Traveler Profile–Nancy Collins: Global Adrenaline

Nancy CollinsAs part of our effort to bring you essential stories and information on travel and culture, Travel Outward presents you with our first ever “Traveler Profile,” where we will examine the lives of individuals making a name for themselves in adventure travel, education, and the cultural experience. For this inaugural piece we introduce you to Nancy Collins, co-founder and president of the adventure travel company Global Adrenaline. In the coming months, we hope to offer more material from the logbooks of Global Adrenaline, including feature articles based on the adventures they bring you.The word “overachiever” comes to mind, as I examine her resume. Her education alone is impressive, if not intimidating–she graduated with honors from Princeton University with a degree in economics, earned her Master’s of Science in development economics from Oxford University, and an MBA from Harvard, all before turning 32. Then there’s her employment history: five years working in corporate finance between New York and Sydney, Australia, with the investment bank J.P. Morgan; two summers with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) helping to pave the way for that nonprofit refugee relief organization to provide long-term care to people in need; and a year with the World Bank managing funds for much-needed supply of power to countries around the globe. All the while she was seeking action, adventure, friends, knowledge, and more by planning trips for her classmates, coworkers, family, and herself.

It’s true, this is the resume of a classic overachiever. But to be sure, she’s now doing exactly what she wants. As the president and co-founder of the adventure travel company Global Adrenaline, Nancy Collins is bringing curious people to remote regions of the world that they might never have otherwise considered. And subsequently, she’s helping to foster rich ideas, images, and knowledge of those places and cultures in the minds of a growing population of travelers.

And what of all the development, business, and economics education she amassed over the years? Well, according to Collins, it’s helping her achieve these goals in the best way she knows how.

Nancy Collins comes from a military family. Her father was in the U.S. Navy, and she spent her childhood moving around the country, mainly between Southern California and Washington, D.C. She speaks with the clipped pace of someone not used to staying in one place for very long, and while she didn’t get into the “business” of planning trips until the end of her undergraduate years, she acknowledges that her mobile upbringing influenced her as a planner and organizer, as though she’d been doing it all her life.

“When I went to college,” she says, “I thought I’d be a doctor. Then I thought I wanted to be a math major.” But a few stabs at the complexities of advanced linear algebra quickly changed her mind, and Collins took on economics as her primary area of interest. On the side she started organizing class functions and get-togethers, and after graduating, she followed in the footsteps of so many young people with a background in economics: she went into finance. Over the course of her years working with J.P. Morgan in both New York and Sydney, Collins developed a heartfelt respect for the company that she is quick to voice today. “J.P. Morgan was great,” she says. “If I were to get back into that kind of work, I wouldn’t want it to be with any other company.”

But in the end, she was drawn back to school. Collins entered a Master’s program in developing economics at Oxford, and followed that with an MBA from Harvard Business School (HBS). She spent the summers between in Macedonia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Burundi with the IRC, and also continued her hobby as a travel and social planner.

“I’ve always had an interest in developing countries,” she says. Upon completing her program at Harvard, she went to the World Bank in Washington, D.C., as an investment officer helping to fund the construction of power plants in Chile, Argentina, and India. But Collins grew restless. She appreciates the results the World Bank’s labors, but Collins wanted to find a place with less bureaucracy that allowed her more personal freedom and control over the challenges she took on.

Soon after leaving the World Bank, her career took yet another turn. A group of friends contacted her with a proposition–“They told me about a company they were starting and said they wanted me to be a part of it. They didn’t know what part yet, but knew I would make a good fit.” In their own words, her new partners needed “somebody who can make order out of chaos.” And they were sure Collins could do just that. The company was London-based Altgate Capital–an internet startup that worked closely with the European finance community–and while it was a short-lived endeavor (Altgate has since closed its doors), it opened Collins’ eyes to the potential of being her own boss. Within months of leaving Altgate, she and new two business partners founded the adventure travel company Global Adrenaline. It was an opportunity to combine her interests in developing world cultures, her talents as a travel and events organizer, and her desire for more autonomy in her working life.

At Global Adrenaline, the business is about “planning trips for young, educated professional people,” Collins says. “There aren’t many companies that focus on that market alone.”

The adventure travel industry is a crowded one. There are scores of companies that include in their clientele the niche market at which Global Adrenaline is aimed specifically, and many of those are much larger than Global Adrenaline will ever be. But very few set their sights solely on young academics and professionals, and that, according to Nancy Collins, is part of what makes her company so unique.

“To be good at what you do, you have to be focused on your customer,” she says, “…people are looking for very different things in terms of educational and physical aspects of their trip: the 12-year-old will want one thing, the 30-year-old will want another, and the 60-year-old will want still another.”

Global Adrenaline markets itself primarily to a group of people they know will be both intellectually curious and physically able–their clients want to go where they’ll be able to experience pristine nature and cultures that haven’t been overrun by bus tours and billboards. They want to go where the average family vacationers will not, if only because it’s hard to get there. But the company differentiates itself from its peers in another way–while many of the bigger names in the industry will cater to either backpackers on a shoestring budget or wealthier individuals who can afford extravagance when they travel, Global Adrenaline likes to balance elements of luxury with the realities of traveling in the third world, and they try to make this experience affordable across a broad range of incomes.

“It would be wonderful if we could be truly global,” Collins says, referring to the company’s name, “but we add a lot more value by organizing trips to places that are challenging in very specific ways.” Part of this sense of challenge comes from traveling to more remote regions that take an extra measure of effort to reach. Global Adrenaline has organized programs such as cruising to the Falkland Islands and the rugged Antarctic Peninsula, rafting and kayaking the rivers of Patagonia, trekking through the Tsering Kang Himalaya in Bhutan, or climbing the snowy heights of Mount Kilimanjaro. They set themselves apart by including in their staff of local guides, individuals who are authorities in specific fields. For instance, on a trip that takes adventurers hiking to the north face of Mount Everest, one of the specialist guides is also a professor of Tibetan studies at a major New Zealand university who is fluent in local dialects and an expert in Tibetan culture. It goes without saying, there are great benefits to having someone with such intimate cultural understanding as a guide.

But for Nancy Collins, there’s more to consider when building a travel program than the interests of her clients. Part of her–and thus, Global Adrenaline’s–philosophy is to give back to the communities they visit. “We make certain kinds of business choices that will be economically advantageous to local communities,” says Collins. “We develop itineraries so they have culturally sensitive and educational elements.”

This means, for example, providing accommodation in locally owned inns and houses, and using local suppliers, guides, and more, in an effort to ensure that all the money spent in each community goes back to that community, and not to governments and organizations that are likely to spend it elsewhere.

Collins is open about seeking clients eager to delve into the realities of a culture, even if those realities are at times harsher than our own. But it should be made clear that Global Adrenaline clients aren’t expected to sacrifice their overall comfort in the name of cultural immersion. Each trip is staffed by guides who double as gourmet cooks, fixing daily rations that often blend local flavors with western-style cuisine; and while accommodations are typically split between lodges and tents, Collins works to ensure her clients are happy and comfortable in both: lodges tend to be reasonably priced three- or four-star establishments, and camp sites are often chosen for their spectacular settings and can include solar showers and a private “toilet tent.”

“I’m definitely more detail oriented, than a ‘big-picture’ person,” says Collins, “which has worked out perfectly because, when you’re planning a trip for someone, everything has to be perfect.”

When asked about her own ideas on the people and places she is getting to know, Collins’ tone turns to that of an academic who began her journey studying the world through economics. “Broad generalizations can be made across cultures in terms of their level of economic development,” she says. “There are a lot of things that are common to developing countries that are different for developed countries…” She goes on to talk about family size, income, education, and religious freedom as indicators of social development, referring often to the gaps between first-world and third-world nations. They are valid and well-constructed points that demonstrate her insight into the evolution of modern societies, but behind the academic jargon, one senses Collins has a greater, if simpler, understanding of what she would like her clients to take away from their trips: there are opportunities to learn that goodness exists in the differences between us, and we can interact with these communities in a way that benefits everyone. Certainly, in global times such as these, there are few more important lessons.

Collins, herself, has gone on most of the trips her company offers, and–like any good business person should–she makes sure all of Global Adrenaline’s employees have a chance to experience them as well. “My favorite trips are the ones furthest from anything resembling civilization,” she says. “I think I get the most out of a trip when I am challenged both physically and mentally. I don’t like to be spoon fed a cultural experience–you have to go out and do it.”

As with most things in Nancy Collins’ life, the future of Global Adrenaline cannot be predicted. She’s sure of its longevity–“it will be here ten years from now,” she says with confidence–but the rest remains to be seen. “It takes a lot out of you on a personal level to start a business, but I wouldn’t do anything differently. It’s very personally rewarding to dump yourself into something that you have a vision for.”

Collins follows a “learn-as-you-go” mentality, believing that Global Adrenaline will grow larger as it matures; but while undoubtedly she would like to see her company included among the big names in adventure travel, she seems hesitant to turn it into a physically large company. “That’s not what I want it to be,” she says. “When it’s smaller, it’s more like a family.” And if there’s one lesson she’s taken away from this challenge, it’s this: “you realize just how important friends and family are.”

One senses there are many more turns in Nancy Collins’ life that even she cannot foretell. From Princeton to the World Bank to Global Adrenaline, she is an adventurer on an epic journey. And while we may not be there every step of the way, we can at least feel at ease in the knowledge that this is one person who’s working hard to make our world a better place.

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