Each month, we spotlight a different founder in the Mercury community, giving them the space to share their story, entrepreneurial wisdom, and a few fun facts. This month, we chatted with Vanessa Karel, founder and CEO of Greether, one of the three Mercury Raise First Check finalists that received a $15K investment from Mercury in 2022.
Q: What’s your elevator pitch for Greether?
A: Greether is a travel platform that helps women travel more safely around the world by connecting them with verified female guides called “Greeters” they can book wherever they're going. It’s like having a local bestie who can show you around.
Q: What was the inspiration behind your company?
A: In 2020, I got stranded in Morocco. That was the moment I realized there wasn't a service that did what we now do: Support women while they travel.
Even though I'd traveled a lot by myself before, I had always chosen destinations that seemed safer to me. I wanted a dedicated tool that would help me navigate all these other destinations and places safely and for more women to be able to experience traveling solo — or as a woman, period.
Q: In 2022, you were one of the top three finalists for Mercury Raise First Check. Since then, what has Greether been up to?
A: I think when we were finalists, we had users in 80 countries and 400 cities. We now have users in over 95 countries, and 550 cities. We’ve also been named one of the 15 most innovative sustainable travel startups around the world by the UNWTO (United Nations World Tourism Organization) — and the fourth most innovative for female empowerment by the UNWTO Awake Tourism Challenge. We were also recently accepted into Expedia’s first accelerator program. And we have begun our pre-seed fundraising!
Q: In building Greether, what's a hurdle that you encountered and how did you overcome it?
A: One of the hurdles I have overcome has been figuring out what my company needed tech-wise as a non-technical founder. We don't have a mobile app yet, but we have a web app that has helped us prove market fit. I had to learn how to lead my technical team by reading about a lot of topics I never imagined I would learn. But this is where getting advisors and growing my founder circle have also been really fundamental to my journey.
Q: What was your reaction when Greether was mentioned on SNL’s Weekend Update?
A: I was definitely shocked, but also flattered that our mission made enough noise that they would take the time to joke about us on their segment! It was really incredible to see how a viral moment can have an impact on your business. I’m super excited that more women know about us — since then, we have grown significantly in many places.
Q: How does Greether work?
A: Even before travelers meet their Greeters, there is a lot of interaction going on. Travelers have found it useful to ask questions like: “What should I pack when I'm going to X place?” Or: “Where do you recommend I buy my train ticket in Bangkok?”
Greeters are also great at personalizing itineraries according to what our travelers want. For example, we had travelers in Istanbul who wanted to have an artistic journey and their Greeters went above and beyond to cater to that and craft an itinerary for them.
We put Greeters through a screening process to make sure that they're a good fit. We obviously prioritize actual licensed tour guides, but in some countries and destinations, there are not many female tour guides. So that's where we came in to create the Greeter concept, which is like a modern concierge/friend we train.
We usually look for women who have already had experience in lifestyle businesses or travel somehow, or that really know their city. For example, if you're moving to London tomorrow, you can’t just be a Greeter because you're not actually a local yet and haven’t spent enough time there. We never want our travelers to feel like their Greeter doesn't know where they're going. All of our Greeters have to go through a checklist in which they provide traveler safety tips, recommendations, cultural norms, and things like that.
Q: What's something that people never ask you about Greether, but you wish they would?
A: I don’t get asked much about how excited my travelers are when they're actually on their journey! I think usually, people are more curious about how I built Greether and how it works. But not a lot of questions have been asked about what the actual experience looks like.
For example, if you're going to Mexico City or Marrakesh tomorrow, how are these connections being formed? Going out and meeting our travelers has been the most rewarding part of building Greether. We're not just for solo female travelers either, we also do women in groups of two, four, and up to six travelers in some destinations. A lot of people think we're only for solo female travelers, but we’re actually just for female-identifying travelers.
Q: Out of all of the traveling you've done in your life, what sticks out in your mind as the most memorable experience?
A: There was a really sweet moment I had in Chefchaouen, what they call “The Blue Pearl” in Morocco. When I was there in 2020, I met up with a local woman who didn't speak any English. Our only method of communication was through body language, smiles, and some Google Translate. It really taught me the power of connection — because even if you don't speak another person's language, it's so magical to be able to connect with them.
Q: Do you have an MO you live by in business?
A: Nothing else matters to me — not social media posts, not interviews — more than my customers. I live by this. My number one focus is to engage with my travelers and with my Greeters as much as I can and build connections with them.
Q: If you weren’t in the travel industry, what industry would you be in?
A: I would love to eventually become an investor in women-founded companies, as well as companies led by overlooked founders.
Q: Do you have a favorite Mercury product or feature?
A: I love how easy it is to send wiring instructions to our investors. It really saves a lot of time for me to quickly send the link for them to wire the money — I love that feature. And I think I've used it a few times now!
Q: What's the number one traveling destination you recommend?
A: Iceland. It was one of the first countries that I traveled to alone and it just felt so cool to know that it was so safe. And the nature is just incredible — I think it's so dreamy. A very inspiring place.
Q: Window seat or aisle seat?
A: Aisle seat.
Q: Phone, DSLR, or film camera?
A: I was a professional photographer in my previous life, so definitely a professional DSLR camera.
Q: Prepared deck or speaking off the cuff?
A: Speaking off the cuff for sure. I feel less pressure and less like, “Oh my God, now what do I have to say?”