IWTA speaks with Mary Li, Founder and CEO, Atlas

IWTA speaks with Mary Li, Founder and CEO, Atlas


The travel industry has a unique ability to break down barriers, bring people together, and create opportunities for growth and discovery. Traveling should not be a privilege or luxury, but something that everyone should have access to. Atlas aims to make travel more accessible and affordable by connecting travel sellers with low-cost airlines worldwide through advanced technology.

In conversation with the IWTA Committee, Mary Li, Founder and CEO, Atlas shares more about her transformative journey through travel. Going ahead from tough Covid times to build an inclusive travel technology company, that sets industry benchmarks and paces up a proactive team.

Q. How did you get started in the travel industry? And why the travel industry?

A. I didn’t have a conventional journey into the travel industry. It was a path I discovered later in life, but it has been incredibly rewarding. After spending nearly, a decade caring for my daughter, I re-entered the workforce in my mid-30s with a China-based travel agency, Wingon Travel.

Despite having no prior experience in travel, I saw this as an opportunity to learn. I was intrigued by the travel industry because of its complexity and the significant role it plays in connecting people worldwide.

As I grew older, I realized the transformative impact that travel can have. The travel industry has a unique ability to break down barriers, bring people together, and create opportunities for growth and discovery. It opens minds, broadens perspectives, and fosters empathy and understanding across cultures.

For me, the travel industry isn’t just about business, or my career; it’s about purpose and a way to make a positive difference in the world. It’s about using my skills and expertise to make travel more accessible and inclusive for everyone.

“My mom sells plane tickets.” From elementary school to high school, my daughter would proudly introduce me to her friends like this. In her eyes, I was doing the most valuable job, one that helped many people see the world. Whether it was in an old house serving as an office space, a cubicle in a commercial building, or the high-tech Alibaba campus in Hangzhou, it didn’t matter.

So, why the travel industry? Because I believe in its power to change lives, and I’m committed to being a part of that change.

Q. Can you share a significant moment from your personal journey that inspired your passion for travel?

A. As a child growing up in China in the 1970s, the idea of travel was a foreign concept to me. However, books like Jane Eyre and The Thorn Birds opened my eyes to the world outside of my hometown. I was fascinated by the vast and exciting world that lay beyond my reach and longed for the opportunity to explore it for myself. My first experiences of travel were on group bus tours that took me to various shopping centers across Hong Kong, Thailand, and Macau. Although this may not seem like the most thrilling way to travel, to me, everything was new, exotic, and exciting and I enjoyed every moment.

Years have passed since those early travels, and I have visited countless places and met many people along the way. Yet, I am still in love with travel and its magical power to change people’s lives.

My eldest sister, Ying, retired several years ago after her husband passed away. During one of my visits home, she told me that she had set a goal to travel to 100 countries in her lifetime. Despite having a retirement salary of only $700 per month and not knowing any English, she has managed to visit over 40 countries so far. I am always moved by her smile and her excitement for her next trip every time I go home. She plans her budget carefully and goes on a group tour every 2-3 months to tick more countries off her list. Her latest journey took her to Europe, where she visited six countries in one go.

Her example reminds me that traveling should not be a privilege or luxury, but something that everyone should have access to. It gives me the motivation to go to work every single day.

Q. Can you share a challenging project you undertook in your travel career and how you overcame it?

A. The most challenging project is always the one I am working on right now. Today, it is to build a global, inclusive travel technology company that solves industry puzzles and makes people feel excited about coming to work every day.

Moving to Singapore to launch Atlas was a bold decision, in retrospect. I stepped far from my comfort zone and began from scratch, slowly building my team and clarifying our vision for the company. We launched Atlas in September 2019, just a few months before the global travel industry came to a halt and airplanes were grounded due to Covid 19. But each hurdle has pushed us to grow and adapt in unique ways. For example, the pandemic gave us time to focus on building a solid, scalable technology platform that became the foundation of what we offer now.

One of the biggest challenges so far was to pursue our vision of connecting the world in a true, genuine way. We know that to build a truly global business that brings value to everyone in the world, we should start from the inside out – with our team.

Our team is made up of people from different countries with diverse backgrounds and languages. We aim to create a ‘ONE TEAM culture’ where everyone can thrive and be themselves without being forced to conform to any particular way of doing things.

Building a truly multicultural team and merging different cultures isn’t easy. It takes commitment, patience and respect to apply this approach to practice. Doing this well requires deep insight into the cultures, traditions and mindsets of different people and places. Like every organization that ever tried it, we face challenges – remote working limitations, cultural misunderstandings and assumptions, and language barriers.

And it is mutual trust that paves the way for understanding and openness. We strive to create an environment where everyone has a voice and feels at ease speaking up. After all, innovation only thrives in a culture of diversity and inclusion, and we can’t solve some big industry problems without every one of us having a voice.

Q. How has working in travel or a career in travel broadened your understanding of different cultures and traditions?

A. In twenty years in the travel industry, I’ve sent myself around the world countless times. During these trips, I experienced many wonderful and touching moments that made me understand and respect the similarities and differences we all share.

My most special experience of traveling was when I went on a two-year solo travel journey, after leaving a high-profile role at Alibaba Group.

This experience opened my eyes to the beauty and diversity of our world. It taught me to appreciate different cultures, traditions, and perspectives. I explored destinations like Tibet, Japan, Israel, Kenya, and various parts of the US and Europe, but it was in the soul of India’s bustling chaos that I found something truly special.

Despite the stark contrasts of wealth and poverty in India, there is an overwhelming sense of freedom and joy. During my time in India, I immersed myself in its diverse cultures, traditions, and religions. I met incredible people from different walks of life, each with their own unique stories. What struck me the most was the strength and resilience of the Indian people, and the boundless love and acceptance they shared with me.

I then spent two years working in India. I was a co-CEO of Mystifly, a travel technology company with a great team. They showed me even more colors and scents of India. When people ask me how I survived in India, I always encourage people to go there and experience it firsthand. I not only survived, but I also loved India.

It’s remarkable how travel serves as a bridge, connecting people and fostering cross-cultural understanding. It was in India that I realized I could turn my strengths and skills into a purpose-led business. I could use it to help open travel to more people across the world.

Q. Can you share the story behind starting your own travel-related business or project?

A. With two successful businesses under my belt, Atlas is my third travel start-up. Every time, I was driven by a strong belief that I could find solutions to systemic inefficiencies I observed around me.

My first experience in travel was with Wingon Travel, a traditional offline travel agency. During my time there, I witnessed firsthand all the issues with booking flights for our customers. It required an overly complicated and mostly manual process, and I saw the potential to use technology to address these challenges. It inspired me to launch Aslan, a data-processing company, that quickly became the largest B2B air ticketing platform in China. In 2014, Aslan was acquired by Alitrip, now Fliggy, where I stayed for two years as Head of Air Tickets.

Later, in 2019, I launched Atlas, another travel tech company. I started it because I wanted to solve issues with distributing air content from low-cost carriers. While these airlines were taking more and more share of the aviation market, travel agents could not access their data in a cohesive, seamless manner.
Atlas aims to make travel more accessible and affordable by connecting travel sellers with low-cost airlines worldwide through advanced technology, and we chose this name for a reason.

At the end of June 2019, my daughter Xinyu and I visited the National Gallery in Singapore and explored the exhibition “Between Declarations and Dreams”. One room displayed maps drawn to meet the needs of colonizers as Portugal and the Netherlands invaded and colonized Southeast Asia starting in the 16th century. Due to different eras and mapmakers, the same geographical location could be depicted differently on various maps. These differentiated maps were compiled into atlases. Before this experience, I hadn’t thought deeply about it. It seemed that the results from Google or other search engines were the only answers, presenting a rectangular plane or a 3D scene before me.

Staring at the yellowed rolls of maps behind the glass cabinet and comparing the differences in the same location on different maps was fascinating. Perhaps if I were to draw them today, the result would be different. Even when faced with the same scenery, the memories left in each person’s mind would be different. Traveling allows us to create our unique atlases.

Q. If you could be anything in the world or do any role, what would it be?

A. I am already doing what I believe is the best job in the world. I’ve never enjoyed my life more than I do now, even with the stress and challenges that come with building a company.

My mission is to help bring more acceptance and inclusion in the world through the power of travel, and with Atlas, we are making travel more accessible and affordable. Everything we do is aligned with our values, and I live every day knowing that I do something meaningful and impactful. Building a purpose-led business is not easy, but when you are clear about your goals and vision, it makes it simple and much more enjoyable!


If you know of any female leaders or up and coming superstars in the Travel and Hospitality industry you would like to nominate, please visit our page and complete a nomination form!






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