Where Are They Now? Updates from Four Business Plan Finalists
Written by Rigo Fernandez and Marie Lim.
These participants in The Walmart Better Living Business Plan Challenge took action, and they're still making an impact.
A running tradition of six years between Walmart and Net Impact, the Walmart Better Living Business Plan Challenge offers students amazing networking, learning, and funding opportunities. The partnership supports innovative and sustainable solutions to some of the most pressing global issues of our time. We love seeing the ideas each year, and we started wondering how these students' work was holding up over time. We checked in with a few recent finalists and winners and discovered that these sustainability leaders all have a story to tell.
Fire From the Ashes
“Since last year’s Walmart competition, we’ve supplied raw materials for more than 1,000,000 mosquito coils into the Kenyan market.” – Kevin Kung
Kevin Kung, a 2013 Walmart Better Living Business Plan Challenge finalist, had always been interested in international development and environmental sustainability -- or at least for as long as he can remember. That's why he got involved with organizations such as Engineers without Borders, to help those in less fortunate societies striving to survive.
While Kevin was a global health consultant in Kenya, he noticed a lot of charcoal being sold and wondered if a better source of fuel existed without the need to cut down virgin forests. He rallied youth groups to collect dry organic materials that are then converted into commercial char. With the seed money he won from the Walmart Better Living Business Challenge, he got this plan off the ground.
Now a full-time PhD student developing second-generation waste-to-charcoal technologies at MIT, Kevin is continuing to develop Takachar in Kenya while researching additional market opportunities in India. He would like to make a career for himself in sustainability after graduation. When asked about what he took away from the Walmart Challenge, he says he is particularly thankful for “having the advice and reception from more experienced professionals, especially with a project at such an early stage.” Attributing the credit to everyone but himself, he feels that it was the publicity and credibility from the Walmart Challenge and the hard work of the Kenyan partners who were responsible for Takachar’s success. As for Takachar, it has partnered with a large mosquito coil manufacturer and distributor in Sub-Saharan Africa to turn some of the waste into a base material for low-toxin mosquito coils and has supplied more than one million coils. It is also directly selling commercial char as a low-cost, low-emissions, high-energy cooking fuel to low-income households. To date, Takachar has set up up or directly supported a network of eight locally run micro-enterprises in Kenya, a few of which have begun to show operational profitability.
Water Battles Abroad Make Environmental Careers at Home
“It’s pretty cool that a major corporation would look to students for innovation and emphasize environmental impact. It associates the brand with something larger.” – Molly Tyeryar
As an undergrad, Molly Tyeryar knew she wanted to do something outside of her UVA economics curriculum. With her interest in international development and environmental issues, she joined forces with like-minded students to create PureMadi, a ceramic water filter factory in South Africa that addresses water contamination issues.
Because a few conversations and a big idea weren’t going to cut it for the long haul, the students entered the Walmart Challenge. With hard work, innovation, and their multidisciplinary expertise, the $20,000 grand prize was theirs. Just as valuable as the money, Molly recalls, “the competition equipped us with direction, new insight, and useful critiques.” The organization has since taken off in South Africa’s Limpopo Province, employing local potters and leveraging local materials. Molly credits her killer public speaking skills and presentation effectiveness to all that practice in front of Walmart execs.
Happy with the huge impact she made on an international community, she kickstarted an impact career. Using the skills she developed, she landed her current job at CGI, where she works on software related to environmental regulations compliance. PureMadi’s still at the forefront of her priorities, of course. As treasurer, Molly oversees its growth while further refining her business plan skills. To top it all off, she coaches Little League baseball, bringing the community involvement aspect she loves in PureMadi into her day-to-day life. She intends to continue helping PureMadi expand while pursuing her passion for the environment and community in her career.
Want to hear more? Get in touch with Molly by email.
Sustainability Fanatic Turned Social Entrepreneur
“I like that the competition fosters talented, innovative students to think of progressive ideas toward sustainability and social responsibility.” – Rodrigo Lemes
Back in 2010, Rodrigo Lemes was earning his business degree at UC Berkeley. He knew he wanted to apply business to his passion for social responsibility and the environment. He was just looking for the right way to thread them together. While his Net Impact chapter gave him a good start, he wanted more.
It wasn’t until Back to the Roots that he began applying his business know-how to sustainability. The group transformed leftover coffee grounds into a DIY mushroom kit. Part of one of the rarely seen undergrad teams in the competition, they entered the Walmart Challenge and emerged as finalists. To this day, Rodrigo raves about his experience. He loved networking with socially conscious students, skilled mentors, and the movers and shakers in the industry. And, of course, he was excited about the lifelong leadership skills gained. This all drove home his decision to “do something that would involve a socially responsible organization.”
Staying true to his values post-challenge, he worked as a marketing manager for Angelpoints, providing philanthropic SAAS to major multinational companies -- and he didn’t stop there. Next, he honed his managerial skills at Prather Ranch Meat, a highly regarded sustainable meat distributing company in the San Francisco Bay Area. Today he’s the co-founder of MYTHUS, a sports-products startup based in Oakland, California that makes financial donations to nonprofit organizations and learns how they can appropriate their patented products to other socially responsible organizations. On the side, he co-directs the Student Ambassador Alumni Program at Berkeley City College, helping students improve leadership skills and connect with high school students. A true impact careerist, he is working hard to make sure MYTHUS becomes recognized as a brand with a socially responsible mindset.
Do You Need To Unplug?
“The mentorship was incredible … I would highly recommend the competition to any students pursuing their MBA.” – Sandra Kwak
Back in 2009, Sandra Kwak was a student involved in Net Impact at the Presidio Graduate School. There she worked on a project geared toward designing a product tailored to what customers wanted. In a series of structured surveys, she asked businesses what problems they were having that they thought could be solved with an innovative solution. The surveys found that most businesses struggled with energy consumption and didn’t have a solution in sight. Her concept of a Powerzoa port plug that can connect devices to an outlet while allowing owners to monitor and control energy usage made her a finalist for the Walmart Better Living Business Plan Challenge.
Upon graduation, Sandra and her team took their ambitious goals and launched Powerzoa in 2009. For two years, they worked on growing the business, developing prototypes and launching a successful pilot project until they partnered with AutoGrid.
Still a major part of what happens with Powerzoa, Sandra is working full-time at Autogrid. She’s thankful for the mentorship her team received from the Walmart judges, going so far as to say, “The mentorship was incredible. They really provided a lot of insight into Walmart’s energy use and were very open and communicative about Walmart’s policies. I would highly recommend the competition to any students pursuing their MBA.” Excited at what Autogrid did for Powerzoa, Sandra looks forward to continuing to transform the energy industry by ensuring that communication systems in smart meters and smart thermostats are in sync to create more sustainable and cost-effective practices.
Want to hear more? Find Sandra on LinkedIn.
A Far-Reaching Impact
Students researching new sustainable solutions to solve the problems of today, emerging leaders contributing to the evolution of existing companies, and entrepreneurs starting new organizations dedicated to making a difference … these participants in the Walmart Better Living Business Plan Challenge are continuing to make an impact that reaches far and wide. These students took the advice and mentorship offered in the program and springboarded themselves into extraordinary leaders. We're glad knowing that innovators like Kevin, Molly, Rodrigo, and Sandra are out there, working for a more sustainable future.