Alumni and Friends

Brian Schon, MBA/MPP’11 | 2020 Recipient of the Florence G. Heller Alumni Award

Brian Schon, MPP/MBA'11
Alexandra Piñeros Shields, PhD’07

Brian Schon, MBA/MPP’11, is one of 15 alumni to receive a 2020 Florence G. Heller Alumni Award. He is the co-founder of two businesses focused on tourism and community change in Medellín, Colombia. The first is True Colombia Travel, which creates custom trips for a luxury market throughout the country, opening new markets to international travelers and supporting rural economies. The other is Cannúa, Colombia’s first high-end and sustainable ecolodge, a 27-acre conservation area and a significant employer in the rural Antioquian mountains. Schon, an Eli J. & Phyllis N. Segal Citizen Leadership Program fellow, talked to MPP Program Director Michael Doonan, PhD’02 about his pivot from health care to ecotourism, the challenges he’s faced during the COVID-19 pandemic and how he continues to draw support and inspiration from the Heller network. 

Michael Doonan: I've been following your work in Colombia and have seen the upward trajectory of your businesses. Can you tell me a bit about them?  

Brian Schon: Cannúa, which is where I am right now, is an ecotourism lodge. Colombia is the second most biodiverse country on the planet in terms of fruits cultivated, distinct indigenous cultures, bird species, different types of mammals, orchids, for example, but due in part because of poor infrastructure, we're really lacking in terms of ecotourism. We came up with this dream years ago to finally bring a product that people find in Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Peru, here to Colombia. 

Brian Schon, MPP/MBA'11, with people holding coffee cups and a coffee pour over
Schon, center, with Colombian coffee

The other thing was to show that sustainability can be luxurious. We built the lodge completely out of compressed earth bricks. We took centuries-old technology and we applied modern science to it. These compressed earth bricks trap in the heat during the day and give it off at night. We also used local bamboo and other sustainable resources.  

The other business is True Columbia Travel, an operator of high-end trips. We take people all throughout the country into rural communities, where tourists never go, and we have experts who help people to really connect with the culture.

MD: Why did you decide to shift from health care work to ecotourism?

BS: What was really great about studying health policy at Heller was we not only studied health policy domestically, but also studied international systems. That began to open up a door for me. One thing I wish I had focused on a little bit more at Heller that I've learned a lot about later on, especially here in Colombia, is there's a bias in the private sector against the public sector and the public sector against the private sector. Both of these viewpoints are so unfounded. I learned when I was serving in the Peace Corps in Ukraine, and then when I got here, that the private sector can really do incredible work. You can really do things that aid what the public sector is doing right. Working in tourism, I’m helping people in the same way that I was helping people before in health care. 

With Cannúa, for example, you know, during the construction, we had over 100 people working here and now we have 30 full-time people, all in a former conflict zone. I didn't think that foreigners would ever come here and we now bring foreigners in from all across the world.

I'll never forget when you had us read “The System.” The book starts off with Bill Clinton giving a presentation to Congress and he's selling a story. But then the administration loses everything because they stopped telling the story and they do a really poor job of communication. I think that international development is a lot like that, too. You tell stories in a place like Medellín, Colombia, telling that story can have big impacts socially and economically. 

For example, we work with a foundation that was founded by somebody who had this idea of starting a youth orchestra in the most dangerous barrios of the city and people thought it was crazy. How could you ever take classical musical instruments, which were of the elite classes, to these really, really poor kids? And it was this smashing huge success. These kids who had never left their neighborhoods played a private concert in the Vatican and for the maestro Fernando Botero and opened all these theaters and came home and were these big heroes. That's a really important story that we’re telling to these people coming from the U.S. and around the world. After taking a client to one of these music schools, that client donated instruments for the entire school. That is an enormous impact in saving lives in that community.  

I never would have been able to create something like that if I had never had that basis from Heller. If I'd never had to go through some of those struggles to understand the underlying causes of an issue or have read that book and understood that there's wonky details that go along with how you push something to the public.

MD: When COVID-19 hit, it just had to be so devastating. Can you talk about resilience and how you're coping?  

BS: We were having unbelievable growth before the pandemic. Last year, in the travel company, we had 1,000% growth. This year, we were projecting to have at least a 400 to 500% growth and then, in three days, all of the business for the entire year was cancelled. At the lodge, we'd had about three months of soft opening that had gone reasonably well and then starting in March, we were way ahead of our projections. We had gotten a lot of really good publicity. 

When you start receiving call after call, canceling, and you have an entire year planned off of that, it’s terrifying. You have staff that's dependent on you, you have investors who have put in tons of time and faith and money—it's incredibly stressful. Then you start thinking about in a country like this, tourism is the second biggest contributor to GDP and so, when that falls, what are going to be the consequences of that? Your first reaction is to panic but then you have to breathe and pause. I'm really lucky that my associates here, who are Colombian, are just incredible. We sat down and we started talking through the issues and figuring out what we could do. 

One of the things that's most made me proud is that we haven't had any tourists here since late February, but we have been able to completely avoid layoffs and that's not easy. It takes sacrifice from us and from our employees as well. I remember very vividly a class with [Professor] Jody Hoffer Gittell, where we were doing a case study, and we had to talk about layoffs. You have to make an analysis between the health of the business and the health of employees. She was very passionate about this and very passionate about being fair to employees and that played a huge role in my calculus. 

I think when the pandemic is over, we will still be able to grow. We’re treading water until we can start to swim again.

MD: As you look back on your time at Heller, what were some of the best parts of your experience?

BS: There’s a ton. I remember the first assignment that we had from a particular professor, everybody did very poorly. I remember studying with Allison Stagg, MPP’10, and staying up nights and poring through all of our materials. And I think that the fact that everybody did so poorly in that first time drove us to really understand the heart of the issue and we did much better on the next assignment. I remember a lot of that camaraderie. What was really neat to me about that was that we were studying such different topics, right? I was doing health care, she was doing community development. You have to learn to think about complex issues in similar ways, see what's controlling them, and that to me was incredibly important. 

The professors are also amazing. I talk to people who went to other graduate schools and a lot of them, their professors don't know who they are. And at Heller, your professors insist on you calling them by their first name and that's uncommon. 

MD: Have you kept in touch with your classmates? 

BS: One of the best things that comes out of a school like Heller is the network and the depth of knowledge that you can get from other people connected to the school. I keep in touch with the majority of my cohort from the MPP program and some from the MBA program. They've been incredible on a personal and a professional level. Professionally, in the present, you know, a very close friend from both programs has been integral in supporting our ventures down here, has come down various times and has invested. With everybody else, we constantly sort of just bounced ideas off of each other. Over the years, we've gone to each other's weddings, seen each other’s children. In addition, it’s been great watching my classmates’ career development. A few years after graduation, these people are directors of departments for state and federal level or different agencies and it's neat to see them grow and have these tools that none of us had before.

About the 2020 Florence G. Heller Alumni Awards

To honor our 60th anniversary, the community chose to honor 15 awardees for living a life that exemplifies the mission and vision of the Heller School and honors the legacy of our namesake, Florence G. Heller. Award recipients have produced positive and impactful change through the rigor, creativity, and innovation of their work. Additional selection criteria included the national, global, local impact of accomplishments, identification with the Brandeis community, and/or sustained impact and leadership over time.