Recent Graduates Follow Their Passions to Create New Businesses
Editor’s Note: From time to time, Reflections Magazine will highlight entrepreneurial alumni who have recently started business ventures within the past year. This article spotlights Ashlee Trempus ’15 and Kenneth DeGraaf ’16.
Ashlee Trempus ’15: SignOn
As a sign language interpreter, Ashlee Trempus ’15 is used to face-to-face contact with the deaf community in helping them communicate with the world around them.
When she graduated from SHU’s Lansing campus with a bachelor’s degree in multidisciplinary studies, she decided to bring that face-to-face concept to the Internet. Trempus co-founded the start-up company SignOn, which is a “virtual immersion program” that connects the hearing and deaf communities through authentic learning interactions.
Trempus said she got the idea when an illness slowed her ability to complete her required hours of interaction she needed for her interpreter certification.
“I became homebound,” she said. “I was unable to travel.”
Along with co-founder Paul Fugate, they developed the SignOn online platform, which was launched in February 2016. Trempus said ASL learners have the unique opportunity to communicate one-on-one with a deaf ASL “Ambassador.” She said SignOn helps give people the confidence they need to engage with the deaf community while practicing and retaining language techniques.
“One of our challenges was going to the deaf community and getting them to trust and believe this was going to be beneficial to the ASL learning process,” Trempus said. “We hired a web developer to create our platform, but we did the web design ourselves.”
Trempus said they modeled their concept from other educational sites and researched the pricing for in-person tutoring programs.
“I wanted it to be comparable to an actual tutor,” she said of the pricing, which starts at $25 for a 30-minute online session.
SignOn currently has approximately 25 Ambassadors on staff, “and we’re constantly getting new resumes and growing,” Trempus said. “They are the ones students or anyone interested in learning American Sign Language are connecting to.”
Once users login and register for a session, they are connected to an Ambassador via online video chat. However, there is a text messaging option available to ask the Ambassador questions.
“They can see it, show the sign and have you repeat it back to them,” Trempus said of how the program works. “Having them able to see it visually from both sides (of the camera) makes it easier.”
SignOn is currently being used by seven colleges and universities in Michigan that have sign language interpreting programs. Trempus said the company’s goal is to be in 20 of the state’s 42 institutions by the end of 2017, and to eventually scale it nationally.
“We also have clients who are parents and have recently found out that their child is deaf and would like to connect to the deaf community,” Trempus said. “And we have high school students who are using it as a foreign language. When we first started this, it was to help students get their hours of interaction. Now it’s for anyone.”
Although SignOn is only a website at the moment for desktop or laptop computer use, Trempus said they are looking at developing an app that would work for tablets and possibly smartphones.
She said starting the business has been a learning experience.
“My dad has his MBA, and he did a lot of advising,” said Trempus, who was a sign language interpreter for Detroit Public Schools before making SignOn her main focus. “Right now we’re going to schools specifically and talking to the teachers, the program directors, the presidents of the universities. We’re just knocking on the door and and saying, ‘Hi, are you willing to speak to me?’”
She said all of her employees are paid a minimum $15 per hour.
“It was very important to me in creating this business to pay my workers a living wage,” Trempus said. “We’re trying as hard as we can to continue to grow and expand and add new and different things.”
“Believe in yourself. If you believe in yourself, you can take it as far as you want to go—with lots of elbow grease. If you’re willing to work for it, you can get it done.”
To check out SignOn, visit signonconnect.com.
Kenneth DeGraaf ’16: RecruitUS
Kenneth DeGraaf ’16 recently launched his own company, RecruitUS LLC, which he co-founded with colleagues Andrew Alisa and Cole Paczas. RecruitUS LLC helps high school student-athletes in less visible sports such as bowling and cross country be recruited by colleges and universities.
“Sports like basketball, football and baseball have a gateway of recruiting services largely because that is what the media portrays,” DeGraaf said. “This does not mean, however, that athletes in other sports do not exist. These sports that get all the publicity only make up a for a small fraction of those numbers. So we made it our responsibility to give our athletes and coaches an easier voice in the recruiting process.”
DeGraaf also said they hosted the RecruitUS Collegiate Bowling Showcase, which is on pace to become the single largest collegiate bowling recruiting event in the world. They had approximately 220 recruits and coaches from 24 colleges and universities attend.
“The typical RecruitUS event features an open house and on-site competition in which the athletes and coaches can interact,” DeGraaf said. “When athletes and coaches sign up for our events, they are saving the hassle of planning multiple recruiting trips that neither side has the time or money for.”
He said they are taking a “slow growth strategy” since all three are still taking college courses. DeGraff is currently completing his MBA at St. Francis University in Loretto, Pa. He is also an assistant women’s bowling coach for the NCAA Division I institution.
“We also have plans to get into cross country next year and are in talks with the Detroit Sports Commission of possibly doing that event at Belle Isle Park in Detroit,” DeGraaf said.
DeGraaf and his co-owners recently pitched their concept to the popular television show “Shark Tank,” which has some of the nation’s top business moguls possibly investing in the best business ideas. They made it through the first round, and are awaiting word if they will get a chance to pitch their idea to the “Sharks” themselves.
“When we saw that ‘Shark Tank’ was coming to Detroit, we could not pass up the opportunity,” DeGraaf said. “The worst case scenario is that we don’t make it to the TV show, but we still meet a lot of local Detroit business owners and potential partners. There’s no down side to that at all.”
To check out RecruitUS, visit recruitus.net.