“I’m truly passionate about people’s life stories and when I tell people I’m French-American, in France, I get this, ‘oh, wow.’ it’s like having a superpower because you live in this country that people fantasize about.”
As a child, Anne-Fleur Andrle, a native of Brittany, France, thought she might want to be a writer or a doctor. “I wanted to do everything as a kid, honestly,” she says. “There was no profession that was boring to me. They all sounded interesting.” She ended up settling on engineering because it could be a “bridge to other things” and she knew it might lead to working on international projects, giving her a chance to indulge in another passion, travel.
Anne-Fleur’s husband, Mike Andrle (PhD ’13, MS ’08, BS ’06) learned about the flexibility of an engineering degree at a young age. “My father always told me if you become an engineer, you can do anything you want,” Mike says. What his father meant, he explains, is that you can “develop technology, support it, write about it, sell it, advertise it”—the list goes on. Clearly, Mike’s father hadn’t, at that point, met Anne-Fleur, but the master’s in biomedical engineering she received from UB in 2013—as the first woman to graduate from the program—proved to be a springboard that would take her further than anyone could have imagined.
At 36 years old, Anne-Fleur has worked to develop artificial skin and vision prosthetics for L’Oréal and INSERM—France’s National Institute of Health and Medical Research—acted as research and applications engineer on stroke and tumor imaging for a diagnostics firm in Boston, written an as-yet-unpublished novel, and co-created the first app for business-plus-leisure travelers, in the process helping to popularize the growing “bleisure” hospitality space. She is fluent in three languages, has traveled more than 80,000 miles—to put that in perspective, the earth’s circumference is only 25,000—and a few years ago started upping her cooking game to near chef-level with classes aimed at eventually passing the French CAP Cuisine exam.
Today she is director of operations and special projects at MIT Horizon, a science and tech-oriented open-learning platform at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. During what she calls her “me time,” from 5 to 7:30 a.m. and sometimes also 9 p.m. until midnight, she works on the two widely followed podcasts she hosts and catches up on her side gig as a corporate podcasting consultant. Oh yeah, and she and Mike have a son who’ll turn 3 in December.
“I don’t know how to do just a little bit,” Anne-Fleur admits. “I fill every second of the day, every square inch of my body, with what I love. So I’m all over the place. I have a really hard time saying no to what I love. That’s my huge flaw but also my greatest strength.”
Some people are lucky enough to find their passion in life,” says Mike. “But imagine if you could have 30—that’s her. Sometimes I walk in the door and get, ‘Hey A, hey B, hey C,’ all things totally unrelated to each other. I just got home from a 30-minute bike ride and I’m trying to concentrate on something and it goes right out of my head. Sometimes A, B, and C will include taking a trip next week and I haven’t even put my bag down.
”At first glance, it may appear that Anne-Fleur is a jack of many trades and master of none, but as her father points out, actually she has been quite successful at just about everything she has put her mind to. “She has a capacity for creation that is extremely huge,” says Ronan Stephan, an independent physicist in Marolles-les-Buis, two hours outside Paris. “It is just impossible, completely impossible, for her to do one thing.” She is not happy, Ronan says, without “many things” going on.
Anne-Fleur says she got that trait, in part, from her dad. “He starts a job, goes 300% into it, then gets bored and looks for something else,” she says. This meant her parents moved a lot as Anne-Fleur and her siblings were growing up, and everyone in the family caught the travel bug. “I used to say my children were born with a passport in their hand,” says Anne-Fleur’s mother, Catherine Stephan-Evain, director of international relations at the École Normale Supérieure Paris-Saclay, about 20 minutes south of Versailles.
The second of five kids, Anne-Fleur was the “kamikaze” of the group, according to Catherine—the risk-taker who often had her parents speeding to the hospital to get her patched up. So though all the Stephans have spent time abroad, and one is currently studying in Dublin, her parents weren’t surprised when Anne-Fleur decided to make the U.S. her home.
While doing her M.Sc. in biomechanics and biomaterials engineering at the Université de Technologie deCompiègne, Anne-Fleur was required to do a six-month internship overseas. She already spoke fluent German as a second language, but her school required three languages and she reasoned that coming to the U.S. would improve her skills in English, which at the time were lacking. So she was thrilled to discover that a friend of her fathers knew someone who could assist—Joe Mook, then chair of UB’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and director of the engineering school’s study abroad program. It was at UB that she met Mike, who had been in Mook’s first cohort of students to spend a semester in Troyes, France. For her, at least, it was love at first sight. “It was a little bit like in the movies,” she says. “I got a narrow focus and didn’t see anything anymore but this really cool person.” She knew right away he would be serious, too, “which is ironic because I didn’t understand most of what he was saying.”
When she had to go back to France, says Mook, “they were kind of desperate to see how to carry on the relationship,” until Mook, today a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UB, took a sabbatical in Compiègne and arranged for Mike to be a research assistant.
Mike stayed for three years until Anne-Fleur finished her M.Sc., and then the couple returned to UB for more graduate work. As Mike was finishing his PhD, they started to think about “where we could potentially both find jobs,” she says. Boston was their first choice, so when a friend from France came to Buffalo on business for a French startup that was looking to open a Boston subsidiary, Anne-Fleur signed on. “Life sends me lots of signals,” she says.
Her next two jobs, as an imaging applications engineer for Olea Medical, and then as director of AMA XpertEye, another French startup with a Boston flagship, would prove life-changing in an unexpected way. She logged so many miles for both companies that she “became a gold traveler on every airline,” she says. But after a few years, the road was wearing thin. She was burned out, and so, it happened, was a former colleague with whom she’d stayed in touch. They started sharing their frustrations and by 2017 those conversations had given birth to Jack and Ferdi. The app, named for the explorers Jacques Cartier and Ferdinand Magellan, helps companies keep employees engaged and supports employees’ work-life balance by giving them AI-generated cultural tips, recommendations on healthy restaurants, things to do with two hours free, and more.
“Jack and Ferdi was my absolute passion,” Anne-Fleur says. But of course, as a single entity, it couldn’t keep her busy enough, so while developing the product, working out the specs, managing staff, and handling the business end of launching an application, she also began devoting more time to a previous fascination—but with a modern spin. More than a decade ago, Anne-Fleur got involved in radio, hosting two science-based talk shows in France, managing the station on which they aired, and doing voiceovers and post-production. Since she “always had a love for sound and audio projects,” she says, podcasts were the next logical step. She didn’t hesitate in picking a topic.
“I’m truly passionate about people’s life stories,” she says, “and when I tell people I’m French American, in France, I get this, ‘Oh, wow.’ It’s like having a superpower because you live in this country that people fantasize about. But what’s the more accurate picture? Like everyone in this situation, I question sometimes, should I stay or should I go? Where is home? How do I keep my two families connected? I wish I’d had more resources about these things when I first moved abroad, so I started talking about them with other ex-pats.”
“French Expat le Podcast” made its debut in the fall of 2019, and regularly makes the top 3 among French travel podcasts. A team of five now produces the show, which has 110 episodes so far, a half-million downloads, listeners in 113 countries, a supplemental blog, and a spinoff, “GénérationPodcast,” which curates French-language listening options and through interviews explores the work of producers and other creatives. “‘GénérationPodcast’ grew from a personal quest to become a better podcaster myself,” Anne-Fleur says. “I learn something from everyone I talk to.”
She remains a stakeholder in Jack and Ferdi but joined MIT in 2019 because the app wasn’t paying enough for child care. Her boss recently granted her a request to move away from the managerial aspects of the job and more toward the multimedia side, because, she said, “Without that, I just can’t do this anymore.” For her, connecting with people through MIT Horizon, as she does through her podcasts, is what it’s all about.
“When I think of all the jobs I’ve had,” she says, “I know on paper they don’t seem to have a common thread, but I always pursued them with the deep feeling that they could impact the world.” At L’Oréal she helped develop models to end animal testing; later R&D projects built diagnostic and treatment tools for people with neurological or vision problems. Jack and Ferdi continues to inspire burned-out business travelers and now she receives messages daily from émigrés struggling with the ups and downs of making a new life in a faraway land.“
"No matter what Anne-Fleur does,” says her mother, Catherine, “she is sharing her world vision, which is very enthusiastic. Everybody should have someone like Anne-Fleur around them. She gives hope.”
Published September 29, 2021