Entrepreneurs Danielle Thornton and Allison Fleece first met while climbing Africa’s tallest mountain, Mt. Kilimanjaro. One worked in advertising, the other in international education, and following their chance meeting, they quit their jobs, became business partners, and formed a women’s boutique travel company called WHOA Travel.
The best friends, professional adventurers, and co-founders have done something many only dream of — they have built a business around their passions. Their unique women-owned company empowers women, gives them a new perspective on the world, and challenges them, both mentally and physically, to step outside their comfort zones.
WHOA not only offers once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for women to travel to places like India, Peru, Iceland, and Africa, but also makes the experience meaningful and immersive.
It’s one thing to visit a place, but it’s another to actually connect with its culture and inhabitants. Allison and Danielle work with local nonprofits, sponsor local women on hikes, and support women-owned businesses in the countries to which they travel.
It’s not just about volunteering; for Danielle and Allison, giving back is a way of life. They believe in forging relationships with locals.
“This kind of immersion is authentic, it’s responsible, and it’s the only way we want to travel,” the co-founders said.
Whether they’re working from their New York office or from their base camp at Everest, these co-founders really are moving mountains — one trip at a time.
Here, they share details about their journey and the keys to following your dream:
When did you fall in love with travel? What has been your favorite place to visit?
A: I fell in love with travel when I studied abroad in Rome back in 2005. I spent a year living in Italy and gallivanting around Europe, and I knew then and there I had caught the travel bug! My favorite place to visit would have to be Mt. Kilimanjaro. It’s a place I’ve been lucky enough to return to eight times, and it’s where Danielle and I got the inspiration to start WHOA. I don’t think much can top that.
D: From a very young age, my parents always encouraged me to be curious and to appreciate all things new and different, and I think that’s where my sense of adventure and love of travel comes from. It’s impossible to pick a favorite place to visit! Tanzania, Serbia, Antarctica, Cuba, and Japan all have a special place in my heart.
Why is it important for women to travel? How has travel made you better business women?
A: I can’t think of much else that can push us so far outside our comfort zones and make us stronger coming out on the other side. Travel has allowed me to meet people and experience things very far outside my normal path, ultimately teaching me perspective. The world has taught me that the problems we face in our careers — personally or anything in between — somehow seem easier to work through and ultimately don’t seem that big in the scheme of it all.
D: Travel has taught me that there a million ways to do the same thing, and none of them is right or wrong, they’re just different. That’s an important lesson in life, but also in business too. To succeed, you always have to be looking for new and different ways to innovate and solve problems. I’ve also learned that business is a lot like adventure travel — it’s all about your team and the people you surround yourself with. I couldn’t summit Kilimanjaro without the support and positivity of our amazing guides and crew, and I couldn’t run this business without Allison, Nicole, Amanda, and the whole WHOA family.
How did you become entrepreneurs? Has it always been a dream of yours to start a company?
A: I’ve definitely always had a 'dream-big' and innovative spirit. When Danielle and I started WHOA, we didn’t go into it for the sake of owning a company; we followed our passion, and we were unwavering when it came to upholding our values and vision, and that’s what has guided us to where we are today.
D: I attribute a lot of it to Kilimanjaro! After we climbed it for the first time, we thought, ‘If we’re tough enough to climb the tallest mountain in Africa, surely we can start a business.’ That experience gave us courage and a zest for life that we couldn’t not share with others.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned, personally or professionally?
A: Don’t be attached to outcomes or expectations; the unknown is where the adventure lies and where learning happens.
D: Be original, be yourself, and do what makes YOU happy. Zig when everyone else is zagging.
How do you define “success”?
A: Success is finding your passion and stopping at nothing to light that passion on fire. It doesn’t have to be monetary success, it just matters that you went after it and followed that guiding light that too many people too often dim.
D: To me, success is being surrounded by people I love and respect.
In starting your own women-run business, what has been the biggest challenge and how have you overcome it?
A: Due to the nature of our business, challenges come in various forms. Physically and mentally, there is a challenge in getting 30 women up a mountain and back down safely while also facing the obstacles that spring up while traveling in general: lost luggage, misplacing cell phones, passports, getting sick — you name it. We overcome any challenge, big or small, by practicing what we know to be true: It is not the challenge, [but] rather how you respond to it that matters.
D: The biggest challenge is also one of the most exciting things, and that’s that we have to constantly be evolving and innovating. Keeping up with all the demand, uncertainty, and endless possibilities in adventure travel is a never ending process. You just have to embrace the unknown and enjoy the journey.
What advice would you give to female entrepreneurs?
A: Find your passion, have a stance, have a vision, and go for it. You don’t get any younger, you don’t get any time back in life, so don’t put off your dreams till someday. Someday is now.
D: Be original and do what you love. Original, authentic ideas are irreplaceable, unforgettable, and will change the world.
Are there any books, apps, podcasts, or tools you recommend for entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
A: “How I Built This” on NPR is a really great podcast about how successful entrepreneurs and innovators got their start. I still listen to it and gain so much inspiration and insight!
D: I love watching Shark Tank. It’s pretty far from real life, but it’s always inspiring to hear the stories and see people putting themselves out there. Plus, it teaches you that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure! Just because one person doesn’t get your idea doesn’t mean others won’t.
By Sarah Sheppard
Sarah Sheppard is a professional writer and editor. She worked as a senior manager at an independent publisher in Boston, earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University, and currently resides in the Midwest. She is working on her first novel. You can find her at sarahsheppardwriter.com, @writershep on Twitter, and @sarahsheppardwriter on Instagram.