For today’s episode, we’ll be having an extra special guest with an extra special story. Renee Bruns is a leader in the insurance industry and is in the World Guinness Record for being the first female wheelchair traveler to travel the most countries in the world! She’ll be sharing her experience during her sabbatical and how it opened her eyes to see what it means to truly live life. Full of fun stories, unique experiences, valuable eye-openers, and more, this episode is sure to motivate you to a whole new level!
The topic for this episode is about sabbaticals and the benefits of taking a sabbatical for both employer and employee. Our guest speaker is Renee Bruns, so I will introduce her whole bio. To take you back to the show, we are also on YouTube, and we’re here to engage, energize and elevate your employees and company. We bring a different guest speaker every episode. The topics are always different. I encourage you to come to each and every episode because you’re guaranteed to learn something new. The best part is it’s all completely free. I did mention we also have expert hosts. We have our full panel here. Let me introduce you to everybody.
We have Char. She is a small business owner with an entrepreneurial spirit. She runs multiple companies. She’s done career coaching, but she has a very strong background in human resources as well. We also have Howard, who works with CompTeam. He’s a Compensation Advisor. He also has years of experience in compensation and HR consulting. He’s worked with some big companies as well in the past, like JP Morgan and Citigroup.
We also have Wendy. Wendy works with CompTeam, but she has a lot of skills and talent. She is a Talent Management Professional with CompTeam. Lastly, we have Sam, who is the Founder and CEO of CompTeam. He’s a Compensation Expert. He was telling me he’s very busy towards the end of 2022, so he’s keeping busy, which it’s good to see. He also keeps this forum going. He finds the speakers and brings them to each and every episode.
Our guest speaker is Renee Bruns, and we’re very excited to talk to her. She has a lot to say. Where do we start with her? We were talking about her Guinness World Record, which I’ll talk about. She is on a current sabbatical. She was working in the insurance industry overseeing 250 people. She has a lot of leadership experience but has taken this sabbatical to work on her Doctorate degree as well as travel around the world.
She’s gone to over 65 countries and about a total of 115 countries and just got back from Antarctica. Her Guinness World Record is pending for being the First Female Wheelchair Traveler to hit as many countries within a one-year span. She’s very well-traveled. We’re very excited to hear all about her traveling and what she thinks about taking a sabbatical leave. Welcome, Renee. We’re so excited. This is going to be great. I already have a good vibe about this. Welcome again, and thanks for being here.
Thank you so much. I can’t thank you all enough. I am so excited. This is a topic that’s close and dear to my heart and has been truly life-changing. My excitement will hopefully come through, and hopefully, I’ll walk away with some ideas and feel energized. Before I get to my sabbatical, let me tell you a little bit about myself and how I got to a point where I was willing to say I am ready to leave my leadership role. I was leading 250 people.
It was a relatively big role in a Fortune 500 insurance broker. You don’t just one day wake up and say,
“I’m going to walk out.” I had been working my way up the ladder through the corporate world, having a fantastic time. It’s everything I had always wanted. As a little girl growing up, all I ever wanted to do was have that big career. I wanted to have that big job. I wanted to be in that corporate world. It was everything I wanted.
I don’t want to blame it on COVID. I know you all are tired of talking about COVID. I got tired of talking about it, too, so I don’t want to hone in on that too much, but the world was changing. I was at a point were starting to see things differently. I have always had this dream of traveling. I’ve traveled on my 2 to 3 weeks’ vacation that I got. I would leave the moment I got off on a Friday at 5:00 PM and take that overnight flight back the next Sunday to be there at 8:00 AM working.
I was wearing myself out, and I said, “I need some time to walk away and do this.” I started thinking about it and started saving for it. This was months, maybe a year, in the works. I had a friend who had taken a sabbatical six months before me, and she was saying, “You need to do it. You just need to walk away. You have been talking about traveling for so long. Go. Get on that airplane and do it.” Spreadsheets get put together. I’m crunching the numbers, “Can I make this work? What am I going to do when I get back? I have no idea. Can I go back into the workforce?”You need to do it. You just need to walk away. Click To Tweet
There’s a huge fear of, “I’m so young. I still want to have that career,” but I also knew I needed a change. At the end of the day, I put together the numbers, made it work, and left. I want to say I knew what I was doing going into it, but I walked away. The first thing I did was I got a one-way ticket to Bali, Indonesia. I got to Bali and said, “I’m going to stay here. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know for how long I’m going to stay here.”
I was there about ten days, and for every single day of those first ten days, I woke up and I would sob like this sense of relief of, “I have no one to report to today. I have no one to tell that I’m going to the dentist. I have no one to tell me you need to be at this meeting at 8:30.” I could go and have my coffee and watch the ocean for as long as I wanted. I am not kidding when I say I sat there sometimes for three hours with a cup of coffee, staring at the ocean, totally decompressing.
I was completely by myself, and as Jules mentioned, I do use a wheelchair. I have a physical disability that I’ve had my whole life. I’m here in Bali, Indonesia, disabled, on the opposite side of the world, just doing whatever I want to do at the moment. That feeling of me being authentic and true to myself with such a profound moment.
I don’t think I realized how burnt out I was until I got there. It went on for months when I had these random moments where I would break down in tears and good tears. I don’t want that to sound like it was. I’m so angry about how things unfolded or how I got to this point in my life, but this feeling of I can be whoever I want to be now. This is for me. I don’t want to sway the conversation in a different direction, but I realized I needed to make a change in my life.
I was already making that change with the sabbatical, but it was over the time of being away I realized I wanted to do something different with my life. I had a big corporate job. I loved it. It was fantastic. I got everything I wanted out of it, but what’s next for me? It had never occurred to me until I got into my sabbatical that I could have two careers in my life. I’m young enough to have another career. Maybe I will have three. Maybe I’ll have four careers. In full transparency, I don’t know what I’m going to do when my sabbatical ends here in months, but this feeling of, “I was in the right place for a while, and it turned into the wrong place, and I desperately needed to get out of it.” Getting away from it helped me to realize.
That was one of the big takeaways for me. In Bali, I was there for about ten days, and I realized there was so much of the world that I wanted to see. It’s feeding my soul in a way I didn’t realize I needed. I started traveling to other places. I went from Indonesia to Malaysia to Singapore. I hopped around that area. At that time, I said, “I’m going to reach out to Guinness.” I’m doing something that I’m getting a vibe from other people I’m crossing paths with. That is special.
Again, I have had a disability my whole life. Using a wheelchair is very normal for me. I don’t think anything of it, but once you get away from your friends and your family in that environment and people start to say, “You’re pretty brave. You’re doing something cool,” you start to say, “Am I doing something that cool?” I emailed Guinness. We went back and forth. Guinness is fantastic to work with. I am now working on a Guinness World Record to be the first person in a wheelchair to travel to most countries in one year. Another unexpected sabbatical gift came to me. I’m working on that. I’ll pause to see if there are any questions. I want to make sure I’m not over missing anything.
You’re going great. Keep going, Renee.
One of the things I get a lot of questions about is, “Aren’t you worried about your future?” This is an important one to address because I am scared out of my mind about what I am going to do when May comes around, and that’s the one-year mark. My partner and I have said, “One year’s about the amount of time you want to be away from your career.” It’s a weird thing because I left, and for about 3 or 4 months, it was on my mind all of the time, “What am I going to do?”
I have notepads of, “You could do this. How do you feel about this?” Truly, it’s everything from going back to school to be a physician to going back to school to be a lawyer and everything in between. It doesn’t mean I have to go back to school. I may end up going back into some sort of business environment. What’s cool about it is now I’m a couple of months into it, and I’m not thinking about it so much. It’s giving me an opportunity to live in the present, which we will all talk about, “How do we live in the present?”
You sit and enjoy your coffee. Stop worrying about what meeting you have later that day. Stop worrying about the argument you had with your partner that morning. Sit and enjoy your coffee. I have tried that for my whole life to sit and enjoy my lunch, enjoy the walk I’m having outside, and enjoy the day. I don’t think I truly understood that living in the present.
I have that now that I’m living in the present that I know I have to figure out something in the future. I know it will come, but for the first time, I’m not worried about it. I’m not worried about tomorrow. I’m not worried about what meeting I might have on the calendar tomorrow. There’s a sense of calm that has come with it.Living in the present is knowing you have to figure out something in the future, and you know it will come, but for the first time, you’re not worried about it. Click To Tweet
From a mental health standpoint, it’s an outstanding feeling to say, “I’ve stopped stressing about all of those things going on in the corporate world.” When I look back on it, the things that I stressed about and woke up at 3:00 AM are trivial. I would do so many things differently. Things that I worried about what would happen with X project four weeks from now, I don’t have that stress.
My point on all of that is I left. I’m saying I want to make a career transition. Many of you are saying, “I don’t want my employees to leave and never come back.” My point of all of that is, personally, I had gotten to a place where I wasn’t happy. I suspect that there are many employees in the workforce who are very happy with their careers and very much love them, and want to stay where they are. There are probably more of them, people like me, who want to make that transition.
For those employees that are in that place, “I love this company. I love my team. I want to spend three months at home with my five-year-old and make them pancakes every day,” everybody has different aspirations, and that’s fine. What you get from walking away for 3 months or 6 months to be able to put into perspective, “What are the things I stressed about that are not important? What could I do differently in my job?”
I look at what I was doing months ago and the things that I would do differently now, I’d be such a better employee or a better leader because now I have the perspective. I’ve walked away, and I’m able to say, “I should have totally done it. It’s so obvious. It’s so clear to me now.” When you’re so immersed in it, it becomes so powerful, and everything’s cloudy. You’re walking through the water, and you can’t see the light of day of what needs to be done.
For the people that are reading, what I’m trying to say is you have some employees there that are happy. They just need that break. If your organization can figure out how to give them that break, they’re going to come back 1,000 times more confident and better. You’ve built in a natural succession plan by having them lead because somebody’s got to back them up while they’re gone. You’ve built in a natural development plan because somebody has to fill those shoes, so you’ve now naturally developed that person. That person, because they were able to leave and take the time they needed for themselves, is going to have such a huge commitment to coming back.
Renee, as we ground ourselves in this, I know that the sabbatical program has been hugely successful for you, but this was enabled by your employer. I know that a lot of times, employers will see that, “This person is such a high potential, high performing employee. We want to make sure that we’re doing the right thing for them and give them that flexibility.” Especially when we’re dealing with episodes of burnout, it’s great to give the gift of time for that person to rejuvenate, learn, explore, and so forth. Can you tell us a little bit about the program that made this happen?
I’m glad you brought that up. I want to clarify. The company I was at did not have a sabbatical program, so I put in my resignation, and it was a complete separation. I resigned and said, “I need this time. I know it’s not something that the organization has to offer.” It was a complete resignation, and I was willing to take that risk. I would say that for most people, it’s difficult. You have to have the financial means to do that. You have to have the ability to get healthcare. You have to have the security to say, “What if I can’t get a job when I come back? What if there’s a window or a gap in that period?”
For me, I was very fortunate to have the ability I had stayed for, and this is something I had wanted to do for many years. The benefit you get by having an employer who supports that is you can leave, and you also don’t have that pressure of, “How am I going to feed my family while I’m taking the time to be with my family?”
There are a lot of things that you’ve learned about yourself and about your previous role. As a matter of fact, you’re thinking about maybe doing something different than you were doing before. Did you discover that through the sabbatical process? Can you tell us a little bit about that?
When I left, I honestly thought, “I’m going to leave. I’m going to do a year. Maybe something will come out of this, but I’ll probably go back.” I need a paycheck, pay my mortgage, feed myself, and all of those same things that everyone else has. I had become accustomed to a certain style of living. When I left and stepped away and started seeing different parts of the world and talking with different people, I started to realize there were parts of my job that I loved.
I loved the people development. I loved the growth opportunity I could give to the team. I loved watching people flourish, particularly other aspects of it. I won’t get into them, but there were pieces of it that became very political and difficult for me to navigate through. I don’t want to say that it was the company that I was in the wrong place. I had gotten to a place where it wasn’t feeding me in the way that I needed it to.
As I look back on it, I’m saying, “What are the pieces of what I was doing that I loved? How can I take those pieces and pull them into something else that is more fulfilling to me?” Everyone has different needs. For me, I’m not chasing that big paycheck anymore. I’m looking for something that will sustain a nice lifestyle, but I have changed in the sense that I don’t need the big fancy apartment anymore. I want to feel fulfilled in a different way.
I have a question for you, Renee. Do you coach individuals about sabbaticals, or do you focus on coaching companies on how to have a sabbatical program?
I am in the beginning phases of both of those. I’ve been on the road nonstop. My time has been pretty stretched thin. The passion is here, so it is something that I’m thinking about, “Is this something I want to do in my future and make that my full-time job?” There is so much that can come from it. From a company standpoint, there’s a lot that needs to go into that, “How are you going to fund it? What does it look like from a retention policy?” All of you understand the things that go into that from a business standpoint.
The bigger piece of it where it becomes more challenging is the individual pieces, “Can I do this? How do I financially afford it? How do I talk to my employer about it? How do I have that difficult conversation?” I would be happy to talk to any company or individual and answer questions and do some coaching on that.
My follow-up commentary on that is I do what’s called career transformation support work as well as I support employers of talent management strategy. I also have two sides of the spectrum of what you’re talking about. This picks my heart in all of this because back in my corporate life in 2016 prior, it was interesting because we did have executives that were able to take sabbaticals.
For example, in one company I worked with, the executive would always go to Mount Everest every year. He would take an entire month off. He would come back and do a huge slide presentation to all the employees. It was the flip side of the coin. It was great to see that he went to Mount Everest and accomplished all these things. He took the sabbatical and did all these great, wonderful adventures, but on the negativity side of it, employees will say, “I don’t get that opportunity. I don’t have a program to support me if I want to take a year off, a month off or six months off. This isn’t fair.”
From a cultural standpoint, I’m not sure that did a positive aspect. There’s another company I did a temporary position with. The HR director took a year sabbatical but then she was unable to get rehired back, so they didn’t have a mature sabbatical program. This is something phenomenal to identify how sabbaticals work, if it is part of your company policy, what is the compensation process, and if there is compensation. All of a sudden, all these thoughts are going through my mind like, “How could you logistically, policy-wise, create the program?” Sometimes I’d like to have some coffee with you to pick your brain on that. That would be a great thing to talk about.
I’ve done it since I started because I am so passionate about it. I’ve done a fair amount of reading on it. What I would say is it’s not a one size fits all. Every company has a different dynamic with its employee group. Every company has different financial situations, but if you get creative, it’s worth it. Physically, I’m in better shape. Mentally, I’m in better shape. I’m not going to mental health counseling anymore. I’m not running to the doctor for all of my health ailments. What does that do from a health insurance standpoint for your company?
It’s about you caring about your people. Everybody wants to work for a company where they care about the people. The company policy piece of it is the hardest part. It’s the hardest part to convince a company to say, “This is why it works, and this is how it will work,” and the people piece of it. It’s scary for people to quit their job if they know that they have the financial backing.Everybody wants to work for a company where they care about the people. Click To Tweet
When I left my traditional corporate life, I felt like jumping off a cruise ship or jumping out of an airplane. It is extremely scary. I’m proud of you. It is scary to not live in the moment, to constantly worry about all those financial pressures. From a career transformation standpoint, this is a phenomenal idea if individuals consider it. In fact, there’s a Facebook group called Freedom From Corporate. A lot of employers are dealing with mass exit. They say, “Why not work with their employees to give them the empowerment to do this and also do coaching for your employees to have the freedom for what you’re talking about?” That’s great. Sam, do you have a comment?
In the early 2000s, the sabbaticals were trending up in the technology industry. It was quashed after a while due to the downturn and economically that they had. It was a great step forward. We started to see a little more reemergence in that practice in the past few years of companies adopting that, giving more flexibility, and finding a way to attract people into their organization. Also, reward those long-term, high-potential performers. There was a situation a number of years ago where I helped a company implement a sabbatical program.
They were a restaurant company out of San Francisco and a pretty high-end restaurant. One of their biggest problems is in the restaurant industry, there’s massive turnover, and it was killing their culture. They were wondering how to counteract this. What they found is with their demographic, they were often hiring very young professionals. Some of them were still in college, and so forth, then they would advance to be managers. Because of their restless youth, they often wanted to go off and travel.
One of their most prized managers that was a cultural driver in our organization, gave her notice one day, saying that, “I want to quit. I want to travel for a year and explore the world.” The restaurant didn’t know what to do because they had this person on a leadership path. They were planning on being high-level in the organization and didn’t want to lose that.
The sabbatical program turned into a great idea for them. What they offered is that, “This is great. If you stay with us, we’ll pay for a fraction of your salary, so you’ll continue to have earnings as you’re traveling the world. What we ask is that you visit these restaurants across the globe, and you come back to us and tell us about what you’ve learned from their operations and practices and so forth.” After a year, she came back. She was jazzed about what she had learned, and it turned into an even longer-term career for her and was promising for the organization. It was a great story of success for them.
That’s fantastic, Sam. It’s so obvious what needed to happen in that situation, and such a win-win for the company and the employee. That’s awesome.
A lot of times, there are situations where people are thinking about, “Is this the right career for me?” Maybe they wanted a change in career. Companies can still provide that security of income during that sabbatical if the person thinks they might want to come back. Some companies were, “What is the risk here? I’m worried about risking my investment in this.” They often will put together an agreement to pay back funds if they choose not to come back to work and so forth.
Sometimes, they’ll put in a retention period saying that, “If you stay with us for a year after you return or a year and a half, then you don’t have to repay that sabbatical.” Also, I often find that a lot of companies that have used sabbaticals have a term period. If you’re here for three years and you get six months off, if you’re here for a year, maybe you get a longer period of time and grow on that over. It’s used as a great retention program.
Do they offer benefits too, Sam?
The benefit is a little bit trickier. There are other types of benefit programs that these companies use in conjunction with their global nomads. As people have gotten bitten by the travel bug, as you have, Renee, there are other types of insurance programs that might better suit them around the world. There are actual global programs in place now that can help people no matter where they are on the globe, which is a better fit for them than traditional insurance provided in the states or elsewhere.
The other thing to think about is we’re talking about whether that employee is in the right career and wants to make a transition similar to what I’m doing, but maybe they want to do both. They like the company and the employer, and they’re saying they’ve been managing people for ten years. They’re not sure if they want to do it, so they step away. Six months later, they come back and say, “I’m interested in your marketing team. Can I get some exposure to that?” We all want to have the people in the right seat on the bus, and how you can help them to be in the right place. It’s a win-win for everyone.
It’s huge, as I’m sure you’ve found, Renee. The education you get from being a global person in perspective is massive. A lot of companies that are looking into globalization are expanding beyond their borders and looking at operations. It’s a huge step to be able to take an American leader and put them out into the world and expect them to be successful in managing that unique culture.
A great opportunity for learning is to have a period of sabbatical or to put that person out there to have them be immersed in a culture and learn about what it is to be a more global person, understanding different cultures and be more flexible in the understanding of different cultures and traditions. There are a lot of ways sabbaticals can be very successful and important for companies in their expansion.
It’s an educational opportunity that doesn’t feel like you’re getting an education when you’re doing it. As you said, the cultural piece of it coming back then leading teams that we’re a diverse country and the world’s becoming so global that you take that away and you don’t even know what happened to you.
Renee, I know that you’ve been to numerous countries at this point and your experience. Can you tell us a little bit about the ups and downs of that or what you’ve learned as you’ve traveled?
Some ups and downs. My downs are usually when I’m tired, or things aren’t going my way, flights or hotels or whatnot. My number one takeaway when people ask me what I’ve learned from this is that there are a thousand times more good people on this planet than bad. One of the things I’ve made a conscientious effort to do is to have a conversation with somebody in each country, a local person. That becomes difficult when you have some language barriers, but ironically, most people on the planet know English or at least the ones I have encountered.There are a thousand times more good people on this planet than bad. Click To Tweet
When I sit down and start to talk with these people, I go in. I remove all of my bias. I just want to get to know this person. At the foundational level that I see all human beings on this planet, we all want the same things. We all want to love our families. We want to go home and feel safe. Everybody that has children loves those children more than anything in the world. Anyone that has pets wants to show you pictures of their pets. When I sit back and start to ask political questions, religious questions, or things that are very much off-limits here in the US, especially in the working world, the foundation of it all is all the same. We all want the same things.
For me, it has also taught me to come back to my own country, where there is so much divide now, many opinions, and so much hate. There’s a lot of good too. Coming back and taking a view of this country with a different lens and the people I encounter every day is taking that bias and removing it, and we all have it. We think we don’t. We try not to but to be able to come into the world in my own community and say, “I’m going to remove everything I thought about this group of people or this specific person. I’m going to try to listen to what they’re saying instead of what I think they’re saying,” has been profound for me.
This is the obvious question. Are you bilingual? Do you learn new languages?
I am working on my Spanish. My partner is from Costa Rica, so we’ve been dating for ten years. He gets frustrated when I speak Spanish with him because he’s bilingual, and when I don’t understand him, he slips to English because I do understand that. I’m working on it. I have been to so many places. To pick up a language completely has been difficult. I know how to say thank you and hello in a lot of different languages.
It’s funny. My wife is French and tries to encourage me to learn and speak more French, but every time I start with a sentence, she corrects me every two words. It’s like, “No, this way, that way.” When I go and see their family and especially in Paris, they are like, “Don’t even try.”
It’s just not worth it. I want to so badly, and one of the things I do want to walk away from my sabbatical, at least being better at, is speaking Spanish. It’s hard, and it’s hard when everyone else in the world or the majority of people in the world speak English. It’s a privilege I’ve taken for granted for so much of my life, and I realize how lucky I am that it’s my native language.
It’s true. A lot of my colleagues in Europe speak multiple languages, and I got one. I’d have to say I don’t even have that one mastered very well.
I say I speak Spanglish when I’m in Mexico. It’s funny because the people that drive or families I meet, we come to a common Spanglish mix of a conversation, but it’s respected where at least both of us are trying to communicate non-verbally, chopping up words and saying them in various ways. It is impressive that since you do mainly speak English that you’ve been able to communicate non-verbally and be able to have conversations, ask questions, and make those relationships. You probably have hundreds, if not thousands, of friends now. You’ve made all these relationships all over the world.
It’s true. I normally wouldn’t be one to say I make friends that easily, but there are connections, especially when I’ve been out by myself. If I want to talk to somebody, I have to find that person. It’s not who I am traveling with and forces you out of your comfort zone in a scary and very rewarding way.
We do have a question, Renee. The question is, if you’ve ever traveled to South Asia or if you’ve particularly been to Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal or Sri Lanka. They’re curious to know about your experience if you’ve been to any of those places.
I have been to India, but I want to put a caveat on that I went with my previous employer. It was a US Fortune 500 company. There’s security and everything that comes with that. I wouldn’t say that was necessarily an authentic experience. I have not been to the rest, but I will tell you Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka are on my mind. I’m hoping that things will pan out sometime in early 2023.
I’m excited. I have plans to go to Nepal in 2023 because my son went there the year before. He’s fascinated by the culture, the mountains, the beauty, and so forth. It was a great learning experience for him to interact with different people and the loving and friendliness they have and their families there. It’s been a great blessing for him. I encourage that for anyone.
It sounds like you already have a tour guide ready for you in Pakistan. Abdul said he would love to be your tour guide and host you if you visit, so there you go.
Consider it done.
Renee, you need someone to carry your luggage.
That’s a good point. A lot of times, getting a local expert can be so important and make a trip worthwhile. As we think about you going to a place you don’t understand the language very well and don’t understand the culture, you could be wasting hours sitting in an airport because you don’t know how to go about the right way of asking or getting that next flight or getting from A to Z. Having local experts in those situations can be so empowering.
I was traveling in Italy, and I found this place that offered a homemade meal with a couple. Seizing that opportunity while we were in Italy to take that experience changed the whole perspective because now you’re traveling away from the tourist area, going into a neighborhood. You’re spending the whole evening cooking with these people and sharing wine and stories. That was a little taste of probably your total experience. It was so wonderful that a company was doing that.
That’s fantastic. Those are some of my cherished memories when you get that experience with a local who is so proud of their culture and community. They want to show it off, and I’m like, “Give it to me. Feed me more. I’ll take as much as I can get. This is fantastic.”
One of the things I’d love to hear a little bit more about, which I hear a lot about travelers, especially out of the US and those that are traveling for the first time, is that they don’t understand the privileges they have in their home country compared to others. What did you find out in your journeys about that?
That was one of the most troubling and rewarding things at the same time that I walked away with. It was probably 3 or 4 months into it, and I realized that traveling on a US passport is the most privileged thing I will ever have in my life, and I was born with it. I cannot tell you the number of times I have been in a car with a driver, a tour guide, or a local or been waiting at a bus stop or train station, and people will say, “Where are you from?” “I’m from America.” “I want to go to America someday.” If I could count the number of times I heard, “I want to go to America,” I would be set for life.
What you start to realize is that these people have tried. They’re trying to get here. They’re applying for jobs and have to have a work visa. They’re applying for tourist visas. Many of them can’t even get a tourist visa to come in and see the country. People want to see New York City, which New York is a great place, but it’s one tiny bit of America. The number of people on this planet that want to see New York City is phenomenal. How difficult and bureaucratic the governments are with letting some of these people come to see our country is profound.
We can get into all the political reasons of why that’s right or wrong or whatever, but for me to know that there are so many good people walking this planet that want to come and see New York City tore me up in the beginning because I thought, “Why don’t I have this privilege?” I did nothing. I was born here, and there are people fighting every day for their entire lives to never be able to come and see what we take for granted every day.
I agree because when I’m in Mexico, I have to be cognizant of that because as I’m going off and talking about Colorado and all the adventures I take, the people I’m talking to are nodding their heads politely. “I also experienced that.” The arrogance and attitude or privilege is something that we all need to be sensitive to those individuals that would love to visit America. It’s a very good point that you bring up.
It’s profound, and it can be emotional in a good way and a bad way at the same time. For me, it touched my heart in a way that I’m glad that I got to feel it because it is very real.
I would love to hear a little bit more about your most recent trip to Antarctica. There are a lot of things that you did on that trip. What inspired you to go there?
For anybody that travels in Antarctica, one of those things is, “I’m going everywhere else in the world. Why wouldn’t I go there?” It’s also a difficult place to get to, just the travel journey itself, and it’s not inexpensive. My mother had wanted to do this trip a few years ago, and she wanted to go with her children. We were all at a point where we said, “We don’t know if we can really afford it. It’s not an inexpensive trip.” She said, “I want to go.”
I got to a point where I said, “This is something my mom wants to do, and life is short. At some point in time, she’s going to be gone. I’ll have the means to do it, but I won’t have her to go with.” I said, “I’m going to save for it and do it.” This was back in 2019. We booked it, planned it, and everything was set to go for 2020, then COVID hit. It got put on hold. You’d get there on a ship, so it kept getting pushed back. We had it rescheduled time and time again then it came about that this past November, it was happening.
A long story of how we got there, but it was a family dream. I’m writing about it now, and I’m getting ready to share it in some blog posts, but it’s one of the most phenomenal things I’ve ever done in my life. It’s Antarctica. That’s probably no surprise to anybody. It’s the bottom of the world, but it’s a long journey to get there. It’s a ten-hour flight from the US to get to Buenos Aires, then another 3 to 4-hour flight to get to Ushuaia, which is the bottom or the Southernmost city in the world.
From there, you get on a ship, take a ship with about 150 other passengers, and go through the Drake Passage. If you don’t know what the Drake Passage is, it’s about 600 miles of open water. It’s the roughest open body water in the world. There are lots of rocking back and forth. It’s dangerous because it’s so rough. I don’t know if any of you have seen it in the news.
There was a woman that was killed in Antarctica in the Drake Passage doing the same exact journey that we were doing. She was one day behind us. It’s real. The journey itself was intense, but when we got there, and everyone that was with us would say we woke up, we went outside of our rooms, and it felt like we were on another planet. It’s like we had gotten in a space shuttle. We got jerked around and bounced around with all of the sea sickness and the motion, but it’s fantastically beautiful. There was no internet for ten days, which might be why it was so wonderful. You’re truly disconnected in a part of the world that is so untouched. It was awesome.
Traveling around the globe as you are, and I know that you’re in a wheelchair and have been your whole life, what are some of the challenges you found in traveling in a chair like that?
Speaking of privilege, there are many countries in the world where people with disabilities don’t leave their homes. You don’t see them on the street. They’re not legally allowed to work. There’s a lot of discrimination against them. I’ve encountered some of those that were blatantly cold and had no response. It’s like I don’t exist.
More often than not, most people are there to help. If I come up to a curb and there’s not a ramp, which in many parts of the world, ramps inside of a curb across the street aren’t a legal requirement, if I come up and I can’t get up, there are 2 or 3 men running up and grabbing onto my chair and lifting me up. It’s like, “How did you know that I needed it? Did I look like I was that desperate for help?”
They somehow come along and do it. There are certainly challenges. That level of fear that I talked about earlier is probably a little bit higher because I realize somebody comes along and throws me out of my chair, and I’m stuck. I’m a sitting duck at that point. They can do whatever they want with me, but you have to have faith in humanity, and it has not let me down so far.You have to have faith in humanity. Click To Tweet
In this, we can go back into the work environment as you have a story that I have because a lot of times, leaders out there don’t understand the environment. People who have mobility take it for granted in the age of trying to be more diverse, in trying to bring in this exceptional talent that can be ignored in some cultures. I’ve had some leaders trying to reach out to embrace that.
There was one story that I was told to me about a leader who’s bringing in their first person that was in a wheelchair. They didn’t know if their workplace was suitable for that environment and didn’t understand the type of difficulties. The last thing they wanted was to have a person come into their place of work and struggle with their environment. He made the decision that he was going to spend a full week in a wheelchair himself to investigate what the challenges would be.
That’s what he did a week before the person was going to join. He tested everything out, from the bathrooms to the entranceway, everything. He never left that chair and understood some of the challenges. His own staff didn’t realize the amount of attention he got on the first day he rolled in and throughout the week. As people got used to that, then it became normal. I thought that was a great way to normalize and also understand the limitations that a workplace has. I would be interested in hearing about your experiences as far as diversity inclusion in that capacity.
This is a topic that I could probably do another four-hour session on but kudos to that leader for stepping up and saying, “I don’t know how to help you, but I want to try, and this is my way of saying you are welcome. I want you to be part of the team.” That’s a fantastic way to send that message. My advice to any leader or any employer is to ask the person, “Is there anything you need? What would be most comfortable for you? Would you like to come into the building when no one’s here?”
If you ask a person with a disability, they are going to tell you. They’re not afraid. They know what they need. I know when I go to the grocery store, if I can’t reach a can of beans, I know I’m going to have to ask someone to get it down. I know what I need. Often, there’s an assumption to say, “This person is in a wheelchair. We need to put in these things,” but maybe you don’t. Maybe you need to put in something else. You can’t know until you’ve been there. It’s starting with the question and genuinely saying, “How can we help you?” In my experience, it’s the best way. Also, listen to what they say because that individual knows.
Thank you, Renee, for that. You’re so inspiring. The fact that you’re living the life that I would love to live. I’m trying as much as I can. You’ve crossed many borders, and I’d love to do the same someday.
Make it your goal.
For those readers out there that would like to learn more about your journeys and follow your passion in achieving this goal of becoming part of that world record community of Guinness, how can they follow you?
I have a webpage. It’s WheelsTravelsTheWorld.com. On the bottom of the front page, there are links to Facebook and Instagram. My LinkedIn is on there. I’m on LinkedIn also, Renee Bruns. There is a Contact section on the webpage if you want to reach out. I’m happy to have any conversations with anyone that would like to chat further about disability advocacy, travel, sabbaticals, and all of those things I’m passionate about. Happy to further the conversation individually if anyone’s open to that.
Renee, it’s been so enlightening. I’m so inspired and excited about getting out the door and doing the next thing. Thank you so much for your time.
Thank you for having me. It’s been my pleasure.
Real pleasure. Thank you.
Renee, I want to ask what the next country you’ll be crossing off your bucket list. They all want to know. Antarctica, what’s next?
Next is Honduras. There’s some diving there that’s supposed to be fantastic, so I’m going to go with my partner for a long weekend and do some diving. It will be a relaxing trip.
I want to have you back in a year to hear what came out of this because I truly believe you already are going to become such an advocate for normalizing sabbatical. I’m helping companies make their workforce experience better because of that.
I also want to know where I will be in a year. I have no idea. We can share it together.
That’s great. We’ll be following you. Thanks, Renee. Have a happy holiday, and we’ll talk to everyone on the next episode.
I am a proven leader who thrives in developing and inspiring people to reach their maximum potential. I am passionate about sharing my stories with hopes others will be encouraged to live to their fullest. I am currently taking a professional career sabbatical to live my own dreams.