Hetal Doshi is a professional wanderer. She recalls the best trip of her life: “Watching the thrilling dust filled spectacle of ‘The Great Migration’ as hundreds of wildebeests, zebras, and gazelles crossed the crocodile infested waters of the Mara River before running into other predators like leopards waiting on the other side, remains firmly etched in my memory.
Some wildebeests were devoured and some made it across. Come to think of it, it’s also a metaphor for the journey of a startup entrepreneur in our times.”
She should know. Hetal has been on that journey since 2013, the year she launched her startup Wander Girls. It is a travel startup offering well researched, ‘experiential’ trips for female travellers to various destinations both within India and internationally. “The idea is to offer unique experiences beyond what most tour operators provide based on our own experience of solo travels.
Of course, the dreaded ‘single room supplement’ is a thing of the past for girls who travel with us and travelling with other like-minded girls has often forged friendships which last well beyond the duration of the trips. That apart, we also create custom trips to various destinations around the world for our growing community of female travellers from India. For international female travellers we currently offer India trip planning services and tours specially designed for them. In Mumbai we’ve also organised networking events, both social and professional, to build a community of women, and we’ll be replicating this in other cities soon,” she explains.
Hetal says, “Our marquee clients are well educated, urban women who are keen to explore the world on their own terms and have the disposable income to support their aspirations.” Although The Wander Girls addressed chief concerns of safety and security that women travellers are subjected to when going around India, it goes so much beyond that. Hetal herself found travel to be a key tool of self-development rather than the frivolous hobby it is made out to be.
She says, “India is a patriarchal society and I come from a patriarchal family where every opportunity to spread my wings was initially met with resistance. Each time I struggled and found my way, whether it was getting the nod to study abroad or travelling alone for work and pleasure. Travel liberates me from the chains placed upon my gender by society. And over a period of time, as I enrolled my family in my vision, I felt the desire to empower other women to travel independently too. As a single girl, I realised that there were very limited avenues at that time in India that women have for travelling by themselves and in the company of other women. I felt there was something I could do to fill in this gap by offering the relevant expertise.”
What emerged was The Wander Girls. “A culmination of my travels, learnings, and various experiences. The joy, liberation, and freedom I experienced while traveling is what led to the idea for the inception of TWG.”
Hetal dabbled in many roles before embracing entrepreneurship head on. “A banker, entrepreneur, writer, and photographer, these are some of the hats I’ve worn before I founded The Wander Girls,” she says. She is enthusiastic to be part of the Indian travel industry now, a time she feels is its most momentous. “The travel industry has undergone massive shifts and it’s an exciting time for consumers as they have a plethora of options from various travel startups. From buying flight, train and bus tickets, to stay options, to travel packages everything is being done in newer ways. It’s going to be a challenge for travel startups to keep innovating at the same breakneck speed and offer products that will ‘keep’ a consumer for life.”
With travel being simplified like never before, The Wander Girls finds itself among a plethora of startups wooing the new age consumer’s wallet. “This is a good time to be a part of the travel industry and cater to a growing segment of educated and independent Indian women who want to get out there and explore the world. And with the growing tourism potential of India, and a growing number of international female travellers, things are looking bright for us. Yet, with the entire industry being in a flux with other innovative ideas, companies, and products that are disrupting the way things are done continuously, the challenge will be to stay relevant let’s say a decade or so from now,” comments Hetal.
To survive and thrive, she has invigorating plans of her own in the pipeline. “At present, we are headquartered in Mumbai with managers in Delhi and Bangalore. We’re planning to ramp up operations in these two cities as well as identify other locations which show potential. In addition to the core female traveller community in India, on which we have focused for the first two years, we’re planning to actively market our products and services for solo female travellers from other countries interested in exploring India. Our team strength should double up over this year to keep pace with this growth. We’ll be transitioning our user work flow, which is currently a mix of online discovery and offline closure, to a more self-service oriented model.”
It is true that travel has opened up a world of possibilities for Hetal. She says, “The human race evolved over centuries as it moved from one place to another, and that still holds true even today. Travel is about pushing your own boundaries, being more appreciative of diverse perspectives, and letting go of your own fears and realising that anything is possible and doable. These are gifts that travel offers and why it’s important.” But she’s also quick to caution those who take to travel for the intense glorification it receives in today’s Instagram culture. “For first-timers who’re smitten with the ‘idea’ of travel, I think multiple solo trips should be undertaken to see if one is really passionate about travel or just the idea of it.”
The Wander Girls is a bootstrapped from Hetal’s personal savings. She is happy with the traction the company has received so far. Of her team, she says, “We’re a small group of passionate travellers who work really hard to create experiential trips. Most of my team members are always out travelling whether for research or leading trips.”
Coming back to her apt, but disturbing nonetheless, metaphor of the dog eat dog world of entrepreneurship, Hetal is quick to clarify that she does not view it as all that hard. “I don’t think it is hard being an entrepreneur as long as one doesn’t keep overanalysing the opportunity cost and beat one’s self up over mistakes that one might make. We are still in the early days of starting up and the learning curve has been steep. From dealing with the bureaucracy for paperwork, to keeping the cash flow positive in the era of funded startups that lose money daily in the name of customer acquisition; it’s been a fun journey.
At present, I’m grappling with building a CRM database and putting processes in place to keep pace with our growing user community. I think most startup entrepreneurs ‘live’ their work and end up working 80+ hours a week, and I’m no exception. This doesn’t feel like much of a sacrifice as I really love what I’m doing. But it takes away from having time to pursue other interests,” she rues.
To end on a happy note, the girl who loves to wander imparts an advice for the wanderlust stricken: “Work hard and persevere. Take action and execute. Be disciplined and learn to prioritise the important over the urgent.”