How Zim Ugochukwu Founder and Ceo Of Travel Noire Went From Broke to Boss

Zim is a dynamic woman with a globetrotting habit that she turned into a business. Her path to success is anything but conventional.

After a disappointing run in the corporate rat-race, she decided to start her own business. Over a year of investing with no monetary return, Zim finally debuted her first product and sold out within hours. Her company, Travel Noire, is now a global phenomenon and recently earned a spot on FastCompany’s list of 2016’s Most Innovative Companies in the World.

With such a captivating story, Zim is sure to inspire you to push forward and keep pursuing your mission.

What was the path that lead you to discovering your mission and founding Travel Noire?

A few years ago I moved abroad to India, and I didn’t see anybody who looked like me. I was in this new country, I’d learned the language—I speak Hindi, so that helps a lot—but I didn’t see anybody who I could identify with. India is a primarily Hindu country, so even finding a church was a real challenge. Towards the middle of my year in India, call me crazy, I lived on a train. I lived on the train for 2 and a half weeks, and I lived with 400 other young Indians. We stopped in 13 different cities, all around India, and met up with entrepreneurs. My journey there and living on that train really inspired me to think bigger. It also showed me that we all have the same core desires in terms of being known and loved. I thought it would be a really interesting idea to be able to create a community of people who I could relate to.

This experience became the initial seed, for Travel Noire. The idea didn’t present itself again until a year-and-a-half later, and even then it wasn’t set into stone or set into action. I took a long time getting to the point of pursuit.

Once you decided to pursue your vision of Travel Noire, how long did it take you to launch?
It took me about 30 days, and that was just putting up a landing page, where people could enter in their emails, and also finding writers for the site. It was not an extensive process for launch, it was just sort of like a “You don’t have anything to lose.” I had just started a new job, and I was coming off of six months of working four jobs, so believe it or not, I was just itching for more.

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What is Travel Noire?

We’re a digital publishing platform; some people consider us a travel media company. We create tools, resources and experiences for travelers of color! We focus on the resources and experiences that can really inspire a different way of thinking. Many people typically spend their vacation in the same destinations that they’ve always been to, because that’s what’s comfortable to them. Our job is to really push, push the new forward, in terms of thinking a little bit differently, not only about where you travel but about your travel patterns. Instead of traveling one time per year, why don’t you break that up into four different mini vacations, and with a proliferation of some of these flight view websites, it’s easier to make that a reality.

We have two products—the District and Travel Noire Experiences. Travel Noire Experiences is our flagship product. It is a small-group experience, about 12 to 14 people, and they meet up in a certain destination. We currently have five: Capetown, Salvador de Bahia, Amalfi Coast, Johannesburg, and Bali. And we’re adding Zanzibar in the spring. We don’t do the typical tour circuit, where people only stay in a hotel for one or two nights. We allow them to unpack their suitcase in one hotel, and really fall in love with a destination. To fall in love with the neighborhood that they’re staying in, and we make it a point to not visit any tourist attractions. So, I had somebody ask me why we aren’t going to Robben Island in Cape Town. And I told them that, you know, you all can go to Robben Island on your off day. But it’s much more poignant for us to take you inside of the oldest township in Cape Town and have you hear stories from the people that live there. To sit in the living room with somebody who spent their entire life in the apartheid, and someone who grew up when the apartheid was ending, then somebody who grew up completely out of the apartheid. And that to me, holds a different level of immersion than just going to the museum. While that’s great, it doesn’t give you that sort of level of transformation. I’m all about transformative experiences, and building transformative experiences where people are challenged just enough to borderline hate what they’re doing, but in the end of their experience, their lives are changed. All of the things that change your life are never comfortable in the moment, ever.

Our other major product is the District, or #TNdistrict, which is a digital chat community where you can get real-time feedback and updates on the itineraries that you build. So, for instance, let’s say you’re going to Italy, and you want to know the top coffee shops. You hop into the District and you ask: “Hey. I’m going to Milan, I want to know where the best coffee shops are in this part of town.” And in less than five minutes, you have ten recommendations from people who’ve been there, to Milan. So it’s a great way to connect with people, share itineraries, and to travel! And those are our two products currently. We’re working on a product that will be released next year. It’s all about transporting your career to the destination of your choice, and being able to take your work life, and your home life, and moving that to another country. We’re really excited to see how it takes off.

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The company culture you’ve created at Travel Noire is exceptional. How would you describe it?
Culture! My favorite thing ever! I love culture, I could talk about it all day. Intentionally, we’re not ones that have an office, because I want people to live and work in the places that they feel most happy and productive. And if that means that you feel happy and productive in Thailand, or that you feel happy and productive in Ghana, by all means, please go there. I do not want to limit you from being your best self. So that’s one of the biggies for us, no office.

We also have unlimited vacations. I want people to take as much time for themselves as they need, in order to be present in the work that they do. And so, if that means taking a two week vacation every quarter, then take that two week vacation. My work and my life are very much intertwined. And because they are intertwined, I have to make an added effort to separate the two. Same thing with my team. They love the work that they do, but I also have to be cognizant that sometimes, when you love the work that you do, you don’t take the time off that you need to take off. And so we have a minimum vacation policy, so everybody has to take a minimum of 25 days off a year. If you don’t take off 25 days a year, then we’re going to have to have a serious talk. And anything beyond 25 days is unlimited. So that’s the vacation policy.

We have an educational policy, where if you want to go to a conference or anything like that, you are free to do that. You get a $2,000 stipend every year. We give a $3,000 stipend if you want to take a tour, if you want to try a tour product out, there’s $3,000 there for that. We are very big on learning, so we have unlimited Kindle subscriptions. We have a book we read every single month, and we talk about it at the end of the month. We also have a Skillshare membership. Learning is of utmost importance. If we don’t learn, then we can’t grow as a company.

We do have a really, really rigorous application process. I’m obsessive about this stuff. I want positive, happy people around me, and I don’t want to feel like people are only joining this Travel Noire team just so that they can travel the world. Because it’s much bigger than that. Our hiring process is pretty unique as well. We have a pretty intricate system of connecting with each other since we’re remote teams and in-office communication is not possible.

You created an extraordinary community through social media and your following. How did you create it?
We didn’t make any money for the first 18 months of existing. We literally made 0 dollars, and 0 cents. It wasn’t because we couldn’t, but because I wanted to be really intentional about building community first, and being valuable first, before even ever offering a product. We started with instructional programming, like how to travel the world for free, how to get paid to travel the world, how to become an ex-pat in less than 6 months. We did that in order to really build the community. And then from there the press we received started to play a role in the growth of this community in addition to our writers. We had a hundred writers at that time, who lived all over the world. And so through them, we also spread the messaging of Travel Noire’s worth. It’s really been a blessing to see—it’s been a blessing to see how much this community has grown over the past two years, and how being a value-based business is not a faux pas. If you want to start your business by being valuable first, and then selling a product, that is okay.

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You didn’t make any money for the first year your business was open. Did you face fears, doubts or insecurities along the way? How did you deal with them?

It was rough. I’ve been fired from almost every job I ever had after college, and I was fired from my last job, a month before I was actually going to leave. But in January of the year that I was fired, I told myself, Travel Noire’s taking off, and even though we’re not making money, the community’s growing, and that’s very valuable as well. I started saving aggressively, by the time I was fired I saved up about $17,000. But I was living in San Francisco, which is like dollar-dollar-bills rent central. I decided I could hang out there for 6 more months, and then I gotta go. So I moved out at the top of the year, last year, and then I traveled around Asia.

During that time, it was hard. It was really challenging, because not only was I counting pennies personally, but everybody who was working with and for me was unpaid. I kept thinking, “Alright, we’re not making any money, how many of these people have dedicated their time and their energy to Travel Noire, and how can I pay them?” It was rough. I remember the idea of the District actually came to me while I was camping in Thailand. I was in the middle of nowhere, in a camper van, sitting on my bed, and I was reading an article about this class, this technology and in that moment I thought, it would be really interesting if we created a community where people could connect—and that was the spark for the District. That was the spark that started it all.

One of your core values at Travel Noire is Everything is Figureoutable, what’s your philosophy behind that statement?
I mean, the world is just a whole, big ol’ ball of information, honestly. And, you know, there’s nothing that we can’t do. I always say, if planes can fly in the sky, then anything is possible. So I tell that to my team, all the time, and they’ve adopted the same philosophy. But there are times that they say, I can’t find this, and I can’t do this, or I’m having a hard time doing X, and I tell them, “Listen! If you see that American Airlines plane over our heads, and that thing is still up in the sky, then we can figure whatever it is that we have to figure out, out. And it’s not impossible.”

What does your daily relationship with God look like?

It looks like waking up in the morning and saying, “Thank you.” It’s very big on gratitude. For me, for the longest time, my relationship with God was very much, if I don’t go to church, I cannot have a relationship with God. Or, if I’m not in a physical place, I cannot have a relationship with God.

And that was tested when I was in India, and I couldn’t find a church. I couldn’t find a physical church, so I had to rely on my relationship, and on reading scripture, and on really getting to know Jesus, and digging deeper. That was a challenging year, but it was also a beautiful year in terms of my relationship with Christ. And so, on the daily, it is meditating on the word, it’s thinking about my life in a much bigger way than what I’m used to.

What’s a verse of scripture that means the most to you and why?

There’s so many verses that I love, but Psalm 139 is one that resonates with me, just because of the work that I do. No matter where I am, no matter where I go, no matter what I think, no matter what I do, everything was molded and shaped, and God cannot escape from me. I cannot escape from him. I cannot hide from him. He is ever-present, and he is protecting me always. And so, if

I’m in Antarctica, or if I’m lost at sea, I know that wherever I am, there I am, and there he is.

That verse, for me, is special in that regard. Given particularly the nature of my work.

Read more about her interview on Grit & Virtue

 

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