Haley Jústiz is a senior at UT Austin majoring in Canfield Business Honors and Plan II Honors. She is a partner in the Austin-based startup FreeWater and plans to join Boston Consulting Group as an associate after graduation. We met in February to talk about her journey from book blogger to entrepreneur and what she thinks the liberal arts can bring to business.
First things first, tell me about FreeWater. What’s the idea behind the company? What is it trying to accomplish?
FreeWater is the world’s first free beverage company. We produce and distribute bottles of natural spring water, and they’re always free because the ads on the packaging pay for everything. The ad payments also include 10 cents per beverage that we donate to Well Aware, a nonprofit based in Austin that builds water wells in Kenya. I like to say we’re an advertising company, not a water company — we make money by selling ads, and they just happen to be on water bottles.
We believe that water should be free — it’s a human need — but there are a couple of issues around water access that FreeWater is trying to answer. One is that there’s a water crisis in many parts of the world, including in our country, where there are areas with no access to clean water and where the tap water isn’t safe. That’s what inspired our founder to start the company, actually — he started talking to refugees who were leaving their countries because they didn’t have access to basics like food and water. Then there’s Big Water, where companies charge a 2,000% markup on, essentially, tap water put into plastic. That’s obviously awful for the environment in several different ways. FreeWater’s vision is to tackle both of those problems by making spring water freely available to Americans while also contributing to sustainable water well projects in other parts of the world where there’s a need.
How did you get involved with FreeWater? What’s your current role?
I met someone who got involved with the company really early on at an event last year where FreeWater was passing out water. I was with a different startup at the time, but after I learned about FreeWater I thought, “this idea is offensively good — I want on board.” I reached out to the FreeWater Instagram account and said, “Hey, can we talk? I want in.” I ended up talking to the CEO and joining the team. I was one of the first five people to join, and now there’s around 10 people on the team total.
My title is Wears All Hats — that was literally written in my contract. I do a lot of social media work, whether that’s helping organize our TikTok content or filming when we distribute water at events. I’m always looking for a clip that’s engaging — a funny moment, a look on someone’s face, something silly or eye-catching.
But it’s not just social media; I do all sorts of stuff. I’m in the supply-chain area, I manage interns, I’m designing our customer relationship management system—I’m involved in everything.
How has your liberal arts education influenced the way you approach entrepreneurship? Has it shaped how you handle business challenges?
I think that as an entrepreneur, you really need to be solving a problem. You shouldn’t just push a random solution — you should look at a problem and figure out how to fix it. And that’s something that the liberal arts teach you to do. You really learn to dissect problems and to think clearly and analytically. In business, when you have a big problem that you don’t know how to begin to solve, it’s important to be able to go, “Okay, I can start with a thesis. What do I need to do to prove it?” You break it down logically and then you’re able to wrap it together.
I think that idea highlights a really interesting dynamic within the liberal arts — creating structures to understand complexity.
That’s such a liberal arts thing, and I think it’s the only way to solve problems in business. To be successful, you have to be able to look at something that’s really ambiguous and then bring order and structure to that ambiguity.
You mentioned you were at a startup before you joined FreeWater. What’s your history with entrepreneurship? What drew you to it?
I’ve always been drawn to entrepreneurship. In high school I competed in a program called Camp Enterprise, where juniors in high school all across the Austin area were randomly assigned to teams and had to come up with a business idea to pitch.
I was a theater kid and was pretty comfortable getting up on stage, but it’s still scary, so doing a Shark Tank-style pitch in front of a panel of judges was a really good experience. I was also a book blogger in middle and high school and did a lot of editing and posting on social media — I think I had a couple hundred thousand followers for a Hunger Games fan account — so I used my Photoshop skills to design an app. My team ended up winning, and our prize was a tour of to Capital Factory.
Capital Factory is the biggest investor in startups in the state of Texas, and that’s where my class Longhorn Startup Lab is held now; our professor Joshua Baer is the CEO and founder. So, it’s come full-circle five years later, and the place that I originally toured in high school after winning my first entrepreneurship competition is now where I go every week to work with mentors on my startup. It’s surreal.
How do you think the liberal arts will play a part in your future business aims and overall business philosophy?
A liberal arts education makes you more in tune with humanity. We have such an appreciation for beauty in the liberal arts while business can be so focused on the bottom line. It’s easy to lean into finance — the goal is to make profit, right? But then with the liberal arts, the goal is to create, admire, or try to explain beauty.
I think the real magic of business is when we combine it with the human side of life. My view of business is that it’s a way to spark joy in people’s lives and create magic. Take a really amazing product, like a Bath and Body Works candle. Someone goes to the store and they’re overcome with all these amazing smells, and they immediately get a smile on their face as they walk around. Then they finally find that candle that smells just like Christmas, and they take it home and light it and watch a cozy movie. That’s sparking joy. That’s creating a whole journey for the customer and igniting their imagination. It’s such a small thing, but it’s just one example, and when you have a liberal arts education, those small things become stories — they’re not just numbers on a financial report.
I’m always asking myself: Is this work sparking joy? Am I making someone’s life easier? What does that process look like? And I think by infusing little bits of joy or magic into business processes, you can really have a profound impact on people’s lives.
Here’s the thing: a lot of startups fail, so you have to go into it with the mindset that, if you’re going to create a startup, it has to be one that you believe in and you think could go somewhere — and if it does go somewhere, that it’s somewhere meaningful. FreeWater is that company for me. I really think it has potential to go somewhere, and if it does, it truly will change the world.