In 2018, Raynetta Smith left behind her home in sunny Los Angeles and joined a group of 30 melanated millenials in Bali for an international escapade appropriately deemed #BLCKinBali2018. This would be the second trip abroad that she organized for a group of like-minded travelers who were looking for more than just a great escape. What she coined as a travel social club had doubled in the number of attendees from the previous trip, so she had her work cut out for her planning travel logistics, activities, and even fitting in a destination wedding. Yet let Instagram tell it, it was a successful trip filled with curated experiences and unforgettable conversations with friends old and new, over plenty of cocktails of course.
But almost two weeks after returning to Los Angeles with sun-kissed skin and stories to tell, she received news that could've put her nomadic dreams on ice— the local non-profit company that she worked for as a communications manager was laying her off. While the news was jarring, it was actually right on time. The budding entrepreneur had already planned to turn in her two-week notice to run her travel concierge business full-time, but was battling with her decision to leave a 15-year public relations career. The job loss came just in time to push her out of the nest so she could take flight. Shortly after, Jetsetters Link was officially born, taking Smith's desire to travel with friends to the next level as she built a business dedicated to planning unique and personalized group experiences in exotic destinations at a fraction of the normal cost.
Courtesy of Raynetta Smith
As anyone who's planned trips knows, group trips don't come without their challenges. It's something that Smith is constantly remedying while also juggling part-time jobs as a flight attendant and Uber and Lyft driver.
But as the saying goes, when you love what you do, you don't work a day in your life. And with her experience as a consumer engagement marketer producing events with budgets that span from minimal to multiple commas, Smith knows the power of having a solution-oriented mindset. Which is why her group trips to Greece, Thailand, and Bali have her clientele coming back for more.
With the allure of future trips including South Africa and Vietnam on the horizon, we chatted with this boss chick about living a passport lifestyle, and got the inside scoop on how to travel the world when you have champagne tastes on a beer budget.
What was your first international travel experience?
By the time I hit 33, I was like I want to go out of the country and I want to do it with my friends. Although I had traveled by myself, I was really nervous to go out of the country by myself. My first international trip was my best friend's wedding. She did a cruise for her wedding to the Bahamas. After that, I decided for my 35th birthday that I was going on a trip and either you were coming or you weren't.
Originally, my first trip was supposed to be to Paris, and what I realized when I started planning Paris was that it was really expensive. And one of the things that I wanted for myself and for those traveling with me was to be able to do this journey affordably. I didn't want to break the bank. I didn't want you to feel like you were going on this trip for me and spend all of this money. So I changed it and we went to Thailand and it was probably one of the best experiences of my life. We went to Thailand for less than $1,500 per person. We stayed in two different parts— Bangkok and Phuket. And it really got me to thinking that travel could be affordable, it could be fun, and you could do it in a group.
Courtesy of Raynetta Smith
At what point did you realize that Jetsetters Link could be a viable business?
After Thailand I said, 'OK, this might be something I want to do annually.' I really wanted to connect with other black and Brown millennials who grew up like me, who didn't travel but wanted to step outside of their comfort zone, and wanted to achieve more and do more. So the next trip I planned was Bali, and the Bali trip grew organically in size. The Thailand trip had 15 people; the Bali trip ended up having 30 people. And this put me to the test in times of planning a large field trip. My background is in public relations and consumer engagement so I planned events and activations for multi-million dollar brands, but I never did something so intimate where I'm literally going to experience it with these 30 people. So that for me was something that pushed my expertise to the limit.
From there, I was like I need to turn this into a business because at that point it was still just a social group; it was still just me getting friends together and traveling. So once I came back from Bali, it was full speed ahead in terms of getting my business license and making sure that I was set up as a business.
Courtesy of Raynetta Smith
How did you transition from working in corporate to running your own travel company?
I was laid off about a week after we returned from Bali, so I literally have been creating a company on full entrepreneurship and just hustle and fate to be honest, which is extremely difficult. It's one of those things where you're like, I need to get my LLC, but also I need to pay this bill this week. You're making sure you're managing your own expectation and meeting goals on both the ends, taking care of yourself as well as hoping that your business thrives within that process.
While planning Greece, I was 100% working for myself and then I became a flight attendant. I've always believed that if you want to do something, you need to align yourself and what you're doing with your plan. Becoming a flight attendant, the idea was that I'm trying to grow this travel company. I need some type of supportive finances, and I wanted to do something that would still be beneficial towards me growing Jetsetters Link.
Courtesy of Raynetta Smith
"I've always believed that if you want to do something, you need to align yourself and what you're doing with your plan."
What were some other things you had to do in order to get your business moving?
There is a lot of social media involved. There's a lot of marketing involved. Even while still being an entrepreneur, I went to several travel conferences last year to network with other people. I actually built my own website. I'm not going to say that it's the best, but you know, with my experience it is great for what it is. So just being able to do the backend stuff.
You went to Thailand as your first organized group trip for under $1,500. How did you find a way to make it more cost effective?
Man, it's a hustle. I would have to credit my background in PR because a lot of what I do is research. I spent a lot of time trying to find the correct place, reaching out to those places and negotiating with them to let them know what I have going on. What sets me apart from a travel agency is that with the travel agency, you have the opportunity to make payments. You can actually still make payments on a Jetsetters Link trip; however, the travel agency making payments allows you or the travel agents to have access to vendors that I don't necessarily have that same access to because I don't have those certifications as a travel agent.
A lot of my travel happens during off-season because it's drastically cheaper than traveling during spring break or summer break. For example, when we went to Greece, the best time to go to Greece was late October and the beginning of November because it was probably 45% cheaper than what you'd be paying for the summer. Now it's a little risky because from November to January, Greece completely shuts down. It's considered their holiday season so they literally board up their walls and you might be going places that could potentially be shut down. So you have to do a lot more research in terms of finding out when is the last day that the hotel will be open? You know, things of that nature.
Courtesy of Raynetta Smith
What’s your favorite destination thus far?
I love Bali. The people were amazing. They sang in the morning, the food was great, it was so fresh. That alone is another thing that's been really big for me because just in my own individual lifestyle I'm trying to live healthier, and I've noticed that a lot of the food that we eat in America isn't as healthy for you as it should be. Then I go to another country and I can eat all of the things that I can't eat here and not have any issues.
Also being able to explore different cultures. Yes, we do go out and get turned up, but we're also there to learn about the culture.
For more of Raynetta and Jetsetters Link, follow her on Instagram.
Featured image courtesy of Raynetta Smith
Kiah McBride writes technical content by day and uses storytelling to pen real and raw personal development pieces on her blog Write On Kiah. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @writeonkiah.
Amber Riley Is In Her Element
Amber Riley has the type of laugh that sticks with you long after the raspy, rhythmic sounds have ceased. It punctuates her sentences sometimes, whether she’s giving a chuckle to denote the serious nature of something she just said or throwing her head back in rip-roarious laughter after a joke. She laughs as if she understands the fragility of each minute. She chooses laughter often with the understanding that future joy is not guaranteed.
Credit: Ally Green
The sound of her laughter is rivaled only by her singing voice, an emblem of the past and the future resilience of Black women stretched over a few octaves. On Fox’s Glee, her character Mercedes Jones was portrayed, perhaps unfairly, as the vocal duel to Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), offering rough, full-throated belts behind her co-star’s smooth, pristine vocals. Riley’s always been more than the singer who could deliver a finishing note, though.
Portraying Effie White, she displayed the dynamic emotions of a song such as “And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going” in Dreamgirls on London’s West End without buckling under the historic weight of her predecessors. With her instrument, John Mayer’s “Gravity” became a religious experience, a belted hymnal full of growls and churchy riffs. In her voice, Nicole Scherzinger once said she heard “the power of God.”
Credit: Ally Green
Riley’s voice has been a staple throughout pop culture for nearly 15 years now. Her tone has become so distinguishable that most viewers of Fox’s The Masked Singer recognized the multihyphenate even before it was revealed that she was Harp, the competition-winning, gold-masked figure with an actual harp strapped to her back.
Still, it wasn’t until recently that Riley began to feel like she’d found her voice. This sounds unbelievable. But she’s not referring to the one she uses on stage. She’s referencing the voice that speaks to who she is at her core. “Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind,” the 37-year-old says. “It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women. I got so comfortable in [doing so], and I really want other people, especially Black women, to get more comfortable in that space.”
“Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind. It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women."
If you ask Riley’s manager, Myisha Brooks, she’ll tell you the foundation of who the multihyphenate is hasn’t changed much since she was a kid growing up in Compton. “She is who she is from when I met her back when she was singing in the front of the church to back when she landed major roles in film and TV,” Brooks says. Time has allowed Riley to grow more comfortable, giving fans a more intimate glimpse into her life, including her mental health journey and the ins and outs of show business.
The actress/singer has been in therapy since 2019, although she suffered from depression and anxiety way before that. In a recent interview with Jason Lee, she recalls having suicidal ideation as a kid. By the time she started seeing a psychologist and taking antidepressants in her thirties, her body had become jittery, a physical reminder of the trauma stacked high inside her. “I was shaking in [my therapist’s] office,” she tells xoNecole. “My fight or flight was on such a high level. I was constantly in survival mode. My heart was beating fast all the time. All I did was sweat.”
There wasn’t just childhood trauma to account for. After auditioning for American Idol and being turned away by producers, Riley began working for Ikea and nearly missed her Glee audition because her car broke down on the highway while en route. Thankfully, Riley had been cast to play Mercedes Jones. American Idol had temporarily convinced her she wasn’t cut out for the entertainment industry, but this was validation that she was right where she belonged. Glee launched in 2009 with the promise of becoming Riley’s big break.
In some ways, it was. The show introduced Riley to millions of fans and catapulted her into major Hollywood circles. But in other ways, it became a reminder of the types of roles Black women, especially those who are plus-sized, are relegated to. Behind the scenes, Riley says she fought for her character "to have a voice" but eventually realized her efforts were useless. "It finally got to a point where I was like, this is not my moment. I'm not who they're choosing, and this is just going to have to be a job for me for now," she says. "And, that's okay because it pays my bills, I still get to be on television, I'm doing more than any other Black plus-sized women that I'm seeing right now on screen."
The actress can recognize now that she was navigating issues associated with trauma and low self-esteem at the time. She now knows that she's long had anxiety and depression and can recognize the ways in which she was triggered by how the cult-like following of the show conflicted with her individual, isolated experiences behind the scenes. But she was in her early '20s back then. She didn't yet have the language or the tools to process how she was feeling.
Riley says she eventually sought out medical intervention. "When you're in Hollywood, and you go to a doctor, they give you pills," she says, sharing a part of her story that she'd never revealed publicly before now. "[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that's not fixing my problem. If anything, it's making it worse."
“[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that’s not fixing my problem. If anything it’s making it worse.”
Credit: Ally Green
At one point, while in her dressing room on set, she rested her arm on a curling iron without realizing it. It wasn't until her makeup artist alerted her that she even realized her skin was burning. Once she noticed, she says she was "so zonked out on pills" that she barely reacted. Speaking today, she holds up her arm and motions towards a scar that remains from the incident. She sought help for her reliance on the pills, but it would still be years before she finally attended therapy.
This stress was only compounded by the trauma of growing up in poverty and the realities of being a "contract worker." "Imagine going from literally one week having to borrow a car to get to set to the next week being on a private jet to New York City," she says. After Glee ended, so did the rides on private planes. The fury of opportunities she expected to follow her appearance on the show failed to materialize. She wasn't even 30 yet, and she was already forced to consider if she'd hit her career peak.
. . .
We’re only four minutes into our Zoom call before Riley delivers her new adage to me. “My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway,” she says.
On this Thursday afternoon in April, the LA-based entertainer is seated inside her closet/dressing room wearing a cerulean blue tank top with matching shorts and eating hot wings. This current phase of healing hinges on balance. It’s about having discipline and consistency, but not at the risk of inflexibility. She was planning to head to the gym, for instance, but she’s still tired from the “exhausting” day before. Instead, she’s spent her day receiving a massage, eating some chicken wings, and planning to spend quality time with friends. “I’m not going to beat myself up for it. I’m not going to talk down to myself. I’m going to eat my chicken wings, and then tomorrow I’m [back] in the gym,” she says.
“My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway."
This is the balance with which she's been approaching much of her life these days. It's why she's worried less about whether or not people see her as someone who is humble. She'd rather be respected. "I think you should be a person that's easy to work with, but in the moments where I have to ruffle feathers and make waves, I'm not shying away from that anymore. You can do it in love, you don't have to be nasty about it, but I had to finally be comfortable with the fact that setting boundaries around my life – in whatever aspect, whether that's personal or business – people are not going to like it. Some people are not going to have nice things to say about you, and you gotta be okay with it," she says.
When Amber talks about the constant humbling of Black women in Hollywood, I think of the entertainers before her who have suffered from this. The brilliant, consistent, overqualified Black women who have spoken of having to fight for opportunities and fair pay. Aretha Franklin. Viola Davis. Tracee Ellis Ross. There's a long list of stars whose success hasn't mirrored their experiences behind the scenes.
Credit: Ally Green
If Black women outside of Hollywood are struggling to decrease the pay gap, so, too, are their wealthier, more famous peers.
Riley says there’s been progress in recent years, but only in small ways and for a limited group of people. “This business is exhausting. The goalpost is constantly moving, and sometimes it’s unfair,” she says. But, I have to say it’s the love that keeps you going.”
“There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman,” she continues. “We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
"There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman. We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
Last year, Riley starred alongside Raven Goodwin in the Lifetime thriller Single Black Female (a modern, diversified take on 1992’s Single White Female). It was more than a leading role for the actress, it also served as proof that someone who looks like her can front a successful project without it hinging on her identity. It showcased that the characters she portrays don’t “have to be about being a big girl. It can just be a regular story.”
Riley sees her work in music as an extension of her efforts to push past the rigid stereotypes in entertainment. Take her appearance on The Masked Singer, for instance. Riley said she decided to perform Mayer’s “Gravity” after being told she couldn’t sing it years earlier. “I wanted to do ‘Gravity’ on Glee. [I] was told no, because that’s not a song that Mercedes would do,” she says. “That was a full circle moment for me, doing that on that show and to hear what it is they had to say.”
As Scherzinger praised the “anointed” performance, a masked Riley began to cry, her chest heaving as she stood on stage, her eyes shielded from view. “You have to understand, I have really big names – casting directors, producers, show creators – that constantly tell me ‘I’m such a big fan. Your talent is unmatched.’ Hire me, then,” she says, reflecting on the moment.
Recently, she’s been in the studio working on original music, the follow-up to her independently-released debut EP, 2020’s Riley. The sequel to songs such as the anthemic “Big Girl Energy” and the reflective ballad “A Moment” on Riley, this new project hones in on the singer’s R&B roots with sensual grooves such as the tentatively titled “All Night.” “You said I wasn’t shit, turns out that I’m the shit. Then you called me a bitch, turns out that I’m that bitch. You said no one would want me, well you should call your homies,” she sings on the tentatively titled “Lately,” a cut about reflecting on a past relationship. From the forthcoming project, xoNecole received five potential tracks. Fans likely already know the strengths and contours of Riley’s vocals, but these new songs are her strongest, most confident offerings as an artist.
“I am so much more comfortable as a writer, and I know who I am as an artist now. I’m evolving as a human being, in general, so I’m way more vulnerable in my music. I’m way more willing to talk about whatever is on my mind. I don’t stop myself from saying what it is I want to say,” she says.
Credit: Ally Green
“Every era and alliteration of Amber, the baseline is ‘Big Girl Energy.’ That’s the name of her company,” her manager Brooks says, referencing the imprint through which Riley releases her music after getting out of a label deal several years ago. “It’s just what she stands for. She’s not just talking about size, it’s in all things. Whether it’s putting your big girl pants on and having to face a boardroom full of executives or sell yourself in front of a casting agent. It’s her trying to achieve the things she wants to do in life.”
Riley says she has big dreams beyond releasing this new music, too. She’d love to star in a rom-com with Winston Duke. She hasn't starred in a biopic yet, but she’d revel in the opportunity to portray Rosetta Tharpe on screen. She’s determined that her previous setbacks won’t stop her from dreaming big.
“I think one of my superpowers is resilience because, at the end of the day, I’m going to kick, scream, cry, cuss, be mad and disappointed, but I’m going to get up and risk having to deal with it all again. It’s worth it for the happy moments,” she says.
If Riley seems more comfortable and confident professionally, it’s because of the work she’s been doing in her personal life.
She’d previously spoken to xoNecole about becoming engaged to a man she discovered in a post on the site, but she called things off last year. For Valentine’s Day, she revealed her new boyfriend publicly. “I decided to post him on Valentine’s Day, partially because I was in the dog house. I got in trouble with him,” she says, half-joking before turning serious. “The breakup was never going to stop me from finding love. Or at least trying. I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness, and you enjoy it and work through it.”
Credit: Ally Green
"I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness and you enjoy it and work through it.”
With her ex, Riley was pretty outspoken about her relationship, even appearing in content for Netflix with him. This time around is different. She’s not hiding her boyfriend of eight months, but she’s more protective of him, especially because he’s a father and isn’t interested in becoming a public figure.
She’s traveling more, too. It’s a deliberate effort on her part to enjoy her money and reject the trauma she’s developed after experiencing poverty in her childhood. “I live in constant fear of being broke. I don’t think you ever don’t remember that trauma or move past that. Now I travel and I’m like, listen, if it goes, it goes. I’m not saying [to] be reckless, but I deserve to enjoy my hard work.”
After everything she’s been through, she certainly deserves to finally let loose a bit. “I have to have a life to live,” she says. “I’ve got to have a life worth fighting for.”
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How To Have A Successful Hot Girl Summer
Summer is upon us, and you know what that means: It's time for a hot girl summer! The term exploded in popularity a few years back, and it’s all about encouraging women to flirt, have fun, and of course, enjoy some good ol' safe sex. But amidst all the fun, it's essential to have the right tools to protect yourself and your partner.
So, if you’re single and ready to mingle, here are a few helpful tips on how to have the best hot girl summer possible.
Start with self-care.
It's no secret that confidence is key when it comes to having a good time. Before you start swiping on dating apps or heading to the bar scene, take some time to indulge in self-care. Get a new haircut, buy a new outfit, and pamper yourself with a spa day. Having a fresh look and feeling good about yourself will boost your confidence and make you feel unstoppable.
Protect yourself and your partner.
Hot girl summer is all about having fun, but safety must come first. Before engaging in any sexual activity, make sure you and your partner use protection, whether it's a condom or other methods. Keep in mind STDs can still spread even with precautions, so it's important to get regular STD testing, especially if you're seeing multiple partners.
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Set boundaries and don't compromise.
It's common for women to feel pressured to do things they're not comfortable with during casual sex. In a hot girl summer, it's essential to set clear boundaries and not compromise on what makes you comfortable. If your partner doesn't respect your limits, then it's a sign they're not worth your time.
Be open-minded and explore.
If you want to spice up your summer, try exploring new sexual experiences and positions with your partner(s). For inspiration on what sex positions to try, check out articles on our site like this, this, and this. However, it's always important to make sure you're both on the same page and comfortable with what you're doing. Consent is key.
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Date like it's your job.
With summer in full swing, dating becomes easier, and more people are open to meeting new individuals. Take advantage of this opportunity and start swiping on dating apps, or if you're more traditional, head to the bars or local events. It's important to remember that dating isn't about finding someone to settle down with; it's about having fun experiences and meeting new people.
Be honest about what you want.
Be honest with yourself. If you want a serious relationship, seek it out, but if you want to go on a casual date, go on a casual date. Hot girl summers mean doing whatever it is you want to do and not settling. Just be sure to communicate and be honest about who you are and what you’re looking for.
It's all about having fun, enjoying yourself, and exploring your sexuality. But it's crucial to remember that safety comes first. Use protection, get regular STD testing, set boundaries, and don't compromise. Be open-minded and explore new sexual experiences, but never forget to prioritize your comfort level, and don't let anyone pressure you into doing things you're not comfortable with. With these tips and tricks, you'll surely have the best hot girl summer yet.
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