Ask a Genius: After a son's death, a mother helps travelers stay safe



Myles Ma

Myles Ma

Senior Reporter

Myles Ma is a senior reporter at Policygenius, where he covers personal finance and insurance and writes the Easy Money newsletter. His expertise has been featured in The Washington Post, PBS, CNBC, CBS News, USA Today, HuffPost, Salon, Inc. Magazine, MarketWatch, and elsewhere.

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Welcome to the latest edition of Ask a Genius, our regular series of interviews with brilliant people. Today we're featuring Sheryl Hill, founder and executive director of Depart Smart, a travel safety nonprofit. Hill founded Depart Smart after her son died while on a student trip to Japan. Now she works to teach travelers how to protect themselves while they're abroad.

Describe the work you do briefly

Depart Smart advances travel and tourism consumer safety. We deliver the first consumer-driven travel safety course to help you and the ones you love Depart Smart for the world with a personalized safety plan and resources to avoid risks, get help and home safely. Our course is fun with animations, games and meaningful tools. It takes about an hour.

What problem are you trying to solve? 

Poor travel and tourism consumer safety. More than 65 million Americans go abroad annually. Most do not protect themselves with preventive health: vaccinations or travel insurance. People die, they get hurt and become seriously ill. No one can tell you how many.

What led you to tackle this problem & not something else? 

Personal tragedy. I am a host mom to six international students for more than 12 years. I am also a mom of Tyler Hill, who was barely 16 when he died a preventable death on a student trip to Japan in 2007. He would be alive if he had received timely and appropriate medical care. He tried to dial 911. It's 119 in Japan. He was minutes from a Japanese Red Cross hospital. We published and heard from thousands of parents whose children went missing or were killed, abused or hurt. His story repeats again and again. We love to travel. It’s not as safe as people think. We are tackling travel safety illiteracy.

How does what you do help people? 

Knowledge is powerful if you know how to put it into action. Most people don’t know what they don’t know when they travel abroad. We hear, “You saved my loved one’s life!” Of course, we didn’t. We weren’t there. They did because they had the knowledge, skills and resources to make informed decisions about their health and safety. We simply gave them a plan to get help and home and avoid risks.

If you had $1 billion, how would you spend it? 

We are excited by the possibilities! We would create a worldwide movement to translate Travel HEROES safety training into every language so people in every country can Depart Smart for the world with a personalized travel safety plan. Depart Smart would be the trusted global safe travel resource with statistically meaningful data to keep travelers out of harm’s way with comprehensive, destination-specific wisdom and skills. We would create a world where people help each other travel safely.  

What's one fact or idea you think more people should know? 

You don’t know what you need to know to travel abroad safely because travel and tourism consumer protections are poor – no one gets warnings before they buy or fly.

What is the one person, place or thing that helped you get to where you are today? 

Community – a league of passionate, talented, professional, generous mentors, role-models, sponsors and volunteers. It takes a village to raise a nonprofit.

What is one government policy you would change to make travel safer? 

Travel and tourism consumer safety rules. Before booking a trip, consumers should be made aware of country-specific warnings and alerts by the U.S. Department of State; disease management and health risks for their destinations from the Centers for Disease Control. They should be informed about the health care system in their destinations. It can cost more than $300,000 to get them help and home if they are uninsured (Company health benefits usually don’t cover emergency evacuation abroad.) This means travel insurance should never be optional. They should be made aware of the risks of not traveling with travel insurance. They should be debriefed on local laws and customs – emergency is not 911 in practically every other country, and it’s not always safe to rely on local police. You can be locked up for seemingly innocent actions – like bringing Sudafed or other meds over a border. Global travelers should know the contact info for their embassy and what their consulate can do for them. They should prepare their emergency contacts with passports that pass the validity rule; and similar preventatives so they can travel awesome in lifesaving ways. 

What's one thing you want to accomplish in the next month? 

Seed funding of $500,000 to hire faculty and bring Travel HEROES Safety Training to the USA.


Self-sustaining revenue model to advance our mission for the future of $1.5 million to $5 million.


Recognition as global travel safety experts helping you and the ones you love Depart Smart in lifesaving ways.

Who do you think is a genius & what’s one thing you would ask them? 

Warren Buffet. I love how grounded and capable he is, and he gets travel insurance – Berkshire Hathaway. They should care about Depart Smart. I’d ask him to lead or teach us so organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation fulfill their duty to care and duty to inform with Depart Smart Travel HEROES skills and personalized safety plans and so we can become a self-sustaining nonprofit capable of helping the world travel safely.

This interview was lightly edited for clarity.

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Image: Sheryl Hill