Author: Kurt Greenbaum


About Kurt Greenbaum

As communications director for the Olin Business School, my job is to find and share great stories about our students, faculty, staff, and alumni. I'm also on the U College faculty in the journalism sequence. My background includes a stint at the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management and as a journalist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sun-Sentinel in South Florida and the Chicago Tribune.

One day, early in the coronavirus crisis, one of Camryn Okere’s favorite off-campus restaurants closed forever. And that’s when she realized she had to do something.

After Bobo Noodle House shuttered, and as other small businesses were suffering, the soon-to-graduate WashU BSBA student knew she could help. Two weeks later, she’d recruited WashU classmates and business students from a dozen other schools to join her. Rem and Company was born.

“Seeing a local business I love permanently close was heartbreaking,” Okere said. “When I see problems in my everyday life, my community and my environments, I am inspired to work to implement change.” 

In just a few weeks, Okere’s initiative — “a social impact initiative focusing on keeping doors open and dreams alive” — has helped small businesses stay up to date on industry trends, learn new approaches from peers, build networks and adapt as the world changes. In many ways, Rem and Company has begun solving problems on two fronts.

On one front, as small businesses and nonprofits fight for their lives through the global pandemic, students and recent graduates are banding together to offer free consulting support to help proprietors engage with customers, reimagine business models and diversify product offerings.

At the same time, as the crisis wreaks havoc on corporate hiring, those same students are confronting a summer without jobs and internships by putting their education into practice.

“So many students are sitting at home right now and they don’t feel valued,” said Okere, who named the initiative after the stage of sleep in which people tend to dream vividly—because the coronavirus pandemic is something of a nightmare. “Our mission and core values provide many individuals—especially students uncertain about their next career steps—with a sense of value and purpose.”

From zero to helping in weeks

From conceiving Rem and Company to launch took about two weeks. Today, more than 80 students and recent graduates have banded together, representing schools including Wharton, Harvard, Duke, Northwestern, Columbia, Vanderbilt, and, of course, WashU Olin.

The fledgling cooperative, which stays connected through Slack and Google Drive, is also drawing on experienced mentors from organizations such as Google, McKinsey & Co., Morgan Stanley and The Wall Street Journal.

“The real idea is to empower the students,” said Janine Toro, user experience designer and researcher for The Wall Street Journal, who managed Okere when she was a summer intern last year. “She’s picking the projects and assigning the right people to them. I’m more of the resource provider for now.”

Toro isn’t surprised that Okere so quickly got her inspiration up and running. “I was referring to her as the person who I will work for in five years,” she said. “When I first met her, I could tell she was very driven.”

At least six small businesses as close to WashU as St. Louis and as far as India have signed on for consulting support. Okere spends a lot of time outlining initial client needs and coordinating team assignments, evaluating which volunteers have the complementary expertise to support which projects. Their consulting teams provide small businesses with the opportunity to identify and prioritize business issues, propose innovative strategies and execute.

Engaging with customers

“I’m very super excited to have some support,” said Ann Lederman, executive director for The Buddy Fund, a St. Louis-based nonprofit that provides athletic equipment to organizations serving at-risk youth. As the sole employee of the 58-year-old organization, “My position has been taxed in the areas of branding, board engagement and being present online.”

She’s seeking help from Rem and Company to maintain donor relationships and prepare for the possibility that the organization’s largest annual fundraiser—a golf tournament—might not be able to happen in September as planned.

Rem and Company helped a Philadelphia-area rock-climbing company develop an innovative engagement strategy around virtual experiences. Student teams have also worked with small businesses or nonprofits in New York, Connecticut, DC, and other US cities, as well as international locations such as India and Finland.

The cooperative is focusing for now on organizations within the fashion, nonprofit, dining and fitness industries. Once she and her colleagues weather the pandemic, Okere said her next steps might be to develop a long-term business plan and eventually see how Rem and Company can get funding.

“It’s been amazing to see this all mobilize in such a short amount of time and the outpouring of support from the WashU community,” Okere said. “I’m not someone who is going to just sit around.”

To learn more about the ways Washington University students, faculty, staff and alumni are caring for one another and our communities, visit #WashUtogether.

A breathtaking run of upgrades and enhancements to the WashU Olin Business School full-time MBA program has seen the addition of a six-week, overseas global immersion, a dual-degree option with a specialized masters and an accelerated, 14-month option for the MBA degree.

Now, Olin takes another step forward by adding the option to earn a STEM-designated MBA. The STEM MBA option was approved on April 21. It covers MBA alumni retroactively to the class of 2019, all current students and students going forward.

The designation refers to the level of proficiency a degree offers students in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering or mathematics—and the application of those disciplines in a business context.

Vidur Bhatnagar

“Having a stem designation is increasingly being preferred by many employers especially in the tech industry,” said Vidur Bhatnagar, MBA ’21, who is excited to add this option to his MBA. “This opens up more opportunities for WashU students and will definitely increase engagement and interest of employers towards hiring internationals.”

Aparna Kancherla

Dr. Aparna Kancherla, MBA ’21, said she had considered other business schools that already had a STEM MBA option, but chose WashU Olin because of its rigorous academics, strong rankings and global immersion experience.

“We are already studying subjects like data analytics,” she said. “Now having the STEM option will help me to get recognized as a professional who uses the data-driven approach to develop strategies.”

Further affirmation for WashU Olin’s rigor

For WashU Olin, the STEM designation aligns fully with the values-based, data-driven mindset that is a core pillar of the school’s strategy for developing students.

“This designation formally acknowledges the WashU MBA as a rigorous program, driving students to apply a data-driven mindset to business decisions,” said Olin Dean Mark P. Taylor. “Even more, they use that mindset in the context of their personal, organizational and community values.”

Jennifer Whitten, associate dean and director of Olin’s Weston Career Center, said the new option will be attractive to students destined for high-tech industries.

“The advantage is, and there’s even GMAC data about this, many of the jobs out there now require a data skillset,” she said. “They want people who have the quantitative background as well as the leadership skills.”

For international students, the STEM-designated MBA also creates employment options in the United States because they can apply for a 24-month visa extension for optional practical training. 

Mostly covered in the core curriculum

Olin leadership applied for the STEM designation after an analysis of 152 existing courses showed that at least 70% of them rated highly as “data-driven” entries into the curriculum. Curriculum leaders have designated 79 core and elective courses that would satisfy requirements toward a STEM-designated degree. Those include courses such as Quantitative Risk Management, Economics of the Organization and Pricing Strategies.

At least half of a student’s required 67 credits—33.5 credits or more—would have to come from that group of 79 courses in order to earn the STEM MBA. As it turns out, the required classes in the full-time MBA program add up to 28.5 credits worth of STEM-designated coursework.

Even with that, WashU Olin leadership intentionally decided to make the STEM designation an option for students, rather than a requirement. Some students may see themselves heading for careers in the humanities or a nonprofit, where the need to “heavy up” on data may not be as important.

WashU Olin had previously secured STEM-designation for its specialized master’s degrees in supply chain management, quantitative finance, wealth asset management and business analytics—which includes six tracks: customer analytics, financial technology analytics, healthcare analytics, accounting analytics, talent analytics and supply chain analytics.

More than 130 members of WashU Olin’s staff and faculty joined in a social event via Zoom to celebrate a few personalities among them, share a song, have a drink and try some trivia.

The “Olin Half-Hour Happy Hour” debuted to a strong showing of community members on Friday, April 3, at 4 p.m.—most of whom showed up in their silliest hat, as requested. The Friday afternoon event is designed to be a weekly gathering through the duration of the coronavirus-enforced work-from-home mandate at Washington University.

Peter Boumgarden, Olin Half-Hour Happy Hour emcee.

Peter Boumgarden, Olin professor of practice in strategy and organizations, served as master of ceremonies for the Half-Hour Happy Hour, starting with a welcome to Dean Mark P. Taylor and then launching into the first of three rounds of trivia.

Those trivia rounds were sprinkled among different segments, including one with Charlie Q. Drexler, video production specialist at the Center for Digital Education. Boumgarden interviewed Drexler about his separate acting career, which included a stint as an extra on The Wire. Here’s his IMDb profile.

Charlie Drexler

Boumgarden later gave the stage to Michele Ralston, associate director of open enrollment for Olin’s executive education department, who played guitar and sang “Closer to Fine” by the Indigo Girls before answering a few questions about her band, New Crime Theater, and how listeners could support local bands through the pandemic.

“Wow! This is amazing! Incredible,” Dean Taylor said in the Zoom comments. Denise Herron added, “I can’t believe we’re getting this concert free! Great job!”

A group shot, including Dean Taylor, among the more than 130 who attended the Olin Half-Hour Happy Hour on April 3, 2020.

Participants used their cell phones to respond in real-time to trivia questions Boumgarden posted, including how many British prime ministers Dean Taylor had met (five; Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher, Boris Johnson, Edward Heath and James Callaghan—though he later recalled a sixth, John Major) and how much a venti non-fat latte costs at the Starbucks in Bauer Hall ($5.30).

Contestants racked up points for correct answers and how quickly they answered. Ultimately, over 10 questions, Anna Brown from the CDE prevailed, winning the chance to have Dean Taylor record her voicemail greeting.

The event was organized by Boumgarden and Katie Wools, creative director in marketing & communications.

“This was magical. Olin is so cool,” said Kim Orf, administrative assistant in the dean’s office. “Be well. Miss you all!”

Under any other circumstances, the classroom guest in Doug Villhard’s Introduction to Entrepreneurship class would have been impressive—but not noteworthy. Maxine Clark, founder of St. Louis-based Build-A-Bear Workshop, is a WashU Olin booster, a friend of the university and a frequent guest speaker in Olin classrooms.

But on Thursday, March 26, she joined a mosaic of students in a Zoom video classroom—another example of students, instructors and special guests making the Olin experience work in the midst of a global pandemic.

On the fourth day of online instruction after the campus closed to contain the coronavirus pandemic, Clark shared the story of how she created her Build-A-Bear concept. Nearly 30 MBA students aimed their webcams at the St. Louis entrepreneur and dropped questions into a chat window.

The focus of the class was social entrepreneurship—an area where Clark has been active since retiring as Build-A-Bear’s CEO in 2013. But first, there were questions about her big retail hit.

“I wanted to ask if the original idea of Build-A-Bear was the idea that was launched,” wrote Derek Leiter, MBA ’21. “Or did the idea change (like most of ours in class have) after researching the market?”

Maxine Clark (center, right column) shares a slide from her presentation about the day she appeared on Oprah’s television show as she was ramping up new Build-A-Bear Workshop stores.

Clark said the more people who got involved, the more the concept evolved. For example, store patrons who build their own teddy bears carry out a step that wasn’t part of the original idea: including a small red heart with the bear’s stuffing.

“Someone else came up with the idea of the heart,” Clark said. “We had no idea people would grab onto the idea like they did. People started putting three and four hearts in a bear. They’d put a wish on the heart. We got so many ideas from our customers.”

Dean Mark P. Taylor also stopped by the class for a few minutes to bid Clark and the students a hello. He thanked Clark for visiting the class under today’s unusual circumstances and thanked everyone for how they’ve adapted. “Today’s a great example where we have a great class and a great entrepreneur who can share her experience,” Taylor said. Later, in the classroom’s chat, he said, “So proud of you guys.”

Clark also spoke to the class about Delmar Divine, a project to rehabilitate the former home of the St. Louis region’s St. Luke’s Hospital—north of Delmar Boulevard and east of DeBaliviere. Her vision is to convert the building into “Cortex for nonprofits,” referring to a St. Louis-area business incubator. Delmar Divine would include retail, housing and office space and is planned to open in the summer of 2021.

Nine tiny lines of type near the back of Olin Business magazine’s 2017 edition announced Nate Maslak’s new venture, HealthWiz, “which helps lower healthcare costs for employers and payers by helping consumers navigate their healthcare costs and access high-quality, cost-efficient care.”

Three years and one brand change later, Maslak, BSBA ’11, and the company he runs—Ribbon Health—landed a $10.25 million round of Series A funding led by well-known venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. The infusion marks the first investment from Andreessen’s new $750 million healthcare fund.

“Nate was a rock star entrepreneurship student as an undergrad at Olin,” said former Olin entrepreneurship professor Cliff Holekamp in an email about the investment. “His success is no surprise.”

The company had nailed down two earlier seed funding rounds, according to the Crunchbase startup directory. Details on those early rounds were not available. The Series A round led by Andreessen closed on February 27, 2020.

A story about the funding round on TechCrunch explained that Ribbon Health “is trying to create an accurate database of what doctors and health plans have, which specializations offer their services to which insurance providers, and produce the best outcomes for patients.”

Nine individuals or firms participated in the Series A investment for Ribbon Health, including Y Combinator and New York-based early-stage investment fund BoxGroup, according to Crunch Base.

“This funding will help us bring our healthcare data platform to more payers, providers, and other healthcare stakeholders, allowing them to break through the information barriers in healthcare,” Maslak, CEO and cofounder, wrote in a blog post on the Ribbon Health website.