African-Americans are reconnecting with Africa in a very special way, thanks to Ashley Company

BY Ben Ebuka Oji February 12, 2024 12:45 PM EDT
Ashley N. Company of Jelani Travels. Photo Credit: Ashley N. Company

There is a yearning that resonates deep within the hearts of many in African diaspora to trace back their heritage, to walk on African soil and to see the place that was home to the forebears. Within this narrative of longing and rediscovery, Ashely N. Company emerges as a guardian and a trailblazer of cultural resurgence through her business Jelani Travel.

With each itinerary meticulously crafted, Company infuses her passion for connection and belonging into every step of the voyage. Through her endeavors, she doesn’t merely facilitate trips; she engineers transformative experiences, weaving together threads of history, tradition, and kinship to form a tapestry of reconnection. As travelers embark on their odyssey, they embark not only on a physical journey but on a soul-stirring pilgrimage—a testament to the enduring power of ancestral ties and the indomitable spirit of the human soul.

Company’s success story traces back to her maternal lineage. Just a few generations removed from chattel slavery in Mississippi, her grandmother found herself in East St. Louis, Illinois, seeking to escape poverty while pregnant with her [Company’s] mom at 15. Joining the Air Force became her grandmother’s ticket out of poverty, setting the stage for breaking the cycle of poverty in the family.

Years later, when Company’s mom gave birth to her at 19, Company faced her struggles and opted to enlist in the military for financial stability. Unbeknownst to her, the deliberate choices made by her maternal ancestors laid a unique groundwork for her life.

At the age of 7, her childhood memories revolved around visiting her grandparents in Adana, Turkey, where they were stationed for military duty.

“I can remember actively learning how to count to 10 in Turkish so that I could play hide-and-seek with the kids next door,” she reminisced.

After a few years, her mother’s military posting took them to South Korea, where she absorbed pivotal teachings that have molded her into the person she is today. Experiencing the world at such a young age inspired her to shatter the cycle of teen pregnancy within her family and become the first to earn a degree from an HBCU.

These global adventures also illuminated her early awareness of the privileges afforded to Americans despite the pervasive oppression of systemic racism. These experiences abroad deepened her capacity for empathy and fueled her determination to assist others.

“Travel instilled in me a thirst for knowledge and a deep interest in exploring more places to connect with more humans – because, at the core, it is our humanity that binds us.”

However, despite embarking on numerous travel adventures across Europe, Asia, and South America during her young adult years, the prevailing media narratives and stereotypes about the African continent deterred her from considering a visit to the Motherland.

“I could conceptualize that all the places they named couldn’t be as bad as the news outlets made them out to be, but I also couldn’t fully imagine that I could travel there because there wasn’t the safety net of a military base nearby or a personal human reference point. The only movies about Africa I’d seen were of war and famine; and even if I could mentally break through all of the propaganda, could I actually afford it?”

Fast forward to age 25, Company struck up a friendship with a Kenyan family who ran a restaurant in the neighborhood where she worked. She got intrigued by their tales of their homeland’s wonders, and they extended an invitation for her to visit, stating that she only needed to cover her flight expenses. Unaware of Company’s profound passion for travel, the family was stunned when Company promptly purchased her flight ticket on the same day.

“My experience in Kenya was transformational, eye-opening, and life-changing. It was at that moment that I knew I would never be the same. I had finally experienced my Black birthright and it was Black is King in every way,” she said. “Not because Kings and Queens were adorning themselves and lining the streets in gold; but because I embodied that magical-feeling that’s hard to explain until you have it for yourself. That connected-to-the-earth-feeling of pure joy as you bask in a sea of beautiful Blackness, digest fresh food, and listen to music that your soul has somehow heard before.”

In Nairobi, she found herself surrounded by the subtleties that had been lacking in her US experiences, saturating the commercials and billboards. Witnessing her reflection in this cultural landscape was a profound gift to her subconscious.

“The fact that I had made it this far and got to be in this place was revolutionary.”

The unparalleled and breathtaking experience of African culture and closeness to traditional African homes created a nostalgic feeling. It became the defining moment that convinced her to replicate this opportunity for other Blacks in the diaspora.

“I knew before I left Kenya that I would return to the African continent, and bring people with me. I couldn’t keep this experience to myself–especially after what it gave me.”

A year later, she launched Jelani Girls and led her inaugural cohort of girls to Ghana, marking the beginning of her tourism business. Two years later, she expanded her vision to encompass Black women, and that was how Jelani Travels was born.

A Decade of Enviable Success

Fast forward to 2024, Jelani Travels commemorates its 10th anniversary of operation. The highly acclaimed travel company has meticulously crafted over 600 travel experiences, traversing over 100 countries across six continents. This milestone celebration epitomizes a decade of unwavering dedication to promoting cultural understanding and social impact. Since its inception, the company, owned by a Black woman, has remained steadfast in reshaping perceptions of Africa for individuals of African descent, leading transformative journeys to numerous destinations and leaving an enduring legacy. Renowned brands such as Google, Mailchimp, Lyft, Uber, and others have entrusted the founder and CEO of Jelani Travels, Ashley N. Company, to curate unique speaking engagements and travel experiences for their employees.

Hailed as the ultimate purposeful vacation, travelers partake in service activities while indulging in Africa in ways previously beyond imagination. Jelani Travel emphasizes four essential components—self-care, service, culture, and adventure—to deliver high-quality, transformative experiences.

Beyond Profit-taking

Going beyond mere profit-seeking, driven by an unwavering commitment to forge a brighter future and authentic identity for the Black diaspora, Company has set forth another altruistic aim: a deeper connection between African American children and their African heritage. This endeavor has resulted in the establishment of Jelani Gives, a 501c3 nonprofit organization created “as a labor of love.”

Acknowledging the necessity for underserved children to break free from the cyclical constraints of their socio-economic circumstances, Company has remained resolute in her mission to offer youth a chance to broaden their horizons beyond their immediate surroundings. Recognizing the diverse pathways to cultivate well-rounded individuals and community leaders, Jelani Gives empowers youth aged 11 and older to strive for excellence through cultural exploration and reconnection with Black history, viewed through the prism of continental Africa. This is facilitated through its online learning initiative called Passport to Cultural Freedom, a self-paced online learning program.

Jelani Travel and Jelani Gives have the same clear objective of connecting Black adults and youth to their African heritage, offering exclusive chances to explore their cultural roots and establish lasting relationships.

Additionally, the Passport to Cultural Freedom program offers students with American citizenship the opportunity to apply for and obtain their own US passport. Since 2021, Jelani Gives has raised funds to deliver educational programming and US passports to 164 students and continues to do so.

“We envision a world where Black American youth have access to world-class, culturally-competent learning experiences that grow their understanding of history, expand their world views, and develop their leadership capacity, regardless of where they live or come from.”

Company is also a social entrepreneur and a motivational storyteller, known for her inspiring speeches on Black identity, African tourism, cultural competence, and women in leadership. She is the author of the Amazon bestseller, Travel·ish: Black Women Around the World, establishing her as a prominent figure in the literary world.