Students in the A. Richard Newton Lecture Series attended a fireside chat with Cal alum and Traveling Spoon Co-founder Aashi Vel. Since graduating in 2011 with an MBA from the Haas School of Business, Vel and her partner Steph Lawrence have turned Traveling Spoon into a business venture spanning 18 countries and counting. During her talk, Vel shared an interesting argument about why entrepreneurs should pursue projects they actually care about as well as the three best lessons she has learned as an entrepreneur.
After working as an industrial engineer for over a decade, Aashi Vel entered Haas Business School with the intention of making her passion for food and travel into a marketable business.
Traveling Spoon was born out of a consistent problem Vel encountered when traveling: She would ask friends for recommendations and spend a significant amount of time researching the “best” and most “authentic” restaurants, only to be disappointed by the crowded and touristy places she would eat. Vel wondered what her experiences would have been like if she was in a local’s home eating and cooking with them.
A big challenge that worried Vel and her co-founder Steph Lawrence was finding hosts. Would residents really open their homes and make home-cooked meals for complete strangers?
The summer after her first year at Haas, Vel traveled to India on her own dime in hopes of recruiting hosts who would do just that. To her surprise, the hosts she stumbled upon actually were interested in opening up their homes to strangers for a multitude of reasons: some wanted to practice English, some were lonely mothers with empty nests, and some wanted the extra cash to help supplement their income. In three and a half weeks, Vel managed to recruit forty hosts to partake in the pilot program, learning that finding hosts was not nearly as big of a challenge as she’d previously thought it would be. Similarly, the enthusiasm they received from future hosts made Vel and Lawrence feel like they were on to something, that there really was a market there.
And now that Traveling Spoon had discovered that there was a market for hosts, Vel and Lawrence turned their efforts to finding customers. Would other tourists share her passion for authentic food and be willing to enter the home of a stranger in a strange land?
To her delight, Vel quickly found out that the answer was a definite yes. Soon, they saw that people from all income brackets were signing up to use Traveling Spoon, trading in more upscale restaurants for the authentic experiences. Their customer reviews were exceedingly positive, prompting Vel and Lawrence to pursue the venture full time after graduating from Haas.
Since then, Traveling Spoon has gone on to form partnerships with Expedia and Trip Advisor as well as garner well-known supporters like celebrity chef Alice Waters and former Expedia CEO Erik Blachford.
Through this experience, Vel learned a lot and offered three pieces of advice to burgeoning entrepreneurs. First, Vel encouraged future founders to not be afraid of sharing their startup ideas. Next, she recommended that whenever possible, founders seek advice from people they respect and trust. Finally, Vel stressed the importance of knowing what you want and asking for it. In the startup world, Vel said, being direct is a valued commodity.
Overall, however, the most important pieces of advice Vel offered was pursuing ventures you are genuinely interested in. Career decisions and pivots are incredibly personal, according to Vel, but your gut should have some say in the decisions you choose.
At the end of the fireside chat, Vel recited a quote she had once heard that she felt perfectly summed up her experience as a founder.
“Changing the world means solving a problem that tugs at your heart,” Vel said.