1 Hotels Fellowship Winner Mary Kombolias on Courage: “I Simply Said ‘Watch Me!'”

Jan 18, 2024
E 1 Hotel Fellowship winner, Mary Kombolias stands smiling in front of a plaque with the NRDC office logo and the words "The Robert Redford Building"
Mary Kombolias at the NRDC’s offices at the Robert Redford Building in March 2023, where her fellowship cohort from the 2021-2022 virtual program was introduced to the 2022-2023 cohort post-pandemic.

The 1 Hotels Fellowship at E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs) is a year-long program aimed at helping early- to mid-career business professionals execute projects that address pressing environmental issues. With a $20,000 stipend, connections to E2’s vast network of business and environmental leaders, and dedicated mentorship from seasoned executives in the fields of sustainability, policy, and entrepreneurship – the program can be truly life-changing.

We had the honor of speaking with Mary Kombolias about her experience as a 1 Hotels Fellowship recipient in 2020. Mary is a seasoned multi-fellowship winner who has written with generous clarity for ProFellow about how to pursue fellowships as a mid-career professional. In this interview, Mary speaks candidly and passionately about what motivates her to pursue competitive opportunities, how the 1 Hotels Fellowship supported her pivot towards her dream sustainability career and actionable recommendations for those interested in crafting a similarly personalized interdisciplinary journey. 

1. Can you tell us about your background and interests prior to receiving the 1 Hotels Fellowship?

I am a first-generation American. I didn’t start speaking English until I went to school. I really did not have a lot of guidance related to navigating the American system growing up, and I had to learn the American way for myself and my immigrant parents at the same time. However, whatever I have accomplished in my life, I owe to the flexibility that is inherent to the US free market economy and the structure of the US educational system. I never felt that I couldn’t try one thing and then go do something else, and when someone had the gall to discourage me, I simply said, “Watch me!”  

I am a late bloomer in the world of fellowships. My career has been circuitous due to the disruption and upheaval wrought by Hurricane Katrina in my life. Early in my career, I made decisions purely based upon economic survival. I had federal student loans due. I needed health insurance. I needed to establish a professional work history using my education. And like the vast majority of first-generation kids, I didn’t have the comfort and security of knowing that generational wealth was coming down the line to me. I was broke, and I was lost, but I kept my head down and worked, leveraging whatever I could from previous experiences toward whatever I chose to do next. 

2. What led you to apply for the 1 Hotels Fellowship at E2?

The E2 Fellowship was something that I had applied for twice. Rejection is actually quite normal in the world of fellowships. I had always been interested in the environment and in sustainability, but I did not know how to pivot out of the career I was in without having to go back to graduate school for another degree – something that, after paying off my student loans in full I absolutely refused to do. 

I only learned about the fellowship after listening to an episode of the MindBodyGreen podcast in which the guest was the designer and benefactor of the fellowship, Mr. Barry Sternlicht, the Chairman and CEO of Starwood Hotels. Mr. Sternlicht’s personal history of growing up with an immigrant father and his non-traditional career journey, which included bouncing back from an extraordinarily large business failure, resonated with me, and I decided to apply. 

3. What made you a standout candidate for this program?

Honestly, I think you would have to ask them! I am still stunned that I was accepted. The caliber of people that the program accepts is absolutely phenomenal, and I did not expect to be selected. Because it is so competitive and my colleagues come from a broad range of disciplines, I would advise anyone not to become discouraged if they are rejected and to reapply. 

Outdoor mural in bright colors of a palm tree and sun with "Greetings from Santa Monica" written on it
Though Mary Kombolias’ 1Hotel Fellowship experience was virtual due to the pandemic, she and her cohort were invited back to the NRDC’s Santa Monica office post-pandemic.

4. Can you describe some of the highlights of the 1 Hotels fellowship?

The fellowship was conceived and funded by a businessman whose success is derived from thinking unconventionally and taking risks. The E2 organization, which manages the fellowship, is led by the distinguished environmental journalist Bob Keefe. As a result, there is a heavy emphasis on intellectual freedom in this program. 

Throughout the fellowship experience, which was virtual due to the pandemic, I felt that the program did an extraordinary job of creating networking opportunities. E2 provides each fellowship recipient with a dedicated staff member whose role can best be described as an ersatz thesis advisor someone to bounce ideas off of but also someone who can put you in contact with relevant experts. Midway through the program, we were each obliged to present the progress of our work during a webinar that was open to the public, the feedback from which I found very helpful. We were also put in contact with a separate mentor. There were regularly scheduled webinars on all the issues that E2 and NRDC work on, which we could attend to directly learn from business leaders and policymakers and expand our networks.

I always felt supported and respected. People whom I would not normally have had access to gave me the time of day because I was affiliated with this program. They were so generous with their time and knowledge during a very difficult period in everyone’s lives. I learned so much, and I grew a lot, too. My entire professional career had been spent up until that point as a civil servant, first as a public school science teacher and later as a government scientist, so learning directly from business people and policymakers helped me round out a lot of gaps in my knowledge. 

Desk with water bottle, brochure, mug, emblazoned with E2 and NRDC logos
Joint in-person meeting of the 2021-2022 cohort and the newly recognized 2022-2023 cohort at the Robert Redford Building of the NRDC.

5. Can you share how you’ve used ProFellow and other resources to find and prepare for competitive fellowship applications?

Trust me, when I first discovered ProFellow, I was skeptical and did not think I had a chance at winning anything. Those doubts were not from low self-esteem but from not knowing anyone personally who had received a fellowship. I just didn’t think it could be someone like me. I have availed myself of both the 100% free resources that ProFellow provides plus a few of the paid workshops delivered by Dr. Vicki Johnson, such as those on resume writing and drafting personal statements. I think the price points are reasonable, and a lot of the skills I’ve learned I’ve applied elsewhere. I can tell you that for both the E2 Fellowship and another program, I attended free seminars sponsored by ProFellow and the respective program organizers, which gave me a lot of clarity and improved the quality of my applications. 

Beyond ProFellow, I think it is a great idea to join LinkedIn and look around at the types of people you admire and what activities and programs they have been involved in.

If you don’t like networking, there’s something even more effective, and it’s called volunteering. Get involved with relevant professional societies or causes that speak to your values. You can meet the movers and shakers in a given area while being of service, gaining knowledge, and building relationships. That gives you work experience,  access to mentorship, and a pool of potential references. The quality of your references also carries significant weight when being considered for any fellowship opportunity. If you are uncomfortable with asking your current employer for a reference, this will also provide you with another contemporaneous source to tap for a letter of recommendation. 

6. In addition to 1 Hotels Fellowship, you have gone on to win others, including the Marshall Memorial and the AspenTech Policy Hub Climate Fellowships. Tell us about how these experiences have helped you pave the way to your current success. 

Being a “fellow” means you are among like company. Although completing a project is essential, the value of a fellowship experience comes from the relationships you can foster with people. My goal has never been to accumulate accolades but to pivot my career and meet people I would otherwise never encounter. 

Of course, winning is amazing! Who doesn’t want to get that phone call or email? But that’s not where the lessons lie. Every year, I keep a running list of all the new things I’ve attempted, including any fellowships that I have applied for. On average, it’s about 30 different endeavors. A good year is one in which I’ve achieved five, but normally it’s closer to three. Either way, that’s a success rate of less than 20%. A big component of the “fellowship” element of any program is the camaraderie of being among people who also understand how to learn from failure, disappointment, and frustration. 

7. Finally, any tips to add for students or professionals who would want to pursue an interdisciplinary career? 

My advice is to keep throwing stuff at the wall until something sticks. That’s what the world’s most successful people do–in a targeted way, at least. Also, do not be afraid to attempt something even if you do not feel 100% qualified because, in reality, if you’re looking to be 100% qualified to do something, it means you have nothing new to learn. 

The endeavors in which I felt I had distinguished myself the most were ones where I was an outsider and a total novice. But bringing that fresh perspective and challenging even the most inveterate of professionals actually helps them, too, and adds to the intellectual strength of whatever you’re trying to achieve together. 

Also, in the past, people would describe me as being “flaky” because I was interested in more than one thing. However, these days, cultivating your strengths in different areas is necessary to hedge against unemployment or if some unexpected circumstance (be it negative or positive) changes the course of your life.

Interested in other mid-career fellowships? Sign up to discover more than 2,700 professional and academic fellowships in the ProFellow database!

Mary Kombolias stands smiling in professional headshotMary Kombolias is an independent sustainability consultant, writer, and patented inventor. She earned a BS in chemistry from Loyola University New Orleans and an MS in solid-state inorganic chemistry from the University of New Orleans. Mary has a passion for mentoring, and as a child of immigrants, she enjoys working with first-generation students. Mary has been named an AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador (2018) and a member of the Fulbright Specialist Roster (2019). She is also a recipient of the Marshall Memorial Fellowship (2020), the NRDC’s E2 Fellowship (2021), the Aspen Institute’s Tech Policy Hub Climate Fellowship (2022), and was most recently named a Kavli Frontiers of Science Fellow by the US National Academy of Science (2023). 

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