My son Tyler Hill died on a student program abroad

It happened on a day while I was at a 2007 USA National Hockey tournament with my youngest son, Alec, and his friend in Pennsylvania. I received a fateful phone call that my oldest son, Tyler, was being resuscitated at the Japanese American Red Cross Hospital a world away in Tokyo, Japan.  Our life was forever altered on that day. Tyler’s life could have been saved if he had received timely and appropriate medical attention.  His death was hard enough, but not having the skills and resources to navigate Japanese laws to render justice added turmoil to the tragedy.  Our story is history. But, history is repeating again and again. I can’t keep quiet. 

I sought remedies in federal and state laws

I communicated directly with Presidents George Bush, Jr. (whose name was on the letterhead soliciting Tyler for a People to People student trip to Japan) and with President Barack Obama.  We did move state laws – they aren’t particularly helpful and the schools and institutes dislike them. Minnesota passed a Sunshine Law for K-12 and Higher Education study abroad transparency on illness, injury, and death requiring hospitalization. These laws were in honor of my son Tyler Hill (MN) and Thomas Plotkin (MN) which Virginia modeled in honor of Damion Wilkins. A federal law was introduced in honor of Ravi Thackurdeen (NY) but it hasn’t gained traction – yet.

The White House Office of Public Engagement told me, “Legislation sucks,” to which I replied, “What really sucks is when your son is killed studying abroad and no one investigates or does anything about it and the program continues as usual.” They encouraged me to create a private solution.

Bobby Kennedy  is my inspiration:


“Laws can embody standards;
governments can enforce laws;
but the final task is not a task for government.
It is a task for each and every one of us.
Every time we turn our heads the other way
when we see the law flouted;
when we tolerate what we know to be wrong;
when we close our eyes and ears to the corrupt
because we are too busy,
or too frightened;
when we fail to speak up
and speak out –
we strike a blow against freedom and decency and justice.”

His words encourage me to stand up and speak out because if I/we don’t – more people will die preventable deaths and their families will be ill-prepared to advocate for justice and repatriation.

More than a decade of tireless travel safety advocacy

For me and many who support us, it is beyond rewarding to know you save lives. I could never have predicted that my life would have set upon this path, or that ‘not much’ would have changed in the 12 years since Tyler needlessly lost his life.  Students are a very vulnerable population, but parents are unprepared too. Travel and tourism consumer safety policy has not kept pace with globalization. We are out to solve this dilemma. I wonder what President Donald Trump’s take would be on the topic?  There is no fake news here.

Pivoting towards success and progressive change

In 2016, a league of undergraduate students rallied me to change our focus and rename our nonprofit ClearCause to Depart Smart™ because everyone going abroad needs skills, tools, and emergency contingency plans.  In the Spring of 2016, we rebranded and broadened our vision to serve more than 85M US citizens who travel abroad annually.  Simultaneously, a mentor asked me to apply for Minnesota CUP. I did, not expecting any traction because we are a nonprofit and it was a venture capital type of campaign. I was startled when we made semi-finalist and unprepared for the boot camp required to take advantage of the opportunity.  I worked endless long hours with a rock star mentor for a Hail Mary to kick our lifesaving mission into overdrive.  We didn’t place higher in MN CUP, but it prepared us with a pitch deck and business plan that helped us grow our business and engage AIG Travel in our lifesaving mission. Other major players helped us with professional services such as OffiCenters, Media Relations, Maslon LLP, Jeff Redmon Law, and more.

AIG Travel’s sponsorship funded our award-winning, lifesaving Travel HEROES™ which was designed with graduate and undergraduate students from Minnesota College of Art and Design, University of Minnesota, Carlson School of Management, St. Cloud State University, and the University of St. Thomas with exemplary online course design from Allen Com. We have the good fortune of finding Sarah Ashley who converted our e-learning platform to Moodle. Moodle is an open source ‘free’ platform. Depart Smart is a Moodle case study since 2017.

Academia engages

Depart Smart Seal of ApprovalA successful pilot project, including students with disabilities, was achieved with SCSU Confucius Institute‘s Dr. Kathryn Johnson who joined our nonprofit Board of Directors to lead us into the future. She told me that the pedagogy (teaching method) of Travel HEROES is unparalleled because it teaches safe travel habits for a lifetime.  She is our first academic institute to engage.  We are working with other study abroad programs on standardized travel safety training who will also be earning the Depart Smart Seal of Approval in the near future.

We are beyond ecstatic that the Student Youth Travel Association (SYTA) links to Travel HEROES Safety Certification with their mission to “Discover, develop, promote and implement best practices in student travel safety and enhance SYTA’s positioning as the “Voice of Student Travel Safety Worldwide.”

Business to consumer is tough

Frustrated beyond belief that only 10-15 organic sales were happening each month, despite being featured in major news on CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, Washington Post, US Today, INC., and more – We re-entered MN CUP 2018 to find a mentor to help us save more lives faster.  Again, I didn’t expect that MN CUP would select us out of more than 1600 applicants but they did select us as semi-finalists in the social division. We were still a nonprofit.  But, this entry was different.  I knowingly went in with expectations.  I selected mentors based on experience in online-ed, consumer travel, venture capital, and teaching.  I needed to learn and follow the lead of someone who had been there and done that.  Dr. Rajiv Tandon was tough – but effective.  He told me we would never succeed in a study abroad market because the segment is too small.  He also told me B2C – a business to consumer model – for us, was doomed to fail. That was tough to hear, but I knew he was right.  He advised me to form a for-profit and create a B2BC2c – Business to Business Customer to Consumer – model and to SELL, SELL, SELL.  He is not a fan of venture capital to kick start a business. His constructive advice helped us achieve MN Cup Finalist and develop a pitch deck and business plan to attract customers and potential investors.

Depart Smart Inc. is born

In October 2018, almost 9 years to the day that ClearCause became an entity, Depart Smart Inc. became a Minnesota C Corporation. The nonprofit, Depart Smart, hired a company to assess the value of the intellectual property so we could to sell the assets to the for-profit, Depart Smart Inc. A purchase agreement transferring intellectual property, trademarks, copyrights, et al to the for-profit Depart Smart Inc. was successful in December 2018.  The nonprofit benefits on a percentage of gross revenue from for-profit sales.  Think of it this way, every sale helps a student learn travel safety skills free.

Sheryl Hill, Founder, steps down from Depart Smart nonprofit board of directors

I had to step down from the nonprofit board of directors because of a conflict of interest.  I reached out to Mike Bowers, who served as the Safety Director for People to People Student Ambassadors, the program responsible for Tyler’s death. Mike joined People to People after Tyler died.  We’ve stayed in touch over the years. I have great respect for Mike and his student travel safety efforts. He chaired the Student Youth Travel Association after People to People went out of business.  Mike and I have common goals.  Mike is filling my shoes on the nonprofit board of directors. I feel honored and privileged to have his capacity building this legacy. I am excited to see where he leads us. My hope is that his leadership will open hearts and minds at academic institutes and student travel programs creating trust and engagement.

Awards and unicorns

In a few short months, Depart Smart Inc. has three venture capital firms keeping a close eye on our sales potential.  The first time someone called Depart Smart Inc. a unicorn I thought it was an insult until I learned it meant a magical concept with the potential to earn more than a billion dollars.  Money has never been the driving force behind our goodwill.  We are on a mission to save lives! A venture capitalist asked me what I’d do if I had a billion dollars.  I didn’t hesitate, “First English, and then Spanish, and then Mandarin, and then…because everyone should have super skills to travel the world safely!”

In the same timeframe, Travel HEROES earned a Silver Healthy at Work Award, an Omni Award, and a Telly Award for quality.

Porchlight’s on, coffee is hot – Let’s Save LIVES!

In February 2019, launched.  Two comprehensive workshops to the Minnesota Employee Relocation Council Conference and Professional Insurance Women opened the gates to multiple speaking opportunities, collaborations, and prospects. Audience feedback described the sessions as eye-opening and overwhelmingly comprehensive. It’s my passion to help people travel in lifesaving ways, watching the audience transform is hugely rewarding.

We are just getting started. I hear often from people who ‘thought they knew how to Depart Smart” who had traveled to more than 50 countries. They say, “I had no idea how much risk I was taking or how lucky I have been.”

We have three reseller agreements and are strengthening Travel HEROES with much-needed services like comprehensive travel insurance, passport fulfillment, mental health support, communications, and more to make travel awesome in lifesaving ways.

Our nonprofit, Depart Smart, continues to advocate for lifesaving youth and student travel safety as our for-profit, Depart Smart Inc., helps Human Resource, Employee Assistance, and Employee Relocation companies (et al), Fortune 500 companies, and their employees and clients in a B2BC2c – per member per month – lifesaving business model. Travel HEROES is an ancillary benefit.

Peace, Power, LOVE!

As my youngest son and his big brother would say to each other in their secret handshake, “Peace – Power – Love!”  Let’s make the world better. I am so proud to be their mom.

I am Sheryl Hill
It’s a privilege and an honor to be the founder of Depart Smart, Depart Smart Inc., and Travel HEROES.  It’s the most important professional work I have done.