The first thing you notice about 22-year-old Yasmine El Baggari is her hat. When we met, she was wearing a sequined fedora from New Orleans.
“I have 32 hats,” El Baggari said. “I found hats a great way to connect with people because everyone comments on your hat. It’s a story and it sparks a conversation.”
El Baggari is Moroccan, and first came to the US as a high school exchange student in Kansas. She later ended up in Amherst, Massachusetts at Hampshire College. But she doesn’t call Western Massachusetts home, or rather, her only home.
“The world is my home,” said El Baggari. “Every city I go, I have a place to live. I have my stuff all over, in California, in DC, in New York, in Amherst, [with] people, families actually, who open their homes to me for free.”
But where are, like, her clothes?
“I literally have stations, different places, so my cold clothes are in Massachusetts, [with] an incredible host who lets me stay there whenever I’m visiting. And [there's] a host in California, a host in DC …”
You get the idea.
While enrolled in college, El Baggari spent a lot of time riding Greyhound buses across the US, meeting people, talking about hats, sharing a bit about her culture, and hoping to break down stereotypes. The conversations sometimes ended up with an invitation into people’s homes where she got a free place to stay for a night. Now, she’s turning her wayward lifestyle into a business.
For her senior thesis, El Baggari, who graduated this May, developed a website called Voyaj. The tagline is: "Travel for a more peaceful world." It’s kind of like Airbnb, but no money is exchanged; just conversation.
“The goal is for people to connect one on one, and to go from the online back to the offline, you know like it used to be back in ’70s without the internet,” said El Baggari. “Where people can meaningfully and authentically connect and share experiences and stories.”
The website is still in the pilot stage, but here’s how it works: You sign up. If you’re approved, then living rooms across the world are your oyster, for brief stays. Or, if you want to be a host, your living room is now open to others.
Voyaj is currently grant-funded. It also gets help from Hampshire College and Google, and pro-bono legal help.
El Baggari hopes to open Voyaj to the wider public by the end of the year. To date, almost 250 hosts and travelers have used it.
“I actually brought 30 kids from Africa last summer on a Voyaj to California. And they stayed with American hosts, they got to learn about each other’s cultures and learn about personal development with Tony Robbins,” she said, referring to the motivational speaker on late-night TV.
She also had a three-day Voyaj with Richard Branson, the high-profile British billionaire, in Marrakesh.
El Baggari said people who sign up to open their homes are already motivated to learn about others. Still, she’s also working to set up a host incentive program with rewards. Think frequent flyer points for hosting people — exact rewards to be determined.
She’s on to something — Forbes recently listed El Baggari as one of Africa’s 30 most promising young entrepreneurs.
There are a few lingering questions, though. Has El Baggari ever had any problems as a young Arab woman traveling on her own? She insists she hasn’t. But will anyone else?
And, can Voyaj accomplish its goal? Are a few homestays really going to change attitudes and create a more peaceful world?
“I get so many negative reactions. But once they meet me, at least, in person, they sometimes, often, change their mind. Especially after I share my story, and how I’ve been hosted in 150 homes from all walks of life,” said El Baggari.
Homestays can be amazing. But it can also get tiring to be a guest in someone's home for extended periods.
El Baggari said she doesn't tire of having to be friendly or “on” all the time. “I’m so inspired by people. So I always want to dig in more and more to really figure out what they’re all about and what drives them, and what makes them who they are. I think people give me a lot of energy and I wouldn’t be doing Voyaj if that wasn’t the case.”
But she adds that Voyaj works for introverts, too. The website asks your desired level of engagement. So, if you want, you can chat with your host for a few minutes then retire to bed.
El Baggari said if even that sounds exhausting, there’s always a hotel.