Jessica Nabongo is a world traveler, writer, entrepreneur and influencer. Her mission is to be the first black woman to travel to every country and she has a neat 170 of 195 under her belt. We caught up with Jessica at an airport in Cancun about living on her own terms, traveling the world and her take on personal style.
BR: You earned a degree in English literature, held a career in pharmaceutical sales, taught English in Japan, and completed a business degree. Clearly, you aren’t restricted by standards or guidelines. How do you keep pushing boundaries with your life?
Jessica: I push boundaries within my own life by not living my life based on the status quo. You know, we’re raised to go to school, get a degree, go work for a company. The thing for me is that I live my life based on what feels good. Coming fresh out of college, it felt great to work for a pharmaceutical company and have a high salary and amazing benefits. When I became disinterested in that, I decided to head to Japan and teach English—because it felt like a good idea. After a while, I decided to go back to school. I did my masters at the London School of Economics. After graduating, my then-boyfriend was offered a job in Benin, so I went with him because it felt right. What I would love to see people do more is be unapologetically who they are and unapologetic about doing those things that bring them joy in their everyday life.
You make it sound so natural and easy, but it is impressive that you are able to do all this. Many people are too scared.
Yes. I mean, that’s one thing. What I always say is that you can’t allow the fear of something happening to keep you from doing something. People definitely do, but after reflecting on it and talking about it, I have to recognize that I’ve created safety nets for myself. By that, I mean I always did fairly well in school. Because of that, I knew I could hold a job and back it up with a good resume. Whenever I work for a company, I work hard. I do an amazing job. Because then, if I quit, I know that I have a place to go back to if needed. Say I moved to Japan and hated it. I know that I could have gone home and back to the pharmaceutical company because I killed it while I was there and left the company on good terms. That’s super important.
Yes. It’s creating that space for yourself to be able to toe the line, because you know that you are supported each step. You touched on this. GO YOUR OWN WAY is about living on your own terms and out in the world. How do you live on your own terms?
I don’t wait to see someone else doing what I want to do in order to feel like I can do it. Specifically thinking about this journey, have I ever seen a black woman in Turkmenistan? No, but that doesn’t make me feel like as a black woman, I need to be afraid to go to Turkmenistan. No! I don’t have that thinking. For me, the biggest thing is that I want to be that [person] because I know a lot of people need to see someone like me doing that. I go into a lot of spaces—not just in the U.S. but abroad—where I’m the only black person. And I don’t feel uncomfortable. I’m just like, “Yup! Happy to be here! Hey guys.”
You’re leading the way and being that person for people. I’m sure there are a lot of young girls that look up to you because they can see themselves in you.
Yes. There was a little girl who wrote a report about me. They had to write about who their inspiration was for a job they wanted to do. And the little girl wrote her essay about me…the teacher sent it to me. I recorded a video for the little girl and sent it to her.
I don’t wait to see someone else doing what I want to do in order to feel like I can do it.”
That’s amazing. She was probably so excited. So you describe yourself as a wanderlust. How would you define that? Why do you choose that term to describe yourself?
Well, the specific definition is a strong desire to travel. But it’s more than that for me. My wanderlust is driven by my extreme curiosity for different countries, different people. I’m just such a curious person, and that leads me to get out and fuels my desire to discover something new.
With so many countries and experiences under your belt, you aren’t afraid of trying new things. What drives you to explore new environments and cultures?
It’s my fascination with collecting proof that we are more alike than we are different. We may look different, speak a different language and so on. But at the end of the day, we’re still human. We all need food, clothing, shelter. We all want love. We all want community and family. And that doesn’t change because you speak a different language, or because you’re a different race or nationality. None of that changes the fact that we’re all human beings.
Taking a step back to the beginning. How did your goal to be the first black woman to travel to every country develop? Why is this important to you?
In February 2017, I was in Bali with a friend. I’ve always wanted to visit every country in the world because I’m a geography nerd. At the time, I had just read about an American woman, Cassie De Pecol, who was the first woman on record to visit every country in the world. I hadn’t even known that was a thing. So I did some research and realized no black woman has done this. So I wanted be the first black woman to do it. The reason why it’s important? Because representation matters. I can go out and do things I want to do simply because I want to do them. But I know a lot of other people can’t. I hope that when people see me do this, they let go of fear as much as possible and just get out and explore the world.
And one more thing on that note—being a woman. A lot of women have not done this. I would say fear is the number one reason. People see me doing it. I don’t always travel alone, but have been to 62 countries on my own. I want all women to see and understand: Don’t let them tell you the world is a scary place. It’s not true. The world is ours! Let’s go.
I hope that when people see me do this, they let go of fear as much as possible and just get out and explore the world.”
Tell us a little about your BR looks. Why are these the perfect travel outfits?
For me, I’m all about bright colors, functionality, and because I’m traveling, I need to be able to mix and match everything. If I get a pair of jeans, they need to be able to go with a bunch of different pieces. I chose these silver Essential Leather Sneakers because they’re easy to travel in, comfortable and really, really cute. I’m wearing the Sandwash Modal Cropped Jumpsuit in black. I like this for travel because it’s super comfortable, easy to layer and I love the material. I’m also traveling with this Baby Terry Waterfall Cardigan. I like this because I get cold on planes. It’s comfy and easy to throw on over my clothes. This bright blue Vegan Suede Moto Jacket in brings that pop of color I need. I’m obsessed. The other pieces I picked—High-Rise Straight-Fit Ankle Jean because I think jeans are a staple anywhere you go—and I love the cropped denim look. I picked the Pleated Midi Skirt for a pop of color, this coral Cotton-Blend Textured Stripe Sweater, and white Slub Cotton-Modal Twist-Front T-Shirt. You know. Jeans and a white tee, with sneakers or sandals. Very classic, no-brainer outfit. Then I can throw the moto jacket or coral sweater on top. Because I travel for extended periods of time, comfort, pops of color and mix-and-match pieces are essential to my style.
Packing tips? Do you travel light?
It all depends on the amount of time. If I’m going to be gone for 2 weeks, I’ll take three pairs of shoes. A sandal, a sneaker and a proper sneaker for the gym. I use compression packs to make sure everything fits in my luggage neatly. But I don’t travel as light as people think I do.
Cocoa butter to keep my skin soft. I always have my camera with me. A battery pack. For me, reducing my use of single-use plastic is very important, so I always bring a reusable cup. When I’m on planes, instead of wasting all those little plastic cups, I just use my reusable one.
How would you describe your personal style? I feel like it’s really strongly influenced by your constant travel.
Absolutely. Any time you see me, I probably have pieces on from three to five countries.
I think the biggest thing with my personal style is that it truly expresses who I am.”
How do you push boundaries with your personal style?
Definitely with colors and patterns. A lot of people aren’t used to seeing someone who looks like me always wearing yellow, orange and bright colors. You’ll always catch me with a really bright lip. It’s funny because people think I put a lot of effort into my looks. I’m really chill. I don’t wear makeup. I don’t do anything. I think the biggest thing with my personal style is that it truly expresses who I am. With the bright clothes, bright lip, no hair. I like to keep it very simple. No makeup, besides lipstick. Simple, but vibrant.
Jessica’s curiosity, zest for life and travel and constant challenging of the status quo position her for a limitless life. Fuel your wanderlust and explore GO YOUR OWN WAY.