Subajini Jayasekaran: Virtual Travel Through the Eyes of Locals
Hi there, my name is Spiffy, I’m an interplanetary journalist hanging out on Planet Earth. Today I’m in Toronto, Canada, to see how Subajini Jayasekaran, founder of Nyaanum, a virtual travel platform, is working to make an impact on UN SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities. Let’s see how she’s doing it!
Spiffy: Welcome, Suba, I’m so glad to have the opportunity to talk with you! Can you start by telling me what challenges you are addressing?
Suba: It’s great to be here, Spiffy! Nyaanum is a digital content company focused on exploration, culture, and virtual travel. What makes Nyaanum unique is that our content is created and curated by the people who live in the places we visit—as opposed to professional photographers or foreign travelers. We create the space for communities to tell their own stories about their homes—what makes this place special to them—but also stories that highlight what is shared across cultures. There is a strong focus on empowering less heard, more marginalized voices, bringing a diversity of perspectives and experiences. We want to become the premier company to experience the world virtually, in an inclusive and respectful way, by and for everyone on the planet.
Spiffy: Inclusivity and respect are definitely something the planet needs more of! What motivated you to launch Nyaanum?
Suba: In 2020, I quit my job working for the United Nations. I planned to take a year, travel, and homeschool my son. I sometimes joke that I wanted to travel the world the year the world stopped traveling. We cut our trip short and flew to Canada from Zanzibar. Quarantined and in lockdown, I was journaling a lot and thinking “what next?” One day, my son received a chemistry set with Google VR glasses and I couldn't help thinking—wouldn't it be wonderful to use VR and experience a zen garden. From this, I came up with Nyaanum to create virtual journeys. However, a lot of travel content is created by outsiders, and I realized that there was a gap, or need, for stories of our world told by the people who live there and for more diverse and inclusive travel content.
Spiffy: I couldn’t agree more! How would you say Nyaanum is helping to make the world a more equitable place?
Suba: The majority of travel content on the internet and social media is not at all inclusive. This is true both from the point of view of those who create the content and who the target audience is. We believe in telling honest, authentic, and real stories about places all around the world and we believe that the people who live there are best placed to tell their own stories. We also want to support diversity by seeking out marginalized voices—women, indigenous and racialized communities, immigrant communities—so that our virtual journeys reflect their narratives as well.
Spiffy: Are there any initiatives that you’re particularly excited about? What kind of impact do you anticipate it will have?
Suba: Last week (Aug 30-Sept 5, 2021), @nyaanum together with our partner @nashulai were guest editors for @unbiodiversity—it’s a channel with almost 300,000 followers and the credibility of the UN. We felt really humbled that our partner had approached us to join them in this opportunity and felt it was a recognition and nod to the type of content we were creating. We are super proud of all the work that has gone into developing content for the week—all the beautiful stories and videos created by our partners, together with us.
Spiffy: I’m always curious to hear how founders deal with failure. What about you? Can you share about a time when you faced failure and didn’t give up?
Suba: When we first started the business, we were really unsure of where to begin. We tried a virtual travel summer camp for kids but realized that it had scalability and quality issues. Then, we tried an off-the-shelf software to build an interactive virtual journey—but the technology was limiting. It was quite disappointing. But we didn't give up! The social media angle was the third iteration of the project. This has really resonated and created the most traction. It allows us to find our voice and niche while defining our target audience for whatever eventual VR immersive product we create.
Spiffy: Is there anyone you love learning from?
Suba: My son. I am always learning from my son. He stuck a post-it note on my computer to remind me that "nothing is perfect," and to keep going!
Spiffy: Before we sign off, Suba, is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?
Suba: A friend asked me once, what is failure to you? I said, “When I can no longer afford to work on this start-up.” He said, hmm.. you can always find ways to continue to work on your business. You can get a part-time job, or spend evenings and weekends on it if you believe in your idea. I think you fail when you decide to walk away. So, it’s your choice. Work on it as long as it is meaningful, fun, and interesting for you.
Spiffy: It sounds like you’re covering all of those bases, Suba! I can’t wait to see how Nyaanum helps us connect to more places in the world. Thanks for sitting down and talking to me, it’s been an honor!
Subajini Jayasekaran, founder of Nyaanum, has over 17 years of experience working in Asia, Africa, and UNICEF headquarters. She was architect of UNICEF's Better Business for Children initiative and positioned UNICEF as the leading organization working for child rights in global supply chains with programs in 18 countries. After almost two decades in the development field, she left to launch Nyaanum, a platform that explores virtual travel and tells stories about the world through the eyes of those who live there. (First published on the Ladderworks website on September 9, 2021.)
© 2021 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Jill Landis Jha. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. Follow Spiffy’s interviews of founders building a more equitable world here.