Steph Lawrence gave her first dinner party when she was 12, serving 40 people. Aashi Vel grew up connecting to her culture through the scrumptious south and north indian food made by her mother in Madras, India.
At a consumption function in their first week at Haas they immediately bonded over common interests such as, well, food. What followed has been a whirlwind of activity aimed at launching The Traveling Spoon, an online service helping travelers explore culture through the local cuisine. The tagline: Travel off the Eaten Path.
Lawrence, long an avid food blogger and a cook going back to her Easy Bake Oven days, had been thinking for a while about a venture combining food and travel. While living and working in China in 2009, she made learning how to make dumplings from “a Chinese grandma” a priority. Checking this item off her bucket list made her want to share authentic local food experiences with shorter-term visitors to a region. That same year, she registered the Traveling Spoon URL, with the idea that in a few years she’d go to b-school and think about this some more.
Vel came to Haas with a finely honed palate and experience in industrial design for medical devices and consumer products. “I always want to be doing something creative,” she says of her move from design to cuisine. Prior to meeting Lawrence, she traveled in Tulum, Mexico where she too craved an authentic food experience. “On my way to restaurants, I’d smell the aromas coming from home kitchens and wish I were eating fresh tortillas made by a local Mexican woman instead,” says Vel.
“Meeting Aashi is what turned Traveling Spoon from something I auto-renewed on Go Daddy each year into something real,” says Lawrence. Last winter they offered a Traveling Spoon experience to fellow students on a winter break trek through Southeast Asia, bringing 8 classmates together for a home dinner in Cochin, India. “This was the highlight of our trip,” says Jane Wong, MBA 13, of the feast of homemade appams, syrian beef fry, and fish curry. “I would jump at the chance to do another.”
Berkeley-Haas coursework has followed the launch curve for Lawrence and Vel, who together took Entrepreneurship last spring to hone their business model. This year, they moved on to New Venture Finance to work on funding, Lean LaunchPad for deeper customer insights, and Women in Business to learn how to empower their partnering hosts (95% of whom are women).
While their aim is to be global, they are concentrating on Asia for now. Vel spent summer 2012 lining up hosts in India and the pair spent this past winter break in Thailand, Vietnam, and Bangladesh signing up additional hosts—a mix of established chefs and teachers along with home cooks. “An important goal for Traveling Spoon is empowering women in emerging markets,” says Vel.
Days that stretch to 3:00 a.m. are not unusual, but Vel says, “It never feels like work.” That’s due, in part, to the fact that Lawrence and Vel are now close friends as well as business partners. Both say meeting each other is the best thing that has happened to them at Haas, making it clear that, wherever they travel off the eaten path, it will be together.