Gaucho for Good

Erin Fish '98

Erin Fish '98 (right) at a SOLVE Oregon volunteer event in the Portland Metro area.

Although he describes himself as a “fourth-generation insurance agent,” Erin Fish was by no means sold on serving in the profession. “I used to make fun of my father for being a professional in such a boring business,” he laughs. “Until shortly before it actually happened, I hadn't given it a thought that I would be an insurance agent.”
As a child, the Westlake Village, California native wanted to be a marine biologist. In his college years, Fish was determined to become a teacher. After graduating, he fulfilled his ambition and became a life science teacher. More than a dozen years after leaving the profession to join the family fold, “Seventh Grade Science Rocks” still appears on his LinkedIn profile.

In 2006, Fish established EMF Insurance Agency in San Francisco, CA. Nine years later, he applied his experience in insurance and his commitment to conservation to launch Wanderwell Travel Insurance, which donates 10% of annual revenue to non-profits including organizations that promote sustainable travel.

Little wonder that Fish was a charter participant in the first UCSB Alumni Day of Service last year or that he is returning to serve—as a volunteer and evangelist for UCSB Alumni Day of Service 2.0 on February 23, 2019. Here, he shares the reason for the failure of his initial career aspiration (L.A. Laker), the muse for his socially-driven, eco-friendly venture (spoiler alert: it’s Mindy Kaling) and his elevator pitch to fellow Gauchos.

It must be hard to escape the gravitational pull of a fourth generation family business. It started with my paternal grandmother's father, who was an immigrant living in New York.  My grandmother followed in his footsteps for a while.  My father entered the insurance business in his teens.  He is still an agent in Southern California.  My mother and brother have also dipped their toes into the industry.  When I turned 30 I left my career as a middle school and high school teacher to start my own business.  I absorbed the wisdom of our family legacy, and it has been a fruitful, evolving professional career for thirteen years so far.

When you were looking at colleges, what was it that drew you to UCSB? I was accepted into five universities: Oregon State, Humboldt State, Cal State Monterey Bay (inaugural class), UC Santa Cruz, and UC Santa Barbara.  At the time, UCSB was not my top choice, as I felt it was a little too close to home.  A friend of mine was at UCSB, and she invited me up to visit.  I attended an official tour of the school and the Department of Marine Sciences.  While the tour took us to Campus Point, we were admiring the view of the ocean and the Channel Islands when a pod of grey whales swam by.  It was a long, exciting, awesome moment that is still clear in my memory.  I decided that day that I wanted to be close to this, and I was going to accept the invitation to attend school at UCSB.

Were you active in student organizations, government, and extra-curricular activities off-campus? Was it a very social scene for you or a nose-to-the-grindstone type of four years? I ended up working at the Rec Cen, within the Intramural Sports program my entire time at school.  It was a pivotal time and opportunity for me--especially to have [Director of Recreational Sports] Paul Lee as a mentor. [He] challenged me to reflect on my choices and to think about my responsibilities to myself and others in and beyond the present moment. Within my first year I changed my major to Environmental Studies.  The ES faculty was instrumental in helping me to take an open minded, holistic view of our planet, cultures, and natural spaces and systems.  I still feel lucky to have learned in the epicenter of the modern environmental movement. The city and region of Santa Barbara was a central character in my three years at UCSB.  My friends and I worked downtown for a while.  The access to the mountains, the islands, and an accessible city gave me all I needed when not involved in school. I was also very involved in my fraternity, AEPi.  Many of my closest friends still in my life are friends from my time spent actively in my fraternity.


Was your choice of environmental studies part of your plan to go off in an entirely different direction than your family career-wise? In my second or third year at UCSB I took two courses that particularly captured my interest.  One was an Environmental Education course.  Another was an Urban Planning course.  I took time to intern and have experiences with the Santa Barbara School District and with the City of Santa Barbara to explore teaching and urban planning, respectively.  While assisting teachers and working with youth in Santa Barbara, it was exciting to me to see how stoked kids became by being in nature and realizing how each of our actions impact others and our natural environment. I graduated from UCSB with the intention to become a teacher.  Within a year and a half after I graduated, I became an employed teacher, and for seven years I focused my attention on teaching biology, life sciences, environmental education, and student government and community engagement.

What was your "light-bulb moment" for Wanderwell? In 2014 I knew I wanted to create a new travel insurance-focused agency, but I wasn't sure when I'd begin.  I knew I wanted to start a new company that could have a small environmental footprint, with no tangible, physical product, and could make a positive impact - offsetting the impact our traveling clients can make - while remaining a for-profit company.  I just hadn't found a vehicle that could provide the framework for us to follow, keep us focused, and hold us accountable.  I was on a Southwest Airlines flight.  The in-flight magazine with Mindy Kaling on the cover had an article highlighting a small, but growing community of B Corps - social enterprises that are committed to meeting rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency, and are assessed every few years.  This article jump-started my motivation to make moves to birthing Wanderwell.  Wanderwell became a company a year later, had our first clients six months after then, and officially became a certified B Corporation in April 2017!  From Day 1, Wanderwell has been a proud business member of 1% for the Planet, donating at least ten percent of our revenue to nonprofits supported by the 1% for the Planet network as well as to other organizations that promoting conscientious travel.

Would you say that the concept was, at least initially, a way of combining your personal interest in the environment/social activism with a business you already had a strong grounding in? Absolutely. In my memory, my first passions in life came at 1st grade.  They were marine conservation and the Los Angeles Lakers.  I wanted to be a professional marine biologist and a professional basketball player.  I missed the skills and height requirement to join even my high school basketball team, so the NBA left my dreams before my life was in pre-game lay-up drills.  I still have the desire to participate in marine biology and conservation experiences, and I have taken steps towards engaging in such activities recently.  But my passions have expanded to business, and specifically the positive impact that responsible businesses can make on social, economic, and environmental fronts.  It is still so early, but it appears to me that our potential for social enterprises is unbounded.  The number of people and communities that are consciously choosing to buy from social-enterprises is growing every year.  I believe it can provide a new definition and avenue for capitalism moving forward.

Can you describe the project you worked on for the first Alumni Day of Service? On the day of the first UCSB Alumni Day of Service I volunteered in Portland, Oregon with The Columbia Slough Watershed Council.  We had 30 volunteers come together to transform one quarter of a city park into an ecologically sustainable landscape and nature patch.  We spent the morning outdoors planting a diverse array of native plants throughout the patch, which was one acre of land.

If you had sixty seconds to make a pitch for your fellow graduates to participate, what would you say? Time spent volunteering can give you permission and a chance, even just for a few hours, to stop thinking about your personal concerns and anxieties, and focus your attention on people, places, and ecosystems other than yourself.  Many studies show that volunteering leads to decreasing anxiety and stress levels and increases in personal and professional connections. It can create community, change another person's/family's life positively and help gain perspective. I'm proud to be an alum of UCSB.  I strive to be an activated member of my home community, but it is not always simple to find volunteer opportunities in my area of interest, with opportunities that fit my schedule, that don't require a month of training before I can lend a hand and my heart.  This February, UCSB Alumni are coordinating across the planet to collectively volunteer and make connections.  In some areas, there are volunteer opportunities being curated for us by UCSB, making it simple to find an opportunity to engage with.