As multitaskers go, Kathy Ku may be a future hall-of-famer.
In 2014, she graduated from a special four-year program at Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in molecular and cellular biology and a master’s in engineering sciences. But in the middle of that program she took a year off to co-found SPOUTS, a water filter company in Uganda, that has brought clean drinking water to at least half a million people.
After refining that company’s infrastructure and manufacturing processes, Ku left Uganda to study at Stanford School of Medicine. While she was there, she was accepted to the MBA program at Stanford GSB.
In addition to all that, Ku and her cofounder from SPOUTS helped launch Juni Essentials, the U.S. subsidiary of Korean bamboo-toothbrush brand Dr. Noah, and used her manufacturing background to increase production of the sustainable toothbrushes.
Oh, and she just had her first child.
Her superpower? “I describe myself as a pretty boring person, which probably helps,” Ku says. “Not having hobbies opens up a lot of room for efficiency.”
How did you get involved in Uganda while you were still in college?
I traveled to Uganda the summer after my first year of college with an organization catering to pregnant teens. I was teaching a basic health course there and living with a host family. Then I came back to school and was taking classes in basic engineering and science, and making designs for low-cost water filters. I also was active in the Harvard chapter of Engineers Without Borders. The theoretical work is great, but I decided if I was talking about this I should go for it. And I had access to people who were willing to help. So I decided to take a year off and go to Uganda and see what I could accomplish.
You said you knew Uganda was where you belonged. Was there a single moment or incident that convinced you of that?
I took my year off from undergrad to work on SPOUTS and we were originally testing our production in a rural area of eastern Uganda in partnership with a university there. We were supposed to make 150 filters and sell them to an organization. We were doing a terrible job. We could see there was a demand for them, but we were making them by hand, and we were using a 20-ton car jack to squish the clay. It was just me and my co-founder, and we were sweating to make maybe five filters a day. We really needed to scale. There was a point where it was like, “OK, as long as we can figure this out, we can make it work.”
What entrepreneurial lessons did you learn from that experience?
We made mistakes at every step along the way. It cost us a lot of time and money, but because we were so young we thought that as long as we could fight through it, we’d figure out a way. We ended up taking the hard route many times because we wanted to save a little bit of money here and there, such as buying lower-quality machinery. Eventually we caught on that you want to do it right the first time around.
Any memorable mistakes?
We were building our current factory on four acres of land. The main foundation of our factory floor is 40-by-20 meters. We decided to not use a contractor and I did the work with day laborers on the site, and the foundation ended up looking like a rhombus and not a quadrilateral. It was just a little bit off, but we had to fix it.
So what was your life like in Uganda?
I spent a lot of my time in the industrial areas where there are few females. Especially when I was trying to fix things, and working with contractors, it was even worse. At one point I cut my hair short and my life got so much better. I was so skinny, and I put on a hat and they thought there was this young boy running around. Eventually, you develop a tough enough skin and figure out ways to get around the gender issue.
What prompted you to leave Uganda and pursue other projects?
I wanted to go to medical school. My path into clean water was from a healthcare perspective. Early on with SPOUTS, if I or my co-founder weren’t there, we weren’t confident it would survive and grow. But at a certain point we realized it was doing well without us. With organizations that are led by founders, there’s always this tricky part about how to exit without changing the culture of the company too much. I spent a full year working with the current CEO to make sure that transition would go smoothly. It was just a question of the right time for it.
You’ve used the phrase “Good intentions don’t necessarily equate to good outcomes.” Did that outlook influence your decision to pursue an MBA?
The medical school part relies heavily on the good intentions part. And then I was hoping to use the business school to make sure there’s a good outcome. Not that practicing healthcare won’t lead to good outcomes, but in the same way I wanted to build SPOUTS to be sustainable, I wanted to see if I could make things more sustainable and more effective in healthcare as well.
How does your business school education fit in your overall plans?
I’m interested in access and equity. Practicing healthcare doesn’t leave much breathing room, especially because you’re learning so much, and at my stage everything is new. There’s not enough time or head space to compartmentalize what I’m learning on a day-to-day basis and what that actually means for patients. I thought the MBA would give me the space to do that.
What experiences at GSB stand out as particularly helpful or influential?
A lot of the learning I’ve done is through my peers. GSB people are incredibly busy. But you can always find people who are just as passionate about the things you’re passionate about, and who have more applicable experiences and better knowledge and skills.
Have you made personal compromises to attend both medical school and business school?
I don’t know if I missed anything. I got married in med school. My husband and I recently had our first kid. My husband is a neurosurgery resident at Stanford and doesn’t have a lot of time, either. Our idea of going on a date or having a day off is going to a coffee shop together and setting up our respective laptops and doing whatever work we’re behind on. And we’re both very satisfied with that being our hobby. I feel very satisfied with the level of energy and upkeep that my idea of a hobby requires, which is mostly just eating!
Photos by Allison Felt