How Tour Operator Invisible Cities Is Helping the Homeless.

Zakia Moulaoui of Invisible Cities has built an entire enterprise around employing the homeless to give walking tours of their cities. Read on to see how she has developed this incredible business with a focus on breaking homelessness around the world.

What is Social Enterprise?

Zakia describes social enterprise as a hybrid of two types of organizations. A charity or an organization led by a social mission which is also a business venture. Invisible Cities is a social enterprise. She supports people and puts 100% of their profits into their social mission, which is to support people who have experienced homelessness and break down the stereotypes that exist around homelessness.

The First Spark for Invisible Cities

Zakia lives in Scotland and used to work with other organizations, which mainly supported homeless people. This was her first experience working with homeless people, and she didn’t know what being homeless meant. This made her realize that many people had unique and differing stories.

Even though each person had an individual story, everyone felt the stigma of homelessness and abuse as a result of their social standing. Zakia wanted to start her project to support homelessness. So, in 2015 when she went to Greece and picked up Street Magazine – a publication that offers local tours given by the homeless – she was inspired by this model. When she returned to the UK, Zakia wanted to create a similar company. From this spark of an idea, Zakia decided to take the lead and build her new company, Invisible Cities.

The first thing Zakia did was to talk to as many people as she could about the idea and ask their input on how she could create this model on a tight budget. “I don’t come from a business background. The business element was something that I had to learn as I went along. In Scotland, the entrepreneur world is very collaborative and nurturing.”

Funding for Social Enterprise

Zakia approached others in the hope of rallying financial support. She looked at grant funding, government support, local funding, and big corporations. Zakia found a partner in Edinburgh Airport’s Community Fund. I didn’t even have a bank account when they agreed to give us a small grant. “I had a bit of cash to spend on leaflets and a bit of website development and online marketing.”

Zakia sent out surveys to everyone she knew. Then she decided to approach Craig, her ex-boss and asked him for funding. Craig replied that he needed to see an actual tour if she wanted him to fund her new idea. “I think the minute we had our first tour, it was a lot easier for people to understand what we do, how we work, and to get a feel of the company and our ethos.”

Recruiting New Tour Guides

“Once we had that first round of training and that first door on the ground, then things changed.” Zakia used her network connections with charity organizations to speak with the benefactors of these charities and recruited her first group of four people for the first round of training. Sonny from the original group is still with Invisible Cities today!

Others she recruited, however, were not so excited about putting themselves out there and speaking in front of people. Some who said they would meet Zakia for a tour were no shows. “I had to knock on doors and say, why are you not here? And people were like, oh, I’m too busy. I always tried to be really honest and everything that I do and I think that’s how people reacted. They were like, okay, I get what you want, and no it’s not for me, or yes, I’ll give it, I’ll give it a try.”

The Invisible Cities Tour Guide Training Programme

Zakia asked other guides and companies which invested in Invisible Cities what they would need for their tour company. Each had their suggestion, which she used to build her program. The Storytelling Center, university teachers, and tutors came on board and were passionate about passing their passion for storytelling along to our guides.

One crucial factor was the storytelling. “They tell their own stories in their own words. If they don’t want to talk about their personal experience of homelessness, that’s fine… we need to respect that.” The guides were able to own their own stories in their own words.

Airbnb enrolled Air Experiences for London in March of 2018. Zaria contacted them and said, “I know you’re looking into Edinburgh as a second location. Here’s what we do. I would love to be an Airbnb experience.” She loves Air and says her experience with them has been absolutely amazing. “I think they’re really up for doing more collaborative work.” Getting on board with Air b’n’b has been a big piece of the puzzle for Invisible Cities and 100% of the ticket price returns to their organization. wanted to team up with Invisible Cities. Zaria took her guides to Manchester, where she was able to take advantage of their training venue. has been open to a continuing partnership with IC, and Zaria is looking forward to more collaborative experiences with her new partners.

Zaria’s Business Advice for Building Your Tour Company

“I believe that people do business with other people. They don’t do business with other businesses. So when they come and speak to us and I, going back to honesty, I try to say, no, I can’t manage 4,000 of your staff members coming and volunteering and no, we don’t need another webinar on doing this because we don’t have the capacity to implement it. But what we need is a couple of people coming on half a day to support us with that.” She advises anyone who is trying to engage with another company to give clear direction. “It’s a lot easier for them to say, yep, okay, I’ll do this. No problem.” Make sure to have a specific ask which fills an immediate need when approaching a company and be focused on what you want for the next step of your business.

Listen in to find out more about how Zaria structures pay for her tour guides, her advice on how to handle feedback for new tour guides, how she scales to other cities and how she went about making her toughest decision – choosing her online booking platform in the full podcast episode here.