Tours & Trips

13 Women Founded Companies Changing the Way We Travel

Mandi Schmitt
Topic Expert

Mandi has studied, volunteered, interned, and lived abroad in all sorts of fascinating places, including Rome, London, India, Costa Rica, and Tanzania...

Founding and running your own business is tough. This is true for anyone, but especially for women who are still competing for equality in the work place. A recent NY Times article states that there are fewer women running big companies than there are men named John. What?!

Women are incredibly powerful -- when a woman succeeds, everyone succeeds.

Which is why we want to highlight the women in our industry, the travel industry, who are breaking out of the norm and impacting the travel sphere in meaningful ways. These inspirational women are breaking down barriers every day, and continue to inspire women around the world.

To help you get to know these eight women-run travel companies who are changing the way we travel, read what their companies are all about, as well as a quick interview from each:

1. Global Experiences

Emily Merson is the co-founder and CEO of Global Experiences, an organization that coordinates highly customized internship placements around the world. The company was founded in 2001 when participating in an internship abroad was a relatively new idea. To Emily, the importance of living, working and immersing overseas is crucial in gaining personal enrichment and professional development.

Though the team has grown over the years to 30+, the core values have remained the same. All members have had their own unique experiences abroad, which motivates them to help others achieve their travel goals. Emily continues to lead the strategic vision of GE as the company grows to a leading international internship and career development organization.

Follow Global Experiences on Twitter @internabroad.

Why is it important to you that women travel?

You learn about yourself when you travel and live away from all you grew up with. The confidence you gain is extremely important for women as they move into their careers, and for many marriages and children, it is the one item I think young women struggle most with finding in themselves.

You can only teach what you know, and it is important to the world that you can teach the compassion, cultural understanding and sense of hope and opportunity that comes when you travel outside your comfort zone and learn to thrive.

What motivates you to create a community of women travelers?

Our program participants are about 75% women and so our programs have naturally become a reflection of this and I love the idea that the next generation is filled with all these empowered and globally engaged professionals. I strongly believe that the more personal global connections between people of different nationalities the fewer conflicts and economic inequalities there will be.

What was your biggest hurdle as a woman (or as just a person!) in creating your business?

I think women struggle generally with self promotion and being confident as they interact with those with lots more experience. We started with internships in Italy, and despite its modernity, Italy is still filled with lots of very hierarchical organizations run by old men. I had lots of people ask me how old I was and was I really the owner.

2. WHOA Travel

Co-founders Allison Fleece and Danielle Thornton are Women High On Adventure -- and for good reason! They plan, orchestrate, and participate in some insanely cool and transformative adventures for and with other adventurous women.

Their trips include climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, hiking Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail in Peru, and exploring Bavaria during Oktoberfest in Germany. (They can also design custom adventures for groups).

Not only do WHOA's trips fulfill the need for that adrenaline rush, but they also impact local women and their communities by educating and empowering women around the world. There are opportunities to learn and grow from the other women on the trip, while simultaneously being introduced to new perspectives and ideas from cultures.

Every year on International Women's Day, Allison and Danielle lead a trip to Mt. Kilimanjaro, planning it so the holiday aligns with Summit Day. Check out their website to join next years empowering adventure! Follow Whoa Travel on Twitter @whoatravel.

Why is it important to you that women travel?

It is important to us that women travel because it challenges us to be better women and most importantly, better humans. Travel forces us to step outside our comfort zones and to discover what we're truly made of.

3. Go! Girl Guides

Kelly Lewis founded Go! Girl Guides in 2010 after it came to her in a dream. The idea was born out of sheer frustration of the lack of resources for female-specific issues.

As she was traveling across South America, she continually found herself wishing she had had a friend give her a heads up on certain situations. In order to fill this need, she has created Go! Girl Guide guidebooks to focus on women's health and safety in different countries, while giving women the inside scoop on traveling solo.

The guidebooks are full color, include pictures, recipes, a volunteer section, motivational essays, Q&As, and medical information. Kelly's goal is for her guidebooks is to provide a resource that helps women travel safely, affordably and adventurously.

In addition, Kelly just hosted her second annual Women's Travel Fest in San Francisco. Keep an eye for next year's event - it's an incredibly inspiring gathering for all female travelers! Follow Go! Girl Guides on Twitter @Gogirlguides.

Why is it important to you that women travel?

Travel is incredibly transformative, and really works to reaffirm your faith in yourself and your own personal strength. I think it's incredibly important that more women travel, so that they can push themselves through an array of incredible experiences, and really know what they are capable of.

What motivates you to create a community of women travelers?

I think having a community of women travelers is crucial, because up until now, there really hasn't been a place for women to gather to talk about traveling, to motivate each other to travel more, and to share their own stories. This sense of community is vital, because we learn so much from one another.

Before I started traveling, I know I was motivated mostly by the tales I was hearing from my friends who had come back from incredible places-- and their stories made me want to go as well.

What do you see as the biggest prohibiting factor when it come to women fulfilling their travel dreams?

I think women are used to thinking that things are off limits for them, when in reality, anything is possible. We're used to being told what kind of life we should dream of, and what kind of future we can expect for ourselves. When we dare to break that mold, people think we're crazy, or dangerous, or that we'll get ourselves in trouble abroad.

I want women to know that they can have any sort of life they want: whether it's raising kids in suburbia, or living in a nudist camp beneath a waterfall in Kauai. Everything is possible. You just have to have the courage to fight for it.

4. Pink Pangea

Rachel Sales and Jaclyn Mishal have created an online community for women who love to travel. Their website is a collection of stories written by female travelers who have lived through the obstacles women face when they're on the road. For every challenge and hardship, there is a solution - or at least someone who's been through it too!

One goal of these stories, written in blog form and posted on the website in relevant destination and type categories, is to help inform other female travelers on what to expect when they pursue their travel goals. Rachel and Jaclyn were frustrated by the lack of resources out there specifically about travel for women.

They recognize that female travelers have to think about different things than males -- like where they can buy tampons, or what clothing is considered appropriate, or how to navigate a long distance relationship -- so they've reached out to those who have been there, and created a platform through which every woman can learn and gain the confidence she needs to keep traveling.

If you want to get involved, submit your travel story on their website. They also host travel writing retreats around the world! Follow Pink Pangea on Twitter @pinkpangea.

Why is it important to you that women travel?

It's important to us that women have the opportunity to get out of their comfort zones and explore the world. When we travel, we not only challenge our preconceptions about other cultures, but we also learn more about ourselves. We become stronger individuals, who can face challenges and appreciate great opportunities that come our way.

What was your biggest hurdle as a woman (or as just a person!) in creating your business?

For Rachel, it was making the decision to quit a comfortable job in order to focus on building the Pink Pangea community. She feels thrilled that she made the decision to follow her passions.

Who is one woman that inspired you to pursue this venture?

Jaclyn’s maternal grandmother survived the Holocaust and her paternal grandmother fled Baghdad, Iraq. To them, we dedicate Pink Pangea to providing a space for women to find their voices and share their stories.

5. Adventure Women

After her own adventures as a Peace Corps Volunteer, Susan Eckert wanted to create adventure travel options just for women. The goal was to create group travel that connects women with other women travelers, provides a safe and comfortable environment, and helps women better understand the world in which they live, away from limiting societal expectations.

Since 1982 when the company was founded, the trips have focused on being healthy, staying active, creating challenges, learning, and discovering for women 35-65. In the last few years, Susan has even added a humanitarian aspect. Participants learn how to navigate through travel challenges, all while having a great time!

There are trips planned all around the world for 2015, including Alaska, Iceland, Nepal, Italy and Costa Rica. Follow Adventure Women on Twitter @AdvWomen.

Why is it important to you that women travel?

In 1982, when the adventure travel industry was still in its infancy, I took my life savings and launched AdventureWomen, targeting women over 30. I believe travel is one of the greatest tools we have for promoting world peace and understanding among cultures. Besides, I thought it was high time women benefit from the same travel opportunities as men who were having all the fun: hunting, fishing, and golfing with their buddies.

What motivates you to create a community of women travelers?

Women in any culture relish the freedom to experience new things away from limiting societal expectations. We have a unique sense of discovery, an unabashed curiosity, the easy ability to laugh at ourselves, and the capacity to create a non-competitive environment of support and encouragement for each other.

Under these circumstances, women feel free to challenge themselves with a trek up a mountain, by learning to snorkel or scuba dive, or through immersion in an unfamiliar culture. Women tell us that on all-women's trips, they can be totally and unequivocally themselves.

What was your biggest hurdle as a woman (or as just a person!) in creating your business?

When I approached several bankers with my idea for a women's adventure travel company, they laughed and told me it was too risky a proposal to grant me any money to start my business. Refusing to be put off by this apparent setback -- and holding firm to the credo "if you want something badly enough, you will find a way to do it" -- I decided to take my life savings of $25,000 and start my new company.

From the back of my Datsun pickup truck, I began guiding rugged adventure travel trips - a field dominated at that time almost exclusively by men. And I never looked back.

6. Wanderful

Beth Santos wants embolden all females to be bold, brave and adventurous. She believes every woman is a pioneer, and wants to create a network where all of their experiences can be shared. With a community of 10,000 women in 110 countries, she's off to a great start.

The website is meant to encourage women to learn from each other, and to feel comforted in knowing that expanding horizons is scary but so worth it. There are articles and podcasts on a variety of topics, and a discussion board to ask questions and network with other travelers.

On March 27-29, 2015, Beth hosted the the Women in Travel Summit, the first and only travel blogging summit of its kind for the second year in a row in Boston, MA. Follow Go Girl Travel on Twitter @travelgogirl.

What motivates you to create a community of women travelers?

I created Go Girl because there was nothing else like it. I was living in Sao Tome and Principe, a small country off the west coast of Africa, and blogging about my experiences as a traveler and as a female living locally.

At the time, if you searched for "women" and "travel" together on Google, the search results would be so superficial: "What kind of bikini should I wear on my beach vacation?" and "How many pairs of shoes do YOU pack in your suitcase?"

I was frustrated with how women's issues seemed to be entirely lacking from the conversation. We started Go Girl to create a trust circle for globally minded women to get tips from each other, or sometimes just to say about a sticky situation, "I've totally been there!"

What do you see as the biggest prohibiting factor when it comes to women fulfilling their travel dreams?

I'm currently reading The Confidence Code, which talks mainly about underconfidence in women in the business world, but I think it applies to pretty much everything. We women often hold ourselves back, whether or not we realize it. So often I feel like I'm just trying to convince women to go and travel.

If there's a glimmer of excitement in their eye about an upcoming trip, it's immediately followed by a million reasons why they shouldn't do it.

I recognize there are many women who have never once held themselves back when it comes to travel, but there are a lot that do, and I believe that sometimes our societal expectations of women (and the question of if women should travel alone, or what countries they should be "able" to go to) weigh heavily on us.

Who is one woman that inspired you to pursue this venture?

On International Women's Day I shared a story about my grandmother, Margaret Clapis Merriman. I call her the O.G.G. (Original Go Girl). She was on a cruise in Europe and about to take off to do a nursing program in Saudi Arabia with her friend. However, she backed out when she met my grandfather and they fell in love.

My grandmother was in her early 20s at the time, so that puts this scene in the 1940s. Can you believe she was traveling to Saudi Arabia in that era? Now, my grandma is 92 and finally retired only 6 years ago. She has a love for travel and for bringing her girlfriends together that predates mine about 70 years. I like to think that the spirit of Go Girl is in my blood.

7. Wild Rainbow African Safaris

Jody Cole is a high level Field and Trail Guide from the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa. She uses her expertise, extensive knowledge of life in the bush, and her wealth of connections in the region to create once in a lifetime custom adventures for travelers in Africa.

She covers every aspect of the trip -- safaris, adventures, hotels, cultural exchanges, nightlife, meals -- so that every guests's needs are met. Her hands on approach combined with her enthusiasm for African wildlife ensure that a trip with her to Africa will be unforgettable.

Aside from her life as a guide, Jody is a philanthropist, a gay rights activist, and involved in animal research projects. She has been honored with many awards for her community work, has volunteered at the Marine Mammal Center in Marin, CA, and serves on the board of directors for the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association Fund.

Her upcoming safaris and tours are in Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Tanzania (combined with climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro!) and South Africa. Follow Wild Rainbow on Twitter @Wild_Rainbow.

What motivates you to encourage people to travel?

I want people to be happy. I think we can get stuck in our worlds with TV, work, family, etc., Nothing wrong with any of them but things can get stale. There is an energy that happens when we even begin to plan to travel. I notice that my guests’ tone and energy shifts the moment they have committed go to Africa, rather than just ask questions about it.

Then we shift into planning, fantasizing about what it will be like, and thinking about what to pack even if that trip is 6 months to a year away. So what motivates me to encourage people to travel? The knowledge that they will be altered by the experience from beginning to end.

What do you see as the biggest prohibiting factor when it comes to women fulfilling their travel dreams?

It’s a close tie between obligation to their lives and affordability. In the past I worked mostly with women donors and I’d watch them go from thinking “I can’t live without that money, I can’t possibly help this cause” to “Wow, this feels great. I actually do matter. And I belong to this cause. It’s mine.”

The same thing happens for women not willing to travel right now, saying they'll go in a few years or believing that they can’t afford it. Ha! I find that travel is the very thing that motivates people to come home and rock it at work. I tell women to just go. Don’t wait. And in my world the longer they wait the fewer animals Africa may have on offer when they finally arrive to see them.

Who is one woman that inspired you to pursue this venture?

The love of my life -- Katharine Appleton Cole. I was so afraid that the amount of time it would take to start the company would interfere and harm our relationship.

She put it very simply: “If I was booked on a 3-6 month tour with “insert any band name here” would you tell me I couldn't go because you were afraid it would affect our relationship?” My response would be “No!” because I knew this is exactly what she would want to be doing and that is one of the many reasons I fell in love with her.

8. Visionaria Peru

Executive Director Genevieve Smith and Development Director Marika Meertens are leading Visionaria Peru's efforts to pass on knowledge and expertise to enable women and girls to support themselves.

In order to foster capacity building, they develop training material, conduct needs assessments, and create custom project designs that work best with the community.

Their female run and female focused organization calls for a huge social change. Women should feel empowered to manage household energy, farming, and animal husbandry in such a way that builds on their expertise and leadership, despite the educational, social and cultural constraints.

Visionaria Peru wants to help women enter the economic sphere by developing their communication, self confidence, education and intrinsic motivation.

If you want to get involved, you can donate to their cause or -- if you're in Peru already -- drop them a line about getting involved.

Why is it important to you that women succeed in their communities?

Women are incredibly powerful – when a woman succeeds, everyone succeeds. Women reinvest 90% of what they make back into their families and communities, whereas for men it is 30 – 40%. Empowering women is critical to enhancing livelihoods in communities and impacting sustainable development. Once they realize that they are powerful and can create and follow their own visions for their lives, magic happens!

What motivates you to help empower women to live up to their potential?

I feel a deep pull towards helping empower women and girls. This has only deepened with the ‘work’ that I do. One of our Visionarias, Maria (name changed), comes from a background of deep poverty and is the oldest of 10 other siblings who she helps take care of. When Maria was 17 she almost died of starvation and parasites. Luckily, she survived.

Today her dream is to be a nurse so that she can improve the health of others. Maria is a changemaker. With her Visionaria team, she has installed over 40 improved cookstoves and led education campaigns for healthier cooking in communities throughout the Sacred Valley.

She is paving the path for her family and community to healthier living. Last August when she told me I was her angel, I felt so deeply touched. In truth, I see her as an angel of mine. She is my motivation.

9. Adventure Bucket List

Everyone on the ABL team has spent years working in the tourism industry. As travelers they saw the need for a central marketplace to discover what a destination has to offer. They've also led their own tours and know the frustration that comes with managing dozens of bookings a day.

To help solve this problem, they created a software and sales channel to connect tour providers and travelers so that every one can spend less time worrying and spend more time doing what they love.

Rita LeBlanc, co-founder and Customer Relationship Manager, started ABL after winning an award for creating the best start-up from her univeristy in British Coumbia. Since then, she moved to California with her team to help ABL get off the ground. They've got big plans to make adventure travel more streamlined by creating a way for travelers to book all of their experiences online ahead of time.

Follow them on Twitter @AdvBucketList.

What motivates you to create a community of women travelers?

After living and working in the Silicon Valley, where women are far and few in-between, I’ve realized how different men and women really are. It’s important to build a network of women with similar interests because you connect on a totally different level and get a different experience from traveling together.If we can help you connect with new people and have amazing experiences, we are happy.

What was your biggest hurdle as a woman (or as just a person!) in creating your business?

When starting a business, hurdles come with tackling all of the risky or uncertain situations. Not always being taken seriously because you are female adds to any difficulty or frustration. Whether you are a woman or man, failure is critical to success. It’s hard to take risks and go out of your comfort zone, but you will never know unless you try.

Who is one woman that inspired you to pursue this venture?

Inspiration can come in many different forms. I’ve always admired my mom, who moved from rural Nova Scotia to France when she was 17 to be an Au Pair. Growing up in a small town, I always knew that there was a lot more to see and do in the world. I’m excited to see what new opportunities Adventure Bucket List has in store for me.

10. Tripping

Jen O'Neal co-founded Tripping in 2010 as a social site for travelers. In 2012, they officially pivoted the company and now Tripping has become a leading search engine for vacation rentals. Since travelers typically visit an average of five sites before finding a vacation rental, they aim to save them time and money by aggregating all available properties into a single search platform.

Jen has traveled extensively herself and understands the value and convenience of having a condensed platform when searching for rentals. She has also worked with StubHub and Viagogo -- a well seasoned professional in the tech and marketing industry.

Follow them on Twitter @Tripping.

Why is it important to you that women travel?

When I was 19, I studied abroad in Italy and took every opportunity to backpack throughout Europe. By meeting strangers in new places, my eyes were immediately opened to new ideas, thoughts, and ways of living. I also learned how to figure out my finances, organize itineraries, communicate without a common language, which made me a stronger, more confident person.

What was your biggest hurdle as a woman (or as just a person!) in creating your business?

Jumping hurdles is par for the course when you start a company. As the first metasearch site for vacation rentals,’s largest hurdle was proving this could be a real business. When you’re the first person to do something, people will doubt you. For years, investors wouldn’t return our calls. Now they’re calling us.

Though it hasn't affected me personally, I’ve seen and experienced sexism in Silicon Valley: if it happens to you, refocus your attention on the firms and investors who support female entrepreneurs. The others aren’t worth your time.

What do you see as the biggest prohibiting factor when it comes to women fulfilling their travel dreams?

This applies to both women and men, but I’d say the biggest prohibiting factor is time. Our lives are so incredibly busy these days. The key is to make time.

If you’re in college, study abroad. If you’re a recent grad, backpack for a few months before starting your career. If you’re working, take your full 2-weeks of vacation, take long weekends, or travel when you’re between jobs. You’ll never regret making travel a priority.

11. Global Links Learning Abroad

Cynthia Banks created Global Links Learning Abroad, a study abroad company, when she was just 24 years old. After living in Australia, she was inspired to find ways to make it easier, personally and financially, for students to go overseas. By the time Global Links turned 24 itself, they had sent 30,000 students on programs around the world, employed 80 staff, and was supported by a 70% female senior leadership team.

In 2014, Global Links was acquired by ISA, but this did not stop Cynthia from working to empower students, especially young girls, to explore and stay safe while traveling. She's still involved with ISA, created the Foundation for Global Scholars, serves on the Board of Directors of NAFSA, and several other non-profit boards. Through all her experiences, she has gathered countless stories of students' transformations into global changemakers.

Follow them on Twitter @ISAabroad.

What was your biggest hurdle as a woman (or as just a person!) in creating your business?

I was a young woman when I started the business and I did not foresee the enormity of the trials I would face in business and academia.

I believe raising a business at any age is a challenge as you cannot underestimate the need for experience and tenure to ward off problems before they arise. My biggest hurdle as both a woman and a young entrepreneur was fighting to be known and respected each and every day.

What do you see as the biggest prohibiting factor when it come to women fulfilling their travel dreams?

As a woman, I think I am at liberty to say that we seem to worry about the future more than men. We worry about our reaching our goals and career dreams while still finding time for our families.

We might benefit from less over-analyzing of choices to the point of inertia. I learned in my career and family life that most fruitful adventures were ones where I allowed my path to unfold.

Who is one woman that inspired you to pursue this venture?

I have a long list of mentors and supporters. There are several men who gave me the opportunity to lead the GlobaLinks company, but it was the women who made sure I did not quit along the way.

Martha Denney said encouraging words to me on a daily basis, my wonderful mother, Jean, kept telling me to “hang in there,” and Shelia Houston, my business partner, remains my dearest friend and probably my biggest cheerleader for 25+ years.

12. Global Volunteers

Global Volunteers formed as a result of Michele Gran's unconventional honeymoon. She and her husband Bud spent five days living in a small, rural village in Guatemala, and were deeply impacted by the experience. Five years later, they decided to do something to help improve the villagers' quality of life.

Now, they send volunteers to over 100 host communities in 35 countries, makeing sure their projects are grounded in sustainability and benefit the communities positively. Though Global Volunteers has changed and evolved over time, their drive to change lives has never wavered.

Follow them on Twitter @GloblVolunteers.

Why is it important to you that women travel?

Women represent half of the world’s population -- half of the human resources to resolve global problems and to invest in future generations. The perspective gained through travel and experiential learning is critical in a complete education on the world. Ultimately, women empower themselves by becoming personally knowledgeable of the world through travel.

What motivates you to create a community of women travelers?

Women volunteers, being strong and resourceful, can create a worldwide network catalyzing other women with fewer resources. What they need most is encouragement from other women believing in their dreams. In turn, these local women teach us -- about their communities, what we have in common, and what’s important in life. Those are the commonalities: family, friendship, future, which unite us as kin.

Who is one woman that inspired you to pursue this venture?

I wish I knew her name. A woman in the Guatemalan village where I spent my “volunteering honeymoon” in 1979 inspired me to expand my perspective with one simple message.

I didn’t know it at the time, but it would later motivate me to found a non-profit organization to enable others to serve the world. She said: “When you come here from so far away to help us, it makes me feel important, and then I know I can do important things for my people too.”

13. Yoga Travel Tree

Brooke Roberts is the founder and CEO of Yoga Travel Tree, a company that was inspired by her love of yoga, travel, and the tree of life. After a decade in the international education industry as a Senior Vice President, Brooke decided to leave it all behind and follow her passion.

Yoga Travel Tree helps yoga enthusiasts have meaningful travel adventures all over the world. Bringing together the transformative powers of travel and yoga, their yoga teacher trainings and yoga retreats help yoga lovers everywhere explore much more than just their down dog.

They help them dive deep into the local culture and country through experiential-based excursions to explore the the food, language, customs, architecture, sights, history and people. To sum it up: they're yoga junkies with a travel problem.

Follow Yoga Travel Tree on Twitter @yogatraveltree.

Why is it important to you that women travel?

Defaults scare the hell out of me. Defaulting into a major, a career, a relationship, a life path that is expected of you or that is chosen simply because you don't know anything else.

As a young girl growing up in rural Kansas I was surrounded by defaults and it wasn't until I serendipitously took my first trip abroad (or out of the midwest) that I even knew that all these other paths lay before me... and that I had a choice about the life I could create for myself.

Travel opens up doors and eyes. It empowers you to see the world (literally) from new angles and new light...and start carving out an existence that not only feels right, but is an actual choice.

What do you see as the biggest prohibiting factor when it come to women fulfilling their travel dreams?

Fear. Not just fear of a foreign place or getting lost, but fear of losing connect. I've had so many conversations with women interested in going on a yoga retreat with my company, but they are scared of not knowing anyone.

What I have to remind them is that the people, the relationships, the conversations you have when you travel are just as exciting, eye-opening, and educational as the sights you see, the food you taste, and the places you visit. The people typically make the experience, so lean in to that, embrace it. And if you do go alone, you won't be alone for long.

Who is one woman that inspired you to pursue this venture?

As cliche as it sounds, my mom. There's nothing more empowering or valuable than having an unwavering cheerleader in your corner. She showed me by example that you can make incredible things happen on a budget, with ingenuity, and faith (that's how she raised my brother and me all on her own). And I carry that influence with me into everything I do in my work.

We Know There are More Out There!

Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive. There are hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands, of women out there making an impact in the travel, development, and international education fields. Women who are encouraging others to get out there and explore the world. Women who are impacting communities abroad and spreading the can-do female attitude.

Do you know of any women, organizations, or companies who deserve this recognition? Tell us in the comments below!