It’s fitting that Stephanie Lawrence and Aashi Vel met over barbecued pork tacos at a Haas orientation event. Co-founders of Traveling Spoon, a service that offers global explorers access to local culture through its cuisine, the two women immediately bonded over their love of food and travel—and a partnership was born.
“Traveling Spoon came out of the desire we each had to connect more deeply with local people when we traveled,” Lawrence says. “We discovered that we were both passionate about offering authentic cooking and eating experiences to travelers.”
Before embarking on their MBAs, Vel worked in industrial design; Lawrence worked in international development. An entrepreneurial itch led the women to Haas: both knew they wanted to start some kind of business that would make food a key part of experiencing the world.
Their personal travels shaped their ambition. On a trip to Mexico in 2011, Vel had visited a variety of restaurants in a quest for food locals ate rather than the typical tourist fare but hadn’t found what she was looking for. One afternoon, on a busy street in central Playa del Carmen, she looked through a window and saw a woman making soup.
“I saw this woman cooking, and I wished I could eat with her, hear her story,” Vel says.
As for Lawrence, she’d visited China with her family in 2007 and been frustrated by the touristy aspect of her food experiences, eating food no locals would in hotel basement banquet halls. So she moved to Beijing for six months.
“I wanted to learn someone’s family recipes, and I was hoping to meet a proverbial Chinese grandmother who would teach me how to make dumplings,” she says. “I never did find a woman like that, but the difficulty I had in doing so gave me the idea that Aashi and I would eventually develop into Traveling Spoon.”
Traveling Spoon now has hosts in 50 countries and offers its clients a thousand different cross-cultural eating experiences, most of which cost about $65. Travelers spend three to four hours with a local host, in their home, enjoying a home-cooked meal or cooking class. All hosts, the majority of whom are women, have been personally vetted by the Traveling Spoon team.
“Our hosts are our pride and joy,” Vel says. “Through Traveling Spoon, they have a chance to be microentrepreneurs.”
The two cite former Haas Lecturer Steve Blank’s Lean LaunchPad entrepreneurship philosophy as key to Traveling Spoon’s success. A business model predicated on seeking customer feedback and incorporating it into one’s operations, it’s been used by Lawrence and Vel extensively.
“Steve encouraged us to get out and talk to customers, and we’re still doing that, five years later,” Vel says.
For both women, the idea of being a lifelong learner inspires their work.
“It can be humbling to realize there’s always something more to learn—but also empowering,” Lawrence says. “Rather than assuming that we know everything, we try to take a student attitude. It’s the best way to grow a business.”