While riding her motorcycle through the streets of São Tomé and Príncipe—an island nation off the coast of Africa—Beth Santos had a spark of inspiration to create a women’s travel community. With a background in international development and community building, Santos would go on to be Founder and CEO of Wanderful, a global lifestyle brand now 40,000+ members strong.
What started as a blog in 2009, has since grown into a multi-faceted travel company with an international conference, home sharing network, mobile app, group trips, community chapters in over 45 cities, and enriched content. In a recent interview with Beth Santos, I endeavored to learn more about the inception of Wanderful, the challenges she faced in building her own travel empire, and what her best advice is to aspiring female entrepreneurs.
Unearth Women (UW): Over the past 10 years, Wanderful has grown into an international company. What has been the inspiration behind your work?
Beth Santos (BS): My mom is so inspirational! She was a nurse for many years before having children, then left nursing and decided to go back to school when I was in middle school. My mom went from philosophy of education into biology before going back to nursing and onto Harvard Divinity to become a chaplain.
All of my mom’s experience has taught me that it is okay to not have one career. My mom showed me that even at 57-years-old, she could go back to school and make a complete career change, which has given me a fearlessness and nimble entrepreneurial mind set.
UW: What was the major turning point in making Wanderful what it is today?
BS: Definitely the Women in Travel Summit (WITS). In 2013, after we officially incorporated, I was working at Rotary International. I still remember talking to my team, which was made up of all volunteers at the time, and thinking: “I just planned a wedding. What if we planned a conference. It can’t be that different, right?” So, we decided to plan the first Women in Travel Summit in just four months. We snagged a place at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago for next to nothing. In planning the event I had to leave the cubicle of my day job to take sponsorship calls on the roof; once that balancing act got to be too much I decided to leave Rotary International and focus on Wanderful full time. WITS became our key revenue generator for a number of years. That was the beginning of where it all began.
UW: What were some of the challenges you faced in starting your own business?
BS: Fundraising is incredibly challenging for women. I had no idea of how truly difficult it is to be a woman fundraising for a women’s company. So many times people would say, “Oh, women and travel? That’s an interesting niche. Are you sure there is a market for that?” It was frustrating because if you look at the numbers, women make up almost the entire travel industry!
One unexpected thing is that as a founder you have to be so much more confident than you actually are. You have to exude confidence and know that you represent the vision of your company. I had to learn a lot of that. You have to take risks, be methodical, and agile all at the same time.
Another challenge was becoming a mom, and not in the ways that I expected. I expected it to be harder to balance my personal life and my career, but actually, I am more invested in my career now. Being a mother and a founder has opened my eyes to the way that American society makes it really difficult to build vibrant careers and be mothers at the same time. I think that a lot of that has to do with the lack of men’s rights as parents. For example, my husband can not leave work early to pick up our daughter from daycare, so it falls on my shoulders because society does not fully accept men as caregivers. We are just not at a place yet where we understand the real challenges that we have to face as parents. I try to be really open about my challenges. Now that I am in the position of being an employer, I try to remember that everyone needs flexibility to make space for their personal needs.
UW: When faced with challenges as a female business owner, how did you stay inspired?
BS: I just love my job so much! I love the community that we have built, the feelings that the community gets, creating something from nothing, and really love (possibly more than anything else) employing people who really love their job. I think my hardest days aren’t because of the challenges, but because I care so much. If I didn’t care as much it wouldn’t be as stressful.
UW: What can members expect when they attend their first local Wanderful chapter meeting?
BS: Wanderful monthly meetings are full of fun activities like brunch, talks about various travel experiences, panel discussions, and ‘Tourist In Your Own City,’ which is where you go to all of the tourist places that you typically avoid when you live in a big city.
On a deeper level, our chapter meetings are about intentional personal growth and self-care. We are so pressured to focus on professional development and what will get us to the next stage in our careers, but for the women who are a part of the Wanderful Network, travel is this essential part of who they are. Whether they have traveled around the globe or around the block, it is something that enriches their lives. Many chapter leaders have developed a narrative where they ask attendees to give themselves a pat on the back because they have dedicated the next hour to themselves and to enriching this part of their soul.
Many of the women in our network are going through a transition—whether it’s divorce, empty-nesters, or just finishing college—so the safety and support that they find in our network is special. This is a good place to identify the specific parts of themselves that they want to explore and see how travel can aid in that.
UW: We often hear the the saying “don’t be a tourist, be a traveler.” How can women make the switch to being a traveler?
BS: There is too much travel shaming in the world. That differentiation between what travel is and what travel should be, I used to subscribe to that idea. When I started Wanderful, I lived in West Africa took a lot of pride in living in this place where there weren’t many other Americans. I would avoid tourist spots and felt unique, special, and savvy.
One thing that is important to remember is that travel is not black and white, it is on a sliding scale. What is exciting and adventurous and scary for you, might be a completely different thing for somebody else.
I believe that travel consists of three things: opening yourself up to new opportunities, questioning your pre-conceptions, and demonstrating a willingness to be uncomfortable. If you can do those three things, then it doesn’t matter where you are. I encourage our community to try and do those three things as close to home as they can, while experiencing that fundamental discomfort in trying something new because that, too, is travel.
UW: Wanderful recently launched a home sharing network that is available in 12 countries. What was the inspiration behind starting this network?
BS: For a long time we have had a Wanderful Facebook group and often saw interactions where women were looking for places to stay. Whether planning a trip or looking for a last minute accommodation, women frequently turned to our community for recommendations. This topic came up enough that it made me think about why we exist as a company. In looking at so many of the questions female travelers have—how to manage your period in a country without plumbing? What to do if you are cat-called on the street? etc.—they were all the same, but the answers were totally different depending on the place being visited. Instead of writing articles to address these questions, we decided it would be more valuable to have face-to-face interactions.
In the peer-to-peer network, we were building, we realized we could provide a space where we can literally be there for each other when we travel. We found a lot of people were abandoning traditional home sharing sites either because of safety concerns or perceived safety concerns. There was still a desire to have the home-sharing experience, but in a way that felt more secure and connected. We decided to give people the comfort of a closed home sharing network, while video verifying every person who participates and requiring hosts share a video walk though of their space.
UW: Reflecting back on the launch of Wanderful, what advice do you have for women keen to start their own business?
BS: There is a lot of emphasis on people who quit their 9 to 5 job and it all worked out for them. We love the story of the successful risk takers, but I think we need to stop telling it because there is no shame in working while you are trying to meet your goals. This notion that you have to be eating ramen every day and staying up until midnight while starting a business is really a disservice. We have to stop glorifying the typical narrative of what it means to start a company. It doesn’t make it any easier for those of us who don’t have the privileges of just thinking they will figure it out as they go along! There is no shame in doing something that pays the bills while you build your vision.
If I could instill only one thing, one skill, on everyone who starts a business it would be sales. Being able to effectively communicate value, truly listening to people and understanding what their needs are in being able to tell stories and sell yourself as a thought leader. Those are skills that take people’s business to completely new levels.