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.

Clockwise from top left: Anne Marie Knott, Anjan Thakor, Dennis Zhang, Andrew Knight.

Give everyone in your startup organization a voice, but not necessarily a vote. Watch the companies with a high “research and development quotient.” Discover purpose and foster a purpose-driven workforce. Learn how to mitigate racism in the sharing economy.

These snippets of wisdom were among the guidance four Olin Business School faculty members offered at a Century Club event on January 24. The TED talk-styled event drew a standing-room only audience to Emerson Auditorium as the four professors shared ideas about “making business better” drawn from their research. (Missed it? Watch the recorded live stream of the event.)

Olin visitors, alumni and students heard from Andrew Knight, professor of organizational behavior; Anne Marie Knott, Robert and Barbara Frick Professor of Business; Anjan Thakor, John E. Simon Professor of Finance; and Dennis Zhang, assistant professor of operations and manufacturing management. Dean Mark Taylor described the slate of speakers as “an A-team of talent” in the Olin faculty.

Andrew Knight: “Effective Leadership for Startup Teams”

Knight threw the audience a curveball as he described a hard-driving, entrepreneurial, often abrasive, black-turtleneck-wearing, innovative executive. No, he wasn’t talking about Steve Jobs. He was talking about Elizabeth Holmes, now disgraced founder and former CEO of defunct blood-testing firm Theranos.

“This grandiose leadership style is not necessarily an ingredient for building a successful startup company,” Knight noted, citing his and other research in the field. “Your first act of leadership is building a team.”

“Entrepreneurs develop strong feelings of psychological ownership over their companies,” he said. “When we have ownership over something, we’re motivated to invest in it.”

But Knight contrasted psychological ownership over a firm with collective ownership: “If you don’t have a ‘we,’ you can’t have an ‘ours.'” The key, however, is for startup leaders to understand how to balance systematic “help-seeking” with the need to offer explicit and effective guidance on where the contributions from other team members are needed—and where they’re not.

“The most effective leaders are ambidextrous,” he said. “On the one hand, they give people a voice, but a voice is not a vote.”

Anne Marie Knott: “How Innovation Really Works”

Knott offered a startling slide: Let a $1,000 investment in the market ride from the early 1970s until today and the value will have risen to nearly $80,000. But roll that same investment year-over-year into companies with a high “RQ”—a measure of the return on R&D investments—and you’d have returned almost 10 times as much.

Her deep dive into the value firms place on R&D spending came as she looked at Nobel-prize winning research on the primary reasons for growth in the economy—traditionally increases in the labor pool, the quality of labor and the availability of capital.

“When you think of Nobel theories, you think they’re remote, they have nothing to do with me,” Knott told the audience. “I want to convince you that you play a role in this.”

In fact, one of the greatest predictors of corporate growth is RQ, a creation borne of her research and featured last year in a Harvard Business Review cover story.

“Where does growth come from? Historically, economists believe it came from growth in the labor force, growth in the quality of labor and capital. But those three things only account for 37 percent of growth,” she said. “The role of knowledge is to make you more productive with any level of capital and labor. And where does knowledge come from? It comes from R&D.”

Knott tracked GDP growth along with R&D spending and found a corresponding rise in both in the 1950s, while she found a decline in R&D spending in the 1980s that never picked up. The conventional wisdom says R&D has just gotten harder.

“I’ve developed a more optimistic explanation. My explanation is that companies have gotten worse at R&D,” she said. “That may not sound more optimistic, but you want me to be right.”

Anjan Thakor, “Creating a Purpose-Driven Organization”

“The first question I get when I talk about higher purpose is ‘what do you mean?'” Thakor told the audience. One of his best definitions came simply from the story of an employee at The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia.

Short version: A relatively low-level employee took the initiative to drive eight hours on behalf of hotel guests who had left their clothes at home. For the longer story, check out Thakor’s piece on Live Mint.

“When we talk about higher purpose, it’s really a pro-social contribution,” Thakor said, summing up his research and a recent HBR cover story. “It’s the intersection of purpose with your business decisions. It’s deeply connected with your business. It’s about who you are and where you came from, but most importantly, where you’re going.”

Businesses have risen from ruins because of their ability to recognize and capitalize on purpose, Thakor said. They have excelled and grown. But they don’t do it at the expense of making a buck—a point that aligns well with Olin’s brand promise: We create values-based, data-driven leaders who are prepared to change the world, for good.

“Pursuing a higher purpose cannot be a charity,” Thakor said. “It’s key that whatever higher purpose you come up with, it has to be authentic—and it’s discovered. It’s not invented.”

Dennis Zhang, “Discrimination in the Sharing Economy”

Lyft. Uber. AirBnB. They’re market leaders in the sharing economy and almost everyone has heard of them, even if they haven’t used them. And as Zhang pointed out, most everyone has heard that they’ve been plagued by charges of discrimination and racism—charges virtually unheard until around 2016.

Since then, Zhang and his research partners have looked at the reasons and, through their study, found solutions. The basics are derived from earlier research that says discrimination is more likely to happen when we don’t know enough about the individuals we are working with. The more we know, the less we discriminate.

“People discriminate not because they’re inherently racists, but because they do not have enough information about each other,” Zhang said. “They base decisions on group averages. So what’s the solution? To provide more information about individual (AirBnB) guests.”

Indeed, he found in an experiment with AirBnB, using newly created (and fictitious profiles), hosts tended to accept significantly fewer accommodation requests from people with African American-sounding names—28.7 percent versus 47.8 percent for requests from potential guests with “white” names.

However, add a single positive review from another host and the difference virtually vanishes. “When we have a positive review, things change,” he said. “Acceptance rates dramatically increase and stabilize around 58 percent.”

Pictured above: clockwise from top left: Anne Marie Knott, Anjan Thakor, Dennis Zhang, Andrew Knight.

A Kickstarter project for a cool new card game promises donors a free game for a $100 donation. When are you more likely to contribute — before or after the project reaches its funding goal?

Conventional wisdom (and some economics research) suggests that once the project is funded — ensuring it can move forward — that’s when donors are even more likely to lock in their chance for a free reward. They’ll follow the “herd” toward the projects other donors have marked with their stamp of approval.

Dennis Zhang

Instead, a forthcoming paper from an Olin researcher shows otherwise: Projects actually raise money faster just before they reach their funding goal. The result is a revelation in an industry that raised more than $5.2 billion across more than 6.4 million fundraising campaigns worldwide last year, according to Statista, a market and consumer data site.

“It’s about the tendency of helping people,” said Dennis Zhang, assistant professor of operations and manufacturing management and coauthor of the paper, “Prosocial Goal Pursuit in Crowdfunding: Evidence from,” accepted for June publication in the Journal of Marketing Research.

“Are people purchasing stuff to get a discounted price or because they want to contribute to a campaign and help the owner succeed?” Zhang asked. “After the goal is reached, you’re not one of the reasons this project has succeeded.”

According to the research paper, written with Hengchen Dai from the University of California, Los Angeles, the effect is even more pronounced among projects that have a stronger “pro-social” component. In other words, they evoke a stronger sense among donors that they’re helping someone fulfill a dream.

The researchers found that Kickstarter projects involving art or music tend to have stronger “pro-social” scores, for example. Projects involving electronics are much lower. Games fall somewhere in the middle.

Method and results

In their work, the two researchers used a combination of methods, starting with raw data scraped from nearly 29,000 Kickstarter crowdfunding projects from September 2016 to August 2017. They combined analysis of that data with a qualitative analysis of a sampling of projects in order to gauge the level of “pro-social” motivation they elicited.

In fact, for the qualitative analysis, it was as simple as investigating which project creators literally asked for help from donors in the short description of the project — and whether the project was developed by a single person or a group of people.

Projects that exceeded 105 percent of their goal spent 2.4 times longer on their trek from 100 to 105 percent than they did from 95 to 100 percent of their goal. The researchers said the phenomenon existed as they widened or narrowed the range as well — in other words, they observed the same speed differential between 99 and 101 percent of goal or from 90 to 110 percent of goal.

Projects also got new backers faster — and donations were larger — before reaching their goal.

“Specifically, the average time it took a project to gain a new backer during the 100 percent to 105 percent period was 1.84 times as long as it took during the 95 percent to 100 percent period,” the researchers wrote. “Average contribution size decreased by 19 percent during the 100 percent to 105 percent period, relative to the 95 percent to 100 percent period.”

The power of helping

All of these effects were magnified for projects developed by an individual who specifically used the word “help” in the project’s description. For example, one project noted, “The saga continues! Help us print Kamikaze Volume 2 and SoundBox, a thrilling spinoff comic.”

Another asked donors to “help make the iconic image of the Mickey Monster become a vinyl toy with moveable head and arms!” Others succeeded by indicating their intention to help others: “A sustainable business to help the people of Kosrae, Micronesia: Creative passion, ethical mission, incredible story.”

Zhang said the research findings have implications for both the project creators and the platforms they use to raise money — platforms like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Patreon, and GoFundMe.

“From a managerial perspective, if you’re a creator, you have to tailor your campaign to evoke pro-sociality. What you should emphasize is important,” Zhang said. “And from a platform perspective, it’s important. We are suggesting that projects that are below the goal are more appealing that those that are above the goal.”

Thus, crowdfunding platforms might consider making it easier for site visitors to find the projects that are nearing their goals.

“I take this as an example of how when designing an economic system, non-economic factors matter,” Zhang said. “It’s also driven by psychology. It’s an argument that behavioral economics matters.”

The work of building and improving the WashU business school has been rewarded with an uptick in most of our rankings throughout the 2018 ranking season, with rare exception.

Several of the rankings saw substantial increases, including the 18-place jump in the Financial Times‘ global MBA ranking and the nine-place increase in the FT‘s business schools of the Americas ranking. We also saw a substantial increase in The Economists‘ global MBA ranking.

In a few rankings, we saw declines—a clear indication that the work goes on, or that we must keep vigilant in order to stay competitive with peer schools. The Poets & Quants undergraduate ranking, for example, included participation by more competitive schools than we saw in the ranking’s first outing two years ago.

Global Rankings

Ranking 2017 2018 (Change)
Which MBA?
43 37 (+6)
Financial Times
Global MBA
68 50 (+18)
Financial Times
Top MBA for Women
N/A 4 (-)
Financial Times
Executive MBA Shanghai
7 6 (+1)

US Rankings

Ranking 2017 2018 (Change)
Bloomberg Businessweek
Domestic MBA
36 32 (+4)
Bloomberg Businessweek
Global MBA
N/A 37 (-)
Financial Times US
28 23 (+5)
Financial Times Americas
All Programs
17 8 (+9)
Poets & Quants
2 3 (-1)
Princeton Review
7 7 (-)
Princeton Review
22 18 (+4)
TFE Times
Master of Science in Finance
N/A 4 (-)
US News & World Report
21 23 (-2)

Jason Wilson

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 the first of those vignettes.

Chronicle Coffee opened in north St. Louis City in 2013, sleek with sea-foam walls and civil rights-era photos, adorned with hefty schoolhouse chairs and overstuffed leather sofas.

Jason Wilson, EMBA ’08, spun off the new java joint from his thriving Northwest Coffee Roasting Company, which had stores in affluent neighborhoods in Clayton, Missouri, and St. Louis’ Central West End.

But the corner of Blumeyer and Page avenues in north St. Louis was not an affluent area. It was a community in need of a little TLC, a location where Wilson saw opportunity—but perhaps not the kind of opportunity entrepreneurs typically seek out.

“We wanted to fill this void of a food desert and offer quality products on the north side of St. Louis,” Wilson said. “But the data suggested I should not do that.”

The median income in the area was lower than Wilson was used to serving. Population density was lacking. Foot traffic on the street was sparse. “I had to look at other data points that were more civic minded,” he said. “What else is important?”

He looked at the value of creating a community center in a building that served clients of subsidized housing. He explored the ways Wi-Fi internet would help customers, how community programming might build traffic, how a gathering spot for conversation would enliven the neighborhood.

For a while, Chronicle Coffee looked like it might work. “The folks that buy coffee love the fact that I’m in north St. Louis,” Wilson told a local food magazine at the time. “I’ve also been received pretty well by the immediate community.”

Then, in August 2014, Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri. Sales nosedived. Before the year was out, the store failed.

“I took a major hit. In business, revenue minus expenses equals profit. That’s the rule,” Wilson said. “But I wanted to help people out. Am I wrong?”

Leadership decisions, for good

Wilson’s story is emblematic of a growing philosophy of leadership baked into the strategic plan Olin Dean Mark Taylor has rolled out to the business school. Since his arrival at Washington University in December 2016, he has spoken often about creating an academy of leaders who are prepared to make values-based, data- driven decisions. Yes, business is business. ROI is important. But true business leaders understand that the bottom line is not the only gauge of success. Staying true to individual, corporate, and societal values must figure into the equation.

“We want our people to think more broadly about their role,” said Stuart Bunderson, co-director of Olin’s Bauer Leadership Center and the George and Carol Bauer Professor of Organizational Ethics and Governance.

“How can our leaders be maximally responsive to all their stakeholders?” he said. “There is not a small set of values that is important. What’s more important than making a buck? Figure that out and take action based on those values.”

In the end, Wilson’s store failed, but a positive result emerged: His coffee is served at Grounds for Change, the coffee shop in the Brown School of Social Work’s newest building, Hillman Hall. Originally attracted by Wilson’s mission, they were sold on the high-quality coffee and beans. “It’s because I went on the north side and tried to do that.”

Daniel Schindler

Chronic dehydration is a widely reported problem among Americans. We may drink plenty of liquid, but researchers often say it’s the wrong kinds of liquid. Diuretics such as caffeine-rich coffee and soft drinks—or alcohol—cause us to urinate more, rather than retain the water we drink.

Most of the current hydration products are consumed before or after exercise or alcohol consumption, instead of while engaging in these activities and when people need to hydrate most. Daniel Schindler says BetterTomorrow can come to the rescue.

After realizing that he and others were not hydrating effectively, especially when drinking alcohol, exercising, and traveling, Schindler came up with a solution: a flavorless liquid supplement for any drink—including water, coffee, beer, wine, or cocktails—that BetterTomorrow began marketing in May. BetterTomorrow is focused on helping people hydrate when they need it most, as opposed to before or after.

His company developed its formula based on World Health Organization recommendations for rehydration. A few dashes of the BetterTomorrow additive provide consumers with the electrolytes and other supplements needed to better retain water as they take it in.

Work on the company began two years ago, but Schindler credits his past year in Cliff Holekamp’s entrepreneurship classes— including the “Hatchery” course—for helping him hone his business plan, make insightful connections, and develop the business.

That work has yielded a partnership with St. Louis’ Mission Taco Joint, the Austin Beer and Run Club, and other wellness-focused businesses across the United States. Meanwhile, he’s working on getting in front of potential investors to take BetterTomorrow to the next level.

Startup stats

  • Incorporated in March 2017.
  • May 1, 2018: Began serving in partnership with St. Louis-based Mission Taco.
  • Each 40-serving dasher bottle of BetterTomorrow concentrate costs $20.

Team members

  • Daniel Schindler, MBA ’19, CEO/Co-Founder
  • Eddie Zelenak, CMO/Co-Founder
  • Cole Puchi, COO/Co-Founder
  • Lianli Li, Pharmaceutical Expert

Competition participation

  • February 2018: The TigerLaunch Startup Competition in Chicago selected BetterTomorrow as a regional finalist.
  • March 2018: Product demonstration at the Nightclub and Bar trade show in Las Vegas to 10,000 attendees. The team received over 500 interested leads and was selected as one of 12 emerging companies to pitch to influential leaders in Las Vegas’s bar and nightclub industry.
  • Recipient of Holekamp Seed Fund grant.

In the quiet of the holidays, when activity has slowed and we have a moment for reflection, we like to take a look back at the stories on the Olin Blog that had the most traffic during the year. It’s a nice way to see what resonated with readers who came across our stories directly from the blog, through our email newsletters, or on social media.

Highlights ranged from the passing of some beloved individuals in the Olin family to a highly favorable global ranking to some attention-grabbing research by Olin faculty. Here’s the Top 10 list for 2018.

10. Distinguished alumni: Leaders, benefactors, civic activists

Olin’s four distinguished alumni grabbed the No. 10 spot in the countdown for the most-read blog posts in 2018. Alumni recognized this year graduated as far back as 1984 and as recently as 2008, across sectors such as banking, hedge-fund management, entrepreneurship, and business strategy.

9. We’re going big and bold with the new MBA

Dean Mark Taylor launched a monthly blog column called Desk of the Dean in 2018. In this edition, he grabbed national attention with the news that WashU Olin would make a daring move into a reimagined, globally immersive full-time MBA experience. Two weeks after 2019’s new MBA students arrive in late June, all of them will depart for an around-the-world immersion in global business. The summer semester continues with a week at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. Then two weeks in Barcelona. Then 17 days in Shanghai.

8. Olin study: Women better survive heart attacks with female docs

New faculty member Seth Carnahan and his research colleagues sent a quake across healthcare media—and general interest news outlets as well—with a study indicating that female heart attack patients have significantly higher survival rates when women doctors treat them in the ER. In fact, in the researchers’ sample, 1,500 fewer women would have died—women who were treated by male doctors—if their survival rate was the same as women treated by female physicians. Media around the globe picked up the story.

7. Alum’s donation launches ‘business of the arts’ minor

In the midst of the mirth and merrymaking at Olin’s second Shakespeare event, Dean Mark Taylor took a moment to recognize distinguished alumnus Rich Ritholtz, BSBA ’84, and his wife Linda, for their $1 million donation that will launch a new business minor, open to any WashU student, at Olin Business School. “Creating a minor in the business of the arts at this time in our history would send a powerful message that Olin is on the move, preparing our students to think critically and act boldly to meet the challenges of 21st century business,” Taylor said.

6. Funny side, hard edge: Your boss’s behavior matters

Olin postdoc Zhenyu Liao was part of a research team that examined the benefits of a sense of humor among corporate leaders and concluded that a jokester in the big chair can be a mixed blessing.

5. Jon Flaxman: HP executive, Olin benefactor

The surprise passing of HP Inc.’s COO in March stunned the Olin community. It had come just months after he had welcomed a group of WashU students touring Silicon Valley on a career trek to tech-related companies. The National Council member had given richly to Olin — and not just financially. Students and faculty spokes of his mentorship. Since his death, HP established an endowed scholarship in the name of Jon and his widow Lauri. The $1 million gift increased 10 percent with additional donations from family and HP colleagues.

4. New faculty: Olin’s newest instructors and researchers

Not surprisingly, the roll-call of new faculty pierced the Top 10 for the second year in a row as Olin brought in a bumper crop of new instructors in the past 12 months.

3. Koch Family endows Family Business Center, 2 professorships

Two brothers, two spouses, and five WashU degrees between them. St. Louis’s Koch brothers, Paul and Roger, along with their wives, Elke and Fran, donated $12 million to Washington University — $9 million of which toward a research center dedicated to family businesses and a chaired professorship in family business. “There’s a lack of perception about how many family businesses there are and what role they play,” Paul Koch said, following the announcement. “There’s also a lack of perception about the complexities of family businesses.”

2. FT: Olin 4th globally among MBA programs for women

A new ranking from the Financial Times lauded schools for their commitment to programs that serve women, placing WashU Olin behind programs at Stanford and UC Berkeley and just ahead of Harvard’s.

1. Nicholas Dopuch, 88: Transformational figure for Olin, accounting research

A stalwart figure among the Olin faculty for many years, Professor Dopuch’s passing affected innumerable students, alumni, administrators, and current faculty. It’s worth noting the numerous comments posted in tribute on this blog post, from all over the world, some posted as recently as a few weeks ago.

What will make headlines from Olin in 2019? Don’t wait to find out: Follow us in real time on TwitterFacebookInstagram, and LinkedIn (and of course, submit to the Olin Blog). See you next year!