Who We Are: Michael Gilbert

Below is one of two interviews conducted separately with our founders, Thomas and Michael. Neither person saw the questions or answers in advance, or of the other. We’re sharing them here as a way for you to get to know us better. We hope to see you soon!

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Michael Gilbert: Modern Explorer and Entrepreneur

Sometimes a there’s a ticking deep inside one’s soul that things aren’t acceptable. If it were to happen, will you be one of the people who heed it and make a new life? Michael Gilbert had already achieved "success" by standard measures in a short time, but wasn't satiated. Read on to learn how a visit to Tanzania and meeting co-owner Thomas Bilauti resulted in a full upheaval of normalcy and the start of Twende Maasai Tanzania.

What was your introduction to Africa?

My friend Julia was volunteering with the Peace Corps in Botswana and had asked me to come visit her a few times. Finally, I agreed. At the end of her tenure, she was taking 2-weeks off to travel thru Tanzania and Kenya. We decided to meet at the airport in Dar es Salaam. We traveled along the Tanzania coast from Dar to Tanga, then to Arusha, and finally to Nairobi. This trip is when I fell in love with the country.  

What made you fall in love with Africa?

I loved how beautiful it was and how welcoming the people were, and despite having nothing they seemed genuinely happy and satiated. It was a stark contrast to the life we live (in the US) which is not "less is more" but "more is never enough". It made me realize you can have all the money in the world and still not have a rich life. 

What is your education level and why did you leave your job(s)?

I have a M.S. in Predictive Analytics from Northwestern University, and a B.S. of Economics and B.A. of Philosophy from Virginia Commonwealth University. By most measures, I had a great job in the U.S., working as an economist for the state and teaching at VCU (which I really loved). However, my day job for the state left me unfulfilled and wanting more. I wasn’t being challenged and I was bored out of my mind. I grew tired of feeling like I was always in a box: whether in my car, my house, the elevator at work, or even my office. It made me realize how much I value being outside and in the outdoors.

Describe a few differences between your past life and new life.

I don’t think of them as different lives but more of an evolution. Life is about figuring out what you value for you – that’s what self-actualization is. By most standards, I went from living as a prince to living as a pauper, but as Warren Buffet says, "price is what you pay and value is what you get". In that sense, I have a much more valuable, fulfilling, and enriched life now than I did before.

How has your interaction with Africa changed or developed your values? Or maybe opened your eyes to different possibilities?

As I alluded to before, the mantra in the U.S. is you need to have a white-collar job, make six figures, have a nice car, a white picket fence, and a family of four. So, my interaction here has opened my eyes in that for me I realized I don’t need those things to feel happy or feel that I’ve lived a good or fulfilling life. Now I feel happier living simpler. For instance, most of the food here is natural, organic, and locally grown; and while there might not be refrigeration for the meat, it’s still local and you’re very connected to the food source. It's helped me realize you don’t need all of the material things you think you need to survive.

What brings you laughter or happiness?

Being outside, playing in the sun, and having fun are the things that bring me laughter and happiness. Also, participating in genuine local and cultural experiences that don’t exist to the same degree as in the U.S. I really enjoy learning new things and challenging myself; and immersing myself so deeply in a culture that is so drastically different from the one known and the one grown up in feels really great. And it creates a whole new world of opportunity for personal growth and development.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of experiencing Tanzania?

Discovering new places, people, and things. Knowing that even though I come from a very different background and culture, the people here are very willing to exchange, accept, and share and learn new ideas.

What is the most challenging part of working – not a tourist – in Tanzania?

Unequivocally, navigating the bureaucratic processes here! Business processes which are repeatable are fair in the sense that everyone has to engage them equally, but they don’t have to be arduous. For instance, to get my residence permit, I first need a work permit. To get a work permit, the company needs all licenses which for us is TALA given by TANAPA (Tanzania National Parks). When we set up the company, it was structured as a 50-50 even split, but if we left it as such, it would be treated as a foreign company and we’d have to own ten safari cars and pay USD 5,000 for the license, versus one car and USD 500 as a local company. Okay, so we decided to change the structure of the company from 50-50 to 52-48 to be treated as a local company, and the recommended path for that was to do a share transfer at TRA (Tanzania Revenue Authority) which we did. When we checked on the transfer we found out the transfer couldn’t be processed because I don’t have a TIN (Taxpayer Identification Number) which I can’t get until… (wait for it) I get a resident permit. Though that's a repeatable business process, it's completely inefficient and not "fair" because it puts the user of the process in an infinite loop.

What are your dreams for the company?

I would love to grow the company into something that's able to provide a source of income for Thomas and his family, and also use the company to establish an opportunity fund for his tribe. [Note: the Maasai Opportunity Fund is a goal that Michael shared is currently under development and would be linked to the company.] And I would love to use the company as a means to educate tourists that the beautiful nature and wildlife they see can only happen with conservation, so we need to put time, energy, and effort into creating bequest value for future generations.

How did you meet your co-owner, Thomas?

When Julia and I were traveling thru Tanzania in October 2013, one of the places we stopped was Arusha, hoping to do a safari. I met Thomas in the town square, also called Clock Tower, where he was selling handmade bead jewelry to help pay for tourism school. Although I didn’t buy any jewelry, we exchanged email addresses and stayed in touch over the next 3-years. We became close enough that I came back to visit him in December 2016, staying with him and his family. We did Kilimanjaro together, and at the end of the trip, he basically said, “Michael, I studied tourism. You see that I was able to plan the whole trip. I got all the prices right. Everything went smoothly and how I said it would. I know tourism, and you know business and English very well. Why don’t we combine forces and start a tourism company together?” And 2-years later, here I am.

What’s one of your favorite activities in Tanzania?

Honestly one of my favorite activities is just being outside and exploring the nature and world around me. (And that it’s sunny and warm year-round!)

Is there one activity you loved in the US but had to give up to live in Tanzania?

One activity I haven't had to completely give up but really love is riding my road bike. The streets here are more conducive to riding a mountain bike or more of a hybrid or gravel grinder, something other than a road bike. I haven’t had the chance or opportunity to purchase a road bike here, so it’s not that I’ve had to completely give it up, but I do really miss cycling in the U.S.

What is a favorite book or movie?

My favorite fiction book right now is probably Neuromancer (William Gibson) or Watership Down (Richard Adams). I’m currently reading Lawrence in Arabia (Scott Anderson) as nonfiction and really enjoy it so far.

What’s a favorite new food in Tanzania?

I love ugali! I have no idea how to explain it. It’s a sticky, flour-based starch, with a consistency thicker than mashed potatoes but similar in appearance. Traditionally, you eat it with your hands and use it to pick up other foods on your plate such as maharage (beans).

Anything else you’d like to add?

We loved to host you, your friends, your family, and show you the beautiful world of Tanzania, and why I fell in love with it in the first place!

Inspiration, intrigue, appreciation, and exploration – there may be other hosts around but seeing the beauty of this amazing country alongside Michael as a tour guide is sure to be rewarding, enjoyable, and in the truest sense of the words, off the beaten path. He knows how to take you there, so join Twende Maasai Tanzania for a safari, trek up Kilimanjaro or Mt Meru, or on a cultural tour. You absolutely won’t find another company offering you the likes of Twende Maasai Tanzania.