Kim Whitaker, an Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO) member in Cape Town, South Africa, is co-founder of Once Travel, an award-winning, sustainable tourism company that offers once in a lifetime adventures with local flair. As EO advances its efforts to make an impact by supporting the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals, we asked Kim how she's helping to close the gap between her country's high youth unemployment and the need for talented tourism and hospitality operators with Khwela Academy. Here's what she shared.

Tell us about your entrepreneurial journey.

I started my first backpackers' hostel at age 23, which eventually led to co-founding a travel company in 2013 with a group of enthusiastic travelers and entrepreneurs. Our vision is to open the African continent to young-at-heart travelers and storytellers so that they can experience authentic encounters. We operate "poshtels"--posh hostels--in Cape Town and Johannesburg, which are a cross between a three-star hotel and a vibrant backpackers' hostel. We're a lifestyle brand offering unique, local experiences to visitors wanting to explore South Africa in a Fairtrade-accredited, sustainable way. Our poshtels provide a gateway for guests to experience local gatherings, food, music, culture and nightlife.

What was the pivotal moment when you decided to start Khwela Academy to empower local women?

Khwela means "to climb" in isiXhosa, one of South Africa's 11 official languages. Our mission is to teach unemployed young women how to "climb" to success by providing innovative skills to help them get a job in the bustling youth tourism industry.

I read a statistic that 67 percent of South African youth are unemployed--yet we in the hospitality industry struggle to find dependable, well-trained staff. We founded Khwela in 2017 to fill that gap. Through interactions with stakeholders and my personal experience in youth tourism, I felt that a traditional school wouldn't cut it. I've learned everything I know through experience, Google and video learning courses on Udemy.

We designed a program that includes both online and hands-on, experiential learning. Our program consists of eight weeks of online theory training, a three-week road trip through South Africa, and a six-month internship for the women to practice what they've learned and prepare for employment.

As a woman entrepreneur lifting women out of unemployment, what is the biggest challenge you face? 

People sometimes question with raised eyebrows, "Why only women?" I believe empowering women in a safe and strong space is crucial for their success, as well as society at-large. The first cohort of our program has defied all odds and risen to prove that through support you can achieve amazing things. They have not only worked tirelessly to get themselves through the program, but also they have helped their peers along the way. When you educate and empower a woman, you are empowering a whole family, an entire community.

I'm very grateful for my upbringing, where I was afforded an education and bountiful opportunities to travel, which opened my eyes to the world. And especially now that I'm a mother, I feel fortunate to have a strong support network in my husband and my parents.

However, I have seen first-hand how difficult it is to be a working mother in South Africa--especially a single working mother--for so many unemployed women living in adverse and poverty-stricken communities. It is impossible to save money and grow your circumstance when every penny goes toward others in need around you.

My biggest challenge is having to be realistic about the social environment we find ourselves in, and make the most of the complex situation to empower as many women as we can to "climb" out of poverty.

What's the most surprising result of this work?

It's a cross between how well the program has been received, and how well our theory of change is working. Unlike other programs, we focus solely on female empowerment, soft skills, confidence-building and general hospitality skills through experiential learning. When I see young women joining a sisterhood and standing up to be independent, I get goosebumps. Our first cohort is just finishing the inaugural program--they've achieved quite a transformation in nine months. I am proud of our pilot program's results.

How is Khwela funded?

Our pilot project was funded by the Booking Cares Fund, the corporate social responsibility arm of Booking.com that champions sustainable travel projects and unexpected solutions. They granted us 150,000 euro (US$169,000) and assisted with skills training for my team and resources.

What's next for you and your company?

We are setting up our board of directors and will soon start training our second cohort. We are working on our program curriculum, and looking at ways to scale into more rural areas and open the program to 100 young women in South Africa in the next year. We are looking to partner with grant funds to expand our reach and invest in digital infrastructure.

We are also exploring partnerships with other overseas hospitality and social entrepreneurship schools, aiming to start a one-for-one program. For around $3,500, a student could travel for three weeks around South Africa on a learning road trip, and the best part is: Their fee covers the cost for a local learner to join in. The future is bright and exciting!

Published on: Apr 12, 2019
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