Beth Santos turned a blog into a global community of women
April 7, 2017
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Key Interview takeaway: Travel gets you comfortable with confusion and risk. These are skills you can use when starting your own company.

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Jess Ainlay: Hi Beth, thank you for being here. How did you first get started as a traveler?

Beth Santos: I studied abroad in Portugal in 2006. I am Portuguese-American, so I was interested in getting to know my roots, master the language, and feel like a local. I lived with family members for the first two months. I started off feeling very, very foreign and had a real culture clash. They would have these raucous dinners, drinking wine and laughing and I remember there was one night I was sitting there, just crying. I was trying to hide it, but I just felt so alien.

I thought I was supposed to understand them, and was upset I didn’t learn Portuguese before arriving.

At a certain point, I underwent a wild transformation and ended up feeling very much like a local. I picked up the language, and even had locals convinced I was from Portugal.

When I moved home, I felt like a Portuguese person living in the States and it was the culture clash all over again, in reverse.

Jess Ainlay: What is Wanderful, and where it all came about?

Beth Santos: Wanderful is a global membership community that I founded for women to help one another navigate their experiences as they travel the world. We have 22 chapters around the world for women to meet and connect, we publish community generated content with stories of experiences women who travel, we run an annual Women In Travel Summit and a membership community that allows women to connect with locals, whether for coffee or even to stay in a local woman’s home.

This idea slowly started to develop after I lived in Portugal. I moved to DC for a little bit and then moved to São Tomé and Príncipe, which is a small, two-island nation off the west coast of Africa. It's also a Portuguese-speaking country. I was there for three months, then the next year I went back for two months.

It was during my time in São Tomé that I started writing about my experiences, as I was supremely interested in my identity there in two ways: first, as a foreigner who was living like a local, and second as a female foreigner who was subject to the local expectations of women.

As a woman, when you travel you're not completely subject to local the local expectations of women, but you also don’t really have the access that men have. I just started writing about that. I became really interested in what it was like being a woman who traveled the world.

The writing became a blog, and over time I realized that there are a lot of women like me facing these questions. I called it Go Girl and in 2013 when I moved to Chicago, I turned it into a business. I eventually rebranded into Wanderful.

Read here about Lisa, who also used a travel blog as a platform to launch her business

Meet Lisa

Jess Ainlay: What are the biggest lessons you learned while in Sao Tome?

Beth Santos: While in DC, I met a family friend at a picnic who had been the Director of the Peace Corps in Sao Tome in the 90s. He told me about his non-profit and said he would give me a roof over my head and three meals a day to volunteer. I said, “Sure, why not?”

When I went to Sao Tome, my friends said, “Oh my parents would never let me do that.” And I said, “Never let you? Well who cares if they say no. You just do it anyway.”

My first day in São Tomé, I went to Ned’s house. He sent me right away to help a middle school have issues “with their computers or something.” The principal was waiting for me (I didn’t even know anyone knew I was in the country), and shows me a room with one hundred new computers in boxes. He looks at me and says, “What do we do?”

Remember it's my first day ever in São Tomé. I've never been to the African continent at all before. Then he takes me to a classroom with one hundred students, waiting for me and says to them, “I’d like to introduce you to Profesora Elizabeth. She's come from the States. She's going to give your computer class. Okay Beth, go ahead.” I've never been a teacher before. I'm 22 years old. I just showed up in West Africa. I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t know anything about these computers.

I just said, “Give me the chalk,” and started, “Alright today we're going to talk about computers. Who's used a computer before?” And off I went.

Jess Ainlay: Just figuring it out’ is a common theme for The Postnomadic Project. Were you often confronted with this?

Beth Santos: I had been through this fish out of water feeling before. In Portugal, I was doing an internship at Voice of America in the Portuguese to Africa division, and two weeks into my internship, my boss up and went away for the summer, leaving me no instructions. I started a show, broadcasting in Portuguese to the Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) countries of Africa about health and family issues, calling people and interviewing them in Portuguese. I had to just figure it out.

Earlier that year, someone in the town passed away, I didn’t know him, but the family was taking me to the funeral. I didn’t know what to wear, but saw my cousin wearing pink and all these colors. I figured you didn’t have to wear black so I didn’t. When I came out, the family was shocked and said I had to wear black. The cousin wasn’t going to the funeral. But when you live abroad, you just figure that things are probably different to what you know, and you roll with it. You say, “Let’s just see what happens. What’s the worst that could happen.”

Having these hyperlocal experiences, being thrown into the local culture, leaves you so open. You have to throw every preconception you have to the wind. Since then, I've had this willingness to just check something out, see what it has to offer and learn along the way.

When you travel, you realize that there are other options out there for how you live your life, and you become less afraid of the unknown.

Jess Ainlay: How would you connect these experiences to becoming an entrepreneur?

Beth Santos: I had no idea what I was doing when I started Wanderful, and I did it backwards to how traditional startups work. I didn’t have a product to manufacture and market. I built a community and asked them what they want.

How would I make money? I assumed I would figure it out.

It was hard to project how much money we would make, so I've had a really hard time raising money. Our company has changed and evolved so many times. With that evolution, we felt momentum, and now we just launched our 22nd local meetup chapter.

When you travel, you realize that there are other options out there for how you live your life, and you become less afraid of the unknown.

Being willing to be comfortable with confusion and comfortable with risk is something that will come to you when you travel, and you can certainly use that skill in starting your own company.

Jess Ainlay: What would you share with people reading this who want to travel and become an entreprenuer?

Beth Santos: Maya Angelou said, “I long, as does every human being, to be home wherever I find myself.” When you travel you learn that you, yourself, have to be your home, because your physical space keeps changing.

There is a book, A Different Kind of Daughter, by Maria Toorpakai, which is about a woman who became a national squash champion in Pakistan. She had to hide from the Taliban by dressing as a boy. Her story of survival and success is absolutely inspiring.

If she can do what she did, then none of us have any reason to not get out there and make our dreams a reality.

You can find Beth Santos at www.bethsantos.com and on Twitter at @maximumbeth. Visist and join Wanderful at www.sheswanderful.com, on Twitter at @sheswanderful and Facebook at sheswanderful.

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