Meet the Woman Who Wants to Disrupt Your Vacation
The world's largest travel and leisure company has been quietly investing in something radical.
Over the last few years, the largest travel and leisure company in the world has been quietly investing in something radical: A global impact platform beginning with a 48,000-ton ship that will sail to exotic locales with the specific purpose of building better communities and facilitating meaningful exchange between travelers and local communities.
This spring, the new social impact travel line Fathom will invite travelers to join them for personally fulfilling seven-day journeys by small ship that double as on-the-ground service trips in the Dominican Republic and cultural exchange trips to Cuba. This is just the beginning of Fathom and Carnival Corporation’s Global Impact Platform and vision being realized.
GOOD had a chance to speak with Fathom President and Global Impact Lead Tara Russell in a lively conversation about the risks and rewards of launching an altruistic enterprise and a new vision for an industry built on the human desire for rest and relaxation.
I’d like to kick things off by talking about what inspires you about travel. Has there ever been a moment when you’ve been on the road that you’ll never forget?
There are so many! I was in the Dominican Republic just a couple months back, and I had the opportunity to work with kids in one of the schools that [Fathom] partnered with. I was paired with a little guy named Jose who was 10 years old. In spirit, he was so similar to my son Tyson, who is also 10. And it was just one of those moments that give you goosebumps, because this little guy stole my heart. He was trying so hard to practice his limited English with me, and yet he had a bit of apprehension that he wasn’t perfect. My son has the same fears; he sometimes doesn't want to express himself because he's such a perfectionist.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]We're not here to create something that makes only the traveler feel good.[/quote]
So I'm sitting in this gorgeous, remote location in the middle of the Dominican Republic along the northern coast, and I'm missing my kids, and I was just so struck by how shared our humanity is. And really how we as mothers, globally, all want the same thing for our children. It was one of those moments where my whole universe came together and I just felt, "I cannot wait for Tyson to meet Jose!"
In many ways, Fathom is like a start-up, one that will “disrupt” the travel industry by making those kinds of moments possible for so many people. What do you think the possibilities are with this new initiative?
Well, I'm one of those crazy people who believes anything is possible. And for me personally, I find my own learning and growth and development have often come through travel experiences. Fathom, in some ways, is not really about Fathom—it's about this idea of unleashing human potential on the world and harnessing and leveraging the assets we have individually and corporately. I think much of the world really struggles to understand what their unique role is in the universe. My hope is that for other travelers, we provide that avenue within Fathom, helping people go through an experience and a process on-board through impact programming that really allows them to discover what burns inside them, what keeps them up at night, where their passion really lies.
Tara Russell with a student in the Dominican Republic
For me, I can deeply empathize with the needs of children globally because I'm a mother and I have my own kids. Also business, for me, has been such a powerful vehicle of transformation. I'm very passionate about economic development, about micro-entrepreneurism, and about helping small businesses globally. I think when families are in need and live in poverty—whether they have health issues, education issues, medical issues, emotional issues, spiritual issues—usually financial insecurity is the root of the great majority of social ill. So if you can solve for that—bringing people from financial dependence into independence through job opportunities, training opportunities, small business opportunities—usually, from my experience, you're able to radically alter all those other dimensions. Which is why Fathom is doing so much on-the-ground work with local small businesses and entrepreneurs globally.
So on an individual level, we’re going to help unleash people’s purpose. On a mass scale, we're doing something radical in this industry—not just the cruise industry, but across travel and far beyond.
Fathom travelers dig in, planting vegetation to prevent soil erosion.
What do you mean by that?
The travel industry is scratching their head, going, "Wow. This is a pretty significant bet in terms of Carnival Corporation’s really being willing to go after a very different type of traveler through a lens that is impact-driven."
It’s true that today we are just one of 100 ships in a fleet. And by the way, we're one of the smaller ships. But we've been investing and building in Fathom for a few years now. This is what keeps me up at night in gratitude—you rarely get an opportunity to have a global company invest in an innovation initiative for multiple years, as we build for long-term impact and financial sustainability. It’s a new season for us and Carnival Corporation’s 120,000 employees and for the future of travel.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]We want to help people discover what burns inside them, what keeps them up at night.[/quote]
Honestly, we're just getting started. Fathom isn't really about just the Dominican Republic and Cuba. You might imagine finding a Fathom workshop onboard a Seabourn ship in the middle of the South Pacific. You might imagine a Fathom medical clinic or an educational center in remote parts of the Middle East. You might imagine a Fathom media channel, or a Fathom media platform that's really tooled with resources to help inspire any individual’s impact journey, wherever they may physically be in their life. Corporately, we go to 700-plus locations. Our collective impact vision is for the world. It will be powerful for humanity and for the corporation.
That’s so exciting. I wonder if that ambitious vision is related to your work in the global private sector? I know you’ve worked with some pretty major companies, like Nike, Intel, and Shanghai General Motors.
That's a great question. I like to think I’ve had two different careers that have now merged into one. I'm structure-agnostic—I love for-profits, I love nonprofits. It's not about the structure, it's about how you access capital to serve your mission and what is the most powerful vehicle and infrastructure for transformative change.
One of the things that was very fortunate for me was the chance to be exposed to remarkable people in leadership across teams—whether it was product development or engineering and manufacturing, operations or sales and marketing. I'd like to say I did it that way on purpose, but I just took advantage of the opportunities I was afforded. I didn't see the beautiful patterns until later. I believe we all have a collective responsibility to utilize the exeriences we’ve been given for collective good.
How that helps me at Fathom is navigating Carnival Corporation’s family of 10 global brands, and how to best run Fathom as a lean start-up with the support of a corporation. We don’t necessarily have to worry about immediate cash flow like other start-ups, which means that we have the opportunity to make a real, lasting dent in the universe. What we are trying to build is a financially sustainable, transformative platform where we can continue to reinvest in social impact and in impact innovation globally.
I think it’s a great model because—well, it used to be that people had separate wallets. “Here's my spending wallet, here's my tax wallet, here's my investing wallet, here's my giving wallet.” Well, now people merge all those wallets and it's become much more blurry. I call it the “Whole Foods Effect.” People are spending more where they're feeling they can also make a contribution to their community, to a workplace that has good benefits, to something that will support humane treatment of animals and the environment. They're accomplishing a lot of their "do gooder" goals while at the same time, they're filling their bellies. Macro-wise, some big shifts are happening.
Can you explain that a bit more?
My vision is not that Fathom takes over the world for Fathom's sake—my vision is that Fathom, for all intents and purposes, takes over the world to help people uncover their own gifts and talents for doing good—what we call superpowers. And that’s even if they’ve never traveled with us! Maybe someone is inspired to purchase a Krochet Kids Int’l scarf and help a woman in Uganda through that purchase, or to get engaged and involved in their local Boys and Girls Club, or build a new edible garden at their school. They may not get the chance to be on our ship, but they may have heard about their friends' Fathom experiences, which may have inspired them to implement that model in their own backyards, in their own communities.
We're not here to architect something that makes only the traveler feel good. We're going to architect something that is genuinely transformational for the locals and the travelers. I like to think we're not going to do something for the Dominicans, we're coming alongside the Dominicans to serve with them in things they were already doing without us. They're the teachers, we're the learners.
So how do you evaluate and select the types of service projects that Fathom travelers take on?
We spend a lot of time listening and learning. In the Dominican Republic, what we heard, all across the country, is three key things: They wanted to see their education systems transform, their environment protected, and their economic development opportunities grow. We met with kids and teachers, with locals, business leaders, with the president, with the ministers of tourism—everyone iterated the same three things. Through that, we then co-developed the experiences with these communities on the ground on the northern coast.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]The moment they say to us, ‘We don’t need you anymore,’ that’s our best case scenario ever.[/quote]
For us, it wasn't just, "Hey, we're going to show up with a bus of 50 people." No way. It was, "Okay, if you, Chocal—this organic chocolate cooperative—if you're trying to grow opportunity for employment within your region and give more women a job (because none of them are actually making a salary yet), how do we help with that?" For small social enterprises, growth is a good thing, but growth can also kill you. These women got a big loan from the president of the Dominican Republic, so our human laborers have the opportunity to help them pay off that loan and begin to pay themselves more of a salary as they grow their production, since they got a huge contract from one of the largest supermarket chains, which is amazing.
The moment they say to us, "We now have the resources to both pay our people and go hire people. So you know what? We don't need you anymore." That's our best case scenario ever.
The women of Chocal
I'm going to circle back to this idea of the superpowers. What's yours?
I think I have the ability to unleash superpowers in others in ways, shapes, forms, and channels that they never imagined or dreamed possible. I'm a big believer that our pain leads us to a purposed life. There's been a lot of pain and challenge in my life and the beauty of it is it brought me to both who I am and what I do today. I feel both grateful and proud of that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Images via Fathom / Chris Park.