Beth Santos is a dynamic leader and inspired entrepreneur with a passion for international development, multiculturalism and community building. She is the founder and CEO of Wanderful, a global network for adventurous, independent women travelers.
Beth is the creator of the Women in Travel Summit, an annual summit for female travel influencers, creators, and brands. In 2014, she was named one of the top 100 travel bloggers in the US and invited to the White House Travel Blogger Summit on Study Abroad and Global Citizenship. In 2015, Beth was named a Chicago Scholars 35 Under 35 Young Leader Making an Impact and a Zell Fellow, a prestigious fellowship for entrepreneurs pursuing their MBA. She is one of BuiltInChicago’s top 50 influential people in Chicago tech to follow on Twitter.
How (and when) did you get into your current field or company?
I started Wanderful initially as a blog. I was fresh out of college and couldn’t find a job. One day, I met a friend of a friend at a picnic — he lived in Sao Tome and Principe, a small Portuguese-speaking country in the Gulf of Guinea. He used to be the director of the Peace Corps in Sao Tome and ended up staying there and starting his own non-profit. His organization had a pretty nice hook-up — you come and volunteer for them, and they’ll give you lodging and meals. I happen to be of Portuguese heritage, so I know the language and decided to give it a shot. Off to Sao Tome I went.
I ended up staying there for about three months, working on a computer program related to the One Laptop per Child movement. But what really surprised me was what it would be like living as a local in a place with really no tourism industry. This was such a unique travel experience — there were few visitors, so you assumed life as a local the minute you arrived. I got my motorcycle license. I started working. I was dating. And I became absolutely fascinated by not only my own experiences in Sao Tome, but the larger global experience that we women face when we travel.
I started to write about it, and eventually Wanderful turned into a community. We still write articles, but we also plan events in cities around the world, and an active online network where women can ask each other questions. We asked ourselves the question, what would it be like if we could leverage a live network of women around the world who could help one another navigate their travel experiences? Women who could advise each other on what to wear in Morocco, or how to travel safely at night by themselves, or what menstrual cup they should consider for their lengthy trip overseas. That’s where the real magic for Wanderful began.
What does a typical day look like for you?
As any entrepreneur will tell you, no two days are alike for me. We have a team of nine women who work on Wanderful part-time, and they are located all around the world — in New York, San Francisco, Toronto, South Africa, Madrid, and other places. Because of that, we all work from home, including myself.
My day will consist of any combination of activities, such as building corporate partnerships, working on our website, managing our community, developing new strategies in operations, marketing, etc., guiding our 25 independently run chapters, planning our annual Women in Travel Summit or the upcoming new retreat Wanderfest, attending events related to women, travel, online influence or a combination of the three, selling sponsorship packages, hosting trips, meeting with my team, and even mentoring other women looking to start their own companies.
What is the favorite part of your day?
That very first moment when I get up and start my day is my absolute favorite — especially when it’s winter and freezing out because I work from home! I head downstairs to my home office, turn on the heater, brew myself a piping hot cup of coffee, and re-start the adventure of building this amazing community of women who support one another. I love that moment before it all starts, when I think about what we’re going to do next.
What excites you about working in your industry?
Travel is a fascinating space. There is so much happening in travel tech, especially here around Boston. Women happen to be a huge purchasing demographic in travel — we make 80% of travel decisions. However, in terms of the industry, representation of women is pretty small. It’s hard to even think of one travel company that’s led by a woman. There is still a lot that can be done and I enjoy being in a position to drive change for women in travel.
What is the best piece of advice you have been given?
This is a personal anecdote but no less important in my opinion. Years ago, I remember driving around Haiti with my colleague, Bill. We were working on a One Laptop per Child program and I remember sitting in our Jeep and bouncing over potholes as we drove down the dusty street. I had been living in Washington, DC at the time and had recently been offered a really amazing job that would enhance my professional career, but to be honest it was a little bit boring sounding to me. At the same time, I was contemplating moving out of state to be closer to my boyfriend, who I had known for exactly six months and was currently serving in Afghanistan. It would definitely be the riskier of the moves.
I’m typically not one to recommend that people should drop everything for romance, but I also am a fan of taking big risks as long as you are (1) confident in yourself and (2) fully understand the potential consequences. I suppose that’s what makes me an entrepreneur.
I remember Bill asking me how I felt about each scenario, and I talked at length about how the job would be a great thing to add to my resume, but I’d feel really happy giving this relationship a shot. And I remember him very quietly saying, “I don’t know, there’s something to be said about being happy.”
For whatever reason, that was the deciding factor for me. I ended up moving to the middle of nowhere North Carolina (while keeping a reliable, working from home job — very important), to try things out with this guy. He turned out to be my husband, so I guess it worked.
I reflect on Bill’s comment often. I don’t necessarily believe in a life of hedonism and the constant pursuit of pleasure. But I do believe that we should be deliberate about the decisions we make, and not necessary feel so much pressure to do something simply because we think it’s the right thing to do. I think life is full of opportunities to take risks, try something new, to scare yourself, and to learn. Sometimes, they will work out (as they did for me). Sometimes, they won’t. But each day, we grow a little bit stronger. Letting yourself follow your bliss is the first step to doing that.
What is your favorite part of being a woman in STEM?
I really feel like we are in a golden era for women in STEM. STEM and STEAM are growing so quickly, and I love watching women take advantage of its opportunities. There is nothing more inspiring than seeing a little girl learn to code (and doing her part, perhaps unknowingly, to break the glass ceiling). It’s fun to be in this moment, now!
What other women inspire you?
Maya Angelou’s words are a constant source of inspiration for me. There is one quote that I feel is my life motto. She says: “I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.” I think it’s beautiful.
I am inspired by women who blaze pathways and especially those who stand up for and support other women. Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright. Writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Women who speak up.
In my personal life, I am lucky to look up to a number of incredible women who serve as mentors — the amazing Miriam Christof here in Boston, Dina Yuen in San Francisco, Linda Darragh in Chicago, Leticia Barr in Washinton DC. These are powerful women who work hard to help other women shine.
What is something that most people don’t know about you?
I have a hidden passion for refinishing furniture. I absolutely love it. I think I enjoy it because, unlike running a company, furniture projects have a clear start and end. You pick up the piece, you sand it down, you stain it, you paint, whatever — then it’s done. That feeling of completing a project is so gratifying, and I love to breathe new life into beautiful old pieces that people thought were past their glory days.
What do you geek out about?
Though I never use it today, I was an art history major in college. I totally geek out over modern and contemporary art, especially the what I call “crazy” performance art of the 60s and 70s, where people did things like lock themselves in rooms with live coyotes or cover their bodies in latex to prove a point. I am a huge fangirl of Yinka Shonibare and Kara Walker, artists that make political statements using deep symbolism. Take me to the Brooklyn Museum and I will never leave.