Our story

Since 2003.

The story of ZI starts with the story of its Founder, Lauren Zelek.

Born in Upstate NY and raised in Tokyo since age eleven, Lauren spent much of her

youth traveling back and forth between the U.S. and Japan. There she developed a deep fascination and love for Japanese culture, language, customs and traditions, traveling to other parts of Asia, as well as a desire and respect for helping others understand and navigate cultural differences between the East and the West.

In 2016, Lauren traveled to the Summer Games in Rio and a light bulb turned on. She wondered, in addition to the strenuous physical training athletes undergo to make it to the Games, if they as well as support staff experienced cultural training to make for a richer travel experience.

In February 2017, Lauren relocated to Colorado Springs and became a Hiking Guide at the Broadmoor where she ultimately founded ZI in August 2017. Preparing for the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, Lauren and her team worked and counseled with hundreds of Japan-bound American athletes and Olympians (from as far back as 1964) and their families, identifying ways to support their unique travel concerns and goals.

Lauren returned to Tokyo multiple times to meet with various international and domestic partners, from hotels and ryokans to transportation operators. She was able to share with ZI's clients everything from navigating Tokyo's complex train system, to traveling throughout Japan and avoiding any faux pas when interacting with locals.

Sadly, the Covid-19 pandemic almost brought the entire industry to a halt. But that didn't stop us from pivoting as a team and continue to serve as a bridge between the West and East through the art and science of travel.

Now, with international travelers ready to explore again and Japan fully open, the ZI team is back in the saddle and committed to educating its travelers on ways to be a culturally sensitive, responsible traveler to many amazing destinations throughout the country and soon, others parts of Asia.

Our mission

To inspire and impact the world through culturally-intelligent (CQ), sustainable and responsible travel.

Our values










Our team

Lauren Zelek

Founder & Chief Experience Officer

Upon moving from Japan, Lauren graduated from the University of Richmond, VA in 2013 and worked for various organizations in Washington D.C. before diving into the world of entrepreneurship. In 2015, she crowdfunded "Today's International Student Experience" and joined a cohort of social entrepreneurs on a journey across transcontinental U.S. with the Millennial Train Project. She then co-founded and launched an initiative with the Embassy of Japan, aimed at supporting Japanese "Third Culture Kids" as well as a travel app prior to attending the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. In winter 2017, Lauren relocated to Colorado where she eventually launched ZI while working as a Hiking Guide for the Broadmoor. Since then, she has been splitting time between Colorado and Japan to continuing building and fostering relationships with travelers, partners, suppliers and local guides. Lauren is a lifelong yogi and explorer, and loves to spend her downtime visiting family and friends, reading, sipping fine vino, and with Mother Nature.

Engage with Lauren on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.

Casey Bales

Head of Operations

Bio coming soon.

Mie Beech

Head of People & Training

Bio coming soon.

Jasmine Abioje

Office Manager

Bio coming soon.

Aki Grill

Sustainability Intern

Aki is an Environmental Studies major at Lawrence University, with a passion for promoting sustainable practices and protecting the environment. Originally from Colorado, Aki's upbringing included attending a Japanese hoshūkō on Sundays, which fostered his appreciation for cultural diversity. With multiple visits to Japan to visit family, he has developed a deep love for the country. Aki's favorite Japanese food is takoyaki, and he particularly enjoys spending time in Izukogen, a popular resort destination near Itō. In addition to his academic pursuits, Aki demonstrates strong leadership skills as the captain of the soccer team and actively contributes to the LIGHT (Lawrentians Inspiring Global Health Together) Club. Through these experiences, he has honed his ability to collaborate effectively and navigate complex challenges. Aki's dedication to environmental advocacy extends beyond his studies, as he aspires to make a meaningful impact by promoting sustainability in various professional settings.


ZI is an active member of the U.S.-Japan and travel sectors. We are proud members of the following organizations:

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