When you have a husband (then boyfriend) who’s crazy about networking, you go to places, you never knew existed. You become part of communities that you come to love. You met a lot of interesting people who could teach you and inspire you for life. You make amazing friends that you would never let go for eternity.

That is how I ended up in Headstart Chennai Edition’s first start-up Saturday. And, that’s where I met this magnificent woman, who this episode is all about. I remember my first ever association with HS. My husband was a volunteer with the community, and I tagged along with him like I always do (I know, I am annoying that way!) I watched with growing curiosity the bustle all around, especially of a woman in a slick “Time to start up is now” T-shirt, a functional pair of jeans and a stylish Pixie cut. She had an air of confidence about her, endless energy and infectious enthusiasm.

My husband introduced me to her, told me she was Malini, an entrepreneur who runs a start-up company called F5 Escapes. It is a venture that specializes in organizing all-women trips with customized itinerary and provides an immense opportunity for women who would like to explore traveling without having the nagging doubt their safety.

I was stunned. Can you ever develop a deep respect and immense pride for a person in the when you have just met them? Malini was one such rare gem. And, when I decided to interview her for the series, I immediately knew the first question I would ask her

“How did F5 escapes start? When did the idea get rooted?”

“Started in the aftermath of the Delhi rape case. When that happened in Dec 2012, I realized I wanted to make travel better for women in India. I solidified the idea by April and by June, the company was up and running. F5 Escapes has the vision to redefine the way women travel in India.” She said.

I went from shock to anger to resentment to admiration in few seconds as I processed her answer. Women around the world have been oppressed forever, and the simplest and the most basic of human rights becomes a privilege for us. There is an entire sector of industries that entirely revolve around the concept of women safety. From pepper sprays, tasers, rape alarms, tracking apps to even rape safety underwear, we need several layers of precautions to step out of the house. Even with it all, we can never be too careful. We can never be out alone after a particular timeline, we can never drink to the point of getting tipsy, we can never walk alone in a shady lane, once every minute and the list goes on. Whatever we do, however, we fight we are still gory victims of the society affected one way or other, at varying degrees. To see a woman, raise with such responsibility and courage from another woman’s ashes, being a pioneer in the path of change is not just awe-inspiring, it’s heart-warming and truly sensational.

Thanks to her company, Malini meets several strong women who have instigating stories of their own, and together they form strong, ever-lasting, trust-worthy bonds that would last for a lifetime. I was curious about the whole ecosystem which formulated my next question.

“You would have met different women from different walks of life on your trips, some adventurous, young explorers, some middle-aged, conservative women who's never travelled without their family before, old women who finally get their chance to savour their personal time, how do these women come together? what do you take home after every one of these journeys?” I asked.

“The first year of F5, I organized led a trip every month. That opened my eyes to perspectives I never had before. While in the initial days, our clientele were primarily single women, our groups these days have a mix of people from different backgrounds and varying levels of travel experience. The ability to share your space with a stranger and opening to them is a great skill to have, and I think our trips impart that to some extent. Also, being women empathetic to each other and learning from each other is another takeaway. Travel can lend perspectives that being in one place doesn't, and we are earnestly trying to facilitate that.  

Today we offer the following: Group departures, where a tour is announced, and women from anywhere can join in, Customised vacations for your own girl gangs, solo travel planning, and even family vacations! We also empower women with upskilling workshops like Motorbiking, Horse-riding, etc. and awareness workshops on sustainable menstruation, travel safety and sexuality education.” Her voice rang loud and clear.  

And what a voice it is! If you happen to follow Malini on Facebook, you would realize that in addition to her invigorating thoughts she has an entrancing voice. She loves to sing, and she has been a professional voice over artist for years.

“How did that come about? was it a hobby?” I hurled questions at her, none too gracefully, my fascination and curiosity getting the better of me.

“I used to participate in TV reality shows back in the early 2000s. I moved to Bangalore in 2005, and I still wanted to keep my singing gene alive - hence I went to a recording studio in 2006 to record my voice for a reality show audition. The sound engineer said I had a great voice suitable for voice overs and I should give it a chance. Those days, I did my first ever voice over!

It continued as a hobby until I quit my corporate job to take it up full time in 2011. Soon, I set up a home studio and started recording - I also took up a part-time job as an RJ with Timbremedia ( Worldspace) and started doing creative writing. This continued till 2012 until the Delhi rape shook me enough to switch career and take up women safety and travel as the primary pursuit in life.” She sobered.

I took a breath as I processed. Malini has never been the one to shun away from bold choice both on the professional and personal front. She is a single mother, raising one gem of a boy, who is growing up to be an impeccable gentleman. Sangeeth is humble, understanding, caring and deeply rooted in ethics.  

“Being single parent shouldering double the responsibilities, what values do you hold on to and impart to your son that makes him grow as responsible and compassionate as he is?” I asked her,

“I am proud of is the way the child has blossomed - Children of single parents turn out to be generally more mature and sensitive than their peers, with a bit of guidance. Also, one thing that people going through a divorce must understand is that no parent has the right to deny the child his/her other parent unless the other parent is proven to be a dangerous person to the child.  If all women and men keep this is mind and not pollute the child's thoughts with their own bitterness and contempt for the ex, the child can grow up to be a very empathetic, sensitive person. Counseling is a brilliant tool as well - Some amount of awareness on child and adult counseling and what wonders it can do will really help people going through adversity bounce back to life.

Regarding values, empathy, forgiveness and the ability to think from another person's perspective are some of the key benefits that I am trying to instill in the child. Long way to go!” Malini said, and like everything she has said before, this made perfect sense and increased my respect for this marvelous woman multi-fold, and I knew of all the women in the series, this woman’s answer for my last question would create a lasting resonance.

“What message do you have for the woman out there?” I whispered, holding my breath for her answer.

“I am no expert to dole out advice. But I can say this as a peer - it is a great idea to understand the impermanence of life and not take oneself or one’s current set of ideas as the ultimate reality. We change, our ideas change all the time! Also, developing enough mental strength will help us tide over most situations. Vipassana, a lot of reading and keeping at my business all through adversity were the things that helped me. Go figure out what drives you and keep at it!”

She said with a heart rendering smile, and that folks is the best message I can get across to you ever and I am mighty proud and grateful to myself that I did!

PS: Checkout Malini's startup, F5 Escapes here