How social entrepreneur Shailza Dasgupta’s passion for travelling led her to start up twice
Travel writer and social entrepreneur Shailza Sood Dasgupta says she clearly remembers the time an idea for a startup struck her. Shailza and her companion Vinod Verma, who is a travel photographer, were on a group trip to Spiti Valley and had found a homestay at Mudh, the last village in the Pin Valley of Himachal Pradesh.
However, the homestay had two foreigners coming in by late evening and all the rooms were occupied. While other guests were kind enough to adjust and accommodate them, Shailza noted the unorganised, yet a promising sector, the homestay services across India run individually.
“There are many small family-run homestays in remote regions of India that solely rely on walk-in guests. There is no dedicated platform to showcase these homestays and provide them with the required visibility,” says the Delhi-based entrepreneur.
Further, she added that while the homestays relied on walk-in guests, travellers wished on their luck at all times.
Resolved to formalise the homestay economy, Shailza and her partner founded Homestays of India (HOI) in April 2017, with five homestays in the Spiti valley of Himachal Pradesh.
Today, the startup has grown into a full-fledged network of more than 100 homestays across 21 states in India.
Shailza turned to her one true passion of writing and travelling after over a decade, parting away with her corporate life when she worked with Google and McKinsey & Company.
She contributes her travel accounts to various publications including Times of India’s HappyTrips, Terrascape, Discover India, National Geographic Traveler, Women's Era, Alive, and dailies like The Hindu and Times of Oman.
In 2010, she took the first entrepreneurial plunge and founded a travel startup Chalo Let's Go, where she designed and coordinated travel packages for tourists. Shailza had strong ties with the local communities across India and she sourced many locals as travel guides for her startup.
Shailza has been focusing on low impact eco-tourism and aims to educate and help people travel responsibly.
According to Shailza (41), HOI’s work begins only after getting the families of these homestays onboard with the startup. They are trained in various aspects of hospitality, guest handling, basic conversational English, health and hygiene, homestay management, and adopting eco-friendly practices.
“We started contacting them to understand the challenges and how we can help them. After some more travel and research, we created a simple platform that connects them to the travellers looking for a unique cultural experience,” Shailza explains.
The startup also encourages the women of the household to take ownership and manage their finances independently. Moreover, Shailza backs them with marketing skills to ensure a regular inflow of guests.
Additionally, problem-solving sessions are organised to make them equipped to handle challenges such as difficult customers and negative feedback, among others.
“Meetups and trips are also organised for hosts to meet each other and share their experiences. We engage local staff and use local resources,” the two-time entrepreneur adds.
Bootstrapped since inception, Shailza and Vinod started looking for like-minded partners who understood the startup’s concept and the co-founders' vision.
Following a discussion of expansion plans over an informal breakfast with a seasoned entrepreneur-friend Sudipto Mitra, the co-founders secured an undisclosed amount of funding from Kolkata-based Zoie Care in December 2019.
Bonding over homestays
Shailza has a diverse range of over 5,000 clients – students, young solo-travellers, tourists, families wanting to spend some quality time during vacations, older people looking for a long-term stay, and working professional - whom she refers to as ‘digital nomads’.
She says that travel trends are changing in this new age. “For retired people, building a home in the location of their choice – hills or near the beach – for a long term vacation is a good option. They can spend every summer in different locations while having someone to take care in case of any emergency,” she adds.
She says that homestays offer an experiential stay with exposure to local culture, traditions, and food.
Additionally, research scholars from foreign universities have also approached the startup regarding cultural exchange programmes, especially in the Himalayan villages.
Challenges of a serial entrepreneur
While her venture of homestays is gathering the steam of success, Shailza had a tough time leaving her established travel business Chalo Let's Go. However, a new project like the Homestays of India needed her full attention, compelling her to shut down her previous venture.
At present, the startup is planning to onboard over 250 homestays by the end of 2020, and develop sustainable community homestay villages. Additionally, the startup is working in a collaboration with brands, local communities, and influencers to promote socially responsible tourism.
Born and brought up in the Palampur town of Himachal Pradesh, Shailza says, the best advice that blessed her entrepreneurial journey was to outsource everything and to focus on doing what only an individual can do in the business.
(Edited by Suman Singh)