During her high school years in Omaha, Nebraska, Teresa Stastny’s view of the world expanded far beyond the Midwestern plains. As one of the first students to participate in her school’s International Baccalaureate Diploma program, which emphasizes independent thinking and cultural awareness, she became more mindful of social issues — particularly movements to help women in other countries. That awareness shaped Stastny’s desire to study abroad as a student at TU and eventually, her career path.
As a freshman, she traveled to Brazil over spring break with her emerging economies class. In addition to learning about the country’s emerging, yet rocky economy, the group also had an opportunity to visit a women’s project in the tropics. Stastny recalls the impact that visit had on her as a person and as a future professional. “One businesswoman knew how to weave and successfully sell her products. She shared her knowledge by inviting other women into her home and business, teaching them how to make their own materials, weave them into home goods, and sell their own products. I started thinking about the idea of entrepreneurship and social responsibility, and how I want to consult for startups focused on social projects,” she said.
In the summer of 2016, Stastny stepped even further outside her comfort zone when she joined a team tasked with helping to build a sustainable community from the ground up on a tropical mountainside in Panama. She found out about the company and its namesake community, Kalu Yala, from an unlikely source: an ad on Facebook. “I clicked on the ad and it took me to a website with a bunch of photos that looked cool,” she said. But she got busy and forgot about it, until she opened up her laptop one day to find the tab on her web browser still open.
She took a chance and applied for the internship and after a couple of interviews, found out she was headed to Panama for the summer. Stastny received a Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship from the U.S. State Department, which helped finance her experience.
While the prospect of traveling to an unfamiliar country to work on building a community in the jungle with a bunch of strangers sounds like a daunting prospect to some, Stastny viewed it as the perfect fit for her adventurous spirit. “I thrive when I’m around new people,” she said. Her mettle was tested right away when she and the group of 80 students took off on a grueling, two-hour uphill hike through the jungle to the valley community of Kalu Yala. At the halfway point, overcome with physical and mental exhaustion, Stastny questioned whether she would make it to her destination. “I reached a mango tree and decided, ‘I’m just going to keep putting one foot in front of another.’”
Wading through two rivers, she reached the valley and chose her home for the next 11 weeks: the top of an open-air rancho with no curtains or walls for protection from the elements. Stastny explains that the goal of Kala Yalu is to build the world’s most sustainable modern town by limiting waste and taking advantage of available natural resources without destroying natural habitats. “We studied what was already growing in the region and instead of using chemicals to keep insects and animals away, we used the natural repellant abilities of certain plants.”
The program also includes business development and entrepreneurship components. Stastny’s team worked with a local rum distillery to find ways to generate a stream of income. “Helping someone with no business background furthered my desire to consult with startups,” she said. Stastny also helped keep track of Kalu Yala’s materials and create an index to measure the community’s level of sustainability.
The experience proved life-changing for Stastny; she even considered staying in Panama to continue working with Kalu Yala, but decided to return to finish her degree at TU. “It transformed my life from being a consumer to practicing more sustainability,” she shared. “Good products that aren’t full of harsh chemicals or are vegan are difficult to come by. You have to do your research.”
Stastny’s next international stop was Ireland, where she spent the spring semester studying entrepreneurship and globalization. The management major hopes to one day work as a consultant for entrepreneurs who have great ideas, but little business experience, and she’s especially passionate about projects that empower women. She is also forming a business plan around the sustainability index she worked on in Kala Yalu. Ever the adventurer, Stastny says she’d love to one day return to Panama, although she isn’t quite ready to set a definitive path. “I’m open to new opportunities and I’ll take whatever comes my way,” she said.