Throughout this year we’ll be collaborating with Devon-born adventure businesswoman, Jessica Brooks. in this interview, Jess shares with us her experience of setting up Eternal Landscapes,a sustainable travel company in Ulaanbataar, and gives insight into how – with a team of strong women behind her – she’s working to make the adventure travel industry more sustainable.
- Tell us about yourself and Eternal Landscapes… How did you end up starting a business in Mongolia?
It’s a long story. I don’t really know where to begin!
I suppose it started when I was in my twenties, working in a small beach hotel in Crete. I had been there for three seasons, and people had started to suggest that I needed to challenge myself; that I had a talent for interacting with people and being genuine. So, I did. I applied for a vacancy with an UK-based international adventure tour company via the only phone booth in the village! My interview preparation included long-distance phone calls to my mum, writing notes as she read from the company brochure. Anyway, I got the job and ended up working in Egypt – and a bunch of other destinations – before landing in Mongolia (somewhere I had never even considered visiting) in 2006.
I was immediately drawn to the immensity of Mongolia’s landscapes, so much so that when the company for which I was working was sold and restructured in 2009, I found myself wanting to stay. My Mongolian tour driver was actually the first person to suggest I start my own business, and rather than being afraid, I leapt headfirst into this new venture. In our special hybrid language, Turuu and I tentatively began to establish Eternal Landscapes, a micro-business with the ethos of social entrepreneurship. We had neither background, nor experience of the business world, and yet, with determination, we have bootstrapped our way up… Making mistakes, being honest about making them, and then learning from them.
Jess and Turuu, the owners of Eternal Landscapes (photo cred. eternal-landscpaes.co.uk)
- It certainly sounds like an adventure! So, from your perspective, what is it about Mongolia that captivates people? What is it that makes it such an inspiring and unforgettable place?
I think what always impacts on me over and over again is the vastness of the land and the way the local people make their lives within that immensity. An adventure in Mongolia is about travelling through what I call the “middle landscapes”; the everyday scenery rather than the “highlights” as shown by the tour companies and guidebooks. After all, it is all spectacular, awe-inspiring, yet simultaneously challenging. Also, it’s important to understand how the landscapes – and the consequent challenges faced by the locals – have helped to form the Mongolian character, which is full of sturdy individualism, hardiness, endurance, self-sufficiency, tolerance, yet all with the spirit of freedom.
Mongolia’s vast, challenging landscapes. (photo: eternal-landscapes.co.uk)
- Ok, so the beauty of the country aside, what has been most challenging about going into entrepreneurship?
It’s been a long journey, let me tell you! Honestly, I did whatever I could to get Eternal Landscapes up and running when there wasn’t enough money and there wasn’t enough time…I kept day job and juggled work, I ate packet ramen noodles, I lived in a dorm in in Ulaanbaatar with five other people, I forced myself to learn how to blog, and my non-communicative traditional male Mongolian business partner has learnt the fine art of small talk (on most days).
- But you managed it in the end! What kept you going through the challenges?
Although I had no real idea as to what we were doing I knew one thing, I felt that too many companies were selling a stereotype of Mongolia, regardless of the consequences for real people. For sure, I knew that nomads and wilderness would sell trips, but I feel that Mongolia is a diverse and dynamic country, and it deserves to be explored beyond its clichés. It’s the real Mongolia that I was our guests to experience. I worry when I see our corporate competitors overtaking us in size and strength, but we stay true to our original ethos of responsible and realistic tourism, remaining committed to supporting the local people, communities and environment. That means we’re not a general tour agency and operator and don’t appeal to all. But we have a small but definite following and that gives me the courage to continue. I’m proud that our genuine love of Mongolia remains through everything that we do.
- Have the challenges you’ve faced been exacerbated by the fact that you’re a woman?
I’d say so… Workingin Mongolia as a solo western woman is certainly not easy. My informal business partner is a very traditional Mongolian man, and although women in Mongolia have a higher social status and greater autonomy than women in some other Asian countries, I am still seen as being insubordinate rather than subordinate, and this often causes friction. However, these added social challenges are a good test for me; I employ only female Mongolian trip assistants,and it’s important to have an idea of the challenges they face in their daily lives. If I had the time and finance (!!) I would love to set up a training school for women in Mongolia. I’d promote tourism as a way to allow them to develop personally and professionally, thereby giving them the opportunity to cultivate skills that will provide them with economic empowerment and independence in the long-term.
The Eternal Landscapes team: One of Jess’ priorities as an entrepreneur is improving the prospects of other women in Ulaanbataar. (photo cred. eternal-landscapes.co.uk)
- That sounds fantastic! So, following on from that, do you have any idea what’s next for the company, and for you?
Well firstly, I would like us to be recognised more for the work we do in relation to sustainable tourism; we work much more closely with the local people, communities and environment than most of the big tourism companies. Sustainable – or “responsible” – tourism is a very current buzzword, and the majority of companies are now jumping on the resultant bandwagon, but usually as a marketing tool, not a realistic mission statement. However, it has been part of our philosophy since day one and will continue to be our core driving force.
As for the company, in the long run, my main goal is to build up the business so that if anything happened politically to the world, my Mongolian team would still have their livelihoods and a regular income without my assistance; the collective team hold the reins! This is the key to sustainability… Watch this space.
Jess will be exhibiting at our conference ‘The Heritage of Women in Exploration’ in London on June 21st 2018. Come along to meet her and learn more about the women of sustainable tourism, and Mongolia’s captivating Eternal Landscapes.