Inspirational Woman: Katy Willings | Co-Founder, Morindoo

Katy WillingsKaty has been in charge of organizing some amazing adventures.

She drove a tuk-tuk across India and completed the first Mongol Derby, a gruelling 600 mile horse race across Mongolia and later organized the event. Katy learned to pilot a paramotor and run a motorbike ride across Earth’s largest frozen lake while spending months at a time in far flung parts of the world.

She has guided horse treks in Mongolia and horse safaris in Malawi, East Africa, and represented her country in both dressage and endurance, sports she still competes in given the chance.  She rode in the inaugural Mongol Derby in 2009 and was so dazzled by the experience that it has taken over her life ever since.

Throughout her time working on various adventures around the world, Katy’s love affair with Mongolia stayed strong. Katy wants people to experience adventure and new things as she has, but in a more immersive way, rather than just scratching the surface.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I create adventures.  The good for the soul kind, that stretch your mind and vision, not just your muscles.  I worked as an event manager for The Adventurists from 2010-8, having met them as a customer on their Rickshaw Run, and Mongol Derby, in 2009.  We used to produce logistically complex and dangerous events in far flung locations on very exacting budgets.  I thrived on it.  I spent a good deal of my working life in Mongolia, land of the horse and home of our Mongol Derby, the world’s longest horse race.  I fell in love with the people, horses, land and way of life, and imagined many journeys and adventures I myself wanted to execute out there.  Eventually this imagining crystallised into ambition and I went freelance in 2018 in order to try and concentrate on my own adventure company in Mongolia, Morindoo, which I founded and run with a wonderful friend and colleague.  Our sweet spot is horse trekking, as I am an avid rider and equine adventurer, but we are starting to introduce multi-sport trips, including pack-rafting and trail running, as well as off-roading, in 2020.  I enjoy sharing hard to access experiences, and helping people interpret them, usually from the saddle.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Not in the slightest.  I had an exceedingly linear education, and I think being bright academically or at least high-performing in the public exams we sat at the time, I just had this vague idea that a career would just ‘find’ me; that it would be the universe paying me back for being so promising.

I studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford, encouraged by a couple of my teachers at school, but really with no concept of what that might lead to.  I had heard that it kept many doors open, and again, I think I just assumed that some red carpet would be laid down for me after I submitted my last paper, that the straight line to ‘success’ would continue.  I was fantastically naive, and also a bit entitled I suppose.  No-one in my family had ‘a career’, there was no business or current affairs chat around the dinner table, and I was the first in my immediate family to get a degree.  I just thought opportunity would knock – loudly!  It took a lot more groping around in the dark than that and several detours but looking back, the clues as to what I would end up spending my time in were always there.  I just didn’t see how they could possibly constitute a ‘career’.  I actually take issue with the term career; it has been co-opted by a very narrow conception of “socially acceptable ways to make your living”, and an even narrower conception of “personal identity”.  It was definitely quicker and easier telling people I was a management consultant (which I was, pre-Adventure industry).  Everyone felt quite comfortable with that, except me, I was miserable!  Few people can be described in one word, even if they are ‘surgeons’.  What else are they?  I am glad to have multiple business, passions and projects, and no discernible ‘career’ any more.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

The usual crises of self-confidence, and cash flow.  I would not have described myself as entrepreneurial, or a risk taker.  I would always be the person spotting the holes in an operational plan or an idea, the reasons it will go wrong.  To start something takes a huge leap of faith that if you put something out into the universe, someone, somewhere will answer.  I combat that by always having a ‘meat and potatoes’ job on the side.  I think I’ll do it until I die.  When you are not betting the house on things, you can sleep, and if you can sleep, you can dream.  In dreams I am actually both creative, and entrepreneurial.  So if I have to flip burgers to keep my entrepreneurial candle burning, so be it.  “Do you want fries with that?”

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

We ran a beautiful trip last September which I had come up with the concept for, and sold out.  It was the most magical group of people, and horses, and the most incredible setting.  Putting that team and adventure together, and weaving so many threads into a beautiful, strong rope, was the highlight of my year.  I used to get that feeling a lot producing the events for The Adventurists, but to do that and have it chalked up to your own account, see people carrying your brand, with pride, was wonderful.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

Failing wholesale to achieve success plenty of times before!  I think my twenties did me a huge favour.  Having been a ‘talented’ teenager, and then finding myself quite lost, quite mediocre, quite dissatisfied with an urban grind kind of existence, got me to searching, experimenting.  The most important thing those years did was disavow me of the idea that all the good stuff just happens to you – someone will rescue you, tell you what you should do, whisk you away to a life of luxury.  I realised a whole universe was available to me, and to anyone else dogged enough to work at it.  That’s worth a lot more than talent.  I am cheerful amateur at all sorts of things that most people don’t even have the balls to attempt.  I’m cool with that.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I think it’s a priceless role, much more holistic than tutor, much more personal than role model. I haven’t mentored anyone yet but have been asked to speak at a few schools this year about the value of adventure and challenge.  I think I model that pretty well and would be delighted to share what wisdom I have accrued along this very crooked path I have trodden.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?

Creches at work!  Easy!  Women want to be with their babies, and need to be at times.  They also need to be in their office environment, immersed in meaningful work and with colleagues who see and respect them.  Sometimes these two things are incompatible.  If workplaces actually provided creche facilities to take the stress, distance, vast expense and stigma out of this need to ‘split’ the identity of working women, I think everyone would benefit, not just working parents and women.  There’s so much mutual misunderstanding either side of the family fence.  Isn’t everyone just trying to get their work done and provide for their families?  Doesn’t everyone have this ‘split’ identity?  I find it odd that it’s ‘unprofessional’ to bring your ‘whole’ identity to work.  Why, if you are doing the work to a high standard?

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

Don’t consider any experience a waste of your time or energy.  I learned things in cold blood, doing work I found unfulfilling, that I later leaned hard on in ‘the dream job’ or indeed on my own trying to build a fledgling business and brand of my own.  Be respectful of absolutely everyone you meet and work with.  Everyone is valuable, to you and to the wider world.  Take the good from every single project.  Also, specialisation is for insects.  It’s great to dabble and keep up a wide variety of interests; your curiosity means something and should be indulged, curated, pursued.  Not everything will be a commercial opportunity, right now.  But you’d be amazed what comes back around to visit you over a whole lifetime of work and pursuits, so many business leads and ideas, clients and connections have come my way from apparently tenuous or irrelevant links.  As long as you are not a burden on society, and keeping your nose clean and your bills paid, just make the best damn use of your time that you can.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

I have an ambitious plan for Morindoo to build a permanent ranch in Mongolia, a base from which we could launch all of our long rides, and also from which we could run residential retreats, courses, and shorter stays for people who aren’t ready or don’t wish to do an epic multi-day adventure, or who are travelling with young children perhaps.  In the off season I’d love to run it as a kind of tourism centre of excellence; catering, camp management, training guides and wranglers, even the horses.  I’d love to be involved in raising and protecting the standards or hospitality in Mongolia.  There is so much talent and hard work there – to help some of our crew and team start their own tourism brands in the future, maybe even become clients at the ranch with their own guests, would give me enormous satisfaction.  Bring more income into that amazing country, not just take it out.  So, I am currently up to my eyeballs in architectural drawings, funding application ideas, cash flow forecasts.  Meanwhile for 2020 we have a wonderful summer of adventures, horsey and otherwise, lined up, to sell and execute.

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