JA USA Alumnus Rhea Tuli interviews Kurien Thomas
Like me, Kurien Thomas is an alumnus of Junior Achievement of Greater Washington. I completed the JA Company Program a few years after Kurien, and I have always looked up to him as a role model and to his team as an example of a successful JA company.
Kurien is a student at the University of Virginia, where he studies public policy and social entrepreneurship.
Rhea Tuli: What JA programs have you completed and when did you complete them?
Kurien Thomas: I’ve had amazing experiences with the many JA programs I’ve been a part of. I got involved with JA of Greater Washington as a middle-school student taking part in their Finance Program to learn about the fundamentals of personal finances. In 2016, I participated in their Entrepreneurship Summit. Taking part in this program helped me realize my passion to become an entrepreneur and taught me how to be an effective team player.
It was the JA Company Program that truly took my financial education to the next level. As a senior in high school in 2017, I worked with five other students to form a company called Pick-Me-Up. We sold mental-health first aid kits that curated a variety of wellness items and mindfulness exercises for high school and university students. Through our team efforts, we made nearly $3,000 in sales and competed in the JA National Student Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., as one of 15 top companies in the nation.
RT: What was your role in the JA Company Program?
KT: I developed my entrepreneurial skills through the JA Company Program by serving as the CEO for Pick-Me-Up. In this role, I worked directly with my teammates to brainstorm product ideas, pitch our concept to potential clients, and package and ship our product. We all wore several hats as a five-person team, so we each had to take care of a variety of tasks related to scaling ecommerce and direct sales efforts to schools and parents.
RT: What was your main takeaway or learning experience from the JA Company Program?
KT: The JA Company Program gave us the opportunity to broaden our network with brilliant JA mentors and students from all around the country. The whole process of creating an idea and developing it to become a viable solution tested my communication skills, my ability to collaborate, and my ability to lead.
The greatest lesson I’ve learned from the JA Company Program is the importance of knowing your customer. More specifically, my experiences in the JA Company Program have taught me how to accommodate for and communicate to a target audience. Our product, the Pick-Me-Up Box, aims to help those who are suffering from depression or anxiety to create a positive environment for themselves. The mission of our product is good, but it means nothing if the product we sell doesn’t actually help someone relax or feel happy. Our mentors motivated us to build relationships with members of our community. They pushed us to speak with school psychologists and talk with students in our school so we accurately understood the individuals we aimed to help. I’ve found that this lesson of understanding a target market can be applied to both my personal life and my professional life. Through JA, I’ve learned that knowing another person’s perspective makes solving problems a lot easier and makes me much more innovative.
RT: How has your life changed after completing the JA Company Program?
KT: Building this company strengthened my business acumen and my desire to be a leader in my community. It inspired me to give back to JA programs and use its entrepreneurial lessons to drive my life both in and out of college. Now, as a student at the University of Virginia (UVA), I continue to pursue the goals of my JA student company today by working with other startups as well as my own projects to promote more trauma-informed mental health services. JA has taught me how to overcome uncertainty by embracing my individuality and capitalizing on my passions.
RT: After completing the JA Company Program, have you been a part of any other entrepreneurial endeavors or been involved with anything professionally? What have these entrepreneurial endeavors been?
KT: I continue to explore ways to effectively deliver mental-health resources by working with startups like The Mind Body Project to create mindfulness courses to alleviate physician burnout and AGES Learning Solutions to test a more interactive teletherapy video platform for special education students. Beyond just developing new ventures, I am passionate about developing underserved entrepreneurial communities. As a research fellow for a nonprofit called New Hill Development Corporation, I worked directly with their leadership team to launch financial education workshops and food incubators in historically Black communities and assist underserved African American entrepreneurs. I am currently interning with the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Innovation and Technology team, working to form partnerships with organizations that support underrepresented communities of entrepreneurs to get access to seed capital to grow their businesses.
Aside from these ventures, I've started a podcast called SeroTunein that focuses on promoting positive thinking by informing listeners about phenomena in the environment, the economy, and entrepreneurship. I started this podcast after transitioning to university life. I constantly found myself in conversations with other people that tended to be focused on very negative issues and events. Whether it was about being busy with homework, not being able to find a job after graduation, or disappointed with current events, I was always under the impression that the world we were living in was destined to be doomed. I started SeroTunein to build upon my journey to improve wellness in others and connect with brilliant changemakers who were making the world a better place, to reassure my belief in humanity and to have hope for the future.
One inspiring guest out of the many I've interviewed would probably be one of my earlier interviews with a woman named Ruika Lin. She's a graduate of UVA and has spent years living in Silicon Valley, bouncing from tech company to tech company working on cross-cultural content marketing and has spent a couple of years working as a mental health coach for a nonprofit based in D.C. called MindRight. On my show, we show we discussed her experiences staying in the U.S. as an international student at UVA, navigating a different culture, and learning how to embrace uncertainty as she built her career. It was a really insightful conversation.
My podcast is for anyone interested in entrepreneurship, business, or solving problems in their community. Just as I listened to different podcasts to gain insight into how to start a company, I want my podcast to inspire and motivate young aspiring entrepreneurs who want to turn their ideas into reality.
RT: How have you used what you learned through the JA Company Program and applied it to parts of your life now?
KT: I want to thank the incredible JA mentors and volunteers who supported and encouraged my company at every step. They're the real MVPs and they've continued to cheer us on each and every day. I also have great appreciation for my Pick-Me-Up team. The original five of us worked hard to get the idea off the ground during the JA Company Program, and the current team is working very hard to go through the incubator to build a living, breathing, revenue-generating, socially impactful business.
Demonstrating leadership throughout this project only occurred because I allowed my curiosity to drive my desire to be an active citizen. It was an opportunity that taught me how to build civic partnerships to execute a vision that brings about social change. I continue to practice leadership in finding different ways to promote mental health by continuing to have conversations with those around me. By taking courses in architecture and economics, I am exploring how to create environments that encourage positive social norms and productivity. This perspective has allowed me to understand how institutions can engage in creative processes that empathize, experiment with, and employ open-mindedness. Through these experiences, I hope to be a voice of influence for an important issue facing people today
RT: What advice would you give to new JA alumni now looking to launch their own entrepreneurial endeavors?
KT: One piece of advice I’d give is to truly know yourself. Knowing yourself can include working on passion projects, collaborating with other students on hackathons, doing hobbies, researching stuff that interests you . . . whatever piques your interest or gets you obsessed. I think in this day and age, entrepreneurship exists well beyond just startups. Governments, nonprofits, small businesses, and so many other organizations require entrepreneurial thinking to tie up loose ends in our systems and solve complex problems. The entrepreneurial framework that JA equips you with will serve you well in both your professional life and personal life. Sometimes entrepreneurial programs reward students whether their solution hits or misses the actual problem at hand. With a problem like mental health among youth, our team constantly felt like we were missing our target. But that’s okay. We learned that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but any solution can serve to improve a piece of an existing system. One of my mentors told me the best thing an entrepreneur can do is to not call himself or herself an entrepreneur, but a specialist. The best thing you can do as a student is to grow your skillset, whether that’s graphic design, storytelling, writing, coding, or whatever might help you communicate and deliver your ideas to the masses. When you combine a skill with a need, you can accomplish a lot.