17 min read
A story about blazing trails, paying it forward, and going for your dreams even when you’re down to your last $10. Photography By Henry Thong.
To Gloria Atanmo, “Travel was a rich kid’s hobby” – it wasn’t something she ever envisioned herself doing. In college, she traveled only locally for basketball and tennis as a double collegiate athlete at Baker University in Kansas. The athletics helped pay for school, where she started as a pre-med major as a way to make her mom happy: “She's the reason I'm here. All the privileges I'm afforded are because of her.” But living someone else’s dream was killing her slowly.
She quietly changed her major – even though it meant she’d have to stay in school for an extra two years. In her fifth year, her sports eligibility expired, and someone suggested she do study abroad now that she had the time. Her initial reaction? “That’s for those people. Natural-born travelers; rich people.”
But Gloria – or Glo as she's also known – managed to silence that voice long enough to apply to a study abroad program, and soon she was on a plane to spend an entire semester in the UK. The love was instant, and she couldn’t wait to explore.
On her first solo trip to Scotland during a free weekend, she arrived too early to check in to her hostel so instead, backpack and duffel in tow, she went on a hike she’d heard about – Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano over 800 feet above sea level.
She got lost.
She’d unknowingly wandered off the path and into dangerous territory, her bags weighing her down, pulling her in all directions, eventually trapping her in a ravine off-path. She didn’t know how she was going to get back.
Then she heard a voice from above.
“Throw your bag over! Throw your bag over!” A woman urgently shouted, “in her beautiful Scottish accent.”
Glo threw her bags to the woman who guided her safely back down the mountain, out of harm's way.
The rescue was followed by a dinner invitation, which Glo accepted.
“I don't know how, but I'm going to do this for as long as I can.”
“She made me dinner and sang traditional Scottish songs, and I remember thinking Am I in a movie? But country after country, weekend after weekend, I kept having these serendipitous moments where strangers showed me how amazing and beautiful the world is.”
She found a deep sense of belonging in doing the thing she never believed she deserved or was worthy of.
While the trip would end in a few months, Glo couldn’t imagine this experience being relegated as a distant college memory. She was resolved: “I don't know how, but I'm going to do this for as long as I can.”
Glo returned from the UK and finished her college degree. She was so scared to tell her mom that she’d changed her major that she didn’t tell her until 10 days before graduation. “She was not happy.”
Glo ran away.
She’d made such a great impression on the university in the UK where she did her study abroad that she landed an internship there. She booked a one-way ticket back to Europe.
She also started theblogabroad.com. It was the first time she created a blog with a purpose beyond self-expression. She created her first blog when she was was 11 years old. “Oh my gosh it was so embarrassing. It was on Xanga and it was called ‘iMa_LiL_BLaQ_BaLLa_HoLLa.’” She wrote about school drama and boys: “It was very hard-hitting news,” we both laugh.
Blogging became a constant in Glo’s life, as natural as reading or watching TV. While the platforms and the topics changed, she was always writing. “I had a pop culture blog, a music blog, a sports blog, a lifestyle blog, and then, eventually, a travel blog.”
She wanted to see if this blog could turn into a creative career. She saw other travelers and creators making a living doing work that they loved, like The Blonde Abroad and Nomadic Matt, and their very existence inspired her: “Okay, they're making it work, so at least I know that it's possible.” And for Glo, that’s all she needs to get started: “As long as I know there's a possibility it can happen, say no more, I will figure out the rest.”
For six months she became a kind of Clark Kent, working her UK internship by day, building her blog by night, often sleeping in her office, or sometimes not sleeping at all.
But when the college underwent serious budget cuts, despite how hard she worked and how much her boss wanted her to stay, her job disappeared.
With only one week left on her visa, she had to get out of the UK, and fast. “I looked at flights and found a $20 ticket to Barcelona and thought, I guess I'm going to Barcelona. I’ve always been the kind of person who would rather make an imperfect decision quickly rather than stall and miss out on opportunities along the way.”
She landed in Spain with $100 in her bank account, found a hostel, and immediately started bartering to make ends meet.
For a while she survived on $10 a day.
“Most people have their mom or their dad, or someone to call in an emergency. But I just didn't have that privilege of being able to say, Hey mom I've got $10 left, can I borrow a little something? Nigerian parents raise you to be self-sufficient, so you fear and quite frankly, wouldn’t dare to ask or show your vulnerabilities to them.”
Glo is one of six kids. When she was 11 years old, her dad was deported to Nigeria. “He was given a 10-year ban before he’d be allowed to re-enter the country.” For 10 years Glo’s mom, a nurse, raised Glo and her five siblings alone. Glo was 22 when the waiting-period for her dad was finally about to end and he could apply to come back; but in that tenth year he tragically passed away in a diabetic coma.
So for Glo, while traveling, “there was never any backup.”
Some days she didn’t eat.
But she knew this phase wouldn’t last forever. She was a hard worker. She was a creator. The starving-artist phase was something she both fully anticipated and was prepared to endure; her dream was worth it.
To make ends meet, she worked the reception desk at a hostel in exchange for a bed each night, and did some social media management for a local restaurant. She also promoted food tours, did English tutoring, au paired for a couple families – whatever she could. During one tutoring session, the father of a student found out she used to play basketball and encouraged her to try out for the Barcelona team.
“It doesn’t matter how much money you are making if your heart isn’t happy…”
Always looking for an opportunity to keep traveling, Glo borrowed some oversized athletic shoes from a friend and went to tryouts the next day. They signed her that night, and she became a salaried semi-pro basketball player in Barcelona.
She was so grateful to be making a salary in a beautiful country, but staying in one place for too long – even a beautiful place – started to wear on her. “I wasn't able to travel; we were practicing three to four times a week, and on weekends we had games. So all of a sudden I'm getting the money, but the travel is now gone.”
It felt like her early college days happening all over again, her life taken over by sports – no time for anything else. The money wasn’t enough, because money was never her priority. “It doesn’t matter how much money you are making if your heart isn’t happy with the circumstances.”
After the season ended she just knew, “I can't do this again, I need to be on the road.” She booked a one-way ticket to Paris with one goal in mind: “I'm just going to keep traveling and see how long I can last. I need to get out there and create content, experience cultures, and continue building my brand.”
“There’s nothing more silencing than hard work – when the keyboard is banging I can't even hear imposter syndrome’s chatter in the background.”
Without a full-time job, Glo went all in on creating content for her blog that might help her turn it into a business the way she’d seen others do. Through relentless content creation and learning, her blog started to make a little money via affiliate marketing. She was able to keep going.
As a way to share her content even more broadly, she also started writing for other blogs and publications. In 2015, she became a contributor for The Huffington Post and wrote an article called “Stop Asking Me How I Afford to Travel” that got half-a-million views in 24 hours.
“It was this firestorm of people who either loved or hated it,” Glo remembers. “I had never experienced anything like it. Followers going up by the hundreds per hour, and the hate comments felt like triple that, ha!”
The article was translated into eight languages and struck a chord with travelers tired of constantly feeling like they had to explain themselves to co-workers; it also made travel seem possible for people who, like Glo, previously thought travel was only for “rich people.”
The article also captured the attention of a company in Germany; they emailed her: “Hey Glo, we found your blog, we love your writing, can we fly you to Germany? We'd love to work with you.”
But the doubts soon followed.
Glo estimates that she went through “two years of unnecessary struggle” trying to figure out what she was worth. One company would offer to pay one amount, then when she’d pitch that same amount to another company and they’d be offended, chastising her, “Oh no, we would never pay that to anybody.”
Glo started doing research, connecting with other creators to find out what they charged, and getting comfortable with her inherent worth and all that should be considered for valuation. For example, “Even if your follower count isn't that impressive, if you’re a good writer, you can charge more.”
Glo didn’t know this right away though – it took time, and a very painful two years. Until one woman changed everything for her.
The woman worked for a travel brand and hired Glo to write four articles. When Glo sent over her pricing, she promptly emailed her back:
Glo, don't tell anyone I'm doing this, but here's what you're actually worth.
She quadrupled Glo’s going rate.
I love her to death. She doesn't know how much that changed my life.
It empowered Glo to stop underselling herself; her dedication to that brand also quadrupled because of how fairly they valued her.
In addition to brand partnerships, Glo also noticed that the creators making a full-time living with their work seemed to operate a little differently than everyone else. They didn’t compete with each other, they amplified each other’s work, and instead of only relying on others for their income, they were taking matters into their own hands.
Always attending conferences and keeping her finger on the pulse of her creative industry, Glo quickly noticed, “They were all creating their own products.”
While the brand partnerships she had were going great, she was still struggling to make a consistent income. Her business model started to feel a lot like “waiting for brands to find me or desperately waiting on them to answer my pitches.”
She decided to change course. “I needed to put my income and financial status back in my own hands. I didn’t want a brand to control how much I’m able to make in a year.”
She started creating her own products, putting together her own group trips, and writing and self-publishing an ebook – “things that don't need permission from other people.”
Her new business model? “Do it yourself; own your story, own your power, and speak your truth.” She found the business model that was right for her, and her income started growing a little more every month.
She also credits her income growth to her commitment to a “blue ocean” – focusing on a market that was virtually non-existent at the time.
“I realized in 2017 that there weren't many black female travel bloggers who were writing about some of the negative experiences – like being denied service at restaurants, being mistaken for a prostitute in certain countries,” and she was worried that “if they experience this and think the whole world is like this they might never travel again. But if they see, Oh no, this happened to Glo as well, then maybe they’d be inspired to keep going.”
Glo wanted readers like her to know that they weren’t alone, and that the beauty and adventure to behold far outweighed the horrors. She didn’t want anything to stop them from traveling if it called to them the way it called to her.
With growing partnerships (like her dream-come-true sponsor, GoPro) and multiple products and offerings, she was able to scale her blog to six figures. But, just like that feeling of being in the same place for too long, soon it all started to feel too easy. She had spent years trying to learn how to make a living doing work she loved and she’d finally figured it out.
“I realized there were still so many bloggers out there who were struggling.” Inspired by the woman at that company, she wanted to find a way help them. She started transitioning her business from helping women travel to helping women see their worth and build the business of their dreams.
To do that, she started focusing even more on her own products and how to get them in front of the right people.
Glo avoided email in the early days. “I was a social media nut. But when I started offering premium products and higher tier items, like my retreats and my course, I realized people make business decisions through email.”
So she finally decided to give email marketing a try for the launch of her Bali Blogger Bootcamp in 2017. She remembers the first time a sale came through – “Oh my gosh – this works!”
When I ask her how she thinks about email and social media now, her metaphor does not disappoint:
Social media is like a public swimming pool and email marketing is like the ocean. They're both wet, but the ocean is just a different experience; if you're not getting wet in that way, then you're not even swimming. You haven't reached the full potential of what's possible. A pool is very safe, and it can also be confining – there are rules and hours that you don’t control. But email marketing feels limitless, like when you look out at the ocean.
Glo used social media and email together to launch her course. All her social media posts directed people to join her email list through a landing page that promised the top five tips for newbie bloggers. Once they signed up on the landing page they received the automatic email sequence she set up, teaching some of her best strategies for free – establishing her expertise and giving her new subscribers a chance to get to know her and see if her course would be right for them.
Glo made $50,000 in seven days, a culmination of years of hard work and almost two decades of blogging.
How did it feel?
Like a mix of a heart attack and winning the lottery.
Over 190 people have taken Glo’s course so far and she’s gotten so many thank you messages from people whose lives have been changed the same way Glo’s was when that travel brand client went out of her way to show Glo what she was worth.
Glo designed her course with that exact hope. She wants to save her students from those two years she spent struggling with her worth, undercharging and undervaluing herself.
I show them the value of building products, how to control their destiny, how to value themselves, how to reverse pitch, and how to truly get themselves to the next level. Sometimes it just takes someone else saying, ‘Here's what's possible’ for you to dream a little bit bigger.
She’s very transparent. “I show them everything, because it can be quite secretive in this industry. No one wants to share numbers, no one wants to share even contacts or strategies or ways that they were able to get what they got. And I'm just like, Here's everything, here’s how much I made from XYZ. Because what good is getting all this success if you don’t turn around and help the next person?”
She’s especially proud that her course has an 85% completion rate.
But even with all the thank you messages she receives, doubt still comes out to play sometimes.
Imposter syndrome is something that I wake up next to every single morning, like Good morning, Imposter Syndrome – would you like sugar in your coffee today?
Glo may offer coffee but she doesn’t offer power. She works hard to keep her imposter syndrome from making any decisions. She’s learned how to silence it when it’s being too loud.
There’s nothing more silencing than hard work – when the keyboard is banging I can't even hear imposter syndrome’s chatter in the background. I realized over the years that the more I got to work, the quieter the voice became.
And it’s paying it forward that gives Glo her relentless drive to keep creating with her keyboard, even when things get hard, which of course, they always do. “Every time I'm ready to give up I'm like, No, there's this vision, there's this legacy that I've got to fulfill. It's not done yet. I feel like as long as I'm on this earth breathing, I can't quit.”