A group of WashU Olin undergraduates cooked up a sweet selection of recommendations for a St. Louis-area bakery that provides a second chance for individuals who have been released from prison.
In their Small Business Initiative consulting project—through Olin’s Center for Experiential Learning—the students consulted with Laughing Bear Bakery, a mostly wholesale business located in St. Louis’ Tower Grove South neighborhood. The students—Grace Shen, BSBA 2025; Gavri Steiger, AB 2025; Jake Wolf, BSBA 2025; AJ Sann, BSBA 2024; and Oliver Every, BSBA 2025—were charged with working with the bakery’s founders to suggest ways to make the nonprofit more sustainable.
“From our first meeting, it was apparent that at the heart of the business was a social cause” Steiger said during a recent in-person presentation to the founders at Olin. “We thought there were things on the business end that could match the passion of their social commitment.”
The students visited Laughing Bear—which was featured in an NBC-TV Today Show video in November 2022—to meet with founder and former prison chaplain Kalen McAllister, along with other employees and board members. The students dug deep into the bakery’s pricing model, its sales and expenses, its product lineup and its marketing. A good deal of the work was aimed at putting order to a business model—critical to the nonprofit’s ability to apply for grant funding.
“It was super fun to work with an actual business. I really love talking to the founders of businesses. I was lucky and happy to do it,” Shen said. “People our age often don’t get the chance to contribute in such a meaningful way.” Through their analysis, the students developed “price sensitivity models” to adjust the bakery’s work to seasonal needs and a five-year growth plan.
They also proposed a “donation cookie”—a product customers could buy, and enjoy, while effectively donating to Laughing Bear’s cause.
“A lot of people miss the fact that not all business are the same,” said Mike Whipkey, a member of Laughing Bear’s board of directors, who watched the students’ presentation. “A lot of the time, people get good advice, but it’s delivered really badly, and these guys understood that.”
Members of the student team stressed how thrilled they were to make a real-world contribution to a cause-oriented business they could get behind.
“Being able to give insights to people who may not have a business background, but can benefit from something I learned in class — that was really exciting for us,” Sann said.
Pictured above, from left: Mike Whipkey, Jake Wolf, AJ Sann, Oliver Every, Gavri Steiger and Grace Shen.