June, 2021 | Mays Impacts

Kyle Koehler ’09 is an unlikely founder of a food manufacturing company. Yet Wildway –the company he co-founded in 2012–has benefitted from his financial acumen, commitment to health, and desire to live a values-based life that supports the creation of a better world. Koehler’s unconventional but highly successful path led to his selection as Mays Business School’s Professional Program in Account (PPA) 2021 Rising Star Award.

This honor recognizes a recent PPA graduate who is making a substantial impact on society through business acumen, exceptional leadership, or entrepreneurial success. “Kyle represents exactly what the PPA Rising Star Award is intended to recognize: he is a young, successful entrepreneur who co-founded Wildway just three years after graduating from Texas A&M University,” said Dr. Nate Sharp, head of the James Benjamin Department of Accounting in Mays Business School and the Nelson D. Durst Endowed Chair in Accounting. “As a PPA Rising Star, Kyle’s success demonstrates that ‘advancing the world’s prosperity’ often goes hand-in-hand with improving people’s lives. We are incredibly proud of what Kyle has accomplished with Wildway.”

An Adventure in Entrepreneurship

Koehler, who was born and raised an Aggie, took a circuitous route to being an entrepreneur. After graduating from Mays PPA Group 17, the native of LaGrange, Texas lived briefly in Austin before moving to New York City, where he worked for Ernst & Young. However, the big-city lifestyle eventually took its toll. “The corporate life got draining and exhausting, especially in New York City,” he said. “The hours and days were long and living there wasn’t fulfilling in my personal life. I wanted to pursue something that spoke to the values that I had personally and the lifestyle that I wanted to live.”

Kyle and his wife at the time, Kelli, decided to return to Texas, selecting San Antonio as their new home. “The main reason we chose to move back to San Antonio was to be closer to family,” Koehler said. “Family has always taken precedence for us and the importance of family is also built into our company culture. I always tell our people that family comes before your job and to never sacrifice family for work.”

The city also has proven to be a good fit in other ways. The proximity to the Hill Country offers ready accessibility to outdoor activities. Additionally, San Antonio’s business-friendly environment has been instrumental in the Koehlers’ rapid success as food entrepreneurs. “San Antonio is a very business-friendly city with a strong entrepreneurial culture and a great workforce,” Koehler said. “We would not be where we are today if we had to deal with the cost of building a manufacturing business in a more expensive city or state.”

Clean Eating

The idea to create Wildway was sparked by the Koehlers’ decision to clean up their diet. “We took out a lot of added sugars from our diet and started eating really healthy. We felt really good with it,” he said. “We made snack items for ourselves that were gluten-free, didn’t have any sugars, and were made with really clean ingredients. At one point, we wondered whether we could turn this into a business and make something of this.”

After founding the company in 2012, Kyle and Kelli spent the next year testing products and formulations for clean and tasty cereals, granolas, and snacks at the city’s small farmer’s markets. Feedback and sales proved promising. “The first time we attended a farmers market in San Antonio, we made enough granola for the entire weekend,” Koehler said. “When we sold out of everything in a little over an hour, that’s when we thought that we might have something worth building on a larger scale.”

Healthy Growth

Now, the company’s products can be found on the shelves of over 2,000 grocery and health-food stores across the nation. Wildway is sold in a variety of leading national and regional supermarkets, including H-E-B, Whole Foods Market, Sprouts, Kroger, and Wegmans.

The business, which currently has 12 employees, differs from many other food manufacturing companies. “We do all of our manufacturing in-house, which is a little different from a lot of food manufacturers that outsource their manufacturing to a firm that specializes in food manufacturing,” Koehler said. “We built our manufacturing plant from the ground up and there’s a lot of learning experiences there.”

This business model works, and the company’s rapid growth has caught the industry’s attention. Wildway was selected from 700 applicants to be among the nine companies to participate in the Chobani Food Incubator. The Aggie-owned small business was also one of 10 chosen for the PepsiCo Incubator. Both incubators mentor entrepreneurs as they grow their business to the next level.

Feeding Success

The Mays graduate’s role continues to evolve as the company grows. Originally tasked with handling the accounting as well as a broad range of jobs necessitated in a small business, Koehler now primarily oversees the business’s finances and operations. Kelli, who was recognized by the Association of Former Students in the 2021 “12 Under 12 Young Alumni Spotlight,” focuses on marketing.

Koehler credits much of the company’s success to what he learned at Mays and Texas A&M. “There are a lot of people who go into business without a business background because they are passionate about a product, a particular service or particular thing they can make,” he said. “The business background for me was very important in starting and growing the business. Knowing how to read a financial statement and how to balance a budget when we were first starting out was incredibly helpful. I think a lot of extracurricular activities that I was involved in at the university also helped with my leadership ability and ability to manage people.”

As the company continues to grow, Koehler remains dedicated to bringing positive change to the world through manufacturing clean food. “Kyle epitomizes the Aggie core values, especially excellence, integrity, and selfless service. Wildway, the company Kyle and Kelli have created, provides a high-quality product intended to make people’s lives better and healthier,” said Dr. Mike Shaub, the Deloitte Professional Program Director Professor. “Kyle shows his integrity in being uncompromising about being fully himself, and his focus is on others, whether that is the customer or his employees. He wants a healthy work environment, a healthy community, and a healthy world. He did not go into this venture to get rich, but to make the world a better place by what he saw as a genuine need. What better way to advance the world’s prosperity?”

Categories: Alumni, Former Students, Mays Business, News, PPA, Programs, Texas A&M

Texas A&M University junior Sunjay Letchuman ’22 is the first Mays Business School undergraduate to have a manuscript published in a major medical journal.  He co-authored the article, “Trust-Based Partnerships Are Essential—and Achievable—in Healthcare Service,” with Dr. Leonard L. Berry, who holds the M.B. Zale Chair in Retailing and Marketing Leadership, and two leading clinicians. The article will appear in the June 2 issue of the Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

Letchuman, who is enrolled in Mays’ Business Honors program, appreciated the support and guidance he received from Berry. “Publishing in a journal like Mayo Clinic Proceedings is essentially an unattainable achievement for an undergraduate student, so this has been an enormous privilege for me. Texas A&M professors perform top-tier research all across campus, and it is rewarding for Texas A&M students to perform any kind of research here,” said the Texas A&M’s University Scholar and Undergraduate Research Scholar. “But working with Dr. Berry is a distinct honor. Dr. Berry is a leader in improving healthcare service, and his work has been cited more times than any other Texas A&M professor. For a student like me who is committed to learning how to improve our healthcare industry, working with Dr. Berry is a dream come true.”

The article also marks the first time that Berry, a University Distinguished Professor and Regents Professor, has published an article with an undergraduate. “Sunjay is one of the finest students I have taught in my career—extremely smart but also intellectually curious, intuitive, and a hard worker,” said Berry, who also serves as a senior fellow at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement in Boston, MA. “Following the end of the healthcare course he took from me he asked if he could collaborate on a future article; I had never collaborated with an undergraduate student before on research. But if I was ever going to do it, he was the student.”

Creating the manuscript also gave Letchuman, who is accepted to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, the opportunity to work with two leading clinicians:

  • Rana L.A. Awdish, the director of the Pulmonary Hypertension Program for the Department of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine of Henry Ford Health System. She also serves as the medical director for Care Experience at Henry Ford Health System.
  • Karina Dahl Steffensen, a medical oncologist, and professor, and director of the Center for Shared Decision Making in the Department of Clinical Oncology at Vejle Hospital in Vejle, Denmark.

The co-authors’ article suggests that creating trust-based partnerships between patients and the clinicians who care for them have never been more important as the world’s healthcare systems continue to be challenged by the coronavirus pandemic. Offering a vision for healthcare’s role as a service provider, the paper’s core argument is that patients’ trust of their doctors is about more than the science.  The co-authors write, “…excellent healthcare requires more than mere trust in clinicians’ professional ability; it centers on both competence and partnership. This multidimensional trust involves patients’ confidence that a clinician is interested in them as a person, not just as a patient; will be a reliable, caring partner in preventing, diagnosing, and treating disease; and will offer support when curative treatment is not possible.”

This renewed focus on trust between clinicians and patients was underscored during the COVID-19 pandemic when clinicians were placed in a role of providing extraordinary support and clear communication when families were unable to enter intensive care units. The co-authors argued that the role of trust is a central issue in the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines since many members of racial and ethnic minority groups have long-standing—and well-founded—concerns about healthcare.

The co-authors believe that creating and nourishing this deeper level of partnership between clinicians and patients will require the implementation of four, interrelated service-quality concepts: empathetic creativity, discretionary effort, seamless service, and mitigation of fear.

Health organizations that prioritize these concepts proactively adopt key institutional policies and procedures, including investing in organizational culture; hiring health professionals based on their values as well as their skills; promoting continuous learning; honoring the importance of language in all care interactions; offering patients “go-to” sources that provide timely assistance; and creating systems and structures that are designed to encourage trust.

Letchuman, who will have a health policy internship with the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions in summer 2021, plans to use what he is learning at Mays to support his medical career and to influence healthcare policy. “The paper we wrote really boils down to how we can practice better medicine by improving trust between patients and clinicians. As a future clinician, it will be my duty to implement the service concepts and practices outlined in our paper,” he said. “In a broader sense, working on this paper has taught me the value of bringing a humanistic, empathy-driven approach to improving patient care. These are lessons that I will carry forward in my own career. By designating healthcare as one of its three Grand Challenges, the Mays Business School has cultivated an environment where business students are driven to make a difference in healthcare.”



Categories: Health Care