To label Paul von Zielbauer’s life trajectory as ‘extraordinary’ would be a major understatement. He’s been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, worked as an embedded journalist in Iraq, uncovered military justice secrets from Washington, D.C., and traveled extensively—all before launching a wildly successful company that has not only earned the acclaim of Oprah and National Geographic, but also helps residents of Third World countries.
Lets start from the beginning.
von Zielbauer was born and raised in Aurora, Illinois, a city of around 180,000 residents located 40 miles west of Chicago. He went to Iowa State University with one dream: to be an aerospace engineer. It wasn’t meant to be. “I failed at that pretty quickly; the organic chemistry weeded me out,” he says. Instead, von Zielbauer studied English and later attended Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism with a new goal: to work for The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal.
“It’s the golden perch of journalism and as a young guy, I didn’t have a preference, I just wanted to make it to the highest level newspaper,” he says.
In 1999; just a few years after graduating from Columbia, working in Germany as a Fulbright Scholar and paying his dues at a smaller paper; he landed a position at The Times Metro desk, a dream come true. His work included a four-part series on the prison healthcare system in 2005, in which he was nominated for a Pulitzer.
“When you go through a series like that and it is over, it is like giving birth,” he says. “You feel a little postpartum-like depression. I started thinking about what else I would do with my life.”
Change of direction
Before he could give it much thought, The Times transferred him to its Baghdad bureau for a three-month rotation. It was 2006—a terrible time for Middle East violence, and the bureau was nowhere near safety. “It was a pretty dicey proposition; we were not in the Green Zone,” he says. “At times, I would go to interviews in armored cars and other times I would go in normal cars with armed guards in front of me; I always knew that I could go through a traffic circle and a car bomb could go off—that level of stress was always there.”
von Zielbauer returned home unscathed and went back to Iraq the following year. After his second tour, he wanted to stay in the States and moved down to Washington, D.C. to cover the military justice system. “It was fascinating and I really enjoyed the learning curve; I got the opportunity to meet people on congressional committees and to develop sources to tell me things before others knew,” he says.
After 18 months, the assignment faded away and von Zielbauer was back in New York feeling restless. Through his travels in journalism and during vacation time, he’d met persons involved in development organizations and had an idea for a company that would mix development and travel. He let the idea ruminate and continued journalism work.
When he first started out, von Zielbauer had made a promise to himself that he’d never stay somewhere just because of prestige, especially if he felt he could be better utilized elsewhere. In 2009, he quit The Times and dove headlong into the company he envisioned (which he had launched the year prior), Roadmonkey, an adventure travel company that combined expeditions with community service projects.
“I wanted to combine adventure travel with something meaningful; and I remember paging through travel magazines and reading articles about men and women who started small businesses doing something creative that got them out in the world—I always admired them and it always left a burning sensation in my stomach,” he says.
New title: Entrepreneur
Passionate about his cause, von Zielbauer got busy, but soon faced a few challenges. #1: translating journalism skills into those of a small business owner. “I had to identify the skills I didn’t have and learn them really fast,” he says.
On his side were the skills of a seasoned reporter: the ability to go into a new place and scope it out quickly—great for a company like Roadmonkey—but not as much skills such as sales and marketing. “When you are an entrepreneur, you care about the customer’s experience, closing a sale, scalability—all things I had only heard about,” he says.
How did he learn the necessary skills to run a business?
“I talked to people who knew way more than I did, just like in journalism; I interviewed them,” he says.
Today, Roadmonkey is highly successful and von Zielbauer has coined a new term: ‘adventure philanthropy,’ which explains exactly what the company does. Based in Wyoming, the company leads several expeditions per year to places like Vietnam, Nicaragua and Tanzania. Roadmonkey develops relationships with organizations on the ground and, as part of each expedition, includes a community service project for participants. For example, the Tanzania trip includes a Mt. Kilimanjaro climb and the building of a farm in Zanzibar. His business has attracted the attention of everyone from Outside to USA Today to BusinessWeek.
How do they make money?
“People pay us a fee (usually from $2,700 to $6,200 per person) to go on our expeditions; that is our income,” says von Zielbauer. “Then, we ask each participant to raise $500 to $700 from their own social network, and that money goes to help fund the non-profit organization on the ground.”
What does the future hold for Roadmonkey?
“We recently brought on two partners, and we are working to create a Roadmonkey community,” he says. “Next year, we plan to offer a few domestic expeditions to places like Hawaii, Maine and West Virginia. They will be shorter and cheaper.”