Not many people think of social responsibility when they think of becoming full-time entrepreneurs, but Cedric Hodgeman ’04, Co-Founder of UBELONG, 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, enables people to find volunteering opportunities all around the world. The UBELONG Shop, launched in 2017, is a travel lifestyle clothing brand.
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.
How did UBELONG come about?
After college, I went to work on Wall Street. Having that solid finance experience has given me a lot of important hard-skills in starting companies.
In 2008, I decided to take a year off and travel the world. 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 I 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.
So, fast-forward, the trip changed my life.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. 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 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.
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?
We are 100% 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 6000 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.
How did the UBELONG Shop come about?
Filipa Bela, my wife, is a very talented designer. In 2015, after years of throwing the idea around, Filipa, Raul and I decided to start the UBELONG Shop, which would be a travel lifestyle clothing brand. For a year-and-a-half the three of us traveled 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. 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 five percent 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?
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, 1:00 AM 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?
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% of the people you try to bring on as clients, associates or partners will slam their doors in your face. It involves a lot of hard work and perseverance.
What resources at Cornell helped you with your time at UBELONG?
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.