Finding Entrepreneurial Inspiration in Buenos Aires – Alum of the Month Ely Key

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Meet Ely Key (IES Abroad Buenos Aires, Spring 2006 | University of Michigan--Ann Arbor), President and CEO of Up Mountain Switchel. While studying abroad in Buenos Aires, Ely was introduced to yerba mate and was inspired to incorporate his newfound love for mate into switchel, a traditional American farmer’s drink. Ely first began producing his new brew in his grandmother’s barn in Vermont. In our interview, discover how seeing young Argentines celebrate and share their culture inspired Ely to co-found Up Mountain Switchel.

IES Abroad: As an undergrad at University of Michigan--Ann Arbor, what led you to study abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina?  

Ely Key: I already spoke Spanish and had an interest in traveling to Spanish-speaking countries. South America seemed like an adventurous place, and also more affordable for a college student on a budget. Another huge factor was that I have family in Patagonia and was able to combine my travels for study with visiting my family and helping them with a building project and exploring the local Futaleufú river system.

IES Abroad: What are some of your most impactful study abroad memories?

EK: Exploring the local alternative/disruptive/explorative underground art and music scene via my physical theater class, art class, and internship with ZZK Records. I was inspired by the incredibly talented, smart, and brave young people of Buenos Aires. Also chorípan every day! And of course being introduced to yerba mate by my cousin, becoming an avid fan, and later incorporating that love into Up Mountain Switchel.

IES Abroad: When you first arrived in Buenos Aires did you have any career goals in mind?

EK: At the time, I was running a small business built off a creative arts project that my sister, Mckendree Key, and I had begun in high school. My career goals were to continue on the path I had started and just learn as much as I could to apply to creative and entrepreneurial pursuits and life. Buenos Aires and traveling through South America was a great place for that.

IES Abroad: Today, you are Co-founder, President and CEO of Up Mountain Switchel. What is switchel and how did you get introduced to it?

EK: Up Mountain Switchel is a powerful “functional beverage.” Its main function is gut health, which is quickly becoming one of the leading targets in the medical world for a healthy body. Luckily it also tastes delicious and has an incredible history. It was originally created by Vermont farmers as essentially the first “farmer’s gatorade.” Herman Melville even writes about it in Moby Dick. It’s made with fresh organic ginger sourced seasonally from equatorial farmers around the globe, raw organic apple cider vinegar (locally sourced from farms in the Finger Lakes region of North America), and 100% pure Vermont organic single source maple syrup (also local to us as we are a Vermont company). It’s also incredibly, and perhaps surprisingly, a great mixer too. I was introduced to it by my father who drank it as a kid haying fields in Vermont.

IES Abroad: What inspired you to found Up Mountain Switchel?

EK: I was thirsty for something delicious that was not available on the shelves and was aware of the anti-inflammatory, alkaline, and low glycemic health properties of ginger, apple cider vinegar, and maple syrup. Given the history and recipe, it was also an opportunity to disrupt the wasteful and sugar-industry-supportive beverage scene and celebrate something cool from American culture like I saw young Argentines do with their culture for themselves, and for tourists from around the world. More sugar goes into making a cup of Kombucha than a cup of soda and the green juices, coconut waters, etc, are all so expensive because as a customer you are essentially paying two for one (one to drink and one that has gone bad at some point through the distribution system wasting everything from water to energy, food, and gas). I think that health conscious people are also conscious of this planet and if they knew the truth and had an option, that would make a better decision. My goal is to provide the option for that better decision and make it delicious, intriguing, inspiring, and accessible, not just for those who can afford the $10 green juice.  

IES Abroad: How did you launch?

EK: The company was launched in my grandma’s barn up in Vermont. We were living and making switchel there and selling at the local farmer’s market. We got feedback from all types of people: generational Vermont farmers in their nineties who drank switchel back in the day, foreigner’s visiting the beautiful food state from abroad, athletes biking the Green Mountains, kids running around eluding their parents, musicians, chefs, bartenders, and people suffering from cold or flu. Every week, we would tweak the recipe according to their feedback until we finally nailed it. Then we started selling to all those local chefs, health food store owners, co-ops and mixologists. Much love to the Southern Vermont community!

IES Abroad: Your company has a partnership with the nonprofit The Stronghold Society. Why was it important for you to create a business with a social impact?

EK: In my opinion, everyone’s goal should be to have a net positive impact on the planet.

IES Abroad: Are there any skills you built abroad that you continue to draw upon today as an entrepreneur? 

EK: Yes. Language, arts/photography, awareness of other cultures, other peoples, history and politics, and drinking yerba mate Up Mountain Switchel!

Learn more about studying abroad in Argentina, and check out all of our Alum of the Month profiles to see real examples of how study abroad changed the lives and careers of our former students.

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