USC Dornsife Graduate Blends Psychology With Tech Expertise to Diversify Camping

Drawing on her Master of Science in Applied Psychology (MAPP), Lestarya Molloy launched Fridie Outdoors to make it easier for people to experience the joys of nature.

After using her USC Master of Science in Applied Psychology (MAPP) degree to enhance her career in technology, Lestarya Molloy now applies it to connecting people to nature. She pivoted from a successful career at Intel to launch Fridie Outdoors, a startup that empowers novice campers to deepen their knowledge of the open air.

Molloy, who completed the MAPP program in 2016, originally pursued the degree to expand her user experience (UX) skills, and it quickly paid off. While still in the program, she accepted a position in UX for technology at Intel, where she was later promoted to overseeing its Automotive In-Vehicle Experiences line before shifting over to its Autonomous Mobile Robots division.

The MAPP degree, which she earned online through USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, perfectly aligned with her industry knowledge to create Fridie Outdoors. The company’s customizable, community-centered app (available through Apple and Google Play) provides the know-how needed to camp — from safety tips to easily prepared recipes. Most importantly, the instructions are accessible offline.

“When we talk to newer campers, we continually hear that ‘camping know-how’ is a significant barrier — especially for people of color — and that no matter how much they prepare, they never felt prepared enough,” Molloy said. “I know what it is like to get into camping as an adult and a woman of color … Most of the learning is experiential and happens while you’re out camping, far from a reliable internet connection.”

That exact scenario is what originally sparked the idea for Fridie Outdoors: While camping, Molloy once saw a family struggling to build a campfire. The dad was raising his phone to the sky, attempting to find service in order to look up instructions.

“We went over and helped them, but later, I got to thinking there has to be a better way to help people in these moments,” Molloy said. “I saw a need and knew there was an opportunity.”

Healing Through Nature

App users also benefit from Molloy’s own outdoor learning curve.

“On my first camping trip, I nearly froze in my sleeping bag,” she admitted. “But I immediately loved just being out there, watching the stars at night and sitting around the fire.” Camping, she added, “opened up a whole new adventure” for her — one she wanted to share with others.

But just as Molloy’s transition to entrepreneurship was a journey rather than a sudden decision, her confidence in camping also took time to develop.

Her love for the outdoors arose from coping with family tragedies. Molloy lost her father when she was 8, and her mother passed away just three years later. Fortunately, she was adopted into a loving home with family members, where she was soon introduced to hiking.

“For me, hiking became a way to heal,” she said. Exploring trails and “looking at the giant trees” provided an environment to process and reflect on the past, as well as contemplate the person she wanted to become. “At a young age, my parents instilled in me the importance of being educated and making a difference in the community,” she added.

Molloy knows that her work through Fridie Outdoors would make her parents proud, as she’s not only helping people learn how to get back to nature through outdoor education, but also building community as they do so.

Sense of Community

One of the reasons it took years for Molloy to make the leap from hiking to camping was that, as a person of color, she almost never saw people like herself reflected in the outdoors. So, she started inviting friends to go camping with her.

“I loved the campfire vibe with friends and wanted as many people as possible to share that feeling,” Molloy said.

As her outdoor skills and confidence grew, she began encouraging as many people as possible to join the camping community. She enjoyed a similar sense of community through her USC MAPP studies.

“We had a lot of camaraderie in our class,” she recalled. “We came from a diverse mix of backgrounds, and what united us was the motivation to continue growing professionally.”

The connections Molloy made with her classmates also deepened through the program’s team projects. One assignment, for the course “Research Methods in Applied Psychology,” even foreshadowed the business she would eventually launch. Her team was tasked with researching as though consulting for Coleman, a leading brand of outdoor recreation products.

“We were supposed to make recommendations to help Coleman reach more customers,” she said.

The team visited a Target store to interview customers in the camping aisle, asking about their experience levels and what gear they needed.

“I loved that project because it served as a real-world example of the research that companies need to do,” Molloy said. Calling the project “a perfect alignment with why I applied to the program,” she noted that the team’s work went beyond research to turn findings “into recommendations and a plan that companies can act upon.”

The assignment was also an example of building the skills that Molloy would later apply to her own company. And while her business and app are still new, her hard work is already paying dividends.

“During the pilot, we had hundreds of people using the Fridie Outdoors app,” she said.

Plus, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Almost as soon as Molloy started Fridie Outdoors, the endeavor was selected for the inaugural cohort of an entrepreneurial program sponsored by REI Co-op, a major provider of camping equipment and clothing.

“The REI Co-op Embark program is for entrepreneurs from Black, Indigenous, Latina/o/x, and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities to turn early-stage ideas into businesses,” explained Molloy, who was one of just 27 chosen for the opportunity from applicants nationwide.

Her participation in the accelerator was the ideal fit because Fridie Outdoors is committed to increasing the diversity of people who enjoy getting back to nature.

“Camping is for everyone, yet there are many barriers to getting out there,” she said. “My big vision is that every person can feel joy, confidence and freedom outdoors.”

Learn more about the Master of Science in Applied Psychology (MAPP) online program at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences today.