As most know who have had anything to do with luxury travel over the past ½ century, Abercrombie & Kent has been a leader in high-end travel since 1962. Begun by Geoffrey Kent and his parents, he became Managing Director a few years later, and then met Jorie Ford Butler in 1970. She became his business partner in 1972, and soon helped him expand his business into what it is today: a major global luxury travel entity: 50 offices worldwide, 2300 staff and employees. Jorie and Geoff married in 1978.
The story might have ended there, and it was a good story, but given the changing times and the exploratory mindsets of Jorie and Geoffrey, the brand has evolved in unique, diverse ways: safari camps, Nile cruise ships, extreme adventures, curated travels to all corners of the world, guided by local experts. And, arguably, all with a substantial consequence: inspiring A&K travelers to acquire a strong sense of social commitment, social responsibility and a desire to give something back. Jorie Butler Kent is now, not only Vice Chairman of Abercrombie & Kent, but she is also the Founder and President of Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy (AKP.)
Among AKP’s first and ongoing projects under her leadership was the raising of funds for conservation efforts in the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. This first project dealt with bringing the highly threatened black rhino species back to the Mara. In other areas, AKP has helped with research and education whose goals involve assisting communities in health, education, ecosystems, and preserving and protecting endangered native species. These projects have been going on in Russia, Thailand, Uganda, China and Jordan, to name just a few. AKP also helps fund seed money for orphanages, schools and hospitals in many countries including Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Myanmar, India, Ecuador, Peru, South Africa and New Zealand.
Also during natural disasters, AKP has assisted in funding immediate rescue efforts. In 2012, during an oil spill in South Africa, AKP workers washed, cared and fed the oil-soaked penguins. In 2008, AKP also helped the 85,000 homeless on the Irrawaddy Delta in Burma, after the flooding of villages by Cyclone Nargis.
Now, Jorie oversees environmental projects in over 25 countries. Unlike many heads of philanthropic foundations who prefer staying in an office, she is a hands-on, in the field type of role model. And, she has been recognized for her efforts over the years. Most recently, in 2012, she received the World Tourism Award at the World Travel Market, “for her development of A&K Philanthropy, and its commitment to sustainable tourism, by sponsoring grassroots projects dedicated to preserving natural habitats, protecting wildlife, and promoting the welfare of indigenous communities throughout the world.”
This year Abercrombie & Kent, through Jorie’s sustainable tourism efforts, won the 2013 Condé Nast Traveler World Savers Award, which acknowledged A&Ks efforts in providing, “an innovative form of community development assistance by introducing guests to grassroots organizations making a difference in the places they visit.”
Recently I was fortunate to be able to discuss Jorie’s ideas and philosophies with her.
Pursuitist: I have interviewed many successful people, and have rarely discovered a co-founder of highly successful business have the empathy, sympathy, and foresight to create a philanthropy foundation and organization. Much of the time, business and its corporate aspects seem to override the desire to help create better lives for children and families. What is it in your background that allowed you achieve such a substantial combination of business acumen and visceral empathy?
Jorie: In my background? I have been blessed in many ways to have come from a family – the Butlers– that historically have been very active in business and active in philanthropy and community. My parents and grandparents were developing, then preserving then conserving land long before it was ever popular. And they were always very philanthropic, very generous people. Growing up, I traveled with them, and was provided a global worldview. Then as a young woman, I was put in charge of the Sun Ranch, our family cattle ranch in Montana. I husbanded wildlife, raised horses and herded cattle. Taking care of animals, and learning how to deal with poaching — by putting responsible, seasoned hunters along the periphery of the ranch, knowing that responsible hunters are the best wardens: these were valuable lessons that I learned and used later in my work in Africa. I also worked for my father, Paul Butler, – and learned business experience from helping him with Butler Aviation, and the Butler Paper Company.
Pursuitist: As an adjunct to this question, it’s been understood that the development of empathy starts early, as early as age 3. Many feel that putting empathy to good use is a calling, not a job. It is visceral, not cognitive. Tell me a little about your early life and when it was you knew that helping others help themselves – was a life goal, and whether it was in business or in philanthropy that this dimension actually got its start.
Jorie: It is part of my DNA – and it is a calling. Though my education was involved in commercial art, and graphic and interior design, my interests always lay in creating solutions to help others help themselves. I grew up in Oak Brook, Illinois, which had been a dairy farm owned by my grandfather’s family. My father built it into the town it is today. Smoke free and without taxes, it is a great mix of commercial with residential. My grandfather and father, known for their deep love of nature and community, donated property for forest preserves, churches and schools, and a university. They were great role models for me to emulate.
The concept of land conservation and preservation as a part of the philanthropic mindset must have begun there. I have always had it, always felt it. When we began our work with A&K, we always thought of travel as responsible travel, which evolved into socially responsible, eco-sensitive and sustainable travel. So my work with our Foundation is a natural extension of my values.
Pursuitist: How has your business sense helped you in the early and later development of A&K being known for its philanthropic dimension?
Jorie: I had seen a lot, due to my travels throughout my life, and had been fortunate to be able to connect with so many, basically so early in my life. I realized that if you want to help others you must totally, 100% connect, and be part of the forged relationships involved in deep community. I had no idea that when Geoffrey (Kent) and I were expanding Abercrombie & Kent worldwide forty-one years ago, that we would also create, in 1982, Abercrombie & Kent Foundation and Friends of Conservation. These were the forerunners of Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy. Looking back, I think we – and so many others –are compassionate travelers. The more we travel, the greater the connection we feel to others, certainly a basis of a sense of responsibility to help when needs arise.
Pursuitist: Taking a global perspective, what are the most challenging issues you have had to deal with in your role at Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy?
Jorie: I think it is important to know the differences between finite problems and evolutionary ones. The finite ones – problems that can be helped quickly, and afterwards can be maintained quickly are sometimes health related, As an example, we received hundreds of donations to fund a well development and well maintenance program in Cambodia, as unhealthy water from tainted wells carry water borne diseases that is a major cause of death in that area. With the support of A&K and our guests through AKP more than 850 wells have been built with Sam’s Brothers Clean Water Project, providing access to clean, bacteria-free water for 13,000+ people in the rural Siem Reap.
But the evolutionary ones? These deal with education, family planning, and helping families deal with changes they can accept. Our Projects include a day center in Peru’s Sacred Valley of the Incas for children and families at risk as a result of deep poverty. Educating disadvantaged children in New Delhi and ensuring they have lunch daily and monthly check-ups. These are long term, quality of life issues that can’t be solved in a finite amount of time.
Pursuitist: Can you remember one particular family – maybe in India or Africa – that sticks in your memory as people whose lives have been transformed due to the work that AKP has done.
Jorie: I can think of many, but this one dealt with one of our Sanctuary camps and a Masai guide, Joseph Ole Koyie, whose DNA was basically Masai. There was a tradition in the Masai culture about the killing of lions during their coming of age ceremony as a test of bravery. And yet, after his work with A&K Philanthropy and sustainable tourism, he decided not to go out on his tribe’s hunts, and to not kill lions. This seems like a small thing to many, but I have talked about this with him, and he said he looks at life from a wildlife’s point of view, which is a major thought shift, hopefully brought on by an emerging eco- sensitive awareness.
Pursuitist: Has your personal identity changed due to your philanthropic work, or has your identity just deepened because of it?
Jorie: My commitments to others have strengthened and my identity is still the same, I think. But what has deepened is my one nagging issue – and that is I never feel as if I am accomplishing enough.
Pursuitist: Please explain what legacy means to you and how you want others to see your work in the next number of years?
Jorie: Legacy to me means that means that I – as a person whose passions are associated with philanthropy coupled with sustainability – will have helped create a sense of educational and cultural possibility in places where there was little or none before. In the writings of the immortal Dr. Seuss, actually from The Lorax, he said, ‘Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not!’ I believe that, don’t you?