Saurabh Khetrapal, Fair Trade Safaris
While Saurabh Khetrapal was creating tech startups in Silicon Valley and Austin, Texas, he was also advising his friends and colleagues on how to plan meaningful and individualized African safaris in his home country of Tanzania. After exiting his third tech startup, Saurabh decided to combine his two passions—preserving African wildlife and entrepreneurial ventures—into his nonprofit startup Fair Trade Safaris.
Episode 8 – Saurabh Khetrapal, Fair Trade Safaris
[00:00:00] Sanjay Parekh: Welcome to the Side Hustle to Small Business Podcast, powered by Hiscox. I’m your host, Sanjay Parekh. Throughout my career I’ve had side hustles, some of which turned into real businesses, but first and foremost: I’m a serial technology entrepreneur.
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[00:00:00] Sanjay Parekh: [00:00:57] Sanjay Parekh: While Saurabh Khetrapal was creating tech startups in Silicon Valley and Austin, Texas, he was also advising his friends and colleagues on how to plan meaningful and individualized African safaris in his home country of Tanzania. After exiting his third tech startup, Saurabh decided to combine his two passions: preserving African wildlife and entrepreneurial ventures into his nonprofit startup Fair Trade Safaris.
On today’s show, we chat about Saurabh’s seasoned entrepreneurial journey, get into the nitty gritty of creating a nonprofit startup, and discuss how passion, philanthropy, and wildlife intersect at Fair Trade Safaris.
Okay, welcome to the podcast Saurabh, I am super excited to have you on with us. Let's just get right into it.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where were you born and raised? What's your background in terms of growing up?
[00:01:49] Saurabh Khetrapal: Sure. So, I was born in India. My family's from the northern part of India, the state of Punjab. And when I was eight years old, our family moved from India to east Africa specifically to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
And I lived my formative years—early adolescence and teenage years—in the coastal city of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. When I was 18, I came to the U.S. to a not very coastal, not very warm, state of Wisconsin, which is where I went to school. I got my undergrad degree in computer science and mathematics,
and then obviously after I graduated with a bachelor’s degree moved to Silicon Valley and spent about 20 years in Silicon Valley as a tech entrepreneur. Founded three different startups in that two-decade period from 1994 until 2014, when I left the Silicon Valley permanently and moved to Austin, Texas.
Which is where I am now. So that's the sort of geographical part of my life. And then I'm sure we'll get into some of the other things that are more esoteric than the physical places I've lived in.
[00:03:15] Sanjay Parekh: Okay, so through your career you've done multiple entrepreneurial things and we're going to get into the current one, Fair Trade Safaris, here in a minute.
But was that the first time you did a startup, was that the first time you did anything entrepreneurial? Or did you have something like when you were a kid that you were hustling and you did something entrepreneurial then?
[00:03:37] Saurabh Khetrapal: No, I think it's just something that was par for the course growing up in Africa.
Unlike teenagers in America, it's not normal for, you know, at least it was not when I was growing up in my teenage years to do, you know, mow grass, or you do lawn maintenance or babysitting or anything like that or work at a McDonald's. We didn't have that. I really started my entrepreneurial career after I graduated and it was a year after I graduated.
So I graduated in ‘93 and then started the company, co-founded the company in ‘95. There wasn't a whole lot of gap between graduation and that entrepreneurial life journey. But that was the first time, which was starting a tech company in the middle of the Silicon Valley. So, it was a hotbed of innovation at the time and still is, but yeah, that was the first time I started any kind of venture on my own.
[00:04:37]Sanjay Parekh: Okay. As you're going through this you've done this series of start-ups and then you've moved out of Silicon Valley. You came up with this idea of starting a new company, Fair Trade Safaris. So, tell us a little bit about Fair Trade Safaris. How did it get started? And why is it a thing?
[00:04:57] Saurabh Khetrapal: Yeah, I think that having grown up in Africa, I’ve always been really fascinated with and obsessed with almost wildlife, particularly elephants. So from a very young age, I've always loved elephants. I remember we used to go on safaris and all the other kids, my age would be like, I want to see a lion, I want to see a leopard. The cats are obviously prized sightings in a safari. For me, it was all about elephants. I just wanted to see elephants and be around elephants. And then when I was, I think, 10 years old there was a chance a meeting I had with the great wildlife conservationist Jane Goodall.
And Jane Goodall was doing her research in Tanzania -- the chimpanzee research. And she happened to be at a place that I was there with my family, and I was just completely gob smacked and obsessed and just, I wanted to be her from a very young age, but clearly growing up in the Indian household that we do, there's no way my parents would co-sign on me becoming a wildlife conservationist.
But it was always, that seed was planted very early. This combination of me always loving animals, and I think kids in general love animals, every child loves animals. So that wasn't the, that wasn't the sort of, I would say the small pebble that got rolling in my head that eventually became a boulder, I think. But that started when I met Jane Goodall, this idea of I want to do something to protect wildlife.
And then obviously, in the intervening years I went to university, and it was always there though. I loved animals. I was always obsessed with how do we protect these species that are endangered, especially. And then when I sold my first start-up, I was 28 at the time. And it was a fairly sizable exit.
It was nine-figure exit of my first company. After that exit happened, obviously, I created a trust and part of those trust funds were allocated to wildlife conservation. Initially, my CPA that you should do this because there are some tax advantages to it. To having some money set aside for philanthropy or some kind of social impact nonprofit work.
And he asked me, ‘So, is there anything that you're passionate about?’ I didn't have to think even for a second. I was like, ‘Yeah, wildlife conservation.’ So I started doing the conservation work back in 2001. So over 20 years ago. Just providing financial support to organizations primarily in Tanzania, which is my home country, and Kenya, that were doing elephant conservation.
So, this is 21 years ago. And in those 21 years, while we were still funding some of these organizations, these non-profits, we didn't have any boots on the ground. We were just stroking checks, really, for these nonprofits that were doing the good work on the ground.
I did two more startups, and then when I exited my third startup in 2014—as an entrepreneur, I'm sure you can relate there's this sort of mixed feeling you get of excitement, relief, catharsis, when you exit something. But then soon after that comes the dread and anxiety. What am I going to do next? You know what I'm saying?
It's like, you're happy that you've got this success and you've reached the top of the mountain, but then you're like, what next? What do I do with my time? How do I take this potential energy I have and put some kind of velocity behind it. What do I do with this potential energy? That I can't just sit play golf or watch television.
[00:09:31] Sanjay Parekh: That's not fun. You’ve got to do something.
[00:09:32] Saurabh Khetrapal: Exactly, it would drive me crazy. So, I remember in 2014 I had just exited out of my third startup, and I think it was my subconscious, like what next, Saurabh? What next? And while I was doing my start-ups while I was doing my for-profit work, if you will, with the nonprofit work in the background, really, with this funding of elephant conservation happening in the background, I was also helping people plan their safaris.
Fellow entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, professionals that were in my ethos, in my space, in my world, in my social life, and my professional life. Anybody who wanted to go to Africa, they were like, Saurabh knows how to plan the best safari. So I was sort of just doing this as a favor, and I think those worlds came together when one night I went to sleep—I think it was maybe a month after the exit, it was in 2014— and I went to sleep one evening and I woke up the next morning and I had just sort epiphanous clarity, if that's a word.
I was like, I know exactly what I want to do next. And I was married at the time, and I promised my ex-wife that I'm not going to do another tech startup. She had forbidden me from doing another tech startup. At that time, we had two children, we still have two kids, and she's like, you just don't, you're not the same person that you are when you're in this space of growth, growth, growth, meeting these metrics and you doing these tech startups that you do, you can't. Promise me this is your last one. So I promised her that. But see, there's this being the pedant, I am, I was like, I promised you not tech startups. That does not mean no start-ups at all.
So, I was like, I can do a nonprofit startup. So, there was this sort of asterisk. Exactly, and I leveraged that I was like, so I know exactly what I want to do. I'm going to do a safari startup, a non-tech startup, which ends up amplifying the nonprofit work I'm doing.
And that was really the genesis of the idea of a safari company that competes with all the other for-profit safari companies out there. But we distinguish ourselves that probably from the way we do and having the profits go back into the nonprofit work.
[00:11:30] Sanjay Parekh: Right. So the company itself, it is a registered non-profit? Or have you set it up as a for-profit and just giving away the profits.
[00:11:38] Saurabh Khetrapal: Yeah. I think that I considered making it a 501c3, which is a nonprofit, or a B Corp which is another way of really doing well and doing good, if you will. But they all have all of these requirements that, again, I don't like authority.
I don't like following rules. To have to do this every year above and beyond just finding taxes. I'm just like, I can't do that. It's just not fun. So, I was like, I'm just going to do an LLC and see where it goes. Let me just start off that way. So that's what it was a quote-unquote side hustle before the birth of the LLC in 2014. It was a side hustle in the sense that I was helping friends and professional contacts go to Africa and have a great experience.
[00:12:35] Sanjay Parekh: But you weren't getting paid for that. You were just doing this as a favor for all of those folks, correct?
[00:12:39] Saurabh Khetrapal: Correct. I wasn't getting paid. Yeah. I guess I was getting paid with lots of thank yous and wine bottles and thank you cards. Because anybody who goes to Africa has a great experience. I mean, it's life changing. So I would get all these kudos, but no, I wasn't getting any kind of financial compensation for that.
[00:12:57] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. Okay. So, I want to dig into this a little bit because I find this fascinating because I've thought about the same exact issue. The structural challenges of creating a nonprofit, because it does really restrict what you're able to do, right?
When you registered a 501c3 with the IRS, you have to tell them exactly the areas that you are going to work in and you are locked in at that point. So, if at any point in time, you're like, wait, I could also do this. But if it's outside of your charter with the IRS, they could come back and say now you're operating outside of what you said that you were going to do, and this is no longer a charitable thing, and it's not a nonprofit anymore and the cascading effect.
I find it super interesting that you've gone down this path. How well has that worked for you? Has there been challenges of trying to run a for-profit company basically as a nonprofit, but without the stamp of that?
[00:13:50] Saurabh Khetrapal: No, actually it's quite frankly, we don't have any donors per se. So, we're not out there raising money and we never have, I've never gone out and tried to raise money from donors. So, I'm not very good at that. I can raise money from venture capitalists and angel investors, but because there's a very, very solid quid pro quo.
I can you get you a return on your investment, and it's going to be a darn good investment. I'm not really good at, so I'm really appealing to their greed when I'm raising money. Hey, give me a dollar. I'll give you five back in three years, right? Five X in three years or three X, whatever it is.
But I'm not very good at saying, give me a dollar and pulling your heart strings, and you're gonna save an elephant or put a child through school. It's not really in my DNA. So not having a 501c3 was not an impediment in doing what we set out to do, what I set out to do, when I started this Fair Trade Safaris in 2014.
Cause I don’t have any donors. All the money that we raise is either directly from the profits of the business operations, selling safaris and trips, amazing, fantastic luxury trips to Africa. Or really getting our clients who go on these trips to go on these trips and really be moved enough.
Be like, no, I want to support this the school in Moshi, Tanzania, or I really want to support the Sheldrick Foundation that, that brings orphaned elephants into rehabilitation. And so, a lot of our clients get moved enough to actually be like, you know what, I'm going to support this organization that Fair Trade Safaris also supports and Fair Trade Safaris facilitated me to learn about, visit, and really be affected by.
So, I'm going to voluntarily be supporting these organizations. We don't have donors, we do a lot of in-kind donations of safari packages to organizations that raise money. So, it hasn't been an issue. We're an LLC and I like it that way.
[00:16:04] Sanjay Parekh: Okay. Super fascinating. I think this is an interesting area and you basically, this structure has forced you into making sure that you're a sustainable business. A sustainable non-profit in some ways, right? A lot of nonprofits are a hundred percent reliant on donor kind of happiness and giving and all of that. And then when we have big issues like a pandemic or whatever, it really causes problems.
So, let's talk a little bit about then how you structured the business itself and how do you, yeah. Like you're not going on all these safaris and taking people around. How do you deal with the actual logistics of it? And having people on the ground and all of that bit of it.
[00:16:50] Saurabh Khetrapal: So, on the business side, and you have to almost bifurcate the conversation when it comes to Fair Trade Safaris between the business operations and the nonprofit. On the business side, we have very strong relationships and partnerships and actually financial partnership as well with, we call them DMCs, destination management companies, or companies that are on the ground with vehicles, with guides, with the infrastructure.
So, we have relationships with companies in Tanazania, which is a huge safari destination. And the company's headquartered in Arusha, Tanzania, which is the gateway city to the most famous national parks in Tanzania. So, we have a very, very strong relationship with them. There's mutual fiscal benefit of us, both the company in Tanzania, I'm talking about, doing very well and us doing well because there's a symbiotic relationship, right?
We bring them the clients. We help promote the country as a destination. And on the ground, these companies are able to run a successful business and support local employment, etc., etc. So, we have a really strong relationship with a safari company, a DMC, a destination management company, in Tanzania that handles all of our clients who go to Tanzania. We have a strong relationship, and actually I have financial ownership in a company in Nairobi, Kenya that handles all of our guests who go to Kenya. Similarly for Uganda and Rwanda, where the mountain gorillas are, we have a company that we have a strong relationship with in that part of the continent.
And then in South Africa, in Cape Town, our partner in Cape Town handles all of our clients who go to South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Mozambique, and Zimbabwe, and Zambia. So, all of a southern Africa is covered by our South African partner. And then similarly for Mauritius, Seychelles, and Madagascar.
So, when it comes to having our clients be taken care of, it's completely seamless. I There's almost no there's almost no stumbling block between their communication and relationship with me and my team here in America, and then when they land in, wherever their destination is, in Africa. It's just completely seamless.
[00:19:26] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. So then your team is pretty much here only in the US and then you're working through all of these partners?
[00:19:37] Saurabh Khetrapal: Correct. We do have some people in Africa. Now let's make this clear, when I say my team, we don't have any employees.
That's the unique thing and that's by design. I wanted to make sure that we're so lean in our P&L, our G&A is so lean, our general and administrative costs. There's no payroll, I don't have a payroll. So, everybody who works all of our service providers, our 1099s. That doesn't mean we don't have, we don't have the capability, we just don't have the heavy G&A overhead.
So, yeah, when I say our team, I’m talking about our partners, our 1099 contractors, and we have a whole army, I call it the army of good. We have lots of volunteers and ambassadors that go out there and help us with whatever we need. Primarily in the marketing side, going out there and being the mouthpieces of Fair Trade Safaris.
So, our team is primarily in America because that's where our marketing activities take place. Most of our clients are from the US or North American. And then yeah, we have those partnerships, and I have a small, quote unquote, team of contractors in Africa. But most of them are through partnership, like you said.
[00:20:56] Sanjay Parekh: I was looking on the site, it looks like you're the head of the army of ambassadors there because your title is Chief Smiles Officer. It's not CEO, it's Chief Smiles Officer. And I liked that, and you have a good picture with it too, with a big smile. So, when you kind decided to start launching this, obviously you didn't get all of these partners all across, you had to start in one country, likely? And then you grew over time? Like, how did you think about that growth and work through that methodically and add on all of those places? Was that driven by people coming to you in terms of clients?
Or was this driven by you thinking oh, these are the places that people should go.
[00:21:37] Saurabh Khetrapal: I've been doing safaris since I was 8 years old, having grown up in Africa. I'm very familiar organically. So, I didn't go out there and do these familiarization trips, like a lot of travel agents do. Let me go to Spain and learn about Spain or to South Africa and learn about South Africa. I've been organically going on safaris since I was eight years old. So, I knew everything that I needed to know about running a safari business, just because I had been doing them for like 30 years, 35 years.
[00:22:11] Sanjay Parekh: And really the first 10 years being a lot. When you were eight to 18 in-country.
[00:22:17] Saurabh Khetrapal: Correct. And eight to 18, obviously most of my safaris were in the country where I was living, in Tanzania. I hadn't really done safaris in South Africa or Botswana, etc.,, but once you had that sort of organic understanding something, it comes very easily in a business context. So, for me to start a safari company, just wasn't as difficult as would have been had I not had the 35 years of doing safaris just out of my own pleasure.
I love that. But yeah, I started off in Tanzania and Kenya, which are the two countries that I lived in and I had roots. I have friends that I went to school with that are now running safari gov our DMC partners, so some of those people that I grew up with they were in school with me or my mother was a teacher.
It's just interesting. One of the founders and owners of this safari company that we are partners with, my mother was his teacher, was his 6th grade teacher.
[00:23:21] Sanjay Parekh: Wow.
[00:23:22] Saurabh Khetrapal: Yeah, and he saw my name, he's like, are you Mrs. Khetrapal's son? Okay. She's I'm going to give you the most favorable pricing because she taught me how to read time on the clock. So, things like that I had these roots, or you know someone who knows someone, right? So Tanzania and Kenya were the first two countries, and then we expanded to South Africa. And then all of Southern Africa. So, South Africa was our first entree into Southern Africa. Then Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana, and Namibia.
And that was organically. That became part of our portfolio of destination countries over a period of time. But now we have the ability to do safaris and trips to 14 countries in Africa. Yeah. We've been at it for almost eight years now.
[00:24:09] Sanjay Parekh: So, what do you think then is like the next step for Fair Trade Safaris?
Is there another set of countries in Africa that you want to attack? Or is there another part of the world that, that makes sense to start doing something in?
[00:24:23] Saurabh Khetrapal: The reason I bristle at that question is because I don't really live too far in the future. Just in general, and I'm a meditator and I'm living in the present and now, right?
It's hard for me to say what the future holds, just because of my sort of mental DNA of how I live my life in general. Especially when I don't have anybody who I'm beholden to, in terms of providing a proforma. What does your proforma look like? What is the next quarter look like? We don't have any investors. We don’t have any employees. I don’t have to answer these questions to anyone.
So, I really am living this entrepreneurial life, which is a combination of my entrepreneurial acumen along with my life philosophy of living in the moment. So, I literally run the company looking forward only as far as our next safari guests.
So, we have some trips that are planned this summer. I'm not really looking past the summer. Obviously, I have a marketing team that's doing all of these long-term planning and that will bear fruit past the summer. But I really don't know. I think that I want to try to amplify this company as much as possible.
We just crossed a $1 million mark in terms of how much money we have raised either directly through our business operations or through the contributions that are made by our clients, our in-kind donations, we call them the impact dollars. So Fair Trade Safaris passed the $1 million mark of impact dollars raised about two years ago, pre-pandemic. We're about $1.2 million now. So that was exciting.
[00:26:15] Sanjay Parekh: That's incredible. Congratulations.
[00:26:16] Saurabh Khetrapal: Yeah. Thank you. And I want to try to hit $2 million by the end of next year and then onward and upward. You know what I mean? But in terms of opening up new countries or opening new product lines, my goal is to just raise as much money as possible, any way possible, for all the things that our army of good that I'm part of can have the resources to be able to do what they need to do.
[00:26:43] Sanjay Parekh: And save as many elephants along the way.
[00:26:45] Saurabh Khetrapal: Correct. Elephants, wildlife, serve as many communities. So, what started off as just wildlife conservation and protecting the animals has actually grown into community development and poverty alleviation.
So, I would say 50% of the dollars that we raise go towards communities and poverty alleviation, which is inextricably linked to protecting animals. You can’t protect animals and then leave the communities behind. Yeah, you're right. So, save as many elephants and save as many cats of Africa and serve as many communities and uplift as many people as possible.
[00:27:21] Adam Walker: Support for this podcast comes from Hiscox committed to helping small businesses protect their dreams since 1901. Quotes and information on customized insurance for specific risks are [email protected] Hiscox, the business insurance experts.
[00:27:41] Sanjay Parekh: Okay, I can't let you go without asking you this one question. Because I feel like I've got the expert on safaris here and so any of our listeners that are thinking about going on a safari, like what is the one secret or trick or something like that, that they need to know to make their experience that much better.
[00:28:01] Saurabh Khetrapal: Oh, wow. So, can I give you three tricks?
[00:28:05] Sanjay Parekh: Yes. I'll absolutely take three. I didn't want to push you too much. I wasn't going to only going to ask for one, but I'll take three for sure.
[00:28:10] Saurabh Khetrapal: Number one, get someone who understands the nuances of doing the safari. And going to Africa is unlike going to Europe because you know Europe has this familiarity, okay?
If you go to Paris or to Lisbon or Madrid or whatever, Barcelona, there's a familiarity, it's still the west. When you go to Africa, you must, for example one of the crown jewels of safaris is the great wildebeest migration of Serengeti and Maasai, Mara. And the migration, as the name suggests, that the wildlife animals move, they migrate.
So, if you’re not in the right camp, in the right part of the national park, you’re going to miss it completely. So, you need to know some need to hitch your wagon to someone who understands the safari and has deep experience on exactly where to book your accommodations, and that's number one.
Number two, understand that safaris are not that expensive. That's something that really infuriated me because I was like, safaris don’t have, our safari started at $3,000 per person. When I say that to people, they're like, really? I thought safaris are going to be 10 or 15,000. No.
You just have to find the right person. So don't lead to this sort of high price point, which is actually completely contrived, dissuade you from looking into a safari package. But again, that comes with going with the right person that's not going to gouge you on the price.
And the third thing is, make sure that you get your – a lot of people think of Africa as a dangerous place, and suspend that for a second, it’s not. When was the last time you heard of a lion attacking a tourist, and they get millions of people go to Africa and you're like, I don't want to be eaten by, no. Please suspend that for a second. And actually, in that same vein it's a great destination for families with children.
My kids have been going to Africa since they were one and a half years old. They've been they're 11 and eight now, and they've been to Africa five times already on safari. So, it's a family destination. Doesn't have to be very expensive, but find someone who really knows what they're doing and have done it many times and can really guide you in the way that you deserve.
[00:30:34] Sanjay Parekh: I love it. Okay. On that on that note, where can listeners find you if they're now ready to book a safari? Because man, I'm ready to go too.
[00:30:44] Saurabh Khetrapal: It's the company name FairTradeSafaris.com. So, it's FairTradeSafaris.com. That's our website. That's really the best starting point.
[00:31:03] Sanjay Parekh: There you go. It has been fantastic having you on the podcast. This has been so fascinating. I'm going to be doing some research on safaris right after we get off this podcast. Thanks so much for coming.
[00:31:14] Saurabh Khetrapal: Thank you, Sanjay. It was an honor.
[00:31:15] Sanjay Parekh: Thank you for listening to this week’s episode of the Side Hustle to Small Business Podcast, powered by Hiscox. To learn more about how Hiscox can help protect your small business through intelligent insurance solutions, visit hiscox.com. And if you have a story you want to hear on this podcast, please visit Hiscox.com/shareyourstory. I’m your host, Sanjay Parekh. You can find me on Twitter at @sanjay or on my website at sanjayparekh.com
[00:34:15] Sanjay Parekh: Thank you for listening to this week’s episode of the Side Hustle to Small Business Podcast, powered by Hiscox. To learn more about how Hiscox can help protect your small business through intelligent insurance solutions, visit hiscox.com.
And, if you have a story that you want to hear on this podcast, please visit Hiscox.com/shareyourstory.
I’m your host, Sanjay Parekh. You can find me on Twitter at @sanjay or on my website at sanjayparekh.com.