Shelly Wohadlo, first-year MBA student and incoming president of the Kola Foundation, had the amazing opportunity of spending some time at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota over her winter break. Shelly is concentrating in Marketing and was a sales manager at a start-up company in Ecuador prior to coming to Illinois for her MBA. I had the pleasure of interviewing Shelly about the Kola Foundation and her visit to the reservation.
What is the Kola Foundation?
The Kola Foundation is a not-for-profit founded by a small group of Illinois MBA students in 2010. Kola works with the residents of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and has an overarching goal of improving the lives of those on the reservation. This year, Kola will be focusing on promoting education on the reservation by partnering with local high schools to get students to Illinois for summer programs; by cosponsoring a high school business competition; and by stimulating the local economy through small business consulting services.
What made you interested in joining Kola?
I became interested in Kola after I went on the volunteer trip to Pine Ridge this August. I lived in Ecuador for three years, so I had already witnessed extreme poverty, but it was surprising to see a similar level of poverty in the United States. I think it is important to volunteer and give back to the community, so Kola seemed like a great organization to get involved with. In addition to helping a community in need, Kola gives students an opportunity to get real-world experience. This kind of experiential learning sets Illinois MBA students apart from students in other programs.
What was the purpose of your trip to Pine Ridge?
The first trip I went on in August was a volunteer trip where we helped repair homes, build bunk beds, and construct an experimental straw bale house. In mid-December, three of my fellow Kola members (Bob Meinig, James Cantu, and Aaron Kumar) and I went to Rapid City, SD to attend the Lakota Nation Invitational (LNI). This three-day event originally started as a basketball tournament that brought together the Native American high school teams to compete against one another. After its first year, the event rapidly expanded to include a myriad of activities such as dance and art competitions, and a business plan competition. Our main goal on this trip was to attend the business plan competition in order to meet with the event coordinators, local high schools, and small business leaders.
What did you do/see while in South Dakota?
On the first day of our trip we went out to Pine Ridge to give a tour to Aaron—Bob and James were also on the trip in August so they were already familiar with the reservation. The rest of the trip was spent in Rapid City where the LNI business plan competition took place. We were very lucky over the next few days to meet key contacts in education and small business development in the community. Additionally, the business plan judges were great resources and they taught us a lot about Pine Ridge and the obstacles that local entrepreneurs face when starting a new business on the reservation. Through one of these judges, we were able to meet with a Tribal Council member who will be an asset in helping us roll out the mentorship program that Kola is developing. We also met with faculty from two high schools and representatives from a local organization that we will be partnering with this year.
Finally, we met with Lakota Funds, the organization that coordinated the business plan competition. The competition was a great opportunity for high school students on the reservation to come up with their own idea for a business, research and develop a business plan, and present it to a panel of local business leaders. Connecting with Lakota Funds will enable Kola to play an active role in cosponsoring the competition in the coming year. Overall the trip was a great success!
What did you learn on the reservation or about the Lakota Nation?
On this trip, we learned a lot about business on the reservation and certain issues that local businessmen and women need to deal with in order to establish their companies. For example, much of the land on the reservation is “trust land” which means that it is the property of the United States government. This status can be a real obstacle when an entrepreneur is looking to purchase land in order to open a new establishment, or event rent property.
Why do you think it’s important to get involved in these types of trips while getting your MBA?
I think the first step is to get involved in organizations and clubs while getting your MBA because they are great opportunities to learn and gain experience. Through these organizations, you challenge yourself and you get to know your classmates on a more personal level. The organizations can also help you to expand your knowledge, become more informed, and take on leadership roles. From there, I highly recommend volunteering for any trip opportunities that may arise. The trips are a great way to get involved, meet new people, and put the goals of the organization into action.
Anything else you would like to add?
I would just like to go into a little more detail about the mentorship program we will be developing this Spring. We are going to connect Illinois MBA volunteers with high school students on the reservation so that we can help give them advice and insight into higher education. The school drop-out rate is 70% on Pine Ridge, and many high school students do not know anyone who has gone to college. We hope to be that resource for these students as friends who can answer questions and make the task of going on to college a little less daunting. The mentorship program will be completely over Skype in the initial stages, but we are considering an annual meet-your-mentor trip as a long term goal. As we formalize the program and our relationships with the local high schools, we’ll be reaching out for volunteers, so current and prospective students keep your ears open!