Inside Track: Go-getter challenges status quo
Inspired by father's drive, Mirka Wilderer leads Evoqua Water Technologies to remarkable growth.
With only a slight trace of a German accent, Mirka Wilderer describes her journey toward an executive role at a Michigan water systems company.
The youngest of three, she often tried to “boss” her two older brothers, a trait she now sees through feminist eyes like those of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, author of “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.”
An achiever from her earliest memories, Wilderer was never content unless she could challenge the status quo — a trait she inherited from her go-getter father, Peter Wilderer.
“Without a doubt, the biggest influence in my life is my father,” she said.
Her dad won the Stockholm Water Prize in 2003 — comparable to a Nobel Prize for the water and wastewater industry. His research, development and teaching roles took his family all over the world about every two years while Wilderer was growing up — think Mexico, the U.S., New Zealand, Australia and Singapore.
To date, Wilderer has lived and worked on six continents — in Tanzania, Paris, Switzerland, China, South Africa and the Congo — and visited 39 countries — such as Indonesia, Thailand, Russia, the Czech Republic, Egypt and Mexico.
She jokes that her current ambition is to visit her 40th country before she turns 40.
Despite being a half-day drive away, “I have not been to Canada,” she admitted. “My husband and I say if there’s nothing else going on before December, we’ll make a day trip of it.”
As a result of all the globe-hopping, Wilderer describes herself as a “third culture kid” — not quite fitting in any of the countries she has lived in but also not quite recognized as German by those in her homeland.
On a recent trip to Germany, a customs agent remarked that her German was “almost perfect” — a comment that both amused and frustrated her.
Wilderer takes her hybrid identity with her wherever she travels, as well as the inspiration she has found from her father in a career that closely parallels his.
As VP and general manager of Evoqua Water Technologies in Holland, Wilderer slips into social science mode, as she muses on the Wilderer family mythology. She earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Regensburg.
“Wilderer (which she pronounces ‘WILL-dra’) means ‘poacher’ in German,” she said. “My father always says we live up to that name by poaching ideas from all different disciplines to do this work.
“He has encouraged me to ‘hunt in foreign grounds,’ to seek for solutions in other domains and apply them to the problem to be solved.”
Water — whether clean or dirty — was the family business. Her brother and mom also spent time in the field.
“My mom … was also a water engineer, so dinner conversations were always about stinky treatments,” she said, laughing.
Her father’s emphasis on interdisciplinary approaches to the water industry led him to innovations in wastewater recycling, including reclaiming useful material from wastewater and other waste products.
“What I have learned from (my father) is an intrinsic curiosity for learning,” she said. “He has shown me how to generate new levels of understanding by bringing together the brilliant minds of each profession and encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration.”
Wilderer didn’t immediately identify her passion for water.
In graduate school, she studied international finance and economic transformation at Charles University of Prague from 2000 to 2001.
She earned a second master’s degree in 2004 in international management and economic sociology from the Otto-Friedrich University of Bamberg, which she was working on at the same time as her other master’s, along with studying advanced management and leadership training at the Bavarian Elite Academy from 2001 to 2002.
By 2010, she had completed a doctorate in international management from Carl von Ossietzky University.
“I knew I wanted to go into business, but emotionally at least, I knew I had to have the doctorate to be fully educated and keep up with my family,” Wilderer said.
From 2004 to 2014, she worked for German multinational conglomerate Siemens, moving into new roles every few months at a company with 85 separate business units.
In 2009, she and her husband, Andy Wilderer (who took her surname and is a stay-at-home dad), and son, Dominik, moved to Pittsburgh to the world headquarters of Siemens Water Technologies for what she thought would be a temporary assignment. Instead, they became “immigrants by accident,” she said. Her daughter, Viktoria, was born in Pittsburgh.
“With conversations (in childhood) being a lot about preserving the environment, when I received the opportunity to transition into the water business, it felt like coming home,” she said. “We joke that we have water running in our veins.”
Her last role with Siemens was as director of product management of Siemens Water Technologies in Colorado Springs. In January 2014, Siemens sold the business unit and it became Evoqua Water Technologies, based in Holland.
The new owner promoted her to her current role of VP and GM in June 2014.
“I’ve really enjoyed water so far,” Wilderer said. “I couldn’t care less if there’s a new gadget, but water is one of the most precious resources we have that’s so intrinsic to society. There’s a rewarding feeling that comes with it.”
Wilderer refers to herself as a “corporate entrepreneur” — bringing new ideas and opportunities to business to enhance competition and profitability.
But what gives her the deepest satisfaction is helping employees reach their full potential.
“I have really bought into strengths-based leadership,” she said, referring to a book called “StrengthsFinder 2.0,” by Tom Rath (Gallup Press, 2007).
The book is based on the idea people live up to their potential when they develop their strengths rather than compensating for their weaknesses. Each book comes with a code for an online aptitude test that ranks individual’s strengths from a list of 34 themes, such as harmony, discipline, adaptability, intellection, empathy and positivity.
Wilderer’s top three strengths are no surprise: achiever, learner and competition. The point of the test, she said, is to tear away the top-down mentality most companies embrace.
“In the strengths-based model, the claim that the boss needs to know everything is lost,” she said. “You would limit the company’s growth if the boss needs to know it all.”
With that in mind, Wilderer works to help her employees cooperate and complement one another.
“I’ve been working with my team that way the past three years, and seeing them grow … seeing how much as a team we could get done — in the past year, we’ve grown 25 percent in a market that’s growing 2 percent.
“It’s so rewarding to see what the team can come up with and push through. I reflect with my team, ‘Look, when times get tough and busy, let’s step back and see what we accomplished this last year. Look at the results, see what we got done.’ It’s very encouraging and fascinating and fun.”
Evoqua builds machines to treat water. About 80 percent of its customers are industrial and 20 percent are municipal, Wilderer said.
“If you have a water system in your building, chances are we built it,” she said. “Every industry uses water somewhere along the way, whether you’re brewing beer, making medication or pumping oil. We work with textiles, oil and gas, mining.
“That’s the fun piece: that we get to work with a lot of different industries. Our passion is we take the worry out of water systems.”
Wilderer said she is proud to be a leader in a male-dominated industry.
“I remember when I joined early on, there was always this attitude, ‘Girl, you don’t know this industry.’ Then I learned to lead with questions. … I’d start bombarding them with this, this, this, and they don’t know the answers. I’d say, ‘Oh that’s interesting.’
“I don’t have to be the better engineer or technical mind, I just have to have the vision and develop (my employees) instead of trying to be better than them.”