Julia Ganju is a seasoned world traveler. So far, she’s been to India, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Nepal, Cambodia, Singapore, Australia, Mexico, and Canada, as well as Italy, France, and Greece. In April, she added South Africa and London to the list. In the former, she tried alligator for the first time. Or maybe it was crocodile. She couldn’t quite remember.
“It tasted like fish,” Julia said. And yes, she’d eat it again.
Over the course of a lifetime, all this travel might not be so impressive. But Julia is just 7 years old.
Julia’s mother, 44-year-old Erin Ganju, is the CEO of the global nonprofit Room to Read, a job that frequently requires overseas travel. Ganju’s creative solution to meeting the demands of her professional and personal life has been to bring her daughter along on her trips around the world.
Taking Julia along when she has breaks from school is Ganju’s way to “balance two big jobs … being a CEO of a global organization and being a mom.”
In the midst of our national conversation about “work-life balance”—having it all, opting out, leaning in—Ganju has forged her own unique path, giving her daughter a global education along the way.
Accompanied by her own mother, 78-year-old Adalou Keown, the “granny nanny” who provides child care when Ganju isn’t available, these three generations of women have traveled together since Julia was 4.
Both Keown and Ganju have lived abroad and traveled extensively and were eager to introduce Julia to their passion. Although Julia has visited some countries on family vacations, she’s seen many more on her mom’s business trips. Their first big trip together, in 2010, was five weeks and included fundraising meetings for Ganju in Hong Kong and visits to Room to Read programs in Vietnam and Nepal. Room to Read, a nonprofit that promotes literacy and gender equality in education, works in 10 countries in Asia and Africa.
The first question Ganju often gets about traveling in the developing world with her daughter regards safety. Doesn’t she worry? What if Julia gets sick? Although they always carry a first-aid kit, drink bottled water, and take other common sense precautions, Ganju doesn’t let fear stop her. In fact, the only places Julia has been sick while traveling were in Rome and Johannesburg, both highly developed cities.
“You could focus on all the things that could happen. But for me the experience of her being able to grow up comfortable in the world, no matter where she is, is of much more value,” Ganju said.
“It’s such a freeing thing to not be driven by fear or worry, but to be driven by the curiosity and the adventure,” she added.
“You could focus on all the things that could happen. But for me, the experience of her being able to grow up comfortable in the world, no matter where she is, is of much more value."
Julia, it seems, is catching the travel bug. When she learned there wasn’t going to be a big trip this past summer she was stunned. “What am I going to do??” Ganju said she asked, incredulous. Julia said she loves her adventures with her mother and “Mommou,” as she calls Keown, “exploring new places together and especially finding secret hideouts in new cities.”
Ganju and Keown help Julia remember their journeys with scrapbooks.
“I like choosing the kinds of pictures to put in,” Julia said. She’s included photos, magazine clippings, her drawings, postcards, ticket stubs, gifts from children at schools she’s visited, and other mementos. Flipping through the books a few months ago sparked happy memories.
“Do you remember this guy?” Keown asked Julia, pointing to a picture in Nepal.
“Pushkar,” Julia said, smiling proudly.
“You remember his name!” Keown said. “Wow!”
Pushkar was Room to Read’s former country director for Nepal. “And he pushes a car when he’s walking!” Julia said. (Later she whispered to me that she wanted the joke to make it into my notebook).
Another favorite memory is from Vietnam when Julia and her mom stumbled upon a dog vomiting rice. Julia still thinks it’s hilarious. Ganju laughs at the memory too. She’s seeing the more important lessons from their travels also sinking in. Ganju said Julia is gaining a better sense of geography, starting to understand socioeconomic disparities—especially between South Africa and London—and feeling comfortable in many situations.
“She has a pretty open mind and kind of takes everything in stride and is sort of curious about everything but not very judgmental,” Ganju said.
Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute, sees tremendous benefit for Julia in traveling with her mother. The author of numerous books, Galinsky also sometimes brought her young children along when her research requirements meant traveling around the country to conduct interviews.
“It was fantastic,” Galinsky said of being able to work on her books and simultaneously feel like she was enhancing her children’s lives. “I mean I was taking them to all these places and they were meeting all these interesting people and having all these incredible experiences. And they still talk about some of the trips they went on.”
Galinsky, who has a master’s degree in child development and education from Bank Street College of Education, pointed out that experiential learning is powerful and memorable.
“She’s going to live in a global world,” she said of Julia, one in which America is far from an island. “So having that clear from the beginning is fantastic.”
Ganju is the first to admit she couldn’t manage this alone. Her mother and her husband, Jitendra Ganju, have been integral partners. Keown calls her “granny nanny” role “the best possible job description I could have.”
Despite traveling with Julia often, Ganju travels alone much more. When she does, she tries to keep her domestic trips to a week or less and, if international, less than two weeks—and those happen only once or twice a year. In such instances, she said her husband steps up. He is an active partner and father even when she isn’t traveling—which, along with his steadfast support for her work with Room to Read, is key, she said.
Still the juggling is never easy. On the South Africa trip, which involved traveling with Room to Read donors and their children, there were times when Ganju was pulled between needing to talk to people and Julia wanting to play. Importantly, that’s when Keown steps in, allowing Ganju to “finish up the CEO part.”
Ganju’s arrangement may not be one that other women can always emulate. Kathleen Gerson, a sociology professor at New York University who studies gender, work, and family life, said for women to successfully negotiate professional and personal obligations, it helps enormously to have a supportive partner, a flexible job, and financial resources. “You are lucky if you have all three,” she said.
Room to Read tries to help employees that might not be so lucky. They have a child travel policy that provides subsidies to employees traveling with children under 2 for a caregiver to accompany the child and visa fees for the child. They also encourage flexible work schedules and have a group that gathers to talk about the challenges of working and parenting.
Galinsky, from the Families and Work Institute, called the financial support for child-care assistance especially unusual. On the institute’s 2012 national study of employers, only 2 percent of all employers polled provided “payment for child care with vouchers or other subsidies that have direct costs to the company.”
For Ganju, traveling with her family has led to surprising benefits.
“I’m the co-founder and CEO, which could be a very intimidating title,” Ganju said. “And yet you spend a week in a van, on the back roads of Cambodia with your family and they see you as a person, as a mother, as a daughter, and as a CEO asking a lot of questions.
“Being there as a more human person allows them to open up to me in different ways,” she continued. Conversations Ganju had with country staff about the challenges of leaving their families for work travel were part of what led to the child travel policy.
For women to successfully negotiate professional and personal obligations, it helps enormously to have a supportive partner, a flexible job, and financial resources.
On a more personal note, Ganju said she is more present when traveling, has more free time to be with her mother and daughter, and cherishes their shared experiences.
“Some people go shopping or go out to restaurants or go see art exhibits. They have shared passions as a family and our passion is travel,” she said. “I can’t imagine a better way to spend time with either my mom or Julia.”
Erin’s, Adalou’s, and Julia’s travel tips
-Never leave home without distractions
Julia always gets to bring one small bag of toys (a large zip-lock, for example). Her picks often include small dolls or stuffed animals, coloring and educational books, origami, paints, and the like. Julia also brings books she hasn’t read—Nancy Clancy Super Sleuth was her South Africa choice. Erin recommends that she choose toys and games that are new to her and not play with them before leaving so they’re fresh for the trip.
-Special treats for special times
At home Julia’s screen time is limited to 30 minutes. On overnight flights or during hours in a car? Not so much. She can watch movies or use Adalou’s iPad loaded with games. It’s “one way a 10-hour airplane ride is tolerated,” Adalou said.
Although Julia admitted that she doesn’t love to sleep on airplanes, at least if she’s got the window seat she can control the shade, closing it to make closing her lids a bit easier. When she’s awake she can then see all the views—a big plus.
Erin acknowledges that the flight and the jet lag that follows can be one of the hardest parts of traveling internationally with her young daughter. To deal with it, Erin says once they’ve landed they try to wait for bed until it’s dark, and if they take naps they keep them short!
-Go with the flow
Erin says that her first big overseas trip with Julia, when she was just 2 years old, was to visit her husband’s family in India. It was then Erin learned to go with the flow and not to be nervous about traveling with her daughter. You will get over the jet lag, she says, and if you have a bad meal one day, you’ll have a better one the next; if you get sick, you’ll get over it.
-Kids are adaptable
It’s really that simple. Young ones are probably more flexible than you think and can be happy and comfortable in many situations.
-Parents should be too…
Erin acknowledges she is more flexible when traveling with Julia, especially in terms of treats and rewards. Julia knows it and knows that she is expected to return to the routine once they are home again. “She gets more freedom, to a certain extent, in traveling because you are expecting a lot out of her in terms of her behavior,” Erin said.
-She can eat her vegetables at home
Don’t stress about what your child eats while on the road, say Erin and Adalou. Of Julia, they know, she won’t starve, “she’ll find what she wants to eat,” Erin said. In any case, it’s only a few weeks and your child isn’t likely to form habits in such a short time. However, bringing snacks from home (kid’s Cliff Bars, crackers, etc.) isn’t a bad idea.
-Just try it …
Julia’s rule is easy: “You should take a little bite of it and see if it’s good,” even if it looks a little weird. Not to worry if you don’t like it. Someone else at the table can finish it, she says.
-Take a café day
Let’s be honest, traveling can be exhausting. So this trio has created café days. Otherwise known as down days, this is when they’re tired and need a break, and they just don’t do much at all.
-On that note, you don’t have to see everything
For the London portion of their last trip, Erin did her advance research and found a science museum she thought Julia would love. Adalou and Julia planned a day there. But after about 45 minutes Julia was done. “What that taught me is, if they are not into it, you can’t shove it down their throats,” Adalou said. So, OK, you may not get to every museum, or historical site, but, “you will have a great your time with your child or grandchild,” Adalou said.
-Alone playtime is good
Despite the many exciting sights in foreign lands, sometimes children need quiet time. Adalou has learned this is certainly true of Julia. So when she needs to head back to the hotel for a few hours of solo play with her toys, Adalou is happy to make it happen.