AlLison Fleece & Danielle Thornton
Allison and Danielle met through an unlikely shared goal: to climb to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. That experience changed both their lives so profoundly that their friendship blossomed into a business partnership. Find out how they took a leap of faith to found their own adventure-travel company, which brings women together around the world.
What brought you guys to New York?
Allison: I'm originally from Michigan. I went to university in Indiana, then moved to Germany to work, then finally made my way to New York! As a kid, I always knew I wanted to live here. I grew up in a very small town that really didn't have a lot going on or much diversity, so I craved a big city. Munich allowed me to have that somewhat, because it was so easy to travel around Europe, but it still wasn’t the same as the diversity you get in New York. I managed to get a job with a European sports-based marketing company that wanted help setting up their business in the US. The timing was right.
Do you remember what your first week was like?
Allison: I was 24 at the time, and I hit the ground running. I fully immersed myself in the New York experience. I got this really cool apartment in Williamsburg that overlooked the Manhattan skyline and I was just like, "I've made it!" I hadn't really made it, but I thought that I had. [Laughs]
What about you, Danielle—what was your journey to get to New York?
Danielle: I'm originally from Texas, and moved to New York right after I finished university. I was 21 when I moved here. Like Allison, I always knew I wanted to live in New York. My background is in advertising; that’s what I studied at university. Obviously, advertising is a huge industry here, so it made sense. I bought a one-way ticket, packed my suitcase, and hoped I would find a job when I got here. I found a really cheap hostel to stay in, and found myself an internship at a really great agency. It was a very short internship because I was offered a full-time job the next week!
It sounds like moving around has always been part of both your lives.
Allison: We both studied abroad, which I think opened our minds up to the world. I hadn’t been outside of the country until university. Once I’d been in New York for a little while, the desire to travel came back. I left my job with the European company and found a job with the University of Nicosia, Cyprus. They had recruitment offices in New York for their study-abroad program, and they also had locations all over the world. I would basically recruit students to take these amazing international educational opportunities, and I would travel to universities around America talking about the programs. It was really cool; I learned a lot of things I never knew about. Academia is a whole other field.
Danielle: I didn't necessarily travel a ton outside of the US when I was growing up, but the curiosity has always been there. We’re both so lucky to have families that share and support that curiosity—that makes such difference! When I was 14, my mom took my sister and me to Paris because we were begging her for an adventure. It was the first time any of us had left the US and it really opened our eyes to how amazing the world is to explore. After high school, my best friend and I backpacked around Europe for the summer. When I look back, I laugh about how naive we were, but we figured it out. What an amazing experience! We both still go on adventures with our families to this day. One year my family went to Antarctica for Christmas, and the next we went scuba diving in Belize. I guess you could say it’s in our genes.
So how did you two meet?
Allison: It was January 1, 2012. I had been on safari in Tanzania, and on the way back to the airport on the last day of the trip, we passed by Kilimanjaro. It was in the early evening, and the clouds had parted, so you could actually see the mountain. We weren't even meant to be going down that road, but we did. I had this strong desire to climb the mountain. How could I have come all this way and not done that? I was just blown away by the enormity of it.
When I got back to work in America, I couldn’t get the image of the mountain out of my mind. So, a month later, I sent an email to friends that I knew were adventurous and said, "In a year from now I'm climbing Kilimanjaro. Who wants to come?" One of the girls on my list forwarded the email to Danielle.
Danielle: I remember reading this and was like, "Yes, I'm in 100 percent!” I didn't even know where Kilimanjaro was or what I was getting myself into. [Laughs] I was working in advertising at the time; the hours were crazy, with such long nights and weekends. I was looking for something to shake things up, to have a personal goal to work towards. I didn't know it was going to change my life so, so much—but it did.
Allison: We got to know each other in the year leading up to the trip, because we would go on training hikes in upstate New York. Over that year we really connected, not just on the training hikes but also meeting up in the city, hanging out.
It ended up being a group of all women doing this hike with us. We didn’t aim for it to be like that, but it just happened. The company organizing the hike heard that we were five women from New York, and they sent an email out to their database asking if any other women wanted to join us.
Five more women joined, so we had a group of 10 for the actual climb. We were given the advice to combine the trip with something bigger than ourselves, so we fundraised for a vocational school that was at the base of the mountain. We reached our fundraising goal of $5,000 the day we reached the summit.
Danielle: It happened very organically, but it was so powerful. This group of women coming together, taking on a challenge but also connecting with local women to make a positive impact. It all just kind of fell into place. When we got back to New York, we both knew we were onto something. We had been so positively transformed and impacted by this experience. We wanted to continue it and to share it. I remember my boss being like, "Get your mind off Kilimanjaro, get back to work!" And I was like, "No, I don't want to, ever.”
Allison: Yeah, the feeling is hard to put into words. It’s the feeling like, "I can do anything, I can be anything, I can recognize my potential."
Danielle: We climbed Kilimanjaro, so we had the confidence to quit our jobs. [Laughs]
At what point did you know you could turn this into a business?
Danielle: We’d sort of had the idea before we left for Kilimanjaro. WHOA started as a little club with the women we were climbing with; we would make sweatshirts we’d wear on our training hikes and things like that. Climbing the mountain really confirmed that we could do it.
Allison: We knew that we could rally more women together to do it. So it was just a matter of deciding to take the leap and make it happen. We started brainstorming about other adventurous places we could go that would appeal to the same sorts of people. We talked to everyone we knew, and got advice about what they would be looking for.
What was the first trip you did as WHOA travel?
Allison: It was Oktoberfest, of all things. We designed a trip where you climb the Alps, and then when you come down the mountain you go to Oktoberfest. We had quit our jobs in August, had a launch party, and then off we went!
Danielle: We basically zig-zagged around the world doing the world trips from then on. Our first trip was really just research. We would travel, do treks, meet partners. You don’t want to do the trip for the first time with paying clients. We were designing our business model as we went.
We researched everything from safety to how we could get pizza delivered when our team reached the base of the mountain! The second you exit the gate at Kilimanjaro, we have pizza and cold beer waiting.
Allison: That first trip was 51 days. We called it 51 Days of WHOA. We started in Germany and ended in Germany. By then we had booked a couple of clients, but at first we really had more staff in each place than clients.
Danielle: We're just so grateful for all the people who came on our first trips, because they believed in us and and they wanted us to succeed. They really became like family and they’re still coming on new trips with us today.
Allison: By the time we did our second official trip, though, we had 28 women. We climbed Kilimanjaro and reached the summit on International Women's Day. It was incredible.
It’s pretty brave to quit your jobs and travel the world forming a new company. Were you confident it would work?
Danielle: Failure was not an option. We were both doing a bit of freelance work while things were starting up.
Allison: It all happened so fast. We were so excited, but maybe a little bit naive. I was like, “You know what? I’m 30 years old. I don’t have a family right now. I have an amazing business partner. We have this amazing idea. This is the time to do it.”
Danielle: If we had given it too much thought, we never would have done it. At the start, though, I kept it really close to the chest, not telling many people about it. It’s actually a funny story—when I told my dad that I was leaving my successful, steady job, he was just like, “Great!” I thought it was weird that he was so okay with it. But then I got a call that he was going to be “passing through” New York, so we should have dinner. [Laughs]
A sneak attack!
Danielle: Exactly. But then after we went out to dinner with him and talked him through our business idea, he was so supportive. My dad is still one of our biggest fans. I think he’s one of the first people that I told, and his acceptance and belief meant a lot because he is a business owner and an entrepreneur himself. He knows what it takes.
Allison: When we started WHOA, it felt different to anything else. We felt like it could really work, like it was what we were meant to be doing.
Where do your clients come from?
Allison: Some are from New York, but they come from all over the world. We have women join us from Malaysia, Australia, South Africa, Denmark—we’ve really built a worldwide community. Wherever we go now, or wherever our clients and friends go in the world, there is always a WHOA woman to meet up with.
Allison: It’s such a strong community, it’s really powerful.
Danielle: Doing these trips is a real bonding experience. We’ve brought groups of women—of all ages and backgrounds—together to climb mountains and see the world. That’s something you don’t do in your daily life.
Allison: All the women are in the same mindset, despite their differences. It’s about local integration, and shared experience.
That is powerful! What have been your greatest challenges starting this business?
Danielle: I would say something we struggle with is taking criticism. WHOA Travel is like our child. We’ve invested everything into it, so it’s sometimes hard to separate ourselves from it. For example, if we don't get a positive review from someone, we take it to heart. What did we do wrong? It’s a real learning curve to treat it like a business. In that regard, having Allison as a partner is really helpful. We can talk it out and solve things together. If someone is upset, the other can talk them down.
Allison: Managing expectations is the other struggle. That means the expectations of our staff, the locals on the ground, and clients. For a group of 31 women climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, for example, we have about 120 people working across the whole trip. Speaking with everyone, planning, and working one of those trips takes a lot out of you. You can’t turn off as an owner.
Danielle: It’s a little more manageable these days. We have personal lives, too, that we want to grow and develop. We always wanted to be our own bosses and we’re lucky to do something that we believe in and love, but it’s important to turn off. Whether it’s a hike or trip overseas, it’s something we do for ourselves and not for the business, necessarily. It’s so important for your creativity. It gives you perspective. It’s important to us to continue traveling and to never stop exploring new and different things.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
Allison: Danielle has always said, “When you speak to everyone, you speak to no one.” I think that’s the best advice I’ve heard. You have to take a position. Have a stance, opinion and vision. It allows you to work towards your goal, and to speak with the right people and ask the right questions.
We don’t want to create trips for everybody—that’s what differentiates us from the guy next door. We stay true to ourselves, and then you attract the right people and the right energy.
Danielle: I have advice my mom always gives me: Don’t overthink things. Don’t get in your head and talk yourself out of things or build up something that’s not there. Even starting the company, we didn’t overthink it. We just felt that it was right. Things can be simple. Put one foot in front of the other. It’s a very simple piece of advice but it applies to so many situations. The mind is so powerful, it can totally control how you perceive the world.
What does New York mean to you?
Danielle: New York is a special place. I always say, I’m so ready to leave and then so ready to come back. I love coming home to New York. There’s an energy and a celebration of diversity here that’s so exciting. It keeps us charged up.
Allison: It’s a perfect place for people like us and a business like ours. From day one, we were surrounded by a supportive community that wants adventure and new things. New York is full of globally minded people—it’s really a mini sample size of the entire world.