to. Each funded journey results in a new home built for an underserved community in Central or South America—as well as new-found self-awareness to the Journeyer. I caught up with Amy Merrill to talk about her entrepreneurial background, why she created a mission driven business over a non-profit and more about what it means to embark on a Journey.
You’ve worked in the arts, law, private and public sectors, and music. Did your dynamic background in anyway contribute to the development of Journey?
100%. I spent my early career dedicated to non-profit work, mostly because those organizations were tackling the social and environmental challenges that I found most compelling. But I also recognized a big disconnect between the way these organizations communicated their message and used technology and the way my peers did. I ended up leaving the non-profit sector and leading business development for Taylor Conroy’s video-driven personal fundraising platform called Change Heroes.
Journey came out of recognizing a massive need for a new kind of travel: a way for people to experience the transformative and consciousness-expanding effects of removing yourself from your environment, immersing yourself in a new one, and working alongside another community toward a common goal. Then, giving yourself a few days to process it, integrate the experience and decide how you want to show up in life moving forward.
Finally, it’s about having as much fun possible (because life is too short not to). I’ve always loved music: how good feels to sing in front of a band, and the way that songs and dance parties bring people together. For a while I put music on the back burner, because my cause work felt more “important” and music felt like a luxury that we couldn’t afford until these big challenges were solved. But as I got older I realized life is more nuanced than that. Our Journeys always include plenty of good music and a big dance party.
So, in short, how would you describe your path?
My path looks a bit like a zig-zag line, but in hindsight it perfectly represents where my head and heart were at the time. Plus, I’ve gotten to develop a really diverse skill set and do some serious problem-solving in all sorts of environments. Now, as a startup co-founder, I put these skill sets to work every day in building the company.
Why did you decide to create a socially progressive platform, rather than a non-profit?
I got a degree in non-profit management, and spent a lot of time looking closely at the business models, priorities and motivations of non-profits. The non-profit model is best suited for serving needs that aren’t always addressed by market forces: at-risk populations, education, poverty. A donation-based model typically ends up creating a scarcity mentality, and that affects the organization’s priorities and its potential to scale.
With Journey, we saw an opportunity to start a for-profit, mission-driven business, because travel is something that people will pay for (travel is a 1.6T market in the US, and 10% of global GDP), and gives people massive direct value in return.
So what is the “new” non-profit model that I’m hearing so much about?
I’m not sure I’d call us a “new non-profit,” but we are representative of the new thinking, and the use of business and market forces as a force for good. We’re incorporated as a Public Benefit Corporation, and we’re proud to keep proving out the model that business can be a force for good. And we partner closely with non-profits and tour operators on the ground, so we can immediately incorporate their deep expertise and replicate a model that’s scalable and sustainable. The positive byproducts of the business are many: the immersion and experiential learning on both sides, the multiplier effect of tourism (2.2x), the funds raised to fund home-building materials in advance of Journeys (directed to TECHO—which is a non-profit), and the potential for personal transformation and growth for each Journeyer.
You’re emphatic that Journey is not an example of “voluntourism.” Can you name a couple organizations that may veer in that direction, and why Journey is different?
Some examples of volunteering with good intentions gone awry: holding babies in orphanages in Southeast Asia, short stints for non-teachers to teach English, tours of anti-trafficking shelters… I’ve even heard the term “poverty safari,” yikes. What’s unique about Journey is that we help people make a tangible impact by raising funds and joining local volunteer crews to build transitional houses that will last for 8-20 years. By following the lead of the local non-profit, we ensure the sustainability of programs and well-being of the community. We don’t take away from local resources or labor: construction materials are sourced locally and the builds are led and fully completed in two days by local volunteers (our Journeyers are a helpful addition that can speed up the build). A Nicaraguan build site becomes a place for exchange and friendships between not two but three groups: local Nicaraguan families living in poverty, college students or young professionals who come to volunteer, and North American Journeyers. Even the Nicaraguan college student leaves the weekend with more perspective than before.
All of the journeys people have funded have been in Central and South America. Will there be journeys in other parts of the world as well?
Yes. But there’s a lot of homes to build in Latin America, and it’s a relatively quick trip from the US. In our first year, all Journeys will be to Latin America with a similar 5-day flow (but sometimes more people and more homes, and sometimes more of a party at the end).
Who do you believe should participate in funding a Journey the most? Are you hoping to attract a specific demographic to your platform?
I think almost anyone could benefit by coming on a Journey. I’ve watched people have that powerful moment (we call it “experiencing Oneness”) when they’re nailing nails and erecting walls on the new home, when they’re watching the family pass through their front door for the first time, and even when they’re on the beach reflecting back on their experience and swapping stories with new friends. It’s also a bit of a self-selecting: when someone hears what the 5-day trip entails, they know when it’s what they’re seeking. Most people who come on a Journey say, “I’ve been waiting to do something like this.”
Are you working with other non-profits other than TECHO?
No –right now, TECHO is our only non-profit partner.
In what ways does Journey instill personal growth in those who successfully fund a build?
One interesting framework to use is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The pyramid has basic needs at the bottom (food, safety, esteem) and growth needs at the top (self-actualization and fulfillment, realizing personal potential, seeking peak experiences and growth, and finally to help others do the same). These are only reachable after satisfying basic needs, which for most of our Journeyers are met. Our process takes an individual up the pyramid, providing “love and belongingness” (when friends give to their fundraising campaign, or when they join the build crew) then it fulfills social needs (they are celebrated for their achievement in funding a project, or for going on the trip) and on to self-actualization—finding meaning and personal growth that comes from on-the-ground connection, hard work, and fulfillment. That final stage of helping others to do the same (transcendence) can happen after a Journeyer returns home. This is how a ripple effect of change starts with the individual and radiates outward.
Will Journey fund other projects other than the building of homes?
In the future, yes.
That’s very exciting! What is your biggest goal for Journey?
To shake humanity, in the best way.