Author: Cole Donelson


About Cole Donelson

I am a first-year MBA student interested in entrepreneurship and marketing. Previously, I earned degrees from the University of Missouri in business and journalism, worked three years for a healthcare IT company, and spent a year with my wife camping in all 59 U.S. National Parks and travel-blogging on I am very excited to be back in school at Olin, exploring the thriving St. Louis startup scene and rediscovering my hometown.

It was the crux of my semester. Group assignments, midterms and consulting projects, all piling into one week of craziness. And the one thing that contributed more crazy than all the others was my involvement in a case competition.

Throughout your MBA experience, there are constant opportunities to get involved with one competition or another, especially among the ranks of top programs. Case competitions provide excellent strategic thinking and presentation experiences, exposure to a real problem and top leaders from the sponsor company, great school visibility, and, if you bring home the prize, a great resume line accompanied by a good chunk of change.

[RELATED POST: First-year MBA: Value outside the classroom]

This was my fourth case competition in my first year at Olin. At TCU and Mizzou we got the cases on site and had maybe six hours to scramble for a finished product. At Northwestern, and now Wake Forest, we received the case a week ahead and had all the time we could manage to prepare. With all the other things I was juggling at this point, I much preferred the former format. But my awesome team made the work fun.  The case tasked us with developing a strategy and implementation plan for attracting millennials to work at CVS corporate. In the end, my team powered through a few late-night meetings and submitted our presentation right before flying out to Wake Forest University for the competition and accompanying Marketing Analytics Summit. But then…

Do you remember that week this spring when Delta cancelled hundreds of flights over the course of a week because freak bad weather in their Atlanta hub knocked them for a loop? Yeah, that was our week. Yeah, we were flying Delta. To cut a story of 5 A.M. stress short, we ended up driving 12 hours from St. Louis to Winston-Salem. Although we missed all of the summit activities, it was actually a fun trip with plenty of time for team bonding and the chance to interview people at CVS stores across the eastern half of the country. At least we arrived in time for the competition.

Team Olin on the road to Wake Forest: Samantha Feng, MBA’17, Ryan Kirk, Karthik Chaturvedi, Cole Donelson and Raisaa Tashnova all MBA’18.

By the time we are ready to present our case, I always feel like the hard work is over. However, right before our time slot comes up and the team is doing a final run through, I’m always wishing we had a few more minutes to rehearse. Like it or not, the Wake Forest student coordinator knocks on the door to our assigned study room, and we are guided to the presentation room. It’s a gorgeous room where we are arranged to present facing a wall of windows looking out into the quad as well as at least a dozen judges from CVS and other prestigious marketing positions. Our PowerPoint is already loaded and showing on the screen. It’s show time.

After a quick 20-minute presentation and 10-minute Q&A, it was all over. I felt proud of our recommendations and confident in our delivery, but it only matters what the judges think and it’s hard to anticipate their perceptions. It was an accomplishment just to beat out dozens of other MBA teams who applied for the competition (with our masterpiece application video). Plus, with other teams from Yale, University of Chicago, Notre Dame, USC, Duke, etc., the competition was stiff. The last presentations wrapped up, and we were shuttled away to the awards dinner at a fancy country club nearby. The dinner was great, the chance to meet other students was fun, but at the end of the night everyone was waiting for one thing. The competition director held up the first big check and at the same time he flipped it around to show the name, he said, “Third place goes to Washington University in St. Louis.”

We were very hopeful, but also very surprised to hear our name called. In a rush of excitement we went up to accept the check, shake hands, and take a few photos. More than the $3,000 third place prize, it was the validation of our hard work and the value of our output that was most rewarding.

I’d be lying if I said we didn’t think we had put up a first place effort. But we were happy to congratulate the team from Hong Kong and the home team and reigning champion from Wake Forest on their respective second and first places.

After all, it’s all about the learning experience, right?

Wake Forest Marketing Analytics Summit

Eight graduate and six undergraduate teams from around the globe competed in the 27th annual Marketing Analytics Summit case competition for total prizes of $56,000. The event was held at the Wake Forest University School of Business April 7-8, 2017.

Participating schools at the graduate level included Hong Kong University of Science & Technology Business School, University of Chicago Booth School of Business, University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, University of Texas at Austin, Wake Forest University School of Business, Washington University in St. Louis Olin Business School, and Yale University. Undergraduate teams hailed from Brigham Young University Marriott School of Management, University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business, University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, Utah State Jon M. Huntsman School of Business, and Wake Forest University School of Business.

When I was growing up 20 years ago, dial-up Internet gave me five minutes to relax while connecting; broadcast TV with an antenna let my imagination fill in gaps in dialogue when the signal faded in and out; and my floppy disks, with their 1.44 MB of memory, really helped prioritize what was necessary to store.

I reflect on those memories so fondly. Life seemed so much simpler. But in reality, life was just slower.

These days the dizzying pace of technology evolution can make anyone yearn for the days of car phones and Windows 95. But those days are gone and never coming back. In the world of business, keeping up with technology is tougher and more imperative than ever.
Luckily at Olin, there are lots of resources, classes, organizations, and classmates to help Luddite-leaning cave people like me stay afloat in the digital sea. The Tech for Business event last Thursday, hosted by the Olin Technology Club (OTC), was one such event that brought together early and late tech adopters.

The awesome Tech for Business event crowd sourced topics on four of the most common tech buzzwords and business concepts: Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Databases, and Internet of Things (IoT). And for all you unfortunate souls who missed out on these enlightening lightning sessions and equally wonderful accompanying St. Louis fare of IMO’s pizza and Budweiser, you’re in luck! I can’t (yet) give you pizza over the Internet, but I can share all I learned:

Former Deloitte consultant and MBA classmate Rohan Gujrati explains ERP to the Olin Technology Club.

Former Deloitte consultant and MBA classmate Rohan Gujrati explains ERP to the Olin Technology Club.

Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP)

At first this nebulous concept seemed like the fancy jargon IT people love to throw around. As explained by former Deloitte consultant and MBA classmate Rohan Gujrati, ERP is a broad categorical term for systems that improve operational effectiveness for businesses. These modules channelize efforts for any number of specific functions.

ERP systems can be Human Resource Management, Financial Resource Management, Customer Resource Management, Supply Chain Management, etc. Some large companies develop ERP systems in-house to manage one of these functions, while other companies purchase the system from a third-party like SAP.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM)

I don’t even want to imagine how many CRM systems I’m a part of. REI, Dairy Queen, Southwest, Venture Café, I’m sure the list is in the hundreds. Brenna Humphries, former Oracle employee, explained that CRM systems allow companies to manage the entire sales funnel. They are an electronic rolodex of current and potential customers that can also capture leads, compile data from different sources, analyze metrics (e.g. lead conversion rate) and predict sales. Salesforce is the CRM juggernaut with a dominant 80% market share. Just remember, every little move you make on a company’s website can be tracked and mined for insights about your purchase behavior.

Former Oracle employee Nehal Kumar breaks down databases for business.

Former Oracle employee Nehal Kumar breaks down databases for business.


I’m guessing most people have heard the term “database”. But what is a database really? According to Nehal Kumar, another former Oracle employee with deep tech expertise, databases are simply a way to store masses of information and then allow analytics and reports to be run off that information. The traditional database consists of rows that contain records of something and columns which represent attributes. So if a database is just a big table, how is it different from Excel? The key is that databases can be shared and accessed by multiple people on multiple teams. Also, when updating a database all changes are saved all at once in comparison to an Excel spreadsheet where you can make multiple one-off changes to individual cells when the sheet is open. This ensures consistency of data. Trends include Big Data and cloud-based databases.

Internet of Things (IoT)

“Alexa, please don’t listen to all my conversations and turn all my household appliances against me.” Classmate Jin Lee described how, whether we are ready or not, the physical objects in our home, manufacturing plants, stores and everywhere else are quickly becoming enabled to connect to the internet. They can be controlled through apps, but also collect and share data. The cloud will provide the scale-ability to enable this exponential growth in digitally-connected devices, but also keep an eye out for the fog (it’s worth a Google). IoT doesn’t just lead to big business opportunities in more customer touch points, but it will lead to cost reduction and improvements in operational efficiency. That is if businesses can solve the challenges of security, high up-front costs of digitally-enabled products and more use cases to justify those costs.

So I’m sure lots of new IoT startups are using CRM, which is a type of ERP that uses databases. And now you know “exactly” what all that means.

One of the most frequent pieces of advice I got while talking with people about pursuing an MBA was “you get the most out of your MBA if you know what you want out of it.” Unfortunately, this is much easier said than done… at least for me. As I have written in my previous two August and September posts about first-year MBA life, much of my Olin experience so far has been exploring a diversity of opportunities inside and outside the classroom and deciding what I want from my MBA. Over the past month and a half, determining my focus for the next few years has been increasingly important. Decisions must be made.

Getting my MBA had been a long-term goal in the back of my mind ever since I left high school. When I finally started my MBA eight years later—after earning dual business and journalism degrees at Mizzou, working three years at Cerner, and traveling for a full year to all the U.S. National Parks—I knew a few things.

I knew I wanted to grow into a business leader. I knew I wanted to learn to question boldly and think strategically. I knew I wanted a high-caliber education and top-notch classmates that challenge and push me. The one thing I didn’t know was maybe the most important: Where in the world do I want to end up?

By the time the MBA program started in August, I had convinced myself I had answered this daunting question: Brand Management. I always enjoyed flexing my creative muscle and communications skills, so pivoting to a career within marketing seemed like a good fit. And concentrating on brand management within Olin’s marketing platform sounded like a great way to also satisfy my interest in a job with variety and responsibility, since I could take ownership of running all aspects of a brand. So brand management was the goal I wrote about in my applications essay and talked up to my family. It felt good to have direction.

As my first semester ramped up, I learned more and more about brand management through discussions with classmates, meetings with career advisors, chatting with recruiters, reading job postings and, most helpfully, that marketing industry speakers series I mentioned in my last post. Everything sounded good. The only problem was that I kept being reminded of the reason I’d originally become interested in business, of the passion I’d had ever since I started my own soccer camp at 12 years-old: entrepreneurship.


This month I participated in my first case competition at TCU in Fort Worth, Texas.

When I left eight years ago for my undergraduate degree, the startup scene in St. Louis was so low key it wasn’t even on my radar. Ever since getting back to the city this August for the program, I’ve been shocked to learn how entrepreneurship in the city is thriving. Apparently, St. Louis is now a burgeoning BioTech and FinTech hub with growing national recognition. At the same time I was learning that a career in brand management may not be the perfect fit I imagined, I was realizing there were only three reasons I never thought seriously about pursuing entrepreneurship after my MBA.

  • I didn’t have the perfect idea; but I learned there are many more opportunities to work in “entrepreneurship” than founding a company.
  • If I wanted to do entrepreneurship I could have done it without an MBA; but if anything applies best to a broad, fundamental MBA education, it’s entrepreneurship.
  • Straight up fear of uncertainty and risk; but if I have always wanted to get into entrepreneurship “eventually,” and it will only get harder as my career and personal life develops.

Now I was torn between focusing my MBA education on brand management or entrepreneurship. To hash out all the variables I relied on a classic MBA-level decision-making framework: the pros/cons list. (I’ll spare you the countless details and lengthy deliberation.) When I finally came to my decision, it just felt right. And it made me more excited than ever for my next two years at Olin.

I am going to pursue my passion and aim for a career in the St. Louis startup scene.

My advice to any prospective MBA student is that no matter how confident you are in your post-MBA path, keep an open mind. Explore activities outside that path. And always reevaluate your course as you learn more. Finally, you get out of your MBA what you put into it.

There are plenty of ways to get more out of your MBA than the lessons of the classroom. This month I participated in my first case competition at TCU in Fort Worth, TX, watched the WashU presidential debate at one of the campus watch parties, started my first InSITE project doing pro-bono startup consulting, and had dinner with a mentor I met at a marketing industry session.

But to get the most out of your MBA, you better know where you want to come out on the other side. And, as I Iearned, the sooner you can do that, the better.

This piece is one of a series that chronicles Cole’s first-year MBA experience at Olin Business School. Cole says he hopes these posts can offer a valuable, genuine student perspective of life at Olin. Be sure to check out Cole’s travel adventures on Switchback Kids

I’ve almost come to the point where I feel guilty relaxing to watch some Netflix because that just means I’m procrastinating on something for school… even if I don’t know what it is. In my first post on the “First-Year MBA” series in August, I mentioned spending 12-hour days in Bauer Hall.

If anything that average has gone up during September. The crazy part is, I never had more than 3 hours of class in one day, and we don’t even have class on Fridays anymore!


Consulting Platform industry session with a representative from Emerson.

I’m quickly learning the first-year MBA experience is defined just as much by the time you spend outside the classroom.

The biggest change from August, when we were in the Gateway: Olin! (GO!) orientation program and the first few weeks of class, was the start of what Olin calls “platform industry seminars.” So let me back up. The Olin MBA allows you to choose an optional focus from five different industry areas:

In order to allow first-year students to explore and learn about these areas, give them a better idea of real jobs and roles, and introduce them to industry professionals, each platform schedules a series of speakers. The best part is none of these sessions overlap with classes or each other, and you are encouraged to attend as many as you like.

I focused on the marketing sessions, but I’ve explored sessions from each platform. I’ve heard from executives in companies from, Booz/Allen/Hamilton, McKinsey, Boeing, Accenture, Nestle Purina, Emerson, Viacom and more. The chance to get an on-the-ground perspective from so many diverse companies in an industry and then meet them in the networking reception afterwards is invaluable. Yes, these sessions took up a huge chunk of my afternoons, but they were always worth it.

Students line up to meet recruiters at a Meet the Firms event.

Students line up to meet recruiters at a Meet the Firms event.

Before I knew it, we were halfway through September, meaning it was time for the first of two Meet the Firms career fairs. This is great if you know exactly what you want to do and have lots of free time to research and target all the firms you’re interested in. But if you’re like me and your career ambitions are fuzzy at best, and you are swamped with homework and group projects, it’s a pretty daunting event to prepare for barely one month into your MBA program.

Unfortunately, internship application deadlines wait for no one. Deadlines at the best firms are as soon as early fall and Meet the Firms is an important precursor for both students and the companies to get to know each other. So I wrote out my target list, grabbed my new padfolio and WashU business cards, threw on my suit, and had some great conversations with a slew of different companies. Out of about 22 firms I talked with over the two Meet the Firms events in back-to-back weeks, I would say four really stood out. Hey, it only takes one, right?

The rest of September was a challenging, exciting, and exhausting blur. My class continued to bond outside the classroom through stuff like our Cardinals baseball game outing. It was particularly fun for a lifelong fan like me to introduce so many new people to the Cardinals and baseball in general. (I even organized a Baseball 101 session for some of the curious international students).

Cardinals game at Busch Stadium.

Cardinals game at Busch Stadium.

Also, now that the second-year MBAs have returned to Olin from their summer internships, we’ve enjoyed getting to know them, too. They introduced us to Olin’s impressive assortment of over 30 full-time MBA clubs, associations and other extra-curricular groups that are now in full swing again. Applications for case competitions, elections for student government, club leadership positions and random conferences on topics like sports business offer endless opportunities. I wanted to be really careful about getting over-committed (as was my tendency in undergrad), but I’m really excited to get involved with programs like InSITE Fellowship, PepsiCo Case Competition, Net Impact, and the Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Association.

And, of course, between all those opportunities, career fairs and platform industry sessions, the heavy load of classwork and late nights at Bauer Hall continued. As September ended, we wrapped up our first “Mini A” half of the semester and had final exams for two classes. But if there’s one thing I learned from my second month of the MBA program, it’s that the learning extends far beyond the classroom. So make the most of it.

This piece is one of a series that chronicles Cole’s first-year MBA experience at Olin Business School. Cole says he hopes these posts can offer a valuable, genuine student perspective of life at Olin. Stay tuned later this month for a post on Cole’s pre-MBA travel adventures with Switchback Kids

First-year MBA selfie

I was driving to school for the first time in over four years. But this time felt different. My mom used to take my ever-embarrassing first-day-of-school picture. We still jokingly honored the tradition, but this time the photographer was my wife. As usual, there was a little nagging feeling of apprehension: Where do I park? Do I have all the right books? But there was a new feeling of intense purpose. If I was about to press pause on my career and invest two years to get an MBA, I was going to make the most out of it.

Cole Donelson, First-year Olin MBA student

We honored the tradition of back-to-school pictures, but now the photographer is my wife.

When I applied to Olin eight months earlier, the application emphasized that the small class size allowed the faculty and the students to really get to know each person’s story. My story is that I grew up in St. Louis and went to the University of Missouri to earn degrees in Business and Journalism. I moved to Kansas City and advanced through a few roles at a healthcare IT company over three years. Then my wife and I decided to chase a crazy dream of creating a travel blog ( and visiting all 59 National Parks across the U.S. in one year. Throughout it all, I always intended to go back to school and get my MBA. Now was my chance to start that new journey.

Over the first month of my first year of the Olin full-time MBA program, any lingering doubts about my investment in further education or my choice of school quickly evaporated.

That first day of school on August 3rd was actually the first day of the eight-day GO! (Gateway: Olin) program. I thought of it as an extended orientation, but I quickly realized that wasn’t giving it enough credit. We started two classes about critical thinking and leadership in teams to lay the groundwork for our next two years. We heard guest speakers on topics like personal branding and the challenges of urban communities in St. Louis. We were also spoiled with provided breakfast and lunch every day (one of my favorite parts)!

We got familiar with the Weston Career Center and its advisors, the online job search resources, and the five MBA platforms: finance, consulting, operations and supply chain, marketing and entrepreneurship.

Most importantly, we had plenty of networking and social outings to get to know our classmates. There were 132 people, and by the end of GO! I already knew most people’s names. The breadth of backgrounds, career experiences, and future goals were truly impressive. And, just like me, each person had their own unique story.

Cole Donelson, first-year MBA student, in Frick Forum.

The most anticipated day of GO! for me was when our core team assignments were unveiled—groups of five that did all class group assignments together throughout the semester. The groups were purposefully made as diverse as possible. My group definitely seemed to reflect that. With our different backgrounds, nationalities, and career paths, we all brought something different to the table. The diversity combined with common drive immediately proved helpful as we developed and presented solutions to the real-life business case offered by a recent graduate’s startup.

August 15th started our first week of regularly scheduled classes. Financial Accounting, Management and Strategy, and Managerial Economics were added to the list of two classes from GO!

Everyone takes the same core classes in our first semester before getting wide freedom to choose electives. As a business undergrad, I had studied several of the topics before, but I found the material was far from review.

Lessons were interwoven with real business world cases. Homework started fast and furious. And professors were both intensely challenging and always available.

Olin was quickly becoming my new home both emotionally and physically—between studying, attending alumni networking events or working on group projects, I often have 12-hour days in Bauer Hall.

A month ago I was returning from a year of camping and hiking where every decision and challenge was up to me. Now, I’m starting a program that I’m already finding pushes my limits and tests my thinking. My pace of life and learning has accelerated dramatically over the past month. Both my classes and classmates have lots to teach me. I’m energized by the thought of the endless opportunities. I know I’m in the right place. There’s no doubt.

This piece is one of a series that chronicles Cole’s first-year MBA experience at Olin Business School. Cole says he hopes these posts can offer a valuable, genuine student perspective of life at Olin. Be sure to check out Cole’s travel adventures on Switchback Kids