Women in Business Q&A: Kathryn Pisco of Unearth the World
Kathryn and Mike Pisco always wanted to take epic trips abroad before they started a family. They’d talked about it dozens of times, planned, talked some more, and had even been saving money. But between their busy corporate jobs and never seeming to find the perfect time, their goal felt like it was moving farther and farther away. A chance conversation with a fellow businessperson changed everything, and they kicked their travel plans into motion. A few months later, they founded Unearth the World, to connect volunteers with groups who need their help, and to expose both travelers and communities to the same transformative experience they had while seeing the world.
Kathryn took some time out of her crazy-busy schedule to talk about running a business that seeks to make a difference in parts of the world that many people (not naming names, but rhymes with Gump) would rather forget.
Robin Catalano: What motivated you to create Unearth the World?
Kathryn Pisco: We had talked about [traveling] for years, [but] I never really thought we would take the plunge. But over a visit to Mike’s hometown near Boston, we had a conversation with a business professional who was about to embark on a trip around the world with his wife and two kids. This conversation was just the push we needed to make our own journey official. We started planning our own trip immediately and resigned from our corporate jobs a few months later!
And while we had done a lot of personal travel in the past, we wanted to travel in a different way on this nine-month adventure. We sought to engage with the communities we visited in a more authentic way. So we decided to volunteer in five of the countries on our 250-day, 20-country trip.
RC: Describe your “a-ha” moment where you thought, “I can make a business out of this.”
KP: The volunteer travel experiences were the true highlight to our journey because they allowed us to form amazing relationships and engage in cross-cultural exchange. But these experiences also exposed us to some of the problems in the multi-billion-dollar volunteer travel industry. Upon returning, Mike and I decided that we needed to do something about these problems to allow other people to engage in responsible, transparent, and fun cross-cultural exchange. So we formed own social venture, Unearth the World.
RC: How did you choose the name Unearth the World?
KP: Unearth the World was actually the name of our travel blog during our nine-month trip. We thought it really encompassed what we were trying to accomplish on our journey. We sought to unearth—or discover—the world around us in a meaningful way. We decided to give our business the same name because we believe that international service and cross-cultural exchange is a great way to understand the world around us.
RC: What are the problems in the voluntourism industry, and how does Unearth the World address them?
KP: We saw that the industry lacked financial transparency and affordability, with many projects costing several thousand dollars for just one week. We also saw a lack of community-driven projects. Instead, we saw many volunteer opportunities that were created with the purpose of bringing in tourists rather than actually addressing a true need in the community. Additionally, many of the volunteer-sending organizations fail to train and educate their travelers before and after their trip, leading to uninformed and unqualified volunteers. UTW’s innovative model addresses the problems in the volunteer travel market in three ways: transparency, reciprocity, and volunteer preparation.
Financial Transparency: UTW is the only volunteer travel provider to itemize fees to the traveler and publish them on our website. This improves the volunteer travel industry by adding a layer of accountability. Our travelers know exactly where every dollar they spend goes.
Community-Driven Partnerships: UTW has established a strategic, proprietary and in-depth partnership vetting process that ensures that travelers engage in meaningful service and our local communities partners truly benefit from volunteer presence. We put our community partners first and take their lead on the volunteer program, fees, etc. We also visit, vet, and volunteer with each organization before forming partnerships, and ensure that our volunteers possess the proper skills to contribute to each organization. This allows for a “win-win” situation when both the volunteers and international organizations benefit. Volunteers walk away from the experience truly understanding their impact and learning from the locals.
Holistic Preparation: UTW is a leader in cross-cultural training and support. We have created a robust pre-trip training curriculum focusing on 5 key themes (Reflection, Global Citizenship, Cultural Competency, Culture Shock, and Power and Privilege) in order to effectively train and prepare travelers for their service work and global immersion. We are also the only volunteer-travel provider to engage travelers in a post-trip reentry program that encourages volunteers to bridge their international experience into their normal lives, and understand how to continue to make an impact.
RC: Tell us about the different types of projects/trips you offer.
KP: UTW partners grassroots nonprofits and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that are already solving problems in their own communities. Our job at Unearth the World is to bring human and financial capital into these communities in a meaningful way. We pair a volunteer’s skills with the needs of these international organizations. Current Unearth the World partners include a Peruvian nonprofit that addresses the issue of inadequate education, a Zambian NGO addressing the scarcity of safe housing, a Guatemalan nonprofit that works to improve the coffee trade, a Nicaraguan organic farm addressing food scarcity, and a Nicaraguan Spanish immersion school that is deeply involved in ethical tourism and community development, and a Mexican nonprofit that focuses on responsible community tourism.
Unearth the World travelers donate their time and skills while simultaneously experiencing authentic cross-cultural exchange and building relationships. Travelers can spend as short as a week or as long as a year abroad doing things like teaching, working on a farm, and building homes. Each program is personally planned to benefit both the volunteer travelers and the local community. Philanthropic focus areas include education, poverty, the environment, food security, and sustainable housing.
RC: What were the most challenging parts of getting Unearth the World off the ground?
KP: It was really difficult breaking into the international ed space. I launched UTW with zero connections and it has taken time to build relationships. Now I am proud to say that we are growing our university partnerships by the day and have worked with Cornell, Providence College, Northeastern, Keene State, and Harper College. In addition, it is incredibly challenging to operate in an industry that I am also trying to change. I am constantly questioning myself and our business model to ensure that we are not contributing to the problem.
RC: What has changed most about the company—or you as a businessperson—since you founded it in 2014?
KP: In the beginning, we primarily worked with individual travelers. And while we still plan programs for individuals, we have really begun to focus on working with groups. It has been really rewarding to see the added element that group travel brings to these ethical volunteer-abroad experiences. And it makes a lot of sense from a revenue perspective. We have partnered with universities, study-abroad offices, and faculty to offer both curricular and co-curricular programs. We have even started to work with socially minded companies to plan group trips for their employees.
RC: What do you think are your biggest accomplishments in business?
KP: I am extremely proud of the impact our programs have had on both the traveler and our community partners. We have seen the international projects we work with grow and thrive. And I feel happy every day when I talk to UTW alums. Since 2015, over 200 volunteers have dedicated over 3,500 hours of service. Many of these travelers describe their UTW experience as transformative.
And, thanks to our pre-trip training and post-trip coaching, many of these travelers continue to make tangible impacts even after they return home. UTW alums have started their own nonprofits, volunteered in their own communities, and become more civically engaged.
RC: What has surprised you the most about running a business, or about people’s reaction to your mission?
KP: I have been surprised by how lonely entrepreneurship can be. In past jobs, I have always worked as a part of a team. So it has been challenging at times to launch and build this business alone. It has been great to have Melissa on board as our Director of Volunteer Travel. But I look forward to the time when we can hire more people and grow our UTW family.
RC: How many hours do you typically work in a week? Is there any particular task that you love…any that you could do without?
KP: This varies greatly. When I first launched UTW, I would say I probably worked over 65 hours per week. But about a year into the business’ existence, I gave birth to twin girls. I took about 6 months off and hired Melissa to help keep UTW afloat. Since returning to work as the mother of twins, I constantly strive to find a good balance of work and life. I have child care for 30+ hours per week, but do a lot of follow-up after hours.
My least favorite part of how I spend my time is dealing with risk and liability. However, because safety is our number one priority, focusing on security and risk is really important and something I will always do. My favorite way to spend work hours is spent building relationships with UTW travelers and our international partners. Connecting with people is key to this business and I love every second of it!
RC: What type of marketing do you do to get the word out about Unearth the World?
KP: To date, we have been fortunate to have all our growth and marketing be completely organic. We have not yet had to pay for marketing in any way. Instead, I focus on public speaking, doing local workshops about responsible volunteering, and writing/sharing compelling content on our website and blog. I have recently begun to work with socially minded travel bloggers to get the word out about UTW’s mission.
RC: Have you found it beneficial to join any professional networking groups?
KP: Yes! I truly believe that everyone in the meaningful travel space should work together to make volunteer travel better. I am a part of Travel + Social Good’s Chicago hub, the Corporate Responsibility Group of Greater Chicago, Wanderful, and Travel Massive.
RC: Did you ever have a moment where you thought “This is too hard” or “I’m done with this”? How did you work through it?
KP: I think that running a business is hard every day. But I have never considered shuttering Unearth the World. The hardest thing for me is that, as an entrepreneur, I am constantly wearing a million hats at once. And as the founder, I have to be involved with every aspect of the business even if I am not good at something. For instance, I have a lot of sales experience, so I really enjoy promoting our programs. On the flip side, I also have to understand the legal side of things and balance our yearly budget—two areas in which I have limited experience. I have learned to seek out help and support on the aspects of running the business that are not my strengths. I created an Advisory Board of professionals from various industries that believe in me and Unearth the World and provide professional support.
RC: Would you say that Unearth the World’s mission is even more relevant now, considering the political climate?
KP: Absolutely. One of our interns recently wrote a powerful piece for our blog: “How to Be a Global Citizen with an American Passport.” She wrote: “In a time that seems consumed with fear of ‘the other,’ I believe that now more than ever we need to understand the transformative power of global citizenship and what it can mean for our world.” These words could not be truer. Our programs aim to bring people together, break down stereotypes, and promote collaboration.
RC: How do you creatively recharge?
KP: Burn-out as an entrepreneur is real. I have struggled in the past to recharge—especially now when my time away from work is spent parenting twin infants. I have learned that I do need to make time for myself so that I can be the best businesswoman, mother, wife, daughter, and friend I can be. I love going for long walks on the Chicago lakefront, doing yoga, and cooking (with a nice glass of wine, of course!). I have also made a huge effort to get enough sleep.
RC: What’s the worst (or least useful) piece of business advice you’ve ever been given, and what’s the best?
KP: The best piece of business advice I have received is to build a strong network of mentors. I do not know what I would do without my trusted advisors! The worst advice is that I needed to figure out a way to scale the business quickly in order to succeed. I have learned, however, that UTW’s model is much more effective when growing slowly and intentionally.