Interviews with purpose-driven business leaders who have dedicated their work to helping others and making a positive impact in the world.
TELL US, WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT DO YOU DO?
My name is Topaz Smith, I’m the founder and CEO of EN-NOBLE. My company is a travel service that connects seasoned travelers frustrated with mass-market options to authentic experiences with subcultures globally. These are cultures often overlooked by the tourism industry. Our mission really is to provide travel equity for these communities, and also provide access to travelers who are seeking really authentic experiences and unique knowledge. It’s a lofty goal, but I think that it’s definitely something that I can accomplish given my passion and commitment to amplifying the voices of so many different cultures that I’ve experienced and researched. Having those experiences myself and learning about these cultures, I believe that there’s so much value in them. I just want to share them with the world and have people experience them responsibly.
HOW DID YOU GET HERE?
I studied tourism in college, but before that, I went to an international middle and high school where I traveled to a different country each year. I studied the language, history, and culture, and immersed myself globally. That was such a powerful experience at such a young age. I was just always in awe of cultures that were outside of my own. My parents are both Jamaican, and I was always introduced to international spaces because of them. Then through school, I really started to experience different cultures from around the globe. We had students coming directly from Seoul, South Korea, from China, from Italy, from Serbia and we would also send students abroad during the school year. That really inspired me to want to live abroad. In college, I lived in Italy and worked on the Amalfi Coast at a five-star hotel. Then I went to Brazil and worked with an ecotourism business. With having the experience of luxury tourism and community-based tourism, I went into environmental policy and sustainability management. I received a master’s degree and ended up working in Ethiopia with a pastoralist group in the southern part of the country. They were being kicked off the land, so I helped bring about more diverse money-generating ideas and grant writing for them to increase their ability to incentivize the government. We used tourism as a vehicle to bring about positive change for them. It really showed me how there are pros and cons to tourism. I want to tell a story that is a bit different in terms of how tourism positively gives people a future and opportunities.
WHAT DO YOU STAND FOR? WHY IS THIS WORK IMPORTANT TO YOU?
I want everyone to have the ability to be a part of the money-making side of tourism. I stand for cultural exchange; it’s really important for people to respect and understand people from different backgrounds. I think that immersing yourself in someone else’s lived experiences can do so much for you as a person. It gives you empathy and a certain love for humankind that I think sometimes is lost in our world where people often focus on just getting what’s good for them instead of what’s good for everyone.
I think this work is very important because it brings about satisfaction for everyone. It’s mutually beneficial. It’s you going into someone else’s space, and someone giving you something, and you giving them something. They need this financial security, but you also need a deeper understanding of humans. Oftentimes, the tourism industry is very transactional. Someone ends up not even experiencing the actual culture of the country that they flew miles to experience. It’s important for me to really convey that to people who are paying to go to these places and want the experience but just don’t know how to tap into that local knowledge. Sometimes a hotel just might not understand how to market the intrinsic values of a place. I’ve seen it in hospitality when I didn’t really see the connection between tourists who wanted to have that experience and those locals and so I wanted to create a platform or service that did that.
WHAT IMPACT ARE YOU MAKING?
I quantify the impact by the capacity that’s built out from us connecting with others. Right now we donate 1% of our revenue to locals in different countries. The hospitality industry obviously got hit very hard because of COVID, but when things do pick up back again that’s one of the things we definitely are committed to. In certain cases, we focus on cultural institutions that don’t necessarily have access to the larger travel market. So for example, in Peru, you have Afro-Peruvian musicians and dancers who don’t always get to be showcased because they might be under-resourced. They give an experience to people that tourists wouldn’t necessarily know about. We want to amplify voices and cultural institutions that offer different perspectives.
WHAT (OR WHO) INSPIRES YOU TO DO THIS WORK?
It’s the communities. When I was living abroad in Rome, I needed to get my hair done. I was one of two Black people in the program so there weren’t a lot of people to go to for advice or help. I ended up just getting on a bus and I said the next Black person who gets on, I’m following them off the bus. So I did that and ultimately got the courage to stop her and ask where to go. She walked me to a Nigerian-Italian hair salon in a basement, which was about like a block away from a place that I frequented all the time. I couldn’t believe I was in the middle of Rome, and yet there was a grandma serving food and this Nigerian flag on a wall. I felt like I was back in New York City. It was that community, at that moment, that really inspires my work. People are having to go to lengths to try and experience this one thing. But if it was just posted online, if it was a service that people could access freely, they wouldn’t have to wrap their brain on how to tap into certain spaces in a city that are sometimes gentrified because they can’t afford the rent. There’s no way of locating them unless you’re in those silos. That’s really what inspires my work.
These communities exist, but really just don’t have a presence online. People talk about Airbnb Experiences, people talk about other spaces where you can tap into locals, but a lot of locals are still left outside of these platforms. One, they just don’t know how to market themselves, and two, sometimes they don’t even see the value that they themselves hold. So it’s hard to just tell them to put their services up on this or that platform. There are barriers. I want to make sure that those barriers are broken down for these people and reach out to them so they are no longer being left behind.
WHAT’S YOUR VISION, YOUR BIG DREAM FOR THE IMPACT YOU WANT TO MAKE?
I would say the big dream is to be in 50 cities globally and to have diverse experiences showcased for people to explore. I want to make sure that these mom-and-pops from these different migrant groups are able to share their experiences in different countries and that tourists and locals know and understand these communities and cultures.
It’s also making sure that these communities have access to the money that’s coming in from the tourism dollars. On my site, make it clear that the largest travel brands make $7,000+ per minute and that the average hospitality worker takes home $300 weekly. The disparity is huge. A lot of the service providers have so much value in themselves because they’d normally come from diverse backgrounds, but they’re still not able to quantify that. I think it’s a disservice to them because they can provide you human experience that you’re just wowed from but they don’t get to take home that money. I want to change that, because they’re the ones providing something that you really can’t find even within the service that they’re providing. So for example, a server in Mexico might be serving you underneath a hotel brand, but imagine that person serving you in their own homestead or home environment. It would be completely different and it would just be so much more authentic.
WHAT CHALLENGES ARE YOU FACING?
I would say just getting the word out there is a challenge. I’m a smaller company, I’m a solopreneur, and so it takes a lot to market and advertise these experiences and the differentiator that I bring to the marketplace. Being a solopreneur I have to figure out how to find others dedicated to bringing this forward. Finding the right skill set to bring the vision forward and finding the capital to scale, finding the right advertising in the market to really shine a light on this. Helping people recognize who want to get out after being pent-up with COVID, that this is something that you can do in your local community, to give you a fresh perspective. COVID is a challenge because I want to share so much about these cultures in these countries that sometimes go unnoticed.
WHAT’S ONE THING YOU WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT YOUR CAUSE AND/OR THE WORK YOU’RE DOING?
I want them to know what I’m doing is for the people. It’s for the communities that I work with. It’s really servicing them, that is the goal. The name of the company is EN-NOBLE, and which means “to give nobility to.” That means to structurally elevate someone and make sure that their socio-economic status changes. This is the work that I’m doing.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE QUOTE OR WORDS OF INSPIRATION TO SHARE?
One of my favorite people, Joanna Rose, said, “Responsibility falls on the shoulders of those who can bear it.” To have the responsibility of sharing people’s culture and their way of life responsibly, it’s a big task. You have to kind of straddle the line where you’re not trying to be a savior for them, and you’re not violating them in any way. It’s a balance where you’re making sure that you’re not bringing the wrong people to them and you’re also not bringing them to the wrong people. I would say that is definitely one of my favorite quotes because it means a lot to me to make sure that I don’t bring in these herds of tourists and then overpopulate and just damage their environment.
HOW CAN OTHERS SUPPORT YOU OR YOUR CAUSE?
I’d love for people to purchase our guide on our website. We have local guides in New York City as a pilot program to have people experience the local culture here in New York. We are creating itineraries in New York for people to experience culture a bit closer to home. We would love to have them come and enjoy it with us and get outside of the gloom of COVID a bit. We also offer self-guided tours. We have to be conscious of the restrictions around COVID logistically, so people can experience it by themselves. That’s really the call to action – to support these local businesses that are being affected and have their international experience in New York City.
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