Pat Tillman Foundation can’t fulfill its mission to empower military veterans and their spouses without the generosity of our supporters across the country. Nationwide, nearly 350 Tillman Scholars are striving to impact our country and communities through their studies in medicine, law, business, policy, technology, education and the arts. Every “Tillman Tuesday,” we are committed to highlighting the individual impact of a Tillman Scholar, focusing on their success in school, career and community—all thanks to your support.
In this week’s edition of Tillman Tuesday we sat down with 2013 Tillman Scholar Michael Kothakota who comes from a military family and recently earned his master’s degree in Predictive Analytics from Northwestern University. Prior to finishing his masters, Kothakota started a data analytics firm geared towards small businesses and non-profits and is currently working on a third business. Born in Oklahoma, Kothakota lived in Germany for seven years, Ft. Bragg and Italy for one year.
With your mom, dad and brother all serving in the military, why did you too decide to join? Was it a family influence?
“My brother joined the Air Force and both my mom and dad served with the Army. I started in Air Force ROTC in North Carolina and decided I wanted to be an Air Force combat controller, but my vision was not good enough so I quit and joined Army ROTC. That didn’t work out either so I decided I just wanted to be an enlisted soldier. I wanted to finish college, so I joined the National Guard in the late 90’s. I scored really well on the test and decided I wanted to be an Infantry guy.
After training, I had a civilian career that was going really well as a security manager at a pharmaceutical company and then 9/11 happened. In 2003, just before the invasion, we learned that we were going to deploy to Iraq. It was at that time that I had to put my career on hold.
I was stationed with the 120th infantry the 30th Heavy Brigade, but when we were deployed we were attached to the First Infantry Division, operating on the Iranian border during our first six months. The entire deployment was a little over 14 months and it was my first and only one.”
What did you learn from your parents and your brother that you carried with you when you we’re going through your experience in the military?
“My dad was in Desert Storm so I understood war at an early age. I could tell a few things in basic training were simple for me compared to other soldiers because I knew a lot of the terminology and how things were supposed to be (clean, etc.). I definitely had an advantage knowing military customs and courtesies. However, nothing can really prepare you for combat. I’m grateful we trained as much as we did, but you don’t know what your reaction is going to be until you’re there.”
What was life like for you when you returned from Iraq in January 2005?
“I went back to my job but it was completely different prior to when I deployed. Admittedly, I probably went back to work too soon, so that was tough. Then just one month after I got back, my brother, who was an Air Force pilot, died in an aircraft accident in Albania.”
How did your brother’s passing impact you?
“Being an Air Force pilot, no one in our family ever really expected him to get killed, whereas I was an infantryman and the expectation was that if it was going to happen to anybody, it would’ve happened to me. I don’t think anybody expected that.
I actually quit work and took off for five months after he died. I then decided to go into financial services after that. Once I started working though, my unit was activated to go to New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina, so I spent Thanksgiving 2005 there for four weeks.”
In 2008 you started your own financial services firm and at the same time your wife started her PhD program. How were you able to manage everything you took on at that time?
“We didn’t have our client base built right away. The first six months I actually worked security from 11:00 p.m. – 7:00 a.m., would come home and sleep for a couple of hours, and then go work on my finance business until about 5:00 p.m. I would go back home, eat dinner, sleep for a couple of hours and do it all over again the next day.”
Tell us what the experience has been like running your own business WolfBridge Financial and why you decided to go that route?
“You always hear, ‘If you knew everything then what you know now, you would have never done it.’ It’s probably true but there are a lot of things that made me want to do it. First, I never wanted to be put into a position where somebody had complete control over my life. If you have one client and they fire you, then there goes all of your income. But if you have several clients and one of them fires you, there are still other clients. I loved the autonomy part of it…making your own schedule, being able to be there and support my wife when she needed it, and the overall flexibility. The month before my brother died we went to Australia for a couple of weeks and had planned all the businesses we would start on our own, so that was also a part of my motivation.”
Did you feel like you owed it to your brother to start your own business?
“I don’t do the ‘I feel like I owe him” anything, but it’s now a dream that will never happen for him, so for me I still want that dream to happen. It was a way I could feel more connected to him because of that. Now I’m trying to do things for me too, which is why I went back to school in 2012.”
Why did you decide to go back to school and apply to be a Tillman Scholar?
“I really admire my wife because education has always been a big part of her life and it has become a big part of mine. When she finished her PhD, I thought maybe it was time for me to go back to school. I was trying to find a program I felt might be enjoyable as well as educating. I found the Predictive Analytics program at Northwestern, but never thought I would get into the school. I unexpectedly got in and then realized how expensive the tuition actually was.
I was searching for scholarships and the first one I came across was the Tillman Scholarship. I was in Iraq when Pat was killed and I remember exactly where I was. I was in a chow hall when we found out on the news and it brought me back to the present and recognizing that anyone can go at any time. I didn’t know anything about Pat other than he had decided to pass on his football contract and enlist. When I found the scholarship, I read up on his story and learned that education and leadership were important to him, so we had a lot of similarities.
Being the financial guy that I am, I realize that being a Tillman Scholar is not a gift, it’s an investment and that’s what resonated with me the most…this is an investment in the future of our country. The money and community that’s built goes to refining people who are great. I never thought I would make it and then when I got the call I was in shock. Originally the money is what made me look for the scholarship, but when I found it I thought this would really be a great community to be part of.”
What made you decide to get out of the military?
“It was putting yourself in someone else’s hands a lot of the time and by starting my own business I had the opportunity to shape my own future. I remember my platoon sergeant, Jerry Jackson, told us before we deployed, ‘this deployment will be a defining moment in your lives.’ We all rolled our eyes, but truly serving in combat is an extremely life-changing experience and I think that it changed my perspective on a lot of things. It really was a defining moment for me. This generation of veterans is what is going to drive this country forward, just like WWII veterans. Not only does this generation have the same experience but also the ability to look back and see what previous generations did.”
What does it mean to you to be part of the Tillman Scholar family?
“I didn’t know any scholars but when I came to the first Leadership Summit I felt like I had come home. Something was missing in my life. Though had found success in my business, I came to the leadership conference and I was with people who were driven and who understood my experiences. I immediately felt at ease when I walked into a room filled with other scholars. For me, it’s the best place to be and I can’t imagine not being part of the community.”
How honored are you to be able to help carry forward Pat’s legacy as a Tillman scholar?
“Pat’s legacy started as a seed and it has expanded with the Tillman Scholar program because in each scholar there is a piece that resembles Pat; service and leadership. Not only are we carrying forward Pat’s legacy, but the scholars are also adding their own greatness. The relationships and connections continue to blossom and get bigger and bigger every year.”
This year you decided to help pay it forward for future scholars and set a goal of raising $20,000 by Pat’s Run in April. What was the motivation behind your goal?
“Last year, two other scholars, Erik Wittreich and Jon Andrews, raised $20,000 together so I thought, ‘I can do that too.’ Erik is much more handsome than I am and has nicer hair, so that kind of hurts me a bit! But all joking aside, I admire Erik and John’s stories. For me, I also felt like if you don’t ask for that much money you won’t raise that much money. I think if you set a low goal, it’s achievable, but you’re missing an opportunity to achieve more than you possibly thought you could. Being a finance and analytics guy, I’m now testing different ways and theories to fundraise as part of this campaign. I’m doing things like offering something like a hug for donations, and I even said I would shave my head if we reach the $20,000 goal!”
If you would like to support Mike’s goal of raising $20,000 for Pat’s Run, you can check out his fundraising page and make a contribution here.