From Barrett to Buckets: Outstanding Alum Mark Huerta on Non-Profit Entrepreneurship and the Undergraduate Experience

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April 16, 2018

No one predicted that a small project from a college ethics class would evolve into a full-fledged non-profit, yet Mark Huerta managed to make it happen.

Mark Huerta

The Arizona State University doctoral student received the Barrett Alumni Award for Early Career Achievement last week for helping to establish the 33 Buckets Foundation, which works to provide safe water for people in underdeveloped countries through local franchise development. 

Mark Huerta and Alexis Gilbransen

Barrett alum Mark Huerta and Barrett senior Alexis Gulbransen.

Rising Barrett senior, Alexis Gulbransen, had the opportunity to sit down with Huerta to gain insight on the past, present, and future of the organization and how the Barrett undergraduate experience played a part in its development.

What is a highlight of your most recent project with 33 Buckets and what are your future steps or plans for the organization?

It’s exciting to have our 501(c)(3) finally established. It legitimizes our organization and allows us to grow and develop new financial streams. We’ve also been constantly expanding our team- we’ve even brought on some Barrett students to travel with us and help us with our initiatives. This summer we’re working on several clean water initiatives in Peru and El Salvador. In a way, it’s our final round of testing our model and we’re exploring new projects where we’re integrating point of sale (POS) technology into our work for assessment purposes. All of this is done to help ensure the long term sustainability of what we’ve been working on so passionately the past few years. A huge thing we’ve managed to do is engage in what we call the “franchise model” in which we identify a key leader in impoverished global communities and form a committee to oversee the operations that we implement. This ensures that the water from the systems we establish will be priced fairly and managed by reputable people that we empower through education and interaction.

Why did you choose this cause in particular?

It kind of chose me, in a way! I signed up for a one-credit course called Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS). EPICS is an elective in which engineers can apply their technical knowledge to solve real-world issues. I was placed on a project to provide access to clean water at an all-girls school in Bangladesh and it inspired me to continue the pursuit of what I do now with 33 Buckets. It was my first time traveling to a developing country and introduced me to different ways of life, cultures, and perspectives that fundamentally inspired me to continue to do all I can to help the developing world.

What moved you to take that first entrepreneurial step and establish 33 Buckets? What made you decide to create your own business immediately after college rather than working for someone else?

I’m not sure if there was a specific pivotal moment that moved me, but there were certainly instances in Bangladesh where I was able to connect really closely with the people down there that called me to action. Their gratitude and excitement fueled me to continue my work. I felt like I was meant to see this through, that I wouldn’t allow myself to let these people down. I knew deep down that I was always going to finish what I started after my first trip. It was certainly difficult and there were definitely roadblocks and delays due to travel, funding, and safety issues, but once my team and I completed that first project and started to get a better grip on what we were doing, we wanted to continue the momentum. It became easier once we were legitimized through partnerships with two Non-governmental Organizations and it propelled us to continue to develop this outside of school.

What advice would you give to students pursuing a similar course of action upon graduation?

I would always say that the best thing you can do as a student is continue to stay involved in things that you enjoy doing, that you’re passionate about. Ultimately, if you’re intrinsically motivated to do something and it doesn’t feel like work, you’ll continue to learn and allow your idea to grow and develop. I mean, you never know what might happen or what connections you could make if you stick with it. You could get lucky, meet the right people, and turn your project into something you never even dreamed could be a reality. I didn’t walk into my EPICS class thinking I was going to start a non-profit, but eventually it evolved into something greater because my team and I continued working on something we cared about. Starting something new is completely uncharted territory but allows you to learn and grow.

What were the challenges and rewards of working in another country? What steps did you take to prepare yourself for working in a multicultural environment?

The biggest challenge so far has been working in Bangladesh, specifically, due to the language barrier that I’ve experienced. Though I’m familiar with Peru, there’s definitely little idiosyncrasies to every country we work with and how they handle things. It’s almost like starting over in every country we try to bring projects to because you have to learn and understand their individual cultures, values, and traditions. There are also difficulties with supply chain management and learning which types of materials work well in different countries and learning where to source things. We have overcome some of these issues through partnerships with local universities, like our relationship with Universidad San Ignacio Loyola in Cusco, Peru. They’re really helpful because the professors are familiar with Peruvian culture and are connected with the leaders and communities of the rural areas we seek to work with. It’s instant credibility and helps the communities to trust us.

What resources did you take advantage of during your time at Barrett that may have helped you achieve what you have today?

The Barrett project fund and dissertation fund contributed significantly to financing our assessment trip to Bangladesh. These funds allowed us to kickstart this entire thing.

Did your honors thesis relate to the work you do now? Did the thesis experience impact the course of your career choices in any fashion?

The honors thesis was a really great thing for me! After our assessment trip, my team and I had a lot of data to work with that allowed us to write a thesis regarding the solution for our actual implementation project. It gave us a structured way to collect feedback on our ideas and kept us on track by holding us accountable for creating a concrete plan, collecting our funding, and making this whole project happen.

Did any faculty play a part in your decision to pursue your 33 Buckets dream?

Mark Henderson, associate dean of Barrett at the Polytechnic campus, is one of the most helpful professors I’ve encountered. He played an integral part in our thesis and assisted us in developing our ideas, especially in the early stages. Professor Scott Shrake was also a huge inspiration for me and role model. He has been a mentor for me and provided me with both life and project advice that had a large impact on me.

Were you supported by any scholarships while you attended Barrett? If yes, how did that assistance impact your experience?

I had the President’s Scholarship and a few other small scholarships that allowed me to push any worries about debt aside. I didn’t have to maintain any side jobs until after I graduated, which allowed me to focus on my projects wholeheartedly.

Did you complete any internships or work experience during your undergraduate years that helped you in your future career? How did the Barrett experience prepare you for these opportunities?

A lot of my undergraduate work experience was engineering oriented, which provided me a problem-solving mentality that laid a good foundation for the projects I began to work on with 33 Buckets. Many of these were connected to Barrett experts and faculty that especially helped me to develop a base level of knowledge in the civil engineering skills I would need to design future projects.

In what ways do you believe Barrett can serve to help communities in the developing world?

As Barrett students, we’re really encouraged to participate in extracurriculars that motivate us to pursue initiatives through which we can make an impact in communities we care about. The great thing about the honors community at Arizona State is that you’re constantly surrounded by achieving, motivated people that will relentlessly pursue things that interest them. All of my friends are extremely successful in their careers or efforts to serve others, mostly due to our time spent at Barrett.

 Story by Alexis Gulbransen

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