Change Makers

 Woman of the Seas: Bringing Luxury Travel to People of Color

Sheila Ruffin standing on yacht in white suit

Growing up on the Virginia Eastern Shore, Sheila Ruffin (J.D. ’11) spent a lot of time swimming, crabbing, fishing and boating on the Chesapeake Bay. Today those skills have propelled her into becoming one of few Black faces making waves in the luxury yachting industry.

After graduating from Howard Law School, she practiced environmental law in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. As potential clients would inquire about the environmental impact of building yachts in the local marina, she thought, “I don't see any Black people in the yachting industry.” So she decided to fill that void.

I call myself the trifecta of the industry – African American, woman and a millennial."

Ruffin’s observations about the industry were not unfounded. Indeed, more than half of survey respondents to the 12th Annual Maritime Employee Survey conducted by Halcyon Recruitment, Diversity Study Group, and Coracle Maritime, said they were personally aware of discrimination in the industry. Executives are typically white and male, Ruffin says. “They are the CEOs, the founders and owners.”

However, now Ruffin has joined their ranks. In 2019, she launched Soca Caribbean Yacht Charters, an Alexandria, Virginia-based company that aims to provide all-inclusive yacht vacations to the Caribbean.

In addition to making a name in the luxury travel industry, Ruffin wanted to build a business that specifically catered to people of color and millennials – “something that the yachting industry has not done,” she says.

Being a unicorn in the industry has pluses and minuses. On the positive side, she gets a lot of publicity because she isn’t what someone would expect from a yachting executive. “I call myself the trifecta of the industry – African American, woman and a millennial,” the 36-year-old says.

However, there have also been times when she hasn’t been taken seriously, she believes, because of her age, race and gender. It’s not unusual for her to be the only Black attendee of a yachting trade show, or for someone to write her off as being unable to afford the yachting lifestyle.  “There is still a lot of racism in the industry,” she says.  

But that hasn’t stopped her from making her presence felt. In 2021, she was named to the trade publication Boating Industry’s 40 under 40 list.

One of her biggest challenges has been convincing young Black millennials to look beyond cruises and consider the luxury travel experience of yachting. While it’s more expensive – a package can easily run $6,000 per person – travelers enjoy private and intimate accommodations, a customized itinerary and door-to-door transport. In the current COVID-19 environment, the exclusive setting makes yachting potentially safer than cruises, she points out.

Her experience at Howard has come in handy not only by helping her with contracts and other legal issues, but when she has to let people know that she is someone to be taken seriously. She casually throws out the fact that she is a Howard-trained attorney, which lets them know she has the intellect and first-class education to back up anything she does, she says.

Her ultimate goal is to diversify the world of luxury travel.  When it’s not unusual to see luxury yachts filled with people of color and millennials – “that is when I will feel like I made a difference.”