Karen Ayyagari, MBA '11: Leveraging Tech Startup Experience to Benefit Infants and Families
“Working at startups, there’s always ups and downs. But at the end of day, I know I’m working on something I truly believe in.”
When Karen Ayyagari, MBA '11, first went to the Ross School of Business, she had already been working in the tech industry for a few years, but she knew she wanted to connect her tech experience to a social mission close to her heart. “I had always loved figuring out how technology can make life better,” she said. “I wanted to find a way to apply my skills to a business mission that fundamentally helps people.”
Today, as vice president of platform for Bobbie, maker of the first USDA- and European Union-certified organic infant formula, Ayyagari’s goal to connect her skills with a meaningful cause has been achieved. Bobbie’s mission goes beyond making high-quality infant formula and aims to support all families, no matter how they feed, to reduce stigmas associated with bottle and formula feeding.
Pushing the bounds of what a food company does
“At Bobbie, we continually ask the question, ‘how can we support parents more broadly?’” One way the company does this is by guaranteeing formula availability to those who subscribe. The company, whose business model is based on annual subscriptions, was just taking flight when the global formula shortages of 2022 struck. The company managed to fulfill all of its subscriptions and became even more committed to guaranteed availability.
“We wanted to alleviate the anxieties and fears of parents surrounding formula availability,” Ayyagari said. “Today we have greater trust even among new subscribers. Every day we get letters from customers sharing how Bobbie has changed their lives — it’s amazing to work at a company that has a direct impact on people’s confidence and well-being, especially in the challenging first year as a new parent.”
In addition, the company provides coaching by certified feeding specialists for subscribers, blog content with information for new parents, and a research and development hub dedicated to feeding research called Bobbie Labs. It’s also now taking on policy advocacy related to maternal mortality rates.
Honing her value proposition
Understanding her true professional niche was something Ayyagari refined at Michigan Ross.
Prior to business school, she was working in product management and knew it was a domain that fit. She wanted to go to business school to gain a broader business understanding for her work. “Product management is like being a mini CEO in that you need to understand all aspects of a business to be successful. I needed a more advanced understanding of things like finance and operations to continue to grow in my career.”
Wanting to remain in the Bay Area after graduation, Ayyagari was unsure how much weight the Michigan name would carry in her career search. She learned more about the Michigan Ross network and was surprised to realize the extensive ties Michigan Ross has to California and the Bay Area. “I immediately felt confident in the Michigan Ross name in California,” she said.
At Michigan Ross, she fell in love with many aspects of the school. “I met amazing people. I loved Ross’ friendly and collegial culture; it never felt competitive.” She said she also appreciated the school’s emphasis on action-based learning and group projects. “I’ve always been someone who learns best by doing. Ross gave me so many opportunities to get my feet wet and try new things. It deepened the learning and what I took away from it.”
Most of all, Ayyagari said it was Ross’ emphasis on social impact that fundamentally changed her outlook on herself and her career. “So many courses and extracurricular opportunities focused on social impact. I learned about a wide range of businesses and initiatives connecting profit with helping people. It gave me a concrete picture of the multitude of ways I could pursue my interests in tech, product management, and social impact.”
Putting it all together
After business school, Ayyagari took roles working with established global companies, including Yahoo!, Sephora, and UNIQLO, and then five years later transitioned to tech startups. “Working with a large organization, I got to see how well-oiled, innovative, tech organizations worked. I learned a lot of best practices to apply in the startup world. I also realized that my heart was with startups and the impact I could have with smaller organizations.”
Ayyagari worked for four years with startups in the Bay Area and then took the leap and joined Binti, a startup providing software facilitating foster care placements for child welfare government agencies. “It was my first career experience applying my skills to a social mission, and it was exciting,” she said.
In 2022, an opportunity arose with Bobbie, and Ayyagari transitioned to her current role. As VP of platform, she oversees the company’s digital experiences for customers and other constituents. “I feel like I’m integrating all of my career interests in one role,” she said. “It’s a true joy.”
Ayyagari said she applies much of what she learned in business school in her work every day. “Ross taught me to be confident in trying new things and getting out of my comfort zone. Sometimes things go well and sometimes they don’t, and that’s ok,” she said. “Managing teams, I also use people skills I gained from Ross’ emphasis on collaboration and working with others.”
Paying it forward
“Thinking about my time in business school brings a smile to my face,” Ayyagari said. “For two years, I was immersed among smart, talented, and dynamic people doing interesting things, and I got to focus on improving myself and figuring out what’s next for me. It was a treasured time, and I’m so appreciative of the experience.”
“I encourage anyone looking to find a career in social impact to focus on their skills and what is truly meaningful,” Ayyagari shared. “Don’t get stuck focusing on company brand labels or job titles. Consider an opportunity in terms of the challenges, learning, and growth opportunities it will bring.”
And when making pivotal career decisions, she added, “Trust yourself and what brings you joy. When you combine this, you’ll find the niche you love.”