INSPIRING STORY by JC Inspire
Simla Sooboodoo – Founder – Hands on Journeys
FROM POOR UPBRINGINGS to NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE Now FOUNDER of EMPOWERMENT TOURISM – making a DIFFERENCE in the world
We were lucky enough to grab a spare second with the ever-busy inspiring Simla Sooboodoo, The Founder of Hands on Journeys, to ask her a few questions about what inspired her to build her own company and the up’s and downs that came with it… Simla shares her astonishing story of her perseverance to overcome life’s most struggling situations and how she pushed through all obstacles + her advice for inspiring future entrepreneurs.
TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF, WHO YOU ARE? AND WHAT YOU DO?
I am Simla Sooboodoo, founder of Hands on Journeys, and I believe in the power of second chances.
I grew up on the small island of Mauritius. Despite Mauritius being one of the top 5 destinations for honeymooners, my lifestyle there was somehow different. I had my share of heartbreak and struggle as a child. There were times where my parents had to choose between toothpaste and bread! All that changed when two incredible people took a chance on me by granting me the once in a lifetime opportunity that allowed me to move to Australia at the age of 18 to follow my dreams. I gained an education and began to work in finance but only to suffer a brain haemorrhage in May-2007 from which I nearly died. At the time, I lost about 40-days of my memory and till today, I have no recollection of it. In Oct 2007, an angiogram determined that I had a brain aneurysm and I was admitted to the neurological ICU in Royal Prince Alfred Hospital for surgery. My time there was bleak; no television, no music, and absolutely nothing to do. Armed with my Bible and a few women’s magazines, I lived my day watching machines flicker as patients around me fought for life. It was an overwhelmingly heartbreaking experience that had me questioning my current state. That was my wake-up call. After four weeks of recovery, I went back to work and resumed my normal routine. What had changed however, was my appreciation for life; an increased alertness and willingness to take anything on. An extra boost of energy, optimistic fits of compulsion that allowed me to take risks and be adventurous. I went off on a tangent to re-write my bucket list. I was literally going away few times a year while working full-time. Holidays weren’t just about relaxing by the pool with a cocktail in my hand but also opportunities to give back. Through my travels, I built loving connections with people who were begging and fighting for life living on the street.
It was from this Hands on Journeys, my “Empowerment tourism” company was born. I knew how lucky I was to have another chance and that I could turn my career into one with impact and share that second chance with others.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR CHILDHOOD, WHERE DID YOU GROW UP, WHAT WERE YOUR CHILDHOOD DREAMS? AND WHERE DID YOU GO TO STUDY?
Growing up on the small island of Mauritius, I often waved to planes as they flew overhead and a hunger for new experiences and knowledge emerged within, my dream was to fly on one of those planes eventually. Even though I was told only the rich people could get on one, it was such a beautiful dream to hop on that thing that flies amongst the clouds in the sky! With limited access to television and no internet, it was difficult for me to make sense of my family’s rapid destruction and the struggles we faced daily. I was in the middle of my year 10 exams (S.C) and I needed a place to live and study. My aunt and uncle provided me with a home during this critical point – two strong characters motivating me towards the right direction. Despite not having money myself, I was able to finish my exams through their support. They further helped me excel by allowing me to join them in their new home in Australia and avoid joining the workforce in my native country as tertiary studies were not then on the cards. My life seemed to be heading in the right direction as I finished my university studies, scored a great job within the travel industry and purchased my first house at the age of 24.
“DON’T WAIT for the perfect moment, take the MOMENT & MAKE IT PERFECT.”
WHAT DROVE YOU TO YOUR CAREER IN EMPOWERMENT TOURISM?
I think initially it has always been my passion to discover the world and knowing first hand just how powerful travel can be as a catalyst to change. Working for one of the top U.S small group operators as their Finance Manager not only enabled me to make good use of my accounting degree but also gave me a strong overview of the travel industry.
After awakening from my coma I knew I wanted to do more and realised just how lucky I was to have survived. As the years went by, I began dedicating my personal vacation time to help children abroad, particularly in developing countries. Holidays weren’t just about visiting the countries but also opportunities to give back to local schools, orphanages, hospitals, crèche, local villages, slums and beyond. I remember going to a school or community but almost just passing by. It felt good for me, it felt good for a couple of hours for the people, and then I was gone. I had joined a volunteering organisation, I remember so clearly I was hammering and I turned back and I saw someone on a bicycle looking at me with that face of hope and I thought ‘hang on, shouldn’t he be the one doing this? Why am I doing this, I don’t even use a hammer at home!’ That was the trigger for me.
In June 2014 after nine and a half years, my position was made redundant. I went home that day knowing that I needed a change. Abandoning the previous idea of becoming a wedding planner, I committed myself to becoming a tour operator that could transform peoples’ lives. Hands on Journeys was born – a tour company offering authentic travel experiences that empower communities in need. I took the chance to invest in my own company which would focus on Empowerment Tourism. Combining travel with giving back is so powerful and I felt ready to make that impact even greater. My library of experiences enabled me to start something different to make a difference. The kind of difference that will create jobs for those who cannot afford bringing food to the table; the kind of difference that shows people a different way of travelling; the kind of difference that elevates people by providing them with the resources and showing them what is possible using the skills they have and the kind of difference that will help change this generation and future generations making them more sustainable. I want to be an authority in my field.
I am genuinely in love with what I do. I have worked as an accountant for many years and it is a job that pays good money but sitting at a desk, punching numbers and performing complex mathematical calculations on excel, especially after a close call to death, wasn’t enough for me. I knew I was destined to do more.
“I am GENUINELY in LOVE with WHAT I DO.”
WHAT MISTAKES DID YOU MAKE AND DID YOU FEAR ANYTHING?
Starting my own company provided far more challenges than I ever could have expected. At first, it was a mix of excitement and fear that kept me going. Although I had worked within the industry for many years, I was suddenly responsible for all aspects of the business which meant every day was a learning curve.
Although I don’t believe you can make ‘mistakes’ in the traditional sense when you are a start up, I of course look back on some of my decisions now and know how I could have streamlined the process or taken a different action. Starting a social enterprise has been the most rewarding yet challenging experience of my life.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR BIGGEST WIN SO FAR?
Seeing the first tour come to realisation was one of my proudest moments. For nearly two years I had been working on product development, networking and building out the tours and activities. It was nerve wracking in the final days leading up to the first departure as when you have put your heart and soul into something you just hope others will feel as passionately about it as well. The first tour was a resounding success with incredible feedback and all aspects of the operation and social projects went far better than I could ever have imagined.
Through four different tour groups, we had taken this small village of forty from a mud-soaked and disease ridden floor with no sanitation or hygiene facilities, to a safe space complete with wells, water filters, bathrooms, stabilized homes, shingle flooring which provided a new outlook on life. But simply showing we cared and could deliver these projects was not enough. We had also invested in a food cart and spent ample time training those in the villages on western food sanitation, how to market and sell their food goods to tourists and set them up initially within the Angkor Wat complex.
Watching the villagers being able to sell a tangible product and create their own income was when I knew Hands on Journeys really was what I had envisioned it to be. The community was now able to be self-reliant and did not need to ask for support or handouts but with their now safe and clean homes and a business to generate income they could empower their own lives.
Blending these opportunities in with traditional touring was a gamble but that day I stood outside one of the most famous temples in the world and I knew the gamble had truly paid off.
WHAT OPPORTUNITIES CAME EASY AND WHAT ONES DID YOU HAVE TO PUSH FOR?
Working in emerging markets and especially on community projects, making those connections and being sure the impact was what I envisaged was the hardest task. The business side was something I felt complete control over but bringing so many variables into the mix and having to communicate in different languages and take into account cultural differences wasn’t always as easy as I expected. There could have always been easier decisions to make but I am glad I didn’t give up on any of the difficult opportunities, as that I believe is what makes Hands on Journeys so unique.
WHAT IS THE BIGGEST HURDLE YOU HAVE OVERCOME IN YOUR CAREER OR LIFE SO FAR? AND WHAT DID YOU LEARN?
Suffering my brain aneurysm changed everything for me, both within my career and my personal life. When I came to the realisation of my surroundings and looked in the mirror, I barely recognised myself. Having such a loving and supportive network around me allowed me to get back on track relatively quickly and I was so lucky to still have most of my memory. I knew I had two options, use this opportunity to chase my passions or fall back into my day to day life. I’ve learnt since then when you are presented with an opportunity or a challenge, however unexpected, following your heart is usually the most rewarding way to make the decision.
HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN YOU LOVE YOUR CAREER AND WHAT YOU DO?
When work stops feeling like work and becomes a joy I think you have found a true calling. Sometimes I’ll find myself up to the early hours researching new projects or customising itineraries and I never get upset that I am working such odd hours because I’ve created a social business I couldn’t be more proud of. Watching Hands on Journeys grow over the last year has brought a big grin to my face constantly, something I hope will never change.
WHAT IS YOUR PROUDEST CAREER MOMENT SO FAR?
The first booking I received at Hands on Journeys. It was only for one person but to me that said people believed in what I had created and others shared my passion for travelling with a purpose and giving back. It can be very nerve wracking bringing a project to market because no matter how much you have personally put into it, if no one books then it ultimately has not been a success. I think for any new business or entrepreneur that very first sale means the world.
HOW HAS THIS CHANGED YOUR LIFE?
Starting Hands on Journeys was always more than a job or business to me, it was about turning everything I am passionate about into my life and as such, it has changed beyond recognition. I spend a lot of my time on the road now as I like to be as involved with our communities and tours as much as possible. From training new tour guides to researching the projects and communities we will work with, these are all parts of the business that are so important to me I can’t imagine delegating them to my team. My calendar certainly looks very different to a few years ago but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
WHAT DO MORE BUSINESSES NEED TO DO DIFFERENTLY? AND WHAT CHANGE WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE THE INDUSTRY EMBRACE?
I would love to see the industry as a whole becoming more sustainable. Voluntourism became quite the buzz word over the last few years, but in a lot of these cases the impact is much more focussed on the traveller than the local community. I believe that the exchange has to be a positive long term one for both and by focusing more on empowerment opportunities, job creation and skills projects these communities are able to create a sustainable improvement without the constant need for external support. Two way conversations are the key and asking questions becomes the main driving factor. I think sometimes we are too quick to guess what someone else wants without taking the time to listen to what they actually need.
WHAT IS THE NEXT BIG THING ON THE HORIZON FOR YOU OR WHAT IS ONE UPCOMING PROJECT?
Our game plan isn’t to expand to every corner of the globe; it’s to focus on creating sustainable change and invigorating travel moments in the destinations we serve. With each one of our tours being built by hand, in person, it takes a long time for us to launch a new tour as getting it right is more important than getting it on sale.
Now, with various award nominations, media coverage and a continually expanding team we look forward to taking you on a journey, a once in a lifetime experience, and continuing both our story and the stories of those we impact on our way.
Also, writing and publishing a book to inspire others of overcoming adversities and talk about the Future of travel.
WHAT IS THE BEST ADVICE YOU HAVE EVER RECEIVED?
To treat everyone you meet on the same level, and I think especially for what we do at Hands on Journeys this couldn’t be any more important. Everyone in this world deserves the upmost respect and to truly understand someone’s life you have to open conversations which are free of any stereotypes or pre-assumptions, it’s advice I actively share with our travellers.
WHAT IS YOUR ULTIMATE LIFE GOAL?
To see Hands on Journeys operating across multiple countries and to have an impact far greater than I ever imagined it could. I’ve seen the business grow so much in the last year, deciding where to launch new tours and social enterprises will be a defining factor in just how many people we can have a positive impact on.
WHAT IS ON YOUR INSPIRATION BOARD RIGHT NOW?
I’m actually in the process of launching a second brand. One of the hardest parts of the business has been making Hands on Journeys relevant to everyone who shows interest. From uni students through to retired couples, the company seems to have struck a chord with a diverse group of travellers who may be seeking slightly different activities on their trips. The next goal is to find the best way to accommodate all of those ideas without detracting from the core mission of Hands on Journeys. Stay tuned for more on that front.
WHAT DAILY TASKS WOULD YOU ENCOURAGE OTHERS TO EMBRACE?
Be thankful for what you have. My life was always so busy and rushed before I suffered my brain aneurysm and I think in the modern world we can sometimes forget to take the time to appreciate everything we have. As an entrepreneur, the temptation is there to work constantly, but it is just as important for the business to grow that you take the time out to keep yourself happy and healthy – finding that balance is essential to an enjoyable work life.
WHAT ARE YOUR TOP 5 TIPS FOR LIFE?
Be kind, be honest, be loyal, be trustworthy and believe in yourself. If you can live your life by those simple mantras your impact will be far greater.
WHAT LIFE QUOTE DO YOU LIVE BY?
“One day you will wake up & there won’t be any more time to do the things you’ve always wanted. Do it now.” – Paulo Coelho
WHAT IS ONE THING OUTSIDE OF WORK THAT YOUR PASSIONATE ABOUT? OR IS YOUR HOBBY?
My hobbies such as travel and philanthropy have merged into my career now but I believe it is important to still find a way to balance your time. As such, I’ll still take holidays and giving back trips that aren’t related to Hands on Journeys so that they never become just about work. I’m also a bit of a foodie so love visiting new restaurants and catching up with friends for the odd cocktail or two.
TIPS FOR SUCCESS?
Chase what you believe in and the rest will follow. Passion I believe is something that when harnessed correctly can make or break a business, a relationship or anything in our day to day lives. Honesty, integrity and following what you believe in are always a recipe for success.
CHASE what you BELIEVE in & the rest will FOLLOW
Check out Hands On Journey’s Tours now
Article was written by JC – Inspiring Greatness Early 2017.
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