How Stephanie Buelna-Betancourt Turned Her Love for Travel into a Tech Startup

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Stephanie Buelna-Betancourt Crunchbase SpotlightWhen you grow up watching loved ones build thriving businesses from scratch, you’re bound to be inspired.

That’s exactly what happened to Stephanie Buelna-Betancourt, the Founder and CEO of Buena AI, a productivity tool for consumers to make smart, meaningful purchases in travel and retail.

The City of Angels

Buelna-Betancourt’s story begins in Los Angeles.

Raised by immigrant parents, she grew up watching them start and grow a thriving business with no resources. They didn’t have connections to leverage, money in the bank to give them years of runway, investors offering capital, or even speak English when they arrived in the U.S.

Witnessing her parents work hard to build a better life for their family left an impression on Buelna-Betancourt. As she explained, “It’s special to come from a family of immigrants who are entrepreneurial. I saw them work hard, and they did it without many resources.”

Relocating to another country and integrating yourself into a new culture is hard enough. To do it and build not just one but two successful businesses is a testament to their hard work and grit. Characteristics that, as they would find out, their daughter inherited.

Taking the Entrepreneurial Leap

After graduating from UCLA in 2012 (Buelna-Betancourt was the first member of her family to go to college), opportunity came knocking.

Not only did Buelna-Betancourt join one of the largest alumni networks in the U.S., but she was also in the heart of the entertainment capital of the world. The latter led to internships and full-time opportunities with several major entertainment companies in Los Angeles, including Live Nation and AEG. The former would prove to be valuable in the not too distant future.

With a career in the entertainment space taking off, she had everything going for herself. That’s why it came as a surprise when she decided to leave the industry and move to Australia where she would join a small startup in the veterinary science industry.

While it was a departure from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, joining the startup allowed Buelna-Betancourt to wear multiple hats and see the inner workings of building a business. This was an invaluable experience that would serve her next act: entrepreneur.

In 2014, Buelna-Betancourt decided to take the entrepreneurial leap and start her own business.

As an avid solo traveler, she wanted an easier way to connect with people who shared the same zest for globetrotting. Scratching her own itch, she turned this pain point into her first company, TravelBreak, a network to help solo travelers meet.

While TravelBreak was meant to solve a problem she had experienced, Buelna-Betancourt ran into a common situation for startup founders: it was too early for her company. She started the business before social media’s rise to prominence and online travel magazines became popular.

However, instead of packing her bags and calling it a day, Buelna-Betancourt was determined to make TravelBreak work. Leveraging her background in digital marketing and travel, TravelBreak pivoted to a digital marketing consultancy that specialized in tourism. Over a hundred brand clients later, which included Fortune 500 companies and lifestyle brands, Buelna-Betancourt found her niche as an entrepreneur.

The Launch of Buena AI

As a consultant, Buelna-Betancourt spent a lot of time in the lifestyle and tourism industries, which gave her an opportunity to see the problems content creators and brands were having. One problem in particular stuck out: the tools they were using to reach Millennials and Gen Z were outdated.

Seeing an opportunity to solve a problem, she took her entire life savings – $50,000 at the time – and launched BUENA AI.

With a focus on travel and lifestyle, the BUENA AI technology instantly makes content shop-able. It allows consumers to find information online, compare their options, and know they are receiving honest recommendations. For content creators and media companies, it enables them to inform readers about the best products and experiences while monetizing their posts.

As Buelna-Betancourt describes it, “Pinterest meets Trello for meaningful purchases in travel and CPG.”

Despite this exciting new chapter in her career, Buelna-Betancourt had a problem.
For a tech company, $50,000 only goes so far. Sooner rather than later, there needs to be a game plan for scaling and creating a sustainable business.

As fate would have it, the opportunity to scale BUENAAI came when Buelna-Betancourt was featured in UCLA’s alumni publication. An alumnus who was an angel investor caught wind of what she was building and invested, giving the company some runway.

While it’s early days for the productivity tool, it has already garnered backing from several Angel investors, including:

  • Tracie Rotter, Partner at Google Ventures
  • Jeff and Robin Rothstein, Managing Directors of Golden Seeds
  • Steve Yu, CFO at the UCLA School of Law

Buelna-Betancourt has built her career in a similar fashion as her parents – with relentless work ethic, grit, and determination. These are the characteristics that have enabled her to go from the bright lights of Hollywood to starting her own company.

As the old saying goes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

  • Originally published March 10, 2020, updated May 5, 2023