Spotlight: Jalsa Urubshurow, Entrepreneur & Philanthropist
Throughout his life, Jalsa Urubshurow has been called a lot of things: Entrepreneur. Philanthropist. Environmentalist. CEO. Ambassador. Luxury tour guide for the Dalai Lama.
But growing up in Howell, New Jersey, as the son of Mongolian immigrants, Urubshurow was called much worse.
"I had grown men spit on me when I was five or six years old," he tells Travelzoo of growing up as a first-generation Asian American in the 1950s. Urubshurow was born and raised in one of the first Mongolian communities in the U.S.—the descendants of the western Kalmuk tribe, which had migrated from Mongolia to the confluence of the Volga River and Caspian Sea in Russia generations ago. Thanks to the Tolstoy Foundation’s efforts to help his family escape Stalinist persecution in the early 1950s, they were able to settle in the United States, but they lived in very poor conditions. “It was all dirt roads and no sewer water. I had an outhouse in my backyard. You would drive into our neighborhood and go back in time,” he says.
That shocking reality of anti-Asian hate sadly became par for course, as his seamstress mother and disabled father, who lost an eye while working in a Pennsylvania coal mine, struggled. “They did whatever they could do to survive, but racism was a thing,” he remembers. “You can sense racism. You can smell it.”
Facing that kind of blatant discrimination from such an early age has driven Urubshurow to foster a career that puts empathy above all else. In fact, his dedication to inclusivity and sustainability has earned him a reputation as one of the most lauded members of the travel community as the founder and CEO of Nomadic Expeditions, which provides custom luxury travel to Mongolia, Tibet, Nepal, India and Bhutan.
While pandemic travel restrictions put a pause in their operations, the company is revving back up again, in light of news from Nepal that quarantining is no longer required for fully vaccinated travelers and that India will be welcoming back tourists. Among the company’s offerings are a private wildlife safari tour to spot tigers in India and a small group Himalayan circuit through Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan.
But what makes the tour operator stand out is its unlikely origin story. After all, Urubshurow didn’t exactly follow a straight line into the tourism industry. As a matter of course growing up in the Mongolian community, he found himself following the family’s footsteps into carpentry—literally nailing the skill set by the time he was 8 by expertly straightening out crooked nails with a hammer. That led him to launch his first construction company, All-Tech Carpentry Contractors (now Nomad Framing), snagging the first-ever National Housing Quality Award.
Though building was in his blood, he dreamed of another career: forest ranger. Having camped in the Delaware Water Gap and hiked the Appalachian Trail, he was innately drawn to the great outdoors. That passion was in his back pocket when he hosted a party in 1990 for the United Nations’ Mongolian delegation, which his family had kept close ties with. “They had become a democracy in a peaceful revolution,” he says. “And they invited me to Mongolia.”
Despite feeling tied to the culture for the greater part of his life, he finally stepped foot for the first time on his ancestors’ home soil in September of that year at the age of 35—and was immediately mesmerized by the sea of faces that looked like his own. “I’d make the driver stop and just look at people,” he remembers. “I never saw so many Mongolian faces.” They were just as impressed with him for flawlessly speaking the western dialect of the Kalmuks that many of them called “ancient words.”
The more he immersed himself in Mongolia, the more connected he felt, whether he was pitching a tent in the countryside next to a horse wrangler’s yurt, or waking up by a western lake watching 5,000 Demoiselle cranes take off without another human in sight. “These people probably have the least negative impact of their carbon footprint on the planet,” Urubshurow says. “And they’re still maintaining a livelihood and industry for themselves with animal husbandry and livestock. It's quite an amazing experience to be able to meet them and interact.”
Mongolia’s nature answered his yearning for the outdoors, but its people drew him deeper into his family roots. During chats with locals, he had a transformative moment, finding that they knew the same songs his parents sang to him as a child and gave the same toasts as his dad would back in New Jersey.
“That inspired me to promote travel to Mongolia,” he says.
When he started in 1990, only a handful of Americans visited Mongolia, and there was essentially no luxury Mongolian travel market. So the one-time carpenter built it from the ground up, combining his American business acumen with his deep-rooted Mongolian culture. In a land of nomads, he paved out his own roadmap, eventually creating itineraries of every kind, including trekking, cultural and family travel. Along the way, he started Mongolia’s first guide-training school—which still trains about 40 guides a year—and also curated trips geared toward professional needs for the Harvard University Museum of Natural History, Massachusetts Audubon Society, American Museum of Natural History, Tibet House, the Nature Conservancy, and World Wildlife Fund.
As a result, every trip on Nomadic Expeditions is less about checking destinations off a list and more about taking a deep dive into the lifestyle. “You get to go see a culture and be immersed in it,” he says, emphasizing that luxury isn’t always about a bedsheet’s thread count, but rather unique experiences liking visiting a camel-herding family on the Iconic Mongolia tour or learning Kazakh songs from a family on the From the Altai to the Gobi Tour. “There are families that are living like they did thousands of years ago in harmony with nature.”
In 2002, to cement his commitment to sustainable tourism, he opened Three Camel Lodge, a 40-tent luxury eco-lodge in the Gobi Desert with all the lighting running on solar power. It soon became a founding member of Beyond Green, a collective of properties around the globe that all share the same pillars of environmental stewardship. Inspired by his own feat on the other side of the globe, he brought the mentality back home, building a fully carbon-neutral office for Nomadic Expeditions and Nomad Framing in New Jersey with 200 solar panels on the roof, meeting LEED’s Platinum standards.
Along the way, he’s found himself in extraordinary positions, like traveling through Mongolia with Richard Gere and the Dalai Lama in 1995, and bringing The Fast and the Furious actress Michelle Rodriguez to the Golden Eagle Festival—an annual tradition that Urubshurow founded in 1999 to promote preservation of both the bird species and the western Kazakhs culture—that was featured in the BAFTA-nominated 2016 documentary The Eagle Huntress.
The festival is just one example of where the entrepreneur focuses his efforts. He has tackled deforestation by planting more than 22,000 trees in the Gobi Desert and sponsored local music schools that preserve the Mongolian culture. “We're a lot like a nonprofit philanthropy, disguised as a tour operator,” he admits.
Additionally, Urubshurow serves on the board of the directors of The Arts Council of Mongolia, The Peregrine Fund, and The Captain Planet Foundation and has been a Tourism For Tomorrow Award judge for the World Travel and Tourism Council. He also started the U.S.-Mongolia Business Council, which became known as the American Mongolian Business Council. In short, where there’s a cause, Urubshurow is never far behind, joking that “founder and funder have only one letter difference,” adding “you have to have the mind to earn money, but you have the heart to spend it.”
He continues to operate with the same philosophy that he always has in life—to treat people right. As proof, he’s provided medical, dental, and prescription plans, as well as a 401k match, to all of his employees and their families for 34 years. “These are things I never had as a child and never had in my young adult life,” he says. “You've got to walk the walk.”
Another way he leads by action is through who he hires. “I'm really proud because our company's run completely by Mongolians,” he says, adding that he always advises the next generation of immigrant children to “be confident about their cultures.” He realizes it’s easier said than done, but it’s also all the more essential to stand strong against those who lean on hate. “There's no room for that. I certainly won't tolerate it,” he says. “I love America. I'm American, but I love my upbringing of being Mongolian—I believe you can be both.”
And one thing’s for sure, he’s not going to let history repeat itself: “Nobody’s going to spit on anybody in my company.”