Carolyn Pearson is on a mission to give women the freedom to travel anywhere they want – and alone if they want. Mike Hughes caught up with the founder of Maiden Voyage to find out more.
The scale of the #metoo movement is so much more than just a wake-up call. It was the shocking revelation of something that we should all have known about anyway. Finally, just as it was unthinkably on the brink of becoming a part of everyday life, millions of women stopped a tidal wave of abuse and pressure and stood together to stake their claim to a freedom many, many, people didn’t realise they had lost.
The fact that equality should never need to be fought for has been at the centre of Carolyn Pearson’s life since well before she started Leeds-based Maiden Voyage in 2008 after a very corporate career that included ITV, the BBC and EasyJet. She saw the need for a network to support professional women business travellers who might otherwise have avoided some of the most heart-stopping places on the planet because others had decided it was “No place for a woman on her own…”
It has been embraced by the industry and is now a trusted brand, with ambassadors in more than 80 countries offering guidance, recommendations, safety tips, advice and discounts to its members. “I was always an ‘intrapreneur’ whoever I was working for, always coming up with ideas to challenge those corporates to do things differently,” she says.
“I think I’m a magpie wanting to pick up something new and exciting, so I often had other jobs or courses to do alongside my main roles. When I was with ITV, I went on a business trip to Los Angeles but didn’t get to see downtown LA because it wasn’t safe to be out so I was holed up in my hotel. I yearned for a platform where I could connect with other women in the same position.
“I wasn’t using Facebook at the time, so I didn’t even know what a social network was, but I knew what I wanted to build and for me it was all about liberation and empowerment. I never wanted to hear another woman say, ‘I don’t want to go there’, I want them to ask, ‘How can I get there?’.
“I am passionate about travel and what it can do for people as a really fulfilling experience, so I want everyone to be able to do it and not feel nervous. If ever I get asked to go somewhere slightly edgy, I just have a little word with myself and say that if I can’t do it then how can I expect anyone else to and before you know it, I’ve booked the flight.”
The key to Maiden Voyage recommendations that lift them far above social media “likes” is that either Pearson herself has been there or she has called upon a small army of women who either live in the cities people want to visit or who are advisers from such varied fields as royal security or hostage negotiations and have worked in hotspots like Afghanistan, Gaza or Syria, bringing a unique insight into how countries “feel” and what risks are specific to each one.
“Because we have such a profile and are thought-leaders in the industry, we get asked to speak at the sort of conferences where these people were also guests, so we would hang out together and collaborate on travel safety projects for Maiden Voyage,” she explains. “There are still a couple of places in the world where I would prefer not to go – like the Congo – but we want women to be able to do their job wherever it takes them and without gender becoming an issue.
“I think whatever an entrepreneur sets out to do, it has to be something very personal like this, because you will get dragged through the mill and run ragged because of challenges in every area of their life. For me, making money is never a strong enough ‘why’, there always has to be a huge pride in whatever the product is.
“As an entrepreneur you are always your own biggest judge and never regard yourself as completely successful. Before I set up Maiden Voyage I was managing technical teams of 30-to-40 people who were predominantly men, but when it is your own business your leadership style changes quite a lot.
“In my corporate life, I probably had some… what shall we call them… ‘personality adjustments’ to adapt to that environment, which was a lot more macho, meaning I had to double-prove my technical know-how to win respect. Whereas running the business means I can create my own environment, which has much more of a family feel about it, where there are no secrets and everybody knows where we are in terms of the numbers and if there is a particular challenge then we can share it inclusively.
“Even though we have that passion, I still struggle to sit back and congratulate myself after achieving something colossal and am more likely to be thinking of the next thing I need to overcome.”
Those colossal achievements most recently include a link-up with one of the UK’s biggest travel management companies to launch a hotels project and industry giant Booking.com recognising the company’s profile by commissioning an article from Pearson to be sent to 1.5 million hotels, in addition to safety training with everyone from tech giants in Silicon Valley to Hollywood’s big names and a premier league football club.
Pearson has struck a balance between supporting and pioneering a value that is held deep within her and making a business out of it. There is no doubt both would have happened – she would have been championing women’s rights to pursue their careers without boundaries and she would have been a successful businesswoman – so to have achieved both in one go is beyond admirable.
She is one of many such champions whose role in society has been brought into the spotlight in a way she would never have wanted, by those shocking revelations of abuse as women finally felt empowered and supported enough to speak out.
“Some of these incidents happened away from home, in a hotel, on a business trip, and we often talk about sexual harassment from colleagues that can happen in these circumstances,” she tells me. “Sometimes people get hedonistic away from the watchful eyes of the corporate machine when the alcohol is flowing and the environment is very casual. It can be a breeding ground for bad behaviour and we have certainly had one woman who left her job because her boss was crossing the line with female employees.
“We have heard it first-hand and we talk about that ‘elephant in the room’ all the time and hopefully help to shine a light on the things that are uncomfortable for some organisations to talk about and give women the strategies to challenge them. Our next piece of research will look at sexual harassment on board aircraft and whether the crew get the right amount of training to deal with it, and what we are finding is that in business class male passengers have been know to harass female passengers but it is the women who have been moved rather than the men.
“We want to tackle it all out in the open, so we will be pushing for new legislation to bridge a gap because there isn’t anything at the moment covering incidents on board.”
Growth is centred around scalability, to be able to take the message to as many people and countries as possible to get nearer to that ‘unattainable’ success Pearson strives for. Perhaps then she will take a break herself, somewhere that doesn’t involve work, although I suspect she will be sending back notes to the team wherever she is.
“Bora Bora in Tahiti is somewhere I always dream of going to,” she says. “It is the most beautiful place on Earth, but in the last year I have been to St Petersburg, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and always try to find somewhere just on the edge of challenging so that you get that cultural immersion, especially travelling alone as I do.
“But we know there are risks for some women at home just as much as abroad, so we collaborate with British Transport Police and drive home the message that it only needs someone to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, in a terrorist incident, for example. People need to understand what the risks may be and mitigate against them with a Plan B or a Plan C, because the biggest risk to any traveller is complacency.”
While this is increasingly necessary work with so much uncertainty around the world, it is one of those businesses for which success would mean not being needed any more. That’s a challenging scenario for any BQ entrepreneur but if, like Pearson, the passion for the work is absolute, then the only achievement that matters is that the boundaries holding some women back have been removed. Anything else takes second place.
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