I caught up with Julie Markham, founder of a new app called pingWHEN to talk about traveling as a woman, the importance of manifesting your dreams, and calling up Nobel Laureates on Skype out of the blue.
It is important to note that Julie has an awesome giggle.
You have a long history of being interested in entrepreneurship, travel and gender equality. Tell me a bit about what you are up to lately in this space.
I am currently working on an application called pingWHEN which allows you to send predestinated contacts a notification for when you arrive to a destination — or don’t. I’m really passionate about working on this because I have traveled all over the world as a woman, and there have been times when I was fearful for my safety. I wanted to provide peace of mind to women and to those to those around them.
I always knew that I wanted to create a product that I could use in the world, but I had no idea where to start. So I spent a ton of time scouting the market on an issue that is really near and dear to me: personal safety. I talked to more than 100 women, hearing their powerful stories, which often became very emotional, gave me the fuel that this is a huge problem in the world.
That is when the idea for pingWHEN came to be, from my own experience and from listening to these women. To build the application, I needed to find someone to come on board with me. I spent time trying to find someone that could not only technically build it but was really passionate about the issue.
Randomly, right before my thesis was due while studying in the UK, I got an email in my inbox that said “Last minute trip to Croatia?” It said I had been nominated for an all expenses paid trip for a hackathon that would take place on a yacht off of Croatia. It was leaving in 6 days.
Through luck, and a bit of hustle with funny emails – I was selected! Another one of the guys who was selected was named Sam. I knew right away when I met him that I wanted to work with him, and now he’s my co-founder. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about aligned values and mission.
What were some of your favorite projects that you worked on before pingWHEN?
A really pivotal point in my life is when I read a book my Mohammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank who is famous for his work in microfinance. It jettisoned my idea about what business could do in the world. When I was in business school, I thought it was about making the most amount of money, but through reading this book I realized that business could be a catalyst for social impact. I became convinced that I needed to spend time in market to learn more about microfinance.
So as most normal people do, I just found the number for Grameen Bank on Skype [laughter]. I remember sitting on my couch, not even thinking through that they probably wouldn’t be able to speak English. I spoke to one person and got approval to come and spend my summer interning for Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. I was 22, I showed up to the country alone and didn’t know where I would stay or confirm who specifically I would work with. I literally showed up to the bank one day saying, “Hi, we spoke a few months ago. My name is Julie Markham. I’m here!” [laughter]
What did they say to you?
At first they didn’t know what to do with me. Day 1 they put me in a room to watch a movie about microfinance. But day 2 they got me involved. I got to travel all around the country hearing women’s stories and the impact of the loan on their lives. I lived with the bank managers and even learned how to hire my own translators. I took it upon myself to share these stories, and these were published on Grameen’s website.
It changed the trajectory of my life. I saw how entrepreneurship could be used to solve huge problems, and how women in particular were key.
Wow, I can’t believe that you just called Grameen Bank on Skype out of the blue.
Yeah, 13 times. The first 8 times I hung up, much like you would call someone that you have a crush on in middle school and you hang up once they answer [both laugh].
I’d love to hear more about the epic world trip you took for a year. What prompted that and do you have any craziest highlight?
I had never traveled before I attended college. Throughout my undergraduate career, I was extremely fortunate to travel extensively from grants to do international research and built up quite a few frequent flyer miles.
When I wasn’t sure what to do after I graduated, I saw it as an opportunity to go traveling. They say that the best way to figure out what to do with yourself is to get lost. So I cashed in the 150,000 frequent flyer miles for about $300 in taxes on the plane tickets, and off I went. I spent a bit of time with my sister, and my best friend joined me for a chunk of it, and I finished up doing parts of Africa and all of South America by myself.
There were so many crazy experience from that year. One story that comes to mind is that my best friend and I really wanted to go to Tibet, but they had shut down the Tibetan border. So we said, “What do we want to do in Nepal? We have 14 days.” We are sipping on some mango juice and we saw these trekking shops around and she said, “Well I guess they go trekking here. Want to do that?” And I said, “Yeah, wanna trek Mount Everest Base Camp?” So we went over to the first tour guide that we saw and went on our way. The next day we set off on an 11-day trek around the base of Mount Everest.
I know that you are really into bucket lists. Can you talk to me about that and how they serve as inspiration for you?
I believe that people can create their own destiny with hard work. Dreams are just the manifestation of hard work – that’s it. For me, it is really important to be intentional about how I want my world to look like. So because of that, I am very goal oriented, and I love bucket lists. Since I was seven years old, I have always written down my goals. I have goal books that I can go back and read for years.
So when I was a junior in college, I had been dating a guy really seriously. And after we broke up, my best friend told me, “Julie, this is your opportunity to create the next chapter of your life and what you want that to look like.” So she had me write down 20 things that I wanted to achieve. I created the goal list and hung it up in my room and I looked at it every single day. It included everything from running a 5k in 25 minutes to interning with a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate to competing in a national beauty pageant to getting a Fulbright Scholarship.
I packed up my room and I didn’t think about this list until 6 years later. Flash forward and I was about to move to London on a Fulbright grant and I opened up this folder and I looked through and I realized that I had done 17 of the 20 things on the list. It was a very moving moment to realize that once I put down on paper what I wanted to create, it came true whether or not I was thinking about it on a daily basis.
What was one of them that you hadn’t achieved?
The three were to be a national ballroom dance competitor, to get a six-pack, and to be Miss Colorado. Now, why did I want to be Miss Colorado? I have no idea!
When I got to London, I thought I should really finish out this goal list because it is empowering to finish it — whether or not I had a reason to compete in a beauty pageant.
So I started emailing friends who had competed in beauty pageants asking them about how the system works to figure out how I could literally hack my way to a beauty pageant [both laugh].
How did you do it?
I learned that there are a ton of different pageants out in the world, and one of them is Miss International Pageant, which didn’t have a state director. Normally you have to compete from your county to state and then to nationals. But for this one, you just had to complete an application, and I do really well at applications! So I did the app and a phone interview, and then got selected to go to the National Competition in Jacksonville, FL.
There were some really funny moments for me throughout this entire pageant experience because most of these girls have been doing this for all of their lives. For instance, you have to put together a portfolio of photos, but I didn’t have much money to do that, so I found a Groupon in London for £20 where you could get a makeover along with two free photos. So that is what I submitted for my ‘portfolio’ [laughs].
I really admire you because you always seem to be inventing your reality for yourself rather than looking to external pressures. Do you have any advice for people who want to go on a world trip, start an app, or manifest their own dream?
Everything that has been built has been created by humans. I’ll never forget this one time I went on a date and a guy told me, “Someone has to be great at it, so why not be me?” And I always think – we’ll gosh, why not! So it makes it feel more attainable and more down to earth. I tell myself, “If someone else has done that before, I probably can too.”
I think that people overestimate what they can achieve in 10 months, but underestimate what they can achieve in 10 years. So I am always reflecting on what I want to create, and am not afraid to go out and make it happen.