Serena Guen MacLeod On 10 Years of Women-Led Success At SUITCASE

When Serena Guen MacLeod founded SUITCASE just over 10 years ago, she made it her mission to support and empower women travellers, creatives and communities. Here, she shares why that founding purpose has never been more important

Interview by Georgina Groom and Lucy Kehoe

Serena Guen MacLeod was just 22 when she published the first issue of SUITCASE. Now, over 10 years and 39 issues later, she's at the helm of a women-led, multi-award-winning media company that has continually championed a new generation of inspirational women in the travel industry. Whether meeting the visionaries behind boutique hotels, showcasing the fascinating, women-led startups putting lesser-known neighbourhoods on the map, sharing the stories of notable individuals uplifting their communities, or celebrating women-led traditions the world-over, empowering women continues to shape the content SUITCASE creates. We sat down with her to discuss the path she took when starting out, and the women trailblazers who continue to inspire her today.

SUITCASE founder Serena Guen MacLeod on supporting women through travel

The biggest challenge I faced when launching SUITCASE was being young. At the time, I had a lack of knowledge and network. I had to teach myself everything - even down to googling how to make a magazine.

The fashion and travel media industries are predominantly female, so I didn't feel particularly different at the time. However, it suddenly became obvious when I was fundraising that 90 per cent of whoever was on the other side of the table were men. Sure, there were likely legitimate reasons why SUITCASE didn't fit the portfolios of certain investors, but when you see that in 2022 only 6 per cent of venture funding went to women, it's difficult not to wonder.

Sadly, only nine of the current FTSE 100 CEOs are women, and although SUITCASE is not quite a FTSE 100 company yet, I always remain conscious of having women in our leadership positions. We've had quite a few female lead investors - and a lot of them are readers of the brand. Our board is also primarily women, as is our team.

Serena Guen

SUITCASE founder Serena Guen MacLeod. | Photo credit: Iona Wolff

While the SUITCASE team is predominantly female, that is by no means a reflection of what the rest of the world looks like. There are still huge gender pay gaps and institutional problems with anything to do with having children. I saw in a recent study that women could be contributing an extra £38billion to UK society (1 per cent GDP) if they had better, more affordable childcare options.

SUITCASE is a small company, but we have policies that support our female workers, be it paid time off for those with IVF or adoption appointments, or flexibility on working hours for team members who need to be available for childcare. I'm also currently working on a menopause policy, something which is often overlooked.

When I started SUITCASE, 90 per cent of trips were researched and booked by women. Today, it's still the case that 80 per cent of travel-related decisions are taken by women. There's a lot of commentary surrounding topics like safety and fashion when talking about women travelling. At SUITCASE, we feature destinations that empower and enable the art of travel, whoever you might be.

We love to spotlight female communities around the world, like our Zanzibar seaweed mamas feature in Vol. 33: Collective and, in Vol. 39: Ritual, a story on the women of Kihnu island, in Estonia, who are preserving their cultural heritage in the skirts they weave. We're also aware of who we work with. Keeping our pool of writers and photographers as diverse as possible allows us to give our platform different voices.

In our latest issue, Vol. 40: Visionary, there's a brilliant story written by Anna Richards about a group of French nuns who are using permaculture principles to grow produce in their convent garden. The feature is accompanied by incredible artwork courtesy of illustrator Caroline Tomlinson.

Seaweed gathering in Zanzibar
Kihnu Island

Seaweed gatherers in Zanzibar, and a matriach from Kihnu Island. | Photo credit: Carl van der Linde, left, and Aron Klein.

I really admire Katalina Mayorga, the founder of El Camino Travel. She's a powerhouse who spotlights local communities through her trips, educating people about all corners of the world with her progressive and interesting lens on travel. I also admire Tamara Lohan, one half of the duo behind Mr & Mrs Smith; she's done an incredible job of building the company up through her leadership.

I love the adventures travel writer Sophy Roberts goes on, as well as her writing style and how accessible and down to earth she is. She's also just recently launched a great podcast, Gone to Timbuktu. I'm a big fan of the brand and community that Yodit Eklund built around beachwear brand Bantu Wax, too. Another notable woman pioneer is former editor of Wanderlust Phoebe Smith, who has made it her mission to show people that for every overseas destination they want to visit, they'll find an equally beautiful landscape in the UK. Plus, she has a charity that provides travel experiences for underprivileged kids across the UK.

There are some really cool women-led travel communities popping up. I love what Black Girls Hike and Hike Clerb are doing in the US, as well as UK-based The Wanderlust Women, a hiking and adventure group that encourages Muslim women to explore beyond urban boundaries.

An easy way to support women while you travel is to seek out businesses run by them. London's River Café is one of my favourites. Ruth Rogers has done amazing things there, in the kitchen, on her podcast and more.

Then, there's the inimitable Marie-Louise Sciò, owner of Hotel Il Pellicano, who has created a whole brand around her collection of hotels and lifestyle. And I love Kit Kemp and her Firmdale kingdom, too. I also can't wait to see Laurence Leenaert's new riad, Rosemary, open in Marrakech later this year.

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