Toronto, ON-based Iris Serbanescu has spent her decade-long tourism career consulting and working with entrepreneurial ventures in the industry’s adventure, luxury and tech sectors.
And throughout her career, Serbanescu has witnessed the unique challenges faced by women and non-binary entrepreneurs – a group that, historically and traditionally, has been overlooked.
This is what inspired Serbanescu to launch wmnsWORK, a first of its kind, tourism-specific accelerator for women and non-binary entrepreneurs in North America.
Launched on International Women's Day (March 8), wmnsWORK is a 12-week virtual program, starting May 16, 2022, that is designed to help women and non-binary entrepreneurs “get from one stage of their businesses to the next,” Serbanescu told PAX in a telephone interview on Monday.
“It’s hard to build a business as an entrepreneur. It can be a lonely place,” said Serbanescu, who developed wmnsWORK upon realizing that there wasn’t anything specific to help women and non-binary business owners in tourism who are in the early stages of their entrepreneurial journey.
Overcoming fear & self-doubt
The accelerator, which operates on three pillars – Education, Mentorship and Support – is defined by each participant’s own definition of how they want to up-level their business, moving it (or ideas) forward “in a very tangible way that gets them excited about their results,” Serbanescu said.
The weekly master classes, taught by travel leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs, include bi-weekly meetings with mentors and access to a community of peer support where intel is shared and discussed.
Participants will also hear from a mix of global tourism experts, sharing knowledge on a range of topics, in a setting that’s customized to the group’s needs.
“The point is to help women and non-binary entrepreneurs find a safe and non-judgemental place where they can talk to peers and realize they’re not alone in any self-doubt or fear they might be experiencing,” Serbanescu said.
And while the focus is on business, the program is also about “bringing your whole self to the table,’ Serbanescu added.
“I want people to show up and be themselves. There are so few places in the business world where we can do that and not be judged.”
Building confidence in owning a business
It’s a space Serbanescu knows well as founder of her own company, By Iris, which helps experiential tour operators and properties develop meaningful industry partnerships, and through past roles as director of partnerships for TourRadar and manager of trade development at Bannikin.
Focusing on women and non-binary entrepreneurs, specifically, was key to Serbanescu, whose program promotes idea-sharing, support and self-compassion for early-stage business owners – a population that has “been long underserved by its industry.”
Though they make up 55 per cent of the tourism workforce, women represent less than 20 per cent of general managerial positions and less than eight per cent of existing board positions.
Yet, women dominate the consumer side, making 70 per cent of the purchasing decisions when it comes to booking travel.
"Tourism as a sector offers women considerable options for entrepreneurship that do not require heavy start-up financing,” notes the UNWTO's Second Global Report on Women in Tourism. “However, women’s tourism entrepreneurship is held back by a lack of access to technology, information, business skills, education and training,”
Based on the data alone, Serbanescu points to a “gender gap” in tourism.
“It’s an industry that’s relatively new, compared to other industries, that was started mostly by cisgender white men,” she said. “There’s a lot of education and actions that need to be taken to allow women to enter into leadership roles. Not just in being CEO, but also in feeling confident enough to have ownership and start a business.”
This is why it was important to Serbanescu, as both a woman and a member of the LGBTQIA2S+ community, to build a program not only for early-stage entrepreneurs, but also one that addresses barriers that had previously held back her and her peers.
“As women, we tend to shut ourselves down before we’ve even given ourselves a chance to start,” Serbanescu said. “We have this idea that we don’t have enough experience, knowledge or contacts to make our business successful. That internalized narrative tends to stop us in our tracks.”
There’s also value in bringing together likeminded individuals who share similar experiences.
“As entrepreneurs, the early stages are the most difficult because of self-imposed barriers. But once you get going, you start to know more than you thought you did,” Serbanescu said.
Connecting with others who are on the same journey can be “very validating.”
12 expert-led workshops
wmnsWORK will be limited to just 10 participants, and while the program is focused on tourism suppliers (hotels, inbound day and multi-day tour operators), it is also open to others who see value in the curriculum.
“There’s room for people who are re-starting their business post-pandemic, who want to pivot, expand their network, and who want peer support and one-on-one coaching from a mentor,” Serbanescu said.
The 12 expert-led workshops and masterclasses will feature topics such as “Funding Your Tourism Startup,” “Regeneration Principles for Tourism,” “Entrepreneurial Mindset 101,” and will also include coaching circles, one-to-one mentors and fireside chats.
The spring wmnsWORK cohort is now open for registrations and will begin May 16, 2022. The 12-week program is $2,500 (USD) and participants can apply by clicking here.
“I want people to see this as a long-term investment,” Serbanescu said. “The start of a new journey that lasts longer than three months.”
Perks and scholarships
wmnsWORK is also collaborating with founding sponsors sherpa°, a global provider of travel requirements and documentation for the industry, as well as small-group adventure tour company Exodus Travels, to develop scholarship options for racialized, disabled and LGBTQIA2S+ entrepreneurs.
A partnership with the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) also means a free, one-year ATTA Business Memberships will be provided for those who register for the May 16 and September 2022 (dates TBA) cohort.
“The founding partners I’m working with are very aligned with both the principles of gender equality and moving the industry through initiatives,” Serbanescu said.
Launching wmnsWORK on International Women's Day, too, is also meaningful to Serbanescu.
“There’s a lot of noise out there on International Women's Day from companies doing more self-congratulatory things than actually moving the needle,” Serbanescu said. “This is a program that is meant to move the needle.”
“Even if it’s only a millimetre for gender equality in the travel industry, I wanted to put something out there that people could take action on.”
Click here to learn more.