“Often times we put up our own biggest barriers, thinking we aren’t an engineer or expert on something, so how can we ever build something people want? That mentality is just a false security to keep us in our comfort box, preventing us from actually putting ourselves out there, trying something we may fail at, and potentially making a big difference and solving a problem.”
~ Mikayla Sullivan
Mikayla Sullivan (’17 Global Resource Systems, Public Service and Administration in Agriculture) doesn’t sit still for long. From starting her own company, KinoSol, as a sophmore in college, to traveling the world with her business, this inspiring entrepreneur has accomplished more in her twenty-four years of life than many do in a lifetime.
Sullivan grew up with Iowa State in her backyard. Throughout high school she often dreamed of escaping Ames, but changed her mind as graduation approached and it came time to choose a college major. She fell in love with the Global Resource Systems program at Iowa State, eventually serving as a Globe Peer Mentor during her time as a student. “It felt like the ideal fit for me to continue learning about global problems and gain practical international experiences,” explains Sullivan. While at Iowa State, she also participated in the International Agricultural Club and Circle K, a community service organization for college students.
Entrepreneurship was not the obvious choice for Sullivan. “I stumbled into entrepreneurship without any formal education,” she reflects. KinoSol started as a school project. Sullivan and the other students involved in the project had all traveled abroad and had seen firsthand the issues surrounding food waste. However, it wasn’t until they had the opportunity to enter a global business plan competition that they truly began to think about how to address the problem. The Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative (AgEI), along with the ISU Pappa John Center for Entrepreneurship, served as resources to take KinoSol from a promising idea to a viable business.
“AgEI was instrumental in helping the KinoSol team figure out how to turn what started out as a school project, into a business. Without the weekly meetings and support from Kevin and Dave, I don’t think we would be where we are today,” shares Sullivan. The weekly student incubator meetings provided accountability for the team and spurred them on towards continual progress. It helped the team better learn how to prioritize what needed to be accomplished for the business’s success and fostered a support community of like-minded entrepreneurs.
Today, KinoSol is focused on reducing global food waste through the use of solar food dehydrators and social entrepreneurship travel courses to Uganda. The team partners with colleges and universities to offer students short term study abroad opportunities focused on developing entrepreneurship skills, learning about social problems and implementing life changing technology in the form of food dehydrators. To date, the team has traveled to Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, and Thailand to implement KinoSol dehydrators and work with communities.
Their journey to success wasn't always smooth sailing. As a company, the biggest challenge they’ve faced is the sheer distance from their customers. Many of the people who use their dehydrators are hundreds, if not thousands of miles away, making communication difficult. They struggle to receive critical feedback and are often told what people think they want to hear, not allowing them to gauge if they have designed a beneficial product. But the struggle makes the progress that much sweeter. After nine prototypes, they finally arrived at the commercial launch of their dehydrator.
Sullivan always knew that she wanted to work internationally in the food and agriculture sector. But it wasn’t until she started working on KinoSol that she realized entrepreneurship was an impactful path for solving global problems. “There are fewer bureaucratic hoops to jump through at a startup to actually get things done, compared to a traditional business, and that just makes things more efficient,” explains Sullivan.
Sullivan now works full-time at KinoSol, although she didn’t always see it as a career option, at least not until her senior year at Iowa State. When the time came to choose between a full-time industry job or helping direct the company she co-founded, she chose KinoSol. The decision wasn’t easy. She had to overcome the opinions of friends and family who didn't understand startups or that working on one constituted a real career. “I still had a part-time job up until July 2019, so you could say my safety net was still in play,” laughs Sullivan.
Looking ahead, Sullivan plans to continue to grow KinoSol by pursuing their mission of improving food security. The team has set a target for themselves to positively impact the lives of over 1 million people, and they are well on their way to accomplishing that goal.
(L to R: Sullivan in Tanzania, KinoSol's Orenda Dehydrator, KinoSol Co-Founders: Clayton Mooney, Elise Kendall, Ella Gehrke & Sullivan)
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