What started as a moment of introspection in 2021 for Iris Serbanescu is now a growing network of women and non-binary entrepreneurs in the travel industry.
In January 2022, she launched wmnsWORK — a 12-week accelerator program for women and non-binary tourism entrepreneurs to learn directly from industry experts, build community, and receive the feedback they need to succeed in a supportive, constructive environment.
“When I put this program together, what I thought was, ‘This is going to be something that helps get women and nonbinary folks get from one stage of business to the next,’” Serbanescu said. She expected that the educational sessions and hard skills would be the most valuable component. But the biggest asset has turned out to be the camaraderie created among folks in the early stages of business at a crucial time when support is most needed.
“What I have learned most of all is there’s no blueprint for how to start a business. Everybody has answers inside of them. It’s not up to me to tell them how to launch their business, it’s up to me to create an environment where we can all bring our fears, our doubts, our uncertainties, questions, and our celebrations together, to each other – to share in all of that. And it’s kind of a sacred space,” she said.
“What I have learned most of all is there’s no blueprint for how to start a business. Everybody has answers inside of them. It’s not up to me to tell them how to launch their business, it’s up to me to create an environment where we can all bring our fears, our doubts, our uncertainties, questions, and our celebrations together, to each other – to share in all of that. And it’s kind of a sacred space,” Serbanescu said.
The timing for the wmnsWORK pilot cohort in 2022 was particularly significant. With the travel industry heavily impacted by COVID-19 and finally beginning to rebound, the program offered a space for entrepreneurs to envision what the future of tourism could be. According to the World Economics Forum’s 2021 report on the Global Gender Gap, between 2015 and 2019 there was an increase of women entering into senior management positions within recreation and tourism. But in 2020, that trend reversed.
“A lot of the unpaid care burden falls on women if they have families to take care of,” Serbanescu explained. “The 9-5 work culture was created for people without children – for men, mostly. So the system has historically excluded women. They have not had the same opportunities as men to stay late for meetings and do what was needed to get the promotion. All of these things we take at face value now.”
In March 2022, the ATTA published a research report on The Influence & Impact of Women in Adventure Travel, which found that, “Women represent 54% of the tourism workforce worldwide, however, that is not proportionally reflected at leadership-level positions. Neither in government (as of 2019, 23% of tourism ministers were women), nor in the private sector.” As of 2021, only 11% of companies with more than $10 million in revenue have a female CEO. The report notes, “This means that the largest and most visible organizations in the industry are overwhelmingly led by men, who therefore have more access to resources and more influence.”
Seeing this impact, and with ten years of industry experience behind her, Serbanescu decided to use her network to begin to change the narrative. First, she created a list of people who were experts at their craft within tourism, pulling from both personal contacts and acquaintances through LinkedIn, and began reaching out to them to share her vision: creating an accelerator program grounded in education, classes, and mentorship.
Developing the education component was her initial focus. Core content include Mindset, Business Plan Writing, and Financials – all of which were designed to get impactful results as quickly as possible. But Serbanescu also custom curates the program and workshop leaders based on what applicants say they needed the most help with on their intake form. With a small group of twelve, everyone has access to individualized attention from each expert. By the end of the program, each member of the cohort leaves with a business plan, financial strategy, and a pitch deck.
Now well into the second cohort, Serbanescu’s goal has an even broader vision: to lead people beyond what they thought was possible, and to create a space where people feel comfortable to ask the questions they need to ask to move forward. “There’s not really anything that exists that is business, but also mindset, community, and support. People tend to keep those separate.”
“There’s not really anything that exists that is business, but also mindset, community, and support. People tend to keep those separate.”
She’s also made a few changes to the program itself, including more informal scheduled time for the members of the cohort to connect with each other. Being an entrepreneur and working solo can be a lonely endeavor, and wmnsWORK offers a space where folks can connect, ask questions, and have an open floor for vulnerable conversations.
Even her definition of who the program is for has changed a bit. “Candidly, it was created for tourism suppliers (such as a hotel or DMC) and initially, for entrepreneurs in their first year of business,” Serbanescu shared. But as wmnsWORK has evolved and she’s seen various types of applications come in, “Now it has expanded a bit to include anyone who wants to start a business in tourism and feels they need extra support to get it to the level where they want it.” So far, at least one outbound tour operator, entrepreneurs still in the idea stage, and someone in their fifth year of business have all found success through the program.
Success itself is individualized – and therefore difficult to measure – since the goal of the program is to set up members of wmnsWORK foundational knowledge and a network that will be of benefit for the rest of their career. “There’s a longevity to it that I can’t quite quantify right at the end, often it’s a longer term impact,” Serbanescu said.
And yet, already one woman from the first cohort reached her entire year’s revenue goal (which was well into six figures) in her first two months of business. She’s now a mentor for the second cohort. Another woman brand new to the travel industry successfully found investors, a property, and is on track to open her boutique hotel next year. But since one focus of wmnsWORK is “creating a container and space for doing things differently,” Serbanescu stressed, “It’s not just about the numbers.” One entrepreneur pivoted away from their original idea to a smaller, more sustainable business model for their lifestyle. “I see that as a win. That’s the kind of thing we want to instill in everybody in the program. You do it your way. It doesn’t have to be growth at all costs. You don’t have to rely on external measures of what success looks like.”
Even with a maximum group size of twelve, each cohort includes a wildly diverse mix of people, business plans, and success stories. The second cohort represents a truly global population, with participants from the United States, Canada, Peru, Hong Kong, Kenya, India, Japan, and one digital nomad who will be in the country of Georgia during the program. “Time zone planning has been a challenge, but not as much of a challenge as I thought,” Serbanescu said. “Everyone is being a good sport about jumping on at random hours. It’s really beautiful to see the commonalities amongst us despite coming from all these different places.”
Ami Nagase, a current ATTA intern and member of the second cohort, is from Japan but plans to start her own company next year based in the U.S. to bring travelers to communities in Japan through community-based tourism. Nagase says that the diversity within the cohort has been particularly helpful to her, because everyone has different perspectives, so it’s been possible to get a wide range of new ideas and feedback from other cohort members.
The wmnsWORK program is sponsored by adventure travel industry leaders, including the ATTA, which provides business memberships to entrepreneurs who complete the program. The application itself includes a section that states, “wmnsWORK and its sponsor partners recognize that systemic racism and oppressive practices in the tourism industry – not to mention the devastating impacts of COVID-19 – have created barriers that disproportionately affect racialized, disabled and LGBTQIA2S+ travel professionals,” and gives applicants a chance to be considered for a scholarship offered in partnership with Exodus Travel, Sherpa, WeTravel, World Nomads, and Oasis Travel.
When asked how industry leaders and tour operators can start lifting women up in their businesses and communities, Serbanescu offered a thoughtful pause before responding. “Question your beliefs, your systems, and the system that we all operate within, and ask yourself what you can do differently,” she said. “How have we made it inaccessible for women to reach positions of power? How have we made it inaccessible for economic ownership to take place at a larger scale? What can we do as a society to start becoming aware of the way that we do business and the way that we have created a system that holds certain people back?”
The next 12-week wmnsWORK program is slated to begin in February 2023. Anyone interested in applying to be part of the third wmnsWORK cohort can apply here until the end of December. All applicants, regardless of acceptance to the program, will receive a 15-minute one-on-one strategy session with Iris Serbanescu.