In a New Year’s message, Dean Mark Taylor expresses his gratitude to the students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends who all contribute to making WashU Olin an extraordinary place.
“The new year is a time to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going. For my part, I’m very proud of the remarkable creativity and resilience we’ve shown over the past two years. I have complete confidence we will, as a collaborative community, meet and overcome whatever challenges this year may bring, and we’ll continue to grow stronger in every way.”
At Olin, we have complete confidence that we will, as a collaborative community, meet and overcome whatever challenges this year may bring, and we’ll continue to grow stronger in every way.
Xu is the director of Global Category Management at Emerson Systems and Solutions. She manages more than $200M across electrical, mechanical, computing and software categories for the company’s control system platforms.
She is an alumna of McDonnell partner Tsinghua University in Beijing and decided to pursue her MBA after she moved to St. Louis. Xu started her career at Emerson the same year she graduated, and over the past 13 years has held positions in analytics, logistics, strategic planning and sourcing, and category management across supply chain functions, according to the McDonnell website. Today Xu is an influential global supply chain leader.
Every year, the St. Louis Business Journal names its 40 Under 40, recognizing emerging leaders in the local business community. In November, the newspaper honored Olin MBA alumni Evan Waldman, EMBA 2009, Colleen Mettler, PMBA 2011, Matt Drinen, MBA 2017, and Ryan Harbison, MBA 2019. Another almuna and previous winner, Amelia Bond, PMBA 1992, was inducted into the 40 Under 40 Hall of Fame for her continued accomplishments.
Waldman is the CEO of Essex, an aerospace and defense manufacturer. He is also a board member for the nonprofit St. Louis Makes and for the St. Louis chapter of the ALS Association. “My dear grandma had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and honoring her while helping others is fulfilling,” Waldman told the Business Journal.
Drinen co-founded Emerald Capital in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. He has closed $70 million in financing and sourced $60 million in new market allocations, tapping programs like federal Opportunity Zones to bring development to low-income communities, according to the Business Journal. Drinen also joined Green Street Development in 2020 as vice president of development and closed $18 million in financing for the company’s new headquarters in The Grove neighborhood.
Harbison is a former Marine pilot who launched Breeze Helicopters, a helicopter tour and charter agency. Outside of work, he is active in supporting the large veteran community in St. Louis. “I enjoy working with that community and our local universities,” Harbison told the newspaper, “particularly my graduate school alma mater Washington University (which does a great job with its veterans programs), to assist service members with their military to civilian transition and integration.”
Mettler is the vice president of investor relations at Emerson Electric Co., a multinational Fortune 500 company. On top of managing communication for the company’s 17,200 shareholders, she helped establish the company’s Latin America headquarters and redesigned the financial planning process for the Automation Solutions platform, all while raising a family. “Being a working mom is a constant push and pull,” Mettler said, “and I’ve had to make sacrifices on both sides of the table to make it work–but successfully driving my career while tackling the important roles of wife and mother is something I take pride in.”
Bond was vice president and assistant director of A.G. Edwards’ public finance department when the Business Journal named her a 40 Under 40 honoree in 2000. She is now the president and CEO of the St. Louis Community Foundation, the region’s largest charitable trust and foundation ranked by grant volume. Under her leadership, the foundation has increased the amount of grant money it has awarded each year from $19 million in 2012 to $117 million in 2021, distributed to 2,300 nonprofits.
When the newspaper asked what advice she would give to this year’s 40 Under 40 class, she said: “Time is fleeting and should be treasured. Be intentional by building a career that also includes finding ways to engage and invest in our community. In doing so, you will experience far greater long-term personal fulfillment.”
This lesson of focusing on your connections to other people is already embodied in this year’s winners. Each of the three alumni said that their proudest accomplishment is not this award nor any other professional distinction, but rather the families they are raising.
To the St. Louis-area women of Olin, if you’re in the market for professional clothing, accessories and holiday gifts—and would like to support two Olin alumnae entrepreneurs—have we got a pop-up shop for you.
KaLeena Thomas, MBA ’12, and Daphne Benzaquen, MBA ’17, are teaming up from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, December 4, to host a local pop-up shop at The Vault, 2325 S. Brentwood Blvd., in the St. Louis suburb of Brentwood.
Thomas is president and CEO of J. Margaret Weaver, and she designs all the company’s clothing, which is ethically produced in Kansas City using small-batch production techniques.
Benzaquen is the creative designer and founder of daph., a St. Louis-based fashion and lifestyle brand inspired by her Peruvian heritage.
On Saturday, Thomas will offer blouses, dresses, jewelry and gift items such as headbands and paper products from her startup. Benzaquen will offer leather, handmade accessories, handbags and an alpaca fleece sweater alongside pima cotton and alpaca fleece loungewear.
“This is our first pop-up event together,” Thomas said. “We thought it would be fun to bring together each of our communities. We both serve a similar demographic and prioritize building real relationships with our customers.”
Thomas and Benzaquen also said they’re both committed to slow, sustainable fashion and ethical production.
An Olin introduction
The Weston Career Center’s Allison Dietz, employer relations industry lead, introduced the women last year. Thomas was getting ready to launch J. Margaret Weaver, and Dietz thought Benzaquen would be a good point of contact for her to learn from as someone with an established brand.
On Saturday, the women will provide branded cookies at the pop-up, along with drinks people can sip while shopping. They also plan a giveaway that will include gift cards and accessories from both brands.
While we had them, we asked the entrepreneurs about their top takeaways from their time at Olin.
Thomas: “You cannot be all things to all people. You have to decide who you are and who you serve, communicate with them often and be comfortable with the tradeoffs you’re making when it supports your overall brand.”
Benzaquen: “I learned how important it is to think outside the box when it comes to marketing efforts while staying true to your brand mission and values. The importance and comfort with experimenting with different communication styles, use of technology and even product launches were also essential skills I learned while at Olin.”
Photo: Daphne Benzaquen, MBA ’17, and KaLeena Thomas, MBA ’12
Megan Berry, MBA ’15, is the founder and CEO of by REVEAL, a turnkey pop-up retail platform. More about her company in a bit.
Olin tapped Berry to speak at our Leadership Perspectives event last week, “Start Me Up: Venture Capital and Transforming Traditional Industries.” She and Doug Villhard, professor and Olin’s academic director for entrepreneurship, talked about the entrepreneurship process, the ins and outs of venture capital investing, and digital transformation’s place for many sectors of business.
As a student, Berry came to WashU to earn her master’s degree in architecture. She did that—and more. “I’m the first person in my family to go to college, so it was super exciting,” Berry said.
Often, she would read bios of people she admired, and she realized everyone she aspired to be like had an MBA. “So, in my first semester, I kind of marched up to Olin” from WashU’s Sam Fox School to learn more. She met with Evan Bouffides, director of MBA admissions, and he steered her to the entrepreneurship program. She enrolled the next semester.
What attracted her to architecture? “For me, it was really about creating something that was physical in the real world. How can I create something that’ll last, and how can I create something I can touch and feel?”
What attracted her to business? “I quickly realized that there was a lot more than actual physical, tactile—you know—materials that went into it. If you really wanted to make an impact and actually build something, you really needed to understand the business side of it.”
She also learned she wanted to work in a fast-paced environment. “And I wanted to be in an environment where I had resources at my fingertips.” At Olin, she had resources. She was surrounded by people and a support system that gave her the opportunity to test an idea that would evolve into her business today.
“I could launch and then iterate and fail, and I had that safety net that was able to say: ‘Just go try. Go learn. What’s the worst that could happen?’”
Paid in pizza
Berry and a band of friends (whom she promised to pay in pizza) beta-tested her idea for a business. She had found a small piece of land by a fountain in St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood, and she tracked down the owner. He agreed to let her borrow it for her experiment. There, she set up a pop-up shop to sell headbands, purses, belts and other things women in the Midwest made.
“Within an hour, we had paying customers,” she said. “You can’t get lucky if you don’t try.”
Berry’s company, based in Brooklyn, New York, was built to give emerging designers and established brands access to consumers in-person. The company’s trained concierges operate “reveals” in unusual locations for limited times. The aim is to make it easier for consumers to find products they love and easier for designers to be in retail. Overall, by REVEAL provides brands, developers and technology companies a full-service solution to test markets, build awareness, generate sales and capture consumer data with live retail experiences.
Berry has worked for dozens of brands in 15 US cities on custom pop-ups in spaces ranging from 36 square feet to 10,000, including sidewalks, hotel lobbies, corporate lobbies, festivals, universities, malls, parks and public plazas.
Villhard: “So you got this business going. It’s wonderful. Brands are learning a ton. I’m sure you’re having fun, too, hiring people, growing people. The pandemic hits. What happens?”
Berry: “It was brutal. I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much my entire life.”
The pandemic threatened to unwind everything she’d built. Customers were canceling contracts. She had to let employees go.
“It was horrible,” Berry said. “But one of the most important things of being an entrepreneur is that you constantly need to balance what you want to do versus what’s best for the livelihood of the company. And it was extremely, extremely difficult.”
Berry has friends who kept on many of their employees for as long as possible thinking the worst would be over in two weeks, or maybe two months. But Berry? She said she was “ruthless.” She buckled down and asked herself what she needed to do if she didn’t have revenue for the next 12 months.
“People thought it was crazy.” They told her to go home and watch some Netflix for a couple of weeks then come back.
“I cut every single line item I could. And now, you know, 18 months later I’m grateful that I did that, but it was not fun. … You need to manage your budget like crazy. Money does not count unless it’s in the bank. When you’re a tiny company, a contract is very wonderful.
But if your client is bigger than you and has more expensive lawyers than you, then it doesn’t mean anything unless the money is in the bank.”
After she had “used up all of the Kleenexes in the entire island of Manhatten,” Berry started her company’s daunting shift to e-commerce. “People didn’t want to do anything that was focused on the physical world.”
But Berry didn’t know anything about e-commerce. “I’m not a developer. I’m not an engineer.”
Friends told her she had better learn.
By REVEAL now partners with a firm in the Bay Area and offers e-commerce services as well as physical retail services. “It was a very, very scary pivot,” Berry said. “Delegating is something I’ve always struggled with, but with e-commerce I was forced to delegate because I do not know how to code.” To get dollars coming in, she had to focus on a digital strategy.
The company now adapts to the same patterns that retailers and brands are going through as the pandemic continues.
“It’s like a lever,” Berry said. “We are physical, or we are digital, or we are in the middle.”
Meanwhile, consumers want products when and where they want them. “From a consumer standpoint, there is no difference between the physical and the digital. It’s about convenience.”
Berry said the shift was “a great reset where brands basically had to drop and become as lean as possible. And now brands are scaling up with a tremendously enhanced skill set that covers both the physical and the digital.”
The physical retail environment, however, never will be fully replaced, she said, “because we’re human beings. We like engaging with people. We like engaging all of our senses. We like to touch things and smell things and be in new environments.”