Student View: How I networked with alumni (and got free JonnyPops)
In this Student View column, Fenton Krupp ’24 describes how a simple email led him to an interview with two alumni on Forbes’ “30 under 30” List — and what he learned along the way about the power of the Ole network.
By Fenton Krupp ’24
I’m standing in front of a door emblazoned with a man sporting a bowtie and a giant strawberry popsicle. I’ve never been inside a food production facility before. I’m barely even a reporter! The moment feels surreal: for some reason, I, a sophomore studying computer science, am about to interview Connor Wray ’14 and Erik Brust ’14, the founders of JonnyPops.
If you’re not from the Midwest, you may not know that JonnyPops first launched in April 2012, here at St. Olaf, when the company’s founders were still students. Wray and Brust started out by making their fruit-based pops 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 event center in Northfield. After graduation, Wray and Brust made JonnyPops into a full-time business and moved their operation 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 in lunches in school districts across the country. And despite all the challenges of the pandemic, the company is still growing. Later this year, production will move to a larger facility in Elk River, Minnesota.
On my tour of the current JonnyPops facility just outside Minneapolis, I got an up-close look at how it all works — and heard about the big impact St. Olaf had on this company and its founders.
When the duo began experimenting with recipes in Mohn, they made less than 1,000 pops a day. Today, the company produces 18,000 pops every hour. (On the day I stopped by, the production line was churning out watermelon pops. But when I’m offered a sample, I go with the original flavor, strawberry, covered in chocolate. How can you turn down chocolate?)
In the boardroom, Wray and Brust sat down to reflect on the journey from dorm-room idea to grocery store mainstay.
One 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 inaugural Ole Cup.) Brust reflected on St. Olaf faculty members’ kindness and flexibility when he and Wray were juggling their courses alongside entrepreneurship. “Very forgiving professors,” says Brust, as Wray recounts their first time attending a trade show and catching a red-eye to make it back for 8 a.m. classes.
The duo has aimed to imbue some of those values in their company and its products. Every JonnyPops stick has a good deed written on it. 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 about what makes JonnyPops unique. Are the pops just that good? What sets Brust and Wray apart that helped them turn this idea into something big? I think about how I got here. How did I, a computer science major, get here, interviewing these two? I had a conversation with an Ole, naturally.
I was curious about public relations, so I asked an alum who works in PR to have a conversation with me. She told me about how, as a student, she reached out to the Marketing and Communications Office and asked if there were any job openings to get PR experience. I remember being surprised by this: really, that’s all you have to do to get an interesting job? Just send an email?
Mostly out of curiosity, I sent an email. A few days later, I spoke with the people at MarCom about student work in the PR department. Remember, I’m a computer science major. I just found the idea of public relations interesting; I had no industry skills, outside of the writing I’d done for my courses.
That’s the thing about St. Olaf, though. Sometimes a bit of skill and interest is all you need. I submitted my resume and cover letter, and soon found myself as St. Olaf’s first Public Relations Fellow. In this role, I primarily write about current campus happenings and advise on communications to the St. Olaf community. However, I also seek out interesting stories and write about the exciting and varied lives Oles lead.
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 created something successful, and JonnyPops has weathered the pandemic impressively.
Once I got the green light to write the story, I called up JonnyPops. I asked if I could come up to the cities and interview Wray and Brust. Within a matter of days, I had a meeting scheduled for the following week. The entire process took less than two weeks. Less than two weeks! To meet with two people on a Forbes’ “30 under 30” List!
Before this process, I’d understood St. Olaf’s alumni network as this abstract thing. While setting up this interview, however, I saw first-hand the concrete power of that network. It was a sort of fascinating thing to be involved in, to see how kind and involved Oles are. And more, how Oles have the power to just do whatever it is they want to do.
Of course, not everyone has the opportunity, privilege, or drive to launch a company while balancing academics and other responsibilities. But any Ole can stop by the Piper Center for Vocation and Career, and any Ole can email an alum for support.
And every Ole should know that just by being at this college, one has a remarkable amount of opportunity. With that knowledge, all you have to do now is send that email. Who knows where you’ll end up?