From Student-Athlete to Entrepreneur

“Student-athletes know how to plan. They have goals for themselves and set plans to do things daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly. That is a skill that not everyone has. That skill has paid off big time especially in entrepreneurship,”

Breanna Atkinson, a former Duke University volleyball player, is certainly making a name for herself off of the volleyball court.

 At Duke, Atkinson was a member of the ACC-All Academic Team three times and graduated in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in Economics, Marketing and Management certificate, and an education minor.

Atkinson currently works at Accenture as a consulting manager in their Talent and Organization practice for Communications, Media, and Technology clients. 

Atkinson is also the Co-Founder and CEO of Kokada, the first-ever coconut-based spread which she founded with her fiancé Jared Golestani, a former Duke University soccer player, in May 2019. 

Both Atkinson and Golestani have been accepted to the Wharton School- Business School at the University of Pennsylvania. In the Fall of 2021, both Atkinson and Golestani will attend Wharton, which is regarded as the #2 Best Business Schools by usnews.com.

Bre was selected as one of 36 athletes to participate in the U.S. Collegiate National Team (CNT) program that trained and competed in conjunction with the USA Volleyball Girls’ Junior National Championships.

From Blue Devil to Consultant

After graduating in 2016, Atkinson started working for Accenture in management consulting in their Boston office.

“Up until the fall of my senior year, I thought I wanted to play professional volleyball but then I realized my body couldn’t take it anymore,” said Atkinson. “During the season, I started asking people studying the same major as me what they were doing for jobs. I heard about consulting and applied to a bunch of consulting firms and got a job in October of my senior year.”

For Atkinson, adjusting to the work world was a new step that she had not experienced yet.

“I knew who I was on the court, when you are a senior, you know what kind of leader you are, but then you go into the workplace, and you are a freshman again and you don’t know who you are in the workplace. The first year was figuring it all out,” said Atkinson.

Luckily, she was able to lean on her past experiences at Duke for help.

“I strongly believe that if you can be a student-athlete, everything is going to feel easier. Working. A 10-hour day is not a big deal compared to being a college athlete. That felt easy,” said Atkinson. 

The student-athlete experience

According to Atkinson, “everything is going to feel easy” when referring to how her student-athlete experience prepared her for her first job out of school.

To Atkinson, there are three main skills that student-athletes, as well as musicians she says, have that non-student-athletes may not have as naturally.

The first of the three skills is knowing how to work towards a goal.

“I’ve noticed non-student athletes, or non-musicians, quickly get daunted or discouraged at a really big goal versus athletes or musicians who have a goal and are used to failure,” said Atkinson. “You are used to chipping away every day at a goal that you may never get and may not even be in your control. Everyone wants a national championship but in reality, almost everyone ends their career with a loss. That’s really tough but that’s how we are. Other people tend to struggle with that.”

The second skill that Atkinson emphasized was knowing how to operate in a team.

“Other people tend to not know how to operate in a team which is wild because it feels so normal for us athletes,” said Atkinson. “They don’t know what kind of leader they are. As athletes, we spend a lot of time finding that out about ourselves. Knowing how to be in a team and knowing who you are is something we learn as student-athletes.” 

The third and final skill Atkinson mentioned was knowing how to plan.

“Student-athletes know how to plan. They have goals for themselves and set plans to do things daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly. That is a skill that not everyone has. That skill has paid off big time especially in entrepreneurship,” said Atkinson.

Journey as an entrepreneur: Kokada

Atkinson was traveling in London for a work trip when she first came across the idea for Kokada. She went to a local market in London and fell in love with a coconut jam there that she was unable to find back home.

“The idea came from that. I started by thinking that this product is not out there,” said Atkinson. “Coconut is trendy, it’s gluten-free, vegan, nut-free, and all these popular things. I decided I was just going to go for it.”

Sure enough, Atkinson and Golestani went for it. 

“Our initial goal was just to sell it at a farmers market within six months,” said Atkinson. “I registered with the FDA, got the marketing and packaging going, and figured out the ingredients. I just wanted to learn. I didn’t care if it failed because I’m 26. Failure was not the biggest deal; I just wanted to learn and find something to challenge myself outside of work.”

Before Atkinson knew it, Kokada became a hit.

“It took off big time. The goal was farmer’s markets and that was it. People started liking it and there is a big vegan community where we live near Duke, so it caught fire big time and I ended up falling in love with the marketing, the Instagram, and the branding of it,” said Atkinson.

One thing after another happened and soon enough Kokada had worked its way into multiple stores and the country’s largest national food distributor which opened the door for even bigger stores. 

“Every day we just applied to some stores knowing we would probably be rejected. We applied to hundreds of different places. For every no, we knew we were getting closer to a yes,” said Atkinson. “Sometimes it’s overwhelming but it’s just really exciting. I’m in a place where honestly failure doesn’t scare me as much as success does.”

According to Atkinson, Kokada is on track to be in a really large grocery chain towards the end of the year. 

 

“My big goal is to sell it for a certain number in the millions in 7 years,” said Atkinson.

What’s next? Wharton

Surely being a full-time consultant and starting your own coconut-spread business is all one person can have on their plate, right? Not for Atkinson.

“I constantly have this thing in the back of my head that I do not just want to be one thing. I don’t ever just want to be a consultant, which is what my full-time job still is,” said Atkinson. “We got to the point with Kokada where we could go full time soon, but my thought was that I didn’t want to put all my eggs into one basket.”

Atkinson and fiancé Golestani decided to apply to business schools together. They both were accepted to Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Both my fiancé and I applied to the top 10 and said whatever one takes both of us,” said Atkinson. “I knew I wanted to go to school and work hard at Kokada so that in two years it’s big in revenue so that it is not as risky for me to work it. And if it fails, then I get a degree. There is no bad outcome.”

For Atkinson, having multiple things going for her is very important, a skill she learned as a student-athlete who had to juggle school, volleyball, social life, and more. 

“I always try to have multiple things going so if one thing does not go my way, it’s not a bad outcome,” said Atkinson.

What comes next for Atkinson?

“My long-term goal is to finish school and ultimately sell Kokada. I want to have three different careers all at once,” said Atkinson. “I want to have a bunch of rental properties, own a bunch of Orange Theories or F45’s and then I want to do consulting for entrepreneurs. That’s my dream long-term goal, to just have a bunch of stuff at once.”

Lifelong student-athlete benefits

To Atkinson, being a student-athlete prepared her not only for work but for her entire life.

“It is a confidence thing for me. When you are a student-athlete you daily do what a lot of people feel is impossible. You push your body to the limits. If you can push yourself in the gym, you can push yourself at work and in life,” said Atkinson.

The lessons she learned during her time on the court are some that will last a lifetime off the court.

“Being a student-athlete has forced me to be super disciplined in myself and showing up every single day as well as having the confidence to believe in yourself and be happy in that,” said Atkinson. “Sports make you not be afraid of failure and believe in yourself and you just need that to translate to whatever you do next.”

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By : Elena ShklyarGame Plan Intern