Duarte Morais, People-First Tourism

Early funding from North Carolina Sea Grant enabled Duarte Morais (left), People-First Tourism, Inc. co-founder, to examine the challenges facing small businesses in coastal North Carolina. Photo by Chantell LaPan.

Nash Dunn is a writer for NC State University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences. A version of this story was published by NC State News Services. North Carolina Sea Grant provided early funding that enabled People-First Tourism co-founder Duarte Morais to recruit small businesses from North Carolina’s rural coastal areas for this venture.

Every town has them: local microentrepreneurs.

You may know them, perhaps, by their less formal titles: the peanut farmer, the birder, the trail keeper, the oysterman.

Researchers at NC State University say they’ve created a way for the public to easily find and connect with these smallest of small business owners, who often not only serve as experts at their crafts, but also are top-notch tour guides in their communities.

People-First Tourism, Inc., or P1t — founded by NC State scholars with backgrounds in anthropology, sustainable tourism and computer science — creates an online marketplace where the public has direct pathways to vetted microentrepreneurs.

rabbit farm

The People-First Tourism, or P1t, online marketplace includes opportunities to visit a rabbit farm in Chatham County. Photo courtesy People-First Tourism.

Through its website,, users can learn about and book experiences with locals, currently ranging from cooking lessons with Costa Rican indigenous people to sightseeing boat tours in the North Carolina coast.

“It provides an opportunity for people found at the margins of the tourism industry to obtain some extra household cash for work they enjoy,” says Tim Wallace, who teaches anthropology at NC State and is one of the company’s four co-founders. “It allows them to share with visitors, in their own words, something about their life experiences as individuals and members of a vibrant community.”

To reserve an experience through P1t, users search by destination to find descriptions of the various offerings available. Potential travelers can add their selections to an electronic shopping cart.

Each booking sends a text message to the local host, who responds to finalize the details. Payment is made online, and the money goes directly to the microentrepreneur.

As an NC State technology-based social venture, incorporated in May 2015, the four co-founders agreed that any income earned from royalties will go into the People-First Innovation Fund. The fund supports education, research and innovation that enables microentrepreneurs in these rural communities to succeed. NC State’s Institute for Nonprofits, which served as a key resource to the startup, will manage the newly created fund.

“It’s pretty inspiring that the co-founders have decided to forgo any personal financial gain and make sure that the legacy of this project is carried on by students,” says Elizabeth Benefield, the institute’s social entrepreneurship program manager.

The institute has worked with the co-founders for several years, connecting them to resources such as SCORE, a group of small-business consultants in Chapel Hill, she adds. The institute also helped answer the team’s business and operational questions.

“These researchers have stepped out of their comfort zone to create something they deeply believe in, and so we all had a goal of keeping the integrity of the social mission and impact at the center of the work,” Benefield says. “Building a social enterprise is challenging — you’re driving up revenue and at the same time keeping track of a vision that improves the way the world works.”

The project is very much an interdisciplinary effort. In addition to Wallace, the other co-founders are Duarte Morais and Gene Brothers, who both teach equitable and sustainable tourism at NC State, and computer science engineer John Bass.

Using grants that stem back to 2010, the team of NC State researchers crafted the concept of the company while studying the effect of tourism development on microentrepreneurs around the world. They interviewed dozens of locals, who largely felt that others in the government and formal industry sectors were telling their stories for them — and often inaccurately.

“This is all about information — it’s about locals being able to showcase themselves to visitors and about tourists being informed about these entrepreneurs,” Morais says. “Tourists want genuine experiences and want to visit people who are truly sharing who they are and what they love.”

People-First Tourism microentrepreneurs

P1t also offers a global network of microentrepreneurs, mostly recruited from locations the co-founders had visited during fieldwork. Photo courtesy People-First Tourism.

The company’s model wouldn’t work without being able to communicate with its microentrepreneurs, who often live in very rural environments. To make sure that channel remains open, Bass says they created a website that works with Short Message Service, or SMS, text messaging technology, the most widely used data application in the world.

“We found that the common denominator between locals was SMS,” says Bass, the director of NC State’s Institute for Next Generation IT Systems. “If there is no internet or computers or basic infrastructure, these microentrepreneurs still most likely have SMS.”

P1t’s catalog of experiences can largely be attributed to the professors’ fieldwork in recent years, which has led to partnerships with microentrepreneurs in North America, South America, Africa, Europe and Asia. Their work also has resulted in the development of the P1t Lab, a research and innovation hub that includes faculty, students and community-development professionals from across campus and around the world.

“As co-founders of P1t, Inc., we are delighted with the current success of our young social enterprise,” Brothers says. “We are dedicated to P1t’s continued growth and are also actively recruiting a chief executive officer who can champion the capitalization of this venture, as well as the gradual development of its sales and operations.”

The People-First Tourism website currently features dozens of local and global microentrepreneurs. The co-founders plan to add more experiences to the site over time.

This article was published in the Spring 2016 issue of Coastwatch.

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