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Writer Ginger O’Donnell of WashU Advancement Communications originally wrote this article for Make Way: Our Student Initiative.

Aaron Samuels defies labels.

He is a spoken word artist and a published poet, author of the 2013 collection Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps. He is a corporate strategist who worked at Bain & Co. and an entrepreneur who co-founded and served as chief operating officer of Blavity, the largest global Black media company for millennials and Gen Z. While a student at Washington University, he danced on the salsa team while delving deeply into his academic passions for economics and philosophy.

And yet, there is a central force that grounds and guides Samuels’ layered journey. It has to do with the pride he takes in his intersectional Jewish and Black identities and the lasting relationships he has formed with other people of color in their efforts to explore and affirm the Black experience in all its complexity. You might think of it as “Black gravity,” a term coined at WashU and adopted by Samuels and some of his peers in the John B. Ervin Scholars Program when reflecting on the powerful pull they felt toward each other as undergraduates on WashU’s campus. Over time, “Black gravity” has led to lasting, powerful connections in their adult lives. In Samuels’ case, he helped build an entire digital platform based on the concept, condensed to “Blavity,” together with three of his WashU colleagues.

“In many ways, how I came into adulthood, my understanding of values came directly from the Ervin program,” Samuels says. “When we created Blavity years later, one of our models was the strength of that community at WashU. We wanted that same feeling of love, of respect, of Black people looking out for one another.”

John B. Ervin Scholars Program

Named for the nationally renowned educator and first African American dean of what was then called WashU’s School of Continuing Education, John B. Ervin, the program offers full- or partial-tuition scholarships for the duration of students’ undergraduate careers. Beyond funding, it provides enrichment programming that fosters four pillars of excellence: academics, leadership, community service, and diversity.

Aaron Samuels does a cartwheel on campus.
Aaron Samuels told his dad he wanted to attend a university where he would feel comfortable doing a cartwheel in the quad.

Samuels describes the scholarship he received through the Ervin program as “game-changing,” noting the juxtaposition of growing up “on the lower end of middle class” while also inhabiting a world of academic and knowledge privilege as the son of two psychologists with doctoral degrees. “It was an interesting way to grow up, because both my parents were highly educated,” he says. “I was never worried where the next meal was going to come from, but it would have been very difficult to afford WashU. Getting a full scholarship to attend college was very, very impactful.”

Of the sense of community and family that the Ervin program fostered, Samuels says, “Ervin wasn’t just a scholarship program. The scholarship was great, and being able to have a full ride was a huge blessing that made a big difference. But in addition to that, it was very much a training program in love. And a training program in leadership and service, all of which was designed to promote a certain type of excellence that was very selfless in the way that it was applied to community.”

‘Family dinners’

He recalls the rigorous orientation Ervin provided when he first arrived on campus as a first-year, noting that he was supported “from day zero.” This programming included an Ervin orientation, pre-orientation, one-on-one meetings with mentors and advisers, logistical help with moving into the dorms, and more. As Samuels’ first year at WashU unfolded, this intensive support continued in the form of biweekly “family dinners” led by James McLeod, WashU’s vice chancellor for students and dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at the time. “I was so nurtured, supported and prepped to succeed at WashU from the very beginning,” Samuels says. “That permeated my entire time at WashU.”

Another memorable feature of this community-focused, service-oriented culture of excellence was a strong chain of students mentoring other students, Samuels says. Indeed, this collaborative spirit came to be a defining element of his WashU experience.

“There was very much a kind of expectation that once you crack something, once you figure something out, it’s your job to then mentor the next generation of students, even if they’re just one year younger than you,” he says. “It was a really nice four years to spend under that type of mindset of collective victory.”

Collide Capital

Today, Samuels is adding a new layer to the proverbial onion, taking his multi-faceted career in yet another new direction. As founder and managing partner of the venture capital firm Collide Capital, he focuses on giving entrepreneurs from historically underrepresented groups — particularly women and people of color — more equitable access to funding that will help them bring their ideas to market. While young, Collide looks to have a promising future, having earned early support from several major institutional investors, including the University of California’s endowment, Amazon, Alphabet, Twitter and others.

In this way, Samuels continues to live out the values he cultivated in the Ervin program and at WashU more broadly. With Collide, he is further expanding the concept of “Black gravity” and the Ervin program’s emphasis on creating empowering, inclusive and uplifting spaces for talented students. “Each one, teach one, give and receive. … It was the culture of the Black community and the culture of the Ervin program,” he says. “But I think more broadly it was also the culture of WashU.”

Your gift of any amount in support of Make Way: Our Student Initiative will help future trailblazers like Aaron Samuels find support, mentorship and inspiration at WashU.

Learn more about Make Way.

WashU Olin grads and entrepreneurs Andrew Glantz, BSBA

Access to funders and a readily accessible network of customers, mentors and advisors made St. Louis an attractive startup location for WashU Olin grads and entrepreneurs Andrew Glantz, BSBA ’17, and Marc Bernstein, BSBA ’15.

Both founders shared their reasons for establishing—and keeping—their startups in the St. Louis area in a story in the St. Louis Business Journal‘s entrepreneurship publication INNO last week (registration may be required). Bernstein, 29, is co-founder and CEO of Balto, which provides real-time call guidance software used by contact centers. Glantz, 27, is co-founder and CEO of GiftAMeal. Through its mobile app, GiftAMeal provides meals to people in need each time a user takes a photo at a partner restaurant.

Marc Bernstein is co-founder and CEO of Balto. Photo by Dilip Vishwanat, courtesy of the St. Louis Business Journal.

According to the story, Bernstein originally didn’t think about staying in St. Louis, but when establishing a startup, he and his partners were very intentional, considering Washington, DC, Detroit, San Francisco and St. Louis for the location. “We chose St. Louis because it had a super low cost in that we felt like we had the network to get some early traction,” Bernstein told the journal.

Andrew Glantz, founder and CEO of GiftAMeal. Photo by Dilip Vishwanat, courtesy of the St. Louis Business Journal.

An early investor in the St. Louis area, along with restaurant partners in the region, compelled Glantz to keep his company in the region from the get-go. “It’s been really encouraging how the startup scene has grown over the course of the last five to eight years that I’ve been here and started to be involved in it with all the different resources and just the collaborative ecosystem that’s here,” Glantz told the journal.

Read more in “Why 2 startup founders, both transplants from the coasts, decided to build their companies in St. Louis,” from St. Louis INNO.

At top: Andrew Glantz, BSBA ’17, and Marc Bernstein, BSBA ’15. Photos by Dilip Vishwanat, published courtesy of the Business Journal.

Chancellor Andrew D. Martin from his office, engaging viewers through Zoom during his Leadership Perspectives presentation for Olin on September 29, 2020 (photo/Nancy Lyons).

By late February, the scope of the crisis was clear to WashU Chancellor Andrew D. Martin. Within the week, the St. Louis region saw its first case of COVID-19. Days later, students departed for spring break. By March 9, the decision had been made.

Students wouldn’t be returning. The campus was closed.

With clinical precision, Chancellor Martin and the WashU Med School’s Dr. Steven Lawrence gripped viewers with the tale of how mounting concern for public health, the fear of overstretching hospital resources, the reality facing university income and the imperative to safeguard students converged in a series of rapidly made decisions.

“Those were very fraught times,” Martin said via Zoom in Olin’s first Leadership Perspectives presentation of the school year. “We had to make a decision about what would be the right thing to do for our students. This was very unpopular. There was one case in Missouri. Lots of people thought we were overreacting.”

Martin and Lawrence tossed the storytelling back and forth as they walked viewers through the weeks, weaving the administrative and educational implications of the process together with growing public health worries and solution-oriented research that began almost immediately.

Chancellor Martin acknowledged Olin’s values-based, data-driven approach to decision-making in his presentation, “Leading during COVID-19.”

Short on data, long on values

While he noted that data was in short supply in those earliest days, the values guiding the decision-making process came together quickly. They included the safety and security of the university and beyond; remembering WashU’s mission focused on education, research and patient care; protecting lives; acknowledging the diversity, equity and inclusion implications of the crisis; innovation and collaboration; accountability and transparency; and careful stewardship of resources.

Clockwise from top left: Andrew D. Martin, Dr. Steven Lawrence and Olin Dean Mark P. Taylor, who moderated the Q&A session during the September 29, 2020, Leadership Perspectives presentation.

“It was remarkable how quickly big decisions were made,” said Lawrence, an infectious disease specialist at the medical school who has been central to the university’s planning process and an oft-quoted resource in the media. “It was eye-opening how those big decisions can be made very decisively based on the values you described.”

For members of the WashU community, many of those decisions are familiar. A hiring freeze. Furloughs for 2,000 employees, most from the medical school after elective procedures were canceled. Packing and shipping students’ belongings from their now-vacant dorms. Refunding room and board fees. Canceling the university match on employee retirement contributions. Exclusive online learning to close out the spring semester. Delaying the start of the fall semester.

The reality of the next year

After the initial pivot in spring, Martin said, the university immediately had to turn to budgeting for a the 2021 fiscal year—a process that started by throwing out the previously considered budget. The university had to retrench from an anticipated $3.9 billion in revenue to $3.4 billion, demanding operating cuts of half a billion dollars.

Meanwhile, Martin stood up a 150-member planning team for the fall semester—a web of interrelated task forces and subcommittees focused on everything from how space would be allocated to how COVID-19 testing would be deployed, from housing infected students to creating on-campus space for eating, studying and virtual classrooms, from jump-starting research to providing meal service.

“We did not have the gift of time in March,” Martin said.

Delaying the fall semester start until September 14 provided a cushion for the planning team. The chancellor said the entire community benefitted because the process leaned then—and continues to lean—on a values-based system of decision-making that “tapped the expertise of our faculty to tackle some thorny issues in a comprehensive and consultative way.”

See the full presentation here

Pictured at top: Chancellor Andrew D. Martin from his office, engaging viewers through Zoom during his Leadership Perspectives presentation for Olin on September 29, 2020 (photo/Nancy Lyons).

Companies typically offer incentives directly to customers who refer friends. Google Apps, for instance, offers customers $15 for each new friend they recruit. And World of Warcraft, the video game, offered users a free month of gaming if they successfully influenced friends to buy a subscription.

Suppose, however, that the reward went to the friends—instead of the existing customers? New research shows marketers could win more customers because existing customers may value the boost in their reputation among friends more than a “selfish” financial incentive.

Cynthia Cryder
Cynthia Cryder

Olin’s Cynthia Cryder, associate professor of marketing, and coauthors examined how social dynamics change the outcomes of incentivized behavior.

In two field experiments and a lab experiment, they found that “prosocial” (friend-benefiting) referral incentives recruited more new customers than “selfish” (sender-benefiting) incentives. They report the findings in “Why Prosocial Referral Incentives Work: The Interplay of Reputational Benefits and Action Costs” in the Journal of Marketing Research.

The benefits that come from being generous to one’s friends substantially influence decisions in ways that are not obvious to everyone who designs incentive programs, Cryder said.

The researchers focused on customer referral programs in which companies offer incentives to customers who refer people in their social network to become new customers. To the best of their knowledge, the research is the first to investigate “anticipated reputational benefits as a driver of prosocial behavior in referral programs.”

Reputational rewards motivate people to behave generously because of their strong desire for social approval and the fundamental human need to maintain close personal relationships, Cryder said.


For one study in their research, Cryder and coauthors conducted a field experiment with the startup GiftAMeal. GiftAMeal partners with restaurants and encourages diners to take pictures of their meals and share them on social media. Then, GiftAMeal donates a meal to a food bank each time a customer shares on social media. (Andrew Glantz, BSBA ’17, founded the company while he was a student at Olin.)

The experiment tested different incentive structures on new customer conversions. GiftAMeal emailed 6,364 customers, asking them to refer their friends to download the app. The customers were randomly assigned to one of five experimental conditions:

  • control with no monetary incentive,
  • sender-benefiting (Customers received a $5 Amazon gift card for each friend who downloaded the app.),
  • recipient-benefiting (Referred friends received a $5 gift card if they downloaded the app.),
  • shared (Senders and their friends each received a $2.50 gift card if the friend downloaded the app.),
  • or donation (GiftAMeal donated $5 to the charity Feeding America for each download.).

Overall, the conversion rate was low in the study, which is typical for referral programs, the authors said.  Nevertheless, they detected significant differences between experimental conditions. The conversion rate was marginally higher in the friend-benefiting condition relative to the sender-benefiting condition. Multiple follow-up studies confirmed this pattern.

Scarcity of friend-benefiting rewards

As part of the research, a research assistant searched for about 300 referral incentive programs online and categorized them based on who received the reward. Of the 351 referral incentive programs, 40.5% offered sender-benefiting rewards, while only 2.6% offered recipient-benefiting rewards. (Fifty-five percent offered rewards that  the sender and recipient shared.)

Yet, Cryder’s research shows referrals that benefit one’s social connections are more effective than sender-benefiting referrals: Recipient-benefiting referrals offer reputational benefits to the sender while also directly incentivizing the friend to sign up.

“The preponderance of sender-benefiting referral incentives in the marketplace suggests these effects are not expected by marketers who design incentive schemes,” she said.

Update 3/31/2020 – GiftAMeal has raised $20,000 for COVID-19 hunger relief.

GiftAMeal is a St. Louis startup founded by Andrew Glantz, BSBA ’17. The following is a press release from the organization.

Andrew Glantz (BSBA ’17), founder, GiftAMeal

GiftAMeal, a St. Louis based mobile app, is stepping up in the face of the COVID-19 crisis that has hit our community so hard. Today [March 18], GiftAMeal announced an ambitious five-point plan to provide relief to struggling restaurants and the most at-risk segments of our society.

GiftAMeal is a mobile app that helps provide a meal to someone in need each time a user takes a photo in a partner restaurant. Just two weeks ago, they announced they had reached 200 partner restaurants, with 400,000 meals provided to those in need.

Founder & CEO of GiftAMeal, Andrew Glantz, explained, “A majority of the community members supported through GiftAMeal are children and the elderly. Schools are closing, and children relying on meals normally provided are facing a new challenge as social services scramble to readjust. At the same time, older community members, the most at-risk population for COVID-19, need our support now more than ever.”

Glantz continued, “Just as the community is struggling, so are many restaurants in the face of public health guidelines designed to contain the spread of this virus. Employees depend on their jobs to pay bills and make rent, and our partners are doing their best to mitigate the effects of this crisis on their staff. But they cannot do it without the support of the public.”

Seeking to assist both local restaurants and those at-risk in the community, Glantz announced the following plan:

Donation program available for delivery/pickup/offsite customers

With the mandated closing this week of dining rooms across the bistate area, Glantz’s team quickly devised a big change to their program that was previously only available to in-restaurant customers at partnering locations.

“We just launched an update to the GiftAMeal app that will temporarily allow users to take pictures off-site to donate meals for takeout, delivery, and gift card purchases. We will do this by lifting the location requirement of needing to be at a partner restaurant when you take the photo and we will move to manual verification. PLEASE support our local partner restaurants that are struggling during this difficult time.” – Glantz

Immediate financial support of hunger relief agencies – $5,000 matching challenge

“Having spoken to Operation Food Search about their needs, we will be making our donations for the next few months early to provide immediate funding to get food to those facing hunger. We may be a small startup with limited means but we’re launching a campaign to match donations, up to $5,000, for our food bank partner. If you would like to contribute, click here:” – Glantz

Publicity for restaurants undergoing fast changes

With hundreds of restaurants forced to quickly find new avenues to pay their staff, Glantz is keeping the app’s 35,000+ loyal restaurant customers aware of all avenues to support their favorite restaurants:

“We will keep you up-to-date on the latest with our partner restaurants on our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Many are expanding take-out and delivery programs to keep serving the community and are implementing extremely thorough health precautions to keep us all safe.” – Glantz

Direct coordination of food donations from restaurants

We are working to coordinate food donations with Operation Food Search. If you know of any restaurant that has a surplus that is interested in donating food to the community, please let me know or have them contact Jack Baran of OFS directly at It’s tax-deductible too!– Glantz

Program cost relief for struggling restaurants

In a message to restaurants (who normally pay $49-$149/month to fund the program costs and donations), Glantz extended an offer to self-fund the program for restaurants unable to contribute in the months of March and April so that food donations and restaurant customers could continue to flow at a time when they are most needed. When asked how he came to that decision, he explained,

“We are a small startup with limited means, but this is a time where we can shine the brightest. It’s important to me that our donations continue to flow to hunger relief organizations, and I know that the visibility of restaurants on our platform can have a big impact on cash-flow for these local businesses. I’ve always been struck by the generosity and love of community that our partner restaurant operators have shown, and even if it’s a drop in the bucket, I am going to help however I can.”

The response by the community has been overwhelmingly positive and grateful. Kristen Wild, Executive Director of Operation Food Search, commented on GiftAMeal’s fast and community-centered response:

 “We are so very grateful to GiftAMeal for its innovative approach to providing more people with access to healthy food. Socially-conscious businesses like this are changing the way people approach giving, and the generous support of GiftAMeal is making an impact in our community every day.”

The free GiftAMeal app is available on iPhone and Android devices –

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