As it's stated on their website, the Kola Foundation "matches the unique skills and specialties of a world-class university to the needs of the residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation". This mission statement was created after the Illinois MBA took a group of students on a week long trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. After experiencing what the Native Americans in Pine Ridge struggle with daily, CEO and Kola co-founder Adam Ratner saw an opportunity to help improve some of the severe conditions on the reservation. He decided to spearhead a team of students to form what is now a functioning non-profit organization that lives within the program.
We sat down with Adam to discuss what Kola has been doing since operations have begun and what he sees as the future of the organization. For the work that he has done thus far, Adam was recently the recipient of an "Extraordinary Achievement Award". The Illinois MBA believes the Kola Foundation is a fantastic project and continues to support the efforts of this team. Read more to learn about Kola and the leadership team.
First things first, tell us a little bit about yourself. My name is Adam Ratner, and I am a 1st year MBA student at Illinois with a concentration in Business Strategy and Marketing. I am also the Chief Executive Officer of the Kola Foundation. Essentially, I am responsible for Kola’s overall strategy, planning, operating structure and sustainability.
Before attending the Illinois MBA, I spent five years working as a Management Consultant with Diamond Management & Technology Consultants and West Monroe Partners in Chicago, IL. I was born and raised in Dallas, TX, and received a B.A. in Economics from DePauw University in Greencastle, IN.
I am married (Tracey), have a crazy, yet very cute dog named Husker, and love traveling. In the past 7 years, I have been to India, Senegal, China, Ecuador, Columbia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Israel and Jordan.
Can you tell us about the KOLA Foundation - what is your mission? While Michael Hodnett, Hui Wang, Stig Lanesskog, Courtney Hainline, Vatonna Dunn and I were volunteering in Pine Ridge last summer, we had a number of opportunities to learn about the history, culture and current living conditions of the Oglala Lakota in Pine Ridge. We heard stories directly from the people whose lives had been deeply impacted by oppression over time, and were able to gain a small glimpse into the spirituality that remains sacred to the Oglala Lakota. Among the many influential factors that led to the creation of the Kola Foundation, the trying struggles for the young people on the rez coupled with the current standard of living had the most significant impact on us. The statistics surrounding the suicide rate (4 times the national average) and the standard of living (poorest county in the U.S. with a per capita income at approximately $5,000/year) compelled us to take a big step back, and consider ways that we could use the resources at the University of Illinois - starting with the Business School - to elevate the standard of living, while making a positive difference in the lives of the young people on the reservation. Along those lines, the formal mission of the Kola Foundation is to improve the standard of living and promote a more prosperous life for residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, with a special focus on identifying opportunities to work with the younger generations. We hope to accomplish this mission primarily through economic development oriented partnerships with other organizations on the rez - expanding upon the services they provide and helping them to do what they do more effectively.
From the perspective of the Illinois MBA program, in addition to providing an excellent opportunity for students to use their business skills and experience in ways that can benefit other people, the Kola Foundation affords opportunities to assume instrumental roles in growing an idea into something much, much greater. So, at the heart of the Kola Foundation is a commitment to corporate and social responsibility with an entrepreneurial twist.
We know that the leadership team is comprised of MBA students, can you tell us about the process for selecting these students? Also, what is the team dynamic like? In selecting the Kola leadership team for the first year, the process was very straightforward. The first, and most important, criteria we used in pursing students in the IMBA program was identifying individuals who wanted to work with Kola towards our mission. We basically had the mentality that if you had a big enough passion to want to be involved in a leadership capacity within Kola then we would find a place for you. At the time, we didn't have an org structure with roles identified - the org structure we have now was formed organically based on functional need and still continues to be refined as we continue to gain momentum on and off the rez. The other part of the process was whether a student had an experience, skill set or passion for a skill set that would be critical for Kola in taking an idea, growing it into an organization and ensuring its sustainability. The leadership selection process for future years will likely involve some sort of election process, but we will be targeting the same type of people. Currently, the roles are Chief Executive Officer, Chief Operations Officer, Chief of Business Development, Chief of Marketing and Chief of Finance. Can you tell we have business backgrounds?
The team dynamic has been very strong thus far and is not isolated to those involved in a leadership capacity. In achieving the mission we talked about earlier, the goal is for everyone to take ownership of the great things we are doing together. We have All Kola meetings once per month, and "concentration" and "project" meetings about once a week. During those sessions, we discuss strategy, potential initiatives and partnerships, and provide status updates. I would like to think that everyone feels empowered to take responsibility for the work we are doing.
For the leadership team specifically, the five of us have become pretty close, which tends to happen when you spend so much time together planning something that is so altruistic in nature; the fact that we travelled to the rez together back in October also helped the dynamic. The leadership team meets once a week – the meeting is always scheduled for an hour, but I cannot recall a time that we didn’t finish in less than an hour and a half. The nature of the meetings is generally ideation sessions where we present and debate ideas and plans for Kola. I can tell you that without the current leadership team(Michael Hodnett, Nick Reynolds, Jon Chan and Tyler Smith), Kola would still be an idea. I could say the same thing about the support we have received from the IMBA administration. It’s one thing to talk about empowering students, but the IMBA is really putting their money with their mouth is.
What are the immediate actions that you guys are taking to get the foundation operating? The Kola Foundation has been “operating” for a couple months now, but I believe everyone within Kola is highly driven to do more and make a bigger impact. As it is, we have a very strong and dedicated group of 40 members, and we have established partnerships with some great organizations on the rez – Lakota Funds, Re-Member, the Pine Ridge Chamber of Commerce, and the Wounded Knee Foundation to name a few. Organizationally, we have a board of directors, initial funding with donor contributions that have been growing thanks to our website and marketing collateral, and a sustainable org structure focused on collaboration. We are also filing our 1023 application this week to achieve 501 c 3 status as a non-profit organization under the Internal Revenue Code (Kola is already incorporated in the state of Illinois). In terms of works in progress, we are still formalizing and documenting all of our processes and procedures to make certain that future IMBA Kola Leaders can come in without missing a beat. We are also focusing more on donor development to increase funding and substantially increase Kola’s on-rez impact.
Initiative wise, we conducted a food drive on campus and in the Champaign community to increase awareness of the conditions in Pine Ridge, and get much needed canned good items to people in need on the rez. We are also working on some bigger projects with our Kola Partners on the rez – funding the first and only credit union on the rez, which would be tremendous for economic development, launching a business consulting services office within Kola to help aspiring young entrepreneurs and current business owners to create or grow their businesses, and partnering with LDS Charities to deliver thousands of pounds of winter clothes and blankets to the rez this winter.
How do you find the time to balance school and directing the KOLA foundation? Honestly, it’s tough. At the end of the day, the more time we spend on Kola, the more effective we will be in achieving our mission. It’s never hard to find motivation, but it’s always difficult to find the time available to do as much as I would like to do. It definitely helps to have a very supportive wife who understands what we are doing and why.
On a more personal level, how'd you become interested in this type of work? What is driving you to make this such a success? I have always tried to do small things in my spare time to help those in need. My wife, Tracey, and I are Wish Granters with the Make-A-Wish Foundation and do other things in the community, but Kola is a different level of generosity. In terms of becoming interested in this type of work, I strongly believe in the importance of living unselfishly and showing gratitude for what I have through giving to others. I have felt this way since I was quite young. My parents and grandparents served as outstanding role models. To give an example, my grandfather worked on a project to build playgrounds along the “borders” that separated the Israelis from the Palestinians in the West Bank so that the children could play and interact with one another with the innocence and unbiased judgment of others that kids should have. This giving mentality coupled with how I personally feel about the Oglala Lakota and how they have been treated over the years, is what drives me.
What is the future of the KOLA foundation in 3 years? What would you like to see in 5? The future of Kola will be based on how effective we are in designing a program for incoming students to develop an emotional attachment to the rez and to Kola. We are currently working with the IMBA administration on a few ideas, which are founded on the notion of each class creating and leaving a legacy based on an initiative they choose to pursue on the rez.
In 3 years, I would like to see more Kola participation outside the MBA program – across the University of Illinois – with an even greater impact on the rez. In 5 years, I would like to see the Illinois MBA program become a catalyst for other MBA programs to engage in socially responsible, economic development focused projects in Pine Ridge and across the world.
How can others get involved in KOLA? Where can we find more information? Regardless of whether you are a current or incoming student, if you send me your information (email@example.com), we will find a place for you. If you are a non-IMBA student and would like to support Kola, I would strongly encourage you to consider making a donation that you feel comfortable with. Ultimately, our impact on the rez will be dictated by the financial flexibility we have with our on-rez initiatives. You can donate by sending a check to: 3019 Business Instructional Facility, 515 East Gregory Drive, Champaign, IL 61820, made out to “The Kola Foundation.” You can find more information on our website – www.kolafoundation.org or by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’d like to extend another special thank you to Adam and the Kola team. Your work is truly appreciated! Check back for more updates on the organization and their progress.