Theresa Piasta ’06: From Iraq to Wall Street to Puppy Mama
Theresa Piasta ’06 spent four years in the U.S. Army, then headed to Wall Street, trading one high-stress job for another. After years of struggling with the severe physical and psychological signs of what was eventually diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), she turned her attention to her health. Her healing process included time spent with her dog, Waffles, whom she calls “a 13-pound ball of furry puppy happiness,” and their relationship inspired a passion project that has grown into a tech start-up and lifestyle brand.
In a piece she wrote at the invitation of The Woman Warrior Project, Piasta describes her family’s strong military ties and her own decision to join the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) in the wake of 9/11. She started active duty after graduating from Wellesley with a degree in economics.
Her four years of service included a 14-month deployment to Iraq, where she led a large team that defended thousands of soldiers and contractors residing on Forward Operating Base Delta in Al-Kut near the Iranian border. She also served as the brigade’s chemical officer, making her its expert on all intelligence and analysis related to chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high-yield explosive devices. While in Iraq, Piasta was promoted to captain and was awarded a Bronze Star for her service.
After leaving the army, Piasta spent six years on Wall Street in the sales and trading divisions of Bank of America and J.P. Morgan. As a vice president at J.P. Morgan, she concealed her mental and physical health struggles while working 60-plus hours a week at a high-pressure job, but eventually she and her husband decided to move to a quiet suburb of San Francisco. It was her first step on the road to wellness.
After finally coming to terms with the diagnosis of PTSD, Piasta tried a series of therapies. The one she found most effective was canine therapy, and she now shares a special relationship with Waffles. “She comforted me when I needed it most, and never failed to put a smile on my face,” Piasta wrote in her Woman Warrior Project piece. “She reminds me every day to embrace life and search for love and joy.”
Through Waffles, she met other women who spoke with similar affection about their animals, and she realized how powerful such connections can be. In 2016, she was accepted into the Stanford Graduate School of Business Ignite program, and developed an idea for a tech start-up and lifestyle brand that celebrates the healing power of canine support and companionship. Puppy Mama, Inc. was born.
Puppy Mama, which started as a series of social media communities and quickly grew to include over 10,000 followers, invites women to share stories of how their dogs have brought joy to their lives. Puppy Mama is now raising funds on Kickstarter to finish an app that will bring users together to create a more dog-friendly world—dog owners will be able to find and rate dog-friendly hotels, businesses, and restaurants, share experiences, and arrange meet-ups for puppy play dates and “yappy hours.”
Piasta intends to create a supportive community where women can unite around a common cause and advocate for a more pet-friendly world. When she began inviting women to share their Puppy Mama stories, she was moved by their candor. “I asked for three sentences, and they shared such personal experiences, ” she said. “Hundreds of stories of how their dog helped comfort them through cancer, depression, sexual assault, a difficult divorce, or the loss of a loved one.”
Piasta wants her business to be a positive environment for women as well. During her career in male-dominated workplaces, she found it difficult to connect with women who could support, promote, and mentor each other. When she worked in sales and trading, she became one of the women she sought to find. “I took a different approach. I treated every young woman with respect and taught them everything I knew,” she said, and added that two of her former protégées are now among her closest friends and trusted advisors. “Reverse mentorship is powerful.”
She recalls experiencing the power of support herself at Wellesley. As a senior, she fulfilled a personal goal by running in the Boston Marathon. Although she didn’t qualify for a number, she ran without one. She wanted to check the marathon off of her bucket list while her friends were on campus to cheer her through the scream tunnel, “lifting me up to get to the finish line.”
While Puppy Mama was taking shape, Piasta returned to Wellesley for resources. After seeing a Facebook post about Wellesley’s ROTC cadets last year, Piasta contacted cadet Anna Page ’17, and the two exchanged messages. Recently, Piasta enlisted Page’s help in recruiting interns. Page spread the word through her personal network and postings to student groups.
Maddie Conway ’18 found Piasta via the Wellesley Jobs and Internships Facebook page, and interned with her last summer. “I was already in the Bay Area working in finance,” said Conway, “but jumped on the opportunity to speak with an alumna who was breaking the mold.” In a brainstorming session for Piasta’s Ignite program, the two came up with the “paws of approval” rating system for the Puppy Mama app.
“I was amazed at her drive, her mission, her willingness to listen to and appreciate my perspective, and her desire to help me grow,” Conway said of Piasta. “This was the first time I experienced the power of the Wellesley Network, and it made me realize its amazing strength.”
Doris Li ’20 interned with Piasta the summer before her first year at Wellesley. Piasta recognized the “extreme leadership potential and accountability that is the value Wellesley brings to the table” in Li right away, joking that when they spoke over the phone, “she interviewed me!” Piasta was so impressed with how well Li conducted herself in the Puppy Mama interviews the two did together that she entrusted Li to run interviews on her own.
“The women I interviewed always had such interesting stories to tell,” said Li. “[They] were very diverse, yet they united around the concept of how powerful canine companionship can be. Their dogs are not just their pets—they are sources of comfort, of love, of unending support. Everything can go wrong, but at the end of the day their dogs are there for them regardless of what they’ve done or experienced. That source of constancy gets them through the best and worst of times, and makes them stronger.”
Kelechi Alfred-Igbokwe ’19 was the first woman from Nigeria to share her Puppy Mama story with the global community. Alfred-Igbokwe was introduced to Piasta through Conway, and currently interns remotely from campus, working around her spring classes.
“Kele has helped us build our app information database to prepare for launch, and she has helped us with influencer marketing strategy and implementation, as well,” said Piasta. Alfred-Igbokwe said that the experience has given her unique insight to designing apps to be both user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing, “and the meticulous effort it takes to research what your target demographic wants.”
Piasta wants all of the women who work with her to understand that entrepreneurship doesn’t necessarily mean being the next billion-dollar unicorn. “It is about discovering something you are passionate about and making the time to learn and create something wonderful. It’s about venturing outside of your comfort zone—navigating problems when you don’t know the answer and learning every day by doing.”