Author: Kurt Greenbaum


About Kurt Greenbaum

As communications director for WashU Olin Business School, my job is to find and share great stories about our students, faculty, staff, and alumni. I've worked for the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management as communications director and as a journalist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sun-Sentinel in South Florida and the Chicago Tribune.

Lisa Hu (dark hair falling to the side of her face, white dress with a lilac jack draped over her shoulders)

How do you decide to toss aside one vision of your career for another one—especially when the new path is littered with failure? Lisa Hu’s journey into fashion entrepreneurship as a designer of high-end women’s handbags.

Hu, PMBA ’16, failed at least 40 times before succeeding. It’s as simple as that. The founder of Lux and Nyx, maker of handbags designed for “jet-setter luxury and boardroom quality,” had the idea in mind, and worked on it while ascending the corporate ladder. Yet she failed over and over to find the right manufacturer to execute the vision she had in her mind.

She tried doing it herself. She hired a seamstress. She looked at professional bagmakers—all the while, collecting prototypes that didn’t fill the bill. Mind you, all this was happening while she was still working as finance director for a large corporation. At some point, the process became unsustainable. The moment came. She had to make the leap. It was all or nothing for this handbag. She quit the corporate world in October 2017 and focused exclusively on Lux and Nyx.

In some ways, this is a story about being unwilling to compromise. She wasn’t fulfilled in the corporate world. She wasn’t satisfied with the first 40 prototypes for the bag she envisioned. That may be what she means when she says the pivotal moment was the moment when she found her “ultimate voice.” “It was never really about just bags—it was what the bag made possible,” she said. “It made possible an emerging community of rock-star women, moving fluidly through daily challenges with confidence.”

Cliff Holekamp, founder of Cultivation Capital, WashU Olin alum (MBA ’01) and former director of Olin’s entrepreneurship platform, lends professional perspective to a story that carries a lot of … well, a lot of baggage.

Listen to Hu’s story, coming July 13.

See the Lux and Nyx website. The site includes Lisa’s story.

Tony Sardella and Paolo De Bona, MBA

Metoprolol combats high blood pressure. Furosemide is used in treating congestive heart failure and liver disease. Midazolam is essential before doctors put patients on a ventilator. Azithromycin fights infections.

All are commonly used and, indeed, classified as essential by the US Food and Drug Administration. None are manufactured in the United States. And all of these and more have come into critically short supply—some in the last decade, some in the last year, some right now.

The solution: Take some difficult steps to bring the production of critical pharmaceuticals back within the borders of the United States, according to a new research study by data scientists associated with WashU Olin.

Tony Sardella is an adjunct lecturer and senior research advisor to Olin’s Center for Analytics and Business Insights. Paolo De Bona, PMBA ’20, is a consultant and formerly a staff scientist at WashU’s School of Medicine. Together, the pair conducted an extensive review of academic research, media reports and public policy statements to discern the causes of chronic pharmaceutical shortages in the United States and develop policy solutions to address them.

“These drugs are not just in shortage. They’re essential medications for patient care,” said Sardella, also founder of the data research and intelligence firm evolve24. “And currently the economics are not conducive for US based production.”

The work has gained the attention of policymakers in Washington, DC, and compelled the pair to join with the Brookings Institution in hosting a public forum on the subject. The webcast event, open to the public, is June 11, 12:30 – 1:30 p.m. CT.

Overview of results

In their review, Sardella noted that, in many cases, drug shortages didn’t become urgent because the international supply chain was essentially resilient enough to mask them. But the issue became painfully acute during the global pandemic, when borders closed and governments or private industry kept the supply of chronically scarce drugs within their own borders.

“The risks from not having domestic sources for these drugs weren’t as significant before,” Sardella said. But once the pandemic hit, “what was a public health issue became a national security risk as well.”

In their paper, Sardella and De Bona make the case that the dynamics of the pharmaceutical industry are unique and often disincentivize new players from entering the field. Indeed, those dynamics reward mergers as industry players get bigger to compete. The result, often, is that international players scoop up what were once domestic drug producers.

Their research also identified another weakness in the pharmaceutical supply chain: a deeply fragmented industry in which many players survive on thin profit margins. That leads to just-in-time merchandising, which creates vulnerabilities in drug supplies.

For example, the researchers noted that for every $100 spent on medicine, manufacturers yield $15, wholesalers make 30 cents, pharmacies make $3, insurers make $3 and pharmacy benefit managers make $2. The rest is eaten by production costs.

“This low profitability was responsible for several M&A activities, which in turn led to high consolidations that resulted in three large wholesalers accounting for more than 85% of the current market,” the researchers wrote.

Incentivizing domestic drug manufacturing

Their paper acknowledges deep concern over the notion of drawing more drug production back within US borders. Some of that concern focuses on systemic issues, not the least of which is the reliance by all drug makers—foreign and domestic—on overseas sources of the raw materials for many drug formulations.

“That is the most challenging issue—to get that kind of production back here—because they rely on big chemical factories requiring extensive capital investment,” Sardella said. “That would be part of a massive change.”

Ultimately, Sardella’s and De Bona’s proposed solution to the problem includes a host of policy and funding recommendations. Some are highly technical, such as redefining what “made in America” means in the context of drug production in order to guard against unfair competition for federal drug contracts by foreign manufacturers.

Others are literally dollars-and-cents proposals.

“The government should support reshoring by giving financial aids, such as tax credits and forgivable loans, to build or renovate production plans,” the pair wrote. “However, the government should increase transparency in the grant assigning process and establish criteria to determine which company would offer a stable and reliable supply based on its track record.”

In addition, the data scientists suggest policy changes such as creating streamlined approval processes for new production facilities and avoiding the practice of creating guarantee contracts with manufacturers. Those contracts, they say, can limit the supply for certain medications and undermine the resilience of the supply chain.

“From our analysis, shortages of essential drugs and dependence from potentially hostile countries constitute very close but distinct issues that may require separate actions,” the researchers wrote.

Pictured above: Tony Sardella and Paolo De Bona, MBA ’20.

The latest ranking of global full-time MBA programs from the Financial Times, released overnight, placed WashU Olin at No. 25, its best-ever showing in the international ranking and a substantial increase from its 2020 ranking. The magazine’s ranking puts Olin among the top 12 US-based full-time MBA programs.

As Poets & Quants noted in its coverage of the 2021 FT ranking, “Washington University’s Olin School soared 19 places to rank 25th in the world, its highest FT ranking ever. Five years ago, the school’s MBA program ranked 80th on the FT list.”

Indeed, WashU Olin has seen a steady rise in the FT ranking since that 80th-place ranking in 2016, coming in at 54 in 2019 and 44 last year.

“This is extraordinary validation for the hard work of our staff and faculty at WashU Olin,” said Dean Mark P. Taylor. “The last four years have seen a lot of new strategic initiatives including relaunching our MBA, strengthening our already outstanding faculty, restructuring our career center and launching our Center for Digital Education, and these are all factors contributing to the continuing success of the school.”

Olin saw marked increases in its placement in a number of categories of the Financial Times ranking, including research (where Olin placed first among global MBA programs), international mobility and salary percentage increase.

The top five in the Financial Times 2021 ranking included France’s Insead, London Business School, the University of Chicago and—tied at fourth place—Spain’s Iese Business School and Yale School of Management. Three of last year’s FT top-five—Harvard, Wharton and Stanford—chose not to participate in this year’s Financial Times ranking.

Doug Villhard on stage at one of Second Street

Doug Villhard, EMBA ’14, academic director for WashU Olin’s entrepreneurship platform, announced today the $30 million sale and acquisition of the startup he co-founded in 2007.

St. Louis-based Second Street, co-founded with Matt Coen, gives publishers and other clients the capacity to provide contests, interactive content and emails to grow revenue, database and engagement. The company has more than 500 clients, including news publisher Gannett, the Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network and WGN-TV in Chicago.

According to a news release today, Upland Software, which provides cloud-based tools for digital transformation, agreed to acquire Second Street for $25.4 million in cash at closing (net of cash acquired), paid out of cash on hand, and a $5 million cash holdback payable in 12 months.

“At Olin, I teach students to first ‘fall in love with the customer’s problem,'” said Villhard, who is also professor of practice in entrepreneurship. “If you get that right, it can lead to amazing things.”

Villhard said he worked on growing Second Street at the same time he was working on his MBA. “Every class I took I applied it to the company I was growing.” he said.

“Our customers’ business is only going to accelerate with Upland, which is tremendously gratifying for all of us who have been involved over the past 14 years in building such a special product,” Villhard said in a blog post on Upland’s website, co-founder and president of Second Street.

Other highlights from Upland’s announcement of the acquisition:

  • “Our customers need to deliver content experiences consumers enjoy interacting with and benefit from,” said Jack McDonald, chairman and CEO of Upland (which is publicly traded on Nasdaq: UPLD). “Contests and interactive content are a proven and effective way to engage, attract, and retain consumers, and Second Street delivers this at scale.”
  • Upland expects the acquisition to generate annual revenue of approximately $9.4 million, of which all is recurring.
  • The Upland Cloud enables thousands of organizations to engage with customers on key digital channels, optimize sales team performance, manage projects and IT costs, and automate critical document workflows.

Villhard is also a partner with his brother in Villhard Growth Partners, a private equity firm that invests in, partners with and grows strong, tech-enabled business and healthcare services companies. He has been involved in the launch and operation of two other startups. And he started Father McGivney Catholic High School in Glen Carbon, Illinois.

Pictured above: Doug Villhard on stage at one of Second Street’s annual customer summits (photo courtesy Doug Villhard).

Images from the 2020 most-read Olin Blog posts.

Sure, 2020 was a rough year. But let’s remember this: The staff, faculty and students at WashU Olin showed great resilience, agility and fortitude while grinding through one of the most challenging events in global history. Through it all, we documented the noteworthy alumni, program improvements, special moments and incredible people who make up the heartbeat of Olin Business School.

Here are the 10 most-read posts published this year on the Olin Blog based on pageviews accumulated since they were published.

Olin rockets up 10 spots in Financial Times MBA ranking

The rise in ranking came thanks to growth in MBA starting salaries, strong scores for career services and admirable faculty research productivity.

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

WashU Olin’s “new MBA experience is one of the boldest and most innovative program changes any business school has made,” the online magazine reports.

Olin mother and her son: Crisis keeps one at home, the other at Knight Center

Olin colleague Jaya Bhat started her job after the crisis began. Meanwhile, her son is among the health workers hosted on campus.

Olin alum competes in newest season of ‘Amazing Race’ for a shot at $1M

Chee Lee, BS ’04, and wife Hung Hguyen, are one among 11 teams who start today on season 32 of the hit CBS reality television competition show.

Olin Expert: COVID-19 crisis will bring ‘permanent changes’ to supply chain risk management

Olin’s Sergio Chayet foresees changes ahead, including making workers safer and strategies to guard against future massive supply chain stresses.

Olin alum’s startup redefines hiring for military vets

While the resume is the currency job seekers barter for opportunities, Jeff Gibson sees it as a barrier his firm’s technology can sweep away.

Olin introduces STEM option for full-time MBA

“This designation formally acknowledges the WashU MBA as a rigorous program, driving students to apply a data-driven mindset to business decisions.”

Olin’s faculty hiring strategy pays dividends for research, student learning

The Desk of the Dean column for October: “As pleased as I am that the strategy is working, I’m also gratified by the support it’s received from existing faculty.”

Out of a job because of COVID-19, EMBA finds support at Olin

Early in the pandemic, Carolyn Feltner, EMBA 50, wrote this for the Olin Blog: “I am one of thousands whose position was eliminated. I came home from spring break with my daughters on a Saturday night. Less than 12 hours later, I went to the office to catch up on work, only to walk into my own layoff.”

Business fundamentals for nonbusiness students

Gateway to Business will give undergraduate students and recent college and high school graduates a leg up on the competition.

What will make headlines from Olin in 2021? 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!

Dr. Danielle McPherson

Danielle McPherson, who describes herself as “a whole nerd,” earned her doctor of business administration degree on December 19, achieving a personal milestone and, at the same time, breaking an institutional barrier at WashU Olin: She became the first African American at the school to earn the DBA and the first to earn a doctoral degree in finance.

Students interested in applying their terminal business degree to work in industry—as opposed to academia—typically pursue the DBA rather than a PhD. And African Americans tend to be extremely underrepresented among doctoral students in general. In 2018, for example, 5.5% of doctoral recipients in the United States were Black or African American, according to a December 2019 survey by the National Science Foundation. By contrast, 52% were white.

Dr. McPherson is director of managed care contracting and payer relations at Mercy Health and focused her dissertation on a related topic, “Social Determinants of Health: Impact on Health Outcomes and Hospital Profitability,” which she discusses in the Q&A below.

Were you aware when you began your doctorate that you were treading new ground for WashU Olin?

I had no idea. It was not in the forefront of my mind. However, I did understand that I was now part of a small group of people pursuing a doctoral degree and if I finished, that group would be a lot smaller. I was just excited about starting a new journey in finance (I am literally a whole nerd).

Why did you decide to get your doctorate at Olin? How do you intend to apply it?

I knew I wanted a doctoral degree because it would allow me to take my passion for research, finance and problem solving and apply it professionally in the field that I am in. I also knew how important it was to obtain that level of a degree from a well-respected, nationally ranked, reputable institution. And I needed to be able to go to school and work. That literally narrowed my choice down to one school … Washington University in St. Louis’s Olin Business School.

Can you tell us a little about your dissertation? What drew you to the topic and what did you conclude?

I was drawn to this topic because I have always been fascinated with how social determinants can influence a person’s well-being.

I am also equally as fascinated with our healthcare system and how it is supported financially. I have a unique perspective on this topic because I have been a patient—I’m a 10-year Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma survivor—and had to rely on the healthcare system. It worked for me because I had insurance and was financially secure, but others who were not in my financial situation with the same illness were not as fortunate.

I have worked for a large healthcare insurer and understand how difficult it is to maneuver through trying to provide services and access to members at low cost, but also having a responsibility to stakeholders and shareholders to be profitable.

I work for a large healthcare system (Mercy) and it is constantly faced with balancing both ends of the healthcare spectrum. My research explores the extent to which social determinants of health directly impact health outcomes and whether improvements in those social determinants would yield improvements in hospital profitability.

I conclude that hospital profitability improves if social determinants of health are addressed.

What does it say that you’re the first African American to earn a doctorate in finance here—and the first to earn a doctorate in business administration?

It says that Olin and the higher education system has come a long way, and has a long way to go. All disciplines in academia and in corporate America should understand the importance of representation and how much it matters.

Diversity is the backbone of this country and it must be reflected in every classroom and every boardroom. I am happy to be part of herstory (that’s not a typo 😊). I will be happier when our elite education institutions no longer have “firsts.”

How did you land in your role at Mercy Health? Where do you see yourself going?

I was drawn to my current job as director of managed care contracting and payer relations at Mercy Health because it is a perfect mix of finance, operations and game theory. I absolutely love problem-solving and quantifying solutions. In the future, I hope to continue working in a capacity that will allow me the opportunity to solve complex business or policy issues in the area of corporate strategy, finance and healthcare.