The business of having each other’s backs through sustainable tourism
Michal Alter—a Solo Mom of two—is the founder and CEO of Visit.org, a debut marketplace for social-impact travel experiences hosted by nonprofits and other community-based enterprises around the world. Through Visit.org, such experiences include exploring local villages on a Philippines boat tour or taking a knitting workshop in Paris and learning about sustainable fashion—all while supporting the nonprofits that supply these experiences. Alter’s mission is to develop a sustainable tourism business model that generates consistent revenue streams that are invested back into the local communities. Considered an expert on female entrepreneurship, Alter recently spoke at the Women Leaders in the Business World event, part of the 60th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, about Visit.org’s business model being based on the idea of “having each other’s backs.”
Q: Is building a business on the idea of “having each other’s backs” as hard as it sounds?
A: Yes, it’s very hard to build a business on having each other’s backs! The investors are not used to hearing a pitch that talks about social impact. They aren’t used to hearing about how sensitive we are to the needs of the suppliers and how much we care about them. On the flip side, our suppliers—the nonprofits that are doing the good, important work—wake up every day thinking of the people they are serving, not necessarily about the tourism products we help them sell. We want the nonprofits to continue focusing on their social mission but also deliver the highest-quality experience when they host travelers and visitors who book on Visit.org.
Q: How did you come up with this vision?
A: It comes from my personal experience. Back then, I was a software engineer during the day, volunteering at a tiny nonprofit organization in Tel Aviv during the night. The nonprofit was made up of 10 employees who were serving 20,000 refugees and another 100,000 migrant workers who were living in the city. This nonprofit served a community with extremely high needs—many of them women with children, many of them Solo Moms. It was totally funded by donations, so we had to do a lot of fundraising. After becoming familiar with the amazing work this nonprofit did to change the world of 120,000 people, I thought, Why should they have to beg for money when they are doing such important work? There has to be a more sustainable way for organizations like this to exist.
Q: You eventually became the refugee director for this organization. Am I right to assume that this came with a pay cut?
A: Yes! It was an 80% pay cut! Also, nobody—not my family or my friends—understood why I made this transition. The person who was behind me and had my back at that point was my ex-husband. We had just started dating, and he pushed me when he saw how much happier I was returning from my volunteer work versus returning from my day work in the high-tech company. He gave me the confidence to go in that direction and later on to start my own company. I appreciate him for that. But then we got divorced. The question at that point was, now that he is gone, where do I get my boost from? How do I make sure to stay brave? That’s been a challenge in the last couple of years, but I have found that I have this courage in me, I just need to constantly find it in me.
Q: So who has your back now, as a Solo Mom?
A: I rely on my brothers, parents, and friends. And when I remind myself to look around, I see that there are a lot of other people reaching out to me whom I hadn’t recognized. It’s important that I wave back at these people who are waving at me because even if I don’t know them well, these people may also have my back.
Q: Do you have an example?
A: Fellow moms from the kids’ school with whom I had no relationship prior to the divorce, once they heard I had gotten divorced, they reached out. It surprised me because I had literally never had a conversation with them before. They reached out because they had gone through divorce themselves and just wanted to let me know they were there if I wanted to talk. I was so touched, and it showed me that challenges can bring us together. Now that I passed the many challenges of my divorce, I’m trying to be proactive about sharing my experience with others. And eventually that leads to a wider network of people who have my back, and I have theirs.
Q: Is sharing our personal stories a way of having each other’s backs?
A: Yes. We have to not be shy about it. For instance, the reason for my divorce is quite unique. In the beginning, I kept it a secret. I didn’t want to even talk about it. It took me a long time until I started putting words to it and saying what was going on. When I finally opened up, other people opened up immediately after. Sharing stories creates bonding.
Q: Who had your back then?
A: I relied a lot on my close family and friends. I was also lucky enough to have my business partner. She had come into my life less than a year before but ended up becoming a big support. This is why I believe that people are put into our lives for a reason. Now, my business partner is moving on to do other things—although she’ll stay on in a strategic role at Visit.org. This has given me the perspective that when people leave, other people will come, and when those people leave, other people will come. It’s all there; it’s always all there.
Q: What is your source of endless optimism?
A: I simply would rather wake up with a smile in the morning, so I do everything I can to make it happen. I remind myself that my life now is pretty simple, I only need to focus on four things: my children, my work, my running (I started running when my divorce started and now run three times a week and love it), and hanging out with people I love. This reality check is pretty helpful. Also, I recently learned that every challenge brings something good. When faced with a challenging situation, I first remind myself that something good is going to come out of it. Then I ask, What is it? I totally wanted the opposite to happen, but now that this has happened instead, what can I achieve out of it? It’s very hard, but practice makes it easier.
Q: What does practicing look like?
A: There is a technique I learned from the iDiscover program. I ask about challenging situations that already happened: What did I get out of that situation in terms of relationships? What did I get in terms of career? What did I get in terms of skills? By answering those questions, I see all the things I gained, which makes it easier to recognize the opportunities that new challenges can bring.
Mika Yamamoto, ESME's Guide for Public Assistance, has successfully nurtured two children as a Solo Mom and now hopes to achieve the same results as a plant nanny.
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