Sprinting across the globe in her Chuck Taylor sneakers with her headphones on, 28-year-old Zim Ugochukwu is not what you would call travel-weary – she’s travel-wealthy.
As founder and CEO of Travel Noire, a digital publishing platform for travelers of color, her passport is a diary of her life, of her many immersions into cultures other than her own.
But before we dwell on what Ugochukwu actually does, it’s important to know what she has done before: she cloned a gene at the age of 19 as a biology major in college, helped open a civil rights museum, led an anti-tobacco drive in the United States (US), worked on the Barack Obama presidential campaign in 2008, and lived in a train in India for two weeks with 400 other young people traveling the length and breadth of the subcontinent.
Ugochukwu appeared on FORBES’ 30 Under 30 list in 2016 for “being at the forefront of what is being called the Black Travel Movement”; was named one of Glamour magazine’s Young Women Changing the World; and more recently, Travel Noire was named one of the Most Innovative Companies in the World by Fast Company.
Born in Mankato, Minnesota, to Nigerian immigrants, Ugochukwu is going the extra mile “using technology to empower people of color to lead more global lives”.
“Whenever I travel I kind of spend time getting lost and not necessarily having any plans, but letting serendipity kind of guide me,” says Ugochukwu.
She was in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2016, when she found she had made Oprah Winfrey’s SuperSoul 100 list and had 48 hours to get to Los Angeles to meet Winfrey and her team.
When FORBES WOMAN AFRICA e-meets her on FaceTime, for once, Ugochukwu is sitting still, at Filter Café, a coffee house near downtown Chicago; it’s just after 4PM on a Sunday in the Windy City where she is based.
This mode of communication is quite fitting for Ugochukwu. Judging by the constant banter in the background, punctuated by the sounds of coffee dispensers and clinking cups, the café is packed.
Ugochukwu says she is still jet-lagged after a vacation in Thailand.
“I just wanted to kind of get away, I went with some friends, it was really fun,” says Ugochukwu, who was to return to Thailand to speak at a conference but couldn’t on account of a bout of food poisoning.
“The amount of stress that you can put on your body when you have to travel so much can be a lot, but this is the life that I asked for, if I wasn’t doing this, I don’t know what I would be doing.”
Her first international trip was at the age of 16, when her mother took her and her brother to visit Nigeria, their home country.
Her travels today have taken her to five continents, and she has paid rent in places like Greensboro, New Delhi, Dharamsala, Bengaluru and San Francisco. Chicago has been her home since mid-2016.
While in college, she was Vice President of national anti-tobacco organization, Forget Tobacco, which gave her the opportunity to travel across America. She also founded Ignite Greensboro, a campaign to raise awareness about the International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina. She in turn galvanized thousands of students to help bring awareness of the museum. She deems this to be the cornerstone of her career.
Her love for science saw her majoring in biology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She cloned a gene “discovering a link between cells found in the digestive system of a tiny fruit fly and a rare genetic disorder whilst examining a region called the superior Cupric autonomic system or sCans”.
She further elaborates in a language few understand: “Within this region lies a cluster of neuron-like cells called lettuce head cells, they function as pacemaker cells controlling muscle contractions, in the gut. These cells express a number of genes found in nervous system tissue.” One of these genes, Cg16972, Ugochukwu claims, was founded by her.
Whilst she majored in biology, her minor subjects were political science and sociology and as part of her course requirements, she worked as an organizer for Obama’s campaign. While still in college, she says she was also the youngest appointed precinct judge for North Carolina’s Board of Elections.
“I was responsible for the conduct of the election in the precinct polling station, the backbone of the electoral process.”
Ugochukwu speaks Hindi, a language she picked up during her time living in India, an experience that changed her life. Right before finishing college in the US, she won the Henry Luce scholarship, and moved to India for a year.
During this time, she lived in the Jagriti Yatra train, an initiative promoting entrepreneurship, as she traveled across India with other youth and 50 international participants, stopping in a new Indian city every day to follow social entrepreneurs.
For the rest of that year, she worked helping connect young business owners with resources, doing work for various organizations, as well as helping farmers get grants. This experience allowed her to see at least 75% of India, and later led to her abiding love for Asia.
It was during her time in India she realized there weren’t many black tourists.
“If you picked up any magazine, you typically didn’t see people of color,” says Ugochukwu.
She wanted to change that, and create a space for black people to talk about their travel experiences and connect with others.
After returning to the US after her year in India, with limited funds and no career plans, yet, she moved to Southern California to live with her mother.
“Often parents have a different idea of what a fulfilling life should be. You are either a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer or a failure.”
Her mother, a nurse, wanted Ugochukwu to become a doctor, and when she decided not to, didn’t understand it.
Soon, she packed up and headed to San Francisco with $300 to live with her “fairy godmother”, who opened the doors of her home, free of charge.
Ugochukwu worked as producer for the Digital Health Summit, discovering ways technology can create change in developing countries. She launched Travel Noire while still working there in 2013 with only $50, enough to buy a domain. In June 2014, three days before her 26th birthday, Ugochukwu was fired from her job as her heart was not in it anymore; up until this time, she had run Travel Noire on a part-time basis.
With no job, Travel Noire became her main focus and she took her $17,000 in savings and began to put her business blueprint into action. She spent 18 months building up the community before selling any product. Many people volunteered their time to build the brand that Travel Noire is today.
The company offers group travel experiences to young people of color who hail from different walks of life, to explore various international destinations together. It has over 50 on-the-ground partners and offers travel experiences in different time zones.
“It could’ve been so easy for us to get a brown stone office in New York City, but I wanted people to have the flexibility, to work wherever they felt the most happy; we can live and work just about anywhere in the world where there is a Wi-Fi connection,” says Ugochukwu.
Today, Travel Noire has a strong social media presence; with an audience of over 300,000 on Instagram alone. Her mother has since become a proud supporter of Travel Noire.
Her advice for budding entrepreneurs? She warns it’s not all as rosy as it may appear and that behind the glamor, are long 14-hour days, and times when there is not enough money, especially in the beginning.
“You need to be willing to put everything on the line and be comfortable with the possibility of not having enough money for rent at times,” says Ugochukwu.
“I didn’t ever think that [my business] would be this big, but people told me that I had to think bigger.”
Clearly, the world is not enough for this millennial.