Author: Kurt Greenbaum

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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.

This story originally appeared in the 2019 edition of Olin Business magazine.

On a pristine Thursday in July, a group of WashU Olin MBA students sipped two varieties of Spanish sparkling wine and sampled pan con tomate in the main house of the 500-year-old Barcelona winery where they’d spent two afternoons collecting data.

The students had strolled among the knotty vineyards, smelled the soil and ducked into dark cellars lined with bottles of aging cava. They’d heard about the wine-making process and the family values that drive the latest generation of vintners at the Raventos i Blanc winery 40 minutes from the city’s center.

By 9:15 that evening, the sights, sounds, aromas and flavors had become another data point. Students clustered on sofas and barstools around the lobby of the Pulitzer Hotel in downtown Barcelona. Melding their research data with the culture and values they’d absorbed firsthand, they prepared team presentations for class the next day while three Olin professors milled about, offering insights and answering questions.

Olin Professor Andrew Knight leads a class at the Brookings Institution in 2019.

The scene was emblematic of WashU Olin’s newly rebooted full-time MBA program and its crown jewel: a ’round-the-globe immersion in international business designed to set students up for a richer business school education and set them apart from their peers. Students absorbed a rigorous schedule of classroom work, course-driven field excursions and presentations in Washington, DC, Barcelona and Shanghai.

By the time they returned to St. Louis 38 days after they left, the verdict was clear: The new MBA program was a success.

“I was prepared to feel like a student on this trip and to take incredible classes from amazing professors,” said Kendra Kelly, MBA ’21. “But I wasn’t prepared to see myself as a working professional in these places. In six weeks, I feel like I’m leaps and bounds beyond where I would have been had I not participated in this.”

Eighteen months in development

At a faculty meeting on May 23, 2018, Dean Mark P. Taylor challenged instructors to consider a bold new plan for the full-time MBA program. By then, a team of staff and faculty had already completed several months of behind-the-scenes work. New courses had been conceived. International locations had been chosen. Partner institutions were identified.

With faculty approval, the race was on to implement the new program in time for the arrival of first-year MBA students in late June 2019. The newly rebooted program would include options for MBA students to accelerate their education and graduate a semester early by foregoing a summer internship.

Heading toward the Lincoln Memorial in DC during the 2019 first-year MBA global immersion.

It would also offer students the option to pair their MBA with a concurrent specialized master’s degree in about 23 months.

But the real meat of the new program would be its biggest challenge, drawing dozens of instructors and scores of staff members into the planning process. The required global immersion would be an enormous logistical feat as WashU Olin arranged travel, meals, lodging, coursework—and prepared for inevitable surprises—for nearly 100 students across three continents.

Planners piloted the program over spring break in March 2019, taking 70 first- and second-year students to Shanghai and 35 to Barcelona for a compressed version of classes and excursions. Organizers returned with insights on how to manage transportation logistics, how to engage weary travelers and how to pace the coursework.

First-year MBA students participated in a scavenger hunt upon their arrival in Barcelona during the 2019 global immersion.

The goals were clear: Build the global mobility of Olin’s latest cohort. Set the tone for a program rooted in values-based, data-driven decision-making. Establish a baseline in international business for students with varying levels of business experience. Provide perspective on how business is done across different cultures, countries and economies when students begin core classes.

By the end of the trip, Professor of Practice Patrick Moreton—the faculty director and chief organizer of the global immersion’s academic experience—was confident it had met the goals.

“These students were absorbing and engaging with the environment in ways we’ve never seen before,” Moreton said, citing the papers, presentations and simulation results students had submitted throughout their journey.

The student presentations, designed to solve market entry questions and operational problems for real companies in the United States and abroad, incorporated rich learnings from their own field observations and data collected from financial documents and company research.

“They did a great job,” Moreton said, acknowledging that the students were deliberately challenged to use business concepts they hadn’t yet formally learned. “The experiential design of the courses lets students see the value of these concepts in action and achieved great learning outcomes.”

Working on coursework in the hotel lobby in Barcelona.

Rebooting the full-time MBA

Elements of the redesigned program for full-time MBA students at WashU Olin

  • A required global immersion for all students entering the program, including a 38-day ’round-the-world trip with coursework and excursions at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC; in Barcelona; and in Shanghai.
  • An option to accelerate the MBA experience and finish a semester early by foregoing the traditional summer internship between years one and two.
  • An option to earn a specialized master’s degree.

Bonds for life

Faculty members were also impressed with the quality of the cohort. From the beginning, program leaders acknowledged the new program would attract a certain type of student—a student prepared to touch down in St. Louis and depart almost immediately for faraway lands. With the highest yield rate in Olin’s MBA history, it was clear prospective students made Olin their top choice—specifically for the global experience.

Meanwhile, those nearly six weeks of global travel also fulfilled another goal: Organizers expected the program to create deep bonds among members of the cohort. And bond they did.

In Shanghai, first-year MBA students did field research in Chinese retail locations for a project during their global immersion in 2019.

Sixteen students celebrated birthdays during the 38 days of travel. Four students formed an impromptu band using idle instruments in a DC pub. Another took a long weekend away from Shanghai to get married—and was showered with classmates’ well wishes when he shared wedding pictures on WeChat, the Chinese social media platform everyone used to stay connected. Ten students rented a yacht in Barcelona for a water-borne city tour and an afternoon swim. Students visited karaoke bars in Beijing, walked on the Great Wall, toured DC monuments and gazed into the soaring ceiling of Barcelona’s Sagrada Família basilica.

“We spent a lot of time together. We had meals together. It really helped us inside the classroom because we are really comfortable talking to each other, asking each other questions,” said Benjamin Gaffney, MBA ’21. “It helped the academic conversations as well.”

Ashley Macrander, assistant dean and director of student affairs for graduate programs, said students frequently cited the deeper cultural competency they’d gained as an important takeaway of the program.

“This experience has given our students an even stronger start than they’ve ever had before,” Macrander said. “They care about each other as colleagues and friends. They’ve formed tighter bonds with Olin. It’s made them even more engaged students and that’s going to make them more engaged alumni.”

One after another, students praised the strength they drew from one another through the trip, a strength derived from the bond they’d created—and the understanding they’d gained of each person’s ethnic, professional and social backgrounds.

“People from different backgrounds, different industries, different countries, different life experiences—and when we work in teams, we get to share all our different ideas and see how they come together,” said Abhinav Gabbeta, MBA ’21. “All these different perspectives fill the different gaps you have.”

Students drew on one another as they worked on a series of projects that began in St. Louis, continued at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, extended to the cava producers in Barcelona and finished with garment manufacturing plants on the outskirts of Shanghai.

Rigorous coursework around the globe

It’s Friday morning in early August and the mercury creeps toward a high in the upper 90s. Four first-year WashU MBA students dodge other commuters in Shanghai’s People’s Square subway station and squeeze aboard the No. 2 train, standing chin-to-shoulder for a quick ride two stops to the west.

Susie Bonwich, Zach Frantz, Duckenson Joseph and Linh Nguyen—joined by two Chinese-speaking guides—have scattered into the city seeking insights about the coffee shops and confectioners doing business in Shanghai. Their classmates have gone in other directions, visiting other stores.

Students gathered around their laptops outside a Shanghai hotel ballroom while working on a retail simulation for their class over the 2019 global immersion.

Before departing WashU in late June, all the students visited Strange Donuts, a St. Louis-based chain of shops with locations around the region and in Mexico City. Jason Bockman, the owner and a former Olin student, had been invited to consider opening a doughnut shop in Shanghai. The question for the students: Should he?

“I’m really excited about this project,” said Bonwich, who joked about her previous experience as a corporate trainer for a premium global burger restaurant chain. “I feel like shaking fries will actually have some value in this program.”

The four students visited four different shops, including a simple coffee shop, a high-end bakery and a patisserie. Their mission: Gain competitive insights. Evaluate square footage. Compare what Chinese diners prefer—their values—against the US palate. That work would merge with data from Bockman’s business and lessons they’d learned in their course on business models in a global environment, taught in a Shanghai hotel ballroom.

“For sure, I’m looking at all of this very differently. Before, I’d try to look at a business model and see how a company made money,” Frantz said. “But this is giving me a framework to see more about why decisions are made. I have a much more data-driven framework.”

Throughout the trip, students blended on-the-ground experiences with in-the-classroom lessons. The business models course invited students to contrast retail strategies across a variety of industries—including hardware, cosmetics and apparel—among retailers on three continents.

In the hardware industry, for example, contrasting values came to the forefront as students noted less of a do-it-yourself mentality among Chinese homeowners compared to Americans. That’s largely thanks to the lower cost of labor—they can more easily afford a plumber—and the lack of space to store and work with home improvement supplies.

Meanwhile, their Global Management Practices course in Barcelona included student visits to three wineries as they developed strategies for expanding cava in the US market. Their business and policy course at the Brookings Institution included detailed briefings on global economies in Europe, South America, Asia and Africa. With visits to Chinese garment makers and global distribution centers, students explored the role of operations strategy in their global business operations course.

Threaded throughout, students trained on effective teamwork, received communication coaching to hone their presentation skills and met with counselors from the Weston Career Center.

“I didn’t think the global immersion would add so much to my experience, but I feel like I’m so much ahead,” Joseph said. “I have a lot of stories I’ll be able to tell an interviewer.”

Changes, differences, similarities

Anne Marie Knott teaching a business models class during the global immersion in 2019.

Throughout the experience, faculty and staff watched and learned as the class of 2021 served as the vanguard for Olin’s new full-time MBA. They provided social and political insights to help students assimilate across three unique cultures. They prepared for the inevitable upset stomachs and ear infections that would interrupt any group of 100 adults over six weeks. They noted—and will adjust for—the time it takes to secure visas for a large group of students attempting to traverse the globe.

And they tweaked schedules along the way in an effort to preserve a rigorous academic experience alongside the rigor of international travel—with all the demands of border crossings, jet lag and laundry.

“The faculty has had to adapt the schedule to students’ needs,” Gaffney said. “We very much appreciate those changes, but also, you just need to learn: While this is the plan, it may change.”

In the end, students appreciated the opportunity to contrast the cultures and values across so many stops, integrating that perspective into their work. They noted the late-morning, late-evening routines among Spanish businesses—and their preference to begin meetings with more small talk and a personal connection. They recognized that the Chinese palate doesn’t favor sweets to the degree Americans do. They saw the ways Chinese manufacturing conditions contrast with Americans’ preconceived notions.

“Honestly, the thing I’ve seen most powerfully is the similarities,” Gabbeta said. “It’s all about the human connection we’re making. We’ve gotten to know the people. There may be a lot of differences, but at the end of the day, as long as we share that human connection, we can make some really powerful differences in the world.”

Faculty and Courses

IN ST. LOUIS

Values-Based, Data-Driven Decision-Making

  • Stuart Bunderson, Director, Bauer Leadership Center and George and Carol Bauer Professor of Organizational Ethics and Governance
  • Seethu Seetharaman, Director, Center for Analytics and Business Insights and W. Patrick McGinnis Professor of Marketing

IN WASHINGTON, DC

Global Institutions and Values

  • Tarek Ghani, assistant professor of strategy
  • Lamar Pierce, professor of organization and strategy and associate dean for the Olin-Brookings Partnership

IN BARCELONA

Global Management Practices

  • Sam Chun, assistant dean and director of executive education, professor of management practice
  • Peter Boumgarden, professor of practice, strategy and organizations

IN SHANGHAI

Understanding Business Models in a Global Context

  • Daniel Elfenbein, associate professor of strategy
  • Anne Marie Knott, Robert and Barbara Frick Professor of Business

Implementing Strategy through Global Operations

  • Lingxiu Dong, professor of operations and manufacturing management
  • Fuqiang Zhang, professor of operations and manufacturing management

THROUGHOUT

Foundations of Impactful Teamwork

  • Andrew Knight, professor of organizational behavior

Effective Communication for Business Leaders

  • Cathy Dunkin, lecturer in business communications

Amy Shiller Brown, Molly Cruitt, Sarah Gibbs, Judy Milanovits, Gabe Watson and Katie Roth Wools contributed to this report.

Pictured above: Students in the 2021 MBA class during the scavenger hunt in Barcelona in 2019.




Poets & Quants names WashU Olin its 2019 program of the year.

Calling WashU’s revamped, global, full-time MBA “one of the boldest and most innovative program changes any business school has made,” Poets & Quants has named Olin Business School its program of the year for 2019.

P&Q specifically cited WashU Olin’s 38-day global immersion as a break-from-the-pack innovation “at a time when most MBA experiences are frankly commoditized.”

The website acknowledged the importance of breaking away from the pack, citing Olin Dean Mark P. Taylor’s comments about the challenge.

“The MBA is a flagship program and a lot of schools are closing their programs,” Taylor told Poets & Quants. “My view is that we have to break into the top end, and we can’t do that by tinkering. We have to be bold and build a go-to program.”

Quick turnaround in planning

“For both the bold vision and successful execution of the radical revamp, Olin’s new MBA has been named Poets & Quants program of the year,” publisher John Byrne wrote in his piece announcing the honor on January 14, 2020.

A year and a day ago, P&Q placed WashU first in its annual list of its “Top 10 MBA programs to watch,” also citing Olin’s intention to summon first-year students a semester early and launch them on a ’round-the-world immersion into business in Washington, DC, Barcelona, Beijing and Shanghai.

“No less impressive, the school was able to get its innovation off the ground in record time,” Byrne wrote in Tuesday’s story. “The changes were approved by the faculty on May 23 of 2018, leading to a pilot program just 10 months later.”

Tuesday’s honor was only the third time P&Q has named a program of the year. Two years ago, the site recognized the University of Rochester and last year, Cornell University. Byrne called Olin’s revamp “a remarkable achievement, considering the enormous logistical challenge.”

Pillars of excellence

Byrne’s story also highlighted Olin’s five-year strategic plan and its four pillars of excellence, noting how the school’s focus on values-based, data-driven decision-making; entrepreneurship; globally minded learning; and experiential learning informed the design of the revamped program.

Ohad Kadan, one of the architects of the revamp and vice dean for education and globalization, told P&Q the pillars helped Olin create a program that was highly differentiated, appealing to a certain segment of prospective MBA students.

“We did not have an identity,” Kadan told P&Q. “We are now the number one choice for students who like this new approach.”

Poets & Quants noted that attitude was reflected in remarks from students: “Not only was student reaction highly positive, but many of the MBAs chose Olin because of the new experience,” P&Q wrote.

Byrne spoke to student Mike Haueisen, MBA ’21, who said, “The immersion tipped the scale for me toward Olin.”

P&Q also spoke to faculty members who were thrilled with the results—both in terms of the rapid growth in business savvy by the students and the collaborative teaching approach the revamped program demanded of the launch team.

“It was one of the most meaningful teaching experiences that I have ever had,” said Andrew Knight, professor of organizational behavior who traveled throughout the immersion to teach teamwork.

Read why Poets & Quants named WashU Olin as 2019 program of the year.

Pictured above: First-year MBA students from Olin Business School tour a vineyard near Barcelona, collecting data for a consulting project focused on entering new markets.




Brad Li, CEO of ZTE USA

As a successful Chinese expat based in Kansas City, Brad Li had already done great things. He was a general manager who opened one of the first US offices for the China-based company he worked for, telecom and networking giant ZTE Corporation. He’d recruited and built a team. With his wife, he’d even established a family.

Brad Li
Brad Li

So when a big opportunity came Li’s way, it wasn’t a surprise. The only question: Was it the right big opportunity? This is the story of how Brad Li, EMBA ’17, made the decision—and the help he got from Olin after graduating.

After making his mark with ZTE in the United States, Li decided to return to school in 2015 to get his executive MBA at WashU Olin when his US-born boys were about 6 and 3 years old. After receiving his degree in 2017, he was presented with an exciting opportunity with the company that would require relocating his family and taking on a different role.

“It would be a totally different career path,” Li recalled. “That would mean I would stop my business development here and build a different career path.”

As part of his decision process, Li decided to utilize the expertise and best practices of the Weston Career Center to carefully think through the impact on his future. He contacted Frans VanOudenAllen, director of executive career development with the Weston Career Center and Olin’s EMBA program, and together they walked through a process developed to help executives make decisions based on factors such as future growth, personal development, and family impacts.

“We put everything down on paper,” Li said. “There were many uncertainties. But I was well-prepared to think through my options and future impacts from different angles and perspectives.”

Ultimately, a few considerations weighed heavily: The impact on the network he’d built in the United States, the separation from the team he had developed in Kansas City, and the significant cultural and lifestyle change for his family—particularly for his young boys, who had lived in Kansas City their entire lives.

Beyond all of the data and factors, an important aspect of decision-making for executives is listening to one’s own intuition, and Li felt that perhaps now was not the right time to make a big change.

And so after discussing all of these factors with VanOudenAllen, Li decided to not pursue the new opportunity. As fate would have it, within a few months ZTE named him CEO of its North American operations, overseeing the United States and Canada. He’s since moved to ZTE USA’s Dallas headquarters.

He remains grateful for VanOudenAllen’s coaching. “With VanOudenAllen’s help, I was able to take a holistic approach and utilize the best practices designed by the Weston Career Center,” Li said. “Effective decision-making requires both a qualitative and quantitative approach, and I would recommend the services of Olin’s EMBA program to any executives.”




The effects of the African slave trade persist today among firms in parts of the continent, with companies more often tightly controlled by individuals or families—often because those firms have limited access to equity funding and shared ownership.

Meanwhile, firms in African countries less affected by the slave trade have more diversified ownership structures.

Lamar Pierce
Lamar Pierce

While closely held ownership isn’t necessarily bad, research from a WashU Olin professor suggests some African firms may miss 21st century growth opportunities without the ability to raise capital through shared ownership.

“The slave trade appears to predict ownership structure in ways that nothing else can explain,” said Lamar Pierce, Olin professor of organization and strategy and coauthor of the new study.

In particular, the research showed that manufacturing firms—heavily dependent on investment capital through debt or equity—tend to have much more closely held ownership structures in countries heavily affected by slavery, primarily in western and central Africa.

“Although ownership concentration can be very useful, not having the option to diversify ownership is bad,” Pierce said.

Pierce and his coauthor, Jason A. Snyder of the University of Utah, outline their conclusions in “Historical Origins of Firm Ownership Structure: The Persistent Effects of the African Slave Trade,” forthcoming in the Academy of Management Journal.

The work builds on the pair’s August 2017 research in The Review of Financial Studies, which showed that firms in countries heavily affected by the slave trade now have more limited access to forms of financing such as bank loans or lines of credit.

That research, in turn, builds on work from other researchers who created a database linking nearly 81,000 enslaved people to 52 modern African countries. Pierce and Snyder cross-referenced that data with extensive data on firms from the World Bank Enterprise Survey.

‘Business scholars aren’t studying Africa’

Pierce said he and Snyder could not definitively say the slave trade caused the later concentration of corporate ownership. But no other variable they investigated could explain the relationship, including weather, colonialism, natural resources such as gold or oil, access to coastlines or the distance to demand markets.

And there is some evidence that the relationship is indeed causal.

“One thing that raises our confidence is that a whole bunch of historians have studied this,” Pierce said. The researchers’ model suggests that 67% of firms in countries with above-median slave exports would have sole proprietorship. In contrast, countries below the median for slave exports have 46% sole ownership.

Furthermore, it implies that the difference in the percentage of sole proprietorships between the lowest and the highest slave trade countries is 43 percentage points.

Pierce’s and Snyder’s work is early in a burgeoning area of business research focused on the African continent.

“Business scholars aren’t studying Africa. They just aren’t,” Pierce said. “It’s an incredibly rapidly growing continent economically. Exploding literacy rates, dramatically improving political institutions.”

Although some question whether this research can be generalized beyond Africa, he wonders whether it needs to be, given that the continent represents one-sixth of the world’s population.

“I never hear that question when I do research on US firms. It’s a valuable question to ask, but not when it comes to questioning the validity of the research,” he said. “Understanding the role of firms is important in and of itself.”

‘Traumatic shock’

In this and their previous research, Pierce and Snyder set out to understand the lingering effects of a massive “traumatic shock” that reduced the continent’s population by half between the 15th and 19th centuries, when 12 million to 18 million Africans were seized into slavery.

Their 2017 paper provided “the first evidence that the slave trade shaped modern markets by restricting financial contracting between firms,” Pierce and Snyder wrote. “More specifically, they show that firms cannot access credit or banking services.”

This new paper suggests that African nations historically affected by the slave trade tend to have weak institutions that are unable to enforce the existence of contracts. Because they also have weaker and more concentrated social networks and trust, “ownership must remain concentrated even when not beneficial.”

Pierce and Snyder wanted to build on a call within the research community to advance research on African business and “to bring history back into the fields of management and strategy.”

“If you eyeball the variation in economic development as a function of the slave trade and you look at the low-slave-trade countries,” Pierce said, “you can see a huge difference in them.”




Daphne Benzaquen

Daphne Benzaquen, MBA ’17, was very clear about what she wanted out of business school: An opportunity to be her own boss. And that’s what she’s done with the launch of her personal lifestyle brand daph., conceived at Olin from her personal experience.

She’s been written up in a variety of St. Louis-area publications including St. Louis Magazine and the St. Louis Business Journal, which named her a 30 Under 30 honoree in 2019.

Can you tell us a little about daph? What inspired you to found it? Was it conceived at Olin?

daph. was born out of an unmet need. During my MBA studies at Olin, I was in search for a functional, fashionable backpack that not only carried my essentials, but also had a sleek and polished look.

In 2016, I embarked on an adventure that led to a self-taught crash course in designing leather goods, meetings with leather makers across Peru and a website designed from scratch. I wanted to create a brand that bonded my unique style with my Peruvian roots.

After a year of international communication, editing and design, I launched daph., a sustainable fashion brand that empowers its customers to give back.

Why did you decide to get your MBA and how did you land at Olin?

I went to business school with the goal of being my own boss and the ultimate decision-maker. Never did I imagine I would become every single department of a company. No day is the same and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

St. Louis is home to me so Olin was an easy choice. Both St. Louis and Olin have become a hub for innovation and creativity. The connections made through the program are invaluable.

I’ve met lifelong friends, mentors and contacts, which has led to amazing opportunities to grow my business. Attending Olin gave me an all-encompassing view of business while introducing me to new skills and experiences that have sparked new interests and passions, something not found at all schools.

In what ways was your experience at Olin formative in your experience and goals?

I was lucky enough to attend various events held at Olin where I heard from experienced, notable experts in various fields. For example, I participated in a Taylor Community Consulting Project. In that experience, alongside my peers, we positively contributed to the growth strategy of LaunchSTL, a nonprofit organization with the goal of building up nonprofit’s young professional boards.

To conclude my MBA, I studied abroad at various European business schools with students from all over the world. We visited global companies, hearing from top executives at the company and gaining insight on international business strategies and customs—something vital in my business.

Olin taught me how to think about various business issues differently and from diverse perspectives. I learned how to push the boundaries and test out new, unique solutions to everyday company problems.

I always say getting my MBA from Olin was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Were there particular courses or professors who were particularly memorable?

My confidence to start daph. began during my Introduction to Entrepreneurship with David Poldoian. During this course, I was pushed outside my comfort zone when it came to coming up with a business solution.

I was able to use skills gained in other courses to come up with a complete execution plan to an idea that was just in the making. It taught me how to think outside the box, which I do every day now.

Hearing from other entrepreneurs in the St. Louis community, along with conducting feasibility studies, gave me the push I needed to take the risk and start something on my own.

What are the next steps for you in your career?

I will continue to grow daph. into a national lifestyle and fashion brand.