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Alumni Profile: Andrew Mang

Andrew Mang is developing a startup of his own to offer a one-stop resource for any project’s water needs in Uganda and Rwanda.

Andrew Mang

With several experiences pursuing water quality projects in Africa under his belt, Andrew Mang focused his senior NAE Grand Challenge Scholar thesis on redesigning hand pumps for rural communities. Now, after leaving the startup company in New York City he worked for after graduation, Mang is developing a startup of his own to offer a one-stop resource for any project’s water needs in Uganda and Rwanda.

Why did you choose Duke for engineering school?

When I got out of high school I was technically proficient, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to be when I grew up. And while other engineering schools seemed to already have a very clear idea of what becoming an engineer meant, the programs at Duke felt different. For example, I wanted to double-major in economics along with mechanical engineering, and not only did Duke allow that, they encouraged it. Duke understands that that not everybody wants to work in a machine shop, and they work to develop well-rounded leaders.

How did you get involved with water quality issues, especially in Africa?

One of the very first groups I got involved with was Duke Engineers for International Development (DEID).  We traveled over to Uganda, identified access to clean water as a problem and worked to fix the issues. And then during my junior year, I got involved with the NAE Grand Challenge Scholars program, which really helped bring a lot of my interests together. I’d always been interested in service-learning, research and having a global impact, but I had never seen a coherent program that pulled them all together until then. That was how Duke got me into this.

How did those interests develop into the idea to start a company?

When I was working on my senior thesis, I learned pretty quickly that you need a corporate entity to get any actual work done on a larger scale. There has to be some organization for the government or other entities to partner with. While I was at Duke, I had big dreams but no concrete plans as to how to achieve them. After continuing to work on some side projects through my senior year and after graduation, I realized that it would be impossible to have a big impact without committing to it full time. A colleague I met in Uganda had the same thoughts, so we each quit our jobs and took the big leap to start working together. Now things are starting to take off, which is really exciting for us.

What does your company do?

The company’s name is Aswanet, and we like to think of ourselves as a holistic water engineering services company. If you’re doing a big project that requires water, we’ll be your water and sanitation partner. We’ll partner with our clients all the way from feasibility studies to design and construction and then continue with ongoing maintenance. We’ll bring in new technology as it’s developed if needed. We found that in Africa, there are lots of people working on big development projects who know water is important for their project’s success, but they don’t have a local phone number to call for people to help them. We’re that phone number.

What sorts of projects do you work on?

Our biggest project right now is helping a group of agricultural specialists plan Rwanda’s biggest poultry farm. These specialists know how to raise poultry and build greenhouses, but they need a hand making sure the water resources meet their needs. We’ll be the ones pumping the water from the ground, storing it in tanks, sanitizing it if needed, and supplying water into nearby fields as they grow. It’s important for people to work with the same company for everything rather than working with different companies for individual parts of their project. The client can focus on their work and we just take care of the water.

We’ve also recently signed a memorandum of understanding with a local water source provider, which wants technical assistance with billing and payments. And as a third example, we’ve partnered with a Swedish company that specializes in water purification. We’re going to be their local engineering implementation partner.

What about your experience at Duke prepared you for this endeavor?

While I didn’t participate in any of the entrepreneurial programs on campus, I knew a lot of people who did and was exposed to it a lot. It helped me realize that it’s something anyone can do as long as they keep working at it. And it was cool to see how people would approach problems and try different solutions while working to create something.

I also lived in the Smart Home for a year, which showed me what you can do with technology. Sure, we’ve been using city water for decades, but why not just collect rainwater? It forced me to question everything, which is also really important when developing business ideas. Duke Engineering is also full of lots of very skilled people from different backgrounds. Of course, experiencing working until 4:00 am with someone very different from yourself has been very helpful as well!

What advice would you have for others thinking about following their dreams into entrepreneurship?

First, I would have students really get introspective and think about exactly what part of engineering and entrepreneurship they are interested in, and to remember there’s more than one way to solve a problem. Working in a laboratory can produce technical solutions, but there’s also much that can be done through policy or working on broader social aspects of the problem. No solution – technical, policy, or otherwise – exists in a vacuum.

I’d also tell students that it’s relatively easy to change what you’re doing. So many times we get hung up on big decisions that we think will be for life, but it isn’t. People change careers all the time. Find something that interests you and pursue it.

Finally, while Duke has so many great resources and support networks for future entrepreneurs, make sure it’s the right path for you. More than 90 percent of my time is not working on water projects—it’s reconciling bank statements for tax declarations or making sure our trading license fees are paid. If you start a company, you have to be a jack of all trades and learn how the pieces fit together. So if you’d rather be really great at your engineering specialty, you should probably join an established firm with a good career development path.

That being said, you should also figure out what role you want your career to fill in your life. Some people want to pursue outside hobbies like music or art, or want to spend a lot of time with their family, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I sometimes feel like entrepreneurs are held up as the measuring stick of success, but people should feel comfortable with themselves saying a 9 to 5 is my goal and I want it to facilitate these other aspects of my life.

But for people who have a big end goal in mind and are willing to pour in a substantial amount of their energies, entrepreneurship is great. That’s how I’m wired. And I’ve discovered that lots of very ambitious people doing cool things aren’t geniuses – they’re just normal people. I’ve found the difference between them and someone with an idea is that the entrepreneur simply executed the idea that was in their head. And then they kept on going even through failures. It’s just an endurance test, in my experience. If you can keep trying and hearing no over and over until you find something that works, then you can start a company.