Valerie Lopez remembers winning the most important competition of her life like it was yesterday.
"It was one of the most nervous moments I've experienced. It was a high stage and purple lighting. You look up, and you see all these people staring at you. It was quite nerve-wrecking." But despite the pressure, Lopez says, "I kicked ass, to be honest. I felt like I knew what I was doing and what I had to say, and I knew I had five minutes to say it."
Shoot My Travel, the company she cofounded in 2015 in Miami with her boyfriend, Camilo Rojas, is a global travel photographer marketplace that pairs travelers with local professional photographers. Travelers to hundreds of destinations can use the service to hire photographers to shoot photos instead of relying on shaky cell-phone snaps taken with embarrassing selfie sticks. The company was selected by Web in Travel (WIT) to participate in the June 2018 WIT Japan & North Asia 2018 Startup Pitch event — one of the biggest conferences in travel startups and for the travel industry in Asian markets.
"We were the only U.S.-based startup and the only Latin representation, so we were super honored to be there," Lopez says. "There are over 500 startups that apply, and they make a selection. We made it past the first round and then got selected to be part of the finals, but we were competing with artificial intelligence and heavy tech and data, and it's tough for a creative industry to come and disrupt that. We were there as the underdogs, but we won."
But for Lopez, winning WIT wasn't just about the money. The company founders also earned a seat at the table of Phocuswright’s APAC Innovators of the Year program at the Phocuswright Conference in Los Angeles this November and tickets to WIT Singapore in October, along with mentorship by Amadeus, a computer reservation system that sells tickets for multiple airlines. But the most coveted prize, Lopez says, was showing the world — especially her colleagues in the startup ecosystem — that Shoot My Travel has the potential to connect people to technology in a new way. Doing it in a technologically advanced country such as Japan was just the pot of gold at the end of the digital rainbow.
Lopez said they felt like rockstars representing the team's native country of Colombia. People's perception of their country changed, she recalls, when they realized that kids from that part of Latin America were making such big waves in tech.
Since the competition, the two have gained confidence and shown naysayers that the duo's "crazy idea" actually paid off. Shoot My Travel recently confirmed Venture Republic as its first major investor; before that, the founders financed the company.
Lopez says she's the face of the company and the leader of her pack. She says she never forgets the responsibility that comes with being a woman in tech.
"It empowers me to keep taking that message that we as women can do it all and we will continue to break glass ceilings," Lopez says. "Any time we have a meeting, they talk to Camilo or our chief operations officer, Andres Echeverry. When I tell them I'm the CEO and the co-founder, they'll say, 'Oh, you're the girl I have to talk to,' and I say, 'Yeah, I am.' I check my ego at the door, but you have to keep in mind when you're building as a woman, you're building for your whole community."