Sawani (25) - founder of Bhoomij Heritage
‘One of my uncles is a successful entrepreneur. He called me up and invited me to have breakfast together. His first tip was: make sure you have your finances in order.’
When you walk through Fontainhas – the Latin Quarter of Panjim, capital city of the Indian state of Goa – with Sawani Shetye, a 25-year-old archaeologist and the founder of Bhoomij Heritage, you suddenly see things that you hadn’t noticed before. The water well is also a wishing well. The windows of the old houses are made of oyster shells. And the stone roosters that adorn many rooftops are a sign of the Portuguese colonial heritage of the town.
When Sawani talks about history, her speech is peppered with comparisons. History itself she compares to a cake; a cake containing many layers. And she wants to share this layer cake with others and explain each layer to them as they eat. “A good example of such a layer cake is the Goa State Museum, here in Panjim. It first was the summer palace, complete with harem, of a well-known Muslim ruler. Then it became a place where military officials lived. Next it was used as legislative assembly. And now it’s a museum.”
It’s easy to imagine this female entrepreneur as your favourite history teacher at school. It is perhaps no coincidence that her own guiding example is one of her professors from Deccan College where she obtained her master’s degree. “He always said: ‘When you’re telling people about history, don’t overwhelm them with facts and dates. Try to relate things to their daily lives’.”
Sawani founded the one-woman business Bhoomij Heritage in 2018, and she is now already providing guided tours all across Goa. In her tours she explicitly wants to offer something different than other travel organisations. “I want my tour to be more of an academic experience than a tour where the tour guide follows a script.” That emphasis on the academic is also something that makes her organization unique: in Goa there is only one to be found who does the same as she does.
Building her own business
After her study, Sawani was faced with the choice: do I start work as an archaeologist or do I choose a different direction? “A future in archaeology seemed very uncertain. My fellow students who chose that road, are now hopping from project to project.” Sawani first opted to work in a museum, but had to quit because it involved such a long commute. After that she gradually started building her own business. She occasionally gave guided tours for school classes and this made her realize: I myself have enough knowledge of Goa, so if I arrange a bus and the food, I can organize tours myself. And that’s what happened.
Her first two tours made very less money, but generated a lot of enthusiasm. Word-of-mouth advertising resulted in many new requests. In April last year she felt confident enough to officially launch her own company.
‘I could not have wished for a better start’
“I really wanted to have an official opening and approach it professionally. I called my favourite professor to ask him if he would give an opening speech, and he agreed. But the day before the opening he called me; his aunt had died and he couldn’t come. Of course I couldn’t insist, so I went and found another speaker in the nick of time. Later that day my professor called that he could come after all. The next morning at five o’clock he took the plane from Mumbai, gave his speech and flew back that same evening. I thought it was so wonderful that he had done that for me: I could not have wished for a better start.”
Love for history is a recurring theme throughout her life. Her father, an optometrist, took her along to folklore festivals from an early age and would tell her about the history of the places they visited. When she decided she wanted to study history, he gave her a pile of books about the history of Goa on her birthday, with the message: if you want to study history, first read these books.
She earned her bachelors degree in history. And then moved to metropolis Pune for her masters in archaeology at the prestigious Deccan College. She was living in a college hostel, without her parents for the first time. She and ten fellow students formed a close group. In the weekends the budding archaeologists went on trips together, with the local bus or a rickshaw, looking for the hidden places around Pune.
Her love for the undiscovered hasn’t wavered. She likes to take her participants to places where average tourists never go. “My favourite tour goes to the far-away northern region of Goa. The people who have joined me on that tour, even people from Goa, often tell me afterwards that they hadn’t known there were any villages there. It’s very special.”
‘I always try as much as possible to make sure that the local population also earns some money from my tours’
For her work, it is important that the community takes good care of its heritage. On paper the Indian government does a lot to support heritage protection, but in reality this proves difficult. “People often bend the rules. And I understand. It would be better to make it clear to them how many benefits they could enjoy by protecting their heritage. By explaining to them that tourists are willing to spend good money to see and visit heritage sites. I always try as much as possible to make sure that the local population also earns some money from my tours. I never take food with me, for example. Instead I buy our meals locally and pay the villagers the same price that I would pay in Panjim.”
Bhoomij Heritage is flourishing. In December, 20 of the 30 days were fully booked. “I am seeing Indians paying more attention to their heritage. Many of my customers come from the big cities. They are sitting at their computers all day. Their children are checking their phones all day long. They want to change that. They want to go out and have an experience.”
Although the first successful business year is over, she still thinks of herself as a beginning entrepreneur. She has another comparison handy: “When I started I was still a baby and now I am slowly learning to crawl and to walk.” So she is also happy to accept advice. “One of my uncles is a successful entrepreneur. He called me up and invited me to have breakfast together. His first tip was: make sure you have your finances in order. You can’t work thirty days a month. Calculate how many days you have to work to make ends meet.”
‘That question didn’t give me any peace. At a certain moment I gave it a pragmatic twist’
She has also learned a lot about how best to handle unsolicited comments in this past year, because she was getting them regularly. People would ask her things like: “Will you, a girl, be able to guide a group like that?”, or “You’re so petite. Can you physically handle those trips?” And a former classmate asked: “How are you going to guide those tours when you have a child?” That question didn’t give me any peace. At a certain moment I gave it a pragmatic twist. And I am now thinking about the ways to combine work and other duties.
Since Sawani started a one-person business, she has increasingly come across other female owners of one-person businesses. Just recently during one of her tours, she met a successful local architect, who also is taking care of her autistic son. “She inspires me to continue. If she can do it, then I can do it too.”