UBELONG Founder Cedric Hodgeman was recently interviewed and featured by Cornell University’s Entrepreneurship @ Dyson, an online magazine that highlights startup stories. Here is the full text of Cedric’s interview. Enjoy!
Finding International Volunteering Opportunities and Creating a Travel Lifestyle Clothing Brand with Cedric Hodgeman ‘04
Not many people think of social responsibility when they think of becoming full-time entrepreneurs, but Cedric Hodgeman, Co-Founder of UBELONG and the UBELONG Shop, begs to differ. Entrepreneurship @ Dyson caught up with Cedric to learn what made him move from a career on Wall Street to starting UBELONG and the UBELONG Shop. UBELONG, launched in 2009, is a social organizations that enables people to find volunteering opportunities all around the world. The UBELONG Shop, just launched in 2017, is a travel lifestyle clothing brand.
How did UBELONG come about?
Cedric: After college I went to work on Wall Street. I had absolutely zero passion for working on Wall Street, but I had lots of student debt and I understood that Wall Street could be a valuable stepping-stone to other things.
Having that solid finance experience has given me a lot of important hard-skills in starting companies. Plus, while the vast majority of the people I met on Wall Street were incredibly good, kind and talented people, and I still keep in touch with many of them, there was that one percent of people who really made you wonder if Patrick Bateman from American Psycho had just walked through the door. But learning to deal with that one percent, especially when some were your bosses, proved to be incredibly valuable training for what I believe is one of the most important characteristics of a successful entrepreneur: knowing how to deal with all people, especially the jerks.
In 2008 I had paid back most of my student debt and decided to take a year off and travel the world. I wanted to get out there and live in the moment. No plans, no itineraries. Just me, a backpack, a couple thousand dollars and this pounding feeling in my gut that I would only become the best version of me if totally stepped out of society and did exactly the opposite of what I thought every 25 year old, middle-class Ivy League business student was supposed to do.
With that said though, at that point in my life I had still not totally pushed out of my head society’s nagging little voice telling me to stay “on track” and do “what everybody else is doing”. So, I had hedged myself by getting accepted into MBA programs and deferring the entrance for a year. In case I didn’t come out of my travels with some new life-changing revelation, or, as I realize now, the confidence to realize that I actually didn’t even need one of those life-changing revelations to carve my own way, I would be able to walk back into an MBA program and the spinning corporate wheel. My hedge proved to be a good move: it quieted society’s voice in my head so that the voice in my head that really mattered, my voice, could come through loud and clear.
So, fast-forward, and the trip did change my life. I came back home after a year, but it had been a one-way ticket. I visited three continents and got lots of cool stamps in my passport. I had more fun than I’d rather admit. I made enough memories to make sure I’ll never run out of stories when I have grandchildren. But, most importantly, I totally changed my outlook on the world, others and myself. Looking back on it I realize that that trip was basically one beautiful meditation lasting a year – the past and future meant nothing, only the moment did. I barely had any stuff, and I woke up every day just looking to make new friendships, new memories. It’s no surprise then that I probably did become the best version of me during that trip, and out of that moment in time came beautiful friendships and a new career. And, most importantly, meeting my rock, my everything, my future wife.
But anyway, enough with the romantic stuff, you’re asking about my career! So, it was in Peru that the inspiration for UBELONG came. I was volunteering in a school doing everything from teaching to helping to renovate classrooms. I was giving to others but in fact receiving much more myself. It was a very profound experience that made me realize I wanted to keep doing my little part to make the world a better place. And it also made me see a big social business opportunity. At the time, the only ways to volunteer abroad were either through the Peace Corps or private tourism companies. The Peace Corps is impact-driven, well run and free (well, at least to Peace Corps volunteers, the rest of us taxpayers are footing the bill), but it’s only open to US citizens and requires a two and a half year commitment. The tourism companies bring you flexibility; you can go with them for as little as a day. However, they’re extremely expensive and most are clueless on how to actually make sure you’re making a real impact. They’ll drop you into a school or daycare someplace for an hour and tell you to “change the world”. You may get nice selfies for Instagram, but you’re making little impact.
So, I, along with my friend and fellow Cornellian, Raul Roman, who had joined me for a week on my volunteering experience in Peru, started to dream up of an organization that would do things differently. We would offer international volunteer opportunities that were socially driven and rooted in making a real impact, like the Peace Corps. They would also be very affordable. However, we would also be open to people from around the world and offer flexibility – you would be able to volunteer from 1 week to 6 months and pick what country you went to and on what project you volunteered on. We worked on this idea for almost two years, until June 2010 when UBELONG launched.
How does UBELONG sustain itself?
Cedric: We are 100 percent funded by the fees people who travel with UBELONG pay us. This makes for a much larger conversation, but we deliberately decided not to incorporate as a 501(c)(3) non-profit – we can deliver more social impact and charge much lower fees to the people who volunteer with us by being incorporated as a corporation with a social mission.
The model has worked. Over 4000 people have now volunteered with UBELONG across Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. UBELONGers have served 3.2 million hours – and those hours are not numbers we just throw around. Those are English, math and computer classes being taught in schools where there had never been any before. Trees in the Amazon being re-planted and beaches in the Galapagos being cleared of trash. Adults in remote communities receiving dental care for the first time in their lives. High school students learning about sexual education and nutrition – and high school students who can’t even dream of leaving their city now making friends with volunteers from the other side of the world. Human rights NGOs that struggle to survive just another day now having a talented volunteer who can help them write grant proposals. An understaffed shelter for sexually abused girls being able to run more therapy sessions because of the help brought by UBELONG Volunteers. Disabled orphans living in conditions so unimaginably atrocious that even after all these years I still break down when I visit them. Yet UBELONGers far bolder than me have gone into those orphanages for weeks and helped to feed, bathe and care for those children – and most importantly, to make them smile and remind them that they, too, are beautiful children who matter.
How did the UBELONG Shop come about?
Cedric: Filipa Bela, my wife, is a very talented designer. She’s seen UBELONG grow from literally nothing to what it is today. She knows the brand. And in 2015, after years of throwing the idea around, Filipa, Raul and I decided to start the UBELONG Shop, which would be travel lifestyle clothing brand. We saw the beauty of the UBELONG image and the potential of when fashion, travel and social responsibility intersect.
For a year and a half the three of us travelled to Costa Rica, Mexico, Portugal, Vietnam, as well as throughout the United States, to make connections and just figure out how to start a clothing brand. None of us had any experience whatsoever in clothing, fashion or manufacturing. I was particularly clueless, like to the point where I thought wearing white socks with a suit was OK.
But anyway, fast forward to February 2017 and we’ve just launched the UBELONG Shop: a travel lifestyle brand that crafts stunning clothing that is made responsibly, fits perfectly and inspires you to journey through life and become the best version of you. We also donate a portion of UBELONG Shop profits to the UBELONG projects, so it’s all part of our circle of good.
When you were starting, how did you fund UBELONG and the UBELONG Shop?
Cedric: Raul and I started UBELONG very short on money, but very long on an absolutely obsessive, compulsive and probably unhealthy desire to succeed. For two years Raul and I lived in his tiny Washington, DC basement apartment. We didn’t even have beds – Raul slept on a pullout couch that literally had a hole in the middle and me on an IKEA futon that smelled like dirty socks. During the day Raul worked full-time at his consulting and Johns Hopkins teaching jobs, and at night he would come home and work until midnight, 1AM or even through the night on UBELONG. Twice a week I would wait tables at an awful diner in Dupont Circle to make my student loan payments, and the rest of the time I’d be glued to my desk working on UBELONG. Being so poor, so unknown, so invisible was terrifying, but also incredibly empowering. Raul and I wouldn’t want to re-live those days, but we look back on them with incredible pride and gratitude for what they brought us.
The only outside money we ever took came well after we were established and self-sustaining. We really didn’t need it, but it didn’t cut into our equity so we accepted it. We had been part of an accelerator competition run by Points of Light in partnership with Starbucks and PriceWaterhouseCoopers. We won, and so gladly accepted the funds and, most importantly, the new friends and insights we obtained from being part of the incredible Points of Light community.
What is the hardest and what is the most rewarding part of starting and running your organizations?
Cedric: There’s this totally false myth that being an entrepreneur means having this glamorous life flying around the world making deals, wearing black turtlenecks like Steve Jobs and using cool start-up lingo like “disruption”, “eyeballs”, “burn-rates” and “unicorns”. Sorry to disappoint, but except for the fuzzy stuffed unicorn my toddler son likes to play with, I don’t think I’ve ever used any of those terms.
Being an entrepreneur is hard, especially when you’re starting. Until you can afford to bring on help you have to figure out everything yourself. There’s no HR, IT or accounting department that you can outsource to. 99 percent of the people you try to bring on as clients, associates or partners will slam their doors in your face. You are a nobody and your business card will nearly always b-line from your loving hand to somebody else’s annoyed hand and then their trash can. While all your friends are getting promotions in the corporate world or flashing their fancy Wall Street business cards, you’re sitting on the phone with GoDaddy trying to figure out why the $10 a month email system you bought from them is not working.
But in the end, for me, it’s all worth it. I don’t think entrepreneurship is meant for everybody, but, again, for me, it’s the only way I can find professional meaning. Turning an idea into a reality is a rush for me. I love the challenge of climbing unbelievably steep learning curves. Of every day having to solve problems and just figuring it out. Of building teams and facing the world as underdogs. Many days are frustrating and every day is challenging, but there’s nothing else in the world that I’d rather be doing.
What resources at Cornell helped you with your time at UBELONG?
Cedric: My Co-Founder, Raul Roman, was a friend from Cornell, so that’s absolutely critical. I’ve also tapped into the Cornell community throughout my life. I’ve probably met as many Cornellians since graduating as I did when I was a student.
In terms of coursework, I have been surprised to find that the classes I have drawn on most were those basic core courses that we used to all roll our eyes about – in particular, my intro marketing, HR and oral communication classes.
And finally, just having had the absolute privilege of spending four years in such an intense, challenging and stimulating environment transformed me in ways so profound I probably still don’t even realize them.