Female Disruptors: Tonya Fitzpatrick of World Footprints On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry
The extra mile is never crowded. This statement reflects my work ethos. When you go the extra mile, you stand out, because most people will just do enough and then stop. In the competitive world, you have to stand out in order to be heard and make a difference. One area where I know that I stand out is how I treat the writers who contribute to World Footprints. I pay them immediately upon publishing their work and I always send a thank you note. Several have commented on how much they appreciate my humanity. It’s a small gesture but it means a great deal.
As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tonya Fitzpatrick, Esq.
Tonya Fitzpatrick is a 3x TEDx speaker, lawyer and the co-Founder of World Footprints, an award-winning social impact travel media company. A graduate of the London School of Economics, Tonya is a former delegate to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and a former Senior Executive White House appointee. She has been featured across multiple media platforms including a recent AAA World Magazine cover.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My life was shaped by my eclectic childhood experiences, including the arts, 4-H programs, imaginary adventures, bullying and the karate lessons that put an end to the bullying. But the event that had the most impact on me was when I learned how big the world was.
I had an uncle — Uncle Michael — who was living in London, England, and he came home for a visit when I was five years old. His visit showed me there was a world larger than my neighborhood.
Shortly after Uncle Mike’s visit, I watched as my grandparents and another uncle departed on a flight to visit Uncle Mike in England. I promised myself right then that I would move to London one day
Years later, I kept that promise I made to my five-year-old self and moved to London.
Throughout my life I’ve always been passionate about social justice, and it’s that feeling that attracted me to law school. I’m also a lover of animals and their rights, and the conservation of wildlife has always been important to me too.
Fast forward to today and the formation of my social impact travel media company, World Footprints. I know that World Footprints is my heart’s work because it’s a perfect blend of my love for travel and my passion for social justice advocacy.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
One many levels, I am disrupting the way we travel and the way we think about travel.
First, people are afraid of things that they don’t know, and it is fear that keeps many people from experiencing the world and other cultures. In an interview I did with travel television host Rick Steves, he mentioned that the people who are the most fearful are those without passports, and I completely agree.
Traveling broadens your perspectives and shows you how much people are alike. It helps you learn about and respect the differences we have too. I challenge people to see the humanity in others.
So I disrupt the negative noise we’re fed about other places and cultures through social media, uninformed family and friends and even mainstream media. I encourage people to find their truth on the ground. I call this ground-truthing.
For example, I’ve been credentialed to cover Olympic and Paralympic Games since 2010. Two recent host destinations, Sochi, Russia and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, received very negative press. I decided to travel to those destinations so that I could share what was really happening on the ground. What I found is that my experiences — my truth — did not validate the headlines.
Through stories and examples, I demonstrate that travel is one antidote to the divisiveness we see in the world.
Secondly, I disrupt the way we treat our planet and the local communities we visit. In the interest of sustainability and humanity, it is imperative that we understand and examine the impact we have on the environment, local community and economy. We need to ask where our dollars are going. Are we purchasing products made from endangered wildlife, like turtle shells or ivory? Or are we spending money on mass-produced items imported from another country that don’t contribute to the local economy?
It is also important that we look at how we use the resources that are available to us. Are we being responsible? Are we treating the locals in a respectful manner?
I also illuminate the multiple benefits that travel offers our personal and professional lives.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I can’t really say that I’ve made any funny mistakes. There’ve been times when I’ve gone back to Michigan and demonstrated some East Coast impatience but I was quick to check myself.
Perhaps one of my biggest lessons came when I did a six-week backpacking trip through Southeast Asia and didn’t research the different cultural traditions beforehand. Luckily my travel partner had done a lot of reading before we embarked. His research saved me from making some embarrassing mistakes.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
I actually have invisible mentors — people who I have admired and studied from afar. This collection of mentors is based on the Board of Advisors that Napoleon Hill refers to in his book Think and Grow Rich. Some of my mentors are people who share my view of the world. They believe in the beauty of our common humanity and the imperative to protect this planet.
My “mentors” have also been people who have gone against the grain of society by disrupting systems and/or opinions and misconceptions. When I’m on the fence about something I imagine that I’m sitting in a room with my imaginary Board and we are talking about the issue at hand. I have a stellar Board of Advisors. The Board includes people like Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, Vice President Kamala Harris, Mother Theresa, Maya Angelou (who I was honored to interview), my late father, Abraham Lincoln, Richard Branson and Mahatma Gandhi (whose grandson is a friend) are a few who make up my Board of Advisors.
Closer to me are family members, including my husband, who have supported, pushed and challenged me. Hearing a family member say that they believe in me, seeing my parents at every single activity I’ve participated in, and having family invest in my business venture(s) has been very impactful.
The love my parents have shown for other people and animals has also shaped my passion and interests. I channel the business savvy of my late paternal grandfather, who was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known.
Something else that has left an indelible mark on me is bearing witness to the resilience and courage that people like my 97-year-old maternal grandma have exhibited in the face of adversity. My grandmother raised eight children (one girl, my mom, and seven boys) mostly alone, because my grandfather traveled with his Negro league baseball team and later for work.
They lived on a farm in a small Michigan town that happened to be a hub for the Ku Klux Klan in the state. Despite the environment, my grandmother supported the family by going door-to-door selling Avon and Tupperware, and she did that without fear.
I’d like to think that I’m as fierce and fearless as my grandma.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
It depends on what’s being disrupted.
The late Congressman John Lewis urged that we should “Never be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
The peaceful protests during the civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter are examples of good trouble. Mahatma Gandhi’s peaceful campaign to secure India’s independence from British rule is another example of positive disruption. Gandhi’s courage actually inspired similar movements for freedom and civil rights across the world.
What we saw in my home of Washington, DC on January 6, 2021 is a prime example of destructive, lawless and unjustifiable behavior.
Acts against humanity, like those we saw in Nazi Germany almost a century ago and later in Rwanda, are other examples of destructive, harmful and unjustifiable disruption.
I think the answers to these questions are pretty clear.
In the space where I live — travel and tourism media — the types of good trouble that Congressman John Lewis referred to could be calling out a tourism board for not sharing their full narrative, identifying a property that does not address the accessibility needs of travelers, or boycotting a service for discriminatory practices.
Also, debunking preconceptions about people and places and putting a spotlight on untruths is a beautiful disruption, because it helps to shine a light on humanity. Sharing my experiences around the world and showing why it is dangerous to paint a community with broad strokes helps to bridge cultural gaps. I always say that you’ll never go to war with someone you break bread with. So if we broke bread with more people, perhaps we could begin to sew up the divides.
This is the type of “good trouble” that I have no issue getting into, and World Footprints has given me the platform to be a bit disruptive.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
- The extra mile is never crowded. This statement reflects my work ethos. When you go the extra mile, you stand out, because most people will just do enough and then stop. In the competitive world, you have to stand out in order to be heard and make a difference. One area where I know that I stand out is how I treat the writers who contribute to World Footprints. I pay them immediately upon publishing their work and I always send a thank you note. Several have commented on how much they appreciate my humanity. It’s a small gesture but it means a great deal.
- Where there’s a will, there’s a way. This is one of my favorite mantras. It’s something that my late father would say all of the time and it has served me well. A great example is when I first moved to London, keeping the promise I made when I was five years old. I only had $300 in my pocket but I did have a couch to live on for one month. I was so determined to live in London for as long as I could, and I did. I enrolled in graduate studies at the London School of Economics and took out a student loan for tuition and living. I also obtained a part-time job. I had the will, so I found the way to live in London for three years, and I could have stayed much longer if my card hadn’t expired.
- If you don’t stretch, you don’t grow. This is a phrase I came up with for a relative who was afraid about moving to another town, and I’ve repeated it to myself many times. What I mean by this phrase is that you have to move outside of your comfort zone in order to grow. You have to stretch beyond it. I’ve done many different things to stretch myself, including moving to London with only $300. I’ve also jumped off of tall (really tall) buildings just to show myself that I can. Stretching myself has built my confidence and faith “muscles,” and those two things sustain me during challenging times.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
I will never be done. There is far too much work to do.
One issue that I’m very concerned about is our environment, so I’ve been very focused on educating people about the need to reduce our dependence on single-use plastic.
A recent study by the MacArthur Foundation shows that by 2050, we will have more plastic in our oceans than we’ll have fish. That is alarming research and it should be a wake-up call.
It is my intention to continue spreading the word about the harmful impact of plastic materials, in order to encourage the production of climate-friendly and sustainable products.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Being misunderstood and unfairly judged. Women are socialized differently. We’re taught to be polite, nurturing, accommodating and to not rock the boat. When we break glass ceilings and challenge society’s ideals and perceptions, we face criticism and backlash.
As women, we have to carve out our own space and forge ahead regardless of obstacles.
Also, we women have a “nattering nabob of negativism” that surfaces every once in a while. It’s called imposter syndrome and it is an exhausting figure to fight against. I’ve found ways to shut my imposter down by telling her to shut up. I also invest a lot of time in building my mindset.
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
Actually, the interviews I’ve had with several people have been most impactful — people like the late Dr. Maya Angelou.
A book I attempt to read every year is Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich. There’s something about the words in that book that jump out to me and inspire me to keep moving forward.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I want to see all single-use plastic products eliminated. Today’s technology can produce the same products we’ve become accustomed to using plant-based materials. I’m using plant-based rubbish bags and I’ve used plant-based cutlery before. These items are incredibly durable, and they are biodegradable, so there’s absolutely no reason why they shouldn’t replace plastic.
Also, I’d love to encourage people to travel much slower so that they can savor the sounds, smells and flavors of destinations. By traveling slower, people can form a much greater appreciation of a new culture.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My father always said, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” so I have always sought the “way” that will move me forward. When people have told me no, I’ve found a way around that. When I’ve been told that I can’t do something or that I’m likely to fail, I’ve found a way to reach success.
I’ve never accepted the words “No” and “Can’t,” so they aren’t a part of my vocabulary. In fact, I will spit those words out if they threaten to invade my thoughts with negative talk (when my imposter tries to surface).
As a woman of color, I enjoy finding ways to break glass ceilings and shatter the perceptions people may have of me. It isn’t easy, but I believe that women should embrace the power to do this. That is how we will get ahead.
Eleanor Roosevelt is attributed with one of my favorite quotes, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” That quote is a signal to women that we must carve out our own space and be disruptive in order to have an impact.
How can our readers follow you online?
We have the same handle for all of our social media, which is @WorldFootprints. Right now you can find us on IG, Clubhouse, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, and Facebook. At some point we will add TikTok.
Otherwise, I’d like to invite readers to visit our website at WorldFootprints.com and sign up for our newsletter.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!