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How Two Adventurous Friends Turned Giving Back Into a New Style of Travel

Inspiring Best Friends Who Empower Women

How Two Adventurous Friends Turned Giving Back Into a New Style of Travel

Style is about more than the clothes you wear, it’s the life you get dressed to lead. We partnered with Banana Republic to show how female entrepreneurs dress for success, turn their dreams into realities, and inspire other women to carve their own paths.
Most women make new friends over a shared meal or happy hour, but Allison Fleece and Danielle Thornton are not most women. The two best friends, who cofounded WHOA Travel, met over a mutual and fervent desire to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, as in the tallest freestanding mountain in the world. When such an immense undertaking brings two people together, a sort of tectonic shift happens. For Allison and Danielle, that meant quitting their full-time jobs in New York City and making an unexpected turn toward starting their own company together called WHOA in 2014. Now they're helping other women climb (and move) mountains.
On a recent visit to their West Village office, on an unseasonably warm February day, Allison and Danielle were both the effortless epitome of stylish entrepreneurs dressed in crisp blazers, sleek pants, soft accent scarves, and office-appropriate heels, all in a spectrum of classic neutrals. It didn't hurt that the pieces were illuminated by the warm glow of sunlight pouring through the expansive windows of the communal workspace, but they were further brought to life by the two cofounders and best friends with infectious energy and effusive smiles. Their shared passion was immediately evident as they shared the details of their incredible journey.

WHOA is a boutique adventure travel company that empowers women to see the world while giving back to the global community. Its name, which stands for Women High on Adventure, evokes the indescribable feeling that Allison and Danielle experienced after summiting Kilimanjaro. The company started by offering three adventures a year: climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, hiking the Inca trail in Peru, and paragliding in Bavaria during Oktoberfest (have you ever heard of a more heavenly combination?). Today, WHOA offers close to a dozen trips per year in six locations; they've since added Rajasthan, India, Mount Elbrus in Russia, and every climber's pinnacle, Mount Everest. What started out as two new friends bonding over their first climb has evolved into a global network of women who share a mutual love of adventure.
What started out as two new friends bonding over their first climb has evolved into a global network of women who share a love of adventure.
"Danielle and I had a transformative experience," Allison says. "We knew there had to be more women out there who wanted to come together with like-minded people and take on these big bucket list, epic adventures, and we thought the best way to do that was to start a business and market these trips to women and bring them together to step outside their comfort zones and discover their true potential."
Empowering women to explore their peripatetic sides is only one aspect of the company's mission. The crux of WHOA is a steadfast aim to give back to local communities and the world at large. "It's at the heart of what we do," Danielle says. She and Allison hope that WHOA will help redefine travel as not merely a luxury pursuit but an altruistic act.

For the two friends and cofounders, the seed was planted in the snows of Kilimanjaro. Climbing the mountain is mentally and physically challenging, even excruciating at times. To help propel them to the top, Allison and Danielle decided to tie their summit to a charitable cause.
"We had gotten the advice early on that climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is such a physical challenge," Danielle recalls. "And if you have something bigger than yourself that you're doing it for, it makes it so much easier."
"Giving back to local communities is at the heart of what we do."
"You plant the seed and you hope — and this is our biggest hope — that after these experiences people will continue to think of travel in this way and incorporate it into everything they do," Allison says. So the two of them decided to raise $5,000 for Tembea Girls High School in Moshi, Tanzania, as a "parallel goal" to climbing the mountain.
Giving back can take on so many forms, however, and the duo quickly realized that merely fundraising would not be as impactful as "experiential giving back." Soon they started sponsoring local women to partake in WHOA expeditions, starting in Tanzania. "These are girls raised in the shadow of Kilimanjaro who never dreamed that they would have the opportunity to climb the mountain," explains Danielle. With the same objective, WHOA launched a Mount Everest Base Camp initiative last month to sponsor Nepalese women's educations and train them to become porters and guides, a profession that is dominated by men. When they're not sponsoring local women, Allison and Danielle give back through everyday actions, like staying at nonprofit hotels.
While most girls' trips involve a wine tour in Napa or an Airbnb in Cancun, Allison sent out feelers among her friends to see who had the kind of adventure-lust for a serious climb; Danielle was among the first to respond. When the two finally met at a mutual friend's birthday party, it was like two pieces of a puzzle coming together. "It stuck," Allison says of meeting Danielle. "It fit." The concept of "soulmate" couldn't have better mascots if it tried (they even wear matching hats that they collect from around the world). After more than three years as best friends and business partners, they've learned one important lesson: it takes two.

"I think from Allison, I've learned the power of two," Danielle says. "We can't do what we do alone; it takes the both of us. It takes two sets of eyes . . . it takes four hands to do everything." And for Allison, it never hurts to have someone keep you in check. "Danielle is somebody who can hold you accountable with everything," she says of her partner. "And I appreciate it so, so much. She will make you the best version of yourself; that's the kind of person you want around."
The unbreakable bond they've formed has laid a solid foundation for other women to come together and adventure together. That same "high" that Allison and Danielle felt during their first climb up Kilimanjaro is now spreading exponentially as more women join WHOA.
Ren Fuller, a Brooklyn-based food and lifestyle photographer, participated in WHOA's 2013 Kilimanjaro summit. "To say that Kilimanjaro was life changing for me is a huge understatement," she says of the experience. "It ripped open parts of me that I didn't know existed." Now addicted, she'll be climbing Mount Elbrus with WHOA in July and tackling the Mount Everest Base Camp trek next year. Some WHOA travelers, like Amanda Chessa, a freelance user researcher, went from travel neophyte to full-fledged WHOA GAL (Group Adventure Leader), the name given to the company's female expedition guides. As a GAL, Amanda says that she's seen firsthand how WHOA impacts women. "There's a change, a spark," she says. On every single trip, she sees women who are more closed off and hesitant come out of their shells. "There's trust, there's camaraderie. It's a sisterhood."
Packing is an art the two have mastered as well, including the essentials they'll need no matter where they're traveling around the world. "My Banana Republic dream packing list is made up of fun accessories to add a pop of color or dress up any situation, basic tees, skinny jeans, and, of course, a timeless scarf to accessorize or throw over my shoulders," says Allison. "All versatile items for any kind of traveling occasion!"

Danielle plots her Banana Republic travel wardrobe based on varying climates. "If I'm going somewhere warm, [I pack] a suitcase full of colorful, flowy sundresses. For cooler places, a perfect pair of black skinny jeans. Something I can be comfortable exploring all day in and dress up in the evening if I need to." Another must have is a roomy purse. "Something to hold my camera, sunscreen, wallet, and a few rocks and shells — which I am always picking up to add to my collection!" And she makes sure to leave room in her luggage for a few unique items from abroad. "I love earrings and always make it a point to buy unique and funky earrings in the places I travel," she says. "I get asked a lot of questions about the earrings when I wear them, and they are a great conversation starter."
Both Allison and Danielle love Banana Republic for its timeless pieces and unparalleled comfort. And for two extreme adventurers, comfort is key. In fact, when asked to describe their personal styles, they practically said in unison, "Comfortable." And if a piece of clothing is multifunctional as well, then it's their perfect fashion trifecta.

"For me, it's buying those items that are timeless, that are classy, that have versatile elements," Allison explains. "I definitely think that Banana Republic offers that. They have pieces you can wear to the office, or you can wear to drinks with a friend, or lounging around the city."

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"Pieces that are timeless, classy, that have versatile elements. Banana Republic offers that."
To add further interest to the timeless staple pieces lining their closets, the two globetrotters often accessorize their ensembles with trinkets they've collected on their travels. "I think our biggest souvenirs are sarongs or scarves that we get from different locations," Allison says. "In Tanzania, I bought these what I now know to be tablecloths, but I wore them as scarves," she says with a laugh. Indian saris are another favorite accessory they picked up abroad in their signature colors, enlisting a local woman to help tie them properly.
Pictured: 1.) Heart shaped lava rock and Africa-shaped rock from Africa; 2.) Travel notes guide given to all WHOA adventurers; 3) Illustrated map of Mt. Kilimanjaro
Not only do these locally made accessories add a unique touch to any outfit but they also tell a very specific story, like a travel journal that you can wear. This is especially true if the item is unique to its provenance. "In Rajasthan, there's a tie-dye pattern that's very specific to that region," Allison explains. "Whenever I wear that somewhere else in the world, if somebody knows the intricacies of the different states and regions in India, they know that I've been to that one specific region because of how unique that is to that part of the world. To be able to tell a story on your body — what an incredible message and unique way of thinking about clothing."
It's hard to imagine that just four years ago, Allison and Danielle were a couple of 9-to-5ers, but since they made their turn, the two have changed countless lives, not least of all their own. They've both learned some invaluable lessons (Allison: "Travel and adventure have taught me that the world is a really good place." Danielle: "The people who have the least are the ones who give the most.") that have taught them to appreciate every single moment they're given. "Yesterday is in the past and tomorrow's not promised," Allison says. "So why wouldn't we be in the moment and just embrace that?"
As for the future of WHOA, the pair have big plans, namely adding more locations and trips to their annual itinerary, but also possibly expanding WHOA into a lifestyle brand that offers more than just adventures. A product line, perhaps, or a book coauthored by the best friends. It would make all the sense in the world, seeing as they're living, breathing indexes of inspirational travel quotes, advice, and wisdom. Their message for the travel shy in a nutshell? "If not now, then when?"

Beyond travel and adventure, women can learn something even more universal from Allison and Danielle: how to take what moves you and turn it into a career, a life. For anyone out there who's yearning to take their turn, but something is holding them back, these two best friends and adventurers have rock solid advice for you: "Do it!"
Photo Sources: Top Header, Style Setting and Animated Graphics: POPSUGAR Photography, Style Setting: POPSUGAR Photography, Meet the Founders and Traveling like WHOA Galleries: Nicola Bailey and Ren Fuller
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