Harish Sodha, a Ugandan Asian, is the founder of Diversity Travel and has spent much of his working life helping other people travel to far-flung and volatile places.
His journey goes back to 1972 when he and some 60,000 Asians were thrown out of Uganda by Idi Amin, accusing them of hoarding wealth and sabotaging the economy. Britain allowed 27,000 Ugandan Asians to settle after failing to persuade British overseas territories to take them. Harish has 11 siblings and the family came to Britain with only a few gold bangles hidden in his mother’s sari.
“The life of a refugee is terrifying and desperate. I have seen this first-hand”
Extended family was a lifeline as the Sodhas struggled to build a life in Britain, he says. He stayed with his sister already living in the UK, while his parents and the rest of the family lived with a brother, another early arrival.
Harish then went on to study business administration at the University of Bath and graduated in 1977. He originally decided on a career in accountancy but quit after a year stating that “It was the classic Asian thing to do but I wasn’t happy, the work was tedious.”
While deciding on his next career move, he took a job in a small travel agency, Transroute, and saw an opportunity to provide travel solutions to non-profit organisations. He founded his first travel management company in 1980 after persuading airlines of his idea.
“I knew Africa and always admired the work charities did to help people. I also knew the airlines often had spare capacity on routes there,” he says. “So I started talking to them about how to give charities the chance to use that capacity with the flexibility they needed but which usually came with much higher-priced tickets.”
“The airlines saw it was a good idea to help the charities, which could spend more on their projects rather than travel. In the early days, the airlines said no because they were worried that non-aid workers would take advantage. We had to be very disciplined to check people and we still do a lot of training.”
He was able to negotiate benefits for aid workers that usually cost extra, such as no, or reduced, excess baggage fees and flexibility with dates and cancellations. “Charities often have to change their plans at the last moment if a project isn’t ready or it’s become dangerous. This used to cost a lot in fees,” he says.
Mr Sodha sold his share in his travel management company in 2005. Two years later, finding he missed the travel business, he and two ex-colleagues started Diversity Travel which works with clients including Save the Children International, the London School of Economics, Salvation Army and the V&A Museum.
“When we started, we established small teams that serviced the individual needs of the charities we were working with,” he says. “This small business model and approach is still with us today, even after the growth we have experienced.”
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