This is my perspective  –just one perspective– of how Human Connections came to life. With a commitment to telling honest human stories, I’m not sparing any personal (or romantic!) details. This is what Human Connections means to me.

I had been working in Bucerias, Nayarit for three years with an organization called Investours when the idea for Human Connections was born.

Investours is a project that started at Harvard University and was piloted in a number of communities, including Bucerias. The concept of Investours was to run “microfinance tours” that empowered entrepreneurs in developing tourist economies. We would bring groups of travelers to visit local entrepreneurs who needed small loans to grow their businesses. Then, we’d use the tour fees to fund those loans, thus aiding the entrepreneurs to move forward with their business ideas. The loan repayments would be used to cover Investours’ operational costs. This innovative model worked very well in Oaxaca, where our pilot program spun off to become what is today Fundación En Vía. It also worked well in Dar Es Salaam and Arusha, cities in Tanzania. There, Investours programs are still running microfinance tours.

The pilot program in Bucerias, founded in 2010, ran a different course. We realized that the tourism market here is very different than it is in Tanzania or Central Mexico, places known for more adventurous tourism and grassroots projects. It seemed that here, fewer travelers were aware of what microfinance is and/or were less likely to spend vacation time learning about it. We also came to learn that the microfinance landscape was not the same here as it was in those locations. Here, local entrepreneurs already have access to micro-loans and, since it’s a different community, have different needs.

I joined Investours in Bucerias in 2011 and by 2012 directed the program. For nearly three years, I worked with local staff and student groups to find a way to make the model work in Bucerias. We learned many important lessons by spending time in our community and asking the people we wanted to “serve” for their input. After months of gathering survey data from our community members (who we call our partners), we learned two important lessons: 1) our partners were not particularly interested in having another loan and 2) they wanted the opportunity to sell their products.

(I put the word “serve” in quotes because we also learned some crucial lessons about how to understand what our impact is and isn’t, and how respect and human commonality have to underscore all of our programming.)

Honestly, these learning experiences were as demoralizing as they were necessary. For us to have an impact model that wasn’t even wanted by our community made us all question our reason for keeping the program running. On top of that, since so few tourists to the region seemed to be interested in our microfinance tours, we were barely able to fund our operations. This was a project that ran from kitchen tables and with very little support. We decided in the Spring of 2013 to liquidate Investours Mexico.

But then something magical happened. The month we had set to close Investours, a couple from Chicago went on a tour and forever changed our trajectory. This couple worked in the field of microfinance education and was interested in hiring our services to arrange student trips to visit microfinance clients in Mexico. They believe in our work–they believed in us–and decided to provide us with the financial support needed to carry on for the next two years.

It felt like an opportunity had fallen from the sky. It was empowering in every way and helped me see myself as a social entrepreneur for the first time. With renewed momentum, we continued to run our programming and started working with student groups and longer-term itineraries.

But here’s the thing: though we were financially stable now, we still did not have an impact model that really made sense for our local community. I felt conflicted and without clarity about how to make needed changes.

That Christmas, I went camping on a beautiful beach called Mayto with my then-boyfriend, now-husband, Andrés. We were alone with candles in sand, the moon and turtles, and Christmas carols in the background. As people often do around the holidays, we started speaking about the year ahead. I was expressing my doubts about Investours when Andrés said to me, very simply: “why don’t you turn this program into something different?”

I felt like for years we had been working to make Investours function in Bucerias, turning in one direction and then the other, seeking solutions but bumping into dead ends as though trying to run long distances in a room with four walls. This was the moment when I finally looked up, realizing that there was a new and boundless direction toward which we could start climbing.

That night, Christmas Eve 2013, Andrés and I drew the business model for this “new program” into the wet sand with our fingertips. Within three months, and with the tremendous support of my board of directors (most of whom collaborated with Investours too), Human Connections was born.

What happened to Investours, you wonder? We did decide to close the Investours program in Bucerias, but with the full support of Investours Inc, the international non-profit organization for which I’d been working. Human Connections continues to grow the tour programming that Investours started in Bucerias, but now focuses the tours on local culture and craftsmanship, not singularly on microfinance. We also have built a larger breadth of programming, including Global Engagement Trips and Internship Programs, which foster deeper and long-lasting cross-cultural relationships.

Today, Human Connections keeps growing and evolving to meet the stated needs of our community. If there’s anything I’ve learned over the last years, it’s simply to listen. We work hard to be attentive to what our community and guests ask us for, continually improving our programming and keeping it at the highest ethical standard possible. 

Without question, it is a privilege to give voice to stories unheard and to showcase the fact that all human beings are inherently equal. The support we have received from our community and guests has been humbling, life-altering, and nothing short of a dream.

Thank you for taking the time to learn more about our story! -Elly