Meet Andrew: The Founder of Discover Corps

Andrew Motiwalla volunteering in Thailand

Welcome to our next Discover Corps profile! This time, we’re introducing you to the man himself: Andrew Motiwalla. He’s our fearless leader here at Discover Corps, constantly inspiring us with his adventurous spirit and passion for service. In this profile, he’ll tell you all about his experience with the Peace Corps, which had a profound impact on him — eventually leading to his founding Discover Corps!

1. Tell us about yourself

I was born and raised in Chicago but since my parents were immigrants, we spent a lot of summers visiting India and Peru (where my parents are from). In our house, it was my sister and I, but I grew up with 3 cousins who lived about 7 minutes away and we practically grew up together.

2. Why did you join the Peace Corps?

I applied to the Peace Corps without fully understanding what it was. One of my college professors encouraged me to apply because he said I had the potential to make a big positive impact in the world. Honestly, more than anything I really just wanted to leave America for a while and see more of the world. I had been bitten by the travel bug during my semester abroad in college, and I was excited to get out and see more of the world.

Andrew Motiwalla in the Peace Corps

3. Where and when did you serve? What did you do?

I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras from 1996 to 1998 in a small town of 500 people called Jano. It’s a town nestled in the mountains in northeast Honduras, in the state of Olancho. It was known for its beautiful, dense pine forests.

I was assigned to work with campesino (peasant) cooperatives that were getting involved in harvesting timber. While I didn’t know anything about forestry, I was able to use my business skills to help these cooperatives run their operations more efficiently. One of my more successful projects was creating a full-day workshop to teach them about basic bookkeeping and cost analysis. Since most of the members of these groups had very little formal education, I made the workshop a role-playing activity with fake money and used a simple bookkeeping template that they could follow. The government forestry service organized the workshop — and when they saw how successful it was, they commissioned me to travel around the countryside giving that same workshop to other cooperatives.

Another project I did was facilitating the protection of the town’s watershed. This was a textbook case of how a Peace Corps volunteer can make a difference in a community. It started one day when a campesino leader came to my house and said that they had discovered a dead horse in the place where the town’s water comes from. They wanted to know if I could do anything to prevent it since they knew it’s what caused so much illness in people. I told them that while I couldn’t personally do anything, I did know resources they could access if they organized themselves. So, the townspeople formed a watershed protection committee and I explained to them that Honduran law provides legal protection for the town to claim the land around the watershed as eminent domain and could be marked as a protected area. Also, I knew there was a government fund specifically created to help demarcate and fence off watersheds. So I had the committee work with me to write a proposal to get funding to build a fence around the entire watershed and reforest the area. I acted primarily as a facilitator; it was important that the community be fully invested in the project, because ultimately it would be up to them to maintain the area after I left.

Andrew Motiwalla, Discover Corps founder

4. What was the best part of the Peace Corps? The hardest?

The best part of Peace Corps was definitely the relationships I formed with people in Honduras. Even after I finished my service, I went back for the next two years to visit my friends in the village and also the capital. With the advent of Facebook, I’ve been able to re-connect with many of those friends. Yes, Facebook has arrived even to my sleepy town of Jano, where there was no phone and electricity was unpredictable when I lived there.

The hardest part of Peace Corps was the waves of frustration that came at times when I felt like nobody in town cared about getting these projects finished as much as I did. But it was an important lesson I learned: relationships are so crucial before you can get work done. So, I made it a point to walk from house to house most evenings and sit, chat and drink coffee with each family to maintain those relationships.

5. How did you feel after returning?

When I returned back to the US, I moved into my old room in my parents’ house and laid in bed for a week straight. I was paralyzed by life back in Chicago. Eventually, my dad gave me an ultimatum: get a job or I’ll kick you out. I went on a bunch of interviews with companies in suburban Chicago and was eventually offered a job selling cups to restaurants. I turned down the job because I couldn’t bear the thought of spending the rest of my life selling cups. When I told my dad, he was furious and asked me what kind of work I wanted. I told him I wanted a job where I could travel to developing countries, help others and also use my business skills. It’s been a long and winding road, but I eventually got there!

Andrew Motiwalla volunteering in Guatemala

6. How did your Peace Corps experience lead to your founding of Discover Corps?

I started Discover Corps because I wanted to give regular Americans the opportunity to have a deep, meaningful experience in a developing country, similar to my experience in the Peace Corps. When I told people I was joining the Peace Corps, so many people said “Oh, I always wanted to join” or “I would have loved to join except that two-year commitment is too long.” But those sentiments told me there would be a market for this kind of trip. Also, I sensed that American travelers are tired of packaged tours where they walk from one museum to another — I feel like people are craving a more authentic people-to-people experience where they see more than just the tourist sites.

7. Why do you want to bring the Peace Corps experience to others?

The reason these types of trips are important is they make these countries real to people and break down preconceived ideas. I think about President Kennedy’s original vision to have 100,000 Peace Corps volunteers every year, and I dream about what America would be like if that vision came true. After 10 years, we would have one million Americans who have extremely deep insight and connections to other countries; I have to believe this would affect our political system and our foreign aid budget. So, in a small way, my hope is that Discover Corps can be part of fulfilling that vision. In just a couple of weeks, our travelers form a deep connection with the country they visit. Many alumni travelers email me years later to say that their trip was a milestone experience they still vividly recall.

Thanks to Andrew for his vision and hard work — without them, Discover Corps wouldn’t exist. If you have any questions for Andrew, please leave them in the comments! 

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