Student ambassadors like this one are helping get out the word about college safety app Umergency, founded by Gail Schenbaum. (Credit: Umergency)
Student ambassadors like this one are helping get out the word about college safety app Umergency, founded by Gail Schenbaum. (Credit: Umergency)

“Mom, it’s me. I’m fine, but it’s really bad.”

When Gail Schenbaum’s phone rang late that fateful fall night in 2014, she knew it couldn’t be good news. She heard daughter Alex’s voice on the other end of the line, saying she was in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. But Schenbaum didn’t imagine the hours-long ordeal she would then go through, frantically trying to figure out which hospital her daughter was at, and if she was getting proper care while miles away from home at school.

The fear and confusion of that incident planted the seed that would grow into Umergency, an app and digital database Schenbaum co-founded in June 2015 that allows parents and college students to organize emergency contact information, addresses of nearby hospitals, pertinent forms and more on an easy-to-use digital platform, should the need ever arise.

College safety statistics indicate that such a resource could be a necessary one. Excessive alcohol use is a big culprit for emergency room visits, accounting for over 1,500 fatalities, roughly 696,000 assaults and 599,000 injuries. But sexual assault claims are on the rise, too, and gun violence is an increasingly prevalent threat to campus life.

In all, nearly 4.5 million college-age kids find themselves in the hospital every year, Schenbaum says. And while emergencies may not be avoidable, confusion, misinformation and an inability to connect are. So she and her brother, Barry, teamed up to create Umergency, to help parents and students stay connected and informed when the worst-case scenario arises.

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Responses to her app indicate that such a need is keenly felt. Today, she and her small team of full-time and part-time staffers, as well as contractors and student ambassadors, cater to tens of thousands of users — the vast majority of them, parents like her.

The Call That Changed it All

Prior to startup life, Schenbaum was a senior executive and producer in film and television. Her consultation client roster included higher-ups at 20th Century Fox, PBS and the BBC.

In June 2010, she was moved to launch In One Instant, an award-winning driving safety program, after several of her children’s high-school-age friends died in car crashes. What began as an award-winning film she made leveraging her Hollywood contacts turned into a curriculum that is now found in over 2,600 high schools.

As personal as that cause was — and she is still involved with the nonprofit to this day — another mission would take over a few years later.

When Alex called that unforgettable night, it was because several of her fingers had been severed in an accident, and she was on her way to the hospital in hopes of having them reattached. To make matters worse, Alex said she would call back with an update, but that call never came.

While a panicked Schenbaum waited, she scoured the college’s website for emergency contact information, only to find phone numbers scattered amidst the site’s many pages. She then went through all of her contacts in hopes of finding someone who might be nearby, or a phone number for a dorm mate — also without luck.

“I had nobody. I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “How am I going to help my kid?”

It took several agonizing hours to find the right facility — but then, she ran into another wall. Since her daughter was over 18, doctors weren’t allowed to discuss her daughter’s medical status without a signed form — which the school had, but in a closed office, as it was the middle of the night.

When Gail Schenbaum’s phone rang late that fateful fall night in 2014, she knew it couldn’t be good news. She heard daughter Alex’s voice on the other end of the line, saying she was in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. That experience led to the founding of college safety app Umergency. (Credit: Umergency)

Ultimately, surgeons were able to reattach the fingers, and today, Alex has a fully functional hand — thanks in no small part to her daughter’s lifeguard training and ability to keep a calm head in a crisis. But Schenbaum knew she had to do something to make sure this didn’t happen again — to her, or to anyone else.

Building a College Safety App

When Schenbaum spoke with her brother, a sales and marketing executive, about her idea, she realized that he could relate. His son had collapsed from pneumonia while at college himself — and his father didn’t find out until the next day, when the son’s roommate finally reached out.

So, after familiarizing themselves with national statistics on college safety, they conducted an informal survey among 300 parents of college freshmen and sophomores, to see what emergency resources they had readily available.

The results were similarly troubling. A whopping 98 percent said they would have found themselves as unprepared as her in a moment of crisis, Schenbaum says. “We didn’t have any emergency contact information,” respondents often told her. “Or, ‘We have it somewhere, on a piece of paper, but we don’t know where it is.’” In addition, 94 percent didn’t know that a consent form is needed to receive updates from doctors on anyone over the age of 18.

And lastly, 100 percent of participants said they would readily take advantage of an app that consolidates all of this critical information in one place. “That was enough motivation for us to get going,” she says.

Umergency was first launched as a free service, and its then-nonprofit status helped them forge relationships with organizations like the National Suicide Hotline, RAINN and Poison Control. When interested parties downloaded it by the thousands, they decided to try out a paid subscription model — and quickly got 500 app purchases in the three test markets they tried out. (The app remains free for students, with only parental users incurring $7.99/month subscription costs.)

A years-long beta phase would see the app morph into what it is today — a resource where all of the phone numbers and forms one would need during an emergency situation can be accessed immediately by all members of a subscribed family. Relationships with 1,200 schools means that data from those institutions is automatically populated into the app, rather than having to spend time entering information into individual prompts. And it’s now purposefully parent-friendly, so that if necessary, students only need to sign consent forms while caretakers do the rest.

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Modifications have also been made in light of more recent concerns, like gun violence. During one testing phase, “urgent alert” and “I am safe” buttons were added to the app, so students could relay basic information to parents while on lockdown.

Press coverage in publications like Inc. magazine and The Huffington Post helped spread the word. But earlier this year, she and her team took part in UCLA Anderson’s Venture Accelerator, which connected them with educators and advisors who have helped them get the product truly ready for a major 2019 back-to-school push.

Possibilities Ahead

So far, that latest effort, complete with a half-off subscription offer, has borne fruit — Schenbaum says more than 13,000 new subscribers have signed on through this latest push alone. She’s pleased, if not surprised. “Every week, you see headlines about what’s going on in this country. It’s a very unsafe, scary time,” she says.

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Schenbaum’s goal at the moment is growth — in both subscriptions and brand awareness — and raising their first round of seed money. She says the app has reached a tipping point where finding angel and VC investors is critical, especially in light of new growth opportunities.

The heads of over 150 elementary, middle and high schools have reached out to see if Umergency plans to release a platform for parents of younger children, she says. Retirement facilities have also reached out with similar inquiries, for the families of residents “It helped us realize our incredible future growth potential,” she says.

“But,” Schenbaum adds, “we need to focus on who we are right now.”

That means that, in addition to this back-to-school push, Umergency is also focused on rolling out a college safety initiative focused on sorority and fraternity members next month. And the 2,600 high schools she works with through In One Instant will be gifting graduating seniors and their families with the app next spring.

As opportunities for the app continue to crop up, Schenbaum still holds tight to her core mission of helping parents avoid the panic she endured all those years ago. “If we can do anything to alleviate that, that’s our goal — to help people be prepared.”

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