Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

He is not billed as a motivational speaker, yet he delivered the most motivational business speech I've ever heard.

He's a 30-year-old businessman who accepts speaking gigs primarily to spread awareness of his own business and business approach. But after listening to the details of his for-profit company, one is forced to question, well, the meaning of life and how one's livelihood is connected to things much greater than oneself and one's enterprise.

Remember the name: Keller Rinaudo. I believe he's on a trajectory that could make him as well-known as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, though perhaps his drive to consciously solve problems facing the world puts him more in the category of Elon Musk.

The name of Rinaudo's company is Zipline, and he and his team of 75 have found an ingenious and profitable way to save the lives -- thousands today, millions potentially -- of the world's neediest people.

Employing drones of Zipline's own design, the company is currently delivering blood products to health centers throughout Rwanda. As a result, no one in the country is now more than 20 minutes from a life-saving transfusion.

As a student, Rinaudo had a strong interest in robotics, artificial intelligence and learning. Upon graduating college, he and some friends built phone-powered mini-robots in their apartment, and sold more than $1 million of them in a year.

But shortly after giving a TED Talk on robots in 2013, Rinaudo thought that people of his age and with his interests could invest their creativity and intelligence into something more meaningful than, for example, producing programs for Snapchat that delete a photo after 10 seconds. And although much of the world seems fixated on the fear that the refinement of robotics and artificial intelligence will result in a "Terminator" scenario that threatens humanity, he envisioned the opposite: robots that work to save humanity.

Three-and-a-half years ago, he did his first napkin sketch of an autonomous system to deliver life-saving products through a network of drones. After initially exploring the possibility of licensing the programming code and aeronautic design to move the project forward, he concluded nothing would work as well as designing a complete system from scratch.

Rwanda was the perfect country to test proof of concept. It is geographically compact, has relatively low levels of corruption and a leader receptive to novel ideas that could help his people. And it presented a significant number of logistical and topographical challenges to health care delivery: It is mountainous, river-riven and with a road network that could turn arteries into mud pits in the rainy season.

A focus on blood products would also address what is viewed as a medically complex challenge. Rural health centers can't store every blood type (blood has a relatively short shelf life) or blood byproduct, like platelets. But his drones can launch a needed product from the company's base within three minutes of receiving a texted request, fly at 60 mph to a health center, release a parachuted package with extraordinary precision (taking, for instance, local wind direction and velocity into account) and return to the base autonomously.

Part of what makes Zipline's story so inspiring lies in the details of its trial-and-error progression, but toward the end of his presentation, which was sponsored by Amadeus at the Travel Weekly Leadership Forum last month, Rinaudo challenged audience members to think about how and whether they and their companies were doing all they could to make the world a better place. And during the Q&A that followed, a few industry executives confessed to some embarrassment regarding the relatively shallow ambition of their own and their corporate activities and goals.

Businesspeople can be motivated by avarice, altruism and the infinite points of inspiration that fall between. I do believe that travel, more than some industries, allows for the possibility of acting nobly within an enterprise. I think often of the legacy of John Noel, founder of Travel Guard and Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, who after 9/11 not only went beyond his contractual obligations to provide for policyholders but opened lines of assistance to noncustomers anywhere in the world who were in need. He took an enormous financial hit at the time, but also attributed this action to the subsequent doubling, then tripling, of his business.

Noel also supported and founded nonprofits, and worked with a network of like-minded philanthropists in and out of the industry. While I can't personally claim even a small fraction of his dedication and humanitarianism, I was honored to answer his requests to serve on a board or call attention to a project he found worthy. Insurance isn't one of the more glamorous sectors of travel, but he demonstrated that any calling can be made noble by its leadership.

Not everyone can found a world-changing company. But if you're not involved in something that gives your job a sense of higher purpose but want to be, I'll close with a plug for connecting to or supporting Tourism Cares, the industry nonprofit that, among other things, makes a real difference in the lives of those who work in the periphery of our industry. Its just-released annual community report, which outlines its activities, can be found here.


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