When the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic downturn caused internship cancellations, WashU Olin and the Center for Experiential Learning stepped up to provide summer learning opportunities for students while supporting St. Louis-based businesses. We’ll be sharing their stories on the Olin Blog. Today, we’ll hear from Phyllis Ellison, executive director of InvestMidwest Venture Capital Forum and vice president of partnerships and program development, CORTEX Innovation Community
Given the pandemic, what compelled your company to get involved with this program?
The CEL summer project program was offered at the perfect time. A practicum student that was scheduled to work in Fall 2020 with InvestMidwest cancelled. We had no idea if we were going to be able to find a student for summer, and how we would manage an internship. Cortex submitted two project ideas to the CEL, and one was selected. I’ve worked with three CEL teams in the past, and knew that having a team of WashU Olin Business School students working on our project would help us get the information and results we need to move any of our projects forward.
What is your project about?
InvestMidwest is an annual investor forum that connects venture capital investors to Midwest startups in the life science, tech, ag/food and energy sectors. The 20-year-old event recently transitioned to Cortex’s management. This project was to research the outcomes of the 700+ companies that have participated in InvestMidwest. That data will support marketing efforts and guide selection criteria in the future.
What was it like working with WashU Olin students?
Olin students are great workers. Some are working on their organization and leadership skills; others are gaining an understanding of project management and the progression of a research project. They are all fine tuning their professional skills, and it was great to support that process.
What advice would you give students on the cusp of graduating at this time in history?
I really feel for students graduating during an economic downturn. I experienced it myself, as well as watching students go through the 2008-2010 recession. I would encourage them to be diligent in trying to find a job in their field. Don’t give up! Volunteer at a not-for-profit to gain experience and meet people. Attend events, when we’re able to do that again. Talk to people you know, asking about opportunities. Even if it’s below your preferred salary level, you’ll have the opportunity to grow your field. It will be difficult to return to your field of interest a couple years down the road if you don’t have any experience when a fresh class of graduates is entering the work force too.
What are you going to take with you from this experience?
This experience has been such a great reminder. I’ve worked with CEL teams in the past, and this reminded me how valuable these teams are. The research and analysis the students did was incredible—and it’s a good reminder to remember WashU Olin as a resource we can tap into.