Jim Kitchen has traveled to 193 countries, but his journey took him much farther.
“The lesson that most people can relate to is that we all have our own journeys. Sometimes it’s professional or it’s a new relationship or it’s a health consequence. Sometimes these journeys take a lot of courage and a lot of strength. What’s cool is that, when they’re over, we’re oftentimes better for it,” the Kenan-Flagler Business School professor says.
Kitchen ‘85 says that travel has always found him. In fact, it permeated his life as every summer his two school-teacher parents loaded up their five kids in a blue, wood-paneled station wagon and a rushed from Florida to a small farm they owned in Washington state near Mt. Ranier.
“We’d go across the Southeast and through the Midwest, and take different routes along the way to see stuff but, man, the goal was to make it there as fast as we could so that we could spend as much time in Washington,” he recalls. His family occasionally spent more than a day in places such as Yosemite National Park, but was always pointed toward Washington.
Headed for the CIA
After high school, Kitchen enrolled at Carolina and majored in Russian studies. He thought that he was headed for the CIA. “That was going to be my job,” he says. “I was going to travel and do government service.” Kitchen interviewed for a CIA job, but travel found him again.
College-age wanderlust led Kitchen to summers in Spain, Chile and England. He even spent a few weeks in Russia. When friends wanted to go on a spring break trip and Kitchen easily organized it and he began thinking about how he could start a travel business. Kitchen was taking a business school class taught by venture-capitalist-turned-faculty-member Bernice Jones, who encouraged Kitchen to plan and create a travel business specializing in spring break and summer trips for students. SBT Travel was born.
“I sort of traded Moscow for Montego Bay,” he says.
He sold the successful business in 2005, then earned two master’s degrees in business and in political management. At that point he later realized, he had traveled in approximately 80 countries.
‘The same class that inspired me’
Kitchen was thinking about public service and sorting through aspirations to run for public office. In 2011, Kenan-Flagler Business School hired him to teach entrepreneurship and business planning.
“I was now teaching the same class that had inspired me,” he says.
With his entrepreneurial mindset and desire to help like-minded students, Kitchen worked with local civic leaders and the University to open Launch Chapel Hill and 1789 as incubator spaces for early-stage companies originating from Carolina.
Kitchen continued to travel. Eventually, he realized he’d largely traveled as “a collector” – someone who follows a hurried schedule through countries without experiencing their realities or interacting with people outside of a tour itinerary.
‘Where had I not been’
“One day, I looked at the map on my wall and saw where I’ve been, but wondered where I had not been,” Kitchen says. “I found the list of countries recognized by the United Nations and decided I would go to two or three countries every year.”
Instead of traveling as a collector, Kitchen wanted to become a connector who sought more meaningful, compelling and interesting experiences.
Each trip took around three weeks to complete. He sometimes traveled with family or companions, occasionally hired a guide, but mostly went solo. Having organized tours and gone on highly structured trips, Kitchen matched his adventuresome and curious sides with an almost agenda-free approach. The flexibility freed him to make intentional stops ─ an Ebola clinic in Liberia or visiting with an indigenous medicine man in Bolivia or driving hours to a town deep in North Korea ─ and impromptu stops ─ talking with workers in Ukraine’s countryside or staying with a poor, but content family in rural Nicaragua.
Brushes with danger were few. Kitchen does remember one of his bodyguards in Venezuela who, after Kitchen asked about the man’s sudden sullenness, said that his best friend had been murdered the night before. He’s also heard distant gunfire and had four disconcerting touch-and-go incidents on airplanes.
Along the way he was learning, not only about the countries but also about himself and his place in the world.
Transition from collector to connector
Kitchen says he transitioned from collector to connector in moments when he was fully present and could later analyze. “Those moments were important,” he says. “I remember being in Afghanistan in this market, and I had one of those experiences where you sort of wake up and stop in your tracks.” In that moment, he took in the sights, sounds and smells as people milled about and realized how dissimilar, yet similarly all of humanity lives through hopes, joys and heartbreak.
There were other moments, like one in Syria. According to the UN, the Syrian civil war has caused over half a million deaths and nearly six million people to flee the country while displacing another six million people internally. In those circumstances, Kitchen watched two women, sisters he supposes, with one carrying a toddler as they strolled through a market. As the child continually reached out to touch the wares on offer, one of the women leaned in, gestured to the other and they both laughed.
“I’m wondering what she said to make her sister laugh in that environment where you could die at any second,” Kitchen says, his expression mirroring the emotional memory.
That Syria trip in October 2019 was number 193, the last of the UN-recognized countries. Now, he has plans to return to several countries with his family and once again play tour guide for extraordinary sites such as Rwanda’s mountain gorillas.
And, in his Carolina classroom, Kitchen will continue sharing lessons from his journey with young entrepreneurs.
“What started out as fun turned into me learning about the world and myself,” Kitchen says. “I’ve evolved, and it’s changed the way I teach. My class is about entrepreneurship, but if you ask any of my students, I think they would tell you that I not only teach them how to start a business but also include a lot of life lessons, many of which were shaped from being on the road.“