Chris Stakich - CEO and Chairman of the Board - Rustic Pathways

Chris Stakich has dedicated his career to the intersection of education, travel and philanthropy. Chris joined Rustic Pathways, a global leader in community service and education based travel for students, in 2002 after graduating from Harvard University with a BS in Economics. Chris was appointed to CEO and Chairman of the Board of Rustic Pathways in 2014. Prior to being appointed to CEO, Chris held several positions within the company, including: COO, Global Sales Director, Business Development Director, Costa Rica Country Director, and Program Leader.

During Chris’ tenure at Rustic Pathways, the company has grown 40 times in size; employing over 500 people and recruiting students from 60+ countries to work and live in some of the most remote villages in the world.  At Rustic Pathways, Chris has developed company strategy, built the executive team, established growth partnerships, and overhauled the client lifecycle.

In addition, Chris also serves as the Chairman of the Board of Thinking Beyond Borders.  Poised as the most rigorous Gap Year experience, Thinking Beyond Borders takes students around the world to study global development issues from social, political and economic perspectives.

Chris also serves as a board member of Thrival Academies. Thrival Academies is creating the largest national network of schools specifically set-up to provide middle and low income students with a 1-year study abroad experience. The goal is to enroll 50,000 students each year by the year 2030.

Over the past five years, Chris has also served as a board advisor for Global Citizen Year, Lifestyle Rewired, Trip Weave and his high school Alma Mater, University School.  Chris lives in San Francisco with his wife and three sons, and is committed to developing future leaders who embody compassion and global understanding.

1. How did you get started?

When I graduated college, I knew that I wanted a career where (a) I worked with youth, (b) I had a chance to positively contribute to the world, and (c) that was fun.  Rustic Pathways and the overlapping of education, travel and philanthropy surely checks all the boxes.

2. What inspired you to start this business?

I technically did not start Rustic Pathways, but I’ve been a driving force during the last fourteen years of growth.

3. How do you make money?

Ha ha ha – I wish 😉  Although Rustic Pathways is a for-profit S-corp, we don’t, and have never, made much money.  Our business model is based on taking high school students to remote villages in developing countries and immersing them in service learning programs.  We have year-round staff in each of the communities where we operate, and we have multi-year development plans with communities that were created from the ground up with the local leadership.  Through our programs, students learn about themselves and the world.  The final piece of our program is to ask students and families to donate, through the Rustic Pathways Foundation, to the communities where they worked so that they can pay it forward to other students and community members.

4. How long did it take for you to become profitable?

We’ve gone through ups and downs with our “profitability”.  We are an impact organization and focus our energy on the growth of our students and ability to positively impact the communities where we operate.  When our programs have a high utilization of students, our fixed costs get spread across a broader number of students and our company can be profitable.  We acknowledge the importance of financial stability, and a business model that works, but we operate as a triple bottom line company that balances multiple priorities.

5. When you were starting out, was there ever a time you doubted it would work? If so, how did you handle that?

I never doubted that our company would thrive.  The world is changing so fast, and it’s extremely difficult to properly prepare students for the world they will inherit.  Rustic Pathways programs are critical to the development of youth and that has been proven by our retention rates and 40X growth over the last 14 years.

6. How did you get your first customer?

When Rustic Pathways started, we shared what we were doing with family and friends.  The word spread quickly and we now get students from over 60+ countries from around the world.

7. What is one marketing strategy (other than referrals) that you’re using that works really well to generate new business?

We have a strong digital marketing strategy and are getting better and better in execution of that strategy.  From lead gathering and cost of acquisition, to lead nurturing and conversion rates, to social media and sharability, our digital strategy is strong.  We believe that the future of top line growth for Rustic Pathways depends on our ability to build a digital machine.  This has been a fun exercise over the past twelve months and an area where will we continue to invest.

8. What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last few months?

We recently reduced our workforce to prepare for an unstable global environment under our new presidential administration.  When your culture feels like a family, it is never easy to let people go.  This was one of the hardest decisions I’ve made in my career.

9.  What do you think it is that makes you successful?

I attribute my personal success to goal setting, diligence, consistency, adaptability, and creativity.  I’m very regimented in my routine and take advantage of every day.  Below is a breakdown of my typical day:

  • 4AM – Meditate
  • 4:30 AM – Read
  • 5:30AM – Clear emails
  • 7AM – Exercise
  • 8AM – Take the children to school
  • 9am – 4:30PM – Work. My days are broken down into 30-minute pre-planned blocks.  I stay highly focused on predetermined priorities and don’t allow myself to get pulled into emails and reactionary activity.
  • 5PM – 9PM – Family time
  • 9PM – Bed

10. What has been your most satisfying moment in business?

We recently partnered with www.ThrivalAcademies.org to create what will become the largest network of school specifically set-up to provide study abroad opportunities for middle and low income students.  Our first pilot was with the Oakland Unified School District and students traveled to Southeast Asia to study:

Unit 1: Thai Cultures and Values

Unit 2: Food Systems and Agriculture

Unit 3: Biodiversity and Conservation

Unit 4: Development, Globalization, and Urbanization

Unit 5: Human Impact

This program has helped students identify their passion and purpose, develop 21st Century Skillsets, and prepare for a successful life.  We are extremely proud to add the Thrival Academy model to our portfolio of program options and will be expanding to the Indianapolis Public School District in 2018.

11. What does the future hold for your business?

We developed a “Blue Ocean Strategy” that sits within the intersection of education, travel and philanthropy.  We are in the midst of partnering with thousands of high schools to take students out of the classroom and plug them into the world.  Our cutting-edge experiential curriculum is equipping students with the transferrable skillsets that will make them successful in life.  And we are doing all that while raising millions of dollars for the communities where we operate.  We are humbled and proud of our work and believe that we are just now seeing the tip of the iceberg with the potential growth.

12. What are you most excited about?

I believe that we are facing three massive global problems that have the potential to derail humans: (1) global climate change, (2) an increase in income inequality, (3) the advancement of technology and artificial intelligence.  At Rustic Pathways, we strive to create a world where all people are connected through a shared humanity, and all decisions are made with a global perspective.  If we are successful with our vision, we may help create the next generation of leaders and innovators who help overcome these problems and improve the living conditions for humans around the world.

Connect With Chris Stakich: