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.

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.

Trust actually has economic value. Narcissists aren’t the leaders they think they are. Organizational leaders need to be realistic about the balance between driving productivity and incentivizing good behavior.

These were among the takeaways from a 75-minute Century Club program on leadership, summarized in a series of three TED-style talks by WashU Olin faculty members on February 26. The professors summarized their research under the umbrella “The Importance of Character for Leadership.”

Kurt Dirks, Bank of America Professor of Leadership, presented on whether trust had more than simply moral value for organizational leaders. Emily Grijalva, assistant professor of organizational behavior, outlined the state of research in her specialty—narcissism. And Lamar Pierce, professor of organization and strategy, focused on organizing incentives around character in the workplace.

Kurt Dirks

When he cofounded the Bauer Leadership Center at Olin, one of the questions he hoped to address was whether “we could think about character as something that doesn’t just have moral value, but whether it has economic value.”

Dirks, who also serves as vice chancellor of international affairs for Washington University, explained to the audience that trust is an outgrowth of having good moral character. He was musing about how to quantify the effect of trust on performance while watching college basketball—and it occurred to him that might be a laboratory to test the question.

“Is there something about coaches and their ability to create trust?” Dirks wondered? As it turns out, there was. “The effect of trust was just below the effect of talent on the ability to win.”

So, through the research, Dirks concluded that trust not only feels good and serves as a moral attribute but also produces results.

The next question: Why is creating trust so difficult? Dirks outlined three elements in the chemistry of trust: character, competence and caring.

“Trust is something that has social good as well as instrumental good,” he said. “It may be harder to create than most of us realize.”

Emily Grijalva

Emily Grijalva

Grijalva confessed that “I started to get nervous when a journalist asked me for tips about how a person could cultivate their narcissism.” That was based on the popular misconception that narcissists make bold, charismatic leaders.

As an expert in the field, however, she has surveyed the research on narcissism thoroughly and produced original research. Her conclusion: Not every narcissistic leader is destined to enjoy the success of her favorite example, Steve Jobs.

“He’s a great example of the many aspects of what it means to have this trait,” she said, because he embodies both the positive and negative attributes. They match our conception of the prototypical leader: They’re dominant, self-confident, charismatic, inspiring and persuasive.

On the other hand, they also tend to be overly grandiose, entitled, exploitative and arrogant. Bottom line, she said, studies are inconsistent about whether narcissism creates positive or negative leaders. But in her review of 42 studies, narcissistic people tend to emerge as leaders, but that trait doesn’t necessarily make them effective leaders.

“Narcissism is best in moderation,” she said. So should you cultivate your narcissism? “If you value character, my answer would be no. I recommend you develop your humility.”

Lamar Pierce

Lamar Pierce

Growing up, Pierce—who is also associate dean for the Olin-Brookings Partnership—”couldn’t understand why other people couldn’t follow the rules, why they couldn’t achieve. It continued to be a mystery to me.”

When he became ill with lymphoma at 26, went through treatment and emerged, he felt like his life had changed. He was a graduate student, but he was angry, narcissistic, arrogant. “What I realized that the myth I grew up with, it was not true. The world was not about people with character and people without character.”

He started to think about the world as a crucible and started to study misconduct. “I really started to do some stupid stuff. I started asking why am I doing these things?”

Over the years, he’s come to realize that “life is a series of decisions that we make”—decisions made without full information, decisions made with biased information, decisions made with emotion.

His research also led to the conclusion that everyone has to make an honest assessment of who they are and what their character is. But mostly, his research has led to conclusions about how to balance incentives that drive productivity with incentives that promote good behavior. Too often, organizational leaders incentivize performance—and then they’re surprised when bad behavior emerges among employees who cheat on their way to hitting their marks.

Alternatively, leaders who don’t think carefully about how they incentivize good behavior—a zero-tolerance policy for theft, for example—may find their employees hate them. Draconian measures can drive low morale.

“We care about performance and productivity, but we also care about how we get there,” Pierce said, recommending that leaders draw a line in the sand on the behavioral issues they really care about—sexual harassment, for example. “You have to have that conversation up front or you’ll find ways to equivocate and make excuses when people cross that line.”

Pictured above: Kurt Dirks presenting to the gathering of the Century Club, February 26, 2020.

In an event livestreamed to the audience of Poets & Quants, Editor-in-Chief John Byrne praised WashU Olin for boldly reimagining its full-time MBA program, interviewing four students, two career center representatives, two faculty members and Dean Mark P. Taylor.

The event today, February 20, 2020, in Frick Forum was the capstone event after P&Q named Olin its MBA Program of the Year last month. In an article at the time, Byrne had written that Olin’s faculty and staff had basically broken the mold for full-time MBA programs with the three-continent global immersion at the outset of the first-year student experience.

First-year MBA students Kendra Kelly and Jennifer Lanas flank John Byrne and Dean Mark Taylor at the “program of the year” party.

Today, addressing a crowd gathered for the livesteam in Frick Forum, Byrne remarked that he visits a lot of full-time MBA programs and sees a lot of tinkering around the margins as educators work on improving their programs.

View the recording of the livestream

“It’s highly unusual for somebody to take out a blank piece of paper and reimagine what an MBA experience can be,” Byrne told the crowd. “There are precious few schools in the world that would bring their entire student cohort out on a 38-day learning experience—around the world—and then pay for the entire trip out of the school’s budget.”

Schoolwide celebration

His remarks came in the midst of a post-livestream celebration featuring internationally inspired finger foods, T-shirts for students, faculty and staff and tables adorned with beanies and berets—a takeoff on the Poets & Quants‘ logo. Visitors were offered the chance to record a video testimonial about the program or take selfies with Byrne-approved John Byrne masks.

As displayed in Frick Forum, John Bryne interviews first-year MBA students Zach Frantz, Jennifer Lanas and Lungile Tshuma.

Byrne came to campus specifically to highlight Olin’s program in an hourlong livestream broadcast live on the Poets & Quants website and into Frick Forum. He broke the hour into three 20-minute segments.

MBA Program of the Year cookies!

First, he focused on the overall experience by interviewing Dean Taylor along with Olin professors Sam Chun and Andrew Knight, who taught during the global immersion. Segment two focused on the student experience with first-year MBAs Zach Frantz, Jennifer Lanas and Lungile Tshuma. The final segment focused on career outcomes with Jen Whitten, director of the Weston Career Center, career coach Chris Collier and first-year student Kendra Kelly.

“We were all outside of our comfort zones—but safely outside of our comfort zones with the help of the program,” Tshuma told Byrne during his segment, explaining in part why the program was so important to his development as a business student.

Focusing on the student experience

Ashley Macrander and Katie Wools — a poet and a quant.

Byrne focused many of his questions on the core experience of working on projects and experiencing the business world in the very earliest stages of their MBA experience. Chun, professor of management practice, spoke of the importance and depth of field excursions to Barcelona vineyards, for example.

“These are meaningful trips—not just going on a winery tour,” Chun said. “We’re thinking about how a family (at the vineyard) thinks about wine and thinks about their values.”

“We learned business by actually doing business,” Lanas said.

Pictured above: John Byrne, editor-in-chief of Poets & Quants, interviewing Dean Mark Taylor, Sam Chun and Andrew Knight for the livestream broadcast today.