How I Networked With Alumni (and Got Free JonnyPops) – St. Olaf College
In this Student View column, Fenton Krupp ’24 describes how a simple email led him to an interview with two alumni from Forbes’ 30 under 30 list – and what he learned along the way about the power of the Ole network.
By Fenton Krupp ’24
I stand in front of a door adorned with a man wearing a bow tie and a giant strawberry lollipop. I have never been inside a food production facility before. I’m barely a journalist! The moment feels surreal: for some reason, I, a sophomore computer science student, am about to interview Connor Wray ’14 and Erik Brust ’14, the founders of JonnyPops.
If you’re not from the Midwest, you might not know that JonnyPops first launched in April 2012, here in St. Olaf, when the company’s founders were still college students. Wray and Brust started by making their fruit-based soft drinks in the basement of Mohn Hall and selling them at the Cage. After a few months of success, production expanded to the basement of The Grand, an events center in Northfield. After graduating, Wray and Brust made JonnyPops a full-time business and moved their operations to the Twin Cities.
Since then, the business has been booming. Today, JonnyPops are sold in grocery stores in all 50 states. A smaller pop is available at school district lunches across the country. And despite all the challenges of the pandemic, the company continues to grow. Later this year, production will move to a larger facility in Elk River, Minnesota.
During my tour of JonnyPops’ current facility just outside of Minneapolis, I got to see up close how it all works – and heard about the great impact St. Olaf has had on this business and its founders.
When the duo started experimenting with recipes in Mohn, they were making less than 1,000 pops a day. Today, the company produces 18,000 soft drinks every hour. (The day I came by, the production line was producing watermelon lollipops. But when offered a sample, I choose the original, strawberry, chocolate-covered flavor. How can I refuse the chocolate?)
In the conference room, Wray and Brust sat down to reflect on the journey from dormitory idea to grocery mainstay.
A big theme: how the St. Olaf community fosters entrepreneurial success, including with the St. Olaf Entrepreneurial Scholars program and events like the Ever-popular Ole Cup. (JonnyPops won the first Ole Cup.) Brust reflected on the kindness and flexibility of St. Olaf faculty members when he and Wray juggled their classes with entrepreneurship. “Very forgiving teachers,” Brust says, as Wray recounts his first trade show appearance and caught a red eye for returning for 8 a.m. classes.
The duo sought to infuse some of these values into their company and its products. Each JonnyPops stick carries a good deed. JonnyPops sponsors school programs that teach children the importance of kindness. They run an ambassador program that encourages people to advocate for good deeds.
Listening to them talk, I wonder what makes JonnyPops unique. Are pops that good? What sets Brust and Wray apart that helped them turn this idea into something big? I think about how I Go over there. How did you I, a computer science student, come here, interviewing these two? I had a conversation with an Ole, of course.
I was curious about PR, so I asked an elder who works in PR to have a chat with me. She told me how, as a student, she contacted the marketing and communications office and asked if there were any job openings to gain experience in public relations. I remember being surprised by this: really, is that all it takes to have an interesting job? Just send an e-mail?
Mainly out of curiosity, I sent an email. A few days later, I spoke with the folks at MarCom about student work in the PR department. Remember, I’m a computer science student. I just found the idea of public relations interesting; I had no skills in the industry, other than the writing I had done for my classes.
That’s the thing about St. Olaf, though. Sometimes a little skill and interest is all you need. I submitted my resume and a cover letter, and quickly found myself as St. Olaf’s first public relations officer. In this role, I primarily write about current campus events and provide communications advice to the St. Olaf community. However, I also seek out interesting stories and write about the exciting and varied lives Oles leads.
When I heard about the JonnyPops expansion, I pitched the idea for this piece as a feel-good story. Wray and Brust are two Oles who have created something successful, and JonnyPops has weathered the pandemic in impressive fashion.
Once I got the go-ahead to write the story, I called JonnyPops. I asked if I could come to the cities and interview Wray and Brust. Within days, I had a meeting scheduled for the following week. The whole process took less than two weeks. Less than two weeks! To meet two people on one Forbes’ List “30 under 30”!
Prior to this process, I had understood the St. Olaf Alumni Network as this summary thing. In setting up this interview, however, I saw firsthand the concrete power of this network. It was kind of a fascinating thing to be involved in, to see how kind and involved Oles is. And more, how Oles has the power to just do whatever they want to do.
Of course, not everyone has the opportunity, the privilege, or the drive to start a business while balancing school and other responsibilities. But any Ole can stop by the Piper Center for Vocation and Career, and any Ole can email an alumnus for help.
And every Ole should know that just being in this college gives you a remarkable amount of opportunity. With this knowledge, all you have to do now is send this email. Who knows where you’ll end up?