The Good Ship Impact

Fathom is a measure of the depth of water and, appropriately enough, a verb meaning to understand a difficult problem after much thought. In the context of this story it is also a new business venture known as Fathom, the pioneer of social impact travel.

‘Colonialism laid down the ground work for underdevelopment and modernization theory completed the cycle….economic benefits from the Caribbean, whether commodity or scenery, have….accrued ‘not to inhabitants but to outsiders.’*

This is a story about sailing against the tide of history, toward a more enlightened, mutually beneficial, respectful engagement. Destination: the Caribbean. Lying snugly due south-southeast of the economic juggernaut that is the United States of America are 28 glistening island nations and two in particular whose stories figure in this one: the Republic of Cuba and the Dominican Republic. One rich in culture and tradition, the other, the Caribbean’s largest economy fueled by nearly $12 billion in bilateral trade with the U.S.

Beginning in April and May of this year, these two islands are destinations for a new kind of cruise line known as Fathom, the pioneer of impact travel. Its parent company, Carnival Corporation & plc, is the largest cruise company in the world with a portfolio of cruise brands in North America, Europe, Australia, and Asia. In the Dominican Republic, travelers work alongside local citizens tackling important community needs – needs identified in collaboration with on-the-ground community organizations and Fathom’s partners. In Cuba, Carnival Corporation will operate Fathom travel itineraries that fully comply with U.S. regulations authorizing Americans to travel to Cuba under one of 12 criteria permitted by the U.S. Treasury Department. It is important to note that the Fathom experience in the Dominican Republic varies from the Cuban experience as the former includes a wide range of social impact activities focused on education, environment, and economic development.

Fathom president Tara Russell is global impact lead for Carnival Corporation as well as the originator, continuing shaper, and leader of Fathom. She holds a degree in mechanical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, draws on more than two decades of experience in the private and nonprofit sectors, aiding some of the world’s most marginalized people, including victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, and worked for some of the most powerful Fortune 500 companies like GM, Nike, and Intel. Tara’s boss, Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival Corporation, pulled himself up by his bootstraps growing up in a loving family with limited means in New Orleans, to leading the world’s largest leisure travel company.

Their new initiative is a prime example of how business can be harnessed for good. Fathom’s collaboration with some of the charitable sector’s most well recognized and trusted names (including IS member, United Way Worldwide) serves as an example of how socially good business will be done in the future – and Russell is the embodiment of a growing list of leaders who refuse to choose between good and profit.

Why would you when you can have both?

Tara Russell:

Fathom is not about going to lots of places. Our objective is about going deeply in one place.

There are so many people whom I have heard say: ‘I have seen all I can see, I can write a check, but I don’t know where and how an accountant or engineer can make a difference. Part of what we are doing is providing a solution to make that journey possible and connect others with it as well. In Cuba the accent will be on experiencing culture, in the DR, small-scale enterprise. There are many aspects to the experience, hands-on work that helps local people, Spanish lessons, music, films, but also just grabbing a beer and processing their experiences with others who have the same experiences. For the person not used to cruising, the captivity of the ship – in this case the 704-passenger Adonia – serves a good purpose. There are many spaces on ship for conversations.

We have a diverse demography from age 8 to 80. Demographically different, but psychologically similar. There are the early 30s purposeful millennials, some with kids, some not. They have given money to causes and now they want to marry their values with their travel experience. They are usually working professionals who are hungry to go deep in one place.

There are mindful families: my own kids who are 10 and 8 don’t want to sit on a beach. We’ve designed ways for families to experience impact travel together. Having your family unit all together means you can inspire each other and learn from each other. Then there are more seasoned travelers who are very well educated and have written a lot of checks but are tired of being a spectator. They are very well read about these places and issues but it feels far off. Multigenerational families and extended family groupings draw energy from each other, the 20-somethings and the travelers in their late fifities to seventies reinforcing each other.

Then there are groups – Rotary, Stanford alumni, church groups, and the United Way women’s council – who are already engaged and invested in education, study abroad, and gap year experiences. And I believe there could be non-traditional travel affinity with other like-minded groups who are purpose driven.

*Valentine Smith, International Journal of Developing Societies, Volume 2, Number 1, 2013. Cipriani School of Labour and Cooperative Studies, Trinidad and Tobago

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