Meet up with Connor Tukel after school and it’s easy to forget he’s “just a kid” – a senior at the Frankel Jewish Academy with the usual challenges of college application deadlines and AP exams. Forget that he’s fluent in Hebrew, excels in sports – plays varsity baseball and tennis – competes in Quiz Bowl and serves as President of the school’s Political Debate Club, Spanish Club and Computer Programming Club. With a resumé and a jumpstart in business that belies his youth, Connor is a born entrepreneur. Multi-talented and multi-faceted, he’s a doer who believes in giving it his all.
In his “spare time,” Connor runs 313 Energy, an energy drink company started by his brother, Matthew, donating 11 cents of every can sold to the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) Foundation. Just for fun, Connor also runs a company that builds and designs websites, volunteers with JARC and Bookstock, heads a program teaching older adults at Meer Apartments how to use technology and serves on the Youth Board of Orchards Children’s Services and The Jewish Fund. A motivational speaker and frequent presenter to students in Detroit schools, Connor recently was recognized as the recipient of the DPS Foundation’s Champion of Education Award.
A Hillel Day School student before attending Frankel Jewish Academy and the youngest of three boys in the Tukel family, Connor lives in Franklin, Michigan. His father, David, is an ophthalmologist; his mother, Debra, is a speech pathologist. Connor’s oldest brother, Bradley, is a senior in the Gallatin School at New York University. Brother Matthew is headed to medical school, currently a sophomore in the MedStart program at Wayne State University.
Five words that describe you
Connor: Fun-loving. Because I like to make people laugh. Eccentric. Because I like to do things in my own way. Pensive. Because I tend to think things through. Thoughtful. Because I try to walk in others’ shoes and be as empathetic as much as possible. (There’s a hyphenated word in there, so I guess that’s a solid five.)
On family background
myJewishDetroit: You have the spirit of a social entrepreneur. How would you say your family has influenced your path?
Connor: My parents always have encouraged my business ventures, as well as my academic interests and volunteer opportunities. My dad is a doctor and periodically has taken me with him to observe his different eye surgeries. These visits certainly have fostered my interest in medicine and, in fact, this past summer I worked at the Detroit Medical Center’s Children’s Hospital downtown where I conducted research and was able to observe open heart and brain surgeries.
My brothers also have influenced my path. My brother Matthew is the one who started 313 Energy along with his partner, Sawyer Altman, when they were juniors at Frankel. I was inspired by them to get involved with business. Bradley, the oldest of the three of us, also has proven to be a guiding force via insights and suggestions that stem from his experience in the world of finance.
Everyone in my family (both immediate and extended) has been incredibly supportive and has bolstered my pursuit of the things that I am passionate about – business, medicine, and technology (namely, computer programing). Even so, there are times (and my parents will attest to this) that I like to keep things to myself, so that when I achieve a goal, I can surprise my family and say, “Look what I’ve been working on at night, when you thought I was sleeping.”
On running a business
myJDet: Tell us how 313 Energy started. Has the business changed since you’ve been at the helm? And what have you learned?
Connor: 313 Energy was founded in an entrepreneurship class at Frankel. The assignment was simple: create a business, large or small, real or just an idea. Kids would get out of this only as much as they put into it.
Matthew and Sawyer originally devised a plan for starting Detroit Water. The idea was to bottle river water and donate a portion of the proceeds to the city.
Of course, there were a lot of skeptics out there. “Detroit doesn’t need water,” they would say. “Detroit needs energy.” That was the epiphany that brought 313 Energy to life as the all-natural, low-calorie, Detroit-based energy drink that donates 11 cents of every can sold to the Detroit Public Schools Foundation.
There are no textbooks to describe what happened next. Hours of research, hundreds of cold calls, and numerous changes in the formula came together to produce the 313 Energy drink which is now available in more than 100 grocery stores and specialty markets.
When Matthew and Sawyer went off to college, Sawyer’s younger brother, Carter, and I decided to step in, rather than let our brothers sell the business. Carter ( a junior at Frankel) and I were eager to take on the work, take the reins and run with the company. And that’s exactly what we’ve done together. We’ve invested hundreds of hours, meeting with clients, attending food shows, making deliveries and marketing our product. When you think about those people in Costco and Plum Market who pass out samples…we’re those guys.
One of the main things I’ve learned while running this business is how to deal with the answer ‘no’ and how to get to “yes.” I’ve heard ‘no’ countless – and I mean countless – times. When I offer people a sample, the classic line for turning us down is, “Thanks, but I already have enough energy.” Yet when we share our story and tell them that we are promoting an all-natural, Detroit-based energy drink, and one that is altruistic, run exclusively by teens, and supports the revitalization of Detroit, people stop, rethink, and say, “Well, maybe I should give it a try.”
In addition to expanding the retail prevalence of the beverage, Carter and I also started a program in which we go downtown and speak with Detroit Public middle and high school students about entrepreneurship. We tell them our story, about how we, as teenagers just like them, run our own business, and about how they too can go about creating a business. To date, we have visited ten schools and spoken to more than a thousand students.
I love to volunteer because it’s fun and it feels great to do good. I am privileged to have all that I do, and I feel a compelling sense of responsibility to give back to those who are less fortunate. In addition to working with JARC and Orchards Children’s Services, I have started a program in which teens spend time at local retirement homes tutoring the residents in technology (iPads, the internet and email).
myJewishDetroit:What is your definition of a leader?
Connor: A leader is someone who does what he or she believes in— with or without recognition. A leader is someone who continues in his or her pursuits even in the face of adversity; someone who is willing to go against the status quo, or do what may be considered unpopular to achieve what he or she feels is important
myJewishDetroit: What is your definition of an entrepreneur?
Connor: An entrepreneur doesn’t necessarily have to be in the business sphere. An entrepreneur is simply a leader: one who takes initiative to invent, create, fix, build, restore, or re-energize something in his or her society, his or her community, his or her school, or his or her family.
myJewishDetroit:What is your definition of an philanthropy?
Connor: Beyond the act of writing a check, I think that philanthropy requires one to take thoughtful action. Giving money to a cause is truly beneficial, but money alone doesn’t always solve a problem. I believe that if one has the capability to take action, then he or she has a responsibility to do so.
On being Jewish
I like to say that being Jewish is like being a member of a really cool club; though I can’t take credit for that statement – I heard it from a camp counselor on a canoe trip. Nevertheless, his words always has stuck with me. I cherish the strong connection that exists between Jews of all streams – whether they live across town or halfway around the world. When I hear Hebrew, I automatically feel a bond with the person speaking. Just like that, I instantly feel that sense of community.
On working with the teen board of The Jewish Fund
The work ahead seems to be right in my wheelhouse in that I can be on the leadership committee of this new program. I plan on taking it upon myself to make sure that everyone on the Board learns firsthand about the needs of the community through the grant-making lens. The experience also will help me grow; I will meet new kids from all across the area, will experience things I have never experienced before, and will make lasting memories.
Subjects / activities in school: Biology, American History, Political Debate and Computer Programming Clubs
Favorite websites: TukelTech.com, YouTube.com, Yahoo.com, Devour.com to name just a few.
Place to hang out with friends: Movies
Sports: Tennis, Quiz Bowl, baseball, (second baseman and an up-and-coming pitcher)
Music: Whatever is on
Movies: Airplane, Saving Private Ryan, Dark Knight, Stepbrothers
Building in the Detroit skyline: The RenCen. It’s iconic.
Favorite vacation place: New York, great food! My family has an apartment there.
Favorite Jewish food: Chocolate rugalach from Marzipan in Israel. Enough said!
Jewish Expression: If my grandma had wheels, she’d be a trolley car. Not sure exactly what this means, but I learned it in my tenth-grade Bible class, and always thought it to be a funny expression that may not be applicable in many situations, but when you finally do bring it out, it most certainly leaves an impression.
Never leave home without: Keys
Reading for pleasure
Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People