What it takes to be a Successful Entrepreneur: DukeGEN sits down with Joe Diaz of AFAR Media

"Seeing the World from AFAR"

By Alex Guttler; Published December 21, 2009

Joe Diaz and co-founder Greg Sullivan have recently launched AFAR Media, a company dedicated to experiential travel.  AFAR has set out to promote and expose experiential travel to audiences who want to explore beyond the normal tourist stops to understand a culture through the eyes of its people.  

A seasoned world traveler himself, Joe spent his early years growing up in a bi-cultural family, with one foot in Spain and the other in California. This early exposure to traveling propelled Joe toward what he now considers his calling—learning about the world through travel. 

After graduating from Duke University, Joe spent three years working with Teach for America in Phoenix, Arizona before getting his masters degree and launching a successful real estate investment firm in Arizona. His travels have taken him extensively to four continents, with an ultimate goal to visit all seven. 

How did AFAR come about?

Greg [Sullivan, Co-Founder] and I were sitting on a beach in Goa, India, reflecting on the incredible people that we had met and the amazing experiences that we encountered traveling through India the past month. We realized that there wasn’t a travel magazine out there that really captured the essence of what travel is all about.  For us, that means connecting to people and cultures of the world to understand their perspectives and see the world through local eyes.  Being bold and naïve, we decided to lock on to the passion that we both shared and try to create a brand for the globally curious.  

Was there anything in particular about India that you think brought this concept to life?

India is a fascinating place. From the second I landed in Delhi, it opened my eyes.  I saw things that I had never seen in my life, from the sights, sounds and smells to the polarization of poverty and wealth.  There’s a lot of incredible energy there.  India was an opportunity for me to reflect on my past and think about my future.  I knew that real estate wasn’t my passion, so I was looking for new opportunities.  It was a space and time that allowed me to be open to something new.  

Tell me about the long-term strategy for AFAR and how you plan to be more than just a magazine.

We thought a magazine would be a great way to capture the brand and show people through words and pictures what AFAR is all about.  We felt like the magazine was the anchor for this brand, and we believed that it would be difficult to accomplish our mission by just having a web presence.  People can pick up a copy of AFAR and right away they understand what we’re doing and what we’re all about.  As I’ve said before, this is a mind-set, a movement of people who are globally curious and see the world this way and we think there are so many different extensions of the brand.  

Where the magazine is about ideas and inspiration, our web presence is going to be focused on connections, and creating the social network for travelers, locals and businesses to come together.  Television is another medium we’re pursuing, and I think events are important for us because it’s a great way to bring your brand to life.  

We’re really proud of our philanthropic affiliate, the AFAR Foundation.  We’ve teamed up with a nonprofit called Global Explorers that teaches students through immersion travel.  We’re sending 10 kids from Yonkers and the Bay Area who would not normally have the opportunity to go abroad to Costa Rica for two weeks in 2010. They will be spending the six months before the trip studying leadership, service, cultural tolerance, and conservation biology so that when they arrive, they can immerse themselves in the culture and understand the way these people see the world.

Has the economic climate made anything easier to accomplish than it would have been several years ago?

Yes.  People are realizing that what worked in the past is not working now, so they are open to new ideas.  Our partnership with Dwell might not have happened in a booming economy.  We could not have assembled this team during a booming economy.  We’ve been able to recruit great talent, form partnerships with companies and distributors that might not have done so before, and we’ve been getting a lot more media attention because we’re the contrarian.  People always ask us the question, “Why now?”  Our feeling has always been that in down times, you really get to see innovation come to life.  The smart businesses are out there laying the groundwork for long term gains.

What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs who might have a business idea but think there are too many obstacles to success?

Talk to people.  Get out there and talk to anyone and everyone.  Think big.  There’s nothing that can stop you.  That’s what got the ball rolling for us and where I think people need to start.

One of the best parts of the experience for me has been how welcoming people have been to our idea and our passion.  It’s been incredible to see everyone welcoming us with open arms saying “Hey, we want to talk to you.”  People love that, and I think we tend to forget that at times.  People love hearing new ideas presented to them and they get excited to be a part of it.

How has Duke influenced your career and your experience at AFAR?

I think Duke has been great because of the networks that I established there.  The people I met, the friendships I was able to form, the mentors that I gained.  The Duke Community was the most valuable part of my experience.  There are plenty of great schools out there, but it comes down to the people that make the place.  Duke has given me an incredible network of smart, passionate people that I feel like I can reach out to for ideas, energy and creative thinking. I see that golden thread tie into our business as well.  AFAR is built on the people that we interact with on a daily basis.  That’s what makes our story and our product great.  We’re looking at travel through the lens of culture and through local eyes.  

Fill in the blank:

Travel is… 
“A way of life for me.  It’s a mindset; it’s the way I look at the world.”

Success is… 
“When you put your heart into it, and at the end of the day, executing it.”

Failure is… 
“Not giving it your best shot.”

Happiness is… 
“A choice.”

This keeps me up at night…
“New ideas about AFAR.”

The next destinations I want to explore are… 
“Namibia, Mali, and Mongolia.”

When I’m gone, I hope…
“AFAR is still around.”

I think it’s important to keep in mind… 
“That it always needs to be fun.  If it’s not fun, and you can’t figure out how to make it fun, it’s not worth doing."


Read more profiles of Duke alumni entrepreneurs