By Bruce Poon Tip, Founder and Owner, G Adventures
When most people think of Thomas Edison, the word that probably comes to mind is inventor. Of course, Mr. Edison is responsible for some of the greatest inventions in modern history – the phonograph, the electrical lamp, the alkaline battery, to name a few – but his legacy goes far beyond the 1,093 U.S. patents he earned. Through those inventions and his business mind, Edison created and shaped multiple global industries where there previously were none. So, while he is arguably the greatest inventor in American history, I think of Edison as one of our greatest inventor-entrepreneurs. Or as I describe it: an inventrepreneur.
On the flip side, I think some of most prominent ‘entrepreneurs’ today don’t get the distinction they deserve as innovators and inventors. For example, Travis Kalanick (his controversial leadership aside) is known primarily as an entrepreneur. But there’s a big difference between creating Uber — pioneering an industry and transforming an entire market — and owning a local bookstore. Kalanick isn’t just an entrepreneur; he’s an inventrepreneur, too.
I consider myself an inventrepreneur and, even though I’ve spent 28 years building a company that’s expanded to 28 offices and more than 2,500 people world wide, I credit my time outside the office and my travels around the world with the inspiration to see things differently.
Inventrepreneurs put things in front of people that they’ve never thought of before. We draw from what we don’t know to create innovations, rather than what we have already experienced. Over the course of my life, I’ve observed that most people lean on ideas from their previous experiences. But the key differentiator I’ve noticed is that people have to be influenced outside work; to go somewhere that no one else in your sector has gone before. Be open to crazy ideas, even stupid ideas.
Earlier this year, I was honored to be among the business leaders and problem solvers whose innovations were celebrated at the high-profile Edison Awards in New York City. They honor excellence in technological innovation, new product and service development, marketing, and human-centered design, and they inspire us to think bigger.
That night in the audience, my team and I watched with fascination as we learned about the evening’s honorees. From incisionless ultrasound brain treatments to behavior pattern analytics that measure employee happiness, from shark-proof wearables to smart canes for the visually-impaired, high-tech innovation was front and center. The sense of possibility was palpable.
So, I confess to feeling a bit sheepish when the spotlight turned to G Adventures in the category of Social Impact and Innovation. We design, sell and deliver travel experiences that – on the surface – provide a fantastic vacation for you, your family and your friends. What’s innovative about that?
Here’s what: peer under the hood and you can see all the pieces and people that make up our global supply chain, then understand how we’re creating products in order to create life-changing relationships and lasting ripple effects in communities that would otherwise be left out of the tourism economy. By harnessing the power of your vacation, we can spread wealth, empower women, conserve indigenous traditions, train youth, and spur entrepreneurship around the world. It’s admittedly lower-tech, but absolutely high-touch and high-transformation. We are creating a world of good.
As a social enterprise, having this approach to innovation works best for G Adventures. We’re not creating remote-controlled devices to construct space stations, or helmets that can stop a tremor in its tracks. (Those are amazing, by the way.) But our innovation — to connect local communities’ unique talents and resources — with global travelers’ wallets, and do it in a way that corrects some of the imbalances in opportunity, on a scale that has not yet been done in our sector, well, that’s something worth watching.
Case in point: our 50-in-5 challenge, which I launched in 2016 with our partner nonprofit foundation Planeterra, firmly committed my company to kickstart and operationalize 50 new social enterprises around the world in five years, and to do it not through charity or international aid, but through the power of purposeful business and shared profits. It’s social impact at scale.
We gained the confidence to make this bold promise by learning through places like the Sacred Valley of Peru, where women used to be reliant on their husbands’, brothers’ and fathers’ income as Inca Trail guides and porters to provide for their and their families’ well-being. These women had the drive, skills, and hunger to participate, and they said to us: give us work, too. In launching the Women’s Weaving Cooperative with them in 2016, and partnering with local artisans (savvy businesswomen) to offer traditional handicraft demonstrations and one-of-a-kind products, we created a new experience for travelers they didn’t yet know they would enjoy. We also empowered 60+ Quechua women to create a business that would help right the economic imbalance.
So, back to Edison and Kalanick, and Michael Dell, who did it with innovative computer operations and processing: the inventrepreneur is part-inventor, part-entrepreneur. He or she delivers what people don’t know they need (yet) and pioneers or reinvents entire industries. Inventrepreneurs like us possess a relenting, burning desire to pursue and build ideas at any cost.
I’m proud that we received a 2018 Edison Award in Social Innovation this year and were named one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative travel companies. This recognition helps validate our inventrepreneurial approach, but more importantly, helps us export it further.
There’s no right or wrong way to pursue innovation and entrepreneurship, but there certainly are distinct paths to follow based on your skills, risk tolerance, curiosities and leadership style. Regardless of how high tech or high touch you want your innovations to be, I’d say: keep this Edison quote handy for inspiration, like I have.
“There’s a way to do it better – find it.”