Marketing images of tourists traveling abroad have historically been devoid of faces and people representative of the African Diaspora. So if you didn’t know any better, you could almost be forgiven for buying into the myth that black people don’t travel.
A myth that Zim Ugochukwu (@zimism), 25, believed herself at one point while living and studying abroad in India. At the time, she felt like she was “an anomaly,” and that’s when she began to form the foundational idea for what would in late 2013 become Travel Noire.
On the surface, Travel Noire is a platform featuring cultivated insights from a global community of black travelers. On a deeper level, it shatters the aforementioned myth, provides insight, education and varied perspectives on the black travel experience and through the lens of other travelers, allows us to see ourselves exploring, studying, volunteering and living well all around the world. It’s a concerted effort and blatant statement from Zim and her team that lets other people from the Diaspora know that yes, you can travel too.
Here, I talk to Zim about how she started Travel Noire with $50 (it now has 80 curators and 15 fellows and strategists), what her inspiration and mission for the platform are and how aspiring travelers can leverage any career or background to see more of the world.
Hashtags + Stilettos (H+S): What is Travel Noire?
Zim Ugochukwu (Zim): Travel Noire is a platform featuring cultivated insights from a global community of black travelers. We carefully select curators from the African Diaspora who reside all over the globe and empower each of them to share their love of global culture and exploration through stories, tips, videos and reviews. We recently launched the Travel Noire Academy, an online platform that democratizes learning with travel courses and challenges, handcrafted for travelers of the African Diaspora.
H+S: Is it just a blog and a curated selection of travel images and stories? Or, is it something more?
Zim: It’s much more. It’s grown from a collection of stories to a company that supports the burgeoning community of black travelers and boasts a learning portal to help people of color travel better. We shatter the myth that people of color don’t travel.
H+S: I’m glad you touched on that. Travel Noire does an amazing job of challenging and dispelling that myth. Is that something you initially set out to do? Have people been surprised to see the images and read the global jet setting stories from black travelers?
Zim: To be honest, I thought I was an anomaly. When I was living in India, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me. And when I did, it almost felt like a “me and you us never part, makidada” moment.
I used to spend hours going through every [travel] hashtag on Instagram when we first launched Travel Noire. I spent hours scouring Instagram for any sight of a black traveler. With love from Myleik (from curlBOX) and other amazing people, we started growing, people started posting to the [#travelnoire] hashtag and voila!
People have been surprised to see images of black travelers and that’s a phenomenal thing. I want people to get out of the Atlanta, Miami and Las Vegas matrix and start thinking globally. Now that they’ve seen people who look like them, they know for certain that they can see the world too.
H+S: What inspired you to create Travel Noire?
Zim: I wanted to create something for the quintessential mover-and-shaker, someone who desired to get out and explore the world beyond all conventionalities. I wanted people of color in Nepal. Bora Bora. Finland. Senegal. Turkey. Alaska. Bolivia. And in the coolest areas of the countries where they lived. Travel Noire was born out of frequent encounters with people of color who were often skeptical about the reality of traveling abroad.
I strongly believe that beautiful design is captivating. I wanted people, after finishing a Travel Noire piece, to feel like they were actually there. I wanted the stories to come to life. I wanted design to matter because after all, we deserve it. By creating a beautiful platform full of robust and captivating imagery, we’re continuing to shatter assumptions, connect curious minds and transport readers to new experiences.
H+S: You still have a full time job. How have you been balancing the two? Do you think you’d ever leave your job to run TN full-time?
Zim: It’s been a challenge, but I’ve been keeping side projects for years. I’ve always kept my hands full. Whenever there’s a lull in my work, I turn to an inspirational side project and vice versa. It keeps me on my toes. I typically wake up around 6 am to work on Travel Noire before heading to work and then I’m back at it in the evenings. I end up working 8 hours for both jobs! While I love my current job, in the next year, I’ll eventually transition to running Travel Noire full time.
H+S: You recently hosted a Google Hangout chat on ‘How to Get Paid to Travel the World,” a topic I’m sure a lot of people were interested in. What is one tip you would give to help people get started on that journey?
Zim: My one piece of advice is to be phenomenal at what you do. If you’re a makeup artist or graphic designer, be the best makeup artist or graphic designer. Study the greats, learn the techniques and always remain a student. When you’re great, the money will come, no matter where you are. There is no such thing as an overnight success. You won’t travel the world and have [dollar] bills thrown at you in 3 months. It takes time, hard work and perseverance.
H+S: What advice would you give to someone who wants to start traveling but doesn’t know where to begin?
Zim: It all starts with a bit of curiosity. If you want to travel for an extended period of time, I recommend [reading] Delaying the Real World by Colleen Kinder. That’s how I found my first long-term traveling opportunity.
It also helps to think about where you’d like to go for the entire year and map out blocks of time. Plan around holidays for maximum time off. Start a travel fund. If money is a concern, I like setting aside a certain amount of money every paycheck.
Figuring out what types of places you want to go would be an easy next step. Don’t like the cold? Love beaches? Hate rain? You can use these metrics to start to narrow down possible destinations.
Once you have that, I’d head over to Kayak.com to see how much money can get you where.
Beyond that, this goes without saying, a passport is the real first step. People underestimate the power of that small blue book. It’s your key to the world.
H+S: You spent some time traveling through India as a Henry Luce Fellow. What was that experience like for you?
Zim: I actually lived in India for an entire year as a Henry Luce Scholar; I spent 12 days living on an Indian train, traveling pan-India on the Jagriti Yatra. The Jagriti Yatra (the 12 day train ride) was challenging, beautiful & life changing. While living in India, I learned about the value and importance of travel. I traveled because somewhere deep down, I wanted to feel the connection amidst the difference of culture, location, opinion and lifestyle. I wanted to know that we are all still human; we still cry, fear, laugh and hope, albeit in different languages and furthermore, that we still belong to each other.
There was something exhilarating about knowing that a flight as little as 6-7 hours could take me to a place so different, I had to strain to recognize it—my social cues were [challenged], I had to resort to my preschool English much of the time, and periodically grasped for my bearings. The magical thing though, was that once I stepped off the plane and escaped the place where I spent the most time, I suddenly became more aware of ideas that I may have suppressed, applying what I saw to problems back home. While living in India, I was introduced to new ideas in ways that would have never occurred if I stayed in the US.
H+S: You mentioned something about Travel Noire Academy earlier. What is that?
Zim: Travel Noire Academy, an online platform that democratizes learning with travel courses and challenges, handcrafted for travelers of the African Diaspora. If you’ve ever wanted to know how to travel, the Academy guides you with actionable and tangible steps to get you where you want to go through online courses and challenges.
Our first course for the Travel Noire Academy is called Travel Hacking: How to Travel the World for Cheap. By the end of the course, students will know exactly how and where to spot great travel deals, earn free flights (at least one roundtrip flight), finance their next trip & get a free one-way flight every time they use miles. With course enrollment, each individual gets access into our exclusive Travel Noire Google+ Community, where they can take the conversation deeper with curators and like-minded travelers.
H+S: What are your top 3 tips for first time international travelers?
Zim: 1. Make copies of your travel documents (passport, license, visa information, foreign registration documents, etc); always, always carry cash in local currency. Having a few USD bills won’t hurt either; and lastly, download or purchase a small guidebook. Learn a few common phrases in the local language
H+S: What is your favorite destination so far? Why?
Zim: Kashmir, the disputed Indian territory. Having traveled to most of the states in India, Kashmir is radically different. It’s predominately Muslim, while most of the rest of India practices Hinduism, and the landscapes are absolutely breathtaking. It’s surrounded by the Himalayan mountain ranges with lush green hills. The mantra of the region beckons slow living. It’s just a phenomenal place.
H+S: Aside from Travel Noire, where do you go- or look for travel inspiration?
Zim: I love browsing through travel startup websites: Airbnb, Adioso, The Flight Deal to name a few. I’m also in love with AFAR magazine.
H+S: Who or what inspires you?
ZU: Syreeta Gates, the creative director of Travel Noire is my personal hype woman. She has ideas for days and has been such a phenomenal friend. Everything she says to me has the power of 10,000 exclamation points. I’m blessed to have her on the team.
I’m also inspired by simplicity. I’m inspired by it because the challenge is never in adding, it’s always in subtracting. So people or companies that live by minimalism inspire me.
H+S: Favorite inspirational quote?
Zim: “Live life in crescendo, your greatest works and contributions are always ahead of you.” The work that I’m doing now doesn’t even compare to what I’ll create in the future. That’s an incredibly powerful statement. It’s a quote that I’ve held near and dear for years.
H+S: Do you have a favorite book?
Zim: I have a long list of favorite books but the book closest to my heart is “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch. I cried while reading the entire book. It’s incredible. Go read it.
H+S: What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve ever received or learned along the way?
Zim: Be authentic and build what you’ve experienced. Authentic entrepreneurs solve problems that they’re inexplicably tied to. Authenticity is an entrepreneur who deeply understands their market or is solving a problem that was personally experienced. Deep knowledge of a market increases an entrepreneur’s chance of building a successful company.
H+S: What are your goals for the brand for the next year?
Zim: Continue to grow the brand and introduce new and exciting verticals. I want black travel to be synonymous with Travel Noire.
H+S: What are some of your personal or professional goals for this year?
Zim: Take a think week. Every year, I travel to a remote location and completely unplug. I typically read and write for 5-7 days straight. I also want to make an effort to get out more. When you’re starting a company, it’s easy for you to pass on evening plans with friends to get some extra work done. Lastly, I’m doing a huge personal branding push this year.
H+S: What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Zim: Great artists ship. That’s a famous saying here in the Bay Area. If you spend all of your time making sure your product or service is perfect, you’ll never launch it. You’ll be too worried about the details, so much so, that you’ll continue to push back deadlines or launch dates. There is something freeing about working hard on something and then launching it into the world. Not everyone will love your product. That’s fine, no one likes lukewarm consumers anyways. You want people to be enamored with your product. Focus on solving a problem and you’ll win. Enamored consumers sell products.
To learn more about Travel Noire visit www.travelnoire.com.
A version of this interview originally appeared on MadameNoire.com.
- Travel Hacks: How to Get Paid to Travel the World