December 16, 2014

By his own admission, a few years ago, Mitchell Kokko didn’t even know what an entrepreneur was. Now he is a first-classman running an online business and headed for the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business next fall.

Kokko said his first class in Culver Academies’ Rubin School for the Entrepreneur had him “hooked.” This year he’s a part of the Rubin Café management team, which has motivated him “to create something and bring everyone’s strengths together to make a real difference in the world.”

For now, that difference is Menerva International Advising (menervaaddvising.com), a global advising company that connects students and professionals with skilled writers who create professional online accounts on LinkedIn. Kokko, a resident of Madison, Miss., is the founder and CEO. Launched on Sept. 1, Menerva is run by high-school seniors Kokko met at a summer business program in San Francisco sponsored by the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

Kokko learned how to use LinkedIn after Greg Farrall ’88 spoke to Andy Dorrel’s Entrepreneurial Economics class. Farrall, who owns a financial advising firm in Valparaiso, Ind., said by email that LinkedIn is “valuable tool in cultivating relationships, driving new business, and adding value to people’s lives.”

From there, Kokko started helping friends with their profiles. Soon, other people were offering to pay him for his efforts and he realized, “Hey, maybe I can make a business out of this.”

Armed with the idea, Kokko refined his approach, wrote a 30-page business plan, and established a core management team with varied skill sets from students he met in the Wharton program. His colleagues and writers now number 120 people and hail from 30 states and 17 countries. The management team includes Culver student Jack Surowiec ’15 (Louisville, Ky.), who serves as vice president of North American Operations.

The management team raised $15,000 – mostly from family and friends – and built a website. Everyone works on commission, the management team pulling a percentage of the sales, the writers a percentage for each profile written. Menerva charges $60 for high school and college students, $90 for professionals, and $120 for a company page. Kokko said it is clear on the website that high school seniors are running the company and doing most of the writing, but it hasn’t been an issue. Professionals offer the same service for $500 to $1,000, which “is not a fair price point” for high school students, Kokko said.

It’s a policy I put in place to keep myself and the other students from just focusing on making money

Asked about sales figures, Kokko said it is company policy not to disclose financials at this time. “It’s a policy I put in place to keep myself and the other students from just focusing on making money,” he explained.

Having recently returned from an incubator program at Harvard University, Kokko is even more determined to “make an impact on more people’s lives.” He is looking to partner with colleges to assist seniors looking for jobs and working with a veterans’ organization to provide free services to military personnel making the transition to civilian careers.

Kokko “is relentless in his pursuit of success,” Dorrel said. Finishing second in last spring’s Miclot Business Plan competition was a humbling experience for Kokko, Dorrel added, but he was not deterred. “He consulted the judges, learned some valuable knowledge, and was able to parlay that knowledge into Menerva.”

Kokko has been on a fast track, which may explain his rapid-fire delivery of information. Time is precious, especially for a Culver first-classman juggling academics, athletics (Kokko is the foil captain and was recruited by Notre Dame for fencing), and leadership responsibilities. He was the first make battalion commander and will be the regimental adjutant for second make.

“It’s been a learning experience for all of us,” he said. For instance, “I had no idea about any of the legal set-up and background checks involved. I have learned to be patient.

“I’m only 18 . . . this was my first real go at running a company. It’s a challenge. If not for a network of people and close friends at Culver, it would be next to impossible.”

Instead, for Kokko it is a reality – and all business.

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