When I first came across Aoka, I was hit with a serious wave of the travel bug. It can’t be helped -- the website is filled with vivid images of overwhelmingly beguiling settings. Aoka, however, isn’t your run-of-the-mill tour operator. With a focus on sustainability and social responsibility, Aoka marries travel opportunities with community-building, so as to alter the shape of the mainstream tourism model that is currently ubiquitous.
To learn a little more about Aoka’s business model, SocialBusiness.org spoke with Ricardo L. Gravina, the Co-Founder and Sales Director at Aoka, who gave us the lowdown on how Aoka came to fruition, as well as his methods for staying inspired and creative.
Four Questions with Ricardo L. Gravina
1. How did the idea for the business model come about?
The actual concept of promoting social innovation through learning journeys was constructed over time. In more than one year of testing, receiving feedback, changing, taking chances, etc., we finally realized what we were doing. I think that happens with all innovative ideas and companies. When Daniel and I started up the company we wanted to create a social business that took different people to see the world as it really is. Partnering with grassroots/urban community associations and trustable NGOs, we took our clients to learn about the lifestyle of different indigenous communities. This way, we could generate wealth and jobs for this communities and NGOs. In order to building up solid intercultural relationships we created our own social technology and methodology. We've put some world-class specialists (anthropologists, sociologists, economists, etc.) to create a deeper and deeper understanding of the people and visited regions. Then, we suddenly realized what we had come up with. We'd designed a whole new way of culture interaction, which we named Aoka Experiences. Our experiences provide opportunities to rethink our own value systems and behavioral standards when dealing with different people from different backgrounds. Today we are also working with open-minded companies with mainly two different goals: to get closer and truly comprehend their relationship with key stakeholders from the bottom of the pyramid (BoP); and to promote personal development, inspiring leaders to act based on a broader and more inclusive comprehension of the world we live in.
2. How did you decide to join this sector?
I've worked in the new business development and sales departments for more than 10 years in traditional companies. But I felt it was just not enough. There was no purpose at all. It was an empty life with no goals besides earning money and social status. I've always wanted to do something more, something good, something with a meaning.
One day, my actual partner Daniel, who was working for a NGO specialized on community-based tourism called Projeto Bagagem, needed to create an travel agency to sell its products. He came to me and we decided to start Aoka as a social business. We signed up for a social business competition by the international organization that fosters social business called Artemisia. Out of almost 200 business ideas, we were one of the five chosen and supported by them. By that time this new concept was a total novelty to me. But I understood it instantly. It was just a company with a clear social purpose as its core business. In our case, Aoka was created to help communities and partner NGOs through different travel experiences. And of course, it has to generate profit. But the profit is reinvested to make our impact even larger and more profound. It's almost a childish thought, but I never wanted to get rich, I just wanted to do something worth living for. It has worked for me so far.
3. How do you get your inspiration?
Definitely, my inspiration comes from the field. It’s just overwhelming how the contact with grassroots communities can bring clarity and strength to keep one on doing what has to be done. Their simple and straightforward way of thinking make us almost feel too complicated. It is a company policy to everyone of our employees to visit the field from time to time to recharge their batteries.
4. How do you reset yourself to be creative? Do you have any rituals?
It's really hard to be able to step back and think about what your doing specially in a small company… It really is. But I try to meditate at least 30 minutes everyday. It definitely helps a lot. It's exercise for the mind. Sometimes I can get away of everything and just be with myself, my family and friends. And of course, I always visit our partners in the field.
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