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How Zim Ugochukwu Launched Travel Noire & Went From Broke to Boss

It's the first time that the young entrepreneur and founder of Travel Noire—a digital platform that has become the ultimate guide.

BOSS UP

Of all the places for Zim Ugochukwu to be in the world, I surprisingly learn on our call that she's only an hour away from where I'm hiding out in North Carolina. “I just got my apartment in Durham two weeks ago," she says.

But why Durham?

“My boyfriend's here. And it's also where I grew up, so I'm giving myself a year here and then I'm going to move to another country."

Ahh. That makes sense.

It's the first time that the young entrepreneur and founder of Travel Noire—a digital platform that has become the ultimate guide for the unconventional Black traveler—has had a place to call home since she packed her bags back in January. Over the last six months it seems that she's been living the dream: dashing from country to country, as beautifully documented for her 17.4k followers on her personal Instagram page, while working on creating products for the recent launch of Travel Noire Experiences. Who wouldn't want to set up an impromptu workspace in a picturesque country where an ocean view is not an option, but a requirement?

However, Zim admits, as with anything in life, all that glitters ain't gold.

“Like I'm in bed right now. I woke up today and I was like I don't feel good, I've been here all day."

She hasn't quite recovered from the jetlag that flew back with her from a last-minute trip to Portugal. No, she didn't go there to stunt for the gram, but because she needed an escape from the solitude that leaves many entrepreneurs desperately clinging on to their sanity.

“There are periods of time where I won't even leave my house," she admits. “People see the Portugal part and they're like 'oh my god, you're traveling!' And it's fun; it's great, but the period before that locked up in your apartment staring at a screen for 15 hours, like that's not sexy at all."

She talks about the battle of an entrepreneur in one of her recent posts. How people don't understand the sacrifices that come with the title of being a B-O-S-S. Dealing with taxes, and the government, and other people's problems. How working 15-hour days have left many of her fellow entrepreneur friends fighting depression, no matter their level of success. It's a topic that's brushed over in the black business world, but that's claiming the lives of many who can't seem to find light in their endless world of darkness. It's not something that Zim wishes upon anybody.

“Whenever people say they want to be an entrepreneur I tell them that they don't. You don't want to be an entrepreneur. You like the idea of having something of your own, but in all reality it's the hardest thing you'll ever have to do."

Luckily for Zim, traveling is not just her business, but one of the ways she escapes the chaos that comes with her lifestyle. She also prays, nourishes her mind with inspirational books and quotes, and takes advantage of the listening ears of her friends and boyfriend when she needs words of encouragement.

She describes her significant other as the yin to her yang: a little bit more calm, cool, and collected. Amidst the frequent business trips, managing her team, and over a hundred other contributors, it seems as if he is the one constant in her life, quietly holding her down behind-the-scenes since they met back in college in Greensboro, North Carolina four years ago. The mystery man is a sacred piece of her life that she chooses to keep private. Just a couple of weeks ago they celebrated their anniversary, which she publicly acknowledged with a lower body shot of them lacing fingers. The caption simply read: it's so easy loving you.

I curiously asked her how she manages to run her business and have a love life—something that many women claim they have a hard time balancing. She accredits their constant communication (they speak frequently over the phone or via text when she's out of the country) and him also being a traveler as keys to their success.

Their relationship is, thankfully, much different than that of her parents.

Her mother arrived to Mankato, Minnesota arranged to marry her father, but soon after Zim was born packed up her children and caught a Greyhound bus to California, refusing to stay in an abusive relationship. Her father, who would return from a business trip only to find an empty house with no contact information left behind, moved back to Nigeria. He wouldn't see Zim and her brother until 15 years later when they would take their first international trip to Nigeria to visit the village where her mother grew up. For six weeks she enjoyed meeting distant cousins, family members, and exploring the foreign terrain. But meeting her father, well, that was a different experience. Her only connection to him was through the letters her mother kept hidden that she used to sneak and read. Although her mother never spoke ill of her father, meeting him in person allowed her to formulate her own opinion—the five kids, wife, and mother that lived in his tiny two-room home was enough to convince her, as if she didn't already know, that her mom was superwoman.

“To see where we were living and what my mom was singlehandedly able to do in the U.S., and to see where he was living, it was crazy; it was mind blowing."

Growing up Zim learned at an early age that traveling would be her way of life. She moved from Minnesota to Los Angeles, and back to Minnesota before settling in Durham. Her strict upbringing and expectation of excellence would lead to her cloning genes at the age of 19, becoming the youngest precinct judge for North Carolina's Board of Elections, and being on the executive board of an anti-tobacco organization, amongst many other accolades. Her credentials earned her spot in the prestigious Henry Luce Scholars program, which sent her and at least 14 other post-college graduates to Asia in effort to bridge the cultural gap between them and the western world. Zim openly speaks about her time there as being the catalyst to her wanting to create something that would empower people like her, to share their love of travel and cultural emersion in effort to educate those who were skeptical about traveling abroad.

After returning to America with limited funds and no concrete career plans, she moved to southern California to live with her mother and stepdad. It only took six months before her mom started hitting her with daily suggestions of nursing or medical school, so she packed her bags and headed to San Francisco with $300 to live with her fairy godmother—a board member of an organization she was previously a part of, who kindly opened up her home free-of-charge. It was just the break that Zim needed to get her thoughts together, stack her cash, and start planning her next big venture—Travel Noire. After being fired from her full-time producer job, she took her $17,000 in savings and began to put her business blueprint into action.

It's been almost two years since Travel Noire burst onto the scene with enticing photos and creative offerings, and it shows no signs of slowing down. New positions are being advertised on her social media feeds, offering a benefits package that would make many reconsider their current situation: employees can kickback anywhere in the world with unlimited vacation days (she requires a minimum of 25 paid vacation days), paid cell phone plans, and memberships to Oyster and Fitbit to allow them to stimulate their minds and take care of their bodies while on the road. There's even an option to take unlimited classes through Skillshare to brush up on those photography and painting skills that you always dreamed of mastering.

“It's super important to me and the culture of the company to make sure that we are flexible and open, and that we make sure that our team is happy," she says.

To make sure they're happy, healthy, fulfilled and learning what they want to learn.

The team is constantly working on new products and creative ways to package them. Their direct feed from travel glitch sites, such as The Flight Deal and The Deal Alert, are included as a part of their Travel Noire District $60-per-year subscription-based service, which only opens up to the public every few months. And for those free-99 lovers, there's always the how-to videos on Travel Noire TV, pieces on travelnoire.com, and weekly emails from Zim herself. The Travel Noire hashtag, also has over 169,000 posts from fellow travelers sharing unique experiences from around the world.

Although running the Travel Noire machine may be daunting at times, there's no doubt that Zim cherishes the opportunity to be able to wake up in a different country on any given day and do what she loves, because there was a time when she worked a job that she had no passion for or desire to stay in.

To those in similar situations, she offers this advice:

“With no risk, there's no reward and you either get comfortable with uncertainty and not knowing where you're going to end up or you settle and you live this life that you don't want to live."

Well said, boss lady.

All images courtesy of Zim Ugochukwu

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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