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.


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.




Purina CEL team (left to right): Lucy Sun, MSAA

This spring, our team of two MBAs and five specialized masters students had the opportunity to work on a data-driven consulting engagement for our client, Nestlé Purina PetCare, through the company’s partnership with Olin’s Center for Experiential Learning and the Center for Analytics and Business Insights.

With a rich history in pet care, Purina is a globally competitive leader that makes world-class products and drives pet nutrition forward through research. For our project, Purina tasked us with providing recommendations for changing consumer perceptions about senior pet nutrition to increase sales in the senior pet food category.

Our team was very excited for the chance to tackle a real-world marketing project. Team member Margaret Cai, MSCA ’20, shared that she was initially interested in working on the Purina project because it “…provided a fantastic opportunity for me to develop my thoughts and create valuable suggestions.”

Under the guidance of faculty advisors—Professor Michael Wall, Professor Seethu Seetharaman, and Professor Meng Liu—our team was able to pair what we’ve learned in the classroom with data insights and industry research to develop a marketing strategy for senior pet food.

A new virtual reality

What started out as a normal semester took a turn when our campus had to react to the COVID-19 pandemic. For our CEL team, this posed unexpected challenges and disrupted our normal working environment—quite suddenly, we had to account for having team members across four time zones.

While half of our team was still in St. Louis, other team members returned to family homes in Columbus, Ohio; Big Sky, Montana; and Vancouver, British Columbia. We had gone from sharing conference rooms to being spread across two countries!

Despite our new situation and rapidly changing policies around COVID-19, we wanted to make sure that we could still deliver an excellent work product to our client. Our team moved quickly to adjust plans and work processes to accommodate our new reality.

Fortunately, we were able to use tools like Microsoft Teams and Zoom video conferencing to help our remote team collaborate effectively. Being able to speak with other CEL teams and share our experiences also helped us all find ways to navigate our new environment and manage our projects.

Team member Kevin Jin, MSCA ’20, said, “In this special period, the CEL program gave me not only experience with a real business project, but also emotional support from team members and faculty.”

Real-world experience

In early May, the team was able to virtually present key insights and recommendations to about 30 Purina team members. With positive feedback from Purina and enthusiastic discussion, it was a wonderful conclusion to the semester.

WashU practicum students virtually shared their final presentation with the Purina team.

Navigating this unique experience with our clients at Purina provided a great learning opportunity for the student team. Team lead Leslie Ramey, MBA ’20, said, “I think the uncertainty we faced during the semester helped us focus more on building relationships to support our project work. The circumstances definitely pushed me further as a leader, and thanks to great support from Purina and the CEL, we were all able to have a positive experience.”

Team member Angela Li, MSCA ’20, said the project gave her a new perspective because she found that real business problems were more complicated than those faced in the classroom and this drove the team to be creative in their approach.

“[The project] gave me a chance to apply the knowledge and skills I learned from school to the real business world…. This experience allowed me to take a glance at my future career life, and consequently helped me prepare for it better.” Lucy Sun, MSAA ’20, agreed and said the project also helped improve communication skills.

“We needed to express our ideas and thoughts with team members and also explain our results and findings with our clients” she said. “After this project, we all could communicate very effectively.” 

For other students hoping to engage in a CEL practicum project, team member Margaret Cai said her top piece of advice is “the more you devote yourself, the more you learn,” which is a lesson our whole team will take with us into our future careers.

Pictured at top: Purina CEL team (left to right): Lucy Sun, MSAA ’20, Margaret Cai, MSCA ’20, Leslie Ann Ramey, MBA ’20, Shantanu Pande, MBA ’21, Kevin Jin, MSCA ’20, Angela Li, MSCA ’20 and Dominique Nie, MSCA ’20.




The first in a series about CEL practicums from Olin MBA students. Today, we hear from the Emerson team. Members of the team are Chi Yee, Annabelle Zhu, Anne Chen, Gaurav Malik, Leo Huang, Claire Liu and Lehai Li.

Emerson, a global manufacturing company that addresses some of the world’s most complex challenges with innovative solutions, is actively seeking to evolve the organization toward more data-driven decision-making in its marketing functions.

Olin’s Center for Experiential Learning team was thrilled to have the opportunity to work closely with key stakeholders from Emerson’s Commercial & Residential Solutions platform to develop a playbook for the company to deploy across its businesses to help better leverage data in its daily workflow.

Cross-company conversations

To better understand the company structure, workflow and respective business unit data utilization levels, the CEL team conducted 30 interviews with key marketing and IT team members. These conversations were extremely helpful in understanding how the various businesses are leveraging data and the challenges encountered as teams are adopting a more data-driven culture.

It was through these cross-company conversations that the CEL team was able to learn more about Emerson’s organizational culture and how it leverages data into business-level decisionmaking.

Pictured above: the Emerson CEL Team: Chi Yee, Annabelle Zhu, Anne Chen, Gaurav Malik, Leo Huang, Claire Liu, Lehai Li

These conversations oriented the CEL team and equipped us to understand overarching challenges in using data to make marketing decisions. Recognizing these challenges, the CEL team is developing a playbook that defines and prioritizes key performance indices across the customer journey.

In addition to enabling business marketing teams to track and measure their overall marketing channel effectiveness, the playbook will also help identify data gaps. Understanding that the playbook must be user-friendly and applicable to business teams that are at varying stages of data use, the CEL team worked closely with Emerson to ensure alignment with current marketing workflows across the organization.

Additionally, Olin Business School professors Michael Wall and Seethu Seetharaman provided the team with a lot of guidance and professional expertise that helped ensure that the CEL team was developing an actionable and responsive tool.

Adjusting to a crisis

The sudden outbreak of COVID-19 created some uncertainty within the scope of this project, especially given the preferred high level of stakeholder engagement preferred. The CEL team worked closely with Emerson, however, to facilitate a smooth transition to online meetings that would minimize any disruption in project delivery.

The CEL practicum was an invaluable experience that allowed the team to gain exposure to challenges that many companies face as businesses continue to embrace more sources of data and incorporate insights into daily decision-making processes.

This project, in particular, allowed the CEL team to hear from executives at the highest levels in the organization and understand how they are thinking about the future of their business. This project gave the CEL team members the opportunity to apply what they are currently learning in their classes to a “real world” corporate challenge.

This project broadened our perspectives beyond the classroom and better-equipped us to become key contributors to organizations in our future careers.

Pictured above: Emerson Representatives: Mark Dunson, Dennis Traver, Jim Squires, Tracy Reiter; CEL Faculty Advisors: Michael Wall, Seethu Seetharaman; CEL fellow: Sarah Fuller; CEL Team: Chi Yee; Annabelle Zhu; Anne Chen; Gaurav Malik; Leo Huang; Claire Liu




This was written by the current Olin/United Way Board Fellows Program students who agreed to share their feedback anonymously from a recent survey. It was compiled by Amy VanEssendelft, CEL Senior Program Manager.

The Center for Experiential Learning provides an opportunity for MBA, PMBA and EMBA students to serve for a full year as a voting member of a local United Way member organization’s board through the Olin/United Way Board Fellows Program.  Al Kent serves as the program director for this opportunity. Al has been a member of over a dozen nonprofit boards throughout his life.

Every year, he outlines goals (highlighted below) for the students who participate in this program.  Under each goal are comments from current students who are participating in the program. These comments demonstrate how each goal is in the process of being achieved, especially with, and in spite of, the current COVID-19 challenges.

Work to define and solve an ambiguous problem

“I really appreciate the support and autonomy I’ve been given for my project.  I have built an understanding of the board dynamic and have gained support from key stakeholders.”  

“As I go forward, I have continued to learn to be agile and adaptive and look at creative ways to develop the advocacy campaign within (my agency) despite the limitations the current environment has placed on us.”  

“The president of my board said something in my first meeting which I remember vividly: If an organization succeeds, everyone is responsible for that success.  However, if an organization fails, it is the board’s fault.” 

Deepen understanding of leadership

“This has given me a different perspective on the leadership role boards play, and is particularly poignant right now during this crisis as our board is faced with incredibly difficult decisions.”  

“Watching how the executive director navigates the board and rallies them to action has been an incredible learning opportunity for me.”

 “In the most recent board meeting, I was able to witness in real time how an organization’s leadership communicates about and responds to a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

“I’ve observed how people bring their diverse backgrounds to the table and how interactions proceed when experienced leaders have a common goal.”

Understand how nonprofits work and learn board governance

“They are mission-driven and conscious about their budget/strategy/customer services just like any other entity.”

“I’m very surprised that a nonprofit could do such an amazing job and run like a corporation.”

 “Now, I see the crucial role they play in setting budgets, hiring directors, and truly deciding the direction of their organization.”  

 “Participating in all the board committee meetings helps me understand how everything comes together.”

Develop a professional network and build passion

“I have had the opportunity to interact with very high-impact individuals who are passionate about their mission and vision.” 

“It is clear that the board members are not just there because they are high dollar donors, but instead because they are incredibly engaged and passionate about the mission.” 

 “Their positivity is infectious and this motivates me to go forward.”




Preston Tharp, MBA

This was posted on behalf of team lead Franklyn Nnakwue and his teammates Prateek Deval, Ryan Sun, Aria Ren, Amy Yu and Cathy Wang.

As a group of MBAs and specialized master students at Olin Business School, we worked on one of the most challenging analytics projects. Our client, Direct Supply, has a long relationship with Olin’s Center for Experiential Learning and Center for Analytics and Business Insights.

Direct Supply is a company that specializes in providing equipment, e-commerce, and service solutions to the senior living industry. With 35 years of history, it has many customers. For this project, we focused on the business’s products. Our goal was to leverage data to draw insights that Direct Supply could use to improve customer experience and operational performance.

Field trip to Direct Supply

To better understand Direct Supply’s business model, the team went on a one-day field trip to Milwaukee, where Direct Supply is located. After the interaction with the sales team, marketing team, data science team and supply chain team, we had a more robust understanding of the business and the ways our project could be transformative

We also understood that the project is not solely about writing code and answering the questions, but also about testing the viability of our recommendations.

Real-world challenge and timely adjustment

As we dug deeper into the project, we found that the initial hypothesis that we were working with wasn’t feasible. “Welcome to the real world,” said our professor, Seethu Seetharaman. As we sought to pivot our analysis, Professor Seethu and Professor Michael Wall offered us a lot of help in redefining the questions and finding other approaches to solving the problem. We finally figured out an alternative approach that could fulfill Direct Supply’s initial goal.

Projects won’t always go smoothly as planned, and challenges would always appear along the journey. The faculty advisors, CEL committee and CEL fellow were helpful in ensuring that the team was on the right track.

This was a precious experience for the team. The project offered us a great opportunity to get involved in solving real-world business problems. It was definitely the highlight of our academic experience at WashU.

Pictured at top: A client representative; Preston Tharp, MBA ’20; Nithin Ramachandran, client; Aria Ren, MSCA ’19; Franklyn Nnakwue, MBA ’20; Cathy Wang, MSCA ’19; Ryan Sun, MSCA ’19; Amy Yu, MSCA ’19; Michael Wall, CEL/CABI faculty adviser; Prateek Deval, MBA ’20; Seethu Seetharman, CEL/CABI faculty adviser.




Seethu Seetharaman; Michael Wall; a client representative; Jessica Sanchez Chavez, MBA

FTL Finance is a St. Louis business that focuses on providing HVAC, plumbing and electrical contractors with convenient financing solutions. As a leading national specialty finance business, FTL aims to offer efficient application processes and excellent customer services, through which it aims to develop long-term contractor relationships.

This semester, thanks for the help of WashU Olin’s Center for Experiential Learning and the mentoring from professors Seethu Seetharaman and Michael Wall, our team of six students from MBA and the master of customer analytics programs had a chance to learn more about this niche market, transforming contractor data into valuable key business insights by building predictive models.

Data-driven business insights

FTL has a steady utilization of marketing and sales resources to bring growing revenue from HVAC contractors. However, without a reliable and efficient way to identify target groups of contractors, the use of those resources is inefficient. So, FTL Finance requested that our team explore their contractor’s dataset and come up with a way to prioritize existing contractors using predictive models.

Our team broke down this project into three smaller problems:

  • Which contractors in FTLs database of registered contractors are most likely to apply?
  • How long will it take for a contractor submit the first application after the registration?
  • Will a contractor stop applying with FTL Finance eventually?

After analyzing data from more than 5,000 registered contractors, our team constructed two powerful models to facilitate the choice of target contractors and identified key behavioral factors that motivate contractors to submit applications.

Real-world experience

In mid-December, our team visited the FTL Finance and presented key findings and recommendations they can incorporate into their long-term strategic plans. Also, we have demonstrated a set of hands-on training materials for FTL Finance to use in the future.

This CEL practicum has created a unique opportunity for SMP students to build connections with MBA students and to reveal everyone’s expertise in different academic areas. This project is also a valuable experience which transforms in-class knowledge into real-world business insights.

Pictured at top: Seethu Seetharaman; Michael Wall; a client representative; Jessica Sanchez Chavez, MBA ’20; a client representative; Stella Yang, MSCA ’19; Ziyue Wu, MSCA ’19; Jonathan Pick, MBA ’20 and team lead; Chaoran Xie, MSCA ’19; Yijun Cao, MSCA ’19.