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Olivia Fritz
January 4, 2024

From student to startup co-founder: Olivia Fritz sets sights on sustainability engineering

Written By: Stephanies Vang|Amanda Thuss


An interest in sustainability, a passion for the environment, and the promise of a free Qdoba dinner sparked a unique and non-traditional career path for Olivia Fritz, BSCEE ’13.

“Kohler Company was hosting a Design for Environment workshop on campus during my last semester. Being busy with Capstone and preparing for the FE, I was feeling pressured to study, but as I walked by the room and saw free dinner, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity,” shares Fritz. “Looking back, I feel lucky since I didn’t realize I would be attending an event that was the impetus to my career.”

Like many undergrads, Fritz had more questions than answers about her career when she started college. With an open mind to new experiences, connections, and opportunities, she found success on campus that laid the foundation for her future. Now as co-founder and operations director at TrueNorth Collective, Fritz is at home in the fast-growing field of sustainability engineering.

“I’m always learning something new, and no two days are alike due to the nature of running a startup and the evolution of this field. The needs of our clients and the sustainability challenges they face ensure that our work is fast paced, challenging, and fulfilling. Fortunately, we’ve developed a deep bench of talent, and have the support and trust of our clients.”

Fritz’s path from student to startup co-founder was far from linear. She originally planned to study biomedical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison). However, diverse experiences in college like joining Engineers Without Borders, learning to speak Mandarin, and studying abroad in China, gave her a new perspective.  

“Witnessing air pollution fluctuations, waste issues, and speaking with locals in China about environmental concerns, such as the rise in single use products, made me want to be part of the solution,” she explains.

Tracy Holloway’s Topics in Sustainability course, which introduced her to life cycle assessment, further opened Fritz’s eyes to the vast career possibilities in sustainability. An independent study project involving data collection and analysis in Greg Harrington’s water treatment lab helped Fritz develop research and presentation skills that were foundational.

Internships and co-ops were also a critical building block of her career. As an intern with General Electric (GE), Fritz explored the intersection of engineering and manufacturing, which strengthened her passion for sustainability as she saw the environmental impacts that can emerge based on how products are designed. While her next internship with TRC exposed her to the complexities of brownfield sites, environmental compliance, and remediation.

A sustainability workshop on the engineering campus hosted by a large manufacturer during Fritz’s senior year proved to be a pivotal turning point in her college education and ultimately her career. Lured by a free meal and curious about the workshop, Fritz quickly found herself diving deeper into the sustainability space with an activity that challenged students to reimagine a nutmeg grinder using Design for Environment principles. Through the event, she also heard about a co-op opportunity and met a colleague who would help her co-found TrueNorth Collective seven years later.

The eight person co-founding team of TrueNorth Collective
Olivia (front row, second from right) and the TrueNorth Collective co-founding team of product development, design, and engineering experts.

Applying for and accepting the co-op position at Kohler with graduation approaching was a calculated career move that paid off. The position gave way to long-term employment in various environmental engineering roles for over seven years. During this time, Fritz went on to earn her MBA and participated in a leadership program. While challenging, these experiences helped her further define what she was looking for: a community that supports and shares her passion for sustainability engineering.

In January 2021, Fritz found just that in the form of a startup called TrueNorth Collective. Launched by Fritz and seven colleagues, TrueNorth Collective helps clients think critically to make informed decisions with the full environmental impacts of products and services in mind—from raw material extraction through end-of-life.

“We help companies with everything from life cycle assessment to strategic roadmap development supported by the tools needed to deliver a sustainability program fit for purpose,” she explains. “Our mission is to guide meaningful change by making Design for Sustainability feel like a simple path to navigate for our clients.”

For example, while working with a major tire manufacturer and distributor, the team set out to explore a practical and environmentally conscious question: what do we do with old tires? Tapping into existing studies and data, TrueNorth helped their client review ways to reuse tires with a close eye on environmental impacts. Recognizing the importance of this work, the client went on to re-allocate company resources dedicated to establishing a new business opportunity for tire reuse options, highlighting a strategic change within the business that was the result of TrueNorth’s work.

On another noteworthy project, TrueNorth partnered with a company that transforms post-industrial non-recyclable plastic waste into fuel pellets for energy production. By gathering facts and data that validate the client’s product claims and showing how it compares to traditional fuel sources like coal, TrueNorth helped this client better position themselves in the alternative energy market, while opening eyes across the industry to the fuel pellet alternative.

The opportunity to provide a robust foundation for sound decision-making using science-backed data, processes, and tools along with over a decade of proven success as an internal team sets TrueNorth apart in the sustainability consulting field. This commitment to comprehensive insights transcends their work, paving the way for strategic and cultural changes within organizations and challenging preconceived notions about sustainability.

TrueNorth Collective team members during a recent company retreat
The annual TrueNorth Collective team retreat brings this fully remote work group together.

“It’s exciting to see the lightbulbs go on for our clients and the questions they begin to ask as they advance in their understanding of Design for Sustainability strategies,” she shares.

Fritz’s journey is an inspiration for aspiring engineers and sustainability advocates alike that underscores the importance of lifelong learning, strategic networking, and a strong commitment to personal passions. Fritz kept an open mind to new experiences, connections, and opportunities, which helped shape her career and bring the Wisconsin Idea to life on her own terms. Now at TrueNorth Collective, she brings sustainability to the forefront of business and product development strategies, encouraging cultural change among clients and beyond.

“Don’t be afraid to try new things. Be open to opportunities, raise your hand when they come up, and advocate for yourself along the way. You never know where you’ll end up. We all start somewhere, and the experiences and connections we gain along the way are invaluable.”

As a final reflection, Olivia’s advice to those considering a startup is to ensure you have a strong foundational team and mentors in your network to lean on for advice and input along the way.

“TrueNorth has pushed me to step outside of my comfort zone through taking risks, having tough discussions, and taking on more leadership responsibility. I’m very proud of the TrueNorth team and what we’ve accomplished so far, and I’m excited about what our future holds.”