In Episode 6 of 85 Percent, host Beth Santos sits down with masterful travel journalist, globetrotter, and entrepreneur, Yulia Denisyuk of Travel Media Lab.

Episode 6 of the 85 Percent podcast is live and we can’t wait for you to learn more about the incredible woman highlighted!

New to 85 Percent? Here’s a quick intro

85 Percent is a new podcast hosted by Wanderful’s founder and CEO, Beth Santos. We’re talking about the fact that 85% of travel decisions are made by women, yet women are consistently left out of travel marketing and leadership.

In each episode of this podcast, Beth sits down with a trailblazing woman who is making moves to create a more equitable travel equation for all of us.

Introducing Episode 6 with Yulia Denisyuk

Yulia Denisyuk is an award-winning travel photographer and writer who turned to travel journalism after serving in the US military and working as a Fortune 500. She’s written for The New York Times, National Geographic, TIME, Conde Nast Traveler, BBC Travel, and more, on unique assignments that have brought her to share a roof with nomads in Mongolia and learn the art of Imigongo with artist collectives in Rwanda. 

But Yulia’s wild and adventurous stories are only the beginning of her journey – they’re the fuel that have allowed her to become a multi-talented entrepreneur running numerous businesses that expand travel – and the way we see and write about travel – for others around the world.

00:02

Yulia Denisyuk: 

I love to show other women what you can do with your life, and having women inspiring other women to step into whatever it is they desire for themselves is super powerful.

Welcome to the 85 Percent Podcast

00:16

Beth Santos: Did you know that women make 85% of travel decisions? Whether booking a trip for our families, or cleaning the hotel rooms, women are the backbone of the travel industry. But the people we see in travel shows marketing and leadership? They don’t look like us. Now we’re cutting through the noise to talk to the changemakers, the trailblazers, and the women who make travel what it is and how we can make travel better for all of us. This is 85%. I’m your host, Beth Santos.

Meet Yulia Denisyuk of Travel Media Lab

This is Yulia Denisyuk. She is an award-winning travel photographer and writer and she turned to travel journalism after serving in the US military and working at a Fortune 500. She’s written for some amazing publications from the New York Times to National Geographic to Time, Conde Nast Traveler, BBC Travel and more on really unique assignments that have brought her to share a roof with nomads in Mongolia and learn the art of imigongo  with artists collectives in Rwanda. But Yulia’s wild and adventurous stories are only the beginning of her journey.

They’re the fuel that have allowed her to become a multitalented entrepreneur running numerous businesses that expand travel and the way we see and write about travel, for others around the world. She runs a small group travel company called Nomad and Jules with trips to the Middle East. She’s also the founder of Travel Media Lab, platform and podcast helping others get started in travel media. She even hosted me on her podcast once you can see the link to the episode in the show notes. And she frequently speaks at conferences and events, and teaches travel media workshops all around the world.

02:00

Yulia Denisyuk: And so many women came up to me and they’re like, oh, Yulia, and I’m like, oh, my god, I inspire you. This is amazing, like, it gives me such a good feeling. It’s so important. It was amazing to be nominated. Thank you. Thank you guys so much. And whoever ends up on that stage is going to be an amazing example for everyone in the room.

About the Bessie Awards

MC Ana Dominguez at the 2023 Bessie Awards in San Juan, Puerto Rico

02:20

Beth Santos: Yulia was a 2023 Bessie Award finalist for Creator of the Year. The Bessie Awards are named after Bessie Coleman, the first woman of African American and Native American descent to hold a pilot’s license. They honor women and gender-diverse people of impacted travel, particularly influencers, creative entrepreneurs, marketers and other representatives who have contributed really unique voices and work to the travel industry. And they’re hosted every year at the Wits Travel Creator Summit in cities around North America. The Creator of the Year Award is a special honor and the three finalists are always jaw droppingly inspiring. Our community looks for creators who have gone above and beyond in the past year to challenge the status quo as really a thought leader in the industry. They’re nominated by anyone, but voting only happens by past and current WITS attendees, as well as a super selective society of past Bessie award winners. A virtuous cycle of woman-made success. I adore catching up with Yulia. Every time I do, it feels like a therapy session being together for WITS 2023 in Puerto Rico, man, I needed to take another minute to digest some of this trademark Yulia wisdom. And this time I’m going to take you with me.

Yulia’s Journey to Journalism 

03:35

Yulia Denisyuk: I was born in Kazakhstan. And at three, we moved to Estonia. This is where my life started. But we had family left in Kazakhstan. And so every summer my mom would ship me off, to meet my grandma and to this day, you know, I never actually lived there because I was born there. And then at three I left, but how important are those first couple of years because every time I stepped foot on that land, there’s something about that city where I was born, that I’m just I just have such a strong attachment to it, even though I’ve actually never lived there beyond those first three years. So I was always excited coming back to Kazakhstan. My first solo trip actually, if you can call it that, when I was five years old. My mom put me on a plane, the flight attendant took me because there’s that unaccompanied minor and then my grandma met me at the airport and I was so proud, with my little backpack.

04:24

Beth Santos: Yulia’s extensive travel portfolio becomes a lot more understandable when you get a sense of her upbringing. Born in Kazakhstan and raised in Estonia, she always felt somewhere in between these two places. She’s also lived in the US served in the Navy and got a place in Barcelona. If you were to look up the term global citizen in a  dictionary, it’d pretty much be Yulia’s face that you’d see there. 

04:47

Yulia Denisyuk: For me, travel is people. You know all these other parts of it are great, of course, but for the past maybe five years how I’ve traveled is I’ve traveled for the people. I have so many friends all over the world now and you know I come back and see them. And that’s hope for me. 

For me, travel is people.

Yulia Denisyuk

05:02

Beth Santos: Like millions of others. Maya Angelou is one of my most favorite poets and authors. And one of my favorite quotes from her is this, “I long as does every human being, to be at home, wherever I find myself”. In this one sentence, there is so much meaning. Maya suggests we find peace within ourselves, no matter where we are in the world, to relish in those lessons that travel teaches us, paired with a confidence that we can handle all the discomforts that we come across as citizens of the world. 

05:37

Yulia Denisyuk: This year has been already so crazy for me. I’ve been to Sierra Leone, I’ve been to the Arctic Circle, Qatar, I’ve been to Turkey, Spain, London, I mean, so that point of staying kind of central and grounded, see yourself on the practical side, this can get really tricky, because when you’re moving so much, and the decorations of your life change so much, you know, it’s it’s sometimes it takes a real effort to stay grounded in that rootedness.

I’m very comfortable when I travel, you know, I can step into a room of full of people, I don’t know, with the culture I don’t know, and really be comfortable there. And I think it’s because as long as I can remember, I always felt a little bit as an outsider everywhere. Some other trips I’ve taken also were like this huge train, or like long train journeys from Moscow to Almaty took five days, and you see the steps, see the mountains, you see camels outside the train window. And you know, it’s these epic journeys that I was taking at a very young age. So yeah, travel. I mean, it was always part of my life. But I never saw a model of this being an career or a job for me, it was never in the realm of possibility for me. And so about six years ago, when this journey started, it started with a huge wake up call, actually, because I was a Brand Manager at one of the biggest, or actually the biggest beer companies in the world called Anheuser Busch. And I was there and the company just moved us to New York, from St. Louis, huge investments, my big shiny marketing office, all that stuff, I was getting paid so well. Nobody in my family ever made so much money as I did at that point, very prestigious job. But I was incredibly miserable. I was living in Manhattan, I did not see Manhattan at all, because I was working from 8am until 10pm, sometimes and weekends as well. And it’s like, I just kept feeling like I’m on this train that’s going on some direction. And it’s not the direction I want to go to, but the train is going. And I’m on it, that’s just I kept feeling like that. And eventually my body started giving me signs that something has changed. Because of my back started hurting. I couldn’t even show up and do my job at the office anymore. I had to like, do my job standing up, I couldn’t sit down in the office that was so weird. And I said, you know what, something has to change. You need to change, you need to try something new. Switching careers like that, it’s really difficult. It’s in some way, it’s really comfortable being in a corporate career, you know, you’re getting a salary, you have some sense of security, but emotionally and mentally I was just like, This is it, I have to change it. 

So I did I took six months to go travel around the world. And in those six months, the goal was for me to figure out how to become a travel journalist, how to start working with National Geographic, that was like my number one priority. For years before I was reading travel magazines. I wanted to do the stories that I read in the magazines, but I just didn’t see anyone that I know, doing that. That was like such an insurmountable dream. But yeah, I gave myself six months to work with National Geographic, what do you think happened in six months that I became a National Geographic contributor in six months, I absolutely did not accomplish any of the goals. And I think it’s important to talk about that, actually, because we talk about achievements, we talk about successes and took me forever to get established. It took me forever to understand how the industry works to develop contacts even, to understand how pitching works, you know all of that. So now in six months, I actually came back to the States after my trip, I hit the lowest point because all my friends who are still in the corporate world, they were making VP titles by that point. And I’m like, oh my god, wouldn’t I just do? What did I just do? I’m running out of money. I didn’t accomplish anything in this six months, what just happened? It was such a low point. And I think it’s important that we talk about that because that’s the truth of sometimes journeys like that. 

But what happened with me in some moment of genius, which I’m not assigning to myself, not really like something answered my body honestly, like I had this weird experience where some clarity of you need to write down on a piece of paper exactly what you want to accomplish by the end of this year. Because you know, I had this idea oh, yeah, I want to work with National Geographic, but beyond that, it was very nebulous. I didn’t really know what exactly that meant. So I sat down and literally wrote out what are the top ten things was that I want to do. And then I started working on it one by one. And by the end of the year, most of those things came through actually. And I still have the image of that list, you know, to remind myself what is possible. So and that’s actually what I teach now, too, because people ask me all the time, like how you did it, all this stuff, and I’m like, you need to know where you want to go, maybe not, you know, to the 100%. Of course, things will change, but at least have some vision in your head of what is it that you’re trying to accomplish. 

Because when we say I want to be a travel blogger, I want to travel the world. Hmmm that’s too vague. That’s not enough information, that’s not enough details or clarity for you to, you know, start working towards some of those things. If I can just bore you a little bit with some science behind this because I’m really interested in this topic. Why does this work mentally, it’s because our consciousness we are receiving so many stimuli every day, so much things enters our consciousness that most of it will filter out actually, because otherwise it would be too much. But what happens when we let sit visualize or when we put things on paper, when we put a vision down is that we are giving direction to our consciousness to say, “Hey, pay attention to these things now because they are important to me.” And all of a sudden, once you put the vision down on paper, you start seeing signs everywhere. Oh, go go check this out. Go talk to that person. And you start thinking wait, is this magic that all of a sudden all these signs are showing up? But actually science wise, that’s how it’s explained? Because now you’ve given your consciousness direction, to pay a trend attention to certain things.

When we put a vision down, we are giving direction to our consciousness to say, “Hey, pay attention to these things now because they are important to me.

Yulia Denisyuk

11:28

Beth Santos: When Yulia was speaking of science backing up her theory, she was totally correct. Dr. Gail Matthews, a psychology professor at Dominican University in California did a study on goal setting with 267 participants, she found that you are 42% more likely to achieve your goals just by writing them down. One of the reasons is because it’ll force you to really clarify what it is that you want. But even with a strong sense of direction and clarity, we can be surprised by how long things take. achieving our goals is rarely an arrow straight path. Things happen that we don’t expect, and we have to work around them or change course in some way. It’s persistence, and pivoting, that helps us get there. 

12:14

Yulia Denisyuk: 2016 was the year when I I started by the end of the year, I was published in a fire magazine, one of my biggest like goals, and I love that magazine and love the work that they do, how exactly it happened. I was just starting out on Instagram at that point and I was using their hashtag travel deeper as one of their hashtags. And I think their team actually noticed my photographs or something they reached out to me back when Instagram or was the thing 2015/2016 they were profiling travelers who are doing something on Instagram. And so I ended up being in one of their profiles. And I just used that opportunity to say hey, I actually have a few stories I’d love to share, who should I reach out to on your team. And so they put me in contact with their editorial team and that’s how that happened. 

And then, you know, slowly, slowly it went from there. What really helped me in the beginning of this journey is I read somewhere a study or I think it was a Small Business Association SBA study or something that on average, it takes businesses about seven years to make it and to succeed in the United States. And that just put it into perspective for me, because seven years on that scale, it’s a long time. So right now, I’m about six to seven year mark. And honestly, some transformation has happened for me in the past year, year and a half, where I’m just now starting to feel like I’m really coming into my own both with my storytelling, let’s say chops and the people that I want to work with in the magazine business, but also with my own business with Travel Media Lab and other projects that I want to do. You know, like, right now I’m working on a storytelling retreat in Barcelona, for example, I just feel this energy of I’m stepping into my own as a creator and what I can do in this world, and that feels so good but it took about six years to feel that way.

Sharing Stories About the Middle East

14:02

Beth Santos: People travel for so many reasons, sometimes it’s to escape the world. Other times, it’s to lean into it. We want to learn about others and are surprised how different or similar they are to us.

14:16

Yulia Denisyuk: I love stories about people, stories that show us a place from an unexpected angle. I’m very partial to the Middle East region. You know, that’s where some of my work had started originally. I was an organist but with the military and that’s not that as a journalist, but it’s really the stories about people and what drives my work at sort of this fundamental level is I have this very strong belief that underneath it all we are all the same people meaning we all share common wants and needs and desires. We want all want a safe roof over our heads. We all want our children to do well. We all want to have tea with each other and we want friends health, all that stuff fundamental, that none of those external sort of things, when you peel them away, that’s that’s what unites us all you know, as people that’s travel is so powerful, because when you go around the world and you sit down with the Bedouin shepherd who just wants to make you a nice cup of tea and sit with you and share that cup of tea with you, all my work really underneath it oh, that’s what that that’s what drives that belief drives all of my work. 

Sometimes it’s frustrating. Sometimes it’s challenging, because you know, you, you see all this, you experience all this and you open the New York Times or whatever, and you see some really stupid headlines. And you’re like, this just never ends, and it’s really hard. It’s hard, oftentimes, on the practical level, because on the practical level, we actually don’t need that much space to write stories, you know, we get couple of paragraphs, or we get, I don’t know, 500 words, how do you put some of those deep experiences into 500 words it’s so hard. I think of myself as a vessel for these people you know, that’s really how I approach my work. Now, what gives me the mandate to tell some of these stories is that I am just a vessel like the Bedouins, my Bedouin friends are not gonna pitch National Geographic, they have better things to do with who’s gonna fish that traffic, I will. and then I am rich, I am just a vessel for their voice for their stories, that’s how I think about it.

Is Travel Unsafe for Women?

16:22

Beth Santos: If you’ve listened to the opener of this podcast, you’ll know that women make 80 to 85% of travel decisions. Two out of three travelers are women across the board, we are more likely to travel and to travel alone than men are. Yet paradoxically, we’re still told that travel isn’t really for us that it’s unsafe, that we’re unsafe doing it. The world has taught women that the world is unsafe for them. But it’s not stopping traveling that’s going to cure this fear. It’s actually getting out there, pushing the limit and telling stories. Being a journalist allows Yulia to take that mission, even further sharing her voice with millions around the world.

17:02

Yulia Denisyuk: I would say that being a woman in some of these spaces actually gives me an advantage. For example, as a woman, I could go and sit down with a women’s farming group and, and there will be more comfortable with me, and then they would perhaps be with a male journalist. So I think in some ways, it gives me an advantage in terms of sticking out yes, I do feel like of course, you know, especially again, if you’re going to the Middle East, you have this white chick with blonde hair, she’s  gonna stick out. But at the same time, I have this chameleon like ability, again, going back to my childhood, I just felt like because I belonged nowhere, I belonged everywhere, kind of. So I feel like I can walk into a room full of Sheikh’s in Doha or something and be comfortable there, as comfortable as I can with Shepherds that I’m with in deserts or something. The other thing here is that as a Western woman who is traveling in some of these places, I am treated, unfortunately, or fortunately, however you want to interpret it. I’m held to a different standard than some of the women who live there, for example, some of the spaces to answer I can answer those spaces because I’m a Western woman. And I’ve learned over the years, I’m never showing up at a space and judging their customs. I’m showing up and I’m observing what’s happening there and I try to respect and follow. But overall, I think I’ve been really fortunate because he I feel just like the access that I’ve been able to get has been just really great. 

Because I belonged nowhere, I belonged everywhere.

Yulia Denisyuk

I just came from Jordan and I was there for a project called Farm to Fork. We traveled with three Michelin chefs from outside of Jordan, we came to Jordan to meet farmers producers in the country to learn about local food, local ingredients. And then the project culminated with the Michelin chefs cooking dinner for 100 people with the local ingredients, interpreting the local cuisine in an effort to elevate the conversation around food and journal because Jordan is actually not known as a culinary destination, even though it should be known, so that was the project there. And then I’m here in Puerto Rico, you know, I’m at your amazing conference and we met with a Puerto Rican chef, and she started talking about the disastrous situation with food in Puerto Rico, which I actually didn’t know that in Puerto Rico 85% of food is imported to this rich, fertile land. It’s shocking. But it’s interesting that I just spent four days talking about farm to table movement in Jordan, and now I’m here two or three weeks, and we’re talking about the same thing, different setting, but the same challenge, the same problem and the stories that I’m really interested in now, but it’s a huge responsibility. You know, I don’t want to misrepresent, I don’t want to throw parades, I think about this a lot. 

And like going back to what I said earlier about being a vessel for somebody’s story, I try to tell the story in their own words as much as possible, because again, words are powerful when people say, “oh, I met the locals. oh, I hang out with the locals”. I don’t know, I can’t put my finger on it but I don’t like that word, locals. Because to me, it pits us versus them locals and foreigners. How I would describe it is I hung out with the coffee shop owner, I hung out with the person who lives in Amman or Ammonite. Again, I think about these things, I think about how words make us feel, if you read any of my definitely recent stories, I don’t use that word, “locals”. I will use the word “local coffee shop owner”, because local as an adjective has a different meaning for me, but when you put it that term “locals” around it for me, just somehow it rubs me the wrong way. 

Travel is an immense privilege, you go around the world, and you see people who could never afford or be able to go where you go. Or even, you know, I just went to Sierra Leone, for example. And we stayed in some nice hotels there in Sierra Leone and then you walk down the street, and you see people who could never stay in the hotel that you just stayed in, that’s their country, their street, you know, things like that, so that’s one side of that. But on the other side of that is borders being an artificial construct, because throughout humanity, we actually moved all the time. This is our innate desire to move to walk the earth to travel to meet people, what’s beyond the horizon. And I think it’s sometimes it’s like, it’s in this interesting conflict with one another because I do feel like or at least in my head, I’m having this conflict or this conversation about travel being a privilege on one hand, but also travle being an innate desire for all humans, actually, throughout history.

What Yulia Wants to See From the Travel Industry 

21:31

Beth Santos: So what is the world we want to see? How can we make travel better for the social minority, and yet the numerical majority, women. Members of the travel industry, listen up, this is where I want your ears to perk up. It is not just about adding more fashion conversation and shopping tips. It is about fundamentally changing who is calling the shots in the first place. 

21:55

Yulia Denisyuk: I want to see a world in which women lead the world. What kind of a world would it be? Somebody needs to write a book about it if they haven’t already. And I feel the same about the travel industry. You know, it’s interesting conversation, because you know, the 85% why we’re all here. But let’s look at the leadership positions, are they women? That’s where I would start, more women in leadership positions in the travel industry, because of the kind of choices we would make, I truly believe we’ll be different. Man, we have a long way to go. And there’s so much preparation and education, I feel like needs to happen for that because I am seeing the changes through by the way, I see women being more open now, more brave, more outspoken. And, by the way, a lot of that just in the travel industry is thanks to you too and your efforts, right with Wanderful and everything that you guys are doing. 

But I also think about, imagine that you growing up as a white male in California, the kind of access and the kind of mindset you have growing up where all the doors are open to you, everything is possible, you’re a part of all the rooms, you’re part of all the conversations and imagine growing up a woman in Afghanistan, let’s say who just became a refugee and to the states, she has never been part of any rooms, she has never thought anything is possible. And now she has to overcome all of that internally before ever being able to step into any of the rooms. Guess where I’m going with that is that our starting points are so different for a lot of people that we’re now trying to invite into some of these positions and some of these conversations. But I think we have to do a better job at recognizing those different starting points. 

We need a lot of support, we need a lot of encouragement and inspiration and more women showing us the way that hey, this is possible. It’s like this whole conversation about change in general, right? Progress is happening. It’s not happening soon enough, or it’s not like there’s so much more that needs to be done. And then you have to choose how you want to look at it. Do you want to make it upset you and be sad about it? Or do you want to use it as fuel to kind of say, okay, what else can I do or keep going or keep pushing? You know, I choose to believe that the next generation brings us closer to a better place than the previous generation. You know, I mean, I choose to, I choose to be an optimist, I choose to see it that way.

24:14

Beth Santos: Yulia is what I call an active traveler not just traveling to see and experience the world but to actively pass along those stories to others to create meaningful change for others and push boundaries that women who fall behind her find their experiences, just marginally easier to help our world see that strong women are unavoidable and that we’re here to stay. And she’s taking us along with her women who are building businesses, sharing their voices, and helping them create the travel industry that represents them, that we all want to see. To find out more about Yulia check out our show notes and follow her on Instagram @insearchofperfect and @travelmedialab. This is 85 Percent. 

About the 85 Percent Podcast

Women make 85 percent of travel decisions. So why are we not 85% of travel marketing?

85 Percent explores what it means to be a woman in travel through interviews with leading women in the travel, tourism and hospitality industries.

From CEOs, to travel influencers and writers, to women who work in cleaning and maintenance, we’re cutting into the underbelly of an industry that is predominantly made of women, but still fails to include them, and is hosted by Beth Santos, founder of leading women’s travel network, Wanderful.

About the Host, Beth Santos

Beth Santos of Wanderful
Beth Santos of Wanderful

Beth Santos is a passionate entrepreneur and community builder out to disrupt travel for women worldwide. She is founder and CEO of Wanderful, an international collective of travelers and travel content creators on a mission to make travel better for all women. She is the creator of the WITS Travel Creator Summit, a leading event for women and gender diverse travel creators, the annual Bessie Awards to honor women of impact in travel, and the first major outdoor travel festival by and for women, Wanderfest. 

Beth has been named one of 17 changemakers shaping the future of the travel industry by Business Insider, one of 12 women to follow by Conde Nast Traveller, and one of 20 influential women in the travel industry by Travel Pulse. In 2022, she was named Godmother of the Azamara Onward cruise ship. 

She is the author of WANDER WOMAN: How to Reclaim Your Space, Find Your Voice, and Travel the World, Solo and works to amplify underrepresented voices in travel while challenging each of us to do better in her work as a keynote speaker, an industry consultant, and a startup and small business coach. At home she is a co-owner of Ula Cafe, an inspired cafe and community hub in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, where she lives with her husband and children.

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Ready for Season 3?

Season 3 of the 85 Percent Podcast will highlight the winners of the 2024 Bessie Awards and the work they’re doing to make travel better for women worldwide. Stay tuned for 9 new episodes to drop in fall 2024!