Mizzou students create mobile app company to help others discover the world
For many college students, travel is a central part of the college experience.
But one team of Mizzou students doesn’t just want to travel, the students want to revolutionize the way people see the world. And in a world where there is a smartphone app for everything—they might have created the perfect app for the wanderlust among us.
Kolu is a mobile app that matches travelers with local tour guides based on three shared interests that the users select when creating their profile. Fittingly, ‘kolu’ is a Hawaiian word meaning ‘three.’
Here is Kolu’s #MizzouMade story.
The app’s founder and CEO, Alex Winkler, graduated from Mizzou in 2016 with degrees in international studies and business administration. Winkler grew up in Hillsboro, Missouri, but his small-town roots haven’t stopped him from seeing the world. Only 24 years old, Winkler has visited more than 25 countries.
He was in Copenhagen when he came up with the initial idea for Kolu. His inspiration for the service was a result of growing frustration with standardized tours that only seemed to showcase the tourist traps in his many travels.
His idea was simple—yet unusual—he wanted to create a mobile app that matches travelers with local tour guides based on three shared interests that users select when creating the profile.
Winkler returned to Columbia to pitch the concept for what was then called Global Hiker at Mizzou’s startup weekend where he and his team placed second. He knew he was on to something special and began building on the concept, turning to fellow Mizzou students to help him form a company before graduation.
“Mizzou provided me opportunities to help turn a dream into a reality,” Winkler said. “Mizzou allowed me to network and become friends with so many people who were as excited as I was to work on this project.”
Winkler teamed up with fellow Mizzou students Emily Johnson, who currently studies strategic communications in the School of Journalism and is minoring in computer science; Riley de León, who also studies strategic communications; and Marin Meiners, who is studying marketing and business administration in the Trulaske College of Business.
“If it weren’t for Mizzou I wouldn’t have met and begun working with my incredible teammates,” Winkler said. “They all bring special talents to the team and through their Mizzou education they are well prepared to work hard, put in 100 percent effort and get the job done.”
Kolu’s Chief Marketing Officer Riley de León discovered a passion for journalism and communications while serving as the yearbook editor for his high school in Springfield. There was no question for him where he wanted to go to college. For him going to the world’s best journalism school was a no-brainer. With graduation just around the corner, he knows he made the right decision.
“Mizzou has helped me become successful in a number of ways, but I’d say the most significant is in what it’s taught me about people,” de León said. “Mizzou does a really good job of preparing students for life’s realities—both good and bad—and looking back at my time here, that has contributed to my successes time and again.”
After four years at Mizzou, de Leon says that younger students should aim high and not get caught up in details and concerns associated with making big decisions.
“In my eyes, the quicker you can take a leap of faith, the quicker you’re going to realize that it’s either the best decision you’ve ever made, or it’s absolutely NOT the right fit for you. It’s all about taking action and in some cases—failing fast—so you can learn what it is you really are in this world. You can take my word that Mizzou is an excellent place for taking action and realizing your dreams.”
While de León knew Mizzou was his first choice right away, it took visiting campus to solidify the decision for Kolu’s Chief Operating Officer Marin Meiners who grew up in Rochelle, Illinois. Meiners had visited five colleges before coming to Mizzou and thought she was set on a different school. But once she set foot on campus, she knew Mizzou was the right fit.
“I felt a sense of community and tradition,” Meiners said. “That was something I really wanted to take part in.”
Meiners credits Mizzou for opening her global mindset through study abroad experiences and an opportunity to intern at the International Trade Center.
Emily Johnson, Kolu’s chief product officer, grew up in Montgomery City, Missouri and chose Mizzou for the flexibility in pursuing strategic communication, graphic design and user interface design without going the traditional art school route. She believes that flexibility helps students become better-rounded.
“It’s great that Mizzou has so many departments and allows you to crossover when you find new subjects that interest you,” Johnson said. “Minoring in computer science allowed me to embrace my love for technology and my emphasis in strategic communication allowed crossover to the business and entrepreneurial side leading me to join the Kolu team.”
Two other Mizzou students have played a key part in developing the business. Evan Teters, a computer science student, works for Kolu as an iOS developer. Grace Aragon-Menzel, a junior studying textile and apparel management, works for Kolu as a content manager.
Kolu’s core purpose within the sharing economy—an economy driven by concepts such as ridesharing, apartment/home lending and coworking—is to provide customized introductions to cities. Even more, the vision is for Kolu to be a 21st century company that redefines company culture, specifically within the sharing economy. Kolu’s team strives to use tech as a way of enhancing the human connection it was meant to enable.
Kolu’s team members say forming the startup has been their favorite Mizzou experience.
Johnson, de León and Meiners will graduate from Mizzou in May and plan to move to New York City. They will join Winkler to launch the company, adding some more Tiger stripes to the Big Apple.