Hilary Matson creates a path towards sustainable travel

Updated: Jan 5, 2021

Hit by a global pandemic and the inability to travel since March, a lot of people have been dreaming up their next vacation post-COVID or remembering old trips.

Hilary Matson has had travel on her mind for quite some time. After working for Amazon in Seattle for nearly a decade, Hilary moved to Paris and decided to pursue an MBA at HEC Paris. As she'd always thought of possibly being an entrepreneur, she was hoping school would confirm that desire— which it did.

While finishing her degree, Hilary started working on Yūgen Earthside, a sustainable travel company. Yūgen Earthside’s mission is to shape the future of sustainable travel which is about preserving natural environments while promoting local economies and appreciating authentic cultures and societies. They focus on small-group travel and boutique operators offering trips to Europe, Eurasia, South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Yūgen Earthside connects responsible tour operators with conscientious travelers.

As an entrepreneur who launched a travel company during a pandemic, Hilary explains why she believes it was the right moment to start a business, speaks about the hardships she’s faced, and the people that have helped her along the way.

Honne: Why did you decide to start a business?

Hilary Matson: At the risk of sounding like a typical millennial, I sought out meaning, purpose, and change. I wanted to feel personally connected to my work, build something that aligned with my values, and see the tangible results of my efforts. I also wanted to see what startup life was like after spending so long in such a massive corporation like Amazon.

Why now? Did you not think it better to launch later, when the pandemic settled down?

HM: I fully subscribe to the “fail fast” mentality, which is about testing and correcting quickly. On top of that, I also believe that if you launch a perfect product, you’re launching too late; as Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn said, “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you've launched too late.”

It’s never a perfect time and the product is never done– building a business means you’re in a constant state of evolution. I just want my idea out there, to see what resonates with people, and then to keep improving on the concept.

You started Yūgen Earthside while still finishing your degree, how did you balance your business and school?

HM: This part was actually easy! I specifically chose HEC because of their strong emphasis on entrepreneurship, as well as their established connection to the Paris startup world. During my studies, one of my terms focused solely on building an entrepreneurial foundation. Then, I chose to have my entrepreneurial project count as half of my final term credits. It was during this term that I actually wrote the business plan, did market research, conducted the first interviews, and found my first supplier. By the time I graduated in June of 2020, all the theoretical work was done, and I jumped right into the practical side of things.

Specifically, as a female entrepreneur, have you faced any obstacles since starting Yūgen Earthside?

HM: Actually, no; but I have experienced flagrant sexism here in Paris. Because of those experiences, I am extra careful in choosing who I work with and have found amazing people to help me with Yūgen Earthside. Also, keep in mind we have not gone through funding rounds yet. I’ve read the statistics on female founders pitching to venture capitalists so…ask me again in a year, and hopefully, the answer will still be no.

I can’t imagine starting a travel business during a pandemic is easy, how has COVID-19 impacted you and your business?

HM: Starting a business is never easy, but I believe it might just be the perfect time for me and for Yūgen Earthside. For starters, I strongly believe COVID has accelerated the desire to travel more purposefully. I feel like people are paying more attention to this type of travel now than they were before, which is great for us.

All travel companies struggled this year. There were strategic pivots, employee layoffs, disappointed customers... But since we’re building up from the ashes, we haven’t experienced any of those hardships and we’re able to purely focus on building a travel company for the post-COVID world.

What were some of the biggest difficulties you faced this year?

HM: The single biggest difficulty was trying to find a co-founder. I attended virtual start-up events, posted on sites like CofoundMe, and talked to a lot of people, but ultimately didn’t find a business partner.

This leads me to another struggle: as a solo founder and first-time entrepreneur, it was challenging to figure out what to do first because so much had to get done and there is only one of me! Thankfully, I connected with a couple of great advisors who helped and encouraged me to keep moving forward.

Has the pandemic changed your outlook on the travel business and your approach to your job?

HM: The pandemic has definitely shined a light on how important the tourism industry is – it makes a huge difference to the general welfare of millions of people. The pandemic also reaffirmed my general belief that the magnitude of the tourism industry is so huge that if people choose to spend money with companies that are aligned with their values, it really can lead to a more sustainable and connected world.

What has helped you get through this year?

HM: The people in this industry! They are the best. Every time I meet a new sustainable tour operator – whether they’re from Portugal, Kenya, Nepal, or anywhere else – I am filled with joy and inspiration. There are people and companies all over the world trying to use tourism for good, who believe in the same values as I do – that tourism should be used to strengthen local communities and economies while preserving their natural environments. It truly energizes me to tap into this incredible community.

Has anything good come out of this year for you?

HM: Honestly, as tough as this year has been, a lot of good things have come out of it. Completing an MBA and launching my dream company are huge milestones!

I think one of the best things to come out of this year has been to see how many people are invested in helping this idea succeed. Between classmates, former colleagues, and strangers who are now friends, I received so much generous help throughout the year.

What does the future look like for Yūgen Earthside? Any plans?

HM: So many! After launching on December 17th, we are now focusing on adding more tour operators and trips to our site. Aside from loading B2C trips, we have several ideas for expansion, including launching a B2B service for schools and companies, as well as launching an e-commerce shop of eco-friendly travel products. There is more but you’ll have to follow along!

What advice would you give to someone looking to become an entrepreneur?

HM: Know your why. Understand why you are starting your business and it will keep you motivated and focused as you navigate this new venture. I learned this important piece of advice from Karissa Bodnar, a friend and fellow female entrepreneur who founded Thrive Causemetics. Having an advisor or mentor – somebody objective who you can brainstorm with – is also really beneficial. Lastly, don’t get too stressed out about what needs to be done first, second, third. We’re only human, so just do one thing at a time and keep moving forward. You will probably make mistakes, but it’s fine – just keep putting one foot in front of the other.