Student's Venture Matches Hosts and Travelers Worldwide to Promote Peace
When she was 17, Yasmine El Baggari left her home in Morocco on a US State Department scholarship to spend a year at a Kansas high school and introduce Americans to her Arab culture and Muslim faith. Five years later, El Baggari, now a student at Hampshire College, has launched a Web venture to match travelers and hosts worldwide by their common interests and experiences, to arrange brief homestays to bridge cultures, and, she says, “to open hearts and minds.”
El Baggari is leading a team of half a dozen technology entrepreneurs in developing her online platform, branded Voyaj. Last year, she put her studies on hold and traveled to meet with leaders of world airlines, hospitality companies, technology companies, global organizations, and even governments to forge partnerships for her venture.
Her desire to experience the world and create this global model have over the past five years resulted in significant grants and invitations to speak at international events and conferences—including at the White House—and also to conduct research at renowned institutions. Among these opportunities:
- World Economic Forum, Jordan, invited speaker; 2015
- “She Leads Africa” Fellowship; 2015
- Global Social Business Summit, One Young World Ambassadors, Berlin, invited speaker; 2015
- Global Entrepreneurship Summit, Morocco, panelist on women’s entrepreneurship with Vice President Joe Biden; 2014
- Top 100 Most Influential Traveler Bloggers for Millennials, Washington, D.C., White House, National Security Council event; 2014
- Harvard University, conducted grant-supported research on women’s rights, terrorism, and Islam’s influence on politics, economics, and social life; summer 2014
- Global Migrations Grant, conducted research on identity, morality, and cultural evolution for Arab/Muslim students in six countries in Europe; summer 2013
- African Studies Association Conference, Baltimore, presented research on the social, religious, and cultural identity of Arab/Muslim students in Europe; summer 2013
- Middle East Studies Association Conference, New Orleans, presented “Moroccan Women’s Empowerment: Political and Civil Socioeconomic Reforms”; summer 2013
- People to People International, Atlanta, ambassador and participant, International Student Panel; 2010
This year, El Baggari is back at Hampshire to complete her final year. Her goal is to connect her undergraduate thesis to the mission and development of Voyaj. Her Div III focuses on the intersection of the sharing economy and cultural encounters.
El Baggari explains that unlike such platforms as Airbnb, Voyaj will not be based on monetary exchange between hosts because, she says, “money is a barrier to meaningful relationships. Our values are ‘give give get.’ You can't just take; you have to give.”
Thanks to the hospitality of strangers, her interest in people, and her outgoing personality, in the past five years El Baggari has been to 38 states and 40 countries, welcomed by people who support her goals.
“As I travel, I tell people about my dreams to see the world. I meet people, we strike up a conversation and find we have common interests, and often they invite me to stay at their home. I invite them and their friends to stay at my home in Morocco,” says El Baggari. “I’ve stayed with families, farmers, and truck drivers, and even visited Richard Branson’s home in Marrakech. My dream today is for other people to experience the world, if that’s what they would like to do. If you’re open to the world, the world opens up to you. What matters is good relationships with people.”
El Baggari plans to advance cultural understanding using proprietary technology to provide an affordable way for people to experience other cultures. “I’m building the world’s first serendipity engine,” she says. “I believe in allowing serendipity to happen in your life.”
Her intensive intercultural experience began during her participation in the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program, funded by the US State Department, which provides scholarships for students aged 14 to 17 from countries with significant Muslim populations to spend one academic year in the United States. The program was established by Congress in October 2002 in response to the events of 9/11. Students live with host families, attend high school, develop leadership skills, and forge friendships across cultures.
El Baggari's State Department scholarship brought her to live in Overland Park, Kansas, where for one year she attended Blue Valley Northwest High School.
Since then, intercultural exchange has quickly grown from a passion to a vocation, as well as an area of academic scholarship. In 2013, she received a Global Migration Grant to travel to 15 countries in Europe and interview Arab/Muslim students on the topic of the culture of integration. “That experience taught me about myself, and about honoring my values without having to assimilate “ El Baggari says.
Her Division III thesis will detail the model for Voyaj and the proprietary technology that will inform its operation. On her advisory committee are Professors Omar Dahi, Lee Spector, Will Ryan, Vika Gardner, and Daniel Ross. The development of Voyaj’s digital platform is being supported by a $59,000 grant awarded in 2014 by Hampshire College’s Seed Fund for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, made possible by a $1 million gift to the College by alum Michael Vlock.
This fall, national media outlets began to recognize El Baggari’s accomplishments, visit: