Tonya Fitzpatrick of World Footprints: “Study others you admire but don’t try to imitate them”

We all have an imposter we fight with. I work to shut my imposter down so I’ve given her the name of Agnes to humanize her. When Agnes starts to nag me and tries to shut me down, I tell Agnes to SHUT UP! I may have to tell her to shut up several times […]

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We all have an imposter we fight with. I work to shut my imposter down so I’ve given her the name of Agnes to humanize her. When Agnes starts to nag me and tries to shut me down, I tell Agnes to SHUT UP! I may have to tell her to shut up several times before she starts to disappear. This may sound like a scene from the movie Sybil, but it really works for me.

As a part of our series about Inspirational Women of the Speaking Circuit, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Tonya Fitzpatrick, Esq.

Tonya Fitzpatrick, Esq. is the co-Founder of World Footprints, a socially conscious travel media platform that was founded on the unity principle of “Ubuntu” — a Zulu word that translates to I am because we are. Tonya is co-host of the award-winning World Footprints podcast and has interviewed distinguished guests like the late Dr. Maya Angelou. Through World Footprints, Tonya amplifies stories about the transformative power of travel and the beauty of our common humanity.

Tonya is a 3x TEDx and international speaker, lawyer, author and member of The Explorers Club. She was appointed as a Delegate to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and is a former White House political appointee.

Tonya graduated from the London School of Economics, Wayne State University Law School and she attended East China University of Politics and Law. She has been featured in AAA World, MSNBC, U.S. News and World Reports, Black Enterprise, NBC and CBS affiliate stations in Washington, DC and in several books.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I grew up in the small town of Lansing, Michigan in an average middle-income home and during a time when life seemed simple. My parents made sure that my sisters and I had a well-rounded upbringing. Even with their modest income, they enrolled me in 4-H programs (many dealing with horses), ballet, acting classes and karate. The latter gave me a sense of empowerment in the face of the constant bullying I received.

My parents divorced when I was nine years old. However, they were both actively involved in my life — showing up for school plays, orchestra recitals and taking me to karate and ice skating lessons, brownie and girl scout meetings as well as community theatre auditions.

I don’t remember many details about their divorce except that I know it was painful and a little contentious. Despite their feelings I know they tried their best to be healthy co-parents and for the most part, they did a pretty good job. But the divorce fostered feelings of abandonment and that is something I struggle with today. In the flip side of the negative emotions my parents’ divorce likely fostered my ability to be compassionate and empathetic. I am a true empath and I’m grateful for that gift.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

My journey into travel journalism and subsequently public speaking is a matter of my passion(s) catching up with me. To really understand that statement I need to tell you about the promise I made to myself when I was five years old.

At that time I had an uncle who was living in London with his British wife. My uncle would travel home to Michigan every summer and his visits introduced me to a world beyond my little neighborhood. I was very curious and intrigued about London, so I promised myself that I would move there one day. Twenty years later I packed up and moved to London with only 300 dollars in my pocket.

I took advantage of my time in the U.K. London is a great travel hub and I took every opportunity to visit other countries during the years I lived there. The travel bug had bitten me before my move but it really took hold of me when I lived in London.

Fast forward, I returned from London and went to law school in Michigan. Shortly after my first few legal jobs, I decided to move to Washington, DC to pursue a career in foreign services. However, I landed a policy job on Capital Hill and then worked as a federal contractor at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. It was at that point when my love for travel caught up with me.

My husband and I started a travel agency and began helping people create immersive travel experiences. Our goal was to help people connect with different cultures and enjoy meaningful travel journeys. We began appearing on television in DC and that caught the attention of a top radio station that invited us to start a travel show. The rest is history.

My speaking opportunities came about when a TEDx organizer who had been following me on social media invited me to speak at her event. That opportunity led to a second and third TEDx talk and then some international speaking engagements.

I stepped out on faith when I leaned into my passion for travel and because of that, other opportunities have followed.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

The most interesting thing that has happened is that I have rediscovered my love for performance theatre. Speaking on stage and receiving applause from the audience fills me with the same joy and accomplishment as when I was acting. Speaking and acting are really two sides of the same coin.

I believe that public speaking is another example of my passion for theatre catching up with me. I’ve not returned to theatre but I have taken some acting jobs over the last few years and I’ve done two improv showcases. The acting is helping me perfect my performance and delivery on stage as a speaker.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I purchased a new pair of boots a few days before one of my TEDx talks. The boots felt comfortable when I tried them on and they were exactly what I was looking for.

Around the same time, I was recovering from bronchitis and had been taking a lot of licorice-based lozenges to help me control my cough. Those lozenges also dried my throat so I had to constantly drink water and that caused me to make frequent trips to the loo.

On the evening of my TEDx talk, I had consumed several lozenges and drank lots of water to help preserve my voice. I made a couple of trips to the loo until my feet started hurting from the new boots. My feet hurt so bad that I could barely walk to the stage much less the loo.

As I mounted the stage to give my talk, I felt miserable. My feet were hurting, I desperately needed to pee (and the Spanx that was compressing my bladder didn’t help) and I was terrified I’d have a coughing spell.

I made it through my talk without any incidents, but the energy I usually speak with was absent. However, I learned a valuable lesson that day — don’t give a presentation in new shoes.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve not had anyone who has taken me under his or her wing. I have had, however, great speaking and writing coaches who have helped me discover compelling stories and who’ve guided me on delivery.

What I do have is an incredibly supportive husband and business partner. My husband, Ian, can be credited for the successes I’ve enjoyed because of the invaluable support he has provided throughout my career journey. Ian encourages me when I need it, he strategizes and does content research to help me craft stories and he has talked me off the ledge when I’ve been frustrated and close to throwing in the towel. Ian has also supported my decisions to invest in a product or service that I needed even when the expenditures have come during financially hard times.

I’m also very blessed to have the support of family members and an incredibly loyal base of followers. They all keep me going.

You have been blessed with great success in a career path that can be challenging and intimidating. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?

First, the only real failure is never trying. Second, I don’t like using the word ‘failure’ because many people label themselves with that word. I prefer saying “setback” or “stumbling block”. We can recover from those.

No matter what we do, we are always going to stumble and there will always be a setback. That is inevitable. It’s what you do after the setback that matters. Do you lie down and quit or do you move forward?

When you have the inevitable setback, just know that you’ll have the space to reset, evaluable and plan for your comeback. A setback is just a setup to make a comeback.

I once read a book entitled, “Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway”, and that is something that successful people do. They forge ahead regardless of the prospect of stumbling. Look at people like Thomas Edison. He had 1,000 setbacks before he was successfully illuminated the world with his 1,001st experiment with the light bulb. We might be living in the dark had Edison quit at experiment number 1,000.

One thing we should always ask is what would be the worst thing that could happen if there’s a setback? I also ask myself if I would regret not moving forward.

Finally, as a travel journalist I like to use the analogy of a mountain climber.

Imagine you’re climbing Mount Everest or Kilimanjaro with a friend. The hike is grueling and you are both exhausted but you only have a few more feet and a final push before you summit. One of you decides to quit and the other continues to push forward and enjoys the most beautiful view at the summit. All it takes is that final push towards the summit.

What drives you to get up every day and give your talks? What is the main empowering message that you aim to share with the world?

I know that I have an important message to share — one that people need to hear. I feel it is my responsibility to share this message with the world and that energizes me.

Can you share with our readers a few of your most important tips about how to be an effective and empowering speaker? Can you please share some examples or stories?

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse! I’m not talking about memorizing your speech — but practicing enough so that you’ll know the flow and elements of the speech.

Giants like Oprah rehearse everything, and because she knows her content well, it sounds natural and polished when she speaks.

It is important to read your talk out loud and record yourself doing that. You must rehearse your body movements, intonation and facial expressions so that you can build memory muscle.

Another thing I do is I take time to walk the stage the night before or day of giving a speech. That helps me get comfortable with the stage and it gives me time to visualize giving the speech in front of an audience. If time permits, I will run through my speech on the empty stage.

Finally, we all have an imposter we fight with. I work to shut my imposter down so I’ve given her the name of Agnes to humanize her. When Agnes starts to nag me and tries to shut me down, I tell Agnes to SHUT UP! I may have to tell her to shut up several times before she starts to disappear. This may sound like a scene from the movie Sybil, but it really works for me.

As you know, many people are terrified of speaking in public. Can you give some of your advice about how to overcome this fear?

Even as a seasoned speaker, I still get nervous before going on stage. So the first thing people should recognize is that being frightened is normal and that nervousness is not indicative of your speaking ability.

Years ago, I received an invaluable piece of advice from a writer I was introducing to an audience. I was just out of college and a professional association I belonged to asked me to introduce the guest speaker. I mentioned to the guest speaker that I was extremely nervous about speaking before the association members, and the speaker told me that no one ever knows that you’re nervous. The realization that I could hide my fear comforted me that day and I continue to remind myself of this statement every time I go on stage.

One of the best things I’ve ever done for myself is enroll in improv classes. Doing improv helps you think quickly if someone interrupts your talk or if you forget your lines or points. It also helps you get accustomed to being in front of an audience.

Another thing I might suggest is that people should join a local Toastmaster group. Toastmasters offer the best training ground for speakers at all levels. Also, groups like local Chambers, schools and Rotary Clubs are perfect for practicing new talks and adjusting to audiences.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Focus on doing the things that are aligned with your goal. If you try to accomplish everything, you’ll end up accomplishing nothing. Along that same vein, I would also add that it is unproductive to follow the newest shiny penny.
  2. Study others you admire but don’t try to imitate them. You need to let your authentic self shine otherwise you will compromise your integrity and the trust of your audience. People can see through B.S.
  3. Your “mess” is your message. All of our lives are messy but it’s the stories about how we got on the other side of our mess that is inspiring and informative. Your greatest impact comes when you’re transparent and vulnerable, so it’s important to lean in to those stories.
  4. Don’t let a “no” discourage you, because “no” just means “not now”. There can be many reasons why you may hear the word NO. Sometimes it’s not the right time, or something needs to be tweaked or there’s been another selection. Whatever the reason, don’t take it personal because a no can become a yes at another time.
  5. Treat your business like a business, especially when looking to hire service providers. There are people who will ingratiate themselves to you but that doesn’t mean that they will be the right fit for your business. I’ve lost a lot of money by hiring people who said they “love my message” when in reality those people only cared about obtaining my business. People may love what you stand for but that doesn’t make them the ideal business associate. Before paying for any product or service, do your own due diligence and speak to people who are not listed as references to learn about their experience with that business.

You have such impressive work. What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Where do you see yourself heading from here?

I had been focusing on media appearances but now I’m returning to writing my book. Also, there are a number of virtual speaking opportunities that are surfacing so I’ll be applying to some and also looking into best practices for virtual speaking.

Can you share with our readers any self-care routines, practices or treatments that you do to help your body, mind or heart to thrive? Please share a story for each one if you can.

Because of the stressful times we’re living in right now, I focus a lot on my mindset. Mental health and physical health are paramount considerations so I meditate in the mornings and practice yoga three to four times every week.

I also started drinking more water — a gallon a day — and I purchased water bottles with timelines and motivational quotes on them that help us maintain our goal. Because of my water routine, I have more energy and I’ve noticed that my skin is much clearer. Yoga has increased my physical strength and meditation and prayer are keeping my blood pressure at healthier levels.

While the weather is decent, Ian and I also go outside for long walks in a park once or twice a week.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have several life lesson quotes but two of my favorites are:

“You won’t go to war with people you break bread with” and “If you don’t stretch you won’t grow”.

The first quote reminds us that we are all human beings and that there is much we can learn from each other. It helps us build bridges so that we can break down any barriers or misconceptions we have about others and thereby extinguish fear.

This is what happened when I encountered an Afrikaner family for the first time. I was traveling alone on a train to Budapest from Vienna when members of this family joined me in a train car. I was nervous because I assumed they held the same racism that we saw under Apartheid. However, we started talking and learning more about each other. The family invited me to join them in Budapest when they learned that I hadn’t made any arrangements. I shared a hotel room with the mother and toured the city with the young adults in the group. I saw more of Budapest than I would have seen on my own. One of the daughters remained a friend for years and even visited me in London.

The second quote is a reminder of how important it is to go beyond your comfort zone. The pot of gold is at the end of your comfort zone but you will never see it if you don’t stretch yourself.

Moving to London with 300 dollars in my pocket and touring Budapest with complete strangers who I initially thought were racist was two times I stretched myself. The pot of gold is the lifestyle I am experiencing now and the new friendships I’ve made along the way.

One other quote that I hang on to is something that my late father would say over and over again: “where there’s a will there’s a way”. That quote has served me every time I’ve hit a roadblock, every time I’ve stumbled and each time I’ve been overwhelmed with discouragement. This is the quote that always prompts me to dig deep and find a way around words like “no”, “stop” or “can’t”.

You are a person of huge influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

The philosophy of Ubuntu: I am because we are.

Ubuntu is a Zulu word and its translation speaks to unity and our common humanity.

Ubuntu teaches us that we are responsible for each other’s well being. It shows us that we share more similarities than we do differences. Ubuntu is the philosophy that will help sustain humanity.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!

There are two people. One I’ve met a few times and the other I’m dying to meet — Sheila Johnson (co-founder of BET network) and Oprah.

Both of these women are remarkable and I’ve been an admirer of them for years. Both Oprah and Sheila are trailblazers in the media space and Sheila is now making a name for herself in the travel space.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Sheila at a couple of events at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC and her Salamander Resort in Virginia. She is a beautiful human being and I would love to get to know her better.

Oprah is a media powerhouse. I’ve always said that I wanted to be like Oprah in the travel space.

There is so much to learn from them. They have both found a way around the “no’s they’ve been given and they’ve risen to the top of their game under extreme adversity. Most importantly, they have stayed true to their self despite their tremendous success.

It would be such a blessing to enjoy a meal and soak up wisdom like Solomon.

Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?

My speaker page is housed on the World Footprints website:

All social media: IG, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, Facebook is @WorldFootprints

This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

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