Bio: Emily Moberly is the founder and executive director of Traveling Stories, a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to “outsmarting poverty one book at a time”. Since 2010 Emily and her team have established international libraries in El Salvador, Nicaragua, South Sudan and the Philippines, and one literacy program in San Diego. She created a “Reading is Sexy” merchandise line that, so far, has sold in more than 41 states and 12 countries. Next Emily will begin offering Traveling Stories Social Franchises for those who want to start a library or Story Tent program, but don’t want the trouble of starting their own nonprofit.
Just months after Forbes magazine called her one of the “Top 10 Female Entrepreneurs to Watch in San Diego,” Emily was nominated for the San Diego Business Journal’s “Women Who Mean Business Award”. She has been invited to share her story at University’s across the U.S.
Emily is Series 7 licensed and is in the process of getting her TESL certification.
Prior to Traveling Stories, Emily enjoyed successful stints at Litton Financial and the San Diego Reader. She also wrote for several local and international award-winning publications. Emily holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from John Brown University, and a certificate in Community Development and African Studies from Mukono Christian University in Uganda.
Emily is affiliated with the John Brown University Alumni Association, TEAM Networking group and the San Diego Council on Literacy. Her favorite books to read as a young girl were Nancy Drew mysteries.
Zephan: Zephan Blaxberg here with another round of the Year of Purpose podcast, and today I’m joined by Emily Moberly, and Emily is the founder and executive director of Traveling Stories, a 501c3 non-profit organization dedicated to outsmarting poverty one book at a time. Since 2010, Emily and her team have established international libraries in El Salvador, Nicaragua, South Soudan, the Philipines—and one literacy program in San Diego. She created a Reading Is Sexy merchandise line that so far has sold in more than forty-one states and twelve countries, and next she will begin offering Traveling Stories social franchises for those who want to start a library or story tent program but don’t what the trouble of starting their own non-profit.
Just months after Forbes magazine called her one of the Top 10 Female Entrepreneurs to Watch in San Diego, she was nominated for the San Diego Business Journal’s Women Who Mean Business Award. She’s been invited to share her story at universities across the US, and today she’s gonna share her story with us. What’s going on?
Emily: Uh, not much! Just excited to be here.
Zephan: Yeah! So I met you through another person we interviewed on the podcast, Kolby from the Job Huntr. And basically, when we first started talking, there was this person walking around in the background of the episode, and I was like “Oh, who’s that?” and he told me what you were doing, and I was like “Oh my god, we definitely need to talk” because it sounds like you really found something purposeful and meaningful in your life and really chased after it. So I’d love for you to explain just a little bit more about what Traveling Stories is and then maybe we’ll dive into how it all got started.
Emily: Yeah, definitely. So traveling stories is a non-profit, like you said, and our goal is to help kids fall in love with reading and to help them become confident readers, and also to provide access to books in places where kids don’t have books. And that’s kind of where it all started. I don’t know about you, but I love reading, and as a child, some of my favorite moments were just being tucked in. my mom would read to me every night, I always saw my parents reading. My best friend, growing up, was Nancy Drew—it took me a long time to say that without being embarrassed.
And so when I left college, I moved to Central America and that was the first time that I realized that kids didn’t have that same experience, that a lot of kids in the world were growing up without access to books, and because books had played such a big part in my life growing up, I was honestly really shocked. I couldn’t imagine being fifteen and never reading Dr. Seuss or never falling in love with Nancy Drew or never having a best friend in a book, having that experience where you can escape everything going on and explore a new world.
When I was a kid, I had—my parents are awesome, my family’s awesome, but I didn’t necessarily have a lot of money…but I never felt like that because, through books, I could travel to Africa, I could travel in time, I had mentors—I had everything that my imagination craved through books. So I think I really took that for granted for most of my life, and then when I realized that it was actually a luxury in places, that’s when things changed for me, and that’s when I started finding a purpose in my life that has taken me on this journey.
Zephan: Very cool. And how many years ago did that start?
Emily: That was five years ago.
Zephan: Wow. So you and I are kind of in the same boat. I left college five years ago, and I was—I was pretty big with reading growing up, I wasn’t the best reader, because ultimately we found out I needed glasses, like after the longest time. Because I used to always fall asleep by like pages two or three of the chapter and my mom would find me passed out at three o’clock in the afternoon and be like “What’s wrong with you?” And so—but later, I because a better reader once I got glasses. But I loved the Goosebumps series. I had, like, all hundred and some books and they’re just making a movie out of it now so I’m super stoked for that. Harold and the Purple Crayon, Where the Wild Things Are—so I was a huge fa, growing up, of all these stories. And Harry Potter. I got totally engulfed by the Harry Potter world. I’d be that guy waiting in line at midnight to get a book.
Emily: It’s amazing. It’s so powerful.
Zephan: You can go into a whole other world. So it’s really interesting to hear from you how your life has kind of mirrored that story of the book, of entering another world. You really entered another world when you traveled to another country.
Zephan: Yeah. And so it’s—we don’t realize how good we have it until we see somebody else who doesn’t have what we have. And it’s really cool that you found this opportunity. So what did you go to college for? And did it have any relation to why you chose to travel?
Emily: That’s a really great question. And I think part of it kind of has to do—so when I was in high school, backing up a little bit farther. When I was in high school one of my mentors challenged me and said “Never make a decision out of fear,” and that was huge for me, because, surprisingly, as a kid, my parents would drag me to Mexico, we’d go visit orphanages, we’d do all these things that I was very uncomfortable doing. And so in high school it sort of started to click. And when my mentor said “Never make a decision out of fear,” I started realizing that a lot of the things that I had been doing in my life—I had been making decision out of fear. Fear of being uncomfortable, fear of the unknown, fear of not having a bathroom—whatever.
And so I went to college in Arkansas, which—I’m from San Diego, so that was kind of a big step for me to leave California, leave my family, go to Arkansas where I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t know the culture. But that was not letting fear dictate my decision. Then I ended up studying journalism, which was kinda more my passion. I wanted to write and I wanted to find a way to tell people stories. I wanted to hold powers accountable and my ultimate goal was to be a foreign correspondent for someone like the BBC. I wanted to go to war-torn areas and find stories of people that weren’t being told and elevate them and help people find their voice, to have power in that way.
And that led me to Uganda, where I got to study abroad and just learn a ton about east African culture and history and literature and about journalists there covering things. So through all of that—I think, as a child, reading gave me a thirst for adventure. And then once I started finally thinking about fear and the role it played in my life and how I didn’t want it to be the deciding factor, that’s when I started having real adventures of my own.
And I never thought that I would start a non-profit. I really, really wanted to be a journalist. And now, looking back, I can see how all of those experiences and all those classes really play a role in what I do now with Traveling Stories. Like, I didn’t see it then—it wasn’t until I was in Central America and I was teaching and my students had no books that I started to remember back to Uganda and realize like “Wow, all those kids that I interacted with also didn’t have books,” and—I don’t know, all the pieces started coming together. I don’t know if that makes sense or not, but.
Zephan: Yeah. I mean, you really can’t tell until it’s already passed you by. So there’s no way to look ahead and “Oh, well, if I decide to eat this pizza today, then three years from now, this is gonna happen!”
Emily: Exactly. And I think that’s part of what I’m learning about my purpose. Is I wanted—I thought I know what I wanted to do, and that changed over time, but what didn’t change were my values. So I wanted adventure, I wanted to empower people, I wanted to hold corrupt powers accountable, I wanted to see change in the world, I wanted to make the world a better place. I thought I could do that with journalism, but it turns out I’m able to do it more effectively by giving kids the opportunity to learn how to read and fall in love with reading and really just be empowered, critical thinkers.
So I’m not necessarily writing for a newspaper or telling stories, but I’m giving kids and communities the tools they need to be able to tell their own story, if that makes sense.
Zephan: Yeah, and you also might be enabling them to grow up to be those types of people that do hold the bigger companies accountable, so—
Emily: Yes. Yes, yes! That’s my goal. Hopefully, because a lot of the kids we’re working with in—we’re working with kids internationally, but we’re also working with kids locally, and a big part of reading is critical thinking and engaging what you’re reading and thinking about it. And it’s really exciting to see kids begin to think for themselves and be able to think about “How can I make my community better?” That way, it’s not just some random white girl showing up saying “Hey, you need to do this, this, and this to make your community better,” it’s more like “Hey, here’s tools that help you think more creatively. Let’s invest in your imagination” and then “What problems do you see around you and what can you as a community derive a solution?”
Zephan: Yeah. So—very cool. So you’re not just giving someone a book and then saying “Alright, see ya. Have fun.”
Emily: No—yeah! My hope is—and that’s the thing that’s kind of cool for me personally, is I wouldn’t be who I am if it weren’t for books. Like I’ve had a lot of different jobs over the years, I’ve had a lot of experiences, and most of that has come because I was able to read and train myself and educate myself. And to be able to share that love and share that opportunity with kids all over the world is—I mean, it’s so rewarding.
Zephan: Yeah. No, that’s really awesome. And so where does the story of Traveling Stories begin? Like once you kind of—at some point, you made your way back home from traveling internationally, because you’re definitely not overseas right now. So where does it all begin here and what sort of obstacles do you have in making a non-profit?
Emily: That’s a great question. So I still didn’t—I came back from Honduras and I got a job at a magazine, STILL pursuing journalism a little. I didn’t want to start a non-profit. I wanted to take trips every year and be that weird book lady and just bring books and read with children and have a good time. But as I shared stories with my friends and people in my community in San Diego, they were insistent. They were like “No, you need to do more! Because we want to be a part of this!” and I was like “Augh, okay.”
So I did a bunch of research. I was lucky enough to connect with people who knew how to start a non-profit and, for some reason, wanted to help me for free. They told me to read Starting a Non-Profit For Dummies or whatever—so I was doing all this research and my due diligence and I found out how much it would cost to start a non-profit without a lawyer, and so then I sent a Facebook message to everyone that had been bugging me—it was probably like sixty people—and I said “Here’s the deal. You guys have said I should start this non-profit. Here’s how much it’s gonna cost.” And I said “I don’t want to start a non-profit that’s all about me. I don’t want it to be the Emily Show. I want to know that the community is involved and I want to know that I have support.” So I said “If you guys raise the money, I will commit my time and I will make sure this is a success.”
And I didn’t know if we would—I was like “Whatever, we’ll see what happens.” Within five days, we had raised all the money. And so it was like “Ah! Okay. I’m stuck.” But then it turned into this amazing, amazing thing. It sounds like I didn’t want to do it, that’s not true. It just was—I knew it was gonna be overwhelming, I knew I didn’t know how to run a non-profit. I didn’t know how to start libraries or how to teach kids how to read necessarily.
So that was exciting. And those people are still supporting now, which is amazing. So five years later, they’re still involved and our support base has obviously grown. But the challenges, I think—in the first place just the normal challenges. The paperwork, the fundraising, all of that. But I think more than that, I struggled and continued to struggle just being a woman that looks young. I’m twenty-nine, but I probably look like I’m twenty-five sometimes. And I tend to be pretty enthusiastic and smiley, which I think makes people think that I’m younger and not as experienced. So I really struggle with being taken seriously. And I think everyone who starts a venture struggles with that, whether they’re a man or woman.
But the first couple years, people looked at me and they just saw this naïve, idealistic person. And they thought I would quit. So I think a lot of people didn’t want to donate until they saw my track record. So there was a lot of pressure when I first started to really impact as many kids as possible, do as much as possible. Meanwhile, I had no resources. So that was challenging.
And then this whole time, up until April, I’ve had at least one other job. So until this April, Traveling Stories has been what I do on nights and weekends. So that, in and of itself, is a challenge, too. I think a lot of times people want to start something because it sounds really glamorous, and then it gets really hard and it’s really tempting to give up. Luckily, for me, I have some stories about kids from the very beginning whose lives have changed. And so whenever I felt like giving up, I would just think about those kids and think about how much joy I felt. And that encouraged me to keep going.
And luckily, those stories also compelled other people to get involved.
But I think just getting people to take me serious and to trust that I was legit and that I wasn’t gonna quit—too legit to quit—I think that was a big part. Everyone wants people’s money and so why is my cause any more important than someone else’s? So learning how to communicate that to people but also learning how to have confidence myself. That’s something that I still struggle with.
Zephan: [cut in] I love this episode so far, and I want to take a brief moment to talk about improving yourself each day. I know you’re a huge fan of living life on your own terms, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my journey, we need to constantly grow and look to others who have been in our shoes. Which is why I’ve partnered up with Audible to give you one free download of your choice from over a hundred and eighty thousand books. Start your free thirty days trial but visiting yearofpurpose.com/audible. Now back to the show.
Zephan: It doesn’t sound like you disliked the process of making the non-profit. I think that you realized that it was a huge undertaking and that you were very passionate about it, and as soon as that showed to everyone around you, that’s when they really were like “Alright, well, we’re gonna step in and support you in it.” So I don’t think it was that you disliked that process, but we gotta be real. It’s not an easy process by any means. And so—
Emily: No, not at all. And I think a lot of times, people expect results quickly. And, at least with starting a non-profit, especially when you are relying on volunteers, I had to really change my expectations. I would want to see results, I would want to get our non-profit status immediately, but it took nine months. So I think I started to approach this more as a marathon and less like a sprint. And once I switched that in my head, it became much easier. I realized “Okay, I don’t have to change the world or fix illiteracy by the end of this year. I need to build something that’s gonna last a long time. I need to invest in a strong structure. And I don’t need to meet people who are gonna become a giant donor immediately, I want to develop relationships. I want people to get to know me and get to know our program and grow with us.”
And I think that took a lot of pressure off and really helped—you know, helped everyone to relax and be able to be authentic as opposed to sales pitchy, if that makes sense.
Zephan: Yeah, absolutely. And I can definitely resonate with the whole being young thing. I’m twenty-six and if I don’t shave and I’m not wearing my glasses, I look like I’m fifteen years old. So I get carded everywhere that I go and it’s like—I get the same thing. I run a business and I work with clients on a daily basis and I’m always like the youngest looking guy at the networking events and things like that, so it’s definitely a huge barrier, what people think of you before they even met you. But to that point, I think if you’re passionate enough about what you’re doing and ambition enough, it really shows outwards, then I don’t think people really question whether or not they want to work with you, it’s just kind of a matter of when instead of a matter of if.
Emily: I think you’re right. And that’s one thing—you can’t really control—well, you can influence a first impression, but I think heard work—my board of directors right now is amazing, and I think one of the reasons, if you ask them why they’re on my board, I think they would say they saw how hard I worked and I didn’t expect people to do things for me. I wanted to build a library in South Soudan, the world’s newest country, and so I went and I did it. I hired a guard with an AK-47 to sit on a box of books and drive them from Uganda to South Soudan.
I think if you—like you said, if you’re ambitious and you’re focused on your goal and you’re not scared to work hard, that’s gonna attract people, no matter how old you are or how experienced you are.
Zephan: Yeah, absolutely. And so you’ve built a pretty cool organization so far. You’ve been working on it for quite some time. I guess the question comes up, because so many people want to know how they profit off of their passion, tell me a little bit about what you’ve had to do. It sounds like there’s been some jobs involved on the side and things like that. So how has that balance worked out for you, between working both for the non-profit and for yourself?
Emily: It’s been really challenging. But I think, personally, it’s been very good. So I started the non-profit in 2010 and I was working full time. And at that point, I wanted Traveling Stories to grow, but I wasn’t sure I wanted it to be my career. I was thinking perhaps I’d hire somebody, perhaps I’d be involved in the parts that I loved. And Traveling Stories naturally just grew. Obviously, I work super hard on it, because I wanted it to be successful and I’d made a promise to all those first donors. But really, what happened—and then after that, I got a job in finance, and Traveling Stories continued to grow, grow, grow. Like we were having more libraries, we were having more story tents, we were having more donors, more events, it was taking more time.
So I was working forty to fifty hours at my job-job, the one that paid me money, and then I was working another thirty or forty hours on Traveling Stories. So eventually, it just came to a point where I was just so exhausted. But the crazy thing is I would be so exhausted, but I would want to work on Traveling Stories. So I started realizing this is what drives me, this is—and I think that’s where I started to see “Wow, this is my purpose.” And that’s when I quit my fulltime job and took a leap of faith and it was super scary, because I didn’t know if I would be able to make ends meet. But I think that also inspired people to step up. And so we attracted some people who made larger donations.
With a non-profit, I think it’s a little tricky, because we’re not necessarily selling a product, we’re not providing a service to people who are paying for the service. We’re really relying on donors, on grants, on events, things like that. So, honestly, I just feel really, really lucky that I’m now getting paid and I only have one job, Traveling Stories, and I feel like it’s just luck. I mean, granted, it’s been a lot of hard work, it’s been collecting really good board members, it’s been filling out a ton of grant applications. We probably have filled out hundreds and only gotten like four, but I don’t know if that—I don’t really know, it’s a hard question for me to answer. It’s been a really tough road and I feel so lucky that I only have this one job. It feels like a dream come true. It feels like a dream come true. It feels like it can be taken away at any moment.
And I think right now, what we’re doing as a team, we’re really focusing on how do we almost productize our programs in a way that is appealing to corporate social responsibility departments and how do we convince people to partner with us long term. And part of that is making people aware of the problem. So illiteracy in the US is ridiculously underrepresented. It’s a really big issues that people don’t know about. So making people more aware of that, and then making it more appealing for corporations, especially, to give us money to provide that solution.
So that’s the direction we’re heading and I think—I think a lot of people think that there isn’t enough money to go around, and I disagree. I think there is enough money to go around but I think you have to be smart and strategic and I think you have to have a good program. So that’s—I don’t know if that answers your question, but that’s kinda where we’re at and that’s kinda how we got here.
Zephan: Yeah. Would you say that your amount of luck directly correlates to the amount of hard work that you put in? Cause you call yourself lucky, but it sounds like you worked really hard for it.
Emily: Yes, but I mean—yeah, I would say it directly correlates to my hard work. But I think, too—I know my mom prays for me every day. I know I have a team of other people who pray, so I think, partially it’s hard work, but I think partially it’s just—you know. I don’t know! I like to think it’s luck. I don’t think it’s all hard work, but I definitely have worked very hard. So if that’s it, then awesome.
And if that’s it, then that means anyone can do it. Which I do believe. And that’s one reason why I love what I do with traveling stories, because I’m working with all these kids who, when I first meeting them, they don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. They—the only role models they have are the people in their small community, which are usually low income communities. But after they come into our program week after week and they interact with these volunteers who are doctors, they’re moms, they’re all these different people, their world view is enlarged in such a huge way.
And I feel like I’m a living example of that. Being able to read and being willing to work hard can literally take you wherever you want to go. And so that’s what I hope the kids who come to our program take away. Because they literally—I believe every person can be whatever they want to be if they’re willing to work for it.
Zephan: Yeah. That’s a pretty cool way to go about it. I mean, I 100% agree with you. I think that everyone can look at where they are, where they’d like to go, and the in-between and what it takes to get there. I always share the story of when I was getting ready to quit my job, I had no clue how I would make up thirty thousand dollars a year, and someone really broke it down and said “How much would you need to make in a day?” Not in a year, in a day. And it was like eighty-three dollars. And it was like “Really…? Eighty bucks in a day? I can figure that out.”
Emily: Yeah! Yeah, definitely. It’s doable.
Zephan: It’s so doable.
Emily: It goes back to the whole making a decision out of fear. If the only thing—once you realize the only thing keeping you from quitting that job is fear, then it’s easier to be like “Okay, we’ll I don’t want fear to rule my life. I want myself to rule my life. I want my dreams to rule my life. I want my aspirations and my ambitions.” And then having faith in yourself. You know you did it, you know you can do it. I did it, somehow, with help and hard work.
And I think all of that is—a lot of times people look at Traveling Stories and they just see it as a book thing or a literacy thing. But it’s what we’ve been talking about. It’s so much more than that. It’s inspiring people and empowering—it’s empowering kids to be the best they can be. It’s believing in them when no one else does and it’s giving them the tools they need to make their goals happen.
Zephan: Yeah. Well, I definitely think you need to open up an east coast office over here, because Baltimore’s actually known as the City That Reads and you should definitely be taking advantage of that. I think you have a great thing going there. I’m curious to hear, what do you see five years from now? How about, where would you like to be personally and then where would you like the organization to be?
Emily: That’s so much fun to think about. I—five years from now, I would love Traveling Stories to be a national organization. Right now, we’re involved in California, but there is such a great need for illiteracy support in communities across the US. Like, over two-thirds of fourth graders in our country cannot read at grade level, which I find ridiculous. So I would like to be—I’d like to play a major role in that. I want Traveling Stories to be a leader when it comes to improving grade level reading among kids in America.
I’d like to have our story tents in communities all across the US. I’d like to focus on that between now and the next five years. I’d like to continue to support our international libraries, but I’d like to focus more effort here in America. Because when I think about it, if we’re empowering kids here to not only value reading more but become more competent and more confident readers, they could turn into ambassadors who can share their love of reading with kids internationally.
Personally, I would like to be doing less admin and less of the nitty-gritty. I’d like to have a team—it looks like we’re going to hire our first part-time employee next month, which is a huge deal. So I’d like to grow our team, I’d like to have at least a couple people on staff so that it can be more involved in speaking and just kind of training and working with our partners all across the US and all across the world. And I’d like to write a book. And I would like to continue to learn and position myself as kind of an expert on literacy, especially literacy among pre-school to third grade children. So I feel like, nowadays—I mean, this might be mean to say, but I feel like there are lots of conferences that talk about education and about literacy in the US, but most of them are represented by older librarian types. And I think there’s a real—there’s a space for somebody younger and more enthusiastic and a little bit crazy, and I would like to take that place.
Zephan: Well, I think you kinda have to be a little bit crazy to be willing to quit your job and start a non-profit and help people across the world, but I admire it. And congrats to you for everything that you built over the last few years.
It’s been really great chatting with you. I’d love to share with everybody listening in what’s the best way to keep track of what’s going on with Traveling Stories and how can they help out?
Emily: Thank you for asking! The best way would probably be to follow us on Facebook. That’s where we post the most updates. So that’s facebook.com/travelingstories. The other best place would be our website, which is travelingstories.org. You can find information about starting a story tent, volunteering, of course donating.
I’d like to point out, too—everyone always wants to know how much money goes directly to the programs, and at Traveling Stories, at least ninety-two cents of every dollars goes directly toward helping kids become great readers. So that’s something we’re super proud of. But, yeah, our Facebook page or our website are the best way to reach us.
Zephan: Good deal. Well, thanks for spending some time with me today. For everyone listening, if you’re interested, definitely check out those websites. And I guess we’ll be catching up here again with you very soon.
Emily: Awesome. Thanks for the time and thanks for having me. It’s been fun.