A few years ago, I met Maria Russo, founder of the award-wining online media platform for travel and social good, The Culture-ist and Executive Director of Humanity Unified, a nonprofit organization that invests in education, food security projects and economic development programs to empower people to rise above poverty. I was instantly inspired by her incredible work to improve the lives of women and communities in Rwanda and have followed her work ever since. I had the opportunity to catch up with Maria and learn more about her life and what it is like to lead Humanity Unified. Here is what she has to say.
Tell me about your childhood. Where did you grow up? What were your hobbies and passions? Do you have any siblings?
I grew up with my parents, younger sister and maternal grandmother in a quaint little town in NJ called Berkeley Heights. Our house was always full and family time was everything – most weekends were spent visiting cousins, aunts and uncles and home cooked meals were always at the center of the celebration. As a child I was drawn to history, dance and nature. I could spend hours exploring rocks, worms, flowers and trees. I think my passion for humanitarian work was sparked by my involvement with the Girl Scouts of America. The service projects helped me to see beyond my own needs and focus on the needs of others at a very young age.
Did you travel as a child? Where was the first place you went that inspired you? When was the first time you left the country?
Most of my travels as a child were within the U.S, with a few trips to the Caribbean peppered in between. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I traveled across continents to Italy and shortly after to South Africa. These trips, particularly my time in South Africa, sparked an unquenchable desire to see the world that lead me to over 35 countries over the following 10 years.
Photo credit: Anthony Russo
Photo credit: Anthony Russo
Photo credit: Arielle Lozada
Where did you go to college and what did you study? Why did you choose this area?
I went to American University in Washington DC. where I studied journalism and international studies. Throughout high school I became increasingly interested in politics and international affairs. I think it was the realization that a vast, complex, dynamic world existed far beyond the world I had known growing up. I became avidly involved in the Junior Statesman of America and traveled to D.C. three times a year for student conferences. It was through my involvement with the organization that I became infatuated with the history and culture of D.C., so the decision to attend college there seemed intuitive. My time at AU deepened my interest in journalism and helped me realize how I could marry it with my love of global affairs.
What inspired you to launch The Culture-ist and when did you start it? Tell me more about the mission behind it and how it is run. What did you learn from this line of work?
My husband and I launched The Culture-ist in 2011 as a passion project that allowed us to engage in and develop our passions – for me that was writing about things I cared most about such as travel, global affairs, sustainable development, women’s issues, entrepreneurship and humanitarian work. The Culture-ist was also a really powerful channel of connection for us. I was constantly interviewing people, working with other writers and collaborating with media organizations and brands…it was truly a gift to meet so many interesting individuals who were contributing to the world in unique and inspiring ways. So far I’ve learned that no matter the line of work you’re in, kindness and openness is key to building a business that is grounded in integrity. I’ve also learned that while it’s important to be flexible, sacrificing your vision to ‘keep up’ with fads and trends will have you chasing something that will steer you far off track only to force you to back pedal to your original intention.
Maria and Anthony Russo. Photo credit: Humanity Unified
What inspired you to launch Humanity Unified?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be involved in humanitarian work. To me, a life spent trying to make the world more equitable for all just seemed to make sense. It also creates a deep sense of purpose and gratitude for the life I have now. For years I waited for the right time to launch a nonprofit and an opening finally came in 2014. Right around that time Anthony and I traveled to Rwanda where we explored program possibilities. We knew that we were interested in investing in education, food security and economic development and serendipitously found a local Rwandan NGO that aligned with our vision and mission for Humanity Unified. After almost two years of developing our programming and completing the 501(c)(3) application process we launched our first project.