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.

Ray Irving has grim memories of his earliest days as a distance learning specialist in higher education. Those memories include 45-pound boxes stuffed with books, massive postage bills—and disappointing drop-out rates as students struggled to engage with dense material and connect with remote faculty.

Those drawbacks have given way to high-speed, two-way video, collaborative software platforms, digital learning materials and a wide assortment of communication tools to connect students and teachers. In the years since starting in higher ed, Irving has leveraged those tools to build world-class e-learning platforms. He joined WashU Olin in April to repeat his success here.

Mockup of the entrance to the Center for Digital Education on the first floor of Knight Hall. Rendering by Katie Wools.

Irving is partnered with Nina Kim, who comes to Olin from the University of Iowa with nine years of digital experience in instructional design, and together the pair is overseeing the construction and launch of Olin’s Center for Digital Education. Work is underway in the space behind Frick Forum on the first floor of Knight Hall and Bauer Hall. It’s expected to open in October.

Irving’s team is also building a new web-based digital learning platform called learn.WashU (“learn WashU”), which debuted already as a tool for the new class of first-year MBA students who started June 24. Read the Desk of the Dean from December 5, 2018, for more on that.

“The way the world’s changing, you have to keep increasing your knowledge and skills,” said Irving, director of the new center. “Universities have a real place to place in this because faculty are at the cutting edge of research and should be able to transfer the latest thinking.”

Clear goals

That philosophy is at the heart of the three goals for the new center: enhancing the Olin learning experience, extending the reach of the school and engaging learners for life—long after they’ve left Olin as alums.

“I was really excited about being a part of creating something,” said Kim, associate director. “This is truly an opportunity to figure out what online learning is at Olin—and all of WashU—and have the ability to create a team that was not already established.”

Another view of the planned entrance to the Center for Digital Education. Rendering by Katie Wools.

The pair envisions a center complete with green-screen studios that can put faculty on camera in authentic environments as they address classes. Banks of high-powered computers will support the creation of video-driven learning. And through it all, faculty members will partner with e-learning experts to help them structure their materials for a new audience.

In addition to physical construction, the Center for Digital Education is hiring up to 11 team members by year’s end with titles such as multimedia developer, video production specialist and media production manager. They’ll work hand-in-hand with faculty to produce instructional materials.

“Faculty are subject matter experts, but generally, they have never taken any education courses—or how to teach online in particular,” Kim said. “Once people talk with us and they learn what we do and how we can help them, they have been very open to working on their courses with us.”

Based on past success

Irving knows he and Kim can do it because he’s done it before—at the University of Warwick in the UK, working with Dean Mark Taylor when he led the business school there. The school won accolades for its online learning. “The reason Warwick was ranked No. 1 in the world in 2018 and 2019 by the Financial Times was because of the investment he made back in 2011,” he said. “It’s about dealing with faculty and investing in support, facilities and technology. That all comes back to leadership.”

In his public addresses on the subject, Dean Taylor has acknowledged Olin isn’t an early mover in this area, but he has expressed confidence that the school can benefit from the experience of those who have come before. “The early bird catches the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese,” he said.

In addition to the MBAs on their global immersion, PMBA students will start using the learn.WashU platform in January, EMBAs will follow in April and some executive education courses will start appearing on the platform in the interim. Irving and Kim expect everyone at Olin to be on the platform by fall 2020—including alumni, who will be granted access as needed for continuing education opportunities.

There are no plans yet to put the MBA program online, but plans are underway to create online versions of the specialized master’s in business analytics.

As Irving notes, we’ve come a long way from shipping books.

“In history, the biggest challenges would be technology, but that’s gone,” he said. “We never have a technical barrier. It comes back to people—persuading people that online can be as good if not better.”

Lori Lee

In her commencement address to WashU Olin’s graduate students on May 17, 2019, Lori Lee described herself as a small-town Missouri woman who aspired to join a Big Six accounting firm, marry and have kids. But Lee’s story took a few unexpected turns, leading her to a global leadership position in one of the world’s largest firms.

Through it all, she told the graduates, her values have guided her. They provided the North Star, the context for every data-driven decision. They formed the basis for everything worth fighting for.

Lori Lee addressing graduate students at Commencement on May 17, 2019.

“At the core of all the calculations, at the heart of everything we do as business leaders are our values,” said Lee, BSBA ’88, MBA ’89. “It’s more important than ever to know what you’re willing to fight for. The issues are challenging businesses like never before. With social media today, molehills can become mountains in an instant—and how you respond in that split second makes all the difference.”

Today, Lee is CEO of AT&T Latin America and global marketing officer for AT&T Inc. She credits WashU Olin and former Dean Robert Virgil for working closely with her and providing the support that got her through business school. She rose through the ranks at several companies before an unexpected move to Texas in 1997 opened an opportunity for her at Southwestern Bell, which later became part of AT&T.

That move illustrated Lee’s first tip to the graduates that afternoon: Embrace every change as an unforeseen opportunity. “How you embrace change will be the difference between your success or failure,” Lee said, leading to her second tip: Anything worth having requires initiative.

See Lori Lee’s address at Commencement, May 17, 2019.

She spent the most time on that third tip, however—the one about knowing your values. Later that afternoon, Lee said that’s important because most decisions are not momentous forks in the road.

“Rarely is it neat and tidy,” she said. “You need to think through these things in advance. You find yourself in a moment when you have to make a decision. If you don’t have a sense of values for your company or for yourself, you aren’t prepared.”

That preparation is particularly important in her career today as the leader of AT&T’s Latin American operation, where the values of a different culture may not align with those of the US-based corporation where she works. “We talk about that all the time,” she said. And in a fast-paced world fueled by social media and heightened social awareness, it’s important for companies to know what they value and what their employees value so they can take a stand when it’s appropriate.

“Does this issue affect our values or our employee base? If so, perhaps it’s appropriate to take a stand,” Lee said, recalling the 2016 shooting in AT&T’s hometown that killed five police officers and wounded nine others. “My CEO has stepped out on a few issues. One that is most known is Black Lives Matter, diversity and valuing diversity. Our employees were shaken by the Dallas shooting and wondered what we were going to do.”

Lee, a member of Olin’s National Council, values the opportunity to stay connected with the university and Olin, staying current with higher education issues through her participation in WashU’s College Prep Program, which is supported by AT&T.

“Stand up, speak up and don’t be afraid to rock the boat,” Lee told the graduates in mid-May. “Embrace change. Take initiative. And be really clear on your values. Do these things and you’ll be steps ahead of me when I sat where you are today.”

Sara Hannah

The 2018 Olin Business magazine shared a series of vignettes featuring alumni faced with a business decision requiring them to weigh data with their values. We featured these stories to support Olin’s strategic pillar focused on equipping leaders to confront challenge and create change, for good. This is one of those vignettes.

Mike Budden was relentless. And Sara Hannah, BSBA ’01, recognized the potential impact. So that’s why the first global branch of the Barry-Wehmiller Leadership Institute is based in Cape Town, South Africa.

The South African leadership consultant had attended a BW workshop three years earlier, and was using some of its principles in his own work. Budden had stayed in touch with Hannah, trying to persuade her to open the institute—with its people- centric principles—in his hometown.

Hannah, managing partner of the Berry-Wehmiller Leadership Institute, initially wasn’t so sure. “It made absolutely no sense for us to do business in Cape Town,” she said. The currency exchange rate was unfavorable. It would be the institute’s first foray into an overseas market. Budden was already there.

Yet other data was compelling: “When we looked at the economic and government situation in South Africa, we saw that business is the way to touch the lives of people,” Hannah said. Not government or NGOs. Business.

The institute made a minimum two-year commitment in Cape Town. “We believe we measure success by the way we touch the lives of people,” Hannah said.

At a farewell reception in his honor, Cliff Holekamp greets Mahendra Gupta, the former Olin dean who hired him as the first full-time entrepreneurship professor for the business school.

Since starting work on his MBA at WashU Olin in 1999, Cliff Holekamp’s career has been deeply entwined with the campus.

Now, after he launched a startup as a student, earned that MBA in 2001, joined the faculty in 2008, taught entrepreneurship for nearly 12 years, started 14 courses in the discipline and helped more than 200 students launch their own startups, Holekamp says it’s time to disentangle himself from Olin.

Holekamp is retiring from his teaching post effective June 30 to work full-time at Cultivation Capital, the St. Louis-based venture capital firm he cofounded. Work there, he says, has become too consuming to fully focus on both that and his teaching responsibilities.

“I didn’t want to be the guy who is here in body, but not in spirit,” Holekamp said from his office in Simon Hall. “I wanted to leave knowing that I put everything into my job here every day.”

The news sparked an outpouring of reaction from former students, who praised Holekamp’s passion for their ideas and the way he urged them to test themselves.

“In him, I have found a champion—someone who believes in me and challenges me to surpass my own expectations,” said Nisa Qais, AB ’12, founder of Arya Mental Health, a San Francisco-based nonprofit. “He has been a defining highlight of my WashU experience, and I am beyond grateful for his continued presence in my life.”

Chisom Uche, AB ’10, who minored in entrepreneurship, added that “Cliff’s classes were unlike any I had taken. They tested not only creativity, but also the ability to execute within a team. Ultimately, Cliff’s classes prepared leaders for the real world.”

Getting real

Holekamp dove into “the real world” in the midst of his own MBA education when he founded a startup called Foot Healers, a one-stop shop for podiatric care. He later sold the business, though he remains connected as an adviser.

At the time, Olin Professor Bart Hamilton was teaching entrepreneurship part-time when the school offered only two courses—an introductory class and the Hatchery, designed as a launchpad for student startups. Hamilton brought on Holekamp as an adjunct to take on the intro course. He took on the Hatchery course when the instructor took ill.

Soon, former Dean Mahendra Gupta asked Holekamp to join the faculty full-time as Olin’s first dedicated entrepreneurship professor. He never looked back.

He codeveloped the entrepreneurship minor at WashU, pioneered off-campus courses with St. Louis’s Cortex and T-Rex incubators, advised senior campus leaders on entrepreneurship education, participated in searches for the Skandalaris Center’s director and the Olin dean (leading to Mark Taylor’s appointment) and a long list of other accomplishments.

“Cliff has made significant contributions to Olin,” Dean Taylor said in a tribute at Holekamp’s retirement reception. “Cultivation Capital’s gain is our great loss.”

“The school has been amazing in giving me the autonomy to build the entrepreneurship program and the freedom to collaborate with the other WashU schools and the community,” Holekamp said. “They saw the value of entrepreneurship for our students and for the strategy of the school.”

What’s endured, what’s changed

Reflecting on changes at the business school since he started, Holekamp still appreciates the intimate class sizes and personal relationship faculty members cultivate with students. At the same time, he’s thrilled at the expansion of courses, the early efforts to integrate entrepreneurship in the curriculum and the immersion of global experiences in courses and practicum projects. That’s an innovation he credits to the model pioneered in the weeklong venture consulting in Budapest course he launched.

“Getting entrepreneurship adopted as one of the four strategic pillars of the school is the capstone of my work at Olin,” Holekamp said. “We have worked to add the courses and programs needed to raise our entrepreneurship program from unranked to seventh in the country. The next phase will be to integrate entrepreneurship and innovation perspectives throughout the entire curriculum.”

Student reactions

“Cliff is a champion for his students and an ambassador for the road less traveled. While many of my classmates were pursuing more traditional post-MBA jobs, through Cliff’s guidance I was able to learn about career paths in the startup community.” Elise Hoffman, AB 2011, MBA 2016, principal at Cultivation Capital.

“He has always been direct, unambiguous and insightful when providing guidance or critique. I’ve worked with him for about five years at Cultivation Capital and Wash U (as a student and then employee) and his thoughts and opinions are always interesting to hear as they are very well formulated and succinct.” Matt Plummer, MBA ’18, principal, The Yield Lab.

“Cliff is like the ultimate matchmaker to connect people and talent in the WashU and STL startup space. As I was trying to grow a nonprofit, he helped me access resources I didn’t even realize existed.” Elise Hastings, MBA ’19, former managing director of Givable, transitioning after a move to Denver.

“Professor Clifford Holekamp is by far one of the most positive and powerful influence in my development as a young entrepreneur. No other professor has ever devoted such critical attention to my academic development, working with me to fine-tune my projects and offering feedback in ways that allowed me to mature.” Hannah Perl, BSBA ’17, account manager at Invisibly, a startup with Jim McKelvey.

Pictured above: At a farewell reception in his honor, Cliff Holekamp greets Mahendra Gupta, the former Olin dean who hired him as the first full-time entrepreneurship professor for the business school.

Paul Sagel seems to have violated all the presumed rules about innovation at big companies. With a swipe of gel and a strip of plastic, the Procter & Gamble research fellow created a $250 million annual line of business for company No. 45 on the 2019 Fortune 500 list.

Among business researchers, however, the conventional wisdom said Crest Whitestrips should never have happened. A nagging thread in the academic literature since the 1940s strongly suggests that the bigger a company gets, the less efficient it becomes with its investments in innovation. As they grow, firms spend more and more, yet they get less and less out of it.

Anne Marie Knott
Anne Marie Knott

Not so fast, says Olin’s Anne Marie Knott, who has a forthcoming paper in Organizational Science designed to tease apart this riddle: Why would firms engage in this seemingly irrational behavior? How can they hope to outpace the innovation in small, nimble startups that aren’t saddled with overhead and corporate inertia?

The answer to the riddle is that large companies aren’t acting irrationally. The paper, “Reconciling the Firm Size and Innovation Puzzle”—written with former Olin PhD student and current Drake University professor Carl Vieregger—concluded researchers just haven’t had the right tools to measure the productivity of investments in research and development.

Knowing the answer is vital, Knott said, because big companies remain a thriving engine of innovation and shouldn’t let conventional wisdom slow them down.

“Large firms comprise 87% of the innovation engine in this country,” said Knott, Olin’s Robert and Barbara Frick Professor of Business, citing numbers from the National Science Foundation. “They do 5.75 times more R&D than smaller firms with fewer than 500 employees—and they’re more productive with it.”

Breaking the rules

According to the conventional academic wisdom on R&D, large firms tend toward process innovation—how can we produce products more efficiently?—rather than toward new products or services. And they lean more toward incremental updates—“new and improved!”—versus new-to-the-world breakthroughs.

So Paul Sagel “broke the rules” when Procter & Gamble launched Crest Whitestrips in May 2001. The company invested years of work to introduce a revolutionary new product, disrupting cosmetic dentists’ trade in expensive tooth-whitening treatments.

In their attempt to unravel this seeming paradox, the research team took two approaches—one conclusive, the other inconclusive—and plumbed a relatively untapped source of data from the National Science Foundation’s Business R&D Innovation Survey, which has collected qualitative and quantitative data since 2008.

Two approaches

In their first approach, the researchers analyzed BRDIS data from more than 2,000 firms that invested in R&D. That analysis examined whether the apparent “small-firm advantage” stemmed from their conducting more productive forms of R&D, or whether the forms became less productive as firms got larger.

Using that approach, the team found that small firms did development (rather than research), radical innovation (rather than incremental innovation), and product innovation (rather than process innovation)—just as the prevailing theories have predicted. But the researchers found no evidence that those strategies made them more productive, or that those strategies became less productive as firms grew larger.

Then why do people think small firms are more productive? Because scholars have counted patents or products, rather than the returns from R&D.

Accordingly, in their second approach, the team tested a metric Knott has pioneered in her quest to measure the value of R&D investments: the “research quotient.” RQ is “the output elasticity of a company’s R&D”—the percentage change in revenues from a percent change in R&D. It relies  exclusively on firms’ financial data rather than unreliable and inconsistent measures such as the number of patents.

In that analysis, Knott and Vieregger found that large firms had higher RQ, no matter what form of R&D they chose. This is because large firms can exploit their size, spreading the cost of innovation across the operation. In the case of Crest Whitestrips, for example, P&G already had brand equity, distribution channels, a sales force and other assets, increasing the productivity of its investment in a new product. 

“The main takeaways are these: The idea that large firms can buy small firms to replace their own R&D is just disastrous. If we have to start rebuilding the R&D engine from scratch, it will be impossible,” Knott said. “The second is that large firms shouldn’t try to operate like small firms to become more productive—they already are more productive.”

Valerie Toothman

The 2018 Olin Business magazine shared a series of vignettes featuring alumni faced with a business decision requiring them to weigh data with their values. We featured these stories to support Olin’s strategic pillar focused on equipping leaders to confront challenge and create change, for good. This is one of those vignettes.

A few years ago, a trend in convenience store sales alarmed Valerie Toothman and her team at Anheuser-Busch, where she was then vice president of innovation. A competitor was snatching market share from beer sales and other specialty malt beverages like AB’s Lime-A-Rita.

Phusion Projects gained the ground with Four Loko, a beverage line featuring flavors such as sour apple and fruit punch. The alarming part? The consumer target was entry-level drinkers—21 years old. The alcohol content was high— between 12 and 14 percent. And the containers were big—24 ounces.

“We have very clear principles that drive our company forward. The biggest one that has governed a lot of my role is that ‘the consumer is the boss,’” said Toothman, BSBME ’01, BSAS ’01, MBA ’08. “If we do what’s right for the consumer, we do what’s right for the business.”

The data shouted a message from consumers: “The growth is there. The volume is there,” said Toothman, now executive vice president, brand and beverage marketing, for DrinkWorks.

But alcohol content that high, in containers that large, didn’t jibe with other company principles and values—specifically AB’s commitment to delivering a better, healthier world, where every experience with beer is a positive one and supports a life well lived.

Therefore, AB tested two versions of “Natty Rush,” a new beverage with its own bold flavors, but better aligned with delivering against AB’s principles—one with 8 percent alcohol content and 25-ounce cans, the other with 12 percent alcohol, but at a third of the serving size, 8 ounces. The larger can prevailed— allowing AB to recover market share in a way that felt true to the example AB wants to set forth in the industry.

“We want to serve that customer’s needs,” Toothman said. “However, we’re 100 percent committed to doing it in a way we believe is responsible.”