Purina CEL team (left to right): Lucy Sun, MSAA
Practicum students collaborate remotely on Purina marketing strategy

This spring, our team of two MBAs and five specialized masters students had the opportunity to work on a data-driven consulting engagement for our client, Nestlé Purina PetCare, through the company’s partnership with Olin’s Center for Experiential Learning and the Center for Analytics and Business Insights.

With a rich history in pet care, Purina is a globally competitive leader that makes world-class products and drives pet nutrition forward through research. For our project, Purina tasked us with providing recommendations for changing consumer perceptions about senior pet nutrition to increase sales in the senior pet food category.

Our team was very excited for the chance to tackle a real-world marketing project. Team member Margaret Cai, MSCA ’20, shared that she was initially interested in working on the Purina project because it “…provided a fantastic opportunity for me to develop my thoughts and create valuable suggestions.”

Under the guidance of faculty advisors—Professor Michael Wall, Professor Seethu Seetharaman, and Professor Meng Liu—our team was able to pair what we’ve learned in the classroom with data insights and industry research to develop a marketing strategy for senior pet food.

A new virtual reality

What started out as a normal semester took a turn when our campus had to react to the COVID-19 pandemic. For our CEL team, this posed unexpected challenges and disrupted our normal working environment—quite suddenly, we had to account for having team members across four time zones.

While half of our team was still in St. Louis, other team members returned to family homes in Columbus, Ohio; Big Sky, Montana; and Vancouver, British Columbia. We had gone from sharing conference rooms to being spread across two countries!

Despite our new situation and rapidly changing policies around COVID-19, we wanted to make sure that we could still deliver an excellent work product to our client. Our team moved quickly to adjust plans and work processes to accommodate our new reality.

Fortunately, we were able to use tools like Microsoft Teams and Zoom video conferencing to help our remote team collaborate effectively. Being able to speak with other CEL teams and share our experiences also helped us all find ways to navigate our new environment and manage our projects.

Team member Kevin Jin, MSCA ’20, said, “In this special period, the CEL program gave me not only experience with a real business project, but also emotional support from team members and faculty.”

Real-world experience

In early May, the team was able to virtually present key insights and recommendations to about 30 Purina team members. With positive feedback from Purina and enthusiastic discussion, it was a wonderful conclusion to the semester.

WashU practicum students virtually shared their final presentation with the Purina team.

Navigating this unique experience with our clients at Purina provided a great learning opportunity for the student team. Team lead Leslie Ramey, MBA ’20, said, “I think the uncertainty we faced during the semester helped us focus more on building relationships to support our project work. The circumstances definitely pushed me further as a leader, and thanks to great support from Purina and the CEL, we were all able to have a positive experience.”

Team member Angela Li, MSCA ’20, said the project gave her a new perspective because she found that real business problems were more complicated than those faced in the classroom and this drove the team to be creative in their approach.

“[The project] gave me a chance to apply the knowledge and skills I learned from school to the real business world…. This experience allowed me to take a glance at my future career life, and consequently helped me prepare for it better.” Lucy Sun, MSAA ’20, agreed and said the project also helped improve communication skills.

“We needed to express our ideas and thoughts with team members and also explain our results and findings with our clients” she said. “After this project, we all could communicate very effectively.” 

For other students hoping to engage in a CEL practicum project, team member Margaret Cai said her top piece of advice is “the more you devote yourself, the more you learn,” which is a lesson our whole team will take with us into our future careers.

Pictured at top: Purina CEL team (left to right): Lucy Sun, MSAA ’20, Margaret Cai, MSCA ’20, Leslie Ann Ramey, MBA ’20, Shantanu Pande, MBA ’21, Kevin Jin, MSCA ’20, Angela Li, MSCA ’20 and Dominique Nie, MSCA ’20.

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