Alumni Entrepreneurs

JCU Alumna Emily Salm, Co-founder of Ubumm

February 2, 2015 Emily

Emily Salm graduated from John Cabot University in 2008 with a BA in International Affairs and a minor in Italian Studies. In 2011 she launched Ubumm along with fellow JCU alumna Maryann Klucevsek. Ubumm is a platform that aims to meet the networking needs of the growing study abroad market.

What is the business concept behind your company?
Ubumm is a mobile and web platform that connects study abroad students wherever they find themselves. By creating networking events through the apps, students can instantly connect to the study abroad scene in their area. Our web platform also allows new ways for universities to communicate with their student body, and businesses to communicate with individuals that could benefit the most from their travel-related services.

My partner Maryanne and I remember being students at JCU and the irony that we encountered on a daily basis when we ran into students from our hometowns attending other programs and/or universities in our area. We knew that there had to be a way to connect with each other ahead of time. So many opportunities were lost! Finding roommates, language exchange buddies, selling old textbooks, traveling on the weekends – these are just some of the needs and habits of study abroad students that needed a closer look. This is where Ubumm comes in handy.

What are the positive and negative aspects of owning a business, especially at such a young age?
Growing up in a family of entrepreneurs, I always thought that I wanted a different, more stable lifestyle; however, after a few office jobs I realized I was not cut for that life. I wanted to be able to take an idea from the concept phase to execution swiftly, without interference or long chains of command: this is by far the best part of being an entrepreneur! When you put yourself out there you also learn a lot about yourself and work every day to challenge your limitations.

Hands-down, the hardest part of launching a business, although I wouldn't say negative, is doing it with a load of student loans on your back. I can't tell you how many graduates I've met with great business ideas that they may never see to fruition. When my colleague and I started Ubumm we both moved home with our parents (and still are home!) in order to free up as much capital as possible to invest in our company. All of these challenges have taught us the true meaning of perseverance, one of the most valuable assets in life. As such, I can't call these struggles negative because I continue to learn so much every day.

An unexpected lesson learned in the process?
Having lived in Italy for nearly eight years combined, Maryann and I had a pretty good grasp of what was lacking during our experience. We also were able to use our time abroad to build a range of strong professional relationships. However, the idea behind Ubumm has evolved significantly since it first took root. At first it is hard to accept that the original concept is not THE idea, but over time you end up poking lots of holes into it and realize that it is changing. It is important to be open to these changes and evolve with them rather than try to force a square peg into a round hole.

Did the experience at John Cabot help you?
Without a doubt my time at JCU helped me grow in many ways. Most importantly, living abroad taught me how to adapt. Exposing yourself to new cultures and new ways of doing things naturally puts you in a position to grow. I didn't realize how much it had helped me until I found myself dealing with similar situations, just different contexts, with Ubumm. Maryann and I had similar experiences abroad, we understand each other's value systems and goals in life, and we adapt really well to situations, which makes scaling our company together feel more like an adventure than a stressful job. Fortunately these experiences have laid the foundation for a great partnership.

How do you expect to grow in the future?
We are eager to start involving more universities, students, and businesses into our pilot program, so as to expand our reach. At the same time, we also believe that staying true to your company's mission is a strong pathway to success. We both come from middle-class families that struggled to put us through college. Along our journey we met handfuls of students in similar economic situations that sidelined the study abroad experience because it was financially out of reach. We look forward to building a Ubumm scholarship program that will get more students off the sidelines and exploring the world through study abroad opportunities offered by schools like JCU.

How did you think of this business concept?
...over a bottle of Barbera wine in Milan! Maryann and I graduated at one of the worst times to find a job – right smack in the middle of the Great Recession. We were applying to dozens of jobs every week. Most of the time we never heard back from prospective employers, not even with an automated reply; something that drove us both crazy! At a certain point we had had enough. While reminiscing about our time abroad the conversation drifted to the things that we felt we lacked or missed out on. A recurring theme was missing out on connecting to the larger study abroad community around us. The next day we picked the name, Ubumm, and ran with it. We haven't stopped since.

What advice would you give to young graduates interested in international business experiences?
My favorite class at JCU was Professor Gray's 1960s class. Not only was Prof. Gray's class fascinating from a historical perspective, but I felt that the knowledge I gained prepared me for life more than any other class I took.One afternoon the class began a lively discussion about what we could do to make a difference in society like Prof. Gray's generation did in the 1960s. Prof. Gray put it to us so simply and so eloquently. It just made sense. He said, "Pick a cause and make it your cause. Pick a cause, and make it your cause. Don't be risk averse." Every day I remind myself of my cause and I chase it as if it's the only thing that matters. For now I'll have to borrow Prof. Gray's wisdom for young graduates – I hope he doesn't mind! (And if you haven't joined his 1960s class yet you don't know what you are missing!)