Kathryn Pisco is the founder of Unearth the World, a social enterprise partnering internationally with community-driven non-profits to provide transparent and ethical volunteer exchanges. She believes in servant leadership and approaching cultural exchanges with an attitude of learning and humility. She aims to provide individuals preparation and training, impactful experiences and sustainable life changes through volunteer exchanges around the world.
On leaving corporate America:
Kathryn and her husband, Mike, both had satisfying and successful careers in medical device sales. They’d had casual cocktail conversations about taking some time off to travel and even had some savings allocated for possibly getting their MBAs – but no real plans to execute. “We’d always taken the traditional path in life- college, jobs, marriage, a house. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it was all we knew.”
They were inspired to action after meeting a friend of a friend who was quitting his job and taking his entire family (with kids) to travel for a year. As an exercise, they began outlining what it might look like if they took a similar plunge.
“The more we planned it, the more doable it seemed. It got to a point where I couldn’t imagine not going anymore.”
On transitioning from volunteer to business owner:
Going into the trip, Kathryn didn’t intend to start a business afterwards.
“We did five different volunteer projects and the first three were through a volunteer placement company because we didn’t know how to go about it ourselves. That was when we started realizing some of the problems in the volunteer travel industry – lack of financial transparency, lack of training, and worse, was that a lot of the projects were kind of helpful, but mostly there for Western tourists. The next two projects we found on our own. They were much more impactful because they were community-driven and had sustainability built in. I realized I wasn’t that excited about going back to my old job and all I could think about was improving volunteer travel.”
“I felt like we could do it better. I gained so much confidence along the trips that made me feel like I could do it. Worst case scenario – it doesn’t work out, but at least we tried.”
On unique challenges in the volunteer travel industry:
“I think we face all the same challenges that any startup does, but what I didn’t anticipate was how controversial volunteer travel is. If you google it, you’re more likely to find negative articles versus positive ones. My challenge has been executing in a crowded and controversial space, and showing people in a minute or two how we’re different – without a lot of marketing dollars. ”
Besides being more affordable, transparent, and offering more effective training and skill-based volunteer pairing, Kathryn says one of their important and unique offerings is managing the full pre, during, AND post experience for the volunteer.
“If you just send someone abroad you hope that they have a good experience. But if you train, help, reflect with, and support them when they get home, then it’s more likely that the experience is not just short term and will pair into their normal life, and back into our international non-profits. One of my ultimate goals is to have a robust network for travelers to plug into after they come home.” Kathryn goes through a post-trip reflection and coaching session with each individual where they create plans on how they want to incorporate their learnings into their lives.
On how it’s changed her life:
Besides the huge decision of switching careers and starting her own business, Kathryn thinks the other life-changes after traveling and volunteering for a year are more nuanced.
“There are shifts in how I look at things. I am more able to let things roll off my back and not worry about it. Just know that you do everything you can and sometimes the best things happen when you don’t plan.”
“Some of it creeps back in when you come back, but I definitely noticed an ability to better deal with stress and anxiety, and not sweat the small stuff. I think I’ve also become more tolerant of people and more careful of where I spend my money.”
Without hesitation, Kathryn says the best part of a volunteer exchange is the people. “The people we’ve met along the way have been so inspiring. I’m working harder now than I ever did, but it’s worth it. The highs are so much better.” To learn more, you can watch Unearth the World’s recent Technori pitch.