Lessons from an MBA to the Austin Economy
Ricky Berens, former Olympian and a recent MBA graduate, shares how he’s connected his classes with the Austin startup community.
The first two decades of my life were focused on competitive swimming, from my childhood days on a neighborhood summer-league team to my trips to the Olympics in 2008 and 2012. When I retired from swimming at age 25, I knew I had to find another field where I could work hard and succeed. Today I work for Nulo, a pet-food company based in Austin, Texas, and I just finished my MBA at St. Edward’s University in Austin. Austin has been the perfect place to learn about business from practitioners and immediately apply those lessons in a startup environment.
Nulo started about six years ago to take aim at diabetes and obesity in pets, which have escalated just as they have in people. We found that the group most responsive to this mission was people who were health conscious themselves, so we positioned ourselves as the pet food for the active consumer. We’re the official pet food sponsor of Ironman, and we sponsor 14 Olympic athletes and a CrossFit athlete.
Instead of focusing on pet events, where we would be one pet food brand among many, we go to marathon, triathlon and CrossFit expos. It’s a disruptive approach: People at an Ironman expo are looking at bicycle helmets, sunglasses and swimsuits, and then they turn the corner and see our pet food company. For a moment they’re confused, but once you start talking to them, they immediately understand why we’re there. Eighty percent of Ironman athletes have a pet, and they’re out running or hiking with their dogs. And athletes are far more nutrition conscious than the average consumer.
As the field activation manager, I help manage our 70 brand ambassadors and sales reps who introduce customers to our product at pet supply stores across the country. I choose the events, like race expos, we attend, and I negotiate contracts with agents for our sponsored athletes.
Austin is the perfect home base for Nulo; in fact, our CEO, Michael Landa, a former All-American swimmer, moved here from Southern California to start the company. Austin is incredibly health conscious and dog friendly, and the concept of “going local” is strong here. When you walk into a store and say that you’re an Austin-based company, people are sold.
One of the most immediately applicable classes in the St. Edward’s MBA program was the Negotiations class taught by Executive-in-Residence Tony Alvarado. We did a lot of role playing, simulating the kind of scenarios I work in every single day. In the business world, you’re constantly negotiating with your boss and colleagues about what projects you’re taking on, or why you’ve decided to approach them a particular way. At Nulo, I negotiate contracts with our sponsored athletes’ agents: what events the athletes will appear at, how much we pay them and how we can work together to build a partnership.
The MBA program at St. Edward’s has a very entrepreneurial spirit, which is perfect for Austin, where there’s a new company born every day. In the Entrepreneurship class, Assistant Professor of Management Gary Pletcher emphasizes that if you have an idea and a passion, you can start a business. He helped me realize you don’t have to be part of a big corporation; if you’ve got an idea for a company you’d love to start, you can do it here.
Ricky Berens graduated from the MBA program at St. Edward’s University in 2016. Photo courtesy of Nulo Pet Food.
The MBA program at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, builds highly sought-after skills in entrepreneurial thinking, social enterprise, innovation, global collaboration and business analytics — the areas that business leaders need in today’s business world.