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Olivia LugarCo-Founder + Former Chief Regulatory Officer at NUMiX Materials

"At the end of the day, you know your product, your personality, your team, and your company the best."



Tell us a bit about your background.

I went straight from my undergraduate studies to law school after studying international studies and business strategy. In 2018, I graduated from law school with a focus on renewable energy finance. Having spent much of my life on the golf course as a junior and amateur golfer in college, I have a deep love for the outdoors and environmental issues which led me to the take NUvention: Energy while pursuing my legal degree. From that course, I became a Co-Founder of NUMiX Materials, a water treatment company that deals with toxic and hazardous waste.

I never dreamed as a kid that I'd be working with waste for a living. That being said, I've miraculously ended up on a career path that straddles my parents' work—one was an environmentalist in solid waste management and the other was in public finance. Although I am joining a large law firm in San Francisco as of Fall 2018, my experience with NUMiX has been a whirlwind of exciting challenges and incredible accomplishments and I will continue to be involved with NUMiX as the company grows.

How did the idea for NUMiX come about and how did your team initially form?

In December of 2017, there was a NUvention: Energy pre-class networking event. At this pre-class, there were about twenty of us. I ended up sitting next to Katie [Kollhoff] and Matt [Heise] and I remember Katie really stood out with her really light hair in the room full of, mostly male, engineers. The three of us chatted at the beginning about our general interest in energy. But, it wasn't until the pre-class was over and we broke for a networking "see who you vibe with" session that we really started talking.

We had to leave the classroom because another event came in but we chatted for a good half an hour after the event was done. Though we didn't talk about anything specific at first, we did talk about our general passions for things in the industry.

Then I got an email a couple of weeks into Winter Break before the first NUvention: Energy class from Katie that said 'Hey, we're forming this team, would you like to be a part of this? We're looking at this suite of IP.' Through the class you get access to Northwestern IP to form a business plan around.

I think about our meeting as a “confluence” which is so appropriate since it means a meeting of waters. A confluence of waters is very symbolic, given the industry NUMiX is in. We all had backgrounds that were leading us into the idea. For Matt, he had just recently switched from oil and gas to water equipment designing. Katie has been in hazardous waste for a while. My mother is a manager in a municipal solid waste department; I think touring landfills is really cool. I've done a project in undergrad for a GIS class siting a waste transfer station for hazardous waste. We, weirdly enough, had this beautiful overlap and there happened to be IP that beautifully overlapped our interests as well. The IP was about removing metals from water and it was very simple in that sense and we said this sounds really cool. We have this background. Let's use it!

Tell us about your role on the Numix Team.

I am the former Chief Regulatory Officer. More accurately, I was a strategy person. A lot of what I did on the team was design pretty things, also known as strategic marketing. That includes helping form the narrative for a lot of our competitions and a lot of our external facing things like the website, etc., helping tell the story in a way that's really accessible because I was the only one who was not an Engineer in the group.

My 'feet on the pavement' work included market research and reading through legal documents. I couldn’t advise us because I am not a lawyer yet, let alone the company’s lawyer, but I was able to be the first set of eyes and was able to say 'This concerns me, we should get some advice about this.'

Using my legal training and network, I was able to recommend that we get incorporated, that we get connected at the clinic at Northwestern's Law School, and, I was able to guide conversations with lawyers.

To make it clear, I was not practicing law, and I always said, ‘we should talk to a real attorney.’ But a lot of my work, essentially, was translating things from the science side to the not-science and also translating legal issues so that the team could understand where to ask questions of our counsel.

What were some challenges you had to overcome as an entrepreneur?

There have been moments where I felt like I was on the outside of what was going on. For example, I was at an event where everyone was a scientist and the event heavily skewed male and I walked in with heels and a dress and a magenta jacket and I felt super awkward. I knew how to dress in the legal environment and even in the investor environment. But I felt like an odd thumb out in the science environment because I am not a scientist and felt I couldn’t speak at the same level as everyone. But also I was not dressed like a scientist.

What you wear is a very superficial thing, but it can be very powerful and can communicate a lot about yourself to an audience. That was just one way that I felt how “fish out of water” I was. That happens a lot when working in a startup because you are constantly communicating with different groups of people with different backgrounds and expectations from technical advisors, to investors, to lawyers, to customers, etc.

I have learned how to work to get a feel for how to integrate into different disciplines or communities. It’s an ongoing learning process, but learning how to talk to different audiences, is one challenge I am learning to overcome.

Any advice for aspiring innovators?

It's always good to ask about an event, to essentially research it, before you go. If it's a particular event and someone recommended it, you can ask that person, 'What's the vibe, who's there, what's the demographic?'

For example, at the Rice Business Plan Competition, if you're a young tech entrepreneur, you need to be in a suit because the investors in Houston [where the competition is based] are a little more 'old school.' As much as you want to change things about the industry and show your personality and who you are, you should remember that certain environments are not as diverse. Dress for the environment.

If you feel strongly and you're a jeans and T-shirt person and if your investor can't get over that, then it might not work between you two. At the end of the day, you know your product, your personality, your team, and your company the best. If you are self-aware of that, that can help you avoid bad decisions. If this opportunity looks nice and shiny, but you're saying to yourself, 'Wait a second! We went in with an idea in mind and this is a fundamental change to our whole character,' it might not be a good fit. And, if it's not going to fit, you don't want to go down that road.

Entrepreneurship is a crazy whirlwind and there are a million things up in the air that you're juggling as an entrepreneur, so it can be easy to forget what direction you're moving in. Or, you can let someone else pull you somewhere you know you don't want to go—particularly when you're talking to investors. Investors place their money all over the place. They can easily yank you out of your space and your path to something else that, given it a little more thought about, you would have seen it wasn’t a good fit, and wouldn’t have chosen to do it. This is not to say that looking at something else—being open to connections and new ideas—can't be turned into an opportunity. Just be self-aware as you assess these things.

NUMiX is a very diverse team. How has that helped and/or impacted your entrepreneurial experience?

There’s a great environment on the team having diversity. We have tons of similarities and things that overlap but we have radically different experiences at the same time. We ended up together but we bring different perspectives. That 100% helps with the creative process and the problem-solving. We are driving towards goals together. Going out to the competitions, like RBPC, you see a lot of all male teams. NUMiX is different.

Before NUMiX, my best team experience was being on an all-women team of three. We each had our own technical strengths but we all had unified expectations and goals too. It was a really great experience.

When I was on an all-male team sometimes I would go ten minutes without talking because I wasn’t empowered to speak and because I wasn’t invested enough in the team to push them. That's not to say I haven't been on great all-male teams. But I have, generally speaking, had more positive experiences on diverse teams.

NUMiX has a great balance and everyone has an opportunity to speak on our team and takes advantage of that because we are so passionate about our company.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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