How Kellee Edwards Became The Host Of Her Own Travel Show

This woman is breaking barriers one trip at a time.

BOSS UP

The first time Kellee Edwards fell in love with travel was in the backseat of her parent's car. Buildings faded to beach scenery on her left, and neighborhoods gave way to mountain views on her right as they drove up the 405 towards San Simeon, home of the historic landmark Hearst Castle.

"My parents weren't able to buy plane tickets and fly around the world, so they provided what they could, which was the foundation—and a very important one at that. They opened me up to having the curiosity for more."

They probably, at the time, didn't imagine that their baby girl would one day fly herself around the world as a pilot, one of few black women to do so since Bessie Coleman pioneered her way into a plane in 1921. They likely didn't expect her to become a certified scuba diver, or foresee her breaking barriers as the first African-American woman to host her own show on the Travel Channel.

Courtesy of Kelle Edwards

Her list of accomplishments? Amazing.

And what she's done as a black woman in a white, male-dominated industry where black people are often counted out despite our estimated $50 billion annual contributions is nothing short of inspiring. But neither defines who she is. Instead, they speak to deeper characteristics that have enabled the adventure traveler to land on our television screens. She's a woman who is resilient and fearless, nonconforming and quite frankly, just plain badass.

I met Kellee at a small airport in Riverside in front of a private hangar owned by her mentor, also notably African-American. She's dressed in her signature outfit—green shorts, khaki tank top, jean vest, and a Ruby Red lip, full of vibrant energy that I instantly recognize from the numerous self-produced videos of her solo travels that grace the very same YouTube channel—the same videos that helped to get her in front of producers and television execs.

Courtesy of Kelle Edwards

Kellee's success didn't happen overnight. In fact, it's taken seven years for her to build what's just starting to get major press. Fresh out of California State University with a broadcast journalism degree, Kellee began putting her on-camera skills to the test. She worked as an entertainment reporter, snagging red carpet and junket interviews until one day she decided that keeping abreast of the latest gossip was depleting her energy.

So after five years, she quit.

"For me, personally, I just wanted to feel fulfilled and I was like, what type of journalism would feed my soul? I love traveling and adventure, is there a such thing as a travel journalist? I really wasn't sure."

She didn't wait to find out. She created what she didn't see.

Courtesy of Kelle Edwards

On weekdays, she worked in banking over New Accounts and Loans to fund her weekend travel adventures. "People have to understand that dream, you still have to keep a roof over your head. I moved out at 18 and I haven't been back to my parent's house. And so I had to work. You have to do what you have to do."

She saved her coins and jetset around the country, packing her tripod and camera to record her journeys along the way. Sometimes she did it solo, other times she bribed friends to come along and play videographer. Each visual was uploaded to her YouTube channel for the world to see.

But Kellee knew that mediocre wasn't going to cut it. If she wanted to stand out in the crowd of travel adventurists, she'd have to go hard or stay home. "One day I was like, you've got to up the ante a little bit. What's going to separate you from all of these people?"

While sitting at the Burbank airport waiting for her flight, Kellee caught a glimpse of a tiny airplane in the distance, taking off and landing amongst the larger 747s that flanked the runway.

"I found out later that's called a touch and go," she says with enthusiasm. "You literally touch your wheels on the ground and go back up and turn around, call the traffic pattern, and come back and land. I started doing research on taking flight lessons and I found out you can do something called a discovery flight, which is about $100 at any local airport. I won't lie; I got sick when I first went up. I'm used to being in normal airplanes where there's pressurization, but the views were so amazing, I was like whatever this feeling is I don't care, I'm going to figure out. And I was hooked! So I just decided to continue and get my pilot's license."

Courtesy of Kelle Edwards

With a scuba diving certification already under her belt and a new shiny pilot's license to match, Kellee found the sweet spot to her brand, and the very thing that separated her from her fellow travel journalists.

"I was like okay Kellee, that's your thing: travel and adventure by land, air, and sea. That's going to be your niche. And it's freaking worked. Being an African American pilot is very few and far in between, and being a woman period in aviation is even more minimal. So I definitely started to get the attention of people, and I was like I'd love to have a show on Travel Channel; that's like a one in a million chance."

Three years in, it seemed as if her dream of landing a show on the major travel network was no longer going to be a goal she pinned on her vision board. She signed her first deal with a production company, but six months later, all went quiet.

"No one really knew what to do with me," Kellee says. "I was very unique, so people were like yeah what you're doing is really cool, but at the end of the day this is a business, we have to see how this is going to translate in other ways."

It's not hard to imagine why, despite her infectious and daring personality, that mainstream had a hard time trying to box her in.

Courtesy of Kelle Edwards

"Listen, I'm a black woman and very proud of that. When you see me, you don't think I'm anything else. There's nothing about me that looks like I'm mixed with anything else. I love my chocolate skin, and I glisten and I glow, but seriously I feel like when you are one of the firsts, people are a bit selective in how they proceed. But what's funny is now they see this is working. And that's okay. I had so many no's—a yes one day and a no the next, it can mess with your mind. It was more emotionally draining—all of the ups and downs of being so close to something and then it being taken away from you. That was the test for myself because I could've easily given up."

Those moments are often where dreams become deferred, only to never actualize. The fight gets hard, damn hard. The sacrifices began to feel more like suffering, and progress can turn to pain when things don't go according to plan. For Kellee, it was yet another test—how bad did she really want it, and how hard was she willing to go?

"I was raised to believe I was special and unique, and so I'm very stubborn and I'm very persistent. You can tell me no if you want to, but I'm going to find a way. Even Travel Channel says we don't know why you're so surprised because you really had a mission to get a show with us. And it's happening.

"But for me it's like yes, I always saw that as the vision and I'm like if I keep doing what I'm doing, at some point they're not going to be able to ignore me."

Courtesy of Kelle Edwards

At the time, the Kellee Set Go brand was already gaining momentum. She initially started working with tourism boards and hotel chains, who would provide accommodations in exchange for video content, which helped to build up her personal website. As her brand grew, she also connected with travel PR companies and brands, and was later able to monetize those relationships.

"You have to build your content before you get paid, and that sometimes will take years. These brands will not mess with you unless they feel like they can get a return on investment (ROI). Once you start working with one brand, you can take it to the next one and then you go from there."

The brand has enabled Kellee to negotiate on her own terms when partnering with bigger companies—the connections with brands that took years to build relationships with are here to stay, she's not diluting her fast-talking, quirky personality, and she's going to rock her bright lipstick and short-cropped hair both on land and under water, thank you very much. And if those deal breakers can't be negotiated, she always has the brand that she built to fall back on.

"I could have a Travel Channel show today and nothing tomorrow, but I'll always have Kellee Set Go, and I make sure that it will always be mine, and never be owned by anyone else."

Courtesy of Kelle Edwards

The recent airing of Mysterious Islands has positioned Kellee at the center of a much-needed conversation on the importance of representation on the predominately white network, and in the travel sector as a whole.

"I have been told that they have never seen new talent with a new show get so much press in the history of the Travel Channel," Kellee confesses. "I know the conversation is changing. And I've been able to kind of like lock in a full sector of being an adventure traveler who's a woman and who's black, and so I made that my niche. And I want people to come up behind me and do the same thing and do it better. I'm not over here just trying to keep everything for myself. I think there's room for all of us. I hope I'm not the last black face that you see with a television show on Travel Channel. I hope that there are many more to come."

We hope so, too. And more importantly, we hope that the change doesn't stop with television. Because that same brown girl who was hard to sell because of her image, who fearlessly fought for a seat at the table, deserves to one day be beautifully packaged as a collectible for many more little brown girls to see that yeah, anything is possible.

Learn more about Kelle Edwards' career journey in the series Dope Chicks, Dope Jobs below.

Catch Kellee as the host of Mysterious Islands on Travel Channel. Follow her journey on Instagram @kelleesetgo.

Originally published on January 18, 2018

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