Author: Center for Experiential Learning

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About Center for Experiential Learning

The Center for Experiential Learning (CEL) provides students with the opportunity to engage in real-world, team-based consulting projects and experiences around the globe. Guided by distinguished faculty, students are able to deliver actionable results to organizations, develop skills as a life-long learners, and establish themselves as credible business and community leaders.


When the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic downturn caused internship cancellations, WashU Olin and the Center for Experiential Learning stepped up to provide summer learning opportunities for students while supporting St. Louis-based businesses. We’ll be sharing their stories on the Olin Blog. Today, we’ll hear from Ally Gerard, BSBA ’22, who worked on competitive analysis for Institutiform Technology.

The late playwright Jonathan Larson wrote, “The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation.” In the face of adversity and these times of tribulation, it isn’t enough to sit idly by and accept our circumstances. We must constantly create opportunity and value for ourselves and for others. 

Ally Gerard

Larson’s words rang ever so true this summer of 2020, and I truly have the WashU and St. Louis communities to thank for that. 

In April, on the eve of spring semester reading week, I lost my maternal grandmother to a nearly 30-year battle with breast cancer. My family was devastated. To make matters worse, several days later, I received official news that my summer internship program was canceled due to uncertainties of the pandemic and the future of professional sports seasons. 

So much stability, so many plans were ripped out from underneath me, and I had to pivot. When I heard about the CEL summer program, it just felt meant to be. 

I was coming off a spring semester in the Small Business Initiative and had a great experience participating in that course and leading that team. I enjoyed the client communication and collaboration, as well as the opportunity to apply my Olin education to real-life business situations in the St. Louis community. That being said, I came into this summer experience with high expectations because, at this point, I knew the CEL well and really trusted the professors leading the charge on this summer initiative. 

Unsurprisingly, it did meet those high expectations. Maybe I just lucked out with the most amazing and supportive teammates, client and faculty advisor, but I really just consider that a testament to the unparalleled community Olin has fostered over the years.

This summer, I had the pleasure of leading the student team of Zach Fisher, BSBA ’22; Helen Hu, MS ’20; and Yiqiao Wang, MS ’20; with guidance from Professor John Horn. Our group consulted for Insituform Technologies, a subsidiary of Aegion Corporation. Insituform specializes in pipeline installation and rehabilitation, offering its renowned cured-in-place pipe (CIPP) technology across numerous North American regions. 

Throughout the seven-week engagement, our group conducted regional competitive analyses to understand Insituform’s bid performance, bid aggressiveness, and competitive threats on the regional level. We also evaluated how certain elements of a project (such as pipe diameter and prime-contractor or subcontractor roles) affected Insituform’s win percentage for these municipality bids.

All this research built up to our final deliverable, which was an Excel model that predicted the project backlog of one of Insituform’s largest national competitors. It was a very complex, data-heavy undertaking; however, we were able to create a functional model that will be of benefit to Insituform’s competitive strategy moving forward. 

However, tragedy hit again just two days before our final presentation, when I received news that my maternal grandfather passed away from an unexpected heart attack. I actually found out during a CEL team meeting. It was a true shock and incredibly overwhelming to grapple with while preparing to present our final findings to the client. 

Despite the emotional obstacle, I will never forget the immense love and support I received from my student team, our faculty advisor, and our program manager Amy Soell. They gave me strength and made me so proud, again, to be an Olin student.

Life handed me a basketful of lemons this summer, and the CEL really helped facilitate a transformative lemonade-making process. I will always be thankful to Olin for innovating and executing this unforgettable professional learning opportunity, and I look forward to reconnecting with my teammates and faculty advisor in the fall!




Ashley Atkins, program coordinator, wrote this on behalf of the Center for Experiential Learning.

One of the essential features of the Center for Experiential Learning is our ability to bring classroom learning to life through real-world client engagements—and our Faculty Directors are one of the elements that make this possible.

Professor II Luscri is the managing director at Skandalaris, and now faculty director of the CEL Entrepreneurial Consulting Team, which he describes as, “strong multidisciplinary teams that can look at the problems and challenges the startups are facing from a different lens and, in turn, create a comprehensive strategy for them to advance.”

We sat down with II to get to know him better as he begins his new role. Check out the full interview below:

How long have you been teaching at WashU?

I have been back at WashU since 2018, but I was here previously from 2007-2011.

What drew you to the CEL?

To me, there is nothing more important than giving our students real-world, practical experiences in ways that enhance our region and community. The CEL has a long history of doing that, and I am proud to be a part of this tradition.

What unique perspective will you bring to the students?

I see and work with startups across many industries and stages of development. As the Managing Director of the Skandalaris Center and the Assistant Vice Provost for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, I routinely engage with alumni investors and founders who bring valuable insights into our community.

 How do you plan to drive impact in CELect projects?

By creating win-win situations where our students learn and startups get the competitive intel our students are able to generate.

What advice would you give to students interested in participating in the CELect program?

Be open-minded about the startups you are interested in working with. You may learn more by working outside of your comfort zone than focusing on an area that you already know well.

Why do you think students should get involved with CELect?

If you are interested in founding your own company, working at a startup, or seeing how fast good ideas can be put into action, CELect is for you.

What is one thing you hope to accomplish this academic year?

I’d like to see better connectivity across our portfolio, and I am grateful for this opportunity as it brings Skandalaris and the CEL closer together.

All interview questions don’t have to be so serious, right? We asked Professor Luscri this question just for fun.

If you had an unlimited amount of money to start up a business, what would it be?

Wouldn’t it be cool to beat Elon to Mars?

Professor Luscri has highlighted some fundamental dynamics of an experience with the CELect program—one of many ways students can make a real impact in the startup community. The synergy between Skandalaris and Olin is an opportunity for better support across startups that:

  •  are coming out of all parts of the university, including those Skandalaris works with off University IP and from students and alumni, or
  • enter the WashU ecosystem and are looking for support.

We hope you enjoyed learning more about Professor II Luscri. The CEL team is excited to have him on board. You can learn more about II on his career profile, located here.




Pictured above, clockwise from top left: Kayla Greene, Charles Gutierrez, Frankie Hong, Alex Ignatius, Alyssa Pauly, Laura Obermeyer, Deniz Ozen and Hannah Levin

This blog post was compiled by members of the staff and these students from the Center for Experiential Learning: Kayla Greene, BSBA ’22; Charles Gutierrez, MBA ’21; Frankie Hong, MSF ’20; Alex Ignatius, MBA ’21; Hannah Levin, MBA/MSW ’21; Laura Obermeyer, PMBA ’22; Deniz Ozen, BSBA ’21; and Alyssa Pauly, BSBA ’21.

The CEL Fellowship is a leadership opportunity for students who have previously participated in a CEL program and would like to apply their skills to both mentor students and lead a project to impact the center as a whole. Each fellow shares part of their perspective below.

CEL fellows have grown personally and professionally through their engagement with the CEL thus far.

“The CEL provided me support, coaching and guidance for self-reflection that has resulted in immense personal and professional development,” says Hannah. Kayla also notes “I have definitely become a more curious, effective, and action-oriented student and teammate.”

Charles shares that serving as a CEL practicum team lead last semester was the most valuable and rewarding experience in his time at Olin thus far, “Being able to take the lessons and skills learned from courses and past experiences and applying them to real-world business problems was an awesome opportunity to grow as a leader and professional.”

Alex emphasizes Charles’s point as she worked with a client during the pandemic, stating, “I gained experience in navigating a client crisis, unified a team after we transitioned to remote work, and learned how to take a large and ambiguous problem and break it down.” Deniz shares her experience challenged her to get a “deeper understanding of my values and goals.”

CEL fellows are pursuing this leadership for different reasons.

For Frankie, “the CEL Fellowship provides a great opportunity to maintain engagement with the authentic business world.” Alex adds, “the CEL injects you into the center of a company’s most pressing and complex problems.” Hannah enjoys the team component stating, “Oftentimes, school can feel like a solo endeavor, where we work toward growing our own knowledge and receiving our own grades. The CEL allows us to learn and grow collectively.”

Charles’s involvement last year helped him understand effective leadership as he worked to empower others to bring the best version of themselves to their work. Alyssa would like to encourage others to broaden their perspective as she learned we “cannot ‘fix’ a problem without first understanding and empathizing with the individual experiencing it.”

Additionally, each fellow has specific goals as they move forward in the semester.

Hannah and Alex want to continue to build strong community partnerships on respect, mutuality and a shared vision, and are passionate about delivering best-in-class recommendations to our clients. While Frankie “loves working with people from different cultural backgrounds and unique working styles and is happy to convey the voices from the SMP community to gain a practical team-based consulting experience in the US.”

Laura is eager to engage, noting the effect of the pandemic in that “the CEL will have to go the extra mile,” and Kayla looks forward to “gain some more responsibility and experience in the coordination and managerial side of consulting based problems,” which is exactly what the CEL will need during this time.

Alyssa seeks to leave her mark on the CEL, stating that “the CEL is a place that encourages its students to challenge the current systems and implement the change they want to see at Olin.” Deniz is also excited to continue to “transform my leadership, problem-solving and crisis management and communication skills.” Laura notes “now more than ever, a community focus is of utmost importance to me.”

Each member of the CEL community is committed to a successful and challenging year ahead as together we engage in the space where theory meets practice. We look forward to connecting soon!

For more information on any of our programs, please visit the Center for Experiential Learning website.

Pictured above, clockwise from top left: Kayla Greene, Charles Gutierrez, Frankie Hong, Alex Ignatius, Alyssa Pauly, Laura Obermeyer, Deniz Ozen and Hannah Levin.




Our cats also became important members of our extended team. Their analytics skills, however, were not up to snuff (see photo at top: clockwise from top, Alex Ignatius, MBA

Alex Ignatius, MBA ’21, wrote this on behalf of her team from the Center for Experiential Learning for the Olin Blog.

The restaurant industry was hit hard as the coronavirus swept through the United States. Some businesses shuttered their doors, others converted their operations to curbside pick-up and delivery. Nearly everyone was forced to make deep cuts to their front-of-house and culinary workforce.

As part of Olin’s Center for Experiential Learning, our consulting team analyzed how a leading New York-based restaurant group should most effectively re-open, recruit staff, attract customers and remain profitable coming out of the COVID-19 crisis.

Lamar Pierce
Lamar Pierce

Over the span of four months, and with support and guidance from Lamar Pierce, professor of organization and strategy at Olin, our team of MBAs and master’s students in customer analytics and financial analytics quickly immersed ourselves in the complex business of hospitality to provide objective recommendations on the viability of our client’s current policies.

The biggest hurdle our team had to overcome during this project was: How do you maintain team camaraderie and productivity during a global pandemic? It’s a challenge every team no doubt faced as quarantine took hold around the world. Three team members from China had spent the previous months worrying about their families under lock-down back home, only to have the tables turned as strict shelter-in-place orders took effect in St. Louis and across the United States.

“Growing up as the daughter of a restaurant critic, and working in the restaurant industry for a decade, I was very excited to be a part of a project that really dove into the issues of compensation, mission and communication with the guest. Add to that the pandemic that traumatically shut down most hospitality establishments, we soon became involved with a project much larger than just the client themselves, but with the entire hospitality industry.”

Susie Bonwich, MBA ’21
Susie Bonwich

During moments of crisis it is important for leaders to “bring the weather” – to set the tone for how to adapt and move forward in the face of uncertainty and disruption. As a team lead, I channeled this mantra – preparing very intentionally for each internal and client-facing meeting to be sure that our meetings were a highlight of the team’s day—and the client’s. One team member joined each client call “sitting” in a different one of their restaurants. This brought a big smile to everyone’s face when we logged in each week.

Our cats also became important members of our extended team. Their analytics skills, however, were not up to snuff (see photo at top: clockwise from top, Alex Ignatius, MBA ’21, with Olivia; Steve Lach, MBA ’21, with Queijo; and Vanessa Liu, MSCA ’20, with Happy).

Jinghui Yan

The second key learning is how moments of crisis can bring incredible opportunity. Our project began as an exploratory mission for this restaurant group to look at some of the policies and decisions they had implemented over the past five years.

“It’s a rewarding experience to work on such a challenging but productive project. I learned a lot in the process of working with people from different backgrounds and tackling a real-world business issue together.”

Jinghui Yan, MSCA ’20

But once COVID-19 set in and the disastrous impact it was having on the restaurant industry became clear, our work on behalf of the CEL quickly became elevated to a key strategic priority. What started as a simple CEL project became one of the most important questions on everyone’s minds: How do restaurants think about re-opening and re-recruiting their laid-off employees after the quarantine lifts? As a business, how do we balance purpose and compensation for our employees, and how do we think about the guest experience and the reality of reduced covers when we must reconfigure dining room layouts to accommodate new social distancing standards?

Jarvis Jiao

We were able to make a meaningful difference to a business that desperately needed help during a time that was isolating, lonely and distressing. This CEL project gave us a sense of purpose when so many of us were feeling trapped.

“This project gave me an opportunity to apply what I have learned in class to empower real-world business decisions. There is no better way to experience business and implement your skills than a practicum project.”

Vanessa Liu, MSCA ’20

Our team rose to the challenge, conquered the complexities of analyzing ambiguous data, extracted significant insights and presented a final report with actionable recommendations to an audience of 25 client team members and WashU faculty over Zoom.

As shared by a professor and mentor to the team, “This is the work caliber of a full-time consulting organization working three-plus months at 80 to 100 hours a week—and you all did so with significantly less time and in the midst of a global pandemic that shifted the operations of (the client) as well as the industry as a whole.”

This CEL project was significant to our personal and professional development at Olin and is the type of real-world business experience that will continue to inform our work long after graduation.




Rich Ryffel, Olin faculty/CEL faculty adviser; Bingze Xu, MSCA ’19; Lael Bialek, MBA ’20; Erik Andrew, MBA ’20; Max Dougherty, EMBA ’20; Brent Sobol, client; Kristen Xie, MSCA ’19; Zing Teng, MSCA ’19; Martin Seng, MBA x’20; and two client representatives.

Martin Seng, MBA ’20, wrote this post on behalf of his team for the Olin Blog.

Our client founded a nonprofit and is a former owner of an affordable housing property located in southwest Atlanta.

When I first started to work with our client, I was excited and nervous at the same time. I was excited because I finally was selected to work on a CEL practicum project, but also nervous because I had no knowledge of real estate and affordable housing. I wanted to work for my client because I shared his vision of making a positive impact in the community and I was passionate about helping low-income families.

The project is divided into four phases: initial steps, research, visiting our client’s site in Atlanta and working on the final presentation. Team members Max Dougherty, Erik Andrew, Bingze Xu, Kristen Xie and Katherine Teng met each other during the CEL kickoff on September 13. We liked each other instantly because we all had the same passion to help our client replicate his model in other communities.

Sizing up the work

A week later, we had the opportunity to meet our client, who is a WashU alum, and had flown up from Atlanta in the morning. We had a fruitful meeting and we discussed the scope and the objectives for the project so we could start working on the statement of work. We were able to submit the statement of work within two weeks of meeting the client and then proceeded to the second phase of the project: research.

Since we had so many topics and areas to research on, Max delegated tasks to our team members to research on the affordable housing space and also to look at nonprofit and for-profit housing providers.

We also had to research primary and secondary sources to identify the tactics and procedures used by our client to create positive financial and social outcomes in his property. In addition to that, we had to come up with questions to ask leading individuals in the affordable housing space so that we could learn about their best practices as well as pain points.

The third phase of our project was going down to Atlanta to visit the property. Our client was kind enough to plan our trip and invited leading experts in the real estate and affordable housing industry as well as his business partners to spend time with us.  Before going to Atlanta, we had thoroughly researched the background of the experts and business partners so that we had a fruitful and engaging conversation.

We also maximized our brief time to immerse ourselves with the property and interact with the residents and the property managers to get a better feel of the property and also our client’s property management techniques as well as his mission.

Final phase

The fourth and final phase of the project was working on the final presentation. After coming back from Atlanta, we began to work on our final paper, which was a deliverable for our project. We spent a lot of time streamlining our paper while creating slides for our practice final presentation.

During our practice final, Professor David Polodian and faculty adviser Karen Bedell gave us valuable feedback about our projects. We then incorporated David’s and Karen’s suggestions into our presentation and used the next two weeks to streamline our deliverable, check in with our client one more time to make sure whether he was satisfied with our progress, and also practice our presentation.

Parting thoughts

Our team learned so much about real estate and the affordable housing space. We were able to incorporate all of the core values in Olin: integrity, collaboration, diversity, leadership, and excellence. We worked very well together, and we were able to deliver a high-quality final product and a presentation using the vast skillsets that we possessed.

We used a lot of outside resources as well as sought help from Professor Rich Ryffel at Olin and Professor Heather Cameron at the Brown School. We all have diverse backgrounds: Max has an extensive background in crop science; Erik was in the military; Bing studied finance in college; both Kristen and Katherine are customer analytics students who are adept at data analysis.

We also had two natural-born leaders in Erik and Max who were constantly motivating the team and also helping us out whenever we faced any obstacles. We also were able to meet three of the five pillars of excellence: data-driven, values-based and experiential.

We used data from a litany of sources and utilized our previous work and academic experience in our research and the final product.

In addition to that, we were able to deliver tangible value to our client and he was able to come away from the final presentation learning ways he could implement his model and also an evidence-based document that backs up his philosophy and his property management techniques.

This experience was completely different from other classes because we were working with a real-life client and solving real-life problems in less than 14 weeks.

Pictured above: Rich Ryffel, Olin faculty/CEL faculty adviser; Bingze Xu, MSCA ’19; Lael Bialek, MBA ’20; Erik Andrew, MBA ’20; Max Dougherty, EMBA ’20; Brent Sobol, client; Kristen Xie, MSCA ’19; Zing Teng, MSCA ’19; Martin Seng, MBA x’20; and two client representatives.