As a child, Dr. Antonia “Toni” Neubauer declared, “I will go places, see people and do things.” Now in her 70s, she can look back with pride, knowing she has accomplished so much more than most ever dream of attempting.
Some people are able to realize their true calling through their profession, but Dr. Neubauer has been lucky enough to turn three passions – education, travel and philanthropy – into her lifelong work. During a recent chat, we discussed the benefits and challenges of her dynamic career and how she was able to overcome the odds to create two amazing businesses/organizations that have changed the lives of countless individuals.
What was your dream job as a child?
I wanted to be a dancer and a brain surgeon (chuckles). My mother was involved in theater and used to teach a lot of dancers. The surgeon idea came from the time I spent reading a book series called “Cherry Ames” starring a mystery-solving nurse, but I didn’t want to just become a nurse like her: I wanted to be a brain surgeon.
When you found your love for education, what was your specialty?
After receiving a master’s degree in French literature and a doctorate in educational administration, I taught several languages – French, Spanish and English. Then I worked for a government-funded educational laboratory, linking research in education with the practitioners. I also did a lot of inner city projects, working with at-risk and gifted kids.
You were already established as an educator before you created Myths and Mountains – when did you realize you wanted to leave education and focus your efforts on the tourism industry full time?
First of all, I’ve never left education – travel is education without walls. When you run a business or nonprofit, you run a school. When you design programs and itineraries, you design curricula. When you take people on a trip, you teach a class.
I had been happily scuba diving when a friend called to say she was going to Nepal, was I coming? Of course I was going, so we found a third friend to come and we all trotted off to Nepal.
One of things that struck me was that I spoke five languages and couldn’t read any street signs in Nepal. When we came back home, I decided to learn the language and learn about the culture – and I did. I went back to Nepal on several trips with friends and when we came home they asked, “Where are we going next?”
What challenges did you face when switching careers and what made it worth taking that step?
The biggest risk is always failure. Heaven knows I wasn’t a businessperson. I knew somewhat about marketing and a lot about the countries I was working in, but if you asked me about business, pricing, etc. I was a total disaster. I had to start from scratch.
However, you can’t focus on failure, and that’s true for anything you do in life. It may not work, but you can’t go into anything with that attitude. Go into it with, “How am I going to make it?”
Where did you come up with the name “Myths and Mountains”?
I like alliteration (laughs). Originally, it was supposed to be “Men, Myths and Mountains,” meaning people, their mythology and the environment in which they lived. Since this was during the time of the women’s movement, to use the word “men” in any name was considered tacky. Myths and Mountains said the same thing but with one less “M”.
You said you started during the women’s movement – did you feel any push back for being a female business owner in a male-dominated industry?
I think you always feel it, even today. However, there is a difference in a sense that people don’t always believe women can do these things. Especially when you’re a middle-aged, short woman in a world of big strong mountaineers, or living in a town where most people think you’re crazy to want to camp, sleep on the ground and bathe in rivers!
Being a middle-aged woman in a world of strong mountaineers, what goals did you set to help overcome the odds?
We did two things: 1) We focused on concepts. Back then, everyone was doing “10 countries in eight days.” We were trying to get inside a culture when no one else was trying to. 2) We found ourselves focusing on custom trips mainly because, in the early days, it was hard to fill big group trips and other companies weren’t focusing on customization.
Through all of your travels, why did Asia and Southeast Asia capture your heart?
When I started, I don’t know if I chose Asia or if Asia chose me.
If you really want to understand Nepal, you have to understand India, which helps you understand Tibet and Bhutan. You begin to see these countries and their relationship with one another holistically.
When I started work on READ Global, I found myself visiting parts of Nepal no one went to see. Frankly, I have probably seen more of Nepal than any Westerner today, because we’ve worked from one side of the country to the other.
Rural Education and Development (READ) Global was inspired by a Nepalese trekking guide who wanted a library in his village. Thus, you created a model of Community Library Resource Centers (READ Centers) to serve as a catalyst for rural development in Bhutan, India and Nepal.
What kind of reaction did you receive when you presented the idea of READ to potential supporters?
When we first started talking about the idea, no one thought it would work. I went to the Peace Corps, groups that were serious about literacy training and others. They all said, “Nice little girl. Come back when you have talked to X, Y and Z,” or “No one cares about libraries. You’ll never raise any money.” I finally said, “That’s it, I’ll do it myself.”
People don’t get it. It has never been about libraries – it’s about communities. A library is a vehicle, a catalyst for community development. If you build a community library center, it’s for everyone in that town. But how do you make the centers an asset? Enter the concept of having a business to fully sustain and support the center. That really made sense.
Why was READ such an important project for you to start?
I knew that it could change a country and, hopefully, change how development was practiced. Basically we started with nothing, and when you start with nothing, everywhere you go is up!
With READ, the centers belonged totally to the communities – you give the people the power so that if you walk away, the centers will sustain themselves. To me it’s like raising children; you can’t make children depend on you. You’ve got to teach them to stand on their own two feet, even if they fall down.
What has been one of the greatest lessons in all of your endeavors?
What I learned from teaching is that you don’t really teach anything. People learn when they’re ready to learn; you just try to create the right environment for learning to take place.
With READ, we never went to a village and said, “Boy have we got something for you!” Villagers had to believe a library community center made sense, and were willing to work for it. We also had to provide training that was relevant – how to manage a business, how to run a library – and involve everyone in the community. Those things are critical. The READ Centers and businesses really built those communities, changed them and turned many from dying villages into vital places for people to live.
After 27 years in the travel industry, what keeps you going?
Insanity (chuckles). We basically sell people’s dreams.
What’s next for you?
I have no clue. One of my friends who was a monk talked about how he thought he’d never be 60. Now that he is, he says it is just overtime – I guess I’m in overtime.