Escaping the 9 to 5 with Wanda Duncan
Wanda has been working and traveling as a digital nomad since 2016. She’s the founder of Black Women Travl, a thriving community of Black women who center travel, wellness, and creating online streams of income. Join the Nomad Crew Collective, listen to the weekly show Black Women Travel Podcast, and catch the replay of the annual travel conference just for Black women, the International Black Women Travel Jubilee. Where do you fit in? Come sit with us!
*Resources mentioned during the episode*
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Black women travel
Anna: Okay. Hello, everybody. And welcome to this month’s Escaping the 9 to 5 interview. I’m here with Wanda Duncan. Wanda is speaking to us from Tbilisi in Georgia. Having quite a direct experience, of course, of the events that are going on, I’m recording this early March. It’s coming out a bit later in the year, but right now obviously really in the heat of things and quite a difficult situation. So Wanda, thank you so much for speaking to me today. I’m really looking forward to hearing more about you and obviously the travel that is a core part of the work that you do now.
Wanda: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
Anna: Such a pleasure. So why don’t you briefly first tell us what’s been your transition? So what did you do before and what are you building now?
Wanda: So before I started travelling full time, I worked at CNN for five years and I did the stuff in the newsroom. So it’s not editorial, more on the technical end. That’s what I went to school for. So I was in Atlanta, Georgia where the CNN headquarters is, and I said, “No, let’s do something else,” and so that’s what I did. And I left in 2010 and left again in 2016. So I’ve been travelling for six years straight now.
Anna: So when you said you left 2010 and then again in 2016, what happened in those six years there?
Wanda: Oh, lots of learning. So I just failed, I suppose. And on that 2010 trip I did all the stuff that you’re not supposed to do. I had a storage unit and I packed way too much. And just making all types of rookie mistakes that people make when they first start trying to long-term travel, I guess, fire by baptism as they say. So I ended right back up in Atlanta. It was about, I think, nine months, was about nine months later. I left January, I came back maybe around September, October, something like that. And I was like, “Okay, maybe I’m flighty. Maybe I just need to sit still. Other people seem to be able to do this thing where they have a job and stay in one place, so maybe I can make that happen for me,” like I hadn’t spent all the rest to the time trying to make that happen for me, so it was completely illogical, but anyway.
So I did that and just showed to myself that no, you’ve sat here, you’ve tried things. I had several different projects that I was working on, music related, when I was there. And I was just like, 2015, I said, “This is it. I’m not doing this anymore.” So I just got aggressive. I started saving aggressively. I started planning aggressively and then I left aggressively on December 31st, 2015. So I started my new year in London, which was not the plan at all, but yes, that’s what happened.
Anna: Well, that’s so interesting. And I think it’s both reassuring and a little bit worrying to people maybe to hear that it can take that long because I used to always focus on that moment, the trigger, when we quit our jobs and we’re excited. And when I first started this series many years ago, it was all around that moment, we have all that freedom and excitement, but it’s really good and important to hear you say that sometimes, more often than not I’d say, we’re perhaps a little bit idealistic, we make all those mistakes. We then often come back, actually, maybe feel a little bit more like a failure, but then if it really is something that’s meaningful to you and you, as you said, aggressively want to launch yourself back into it, there is that opportunity.
And second time, a third time, however many times it takes, if you’re in it for the long run, if you really are committed, you make it work. But I think that’s really important to hear that just because it doesn’t quite work out the first time around, doesn’t mean that it’s not important to you and doesn’t mean that you can’t make it work in the future.
Wanda: And you also don’t have to wait six years. Maybe it won’t take you that long to learn your lesson. I think for me it was a support system, or lack thereof. In Atlanta, the people that I was around, seeing them as the top of the food chain [inaudible 00:04:18], other than that it’s local news or maybe Al Jazeera or some other large telecommunications company. So nobody was talking about leaving, nobody was talking about… People just retire out of their roles, usually I think, I don’t have any numbers. So I didn’t have people who understood what it was that I wanted. I didn’t have people who understood what I was experiencing there, let alone who could offer support. And so I had to become that for myself. And I think largely my travels have instilled that in me. I come from a large family but I didn’t have support from that either.
I have often had to be my own support system until I could find other like-minded individuals. And even with that, you’re the one that puts your head on the pillow at night. You’re the one that’s inside your face every day, all day. And so it’s a great opportunity for you to cultivate mental hygiene for you to focus on what it is that you want. And if that changes, giving yourself and to pursue whatever that may look like. I think that we just get comfortable. And we, even in our discomfort, feed into the fears of what change can look like and how uncomfortable it can be. But for me, staying in any one place, whether physical or mental has always been far more uncomfortable than what it has required of me in order to make that change happen. And I’ve usually been happier for the change, mostly because I think I took a chance for myself, I bet on myself.
Anna: I think we rarely regret those chances that we take. It’s the chances we didn’t take, as they say, that we regret. And it’s that comfort, as you said, even though ironically we’re actually less comfortable, but we feel like we’re in that comfortable place, it’s easier to continue on the same trajectory and support network is so crucial. And as you say, unfortunately, people around us, family, colleagues who are in this amazing job, people say, “Why on earth would you want to leave that?” And they just don’t understand. They’re projecting their own fears, their own insecurities. And as you said, you are the one who puts your head on the pillow, however you phrased it, but ultimately you are alone in a way, so you can meet other people, but it’s your life, your choices. If we come back to, I guess, the initial decision in 2010 and also then what really got you to take the leap again in 2015, 16, what was it that led you to break away from that comfort and from what other people might see to be the pinnacle of success actually?
Wanda: I could see how I was not allowed to change and grow. I was not allowed to be myself. I could not bring my entire self into the room. I had to cut pieces of myself off in order to fit into this idea of what they wanted in a position. Personality wise, even work wise I suppose, I was reaching for things. I was always doing side projects or what have you, even within CNN, just craving some creative avenue that I could explore aside from just the technical work that I was doing. And so it just got to be enough. I saw that I was not being nurtured. And there were some other things going on as well, but I think that’s the main thing. I did not matter. I did not feel like I specifically mattered. And it was a pretty small department.
Anna: And did you know what you were leaving to? So it sounds like you had reasons for leaving that world, but did you have a clear vision of I’m going to have this business and this is what it’s going to look like and this is how I’m going to monetize it?
Wanda: Not in 2010. In 2010, it was more like I was looking on idealist.org, looking for volunteer positions. And that’s what really got me to go to El Salvador. That’s the transition. So I went to El Salvador for six months, I went to Jamaica for three, because I had been to Jamaica before and I loved it. And I was like, “If I can make it work in El Salvador, maybe I could make it work in Jamaica.” So then there wasn’t a full roadmap, there wasn’t lots of forethought in planning. There was some resources there, enough to get me through that first year.
Anna: And so what were some of the challenges along the way? Again, obviously, as you said, it took some years, but what were some of the things that were harder than you expected or that you came up against in making this work during that time?
Wanda: In 2010?
Anna: Both, I guess. Throughout the whole transition.
Wanda: So when I was in Atlanta I wasn’t trying to make anything work. After I got back to Atlanta in 2010, I got jobs and I was just working and whatever, doing the other projects I wanted to do around music. And then that’s when I started really studying and researching. So there wasn’t anything that I was necessarily setting up to get me back on the road during that period. It wasn’t like I was in something in order to leave, I was just living there.
Anna: So when you then, as you said, went aggressively into actually finishing up the 31st of December, I guess you said, was there anything then that you came up against that was hard in terms of making note then, it was no, I know what I’m doing, I’m [crosstalk 00:10:10]
Wanda: Yeah. It was a 100%. There was no doubt, no question. I was happy. I was the happiest I’ve ever been. I could go to work and be very happy because I knew I didn’t have to play the politics at whatever job I was at. I didn’t have to try and figure out how to make myself happy there or how to fit in there. I knew I was leaving.
The only challenge was getting on a flight. So a friend of mine worked for…. It was a friend of a friend, worked for an airline and they call them buddy passes where you get the flying benefits, you pay the taxes and the fees, so I’m showing up to the airport, I’m supposed to start in Japan and then go to Vietnam from there. I even had my flight booked from Japan to Vietnam, rookie mistake, because I could not get to Japan. They kept prioritising the weight of the plane, I think it’s called payload, versus actual passengers. And since mine was a courtesy ticket essentially, they were just like, “No, we’re full.” So I’m showing up to the airport. I slept at the airport at one point. So I just walk up to the Delta desk and I was like, “What is open? Where can I go?” They were like, “London’s wide open.” And I was like, “Book it.” So that’s the only resistance that was happening around my [crosstalk 00:11:39]
Anna: … just get on the plane. It seems simple, but it’s quite an important part of the whole travel concept, isn’t it? And what was different this time around then? What was the shift? What did you know differently? What made it possible to then bring to life your idea and to make it work for yourself?
Wanda: So my research, of course, no storage unit and I packed a lot lighter, so I was much more agile. Another thing is accommodation’s always going to be your largest expense always. And so in order to cut that expense, I signed up for TrustedHousesitters, which is a company, a British company actually, excuse me, and I tried to get some house sits before I left the States, but that didn’t work. So when I arrived there, I’m at the airport popping open my laptop, because I had nowhere to stay so I had to… And some of the things I did were points and miles, so I got a credit card with travel reward points, so I used some of those points to book a hotel and then used that time to find a house sit.
And I found a house sit relatively easy with three very naughty Labradors just outside of London in a little place called Medmenham, not far from Henley-on-Thames, and I spent the winter. I was not dressed for winter because I had not intended to stay in cold weather. So I had a light jacket and a hoodie and I made it work. But that was all part of the planning, saving up a whole bunch of money, getting those points and miles together, TrustedHousesitters to help cut the accommodation costs, the way that I packed, and then I think also, of course, mindset.
I had no intentions of going back. I wanted to be able to budget and used the money that I had saved wisely so that it would keep me on the road as long as I could stay. And then once I had left, I was giving myself an opportunity to play around with some things. So while I was house sitting I’m playing around with web design and maybe copywriting a bit and graphic. So just stuff like that. A little bit of coding as well I played around with just to see what I was interested in, what I could make stick. Even some blog writing as well.
Anna: And so you said, it sounds like, a lot of the supporters you talked about came from your own inner strength and mindset. You did research, but you also mentioned finding those like-minded people, so were they groups that you found? How did you go about connecting with other people and learning more about what was possible and some tips and pitfalls to avoid and so on?
Wanda: So you know what they say, if it’s not there, you create it. So it wasn’t there. I created a group on Facebook, which is the sensible thing that anyone does these days. So it was called Black Women Digital Nomads, and then later on I tagged on Entrepreneurs. So super specific, very long but super specific about the type of people that I wanted to attract. I wanted to attract black women who wanted to travel full-time, who also had jobs, because a lot of people travel full-time but they have remote work, they work for a company or they’re freelancing in some capacity, which could be entrepreneurship. But yes, I created this group. I saw a few women, I believe it was in Chiang Mai, and I was like, “Hey, nice to meet you. I want to create this group for us because I think that there are a lot of us.” And they were like, “Yeah, girl, create it.” So I created it and then it just [inaudible 00:15:23] there for a while, but now it’s grown, particularly since 2020.
Anna: I love that though, as you said, if it’s not there, create it. And clearly you had a need for it, so other people do too, and that’s creating the support that you want, but also putting yourself forward, I guess, as the expert who’s leading it. Is that then what became the basis of what you do now with Black Women Travl? Was that organically the start of the bigger project?
Wanda: Yeah, that was never the intention. I didn’t start the group in order to monetize the group. I started the group because I wanted sisters, because we faced something specific being ourselves out in the world, as well as our home countries. And that’s why a lot of us wanted to leave in the first place. So it wasn’t necessarily what we were leaving, it’s what we wanted to step into. And I think that’s humanity. A lot of us are able to feel and fill our skin more authentically, more vibrantly than we are coming out of these systems of oppression that often exist in our home countries. And yes, it just took off from there. I started the group in 2017. In 2019, I started the podcast because I wanted us to be able to have more in depth conversations. I wanted us to get to know one another better.
And so I started interviewing ladies in the group for the podcast, and then that translated over to Twitter and then a little bit of Instagram, but Instagram is a bit more flashy with maybe more vacationers versus long-term travellers. So after having these conversations with all these women week after week after week, I get excited and I start stuff. So I was like, “Let’s get together and let’s learn from one another, and we’ll be able to travel a little bit as well.” So I started the travel conference for black women, International Black Women Travel Jubilee, and that was late 2019. And then we know what happened in 2020, so we couldn’t actually get together, but we had it online. And then we had it online again last year. And last year it was everything.
It was in December so I’m still on a high from that, but there was such a kinship and a closeness and it’s exactly the experience that I wanted us to have in person. And I’m so happy that it translated online. We were able to have conversations with one another and talk about how we felt different often and maybe out of place sometimes culturally and just within our personal lives. And so I think that it helped us to be able to connect and maybe help with immersion as well in terms of the information that we got over the weekend, it was just a Saturday and a Sunday. So it was so fantastic. It was so wonderful.
Anna: Amazing. It has been a tough few years, hasn’t it, in many ways and unfortunately within the travel space especially. It sounds like you’ve still been able to continue what you’re doing and congratulations on getting that group together as well. What is the best part of what you’re doing then now despite these various challenges and unprecedented times as they always call them? But this experience that you had there sounds amazing, so what is it that you love about what you’re doing now?
Wanda: Aside from the conference, which I wanted to be in person, thankfully the pandemic hasn’t dampened anything that I’ve done, because everything that I create I’ve intentionally created to be evergreen and to create these digital spaces, because often we’re just not able to meet like-minded people in person, unfortunately. It just doesn’t work out sometimes. So that was the only thing that got sidelined, thankfully, for me. But you were asking?
Anna: The best part, what do you love about your lifestyle now?
Wanda: Creating opportunities. So specifically in December I was able to create a relationship with TravelMore, with Fodor’s Travel and with Travel + Leisure. So they’re looking for riders, and I was, from our community, able to set up one on one meetings so that the ladies in the community could step into that. I talked to them after like, “How did it go?” I’m really excited for them or whatever. And one was like, “Wanda, I was going to cancel, but then I would’ve had to lie to you about why I was cancelling so I didn’t want to do that.” And I was like, “You were going to lie to my face?” But they were just all really nervous about it. These are ladies in their forties and fifties, so there are some younger women in the group.
I’m really proud of these older ladies who are saying, “Yeah, I’m claiming my life from today. I’m not going to live the life my aunt and my mothers lived.” A lot of them had to deal with the transitions of their family members and saw that the women in their family passed away not living these fulfilled lives. And these women are so brave. They’re so wonderful. And they have so much… Could you imagine? They have so much experience, they have so much knowledge. Yes, those publications need what it is you have to say. Yes. So I didn’t get the nervousness. I kind of get the nervousness but not really, because you’re amazing. What? They don’t have your perspective. Nobody has your perspective. You need to be pitching to these places. So that is something that’s amazing to me, bringing people together is so fulfilling and wonderful and amazing to me.
I get to do that. It took me a really long time to understand the value in just that, having a space and bringing like-minded people together and just learning about community as a service in general, it’s just so fantastic and wonderful. Oh, this is it? I’m thinking about, okay, we need to be doing this and this, and they’re just like, “No, we just want to talk with each other.” It’s just, oh, okay, that’s cool. So all of that is just wonderful and fantastic, being able to have a solid community and also being able to create paying opportunities for this community.
Anna: I can hear the excitement and the passion in your voice, and it is fantastic and so rewarding for you, I imagine, to be able to bring these people together, as you said, these incredible women who have so much to give, who perhaps wouldn’t have put themselves forward or have those opportunities. And the fact that you’re able to create that is such an amazing thing, so congratulations to you and to them for having this space. What advice might you give to someone? Maybe specifically someone who, like you, did try to create something or to leave that nine to five environment and then unfortunately didn’t quite work out as they wanted, anything you can say to inspire them to keep going, to keep trying and to recommit to that dream that they had?
Wanda: Go. Yeah. That’s all you need in your head is you telling you to go. Something that I discover and I remind myself of is you haven’t tried everything. I know sometimes it feels exasperating because it’s, well, I tried this and I tried that and I try it and it’s not working. And you never know if it’s the time, if it’s the format. As a newbie, often a lot of us just haven’t put ourselves out there in a specific capacity. And so it’s sometimes hard to gauge, but if something is not gaining traction, what I have to say is you just haven’t tried everything. You just have to go. You have to keep yourself grounded, keep yourself centred enough to be curious enough to explore the ways that this thing can happen.
Some things have happened that I never thought would happen. I started doing some YouTube lives and ladies were showing up every single Saturday to come hang out with me. I don’t watch YouTube so I really don’t understand. I wanted us to be together, but they just wanted to hear me talk about stuff and go off in the comments or whatever. I could have been doing that already. It didn’t have to just happen six months ago. And so it is that. You must stay curious. You must understand that maybe there’s a way you want to put something forward, but there’s another way that people will receive you and go, just do it, get to it.
Anna: It’s so true. Isn’t it? I hear people say often, “I’ve tried everything, it’s just not working.” And you’re right, no, you haven’t tried everything. It can be frustrating and difficult to hear that, but it’s true that there is another way of looking at it. There is something else you can try. And there’s a bit of an attitude shift of I’m going to make this work. As you said, just go. I’m going to do this. I’m in this. I will find a way. It’s not a question of if I’m going to do, it’s just how. And it might show up in a different way. So I love the curiosity that you said being open to.
I had no idea that this YouTube thing would take off or, my goodness, a Facebook group, it wasn’t something I was planning, but it came organically. So just putting yourself out there, being open to those new opportunities, talking to people, connecting and so on and providing value as you’ve done too, so that’s really valuable advice. Thank you. I hope even if just one person hears that message, go, go, I think you’ve done your job there so thank you so much. Can you tell us a bit more then, before we wrap up, about your Black Women Travl now? Where can we find you and what is it you do exactly? Now, you’ve mentioned a few of the things, but I’d love to hear more about your mission and what you’re doing.
Wanda: So specifically Black Women Travl it’s the website, blackwomentravl, T-R-A V-L,.com is where our digital home is. And that will link you to the free Facebook group. It’ll also link you to my paid group, which is the Nomad Crew Collective. And with them, they just get a little bit more of my attention and time. I also search for grants or interesting events, whatever I think will feed them holistically from a wellness perspective as well as from this travel and online business perspective, which are the three things I focus on, travel wellness and creating an online stream of income. You can also listen to the podcast. There’s over 100 episodes. I’ve taken a bit of a break after two years. I was putting out a episode every single week and I just needed a break. But that’ll be coming back soon.
Anna: [inaudible 00:26:11]
Wanda: So much. It’s so much. So that’ll be coming back, but there’s over 100 episodes so you have lots to binge. And then the third thing is the conference that I do. So that’s annual and for now it’s online. I was toying with the idea of bringing some of the ladies, a small group, to Tbilisi. Since a lot of them are travelling anyway, I’m not really promoting travel, by the way, right now. I travel full time,. So I’ve been going extra slow I’m in Tbilisi specifically because they give Americans a year because I would prefer not to be in a different country every three months right now. But then a war broke out so I was like, “Well, maybe that’s not prudent at this moment.” I also started the Black Women Travl mastermind this year, which is our first cohort. We started in January. We’re wrapping up the end of March. It has been perfectly delicious, more in depth conversation, more focused attention. There are nine ladies in there right now.
I’m also looking to launch courses. So I know that I focus on black women, but a lot of my work is going to now be opened up for women in general. So on the site, there’ll be something special. Within the next couple of weeks, I believe, I’ll be able to launch where I’m going to have some courses available, some, I call them activations, which are meditations, but not passive, they’re more active to engage your mind, heart and soul and all that good stuff. So that’s what I have going on, a free group, a paid group, a podcast, a conference, a mastermind and some courses are coming out.
Anna: Thank you so much for sharing that. I think that’s a really lovely visual illustration as well of how you are building out your business model. And again, nice to here that you don’t have to have it all. As much as I’m a fan of strategies and visions and so on, we don’t necessarily know from behind our computers when we start what it’s going to look like. So the fact that you can start with an organic free group and you have some meetups and then there’s an event and you start a podcast, and it’s absolutely fine to take a break when you want to and need to, you can go slow, just like you’ve done with the travel and yet there are those opportunities to then layer on the mastermind and the courses. So you can really see a robust, diversified business model taking form.
So that’s equally amazing to hear. So thank you for sharing that in such detail and transparency as well. So, Wanda, I’d love to talk to you more and I hope the people will check you out and I’ll definitely, of course, share the details, I think, when this comes out, hopefully those new materials will be ready on your side too so we can share those. We’re really excited to speak to you. Thank you so much for your time and congratulations on what you’re building. Congratulations for having that aggressive restart back in 2015, 16, we’re really happy that you did. And obviously so many women now benefiting from the work that you’re doing as well. So thank you for sharing your story and I look forward to staying in touch.
Wanda: Such an honour. Thank you so much for making time for this conversation. I really, really appreciate it.
Anna: Thank you.
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