Editor's Note: The Harbor Light Newspaper has been following the progress of 2004 Harbor Springs High School graduate Jordan Breighner's innovative new technology business accelerator, Coolhouse Labs, since its early 2013 inception. Located on Main Street in downtown Harbor Springs, Coolhouse is officially up and running with five startup companies in town for the first summer cohort. We started featuring these companies over the past few weeks. Presented here is Project Travel.
Meeting Jennifer Thomas and Samantha Martin means making two new friends. The Project Travel duo-- part of a nine-person team Thomas brought together-- are bright and engaging, creating a sense of shared community within minutes of striking up a conversation.
It makes sense the pair is so easy-going with strangers, as the mission of Project Travel is to enable people (primarily students) to build connections through meaningful travel experiences. The website allows communities to support their students in becoming global citizens by assisting would-be travelers in their quest for funding through an online peer-funding platform.
"Project Travel originally started as a social mission, founded on the belief that it should be affordable for all students to have an opportunity to travel abroad," Thomas said.
A decade ago, as a student herself, Thomas struggled to pay for an experience abroad. She said her own process of becoming a world citizen sparked the desire to provide students with better ways to fund program or organization-related trips.
"We give space for students to tell their personal story and garner support-- both financially and socially-- within their communities," Thomas said.
She started dreaming up Project Travel in 2004, went full-time in 2011, and formed the company's team last summer. By fall, they had already successfully funded their first travel project.
For Martin, who serves as the company's director of partner relations and project advising, the idea of Project Travel rang true instantly.
"I studied abroad as an undergraduate student and it changed my perspective on life and who I wanted to be," Martin said. "Since 2006, I've worked as a study abroad advisor. One of the problems program providers face is how to help students with financing. Everyday I would see students I worked with for as long as seven months discover they didn't receive a scholarship or level of financial aid needed to make a trip happen. 80-percent of the undergraduate population wants meaningful travel experiences, and yet, only three-percent have them. This is an opportunity to fill in gaps of finance and information."
Martin is a poster child for the opportunities travel can bring. She met Thomas while passing through Chicago on a road trip, through a website that connects travellers with host houses (and couches).
"It was the first time I'd ever hosted anyone," Thomas said. "And we hit it off instantly, staying up until the wee hours of morning sharing travel experiences and talking. She helped really put into perspective the programming end of student travel, and from there, this became a space for students to share stories and gain funding, and also, as a communication bridge with programs."
Like most successful social entrepreneurs, Project Travel's team understands the importance of a strong narrative. A big part of what Thomas said they want to help people do is tell a compelling story.
"A lot 'millennials' (high school/college/20-something age folks) feel the need to document their lives with some form of online social media, but haven't figured out how to share something in a meaningful way," Thomas said. "We want to help them engage with their community, to be able to build new community and at the same time, reach their travel goals"
Project Travel's only qualification for those looking to fund a volunteer, teaching, or study abroad experience is that trips are run through a program, organization, or school.
"This is not for spring break or vacation," Thomas said with a smile. "The word 'meaningful' is central to our mission. We always encourage people put in effort in exchange for funding. That can mean hosting a BBQ or committing to volunteer somewhere for 10 hours for every $100 raised."
"Project Travel isn't just a segmented, fragmented experience. From the fundraising component, to the experience itself, to posts after, a community is able to follow the whole journey, sharing in every step of the way."
Peer-funding is a relatively new concept, and is different from the famous "crowd-funding" platforms like Kickstarter in that funding comes from within personal communities.
"When I was younger, we went door to door selling bad chocolate and gift wrap to raise money, and people bought stuff because they wanted to support us. That approach to fundraising is no longer as accepted, but communities still want to to give. Peer funding is going to people you know, engaging with your community and making those connections," Thomas said.
"Communities have been peer-funding meaningful projects for centuries," Martin added. "The Statue of Liberty was peer-funding. What we're doing is leveraging online spaces for greater visibility and support."
And that leverage will likely pay off for Project Travel, as the company rides the wave of over 300 online crowd-funding sites that expect to do $5-billion worth of transactions in 2013 alone. Project Travel does not charge users to start a project, and instead takes a small-percentage of dollars raised.
The team was invited to become a Coolhouse Labs cohort two weeks into the program, another testament to their travel-spirits.
"We literally made the decision to come in 24-hours," Thomas said. "And we are so glad we did. The community has been incredibly welcoming, from our wonderful host family to people on the street."
"We have a great team of advisors already, but having access to the mentors and wealth of experience has challenged us and helped us define what we want to be as a company," Martin added.
Both noted what travel does-- the way it shapes and redefines perspectives-- is something that can make a world of difference, one individual at a time.
"These experiences force students out of their comfort zones. When that happens, new skills emerge. People learn to embrace challenges, to be independent and resilient," Martin said.
"No one has to go into a trip expecting it to change their lives. That's what is so amazing-- the clarity comes with the experience, all on its own," Thomas noted.
The Project Travel team would love to hear from Harbor Springs community members willing to share their own travel or supporting travel experiences, and encourage anyone interested to stop by Coolhouse Labs.
To learn more, visit www.projecttravel.com, or connect with Martin and Thomas at Coolhouse Labs.