In a small, somewhat-unknown community in Guatemala sits a town by the name of San Juan La Laguna, on the edge of Lake Atitlán. It is here that a women’s artisan co-op called Casa Flor Ixcaco works to protect the traditional art of Mayan weaving. Using naturally-derived dyes and handspun cotton, the women weave generations of Mayan culture into the very fabric of the scarves, bags, and clothing that they sell.
Nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic, I find myself thinking about these female artisans. Their livelihood, and that of their families, depend heavily on the handmade products they craft.
What happens to local artisans, like those at Casa Flor Ixcaco, when the travel industry is brought to its knees by a virus?
It’s a question I ponder as I look across my room and spot the bag I purchased last year while visiting the women’s co-op in Guatemala. I had spent the morning meeting the female artisans, learning about the traditional art of Mayan weaving, and even trying my hand at dying handspun cotton.
I wanted something to commemorate the experience and so, with indigo-stained hands, I gravitated towards a stunning bag dyed with royal blues and deep purples. The bag was made by a woman named Gloria Navichoc and took exactly four weeks to create.
Months would pass, the bag would be swung through New York City subways and grey Manhattan streets, but it would always remind me of the culture I had connected with.
In the end, it was more than a bag; it was a memory.
Attempting to Travel from Home
As the pandemic rages on, the entire travel industry has come to a halt. Staying home has become the standard and online shopping has become the pastime. While behemoths like Amazon and Walmart have more than doubled their profits in 2020 (raking in an estimated $133 billion in combined revenue), small business owners have been fighting to keep the lights on.
This dichotomy between the Davids and Goliaths of the business world has created a unique challenge for small business owners and artisans.
Enter Local Purse, a start-up that is reimagining the future of travel by leveraging online shopping to support the struggling industry. Conceived by Lola Akinmade Åkerström and Sara Mansouri, Local Purse is an innovative start-up focused on connecting artisans and local guides with online shoppers around the globe.
“The travel industry is really struggling and the ones that have been the most impacted are travel guides and artisans who depend on tourism dollars,” Åkerström explains to me via Zoom one morning.
Åkerström is an award-winning Nigerian photographer and travel writer based in Stockholm. Her work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, BBC, CNN, and The New York Times — to name a few — while she has gone on to author two travel books and collect various awards and accolades.
“With the pandemic, I quickly realized that our industry is one of the remaining few that requires us to physically be on location. The travel industry is lagging behind other industries in terms of digitization. While it’s very difficult to compare being physically in a place, the one thing we can at least connect is to other people.”
Åkerström is not wrong. Since the pandemic started, we have watched as the collective travel industry has scrambled to pivot to virtual experiences.
From “walks” along the Great Wall of China to museum tours of the Louvre, a crop of online travel experiences seemingly popped up overnight with one unified promise: to virtually transport you anywhere on earth.
In theory, the idea of online travel sounds fun, but in reality, it is impossible to fully deliver. No matter how many glasses of wine you’ve had, it is a tall order to capture the magic of Paris through a screen and forget you’ve been wearing flannel pajamas for three days.
The Essence of Travel
“What we miss about travel is not just looking at the pretty sights, but meeting people and connecting to other cultures,” adds Åkerström. “It’s the memories tied to people that we remember. That is what I’m trying to recreate here.”
In short, Local Purse aims to deliver a cultural experience — not just a tour of the world’s landmarks — by connecting shoppers with artisans. The idea for Local Purse came when Åkerström joined a two-month intensive program with Antler, a Stockholm venture capital firm.
The program focused on bringing creative people together and it was there that Åkerström met Mansouri, an Iranian expat with a background in business development and experience working for major companies, such as Paypal.
Together, the two women ventured to create a company that leveraged the rising trend of live video shopping to help support struggling artisans and tour guides within the travel space.
Introducing Local Purse
“Think of it like an Instagram live. Imagine a lifestyle influencer trying on lipstick while her viewers have the option to purchase the product right there,” explains Åkerström. “What we are trying to do is more of a guided tour where you can actually move around, meet the artisan, see the products, and add them to your cart.”
Imagine virtually walking through the streets of Marrakech, crossing the Jemaa el-Fna square, and being led into the medina. With a local guide at the helm, you’re virtually taken to a hole-in-the-wall textile shop known for its authentic Moroccan rugs.
With Local Purse, you not only experience the destination, but you’re also introduced to the artisan and given the opportunity to purchase an authentically-made item — all from the comfort of your couch.
Local Purse’s tentative business model works to both invigorate the travel industry by supporting local guides, as well as put money in the hands of local artisans.
“This is giving a competitive advantage to the travel industry to be both stronger and to expand opportunities,” Mansouri chimes in via Zoom. “If a tour guide offers a tour for only five people, with the help of technology, now they can offer it to hundreds of people.”
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Local Purse and Intrepid Travel
Recently, Local Purse partnered with Intrepid Travel to launch two pilot shopping experiences connecting travelers with Moroccan artisans. Intrepid Travel is a certified B-Corp with a commitment to responsible business and a high standard for verified social and environmental performance.
In short, for a start-up company looking to combine travel and online shopping in a new way, Intrepid Travel could not be a better partner.
Together, Local Purse and Intrepid Travel are offering two shopping experiences: Marrakech Spice and Wellness will visit Koutoubia Herbal, a local shop in the medina selling everything from argan oil to spices; while the Traditional Moroccan Berber Rug Experience will virtually take shoppers to Dar Mjber in Fez.
Funding Challenges for Women-Founded Startups
“Local Purse is a company that’s trying to help where people needed help yesterday,” Åkerström says. “It’s a company that is trying to move as fast as it can without any funding. The challenge is trying to get enough people on board with the vision to want to help get the company’s infrastructure in place.”
As women of color, both Åkerström and Mansouri are wading through the waters of a historically male-dominated ocean. In 2018, a measly 2.2 percent of venture capital dollars went to female founders, according to Fortune.
As the saying goes, a male entrepreneur need only have an idea to get funding, while a woman needs proof of concept to get in the room.
“I keep getting second-guessed and underestimated. I think that’s the biggest hurdle I’ve been fighting,” Åkerström tells me when asked about the struggles faced as a female-founder. “Investors don’t know my background, they don’t know my experience, but already they create an unconscious bias about what you, as a Black woman, can do.”
Whatever the challenges tossed in the way of both Åkerström and Mansouri, the two innovators are determined to see Local Purse grow.
With the travel industry projected to restabilize as far off as 2024, it is clear the process of recovery will be long and slow. Even with economic recovery, the travel industry faces the challenges of growing climate change threats and a push to reduce carbon footprints.
Perhaps there is no better time for women, like Åkerström and Mansouri, to push the envelope and imagine a new way to connect travelers and destinations.
“I want to invite everyone who has a passion for this to collaborate with us or to have their voices heard as artisans and guides,” encourages Mansouri. “This is a journey that has a lot of space for everyone.”