Tara Russell founded a nonprofit social enterprise, Create Common Good, to provide food-preparation job skills to refugees and others in Boise. She has returned to the business world with Fathom Impact + Travel, a Carnival Corp. brand that offers cruises to the Dominican Republic to do volunteer work.
She spoke March 2 to the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce, taking questions at the end. Her remarks are condensed from a transcript prepared by Caroline Merritt, the chamber’s public-relations director.
Our lives are about the combinations of the stories of whom we’ve become through the experiences we’ve had. I grew up in the Midwest. Mom and Dad loved me a lot. They’re still married after 40 years. I moved a lot as a kid, so I never was familiar with living in any one place, and in hindsight it really helped me to become kind of the global citizen I am today. I spent two or three years in most of my hometowns. So the question that will stress me out a lot is when you ask me, “Where are you from?” I don’t know how to answer that. Boise is home for us, but I have had the opportunity to live and work all over the world.
As a kid I loved “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. My mom told me I could do anything I wanted to, and I was crazy enough to believe her. I was fortunate to be a part of an engineering program, undergrad, that really shaped me at Georgia Tech. That led me to General Motors, Intel, IBM.
I worked for the head of Saturn in my first job at General Motors. At one of the very first meetings I was there, he said, “Tara, you’re going to have to make a choice: Do you want to become a master at one thing, or do you want to become a jack of all trades?” And I knew there was no way I was going to do one thing for the rest of my life, so it was a pretty easy answer.
A STARTUP AMID ASIAN POVERTY
I made it my quest to learn as much as I could about as much as I could and to really just enjoy that process of learning through experiential education.
We spent years in Thailand, Jeff and I. I was fortunate to be a part of building a variety of different social enterprises in the last 20 years. Some of them started, and really the vision of my life started, when I lived in Shanghai. It was during that year I was building Shanghai General Motors, the first startup I did within a global corporation. And it was the first time I lived day-to-day next to poverty everywhere around me. I was living in an apartment right next to a pig field. This was 1999.
I then was fortunate to help build an organization in Bangkok called Nightlife, and a few others were there, helping bring marginalized populations, specifically woman in prostitution, into healthy employment. Jeff and I climbed Everest Base Camp because, why not while you’re living in Asia?
HELP PEOPLE, MAKE MONEY
Building anything is really not sexy. This [slide] is my living room about eight years ago, when we were beginning Create Common Good. Jeff probably remembers it well. There were a lot of refugees at our house all the time. I have continued to wrestle with who am I and what is my job here in the world and why do I do what I do. At a young age I decided my job is to help people discover their superpowers. It’s really to help them unleash their talents and abilities through creative, sustainable business models.
And I didn’t want to pick “Go help people” or “Go make money.” I wanted to find a way to do both. Because you can’t help people without money. You’re not a bad person to say no, no, no, we need money to help people.
So I’ve been busy, mostly learning, and there are a few things I have been working on myself. I share these with you today as a reminder to myself and hope if they can be encouraging to you in your journey, you might consider the same.
12 TIPS FOR SUCCESS
▪ The first is to be very comfortable with what you suck at.
This a picture of a spreadsheet. I can read a financial model and I can use it, but if you asked me to build it, it would take me 2,000 times longer to build it than anyone else at the table.
I am pretty good at taking care of other people, but I’m pretty bad at taking care of myself. So I’m trying to put some insurance around me to get others keeping me accountable.
I’ve learned is that there are many things that negatively impact my leadership, that are sort of my kryptonite. So you have to figure out: What is your kryptonite? How do you arm yourself for battle?
▪ I think gratitude is the best gift not enough people use every day. It’s free. It doesn’t take much time. It does take intention, but you’ve got an endless supply of it.
▪ I hate the phrase “manage your time,” because it’s really about managing your energy. We all have a finite amount of time, but I am coming to believe our energy is a little more capable of growing and draining. I think that as you learn yourself, you’re better able to go with the right flow and keep yourself energized.
▪ What’s in your hand? This is a question I like to ask our team more than they like to hear. We can’t get new resources, more time. But we can look at what’s in our hand, and we can think about the assets and opportunities we have.
▪ You just have to ship it, ship it, ship it. One of my frustrations at work in startups is everybody wants to wait until it’s finished, but the moral of the story is that it’s never finished, and it will forever change, so get it out there, and just try and learn and model and shape.
▪ Hold loose to the saddle. If you’re building a business or a culture for today’s marketplace, some of the stuff you’re probably doing is wrong. If you’re really holding tightly to it, it will be hard for you to let go and to make hard decisions. If you’re holding loosely to it, you won’t have an emotional attachment.
▪ Major on the majors, minor on the minors. People say, “Oh my gosh, you must never be in Boise, your life must be so complex.” No, my life’s pretty simple. I’m with my family or I’m working. I cut out pretty much everything else. I think we tend to spend, sometimes, 40, 60 percent of our energies in the workplace, dealing with what is minor stuff, compared with the major things that are gonna really transform your business model.
▪ Deal with hard stuff as quickly as possible. When you as the leader wait because you don’t want to deal with something, it’s costing you and the organization in ways you’re not even aware of.
▪ Cut yourself some slack. I have a lot of security blankets. I wipe countertops excessively, so there, I said it. There’s a lot of other weird stuff that I do, ask Jeff. I think you all do weird stuff. It’s OK. You’ve got to find your yin and yang. It might even get you clean counters.
▪ Read something every day. I like to joke that the Jeff Russell nightstand and the Tara Russell nightstand are pretty much the summary of our life. Jeff Russell’s nightstand has one, neat, organized Kindle. My nightstand has 487 books, all of them have 16 pages read with highlighters and 17 post-its, and I will never finish any of them. But, we are both reading everyday and enjoying the adventure, and I find, for me, even if it’s a five-minute escape, it gives me either encouragement, inspiration or something I need to get through tomorrow’s challenge.
▪ Think not in terms of work-life balance. I hate that word too. It’s really about work-life integration. What does that mean for me and Jeff? We have a 10-year old and an 8-year old, Tyson and Lucy. We both run a global company with offices all over the world [Jeff is CEO of Jitasa, a Boise accounting and bookkeeping firm that serves nonprofits nationwide]. How do you do that? We’ve just integrated in a way that works for us. My kids are with me on the road quite a lot.
▪ Know your own formula. On Sundays, I go digital detox. No email. That’s how I get my head back on, how I focus on my kids and my husband. I go outside and play. I have to get in four or five runs or hikes or something every week or I might implode. I have to have my mornings with the kids, my Friday night fun nights.
THE LEADERSHIP STRUGGLE
For all us in roles of leadership, discovering your superpowers is only half the battle. You have to figure out how you maintain your superpowers when the going gets tough. Because the new story of my life in building companies is, “Holy crap, what am I doing today? What is going on? I’ve got 8,494 forest fires. I’m sitting in the watch tower, and I’ve gotta figure out which fire to fight first, and I gotta make sure that I let some burn, because I can’t fight them all, and I fight the right ones.”
CARNIVAL AND FATHOM
Many of you hear Carnival, you think Carnival Cruise Line. We are actually not Carnival Cruise Line, we are Carnival Corp. We own 10 global brands. Carnival Cruise Line is one, Fathom is another. We’re a wholly owned subsidiary based out of the UK, naturally. We have other North American brands: Seabourn, Holland American, Princess, P&O UK, P&O Australia, Cunard, AIDA, Costa.
Fathom is what I am doing now here today. We’re building our mission to unleash superpowers in the world. We have built a unique and creative travel experience unlike anything out there. We’ve defined a new category.
I’ve built organizations in Bangkok and overseas, and I was unwilling to do what is typically done in terms of voluntourism. So we have creatively, over the last couple years, architected with our Dominican partners, a holistic impact solution for the whole northern region of the Dominican Republic.
We just started working on Cuba. We begin sailing there in May.
We have now roughly 50 shoreside employees all over the world, and roughly 350 that are a part of Fathom that are onboard our ship. We are scattered all over the world. But we have about 20 percent of our employee force here in Boise and growing.
Q: With Fathom Travel, how did this all come about from Boise, Idaho? Did you approach them?
A: It all started with Kurt Liebich. He’s one of the best things that ever happened to Boise. Kurt and I met years ago, I think, through Riverstone’s community initiative at Create Common Good. Kurt runs two companies that are part of a private equity family out of Greenwich, Conn. Kurt’s on the board of that organization, and Kurt invited me and Create Common Good to share with that company and really to become their first social-enterprise partner.
Arnold Donald, who is my boss, is our Carnival Corporate Global CEO. He was also on the board of this private equity company. In the summer of 2013, I started brainstorming with him about this new thing he should go do, and that thing became the thing I’ve been doing for the last two years.
Q: And the demographic — who would do this traveling?
A: Our travelers range from 8 years old to 80. Our travelers fall into three categories: a purpose-driven millennial, a mindful family, and a more seasoned traveler who wants to go a little deeper and not just write checks and be on board, but get in the game.
I’ve been part of lots of mission trips. Mission trips are great, but they’re a one-off thing, and they’re very difficult for the communities to receive as well as to sustain. And we’ve really built our architecture on the coast of the northern DR. The work is happening every day whether we’re there or not.
Q: Why the Dominican Republic?
A: It was a thoughtful, strategic decision. We did an enormous amount of market research looking at where would a North American traveler want to go. We had to think about things such as ship logistics. You cannot make a ship go fast to anywhere, and the duration of our trips is seven days. That’s what the market wanted, a seven-day experience, so we wanted to figure out if there is a way to create an immersive experience on the ground in one country in seven days. That narrowed us to about 12 countries. We then got to about four. And the DR made sense for a lot of reasons. We have four days on the ground in the Dominican Republic. Our trips leave from Miami every Sunday.
But it was really about the need in that region as well as the safety of the infrastructure and a variety of other dimensions. And then, corporately, we invested in an $80 million port facility on the northern coast of that region about 13 years ago, so we had longstanding relationships.
Buy hot dogs with onions
“This is Create Common Good’s sexiest product: onions,” Tara Russell told the chamber audience. “We chop 36 tons of onions a year. What I would like to say when people come to the door is, ‘We like to make you cry, and we’re really good at it.’
“We like to say we sell you people, food, and mission. We don’t really sell you people, but we bring equipped people to your workforces. We’ll sell you product, and we’ll sell you the opportunity to be a part of this mission with us.
“We are fortunate and proud to work closely with Jacksons Food Stores. And because we chop onions for their hot dogs all over the West Coast, we do lots and lots of hot dog onions.
“We’re able to give jobs and training to women coming out of the WCA [Women’s and Children’s Alliance], people coming out of our prison systems, people coming off the streets, living in homelessness. So buy a hot dog someday.”