As I mentioned earlier, the internship program for my school requires we do an Informational Interview with our supervisor. I wanted to share the interview here for other people who are interested in entrepreneurial conservation. The rest of the information from the interview will soon be in the updated About section of the site.
Informational Interview with Crist Inman, Founder of La Paz Group:
1. How does the partnership between environment and business work in the sustainable tourism industry?
The idea behind it is what we call the valorization of nature, paying for conservation through experiential services rather than exploiting nature for its extractive value. For example, you can cut down a tree only once, but you can monetize it by having people pay for a hike over and over again. It is a partnership between environment and business that engages people in conservation. Philanthropic conservation such as writing a check to WWF or The Nature Conservancy is good and important, but there is still a deficit of conservation.
The public sector plays an incredibly important role as well, but we are going to need more than philanthropy and public sector work because the world is losing more wilderness than all the philanthropies and governments in the world combined can protect. The intangibles of culture loss are harder to detect and comprehend but the world is losing too much cultural heritage as well. This is a business model that allows people to engage in conservation rather than just writing a check as a donation or in the form of tax. This allows people to participate and experience nature and culture in a way that makes business sense as much as it achieves conservation.
2. What is entrepreneurial conservation?
Usually these two words don’t get used in the same sentence. Together though, these words build something more valuable and effective than either could on their own. The premise underlying entrepreneurial conservation is that there are good economic reasons to preserve natural and cultural heritage. And when such good reasons present themselves, opportunity and need go hand in hand. Essentially, it is professionals developing and/or managing a business whose profits are invested in the conservation of natural and/or cultural patrimony.
3. How did you get started doing this?
There was a couple who bought 1000 acres of rainforest on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica. They built a lodge to support their conservation efforts. They knew of my work through mutual friends, and they invited me to help them. We took the property over and began managing it. We created the company La Paz Group because they suggested and we realized that other people who are trying to manage private conservation on their own might not have the knowledge of some element that is necessary to do it. The following projects we had proved this to be true. Our first project built our client base in a lot of ways and showed us how this business model can work.
4. What is the basic business model?
A business, such as a hotel, that generates profits that are invested in protecting valuable cultural or natural patrimony. In the case of La Paz Group the business is lodging, but we have experimented with other businesses as well. For example, the Patagonia Expedition Race, which wasn’t a hotel. So basically, buy the land first or connect with the conservation project or element; build a low-impact business; get the investors convinced that this is what they want to do and a certain investment will lead to a profitable business. This profit pays the investor back and continues to pay for ongoing conservation efforts in perpetuity. The guest experiences what it helps do. The guests don’t know how much goes to conservation but they get the feeling of ethically sourced. Its explicit on the back end but not on the front end. The idea is, “if you don’t taste it, we are not doing our job.” For example, a perfectly red tomato is a hollow experience compared to an heirloom tomato. The business won’t make money if ostentatious, which is why our profits are invested in real conservation.
5. How did the business model work for the Patagonia Expedition Race?
The Patagonia business model was taking an annual event that had been a labor of love of a guy devoting 100% of his life to it, but like the first property it needed help; it did not have financial sustainability nor did it even have a conservation mission. The idea behind the race was to raise awareness about the Patagonia ecosystem but there was no tangible conservation. It was essentially a voluntary philanthropic mission that ran its course without having the resources to continue. The race was a perfect model for running expeditions when it wasn’t race time as well as finding a sponsor.
The most obvious candidate wasn’t interested and so we went through a huge number of candidates and we ended up helping the Race attract Wenger (Swiss Army brand) to agree to invest a significant amount of capital for promotional services as the title sponsor. The money should’ve been seed money to generate more revenue from other sponsors, but the organization wasn’t able to implement that. This is the only time we have used the title-sponsor concept as a business model and it’s different than investors because they aren’t buying a share in anything or making a long-term commitment. The sponsor seed money needed to grow to fund guards and the race. The idea was that over 3 years we have to make sure this helps earn us more money.
6. How has the business model worked since coming to India?
Since coming to India, it has been different because land is more difficult to buy. We knew when coming in it would be different. So, what we have been working with is having a hotel property that is low impact, preserving the land we are on in some cases, doing social entrepreneurship projects, providing a space for local entrepreneurs to be supported in getting the knowledge they need and possibly the platform to do it. In one of the properties we’re supporting the Periyar Tiger Reserve, which borders the hotel. The current Deputy Director has a no plastic initiative, which we’re supporting with a newspaper bag making unit, as well as selling their sustainably harvested products such as pepper and wild honey. In the gift shop we also have products from several women’s self-help groups and things like that.
7. What is an example of a business model that worked primarily for culture conservation?
In Croatia, we worked on a small island in the Adriatic Sea called Kalamota, at the point when they were shifting from a socialist economy to capitalism. The culture of the island had grown up and worked under a socialist model so the fishermen community was at risk. The only economic activity really happening on the island was a hotel and fishermen. Many people had to go to the mainland to get work. Our standard model applied in the sense that the hotel generates profits that get invested in the conservation project. This time the conservation story was a little different. Three main guys set up a non-profit fund that owned the hotel and used the hotel to buy land over time and put into a conservation easement. But they ran out of capital so our work became raising money to achieve the strategic plan. We identified an investor who was interested in the plan and bought the whole project. With finding investors, you network and put out the word to people you know and usually about 1 in 10 is relevant and 1 in 100 is suitable. The new component of this business model was to develop portions of property holdings and invite around 8 professionals with different trades to be based on the island (for example, software development) and employ locals and teach them to bring more local economic development so they didn’t have to go off the island for their livelihood. We also focused on documenting and incorporating artisanal fishing activities such as knot tying at the hotel and documenting local recipes, like herbal liqueurs and ways of preserving olives that the older women were doing or used to do.
8. What kind of education does one need to follow this career path?
You don’t need a special education for this. There are degrees– sustainable development, for example, but it’s not essential. It helps when you can show you have credentials when you are going to the bank, however. For example, because I have a Ph.D. it helps when my client asks me to get a loan from the bank and I have to show them that the business model makes sense and they can see I have the credentials. But it is not unheard of that someone smart who puts in the hard work could do what I do just as well. Spend time with someone who is doing this thing well and follow the 10,000 hour rule. It takes a lot of hard work to understand all the moving parts. For example, if you wanted to do exactly what I do in terms of geographical diversity- you have to navigate cultural differences as well. This is an industry that does not require specialized education. Choose a company that’s a good example of it and put in the time.
9. What do you suggest for someone who is not likely to have an investor contact her, but sees a conservation project and wants to create a business that pays for it?
Put in time doing whatever it is that you want to be doing. It’s the same in any job, if you wanted to be a chef, hang out with chefs. Work for people who are doing what you want to be doing and put in your time, your 10,000 hours. The client base of a company you are working for could be a good place to start, but be open and transparent upfront. You tell me, here’s what I want to do, I want to be doing what you’re doing, how can we work together. If you told that to me I would be happy to get you to understand what makes a good client, and how to identify investors and clients.
10. What advice do you have for someone starting out in entrepreneurial conservation?
Like I said, you are combining two things that people don’t usually say in the same sentence. So you must be constantly conscious that to other people it’s still a fairly novel concept. You must be motivated to build a career that you will be constantly explaining yourself, that you enjoy talking about. People will always be asking you, what does it mean? People think conservation can’t be connected to business. That’s because business is primarily driven by greed, so people think it is corrupting. People may think you’ve sold out. At best, people will think that it’s interesting. Be ready for blank stares and enjoy teaching people. Another dimension of it is that environmental work is often motivated by a dreamy and emotional component while entrepreneurship has a different kind of motivator.
Conservation is an even further field in the sense that how to do it is not obvious, it’s rather complex. Entrepreneurship is usually rational and straightforward- you ask yourself, how am I going to get money? And then you do more of what makes that money. So this is an intersection of each of those fields. So you must not let the dreamy track stop you from making money because you must keep in mind if you’re not making money, there is no conservation. And you must hold onto the conservation, taking every chance you get to build the business around conservation. Keep your mind focused that you’re making money for the sake of conservation and with the resources of your business that is how you will achieve conservation.