Anyone with a case of wanderlust knows the feeling of coming home from a vacation feeling refreshed and inspired. These four women took that feeling and turned it into a new career. Here, we hear the stories of the trips that changed their lives — and get some advice for how you can also transform your career through an amazing travel experience.
WHO: Jala Smith-Huys, founder of Seek & Swoon, which designs eco-friendly knit throws inspired by beautiful places around the world, from an iconic church in Iceland to the Madrid sunset. They’re made from recycled cotton at one of the last family-owned and -operated knitting mills left in the United States. And one is inspired by a different kind of journey: $10 from the sale of every Hope Throw is donated to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance to help fund ovarian cancer research, a battle that Smith-Huys’s mom is fighting right now.
The Vacation That Inspired Me: My husband and I both love to travel, and we’d been talking about moving abroad but wanted to visit some of the places we’d been daydreaming about. It was 2015 and we were both freelancing. Our kids were young at the time (2.5 and 5), and although we assumed taking a big trip wouldn’t be easy with them, we knew the timing would never be perfect. So we decided to take a leap of faith. We gave all of our clients fair notice that we would be taking the summer off and left on our trip at the beginning of June. We spent several weeks in Ireland, a month in Spain, two weeks in Amsterdam and just under a week in Iceland. We traveled by planes, trains and automobiles and stayed in vacation rentals. In the moment, little kids don’t really care where they are; all they want are ice cream cones and swimming pools. But they loved our adventures and still have memories of many of the places we visited. We plan to do it again some day.
When The Lightbulb Went Off: I left for this trip knowing that I wanted to make a career shift. It was really important to me to create something that utilized my skills, but that also allowed me to work daily in the things that I loved. In this case it was design, sustainability, storytelling, home decor and, of course, travel. The light bulb really went off one afternoon while putting a baby blanket away in storage. This blanket was the very first thing we bought when I found out I was pregnant with our first child. The idea that we were saving something, forever, intrigued me. And then I realized that item was a blank canvas for creativity. So I started brainstorming this idea of designing throws. But because I had worked in marketing and helping other brands tell their story for so many years, I knew that this company needed a story. That’s when the idea of designing throws inspired by travel hit. That story not only made my brand unique from other textile and home decor brands, but it gave me something to ladder my creativity back to. And I knew that as long as I traveled, I’d have throws to design.
Before This: I spent a number of years as a graphic designer and creative director and then shifted to social media strategy, which had been my focus for the eight years prior to launching Seek & Swoon.
Scariest Part Of Doing This: Placing the first order with my mill. Up until then, it was a lot of research and day dreaming and planning and more daydreaming and more researching — which I had done for years and years with other business ideas that I never launched. Because I had dragged my feet so long with other ideas, writing that first check meant “this is happening.” And there was no turning back. I was in it for the long haul.
Your guide to luxury travel—and life’s other indulgences.
My Advice To Other Women: My advice to other women who want to start a business: Trust your gut and give it a shot. I know that’s easier said than done because I was terrified to do it for over a decade. But making the decision to leap is the hardest decision you’ll make in entrepreneurship. Once you get past that, I think the rest isn’t quite a terrifying — mostly because there’s no time to think and slow down when you’re in the trenches. Also, lean on your network, whether personal or professional. They want to help you, they want to support you and those things are invaluable.
WHO: Mary Cecchini, founder of Living Big, which helps remove the obstacles that women face when it comes to travel. Living Big hosts adventures for small groups of women around the world and throughout the U.S. and offers custom designed vacations for women to take with their family, kids and friends. Living Big also just launched an Adventure Club with single-day adventures in the Pacific Northwest.
The Vacation That Inspired Me: I had always been a traveler (as much as corporate-allocated PTO would allow), so when I was ready to make a change I looked to travel as a compass to determine how to design my next season of life. After a lot of saving, sacrificing and planning, I quit my corporate job and left for a five-month solo sabbatical to reconnect with myself, my passions and my ambitions. It was the best gift I’ve ever given myself.
Before This: Before I started Living Big Travel, I worked full-time as a marketing manager for a consumer product company. It was a wonderful job and a trusted company with great people, but as I climbed the corporate ladder I grew further away from the kind of work that brought me joy. I wanted to connect with people, I wanted to test new programs, I wanted to get outside the walls of my office (sorry: 36-hour trips to Dallas, Salt Lake City and L.A. didn’t count) and find new ways to indulge my curiosity.
Scariest Part Of Doing This: What wasn’t scary?! Quitting my job was frightening, but I had to constantly remind myself that if I stayed, I already knew what that story looked like. So I had nothing to lose. Now to be transparent, it wasn’t like I quit my job, traveled the world, developed a business idea and then was immediately profitable. It has taken years, with lots of side hustles and many early mornings and late nights. But when I face something scary along the way (hellooooooo taxes, insurance, liability, etc.), I lean on the passion and energy I have for the work, and it helps me move through the scary parts.
My Advice To Other Women: First things first: Take the time to figure out what brings you joy. Figure out what it is that you love love love more than anything so that you’re willing to move through the scary parts, the topics you know nothing about and the questions you can’t immediately answer. Next up: Decide if you want to monetize this passion. If the answer is yes, then start by finding small ways to test the concept to ensure you’re still as passionate about the work when you’re trying to build a business around it. Oh and save: Save every spare penny you can to invest in your dreams.
WHO: Crystal Sargent, founder and CEO of Invested Advisors, Inc., a brand-building company, and Invested Traveler, a custom-curated incentive destination management travel program that helps businesses improve employee engagement through strategic meetings, conferences and corporate off-sites.
The Vacation That Inspired Me: In February 2016, I realized that after 11 years of working for one company and a 23-year successful career in a specific industry, it was time for me to propel myself toward something different if I wanted to achieve my goals of excelling at the highest levels in business. I decided to take a vacation to get away and give serious consideration to my business venture. I was vacationing in Saint Tropez in July of 2016 and after a few days zipping through the South of France, my cousin and I found ourselves in Nice on Bastille Day and in the midst of the terror attack that killed nearly 80 people. It was during this trip that I had my epiphany: There are no guarantees in life and you have to create the life you want. For the rest of the trip, I contemplated my idea of starting an incentive travel business and using my past experience developing these programs for employers and offering the services to many companies.
Once we landed back on U.S. soil, I got busy writing my business plan and finding a business advisor from the SBA’s SCORE program. My advisor was great; he challenged me with business questions I didn’t yet have the answers to. The one question he asked that was pivotal was, “How do you plan to deliver your services?” It was a pretty straightforward question, and when I responded that “we are advisors,” it helped me realize I had more to offer than the plan I was pursuing. That question led me to create a strategic marketing and communications consulting practice that helps businesses harness the power of the digital, social and experiential economy, which complemented our incentive travel offering.
Before This: I spent 23 years in banking, beginning with the Park Bank in Madison, Wisconsin, followed by 10 years in Chicago at BMO Harris, a great institution with leaders who helped me hone my technical craft. I relocated to San Diego, where I was senior vice president, director of marketing for a start-up commercial bank. Responsible for developing brand and strategic growth initiatives, during my tenure, the bank grew from approximately $100 million to $2.1 billion in assets.
Scariest Part Of Doing This: Some may have thought that I was giving up my career to start a business from scratch. Of course, having a secure corporate job is safe and pays well, but it’s not commensurate with the satisfaction and purpose I was seeking. Going into this, I didn’t see it as scary, but rather, exciting, challenging and long overdue. However, a few things were intimidating, such as not having a deep Rolodex of active relationships with businesses and people who could help influence travel-inspired business. While I was working on the business plan, it became clear we needed more relationships with the intermediaries who could help us create special pricing and offers. So we joined industry trade groups and quickly began establishing relationships where we intentionally gave more than we received to prove ourselves as trustworthy business partners. Another obstacle was easily describing Invested Traveler; whenever someone asks if we are a travel company, a marketing firm or an events agency, I just say “yes” and use it as a starting point to describe the problems we help solve and how we create value for our clients.
My Advice To Other Women: There are a million different ways to start and grow a business — and all of them are reasonable, but I feel like I had a lot of good fortune on my side. I live conservatively and within my means, which rewarded me with over 20 years of personal savings. I have strong business relationships to draw from and decades of hands-on experience developing strategies for the business sectors and industries that are highly targeted by banks. My savings and credit score helped me get a business loan, so I could establish business credit as soon as possible, which is important as our company enters its next phase of growth. Developing public sector strategies opened my eyes to the benefits of third-party certifications; it expanded our targeted customer base and gave me new business insights, which in turn, makes us better advisors to private enterprises. And although I have limited resources, I have a bigger vision for what’s possible. In building this business, I am working with purpose again, which is the strongest driving force behind what we do.
WHO: Katalina Mayorga, founder of El Camino Travel, which provides immersive experiences through small group travel. In addition, all trips include a talented photographer who documents the whole journey and provides edited images so that travelers can live in the moment.
The Vacation That Inspired Me: I never had the intention of starting a travel company. However, two “aha” moments on a work trip to Guatemala dramatically changed my professional trajectory. The first moment was noticing how often tourists were looking at beautiful landscapes through the screen of their phone. Travel has become about capturing every moment and FOMO rather than indulging in the cultural experience unfolding in front of you. The second was a conversation with a taxi driver. We had been discussing the violence in Central American that has heightened around the drug industry, and out of nowhere he told me that he was grateful for tourism because it provided a reliable income, and the only other industry that could compete with what he is making in tourism is the drug industry. He told me: “Thank God for tourism, it is keeping me out of the drug industry.”
Three years later, El Camino Travel has taken close to 400 travelers to five different countries. What makes us different is that we tap into the local creative economies of the destinations we travel to. We pull in entrepreneurs, artists, designers and other folks who are not normally part of the tourism circuit to create unique and one-of-a-kind experiences that provide our travelers with diverse perspectives into the places we are visiting, while allowing them to generate income through their passions. In addition, all trips include a super talented photographer who documents the whole journey. This was my answer to what I saw in Guatemala. However, it is important to note that if you are coming on our trips just to get “Instagram worthy” photos of yourself, we are not the right travel company for you.
Before This: Prior to El Camino Travel, I was working as a consultant in the field of international development and getting to work with some of brightest minds tackling massive global problems. I absolutely loved my job and work. I had real purpose. I never really had plans to start a travel company, but that conversation with the taxi driver hit me hard and I truly felt like I could have more impact by starting a travel company that ensured as much as our tourism dollars were going back directly into the destinations and communities we visited.
Scariest Part Of Doing This: The scariest part is the financial risk. I grew up in a household that had a lot of financial instability and because of that I started working as soon as I legally allowed to (14). As I entered the workforce, financial stability and steady income was of great importance to me because of my childhood, so diving into the unknown was a huge emotional leap for me. However, I unknowingly got my feet wet in the lifestyle of entrepreneurship by being consultant for a few years before launching El Camino. I remember before taking that leap as a consultant saying to myself, “If I worked as hard for myself as I did for others, what could happen.” Ultimately my curiosity and that gnawing feeling won out and thank goodness it did.
My Advice To Other Women: Fail fast and fail cheaply. During the early stages when we were gauging interest, one person said to me, “Kata, this is an awesome idea, but don’t think someone else is going to try to do it. It is all about who can run faster and smarter with that idea.” So that is what we did. With little money, we quickly tried to see what would stick and what wouldn’t. We got scrappy and we got super creative. We piloted new ideas at such a small scale before deciding to scale up and spend more money or to ditch the idea all together. We are still in scrappy and creative mode and I hope that spirit continues to be core to the fabric of our company no matter if we have two employees or 200. I highly suggest reading the book, Lean Startup, to get educated on this subject. Most importantly, you need to be okay with failure. Not everything is going to work, the astrological gods know it hasn’t for us, but revel in what you learned from those failures and use them for the development of future successes. Be smart about your failures.