Inspired to Create:
U-M Alumnae and
the World of International Tech Startups
When you think of tech startup companies, what comes to mind? Is it Silicon Valley, black turtlenecks, and billion-dollar IPOs? Or perhaps something about college drop-outs and the proverbial idiosyncrasies of “tech-bro culture”? While stereotypes can be helpful for getting the big picture of things, when you look more closely they’re often misleading caricatures, and this has proven especially true in the case of the tech industry. So we’re telling a different story.
In December, Leaders & Best caught up with several University of Michigan alumnae working in the international startup space to learn more about the tech industry overseas and how U-M helped lay the foundation for their careers in entrepreneurship.
Lucy Zhao (AB, BBA ’15) has spent the last year and a half working with the Ugandan startup, SafeBoda. Safeboda began as a ride-hailing app for motorcycle taxis, or “boda bodas” as they’re called in Uganda.
Motorcycles are one of East Africa’s most popular forms of transportation, yet also among the most dangerous. With road accidents being one of the highest causes of death in countries like Uganda, where there is limited road safety enforcement, SafeBoda’s mission has been to modernize informal transportation and make safe mobility more accessible. As chief commercial officer, Zhao has been responsible for expanding SafeBoda to include services like food delivery and mobile banking, transforming the ride-hailing platform into an all-in-one interface, or what the tech industry calls a super app.
“Super apps can be a very profitable business model,” said Zhao. “For companies where the margins are very thin, such as ride-hailing, incorporating other services is a great way to build a more diverse and sustainable business.”
SafeBoda isn’t the only tech company trying to make its mark in Africa. The spike in startups in the region can be traced, in part, to necessary innovations to existing mobile money systems, Zhao said. For years, telecommunications companies have controlled the financial technology sector in East Africa, despite their exorbitant money transfer fees and cumbersome platforms. But now, as SafeBoda and other tech startups are investing in the region to offer more integrated and affordable services, the tide is starting to turn.
Before moving to Africa, Zhao was living in San Francisco, running Honeydew: a tech-enabled wedding-planning startup she co-founded with fellow U-M alumna Michelle Lu (BSEIO ’15). Zhao’s and Lu’s goal with Honeydew was to simplify the wedding planning process by using a database of vendors to match clients with venues, florists, and caterers, etc., that fit their tastes. If you’ve ever had to book a wedding, Zhao said, you’d appreciate the simplicity and affordability of Honeydew.
Zhao and Lu first met as undergraduates working at MPowered Entrepreneurship, U-M’s oldest and largest entrepreneurship program. Through MPowered, Zhao also got her first foray into Africa’s startup scene on a summer trip to Meru, Kenya, where she worked with local entrepreneurs and small-scale businesses.
Though she did double major in business and English, Zhao attributes a lot of her career success to the extracurricular experiences she had at U-M and the vibrant community of aspiring entrepreneurs who first helped her envision a career in the startup space.
“I couldn’t imagine being where I am today and going through the process of starting a company without the experiences I had at Michigan,” she said.
Ankita Kumar (MBA ’05) is a co-founder of the Bangalore-based epilepsy diagnostics company, Mocxa Health.
Today, the standard method for diagnosing epilepsy is video electroencephalography (VEEG). A typical VEEG diagnosis involves a patient spending multiple days in a special hospital room, facilitated by a team of doctors and nurses, whilst hooked up to a wired camera system that monitors their movements and an EEG device that monitors their brain activity. It’s an expensive and time-intensive process that can take months to translate into viable treatment, Kumar said.
To address these challenges, Mocxa has created a robotic VEEG system that uses basic smartphone cameras and can wirelessly monitor and record patients’ movements from the comfort of their homes. Mocxa’s device, ranked by the Epilepsy Foundation of America as one of the top five innovations of 2020, is revolutionizing both how epilepsy is diagnosed and who can access treatment.
“It’s painful to see people not be able to afford diagnosis or have to wait months and months for their results,” Kumar said. “If our technology can help in some way, I will be very pleased.”
Kumar co-founded Mocxa with her husband, Aditya Kadambi. They make a unique duo: she brings the business savvy and he brings the tech know-how. After four years of testing and experimentation, they are poised to commercially launch Mocxa’s first device later this year.
While the medical device industry has proven to be a big learning curve for both of them, Kumar knows what it takes to run a company in Bangalore. Her first startup in Bangalore was called Koshha, an app that provides digital identity verification solutions for banks. After years of managing global teams for the American banking conglomerate, Citi, Kumar moved back to India in 2012 to start Koshha and has been exploring new business opportunities there ever since.
“I tend to gravitate toward new challenges and always try to do the interesting and funky things wherever I work,” she said.
At U-M, Kumar specialized in corporate strategy and finance. She looks back fondly on that time for the challenging discussions with Michigan Ross professors and the space she found to critically think about business in new ways.
“There are nuances to every place you work,” she said. “Ross helped me refine my people skills and my understanding of organizational behavior, and these have proven incredibly useful every place my career has taken me.”
Miyu Nishikawa (MBA ’13) is a lover of games, gadgets, and all things tech-related. In 2019, she started her own virtual reality (VR) consulting company, IntoFree Inc., forging a unique niche for herself at the intersection of technology and international business.
IntoFree works with tech companies that want to enter the virtual-reality space and expand their market presence in Japan. Tokyo, where IntoFree is based, is one the world’s foremost hubs for new technology, Nishikawa explained, but it can be challenging to build a business there without a grasp of the language or knowledge of the cultural nuances of its tech economy.
“A lot of CEOs are good at inventing new technology, yet they often aren’t as skilled at running businesses or bridging global markets,” she said.
Nishikawa specialized in international business at Michigan Ross, and she credits her time in Ann Arbor for equipping her with the tools to navigate the tech industry on a global level.
“The ways people think and make decisions are often quite different, even in business,” she said. “At U-M, I learned how to approach these differences and effectively communicate with colleagues from different backgrounds. Honing these skills early on in my career has given me a real advantage in the tech world.”
Prior to starting IntoFree, Nishikawa was heading the Japanese VR sector for the Taiwan-based computer company, HTC. Nishikawa learned a lot from her time with HTC, but she also felt limited only being able to work with HTC products. Now she’s able to use the newest devices from almost every tech company in the VR space.
“Eventually, I felt like I was just done working for somebody else,” she said. “IntoFree is a lot of fun for me because I’m always looking for the latest gadget I can invest my energy in.”
Today, virtual reality remains a specialized technology for gaming communities or professional operations—sort of like the computer 25 years ago. Though it has taken longer than many expected for VR to become a household commodity, Nishikawa predicts this is soon going to change. And if the last 12 months, with its catalog of video meetings and online events, is any indication of what the future holds, it’s pretty hard to argue with her.
The University of Michigan has long been home for students captivated by the possibilities of business and innovative technology. In 2020, U-M launched 31 new startups across its three campuses—all during a global pandemic. And more than ever, Michigan alumni are taking their creativity to new places, sparking brilliant ideas and lighting the way for positive change in all corners of the world.