What I love about traveling, and miss after being stuck at home during a year of pandemic, is meeting other travelers and gleaning gems of inspiration from their stories. In honor of International Women’s Day, this post is an homage to five inspiring women I have met while traveling. They are all phenomenal women in their own way, and hopefully, their stories will motivate you to create opportunities in your own communities around the world!
Luana Génot, Founder and Executive Director at IDBR
Luana Génot is the powerhouse woman behind the Brazilian non-profit Instituto Identidades do Brasil, whose mission is to promote racial equality in Brazil and beyond. Since nothing is random in life, or at least that’s my personal belief, Luana and I were seated next to each other in the front row of a São Paulo Fashion Week runway show. We hit it off instantly; she told me about her visits to Silicon Valley for various internships, and I mentioned my brief experience leading diversity initiatives during my first job at Johnson & Johnson.
Hearing more about Luana’s mission at IDBR, I was eager to learn how she planned to improve racial disparities in Brazil. Long before I met Luana in 2017, I taught English as a Foreign Language in a small mountainside town in Brazil. I remember one of my adult students saying that racism wasn’t really that serious since he said, “Teacher, all Brazilians are black in some way. It’s kind of like a joke to us.” I stumbled upon a teachable moment when I told him that since most of the students in the school were “white” Brazilians, and most of the beggars on the street in Rio were “black” Brazilians, I didn’t think that everyone would find humor in Brazil’s systemic racism. With racial inequities and definitions both similar and different to ours here in the U.S., I taught my students about the vocabulary around institutional racism and how to discuss it with tact and sensitivity.
With anecdotes like these in my past, I knew what Luana was up against. She has been doing this important work to re-educate her fellow citizens on what racism is, and uses her collaborations through IDBR, whose tagline is “Sim à Igualdade Racial,” translated as “Yes to Racial Equality,” to create opportunities for Brazilians who have traditionally been left marginalized by their country’s discriminatory structures. Inspiring, powerful, brilliant women like Luana give me hope that all of us who are doing the work to end racial inequalities will persevere!
Flavia Liz Di Paolo, Personal Travel Guide
To call Flavia Liz a tour guide is a gross understatement. Having secured coveted front row seats to fashion week, which is how I met Luana, is really only a small sliver of what Flavia Liz can provide on a visit to Brazil. In 2017, the tourism board of São Paulo entrusted my itinerary with Flavia Liz, who I now call “the key to São Paulo.” Literally. With her connections, she was able to grant me private access to a government building that was closed for a national holiday, the equivalent of touring our state capital on July 4th!
It didn’t matter where Flavia Liz took me, whether to the heart of a favela neighborhood to meet artists or an exclusive tour of a coffee plantation; she spewed forth knowledge and history at every location like a living encyclopedia. My visit to Brazil had the depth and uniqueness of carefully crafted experiences that had me in tears from the soul-touching epiphanies I had on her tours.
But what is even more inspiring about Flavia Liz, and why we’ve remained such close friends, is that her personal travel is often filled with meaningful experiences that give back to the communities she visits. Whether on a trip to an orphanage in Haiti, or an elephant rescue in Sri Lanka, Flavia Liz stays inspired by her own soul-touching travel while away from São Paulo. But hopefully, she’s not gone from this amazing Brazilian metropolis for too long so that you can tour the city with her!
Frances Cook, Journalist, New Zealand Herald
No, I didn’t meet Frances Cook in New Zealand, but somewhere just as far-flung from my native Los Angeles: South Korea. Frances and I were selected to participate in a marketing campaign sponsored by the Korean Tourism Board in late 2019 right before pandemic life set in. Grouped with a handful of social media influencers and YouTube stars, Frances and I instantly hit it off based on our shared love of writing.
In fact, Frances’ book, Tales From a Financial Hot Mess, had just come out a month before this wellness tour of South Korea, so she was eager to take a break from the intense schedule of publishing and promoting her book while producing a podcast. But our wellness tour had its own intense schedule, with early morning departures and daily media debriefs squeezed between hotel tours. While it wasn’t that grueling, Frances and I were the only two representatives from our group who made it to the “finish line,” which was a media party at the aptly named Paradise Hotel.
What gave us even more of a reason to celebrate at Paradise’s pool party was the fact that we had spent the previous week at sessions meant to pierce our souls and heal us from within. In fact, after sobbing at the end of a crystal sound bath, it was Frances consoled me with a tender hug. Wondering aloud if I was the only one who had shed tears, I asked her if she had cried at all on our trip. “No, us New Zealanders are tough as nails and terrible at expressing our feelings,” she quipped and gave me a soft squeeze around the shoulders.
As we soaked in the hot tub a few days later, Frances revealed that what finally pushed her to tears was our final session, an underwater massage, where she realized that she had been focusing on everyone else in the past year, and hadn’t allowed herself any sort of pleasure or self-care. Like most career women I know who are juggling family and work demands, Frances neglected to refill her own cup, coming close to burnout. Filled beyond belief with amazement at the rest of her story, I was so thankful to have met Frances, knowing that although we’d soon be worlds apart, we would meet again in another far-off locale.
Vivian Seixas, DJ and Music Producer
I met DJ Vivi Seixas the best way one can, through a serendipitous introduction from a mutual friend in Rio de Janeiro. Having been around music her entire life because of her family, Vivi set off to strike her own path in the music industry, taking deejay lessons and getting inspired by everything from Leonard Cohen to Brazilian forro to Mark Farina. With this exposure, Vivi built a full range of experience and sound to draw upon, which helped her establish a voice of her own. Born into rock royalty, Vivi lived under the shadow of her famous father Raul Seixas, the Brazilian Bob Dylan, but has now established herself as a respected deejay dedicated to her craft.
What I love most about Vivi is that she’s using her music royalty heritage in the best way one can use privilege: to help others. As an ambassador for a youth arts program in Brazil, Arte Salva, whose mission it is to create social impact through the arts, Vivi is teaching at-risk children how to do her favorite thing: create music! When I interviewed Vivi at a Rio cafe, I’ll never forget how her eyes lit up when talking about how she loved bringing old turntables to the children to teach them deejaying skills. It was then I knew we’d be friends for a long time.
Now one of Brazil’s best female DJs, Vivi claims my favorite Brazilian city as her home base, and tours all over Brazil playing electronic tracks that she’s produced with her music company. As we sat outside under the Rio sun, comparing notes on our shared commitment to community service, I was reminded of why I travel: to meet inspiring women like her.
Jacqueline Ngo Mpii, Founder, Little Africa Travel
My last trip before the pandemic was to Paris, France. I couldn’t have chosen a better destination for my travel finale (don’t worry, the sequel is in development!). During this magical trip, I had the pleasure of meeting Jacqueline Ngo Mpii. Charged with guiding our group around her neighborhood in Paris, Jacqueline did not disappoint with her enlightening history of African culture and contributions throughout Paris and France.
Having been to Paris only a couple of times before, I listened intently to Jacqueline’s every word as she weaved together the itinerary of our tour with anecdotes of cultural appropriation, discrimination in the fashion industry, and structural racism that kept her and her black colleagues locked out of commercial opportunities.
But these stories, and countless others like them, did not stop Jacqueline from initiating a fundraising campaign to build her African cultural center right in the heart of Paris. As an ambassador for her campaign, I lobbied my own connections and colleagues to help spread the word to build this center that will serve as a cultural hub for continuing the conversation around Africans’ contributions to Paris and beyond. With a successful campaign behind us, Jacqueline and the rest of the Little Africa Travel team are ready to break ground in 2021. Something tells me that my next trip will be to Paris for the ribbon-cutting!
Wherever my next trip takes me, I know that I will be in the company of amazing and inspiring women. Whether it is for a community service project in Rio (shown below), or for professional connection and networking, I am confident that this next decade will be made greater by the phenomenal women I meet everywhere I go!