Infusing entrepreneurship into the student experience

By Kurt Greenbaum

This article was originally published in the 2017 Olin Business Magazine.

As a first-year business student, Hannah Perl found inspiration for a startup. As a sophomore in her first entrepreneurship class, she gained the motivation to launch it. As a senior, she had the savvy to sell it for a five-figure payday and parlay her skills into a job with one of the rock stars of St. Louis’ startup community.

Along the way, her entrepreneurial education at Washington University carried her to Budapest to consult for an Eastern European startup and to the streets of St. Louis for another classroom-based consulting gig.

In June, Perl (BSBA ’17) sold Pyramid Promotions, her event management and promotion company targeting young audiences. Today, she’s chief of staff for Jim McKelvey, the St. Louis entrepreneur and financier who’s had a hand in Square and LaunchCode.

In many ways, Perl embodies the entrepreneurial spirit at Washington University—a spirit Olin educators intend to infuse into every student, whether they’re destined for a career at a major corporation or a newly conceived startup.

“That’s the biggest effect Washington University’s had on me,” Perl said. “It completely defined my path for where I am today.”

Students are engaged in consulting projects for startups around the block and around the globe. They’re partnering with WashU’s Brown School of Social Work to learn about and launch social enterprises. They’re earning stipends from the Weston Career Center for internships with startups instead of traditional Fortune 500 jobs.

Dean Mark Taylor wants his message to be clear:

“Every business student today must understand how to think like an entrepreneur.”

Mark Taylor

“Being entrepreneurial, regardless of the size or scope of your organization, is absolutely imperative for the mindset of future business leaders,” said Taylor, who has made entrepreneurship a key tenet of the school’s new strategic plan.

Established companies increasingly demand bold ideas and innovative thinking, said Taylor, whose plans include putting students in close contact with entrepreneurs already in the marketplace.

Nimble, innovative, creative

For years, Olin has promoted entrepreneurial education and supported student startups through competitions, classwork, and experiential opportunities. That work has put Washington University squarely in the midst of a trend that has swept business schools since 1985.

At that time, according to the Kauffman Foundation, business schools offered about 250 classes in entrepreneurship.

By 2012, the number exploded twentyfold, with more than two-thirds of business schools offering courses on the subject. Of the 1,250 business incubators in the United States at the time of the study, about a third were based at universities.

Numbers also show that today’s businesses—large and small, established or emerging—need entrepreneurial leaders. A 2013 Harvard study showed failure rates between 70 and 90 percent for large corporate entrepreneurship efforts—often referred to as “intrapreneurship.” The numbers suggest demand for leaders with the time, talent, and vision to drive change.

“The war for talent has just started,” Deloitte asserted in a 2015 white paper devoted to corporate entrepreneurship. “However, some companies fail to foster a source of great talent: intrapreneurs. Encouraging employees in intrapreneurial thinking will lead to a growing number of high potentials.”

Meanwhile, startups have a growing appetite for MBAs with entrepreneurial skills.

The Graduate Management Admission Council this year reported that 75 percent of startups planned to hire recent MBA graduates, up from 52 percent in 2016.

“We’re looking for tenacity, grit, can-do, quitting-is-not-an-option attitudes.”

Daniel Bentle (MBA ’13), director of Olin’s Center for Experiential Learning, which leads several initiatives in the strategic plan.

They include a finance and accounting clinic in which master’s students provide free services to area startups and an international impact initiative that “takes our consulting services global” as select students work with social enterprises in developing countries.

“It’s about infusing the nimble, innovative, and creative spirit of entrepreneurial management through the cases we teach, in the projects students undertake, and in the community,” said Todd Milbourn, vice dean and Hubert C. and Dorothy R. Moog Professor of Finance.

Seizing on the need for proactive, nimble, and interdisciplinary thinking, several parts of the strategic plan focus on getting students outside the classroom, learning how entrepreneurs confront problems, grow their businesses—and even deal with failure.

Borderless classrooms

For example, students from across the university are invited to apply for two different entrepreneurship career treks. One trek will visit executives at mature startups, the other will go inside established corporations that have launched intrapreneurial teams. The Weston Career Center organized the first entrepreneurship trek in March.

In a whirlwind two-day visit to New York City, students visited six companies—some new, some well established—including Nomad Financial, which develops financial analysis technology, and Woosh Beauty, which develops innovative makeup and beauty products.

Karen Heise, interim director of the career center, said students appreciate rubbing shoulders with executives who demonstrate innovative thinking and problem solving across a range of industries and corporate structures.

“Our students have a very strong entrepreneurial spirit,” Heise said, “but they don’t all want to start their own companies.”

The career center is also the hub of another off-campus initiative: the Entrepreneurship Summer Stipend Award. Launched in the spring, the program awarded up to $5,000 to each of four students who wanted to forego traditional MBA internships for the freedom to explore and develop their entrepreneurial skills.

“There’s so much pressure to get a high-paying summer internship at a top firm,” said Josh Henschen (MBA ’18), a recipient of the new entrepreneurship stipend. “Thanks to this support, I could afford to veer off that corporate path and pursue alternative career possibilities.”

Inspired by classmates in Cliff Holekamp’s introductory entrepreneurship class, Henschen’s mind overflowed with startup ideas—diverting him from his intended career path in consulting. Holekamp, senior lecturer in entrepreneurship, academic director for entrepreneurship, and director of the Entrepreneurship Platform, persuaded Henschen to apply for the stipend.

“In certain fields, there are very clear career paths,” Holekamp said. “MBA finance students have traditionally gone to Wall Street or banking for summer internships that often result in job offers. But for those interested in entrepreneurship, the options aren’t as obvious or lucrative. We really wanted to normalize the summer internship experience for students who want to pursue entrepreneurship.”

So rather than “giving up” a summer internship, Henschen’s resume shows that he won a summer stipend fellowship, which let him spend the summer in Bulgaria evaluating the viability of several startup ideas. His first—a chain of hostels for Eastern European travelers—still needs development, due to unstable real estate prices.

He’s since spoken to Bulgarian diplomats, importers, automotive industry experts, and soybean growers as he evaluates other startup ideas.

“It’s changing as I learn,” Henschen said. “But honestly, that’s the whole point of this summer. I needed to learn by doing.”

The experience has given Henschen the opportunity to test what he’s learned at Olin across a variety of disciplines—corporate finance, operations, marketing, sales, product development, and accounting. That cross- disciplinary experience is key to what Olin educators say entrepreneurship demands.

“This can be a way of thinking rather than just about going off and creating a company,” said Barton H. Hamilton, Robert Brookings Smith Distinguished Professor of Economics, Management, and Entrepreneurship and the academic advisor for the Center for Experiential Learning. “Students can take this way of thinking about combining resources in a different way, empowering them to bring that thinking to their organization.”

Culture of collaboration

Increasingly, students are eager to apply their business savvy and entrepreneurial spirit to some form of public good. Oft-reported statistics show that social impact education was virtually nonexistent even 10 years ago. Now, half the world’s top business schools offer it.

Olin is expanding its commitment to that sector by collaborating with the Brown School of Social Work to create a social entrepreneurship innovation accelerator. Led by Heather Cameron, the Brown School’s Michael B. Kaufman Professor of Practice in Social Entrepreneurship, WashU has retooled its existing social entrepreneurship competition.

In the past year, Cameron’s classes have evaluated a host of social startups and recommended several for seed funding to explore their viability. Two students are interning for two of the startups. The idea, Cameron said, is to “move away from prize culture and into investment culture.” Meanwhile, the fledgling accelerator is actively seeking investors for existing startups that are ready to move to the next level.

The future, embodied

To see how far entrepreneurship education has come at Olin—and where it can continue to go—look no further than the experience of Elise Hastings (PMBA ’19). From a business incubator in downtown St. Louis, she embodies the many ways a WashU business student can intersect with entrepreneurship education at Olin.

She’s executive director for Givable, a microgiving platform designed to reach the next generation of charitable donors. Founded by Cultivation Capital, the Staenberg Family Foundation, and the Regional Business Council, Givable hired Hastings as its sole employee in October 2016. She quickly applied her accounting, management, and marketing skills from the classroom.

In the spring, Hastings worked with the Weston Career Center and hired intern Nathan Vogt (MBA ’18), among the first summer stipend recipients. He worked with Hastings to develop a marketing pipeline for Givable. “I can sit back and think a little more about strategy and the big picture,” Vogt said. “That’s incredibly helpful to Elise.”

As the operator of a startup, Hastings engaged one of Holekamp’s student consulting teams through the CEL’s Entrepreneurial Consulting Team course. For the market analysis project, the student team recommended that Givable target small businesses as customers.

“I’m wearing all the different hats of an entrepreneur.” Hastings said. “It’s been so valuable to take what I learned in class and apply it to my work at Givable.”

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