One day, early in the coronavirus crisis, one of Camryn Okere’s favorite off-campus restaurants closed forever. And that’s when she realized she had to do something.
After Bobo Noodle House shuttered, and as other small businesses were suffering, the soon-to-graduate WashU BSBA student knew she could help. Two weeks later, she’d recruited WashU classmates and business students from a dozen other schools to join her. Rem and Company was born.
“Seeing a local business I love permanently close was heartbreaking,” Okere said. “When I see problems in my everyday life, my community and my environments, I am inspired to work to implement change.”
In just a few weeks, Okere’s initiative — “a social impact initiative focusing on keeping doors open and dreams alive” — has helped small businesses stay up to date on industry trends, learn new approaches from peers, build networks and adapt as the world changes. In many ways, Rem and Company has begun solving problems on two fronts.
On one front, as small businesses and nonprofits fight for their lives through the global pandemic, students and recent graduates are banding together to offer free consulting support to help proprietors engage with customers, reimagine business models and diversify product offerings.
At the same time, as the crisis wreaks havoc on corporate hiring, those same students are confronting a summer without jobs and internships by putting their education into practice.
“So many students are sitting at home right now and they don’t feel valued,” said Okere, who named the initiative after the stage of sleep in which people tend to dream vividly—because the coronavirus pandemic is something of a nightmare. “Our mission and core values provide many individuals—especially students uncertain about their next career steps—with a sense of value and purpose.”
From zero to helping in weeks
From conceiving Rem and Company to launch took about two weeks. Today, more than 80 students and recent graduates have banded together, representing schools including Wharton, Harvard, Duke, Northwestern, Columbia, Vanderbilt, and, of course, WashU Olin.
The fledgling cooperative, which stays connected through Slack and Google Drive, is also drawing on experienced mentors from organizations such as Google, McKinsey & Co., Morgan Stanley and The Wall Street Journal.
“The real idea is to empower the students,” said Janine Toro, user experience designer and researcher for The Wall Street Journal, who managed Okere when she was a summer intern last year. “She’s picking the projects and assigning the right people to them. I’m more of the resource provider for now.”
Toro isn’t surprised that Okere so quickly got her inspiration up and running. “I was referring to her as the person who I will work for in five years,” she said. “When I first met her, I could tell she was very driven.”
At least six small businesses as close to WashU as St. Louis and as far as India have signed on for consulting support. Okere spends a lot of time outlining initial client needs and coordinating team assignments, evaluating which volunteers have the complementary expertise to support which projects. Their consulting teams provide small businesses with the opportunity to identify and prioritize business issues, propose innovative strategies and execute.
Engaging with customers
“I’m very super excited to have some support,” said Ann Lederman, executive director for The Buddy Fund, a St. Louis-based nonprofit that provides athletic equipment to organizations serving at-risk youth. As the sole employee of the 58-year-old organization, “My position has been taxed in the areas of branding, board engagement and being present online.”
She’s seeking help from Rem and Company to maintain donor relationships and prepare for the possibility that the organization’s largest annual fundraiser—a golf tournament—might not be able to happen in September as planned.
Rem and Company helped a Philadelphia-area rock-climbing company develop an innovative engagement strategy around virtual experiences. Student teams have also worked with small businesses or nonprofits in New York, Connecticut, DC, and other US cities, as well as international locations such as India and Finland.
The cooperative is focusing for now on organizations within the fashion, nonprofit, dining and fitness industries. Once she and her colleagues weather the pandemic, Okere said her next steps might be to develop a long-term business plan and eventually see how Rem and Company can get funding.
“It’s been amazing to see this all mobilize in such a short amount of time and the outpouring of support from the WashU community,” Okere said. “I’m not someone who is going to just sit around.”
To learn more about the ways Washington University students, faculty, staff and alumni are caring for one another and our communities, visit #WashUtogether.