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Mary Lemmer, BBA '10: Using Improv to Transform the Business World

By Andrew Mentock
Tags: Alumni

There is no single occupation or career designation that properly defines the professional pursuits of Mary Lemmer, BBA '10. She’s a creative entrepreneur, startup advisor, recovering investor, philanthropist, author, late-night talk show host, TED Talk speaker, and improv comedian. 

She is the founder of Improve, a venture that teaches improv skills to professional organizations, including Lyft, KPMG, the University of Michigan, Square, Patreon, TechStars, Silicon Valley Bank, and several others.

“Everything is designed with the organization in mind,” Lemmer said. “I came from the business world first and speak their language. The improv exercises are a means to achieve the desired outcomes for the companies. It’s like giving people M&Ms that are packed with vitamins. It’s going to be fun and it’s going to be effective in reaching your goals.”

She is also currently involved with, or a founder of, several other companies, including Schox Philanthropy, Startup Late Night, Payitoff, Iorio Gelato, and more. 

“I have several businesses. I do different things,” Lemmer said. “And I don't have a typical 9-to-5, 40-hours-a-week job. Every week is a little bit different. Everything I do is really centered around making an impact. I really want to, and I choose things to spend time working on that I believe make a positive impact in the world.”

But Lemmer was not always equipped to have such a flexible work schedule or pursue multiple passions at once.

Improv to the rescue

Growing up and into early adulthood, Lemmer was a prisoner of her calendar. 

“If something didn’t go as I planned it would throw me off into a tailspin of anxiety,” she said. “Though my incredible discipline and scheduling abilities made me an incredibly productive robot, they also made me a miserable human.”

While still in Ann Arbor — after graduating with a BBA from the Ross School of Business — Lemmer decided to enroll in a multi-week improv class to better deal with life’s inevitable chaos. Soon thereafter, she went to Chicago and participated in improv training at The Second City.

Her experiences were transformational, especially at the time in her job in venture capital and as an entrepreneur. Not only did improv carry several mental health benefits, including reducing her anxiety and anxiety-inspired ailments, but Lemmer also became better able to handle uncertainty at work, communicate, connect with colleagues, make decisions with limited information, and achieve team goals.

She soon began sharing this knowledge with clients.

“People noticed the value as soon as they experienced it or witnessed it,” Lemmer said. “Before then it wasn’t necessarily clear because people didn’t really know what to expect. It’s hard to know what to expect when you haven’t tried something before. Those business leaders and organizations that took that leap and tried it were definitely blown away by how helpful it was.”

Eventually, she began to charge for training sessions and speaking engagements. She initially held onto her career as a venture capitalist, seeing improv as more of a side hustle. 

But then her mom attended one of her speaking engagements in Pittsburgh. Afterward, Lemmer received some well-timed motherly perspective. 

“Do you see what's happening?” her mother said. “You led a session this morning for a group of 30 CEOs and you were calm as a cucumber. And it was amazing! You were incredible.”

From then on, her vision for Improve changed and has grown to where it is today. 

Giving back to Michigan Ross

Lemmer enrolled at the University of Michigan in 2006 excited to push herself into new and exciting directions. Already a budding entrepreneur, she took chances, followed her gut, and connected with as many faculty members and professors as possible.

“I really appreciated their openness and willingness to help,” she said. “I went to a lot of office hours. When I was a freshman I actually, unannounced, went to Professor Andrew Hoffman’s office and told him I admired his work and wanted to help him with his research. I ended up conducting independent research with him and later participating in two of his Sustainable Energy Fellowships.”

Those experiences are part of the reason she still makes it a point to return to campus and give back to the university on a regular basis.

Since graduating, Lemmer has conducted several improv workshops for entrepreneurial students, participated in a university lecture series, and spoken to a number of different classes, sometimes teaching improv to as many as 100 Michigan Ross students. She’s also stayed involved with the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies.

“Michigan is a huge school and you can carve your own niche and build your own experiences,” Lemmer said. “There’s so much room to create and be proactive, which is kind of my jam.”

She continues to blaze her own path. To do so, Lemmer has had to expand the boundaries of what she thought possible, with an early step of that professional journey and self-discovery happening during her time at Michigan Ross.