Trent University - Environmental Studies and Cultural Anthropology
Nora Livingstone has had a passion for traveling, coupled with a deep empathy for animals, for as long as she can remember. But after graduating college, she wasn’t quite sure how she would channel those things, so she became a globe-hopping volunteer. Throughout her collective experiences volunteering at animal sanctuaries and rescues, Nora knew she’d found her calling. She felt responsible to tell the world about the plight of the animals she’d saved and spread the word to garner more support for the organizations that served as their sanctuary.
At one volunteer wildlife center, Nora met her future co-founder, Heather. Working as a coordinator, Nora instantly bonded with Heather, a wildlife veterinarian. The two connected further over a shared love of helping connect volunteers with animals around the world, and their company, Animal Experience International, (which helps match volunteers with animal-related volunteer opportunities globally) was born.
“My entire life, I’ve wanted to help animals, but until I volunteered myself, I thought my fear of math and my lack of a rooted biology education meant I couldn’t.” As Nora’s quick to point out, this couldn’t be further from the truth. “When we started AEI, it was important for me to be able to show everyone who wanted to help that they were able to help.” And now, thanks in so small part to AEI, everyone can. Keep reading to see how.
Every day I get to help people and animals — and sometimes it’s as easy as sending an email. How cool is that?
What inspired the launch of Animal Experience International?
Conservation and animal welfare programs around the world need our help. They need hands and feet and funds — not just to sustain the programs, but to grow them as well. Most of the time they don’t need specialized volunteers or even highly trained people; they just need extra hands! My entire life I’ve wanted to help animals, but until I volunteered myself, I thought my fear of math and my lack of a rooted biology education meant I couldn’t.
When we started AEI, it was important for me to be able to show everyone who wanted to help that they were able to help. AEI’s root mission is to empower and encourage people to travel and to volunteer, while making real world positive change for local conservation and animal welfare issues. We now have 25 different pre-established programs that people from all different backgrounds can volunteer on; all of the programs are safe, locally managed, justice-focused, conservation-minded and of course, in the aid of animals!
What does a day in your life entail? How do you organize your day?
I have two different lives. I have life in the office and life in the field.
At AEI, we go to the programs before anyone else does, because we want to make sure we know all the ins and outs. This means I get to volunteer on the programs and do amazing things I never thought were possible (and in some cases, even real). I’ve been on boats counting dolphins for a conservation program in Croatia. I’ve cleaned infected wounds from street dogs in Sierra Leone. And I’ve tagged giant leatherback turtles on the beach in Costa Rica. Life in the field is varied and crazy and different every day. I love it because with every new program I do, I show other people that helping requires no extra degrees, diplomas or training. It just requires a passion and the acceptance you could get really dirty!
Life in the office is wonderful, because that’s when I chat with new clients, debrief old ones and communicate with placement partners. It shows me how meaningful my job is; to the placement partners and the clients. I’m humbled by some of the stories I’ve heard from our clients. I get to help them plan their trip, share their excitement before they go, and celebrate with them when they come back. Client emails come first — the more comfortable they are with their adventure, the better I feel!
Working with the placement partners is also a joy because I get to make sure the clients will be working on real solutions to conservation and animal welfare problems. It takes about a year of research, planning and communicating to get a placement partner client-ready, so I’m constantly thinking about new places our clients can volunteer.
What is the biggest thing you’ve learned about business from starting and operating your own?
I’ve learned the power of the ask. Starting a business is one of the most humbling things you can do. I’ve thrown my ego and pride away, because it has no use in this business. If I need something, I reach out and ask. If I don’t know something, I ask. If I can’t do something myself, I ask. People are generally pretty great and want to help, so reach out and ask! In the age of information and communication, there’s no need to try and do things on your own. Ask for help!
Are there any landmark moments in your career so far that you’re most proud of?
For two years in a row, AEI has been part of the B Corp Best For The World list. We’ve been recognized for creating the most positive overall social and environmental impact by the nonprofit B Lab. The B Corp Best for the World list honors businesses that earned an overall score in the top 10% of more than 1,200 Certified B Corporations.
Knowing that I’m part of a community that’s able to do so much good — there’s nothing better than that.
What challenges keep you awake at night?
There are days that all I hear about is animal abuse, human rights violations, ecosystem destruction, poaching, trafficking and extinction. It can be very hard not to run out and try to help them all right away. I want to be able to provide immediate help to every group that asks, but right now, we’re too small. Slow, sustainable and responsible growth means we have to be selective and take our time when we bring on new placement partners. That can be painful in the short term, but is vital in the long term. What keeps me up is knowing that we can’t help everyone and that there are limits to everyone’s ability. It’s reality and sometimes, reality is hard to swallow.
Is work/life balance ever a challenge for you? If so, what is one no-fail tactic you use to create balance?
Work/life balance is constantly a problem, but the thing that helps the most is trusting my co-founder and knowing she trusts me. If I take a weekend off, I know she has things under control, and I know she trusts I need that time for myself. Another no-fail tactic is I make sure to take time for myself where my cell phone doesn’t work. I can’t be tempted to check email when I’m mountain climbing because I don’t have service up there! Providing volunteers to conservation initiatives around the world isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. So evenings off won’t slow us down, it helps us refuel!
What is it about your job that makes you feel it’s the right fit for you?
I find my job incredibly meaningful. There aren’t any tasks I don’t see immense purpose in, which makes me excited about work! When I post things on Facebook, I’m doing it to create awareness for animals. When I interview clients, I’m helping empower them to travel and see the world. When I visit new placement partners, I’m seeing all the ways that local communities are working together to conserve species and make life better for animals. When I write contracts, I’m getting one more person to live a story they maybe didn’t think was possible. Every day I get to help people and animals — and sometimes it’s as easy as sending an email. How cool is that?
What advice do you have for someone interested in entrepreneurship?
- Be brave. You don’t have to know everything. There are great big support systems out there filled with people who want to help you. But you will need to be brave.
- You will need to ask for help (you can’t do it all; no one can).
- You will need to admit you don’t know things, but other people do, and they can help. You will need to own up to mistakes — that’s when you learn the most.
- You will need to miss out on some fun stuff. It pays off, trust me.
- You will need to be honest with yourself. Asking for help isn’t fatal.
- You will need to stay up late and wake up early.
- You will sometimes feel really isolated and overwhelmed. (So reach out and we’ll be here to reach back).
- You will need to risk security. Financial security is for later.
What is the most fulfilling part of your job?
I get to look people in the eye and tell them they get to live an adventure and that they have the power and the ability in themselves to change their world.
What do you wish our community knew about your job?
Behind the two of us is a huge worldwide community of awesome people who’ve supported us. It has taken four years to get to this point. Those years have been filled with sweet and incredible ups, but also sad and overwhelming downs. Success doesn’t happen overnight. Those on top of the mountain didn’t wake up there.
I didn’t get a paycheck for the first few years I was a CEO and even now I still work 18 hours some days. It has taken a lot of hustle to get here, and it’s all been worth it, but my friends and family can tell you, I haven’t done it alone. AEI isn’t just Heather and me—it’s a huge community of people who know us, love us and believe in us.