Trailblazing Female Travelers Share Their Best Advice for Women Who Want to See the World
Or, you know, change the world
Women have been blazing trails in travel for generations. From intrepid explorers like Jeanne Baret, who became the first woman to circumnavigate the world in 1766, and had to disguise herself as a man to join the expedition; to Elizabeth Cochran Seaman, more widely known as Nelly Bly, the adventurous journalist who in 1889 bested Phileas Fogg by making a solo journey around the world in only 72 days; to fearless aviators like Bessie Coleman, Amelia Earhart, and Raymonde de Laroche, who became the first woman to receive a pilot’s license on Mar. 8, 1910.
Fast forward to 2019, and you’ll see a “new guard” of women game changers in travel, leading the charge in hotels, tourism, cruises, travel media, and even revolutionizing the way we think about luggage. They’re stepping into positions of influence previously held exclusively by men and starting businesses and founding movements that are changing the way we travel. World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) CEO Gloria Guevara Manzo, appointed in 2017 as the first woman to hold the role, says the industry’s current global playing field comes in pretty level, but not necessarily when it comes to leadership. “Travel and tourism employs around 313 million people and around 50 percent are women. There are a lot of women in government, in high leadership positions,” she said. “But we still have work to do in the private sector.”
Rosewood Hotels CEO Sonia Cheng agrees that there is plenty more work to be done to better satisfy the needs of women travelers, and has made it her personal mission. “I try to look at the changing lifestyles of our female generation today and respond thoughtfully with new service offerings and propositions that really do respond to our new priorities in our busy lives.” In addition to a rise in solo travel, she’s seen a recent influx of women traveling together, which inspired her to launch the #RosewoodGirlfriends campaign last year, an initiative that celebrates lifelong female friendships and the ways in which they can be enriched by travel.
From diverse backgrounds, with unique life experiences, you’ll see these 21 women actually manage to have quite a lot in common. They are bold, funny, warm, intelligent, and adaptive. Each took a risk—both financial and personal—to get where they are, and found reward in the experience. They share the view that to travel is to dedicate oneself to growth and acknowledge the role their adventures have played in giving them the confidence and resourcefulness to thrive in the industry as they have. Many of them forged a career by discovering what was missing in their own travels and finding a way to fill those gaps. And, from the sound of it, they’re just getting started.
Evita Robinson, Founder, Nomadness
Robinson started the Nomadness Travel Tribe community back in 2011 to bring together millennial travelers of color. While teaching English in Nagato, Japan after graduating from college, she began sharing her experiences on a vlog. “I had a story to tell, and you weren’t seeing twenty-something Black girls teaching in Japan,” she said. The response to her videos opened her eyes to just how underserved the black travel community was, and she stepped up to help change that. “I’m an accidental entrepreneur, answering the call to a community.” Now—more than 20,000 international members, over 100,000 collective passport stamps, and a meaningful Ted Talk later—Robinson has embraced a new mission: reclaiming the narrative of the Black traveler worldwide through personal connection. The Tribe does this through group trips and meet-ups, a web series, and a travel festival, Audacity Fest.
Robinson’s advice to would-be trailblazers is simple: Take the first step. “Just start,” she said. “That’s my advice for so many people. Don’t expect that everything is going to be perfect and curated. Don’t lose yourself in all of that—just start. Perfection is a journey and it’s also an illusion.”
Vivian Zhang, Rebecca Russell, Becca Ramos, Farin Nikdel, and Serita Wesley, On She Goes
Robinson paved the way for the five women behind On She Goes, who also feel they answered a call to inspire more women of color to explore the world with confidence. They share stories, tips, inspiration, and community via online city guides, social media, and a popular podcast.
“I believe that the more information women travelers have, the more likely we are to take that step towards solo travel,” said Russell. “That said, I believe we still have a ways to go, especially in the framing of solo travel for women being seen as some type of revolutionary act when, in reality, all women—particularly those of color—have learned to navigate various spaces with our race and gender intrinsic to how we interact with our surroundings since birth.”
When it comes to breaking new ground, Wesley advised not to shy away from challenge but to prioritize self-care: “Life is hard in general, and when you add creating your own lane into the mix, it becomes even harder. The key is to never give up, but don’t force it. Your personal morale is important to keep intact, so be careful not to overdo it until you run yourself into the ground. Never giving up includes doing the little things daily that keep you trailblazing.”
Lindsay Bradley, Co-Founder and CEO, The Vacation Project
Born of a night out with friends in NYC, The Vacation Project curates trips with purpose. Bradley and her co-founders partner with reputable local NGOs to include a small, yet significant social responsibility component in their itineraries. Bradley enjoyed many family vacations growing up, but her first truly experiential trip was touring Italy to sing with her high school chorus, even singing the mass at St. Peter’s Cathedral. “It really whetted my appetite for the experience, and made me want to travel.”
Her trailblazing advice? “It’s really about being true to who you are, what your passions are, and really being authentic. Utilize your network and seek out the help of other women. And also, create spaces where you can set up your own dialogue for honest and free conversation. The playing field is not completely level to women, but we can travel… it is a very freeing space to be a part of.”
Katherine Lo, Founder, Eaton Workshop
After years of creative direction for Langham hotels (a brand founded by her father, Lo Ka-Shui), Lo launched Eaton Workshop out of a belief that the hospitality industry has a responsibility to invoke positive change for the guest, the local community, and the environment. Her innovative hotel-meets-activism-incubator concept landed Eaton DC a spot on the Travel + Leisure 2019 It List, and new outposts are on the way for San Francisco, Seattle, and Toronto. Lo feels travel can be transformative—as much an internal journey as an external one. “My first transformative travel experience was going to Nepal with my high school when I was a freshman,” she said. “We whitewater rafted and spent some time in Kathmandu, where there was a strong backpacker culture. It was my first exposure to a contemporary recollection of the ‘beatnik’-inspired philosophy that is at the core of how I live today. I remember swimming in the river at dusk, watching the silhouettes of my classmates jumping off cliffs into the water against the sunset, feeling a sense of liberation and feeling at peace with nature.”
Whenever possible, Lo suggests we delight in slow travel. “My most fulfilling and powerful travel experiences lasted the longest—backpacking in India for three months, living in Berlin for three months—back in my student days,” she said. “I am in the middle of an amazing cross-country road trip right now with my partner and my two dogs, and one of our lessons has been to spend more purposeful, meaningful time in one place, rather than visit a lot of places in a rush.”
Sonia Cheng, CEO, Rosewood Hotels
The travel industry is a family affair for Cheng, too, who grew up in a family of hoteliers and has traveled from a very early age. As CEO of Rosewood, Cheng has dedicated herself to addressing the needs of the next generation of travelers. “As a mother of four young children, once I started traveling with my kids, I recognized a major gap in the market in terms of kids’ programming. When I travel with my family, I want all of us—including my children—to have a culturally immersive and authentic experience,” she said. “The concept of a ‘kid’s club’ as a small room, tucked away and filled with toys, represented a major disconnect in what I was looking for as a parent. I saw that there was a need to be more creative with both the ‘kids club’ facility and the overall approach and philosophy. In this way, my experience as a mother traveling with children played a major role in informing our new Rosewood Explorers brand program, which aims to provide an environment where kids can be inspired and learn.”
Her best travel advice? Dive in and take a big bite of adventure. “Throw caution to the wind and engage in activities [you’ve] never done before, and of course explore the food. I believe food is the best window to a culture. As soon as I taste someone’s food, I feel like I’ve taken a step closer to understanding that culture and history,” she said.
Rocio Vazquez Landeta, Founder, Eat Like a Local Mexico City
Vazquez Landeta shares Cheng’s latter sentiment. With Eat Like a Local, she offers “food safaris” led by Mexican women that introduce small groups of travelers to the chilango food scene. The idea was inspired by what she felt was missing during her own her first international adventure in Turkey. “I felt everything I saw was not real or authentic and was tired of spending countless hours at carpet shops, spice markets, and even fashion shows made for selling,” she said, so she accepted an invitation to coffee from a local man named Antonio in Istanbul. “We ate fish sandwiches at a small stall. We drank beer outside the blue mosque, drank coffee in the back of the Gran Bazaar, and talked about our lives and dreams. Having Antonio show me around Istanbul, I instantly understood that I wanted to see the world like a local.”
She also believes the best way to help women advance is to support and create new opportunities for each other. At Eat Like a Local, women make up 90 percent of her staff. “We are hard workers, sympathetic, happy, and passionate. I love to be surrounded by talented, amazing women,” she said. In support of International Women’s Day, 10 percent of all tours booked in March helped fund a series of financial workshops for women at La Merced and Jamaica Markets in Mexico City.
Gloria Guevara Manzo, President and CEO, World Travel & Tourism Council
Guevara Manzo has traveled all of her life, and has fond memories of childhood road trips exploring her home country of Mexico, the U.S., and Canada. Travel is still integral to her family life. She didn’t initially set out to have a career in it, but has embraced the travel sector for its contributions to society. Since she’s taken over the helm at WTTC, she’s committed herself to helping more women see the world and find careers in the travel sector.
“Travel has allowed me to learn from multiple cultures, to connect with people, to understand different points of view…It also became clear to me long time ago that travel creates empathy and empathy means better understanding,” she said. “During my time in government as head of tourism [for Mexico], I saw firsthand how travel can impact—in a positive way—thousands of people. It provides unique opportunities and hope. When what you do has a positive benefit to others, your life is much more fulfilling.”
Samantha Brown, TV Host and Producer, “Places to Love”
Brown had plans to become a Shakespearean actor, but it was her television career that set her off on her life’s journey. Back in 1999, a producer spotted her work in a commercial and recommended she audition for a new Travel Channel show. Then, one successful show led to another and another and most recently, to “Places to Love,” her series for PBS where she explores the off-the-beaten-path spots that give a true glimpse into the lives of locals. “What I started to enjoy more was the secondary cities, being away from all of the things that I was ‘supposed to be’ exploring. Now, I am very much an advocate to get out of the A-side cities and [into the] B-side cities. I love Lyon more than Paris. I fell in love with Bologna, not Rome. They have the history, the food, the music—they just didn’t have a ton of tourists.”
Brown also sees travel as an opportunity to address life’s difficult challenges: “I think travel is exceptional if we’re struggling with questions in our lives and we’re stalled. I feel people should use it more as a life boost or a career boost—these walls protect us but they also stop other solutions from coming to us. When we travel, we’re not surrounded by what’s familiar. Our mind is altered. Your brain works very differently when you are away from home.”
Maggie Moran, Head of User Experience at Hopper
Moran credits tagging along on her father’s three-week business trip to Asia as a child for sparking her love of travel: “I have a lot of memories from that first trip, from exploring the fish markets in Tokyo, to celebrating my birthday at the top of Mt. Fuji, to being genuinely concerned at the lack of peanut butter sandwiches,” she joked. “We’d done smaller getaways around New England and the U.S., but [that trip to Asia was] when I started to understand how much more there was to the world than my small, coastal hometown.”
Moran joined the team at flight and hotel booking app Hopper to help millions of people book travel more affordably. She suggests women read up ahead of their solo travels, and make the most of the digital tools available. “These days, it’s easy to research a place and understand what it would be like traveling alone there to make sure you’ll have an enjoyable experience, whatever that may look like for you. Learning about the culture ahead of time and listening to your intuition goes a long way,” she said.
Her advice to fellow women trailblazers? “Be authentic, compassionate, and self-critical. Listen to and learn from everyone around you. Seize opportunity, challenge the status quo, and put no ceiling on what you believe you can accomplish.”
Steph Korey, Co-Founder and CEO; and Jen Rubio, Co-Founder and Chief Brand Officer, Away
Rubio and Korey were brought together by their love of travel and made a business out of solving one of its niggling problems: a reliable suitcase that goes the distance and looks good doing it. Now, Away—which reached profitability in less than two years—is leading the luggage revolution and inspiring dozens of startups that seek to solve travelers’ problems in an approachable, fun way. “I never saw myself becoming an entrepreneur,” said Rubio, “But I’ve always followed my passions and pursued roles that allowed me to work on things I was curious about. It wasn’t until my suitcase broke at the airport that eventually led to Steph and I starting Away.”
Korey emphasized boldness, in travel as in life. “Never let the fear of failure keep you from pursuing your vision, or limit how big it can be. The best lessons I’ve learned have come from the mistakes I’ve made, not from being too afraid to take risks or by choosing the safest route,” she said.
Rubio reminds women travelers that those limits only come from the fear that it will be hard: “[My father and I] made a plan to visit every continent together, but he passed away before we were able to. When I finally got to visit Antarctica—a trip my dad and I had talked about so many times—I remember being on boat, looking at this huge glacier, and for first time, what my dad had said actually hit me: you can literally go anywhere in the world, some places are just harder to get to.”
Stacy Readal, Founding Director, Duma Explorer and Chaka Camps
Women are slowly breaking barriers in Africa’s safari industry, one that is widely known to be male-dominated. Readal first visited Tanzania in 1998 to volunteer during college and fell in love with the warmth of its people, but she calls her career there—running Duma Explorer and Chaka Camps, an adventure travel company that offers custom hiking and safari packages and operates three luxury tented lodges—a “happy accident.” When she moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area after that year of volunteering, “the economy was terrible with the dot com bubble burst and I could not find a job.” She ended up finding a position that took her back to Tanzania and worked with nonprofits there for the next year while beginning to build Duma. “My business partner and I bought a used Land Rover with a $4,500 loan and started things slowly,” Readal said. “Eventually, I could make ends meet just through the safari company and have never had another job since.”
Her favorite travel activity is swimming, and she never travels without a swimsuit, cap, and goggles. “I have been a swimmer my entire life and Victoria Falls amazes me,” she said. “During the wet season, 10 million liters of water drop 93 meters over the falls every second! During the dry season, the water dries up over most of the falls and it is possible to swim to Devil’s Pool, a protected pool perched on the edge of the falls. I swam to Devil’s Pool with my daughter when she was five.”
Elizabeth Gordon, Co-Founder and CEO, Extraordinary Journeys
Gordon (who is one of Travel + Leisure’s A-list travel advisors) co-founded award-winning safari company Extraordinary Journeys with her mother, Marcia. Born in Kenya and raised between Paris and Nairobi, Gordon has fond memories of her first long-haul flight to Taiwan. “I was six years old and I had no idea what to expect,” she said. “I remember getting to the airport and being excited. The flight was so long—several connections—every place was exotic and new.”
Gordon believes that enjoying travel has a lot to do with your attitude, adjusting to the unexpected and embracing the surprises that come along the way. “Some things happen—you may get lost—but you [can] decide that you are not going to be upset,” she said. “[Once on a trip to] Malawi, my husband and I had everything organized, then we were hiking the last part of the trip. My husband was supposed to take care of the last part of the trip and he decided that we would just improvise. We didn’t know there wouldn’t be any cars, we had no plans, and ended up taking a bus and sitting on old, dry fish. Everyone on the bus was talking to us. It was really memorable.”
Cherae Robinson, Founder and CEO, Tastemakers Africa
For Robinson, the determination to found Tastemakers Africa grew out of a fascination with history and a love for the African continent, an inspiration that initially came from watching the History and Discovery Channels growing up. “I always wanted to see the places where great things happened in real life. I wanted the whole world to be tangible to me and I wanted to deepen my understanding experientially,” she said. She also felt it important to be transparent about the challenge of building a business: “I’m a single mom; I have a 10-year-old. After I split with my partner, I moved back to my high school bedroom so that I could continue building my startup. Some people might think it’s crazy, but I knew it was the only shot I had at giving my son stability while pursuing my dream. I think we’ve got to be able to absorb hardship, recognize that trailblazing women really are a prize, and be unafraid to redefine success for ourselves.” Now, Tastemakers curates city guides and offers unique tour experiences hosted by locals in Accra, Cape Town, and Johannesburg, and runs a series of longer group trips.
“I never thought I’d end up in travel as a career,” Robinson said. “I’m a biologist by training and was working for a World Bank agricultural research institute when the idea for Tastemakers came. I realized that casually sharing tips wasn’t really going to change the narrative on Africa—something super important to me. The only way I could do this was to move from leisure traveler to rolling up my sleeves and shaking things up.”
Sarah Casewit, Marta Tucci, Sofia Mascotena, Founders, Naya Traveler
Tucci, Mascotena, and Casewit founded Naya Traveler in 2016 to offer customized journeys that connect travelers on an intimate level with the traditions and customs of a place for a purposeful experience. (“Naya” is Sanskrit for “wisdom” or doing something “with purpose.”) Each itinerary is made from scratch with insight from an extensive network of insiders in their 12 specialty destinations—from artists to community leaders to local families who want to open up their homes.
Casewit spoke to the impact and importance of exploring the world outside your comfort zone. She inherited her love of travel from her trailblazing mother: “As a teenager, she studied Portuguese in Brazil, Chinese literature in Taiwan, and cultural communications in Afghanistan. By her early 20s, she spoke seven languages and moved to Morocco on her own to take on Arabic. I understood from a very early age that travel is the best form of education. Today, I continue to travel and help others do so, inspired by the transformative power it has on our minds and souls.”