In the face of life’s challenges, Ashlee Trempus serves as a model example of the word “entrepreneur.” The Macomb and Siena Heights graduate, set to wed in October, recently received the Crain’s Detroit Business “20 in their 20s” distinction for her innovative solution to communication and online connectivity within the deaf community. Dubbed SignOn, she created an American Sign Language (ASL) immersion program as a class project while she was a student at Macomb.
Prior to this, Trempus attended Grand Valley State University for one semester to pursue a degree in biomedical science and become an emergency room doctor. However, she was forced to pause her schooling after illness rendered her homebound. “Blacking out and passing out about 60 times a day,” she was diagnosed with dysautonomia.
“My autonomic nervous system doesn’t do what your body is supposed to do naturally,” shares Trempus. “Your heart rate, your breathing, your digestion, your rest, your fight or flight responses… All of those responses don’t work on my body.”
Further complicating matters, Trempus lives with adrenal insufficiency, meaning that her “adrenal glands don’t produce cortisol,” a hormone that controls the body’s functions. While the odds worked against her hopes of entering the medical profession, she wanted to continue her education.
“I didn’t want to be known as ‘that sick girl that had to come home from college,’” relates Trempus. “It just… It didn’t feel right.”
Trempus decided to attend Macomb. Although she only took one course, she was excited to tell everybody, “I’m a Macomb student!” That one course was American Sign Language and the instructor, Marika Blumerick, provided the time and assistance she needed, even outside of class, to ensure her success. Trempus so appreciated the support that she went on to take all of the college’s other ASL offerings. Blumerick later encouraged her to become a sign language interpreter.
Interacting with the deaf community is a major component of obtaining ASL certification, but there were no available options for Trempus, “because I was in a wheelchair, and was still super sick.” Thus, the concept for SignOn was conceived. The live platform connects users with other deaf individuals throughout the country, providing them the opportunity to practice “receptive, expressive skills” and “really just immerse yourself in the language.”
Through a Macomb entrepreneurship class, Trempus learned the skills she needed to write a business plan. She also showcased SignOn to a panel of judges at a Shark Tank-style competition, hosted by Macomb’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE). Through the process, she secured $25,000 from the Macomb Innovation Fund to launch SignOn. Coming full circle, Trempus has returned to Macomb to serve as a judge for the CIE’s annual pitch competitions.
“I can give all of my experience that I’ve had, all the ups and downs, the roller coaster,” notes Trempus. “Being able to express that to the students and say, ‘You’ve got this! Just go! Take the first plunge. It’s going to be worth it’ is my favorite part.”
Now utilized by more than 30 colleges and universities across America and expanding to provide services to deaf K-12 students, the future looks bright for SignOn, and Trempus credits her success to the college.
“Macomb grew my love for American Sign Language,” she says. “The support that you get from Macomb is awesome.”