Tarek Kholoussy -
the nomad on a mission
LAST UPDATED DECEMBER 15, 2020
Big news: Tarek announces the launch of Nomads Giving Back (Credit: IG: @ptrash / Adrian Petrasch)
He went from Goldman Sachs to giving back.
Every nomad who’s been doing this for a while has their nomad origin story. You know the sort of thing: I was working in a corporate office, realised there was more to life than this, quit my nine-to-five, moved to Thailand and I’ve never looked back. Tarek Kholoussy’s is more extreme than most.
You wouldn’t think to look at him – even over Zoom, which is where we meet – that he used to be a corporate guy. But he assures me, pushing his long hair out of his eyes and straightening his t-shirt with a big grin, that he hasn’t always been so cheerful or casually attired. “I used to be very corporate – suit and tie, clean shaven, short hair, pale, smoking, stressed out, running around skyscrapers,” he laughs.
He spent his corporate career mainly in New York, with a stint at Goldman Sachs in London during the financial collapse of 2008. “That was a very unique experience, to be there at that time seeing the world unfold before our eyes,” he remembers.
It wasn’t until a few years later that his big moment of realisation came. “I’d started using my vacations to do impact volunteer trips in developing countries like China, Zambia and Sri Lanka and fell in love
with it – with the local people, with what I was doing, with the other foreigners who were socially conscious. I’d go back to the office and realise that I don’t want to live this life for 50 weeks to live my fullest life for those two weeks a year.”
And one day, enough was enough. He extricated himself from his corporate life, backpacked around the world for a while and in 2013 started slowing down and found himself spending most of his time in digital nomad hubs like Bali and Medellin. “It was then that I knew I wanted to shift from corporate to entrepreneurial and from business to social impact,” he tells me. “I felt most alive when I was volunteering, connecting with locals and feeling like I was giving back and I realised I was craving connection and meaning, something I think a lot of us are looking for.”
It was at this point that the seeds for Nomads Giving Back, the social enterprise he would set up a few years later, were planted in his mind. “I’d talk to people and ask them how do I volunteer and a lot of times it was really difficult to find out,” he explains, “I wanted to make it easier for people to connect with locals and give back – to serve as a bridge between foreigners and locals.”
But he had a few more things to accomplish first. About four years ago, when he was 37, Kholoussy set himself three 1,000-day goals that he wanted to hit before he turned 40. For his soul he wanted to explore 100 countries, for his body, he decided to run 25 – yes, 25! – marathons, and for his mind, he would create a social enterprise. “I set these big goals and told people about them because I didn’t want to revert to my old lifestyle and go corporate again,” he says.
Marathon man: Tarek runs the Everest Marathon, the highest one in the world (Credit: Dr. Dave Buckler)
When he was running an ultra-marathon in Bali – yes, a handful of those 25 were ultra-marathons – it really struck him how much power foreigners have to change locals’ lives for the better. “13 of us were doing it and our goal was to raise $100,000 to put 100 kids through school. I ended up raising more than $6,000, which funded six kids for six years at primary school,” he says.
“We were able to create a win-win-win scenario for everyone involved. I gained from it, the kids gained from it and my community gained from it because they were part of a bigger journey. They wanted to give back but they didn’t know how so they gave through me to this cause.”
He decided to target nomads with his social enterprise because, while nomads do bring in money to hubs like Bali, Medellin and Chiang Mai, they can also have unintended consequences on those destinations, including raising the prices of rent and food for locals and depleting resources. “A lot of nomads don’t pay taxes locally, or sometimes even in their home countries. But we have expectations about our safety, about the roads, about being taken care of in a healthcare emergency. We have all these needs and we’re benefiting from being in these places but we’re not paying into it when we probably have more money than the average person to begin with,” he explains.
“The question is how do we level the playing field so the people with privilege can give back to those who made it possible for us to be so privileged. At the end of the day, no nomad is where they are unless they want to be there. I don’t need to be in Bali or Colombia or Chiang Mai or Lisbon. I’m there because I’m benefiting. But what are we doing to benefit the community that’s benefiting us?”
Making an impact: an NGB Impact Experience at a Balinese village (Credit: @NomadsGivingBack)
Nomads Giving Back, which has 35 team members on six continents, is a platform that helps nomads redress that balance. Its initiatives include: networking events, where local impact leaders can share their ideas and challenges and explain how the audience can help; a volunteer matching programme; online ‘Giving Back Guides’, designed to raise awareness for local causes NGB advocates for; impact experiences, which bring foreigners to places that aren’t on the Trip Advisor Top Ten list; and skill sharing opportunities.
For Kholoussy, the best thing about becoming a nomad was the fact that living this lifestyle – and being surrounded by other people doing the same – challenged his perceived limitations and pushed him out of his comfort zone. He has one word of warning for people thinking about setting out on this path. “Be careful not to be sucked into the bubble,” he advises. “If there’s a coworking space or a travelling group or some sort of community that made it possible for you take a leap into the unknown, that’s great. But remember that if you only stay within that bubble, you’re not getting off the training wheels and you’re not making the most of all the possibilities of this lifestyle.”
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