Working as a coastal and maritime tourism attorney in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2012, Sheila Ruffin was shocked to find that there were no black people among vacationers who chartered a yacht.
Growing up in Eastville, a small town on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, Ruffin loved boats and spent a lot of her childhood on water.
Her grandfather was an avid boater and by the age of 6, she was already planning family vacations with her mother. This made her appreciate the beauty of being on the water and the travel industry.
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Ruffin ultimately attended law school but she didn’t pass the bar exam the first time. She ended up landing a job on the island of St. Thomas. There, she did not only practice law but went to travel school to become a certified travel associate.
After graduation, she realized that she could do more than being a travel agent.
“I googled yacht agencies that were one-stop-shops, but I couldn’t find any,” she told Travel Noire. “This gave me an idea of what I could do. Plus, I couldn’t find any people of color within the industry. Therefore, I set out to start my own company.”
Today, the 33-year-old environmental lawyer in Washington, D.C., is the owner of Soca Caribbean Yacht Charters, a boutique travel agency that coordinates “personalized, stress-free, all-inclusive yacht vacations in the Caribbean Sea.”
What is also interesting is that her company is the first black-owned business of its kind and her target markets are people of color and millennials.
“My mission is to ensure this industry does not continue to overlook Black and Brown people and millennials.
“The market is wide open to people of color and millennials because no one has marketed to them,” Ruffin, who graduated from Hampton University and Howard University Law School, was quoted by The Miami Times.
Soca Caribbean Yacht Charters works with yacht companies in the Bahamas, Grenada, St. Lucia, the British Virgin Islands, St. Vincent and St. Martin.
Patrons can also have yachts featuring a private chef and captain.
For those who would want to have that high-end luxury yacht experience, here’s how Ruffin’s company works: “We offer a door to dock-to-door service. The minute you step out of your home, there is a luxury car waiting to take you to the airport.
“Once you arrive in your Caribbean destination, we provide transfers to the dock where you board your yacht. After your trip, we also provide all services in reverse.”
Depending on the size of the yacht, the number of passengers can range from eight to 12 people, and already, Ruffin is getting all the praises for entering a space where black women are not really present.
“Being a person of color inspired me to start my company,” she said. “I noticed a gap in the market. In 2018, African Americans contributed $63 billion to America’s travel and tourism industry and Hispanic Americans contributed $56 billion.
“Nearly half of millennials are minorities, and ‘high-end’ millennials will become the affluent sector by 2026–2029, with the wealthiest of this generation entering a window of affluence that will last for two decades.”
The environmental lawyer is breaking barriers with her company currently and experts say that in order to be extremely successful in the industry, she must convince her target audience that blacks and people of color can yacht too.