Piya Bose was a typical small town girl from Jamshedpur until she traveled to Brazil at the age of 16 and the travel bug bit her hard! She returned and went on to become a lawyer working with one of the top legal firms in Mumbai. But a trip to the mountains of Nepal and Tibet convinced her that there was more to life than a corporate job. She chucked her job without any back-up plan and decided to start her own venture without any capital. What she did have was an idea whose time had come – a boutique tourism venture that offered expertly curated trips for solo female travelers – called Girls on the Go!
AN EARLY START
Piya claims to have had no idea at all about what she wanted to be while growing up in Jamshedpur. As she puts in, in the traditional environment of her city, you either became a doctor or an engineer. She wanted to do a degree an English Honours degree but ended up following the traditional path, doing law instead in Kolkata.
At the age of 16 however, this sheltered Bengali girl got the opportunity of a lifetime! She was selected to be part of a Rotary Club exchange trip, where she travelled to Brazil to stay with a family there. For someone who had not even stepped out for her tuition classes unaccompanied, she would be traveling to London, New York and then Brazil. It was actually her dad who encouraged her to just go for it, knowing that the Rotary club brand was reputed, and there were other kids who were also travelling. The trip was truly an eye opener, as Piya puts it, “If I had gone to a European country I don’t think I would have been that impressed. With Brazil I didn’t even know what to expect, at that time there was no internet or anything, so I had to go see it for myself.” She experienced a culture that was totally different, and in some ways more liberated than India. Rather than a culture shock, she terms it as a gentler culture surprise, and adds “It really opened up my mind and made me feel like a frog out of the well.” She had to fly back as an unaccompanied minor and even though she was unsure about travelling on her own, she just dealt with it. The whole travel experience really challenged her and gave her a lot of exposure. She also opened up from a shy introverted kid into a secure confident one who could handle anything.
THE LEGAL STINT
Despite biting the travel bug, Piya continued to tread the traditional path and finished her legal degree and joined one of the top legal firms in Mumbai. She spent 9 months in the firm, earning big bucks and working round the clock.
At this time, she was also writing on travel for Hindustan Times and she credits this one particular trip that was completely unplanned as the turning point. It started in Lucknow but ended up taking her to Nepal and Tibet. She remembers standing in front of the Everest and realizing that she didn’t want to be in a corporate job anymore. She also realized that Tibetans didn’t have the kind of freedom that she had as an Indian. As she says, “Tibet was the first country I visited that was not politically independent. I saw the kind of oppression there, when Tibetans were turned away from the immigration counter by Chinese officials, and you could not even talk about the Dalai Lama there. That’s when I realized that Indians are just a nation of pathological cribbers.” Piya says the trip offered her the insight that she lived in the world’s largest democracy and she had the freedom & free will to do whatever she wanted. She decided to take a big leap of faith and quit her job even though she didn’t have any back up plan or job. “I realized that if I stay any longer in the job I will fall so I might as well go with the flow and live off the edge, without a safety net,” says Piya, and so she decided to start her own company.
GIRLS ON THE GO
Piya had been traveling alone since she was 16, and she had even lived for a month in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia on work, when she was barely 19. She had interacted with people of various nationalities and had noticed that women around the world tend to backpack on their own but women in India never seemed to do this. She remembers logging on to Orkut that that point before there was any social media marketing and reaching out to various women and travel communities asking if they would be interested in curated travel experiences exclusively for women. The answer was a resounding yes!
Cash was a challenge but she decided to start the company based on word of mouth marketing and used Orkut to raise awareness. In August 2008, she managed to get 25 women on board for her first planned trip to Ladakh! And thus ‘Girls on the Go’ was born. Since then she has taken women on trips to Antartica, to see the northern lights in Arctic Circle, to stay with the headhunting tribes in Nagaland and to far flung places like Mongolia. She started off at a time when she was not sure herself if women in India were open to such a concept, as she puts it, “I would have to ask the men in their lives, if the women would be okay with the travel. But today, the men call to book tours for the women in their lives who want to travel solo.” As women have become more financially independent, and more open to travel, they are also seeking like-minded companionship and adventure. Piya says, “When I started Girls on the Go, I wanted to empower women to travel the same way I did. For example, a homemaker from Mumbai who had never travelled anywhere without her sons or husband who would earlier have handled everything for her, now had to handle her own forex and passport. This would give her a wonderful sense of empowerment.”
Piya is today proud of the fact that despite having no godfather in this business and no mentor she started a company with zero cash, with the firm belief that you don’t need capital to build a business if you have the labour and enterprise that it takes. She says she built her company using just the soft skills she had developed through her years of travel. And she did all this despite the fact her Bengali family usually frowns on business and expects you to either be in a stable job or in academics. So when she quit her job to start this company, it was as much about doing something fresh and exciting in travel and tourism as about restoring her own dignity and self-worth in the eyes of her family.
She did not give up even in the face of challenges and believed in her own skills and leadership. As she says, “When you go through a trial by fire, you realize what you are capable of. I am the sum total of all the mistakes I made that gave me the foundation to be a successful businesswoman.”
Piya was very clear that she didn’t want to offer the same old travel packages that most tourism companies offer. She wanted to introduce something fresh that was a departure from tourism, and more about the real experience of travel.
She remembers one particular trip to Bali where instead of a typical 5 day package, she curated it as a series of experiences that were unforgettable. Right from driving around the villages in a vintage car, to an underwater sea walk for women who couldn’t even swim, from white water rafting in Bali to a culinary lesson in Balinese food in a village. This along with views of the local volcano and a visit to the locations used in the film “Eat Pray Love” made it a truly signature experience for her clients who tend to be repeat customers when it comes to her travel experiences!
Piya signs-off by saying, in today’s world of collaborative rather than monopolistic world economy, with a burgeoning social media you don’t need money or traditional mainstream media to market or get your business off the ground. You just need a great idea and have a plan and confidently pitch it and believe in the magic. This is what has helped her take a bunch of Gujarati women partying in Ibiza or to the Drakes passage on the Antarctic cruise to experience 40 foot waves! She measures her own success by the wow factor in her trips and says she needs to feel passionate about what she does, to be inspired by her own work!
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