WDI Alum: An Uncomfortable Summer Built Business Acumen
Wednesday, January 18, 2017
When Mary Fritz thinks back to her 2012 WDI summer internship in India, she remembers the oppressive heat, the bugs, her illnesses, her inability to communicate, a lack of cultural context, being the constant object of fascination of the locals and taking a shower by pouring water over her head. In short, Fritz said, she was “missing my U.S. life.”
So it might be surprising that Fritz, who has since built a young career helping launch startups in Latin America, fondly refers to this time as an “amazing, multifaceted experience that really shaped me on a lot of levels.” She said her summer in India made her stronger and more independent, flexible, and patient.
“India is extraordinarily beautiful and diverse, and farther removed from Western culture than I had ever been before,” Fritz said. “I learned to be constantly (both) physically and emotionally, uncomfortable. I learned how to be alone. I learned to take bucket showers. I learned a little bit of Hindi.”
Along with the life lessons were plenty of business lessons as well.
“I learned the importance of including the customer in every strategic decision,” she said. “I learned humility. I learned how to connect with people without shared language. And I learned that sometimes you just can’t.”
At the University of Michigan, Fritz enrolled at the Erb Institute, a dual degree MBA/MS program with the Ross School of Business and the School of Natural Resources and Environment. She said she chose U-M for her graduate studies because of the university’s commitment to impact. She also was familiar with WDI’s support of student programs before arriving on campus.
“I’ve always been really interested in social enterprise as a way to address social, economic, and justice issues,” Fritz said. “I wanted to learn what really goes into building an impact company from the ground up, and WDI gave me that opportunity.”
Fritz worked with the social enterprise Wello, which makes water transportation products, including the WaterWheel, designed to help mostly low-income women collect and carry water long distances. Founded in rural India by Cynthia Koenig, a former WDI summer intern as well, Wello has now expanded to Pakistan, Malawi, Zambia, Bangladesh, and Haiti.
Fritz was based in Mumbai, with frequent travel around the Indian states of Rajasthan and Gujarat. Because Wello was a fledgling startup with a small staff, Fritz worked on a bit of everything. But her main focus was how to get the product to the people who needed it at a price they could afford. There were a lot of manufacturing details to work out, as well as market research and customer interviews to conduct, pricing models to build, and distribution channels to develop. She also studied how to measure impact.
After graduation, Fritz took those valuable lessons and work experiences and began building and launching startup organizations focused mostly on Latin America for Agora Partnerships, a business accelerator. She recently moved to Seattle to work for Lenati, a marketing and sales strategy consulting firm. She will continue to work with startups and nonprofits as well as corporate clients.
“My experience with Wello has definitely influenced my career choices,” Fritz said. “From a functional standpoint, I became really interested in everything that’s involved in bringing a product to market. And I loved working in a startup; every day is different.”
And more than four years removed from that summer in India, Fritz said she still harkens back to those days when faced with a current-day challenge.
“Wello was my first, and definitely most intense, experience conducting customer research and trying to create a human-centered approach to a go-to-market strategy,” she said. “I use those lessons all the time.”
And despite the hardships of that sometimes uncomfortable summer in a faraway land, the internship nevertheless stoked a yearning to work internationally.
“From a personal standpoint,” Fritz said, “it definitely increased my desire to travel and experience cultures beyond my own.”
Note: This is one in an ongoing series of articles profiling past WDI interns and Multidisciplinary Action Project (MAP) team members and their career paths. Additional profiles in the series may be found here.