Tag: Alumni

Pictured above: Local people try to evacuate from the Irpin, Ukraine, on March 6, 2022, under a bridge destroyed during shelling by Russian troops. This scene was like what the programmer from Phenix and his parents experienced in the early hours of their escape. (Credit: Shutterstock)

With luggage in hand, a software developer based in Ukraine—working for a Chicago-based startup—fled with his parents through a Russian-occupied section of Irpin. They walked through a Russian checkpoint and over a makeshift platform at the Irpin River that substituted for a blown-up bridge.

Five thousand miles away in Chicago, in March 2022, Kyle Bank, BSBA 2014, anxiously awaited word as his colleague from Phenix Real Time Solutions escaped missiles and mortar fire in the wake of Russia’s campaign of aggression against Ukraine.

Kyle Bank, BSBA 2014, and COO of Phenix Real Time Solutions

“Getting out of Irpin was probably the most dangerous part,” said the programmer, who asked to remain unnamed. “We packed our things into suitcases. We had to walk through Russian-occupied territory. We had to walk fairly quickly.”

Since 2015, the programmer had worked out of his home in Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv for Phenix, where Bank was the chief operating officer. He’d been visiting his parents in the suburb of Irpin when, on February 24, 2022, the missiles began to fly. Russia’s invasion began. Electricity and water failed. Air raid sirens screamed.

Twelve days later, he began the perilous journey with his parents—thanks, in part, to a decision by the Phenix management team back in Chicago. The company spent thousands of dollars to hire an extraction team to move the programmer and his parents from Kyiv to the relative safety of Lviv in western Ukraine.

“It didn’t take any convincing of our CEO or our founder,” Bank said. “Same with our board of directors. Not one word of hesitation.”

Startup newcomers

Bank originally joined Phenix in 2016 as its business development director, helping the startup with a focus on software to improve live video streaming. Phenix wanted to address the delay, or latency, that often occurs between the time a camera picks up an image and the time a viewer sees it.

For example, they wanted viewers of a baseball game to see a base hit fractions of a second after the crack of the bat rather than 60 or 90 seconds later. They wanted real-time video to mean what it says. When Bank joined, Phenix had one customer and seven employees.

One of them was the Ukraine-based software developer. The company had found him through an outsourcing agency. They hit it off immediately. Eventually, as Phenix grew, the company needed more developers.

“He was so talented and such a great employee, we said, ‘Why not build a team around him?’ This, of course, was way before the war started,” Bank said. Eventually, the Ukraine-based developers numbered seven, joining a Phenix workforce that included people in the United States, Switzerland and France.

Then the invasion began.

Apologizing for not working

Hours after the war began in February 2022, Bank started an emergency support channel on Slack for people affected by the invasion. “With the ever-changing and escalating events, we want you to know that we will do everything that we can to assist you and your families in your efforts to remain safe,” Bank wrote that day.

He started getting messages from teammates. “People were apologizing to us,” he said. “I’m sorry. I can’t work today. People are bombing. I’m in a shelter.”

Bank and his colleagues sent word back. Don’t worry about your jobs. We’re not letting you go. “The software code they were generating was inconsequential relative to their safety,” he said.

While Phenix’s developers were all based in a country at war, their lead developer and his parents—who were in their 70s—were stuck in a location that was under particularly heavy siege. His location was central to the Russian’s early strategy as they tried to encircle Ukraine’s capital city.

What’s now known as the Battle of Irpin raged from February 27 to March 28. Russian tanks advanced into the town while Ukrainian forces battled back. Two Russian missiles struck a residential building, killing a child and injuring a woman.

“We were considering leaving by car, but in the first two days, the bridges leading out of town were destroyed,” he said. “We lost broadband early because the cable ran along one of the bridges. We lost electricity and water. We filled our bathtubs to have drinking water.”

Payments and the extraction team

By late February, Bank and the leadership team decided to drop $1,000 into each Ukrainian-based developer’s account to use for transportation, lodging—whatever they needed, no strings attached, no receipts required.

For their lead developer, however, it was clear he and his parents needed help escaping. He sought out another Phenix colleague, Andrew Weiner, manager of technical operations. Weiner was an Army veteran who served in special forces—the Green Berets. Bank wondered: Did he have any connections who could help?

“I started asking around to people I know, friends and family,” Weiner said. Eventually, he connected with a guy he went through training with. “He introduced me to another guy who had already been doing these sorts of missions in Ukraine. He was also a former Green Beret.”

That was March 3, 2022. The “personnel recovery” firm couldn’t get the programmer and his parents out of Ukraine—the government barred fighting-age men from leaving—but they could move the trio to a safer location.

Within days, arrangements were made with the company. Phenix paid half the fee upfront, with the remainder due “upon delivery of a successful mission,” Bank said. While reluctant to share the specific amount, Bank said it was in the tens of thousands of dollars.

On March 8, 2022, the extraction mission went into motion.

A 13-hour drive to safety

At 10 a.m. that morning, under sunny skies in the cool of early spring, the programmer and his parents set out toward Ukrainian-controlled Irpin. They had to be out of Russian-controlled territory before noon, when a ceasefire would expire. There, they could connect with volunteer drivers who would hustle them to Kyiv.

“It was relatively easy for me, but for my parents, it was quite difficult,” he said.

In Kyiv, the extraction team—really a single driver connected by cellphone to his headquarters—would pick them up for the rest of the journey. They waited in Kyiv on March 9. The next morning, the driver loaded the trio and their luggage into a hatchback and headed toward the western city of Lviv—a drive that should have taken six or seven hours.

“Kyiv at the time was turning into a fortress,” the programmer said. “There were military checkpoints all over. Just getting out could have taken an hour or more as we traveled through different checkpoints.”

He watched the driver as he communicated with a network of other drivers to determine the best route to avoid blown-out bridges or bombed roads. “The safe way to go was changing rapidly, so he had to stay on top of that,” the programmer said. “The guy was extremely solid. It was a pretty heroic effort on his part.”

They took brief stops at gas stations to grab bites to eat and didn’t need gas until late in the day while driving through territory relatively unaffected by fighting. Meanwhile, Bank was keeping watch in Chicago. “I was absolutely glued to the computer screen all day trying to find out if he’d made it,” Bank said. “It was a nerve-wracking day.”

Thirteen hours after they left, at around 9 p.m., the foursome rolled into Lviv an hour before the government-imposed curfew. After they arrived, the programmer posted a note in the Phenix Slack channel thanking a colleague for putting him up.

“It’s impossible to find a vacant apartment now due to all the demand,” he wrote. “Also, major thanks to everyone at Phenix who was involved with organizing the transfer. The support and kindness I received was truly invaluable.”

An unexpected challenge

Today, Phenix Real Time Solutions has 37 employees—including their lead developer and his colleagues in Ukraine. The company is benefiting, in part, from a boon in the sports betting market, where access to real-time video without a tremendous delay is incredibly important.

During the crisis, Bank said Phenix still had work to do. “We put the Ukrainian team on our backs and did what we had to do,” he said.

Since its founding in 2013, the company has raised more than $33.3 million in venture capital funding, according to Crunchbase. One of those funding rounds closed in March 2021—about a year before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“As an earlier stage company, we are always focused on how we spend our capital,” Bank said. “You don’t join a startup thinking you’re going to spend money helping someone escape a war zone.”

For his part, the programmer has returned to Kyiv. His parents are back in Irpin. They stayed in Lviv until late April or early May, returning after the wartime violence receded from their hometowns. He remains optimistic that his countrymen and women will be able to repel the Russian threat and return peace to his homeland. And he remains grateful for the efforts of so many.

“I feel privileged,” he said. “There was a pretty significant volunteer operation to evacuate people out of the war zones. I was very lucky to be able to rely on these people to do what they did—the people at Phenix, the volunteers, the evacuation company.”

Pictured above: Local people try to evacuate from the Irpin, Ukraine, on March 6, 2022, under a bridge destroyed during shelling by Russian troops. This scene was like what the programmer from Phenix and his parents experienced in the early hours of their escape. (Credit: Shutterstock)

Ian Freshwater, MBA, 2022

Ian Freshwater, MBA 2022, wrote this for the Olin Blog. He is a human resources associate for FedEx Corporation. 

An MBA can set you up for a successful career in any industry. An MBA from Washington University’s Olin Business School will equip you to build not only a successful career but also an impactful career as a leader.

From learning the importance of perspective to understanding different organizational structures and leadership styles in business, earning my MBA from Olin Business School set me up to navigate my career with ease and adaptability. As you are considering earning an MBA, here are a few ways I’ve found that WashU Olin will equip you with the tools and knowledge to build a future of impact.

Adjusting your point of view: The power of perspective

One of the most significant advantages of pursuing an MBA is the opportunity it offers you to take a step back from the working world and view business and organizational structures from an outside, objective perspective. During my time at Olin, I was surrounded by professionally driven and diverse classmates, which provided the perfect mix of experience and opinions to help me best understand how leadership theories could be implemented.

In the corporate setting, it’s easy to get caught up in organizational politics and the standard routine of how things get done. My MBA allowed me to take a step back and understand the actual theory behind these models. With this background, I could bring this theory into the working world, which has allowed me to adapt my approach based on how well a given leadership style is working.

Mastering adaptability: Navigating different organizational structures and leadership styles

Large corporations often have multiple organizational structures built into their culture and operating procedures. For example, in my current company, FedEx, we operate on a divisional or multidivisional structure. But my HR department follows a more team-based structure. To successfully navigate, I had to learn to adapt my leadership style to reflect both types of structures based on the stakeholders and teams I was working with.

What sets Olin apart is how they introduce business theories and then challenge you to put them into practice and learn the skills to innovate and drive change in the world around you. With programs like the Skandalaris Center or Koch Center for Family Business, you can collaborate with entrepreneurs and professionals with diverse experiences and expertise, inspiring the entrepreneurial mindset and empowering you to explore and execute solutions to global challenges as well as local needs.

Through working on different team projects in the classroom or consulting with clients through the Skandalaris Center or Koch Center for Family Business, I was introduced to and learned through practical experience the various organizational structures and leadership styles that allowed me to become well-attuned to business theories in practice. For example, I might use a participative leadership approach when working with only HR people. In contrast, if I’m on a team with people from multiple departments or even executive leadership, I can expect a more authoritative or delegative approach. Therefore, understanding how different leadership styles can be used, combined or adapted is key to navigating organizational structures.

Expanding horizons: The global immersion MBA experience

Olin’s MBA program offers a global immersion experience. This component will challenge you to move outside of your comfort zones by placing you in entirely new environments. As a result, you will learn how to adapt not only to the cultural norms but also how exactly those cultural norms affect business decisions and outcomes.

As someone born and raised in the US, I had fallen into the habit of routine and often forgot to look at structures and styles from an objective, third-party point of view. Immersing myself in a different culture placed me in that third-party position, helping me gain a broader, more profound understanding of how various leadership styles and organizational structures work.

An MBA from Washington University’s Olin Business School goes beyond merely laying the foundation for a successful career: It’s an immersive, transformative experience that equips you with invaluable insights and practical knowledge. You’ll engage with diverse classmates, faculty, and industry professionals, enabling you to become an adaptive, impactful leader who can excel in any environment.

By delving into various leadership styles in business, understanding types of business organizational structures and participating in the Global Immersion MBA program, you will develop a well-rounded perspective on what it means to be an effective leader. The school’s hands-on opportunities allow you to apply the theories you’ve learned in real-world situations, building your confidence and competence as a leader.

I encourage you to explore the transformative potential of an Olin education in shaping your future of impact. The skills, knowledge and experiences you will gain at Olin Business School will set you up for career success. They also will enable you to make a lasting, positive difference in the organizations and communities you will be part of.

Writer Ginger O’Donnell of WashU Advancement Communications originally wrote this article for Make Way: Our Student Initiative.

Aaron Samuels defies labels.

He is a spoken word artist and a published poet, author of the 2013 collection Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps. He is a corporate strategist who worked at Bain & Co. and an entrepreneur who co-founded and served as chief operating officer of Blavity, the largest global Black media company for millennials and Gen Z. While a student at Washington University, he danced on the salsa team while delving deeply into his academic passions for economics and philosophy.

And yet, there is a central force that grounds and guides Samuels’ layered journey. It has to do with the pride he takes in his intersectional Jewish and Black identities and the lasting relationships he has formed with other people of color in their efforts to explore and affirm the Black experience in all its complexity. You might think of it as “Black gravity,” a term coined at WashU and adopted by Samuels and some of his peers in the John B. Ervin Scholars Program when reflecting on the powerful pull they felt toward each other as undergraduates on WashU’s campus. Over time, “Black gravity” has led to lasting, powerful connections in their adult lives. In Samuels’ case, he helped build an entire digital platform based on the concept, condensed to “Blavity,” together with three of his WashU colleagues.

“In many ways, how I came into adulthood, my understanding of values came directly from the Ervin program,” Samuels says. “When we created Blavity years later, one of our models was the strength of that community at WashU. We wanted that same feeling of love, of respect, of Black people looking out for one another.”

John B. Ervin Scholars Program

Named for the nationally renowned educator and first African American dean of what was then called WashU’s School of Continuing Education, John B. Ervin, the program offers full- or partial-tuition scholarships for the duration of students’ undergraduate careers. Beyond funding, it provides enrichment programming that fosters four pillars of excellence: academics, leadership, community service, and diversity.

Aaron Samuels does a cartwheel on campus.
Aaron Samuels told his dad he wanted to attend a university where he would feel comfortable doing a cartwheel in the quad.

Samuels describes the scholarship he received through the Ervin program as “game-changing,” noting the juxtaposition of growing up “on the lower end of middle class” while also inhabiting a world of academic and knowledge privilege as the son of two psychologists with doctoral degrees. “It was an interesting way to grow up, because both my parents were highly educated,” he says. “I was never worried where the next meal was going to come from, but it would have been very difficult to afford WashU. Getting a full scholarship to attend college was very, very impactful.”

Of the sense of community and family that the Ervin program fostered, Samuels says, “Ervin wasn’t just a scholarship program. The scholarship was great, and being able to have a full ride was a huge blessing that made a big difference. But in addition to that, it was very much a training program in love. And a training program in leadership and service, all of which was designed to promote a certain type of excellence that was very selfless in the way that it was applied to community.”

‘Family dinners’

He recalls the rigorous orientation Ervin provided when he first arrived on campus as a first-year, noting that he was supported “from day zero.” This programming included an Ervin orientation, pre-orientation, one-on-one meetings with mentors and advisers, logistical help with moving into the dorms, and more. As Samuels’ first year at WashU unfolded, this intensive support continued in the form of biweekly “family dinners” led by James McLeod, WashU’s vice chancellor for students and dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at the time. “I was so nurtured, supported and prepped to succeed at WashU from the very beginning,” Samuels says. “That permeated my entire time at WashU.”

Another memorable feature of this community-focused, service-oriented culture of excellence was a strong chain of students mentoring other students, Samuels says. Indeed, this collaborative spirit came to be a defining element of his WashU experience.

“There was very much a kind of expectation that once you crack something, once you figure something out, it’s your job to then mentor the next generation of students, even if they’re just one year younger than you,” he says. “It was a really nice four years to spend under that type of mindset of collective victory.”

Collide Capital

Today, Samuels is adding a new layer to the proverbial onion, taking his multi-faceted career in yet another new direction. As founder and managing partner of the venture capital firm Collide Capital, he focuses on giving entrepreneurs from historically underrepresented groups — particularly women and people of color — more equitable access to funding that will help them bring their ideas to market. While young, Collide looks to have a promising future, having earned early support from several major institutional investors, including the University of California’s endowment, Amazon, Alphabet, Twitter and others.

In this way, Samuels continues to live out the values he cultivated in the Ervin program and at WashU more broadly. With Collide, he is further expanding the concept of “Black gravity” and the Ervin program’s emphasis on creating empowering, inclusive and uplifting spaces for talented students. “Each one, teach one, give and receive. … It was the culture of the Black community and the culture of the Ervin program,” he says. “But I think more broadly it was also the culture of WashU.”

Your gift of any amount in support of Make Way: Our Student Initiative will help future trailblazers like Aaron Samuels find support, mentorship and inspiration at WashU.

Learn more about Make Way.

A group of students attends a lecture.

WashU Olin and WashU at Brookings Executive Education offer many courses to heighten the education and careers of its participants. The St. Louis campus as well as at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, offer more than 50 courses. Virtual courses are also available.

Olin alumni now are eligible for special pricing if they decide to take other courses in either location.

The special pricing is available in tiers to various groups of alumni. The largest discount goes to alumni of Olin’s undergraduate and graduate programs, taking 50% off the standard course prices. Those who have completed any of Olin’s certificate programs—from Women’s Leadership to Advanced Management—are eligible for 25% off.

“We are pleased to welcome alumni back to the classroom to explore new topics, expand their expertise and grow professionally,” said Holly Holland, client relations manager at Olin Executive Education. “Our courses provide you the opportunity to sharpen your skills while reconnecting with Olin.”

To register and receive special pricing, send an email to execed@wustl.edu specifying which course they’d like to complete. From there, the Olin Executive Education team will assist in securing special pricing. Consult this course list for more details about the program.

Please note that each course session offers a limited number of discounted seats. Visit Olin Executive Education’s course catalog to view a complete list of available courses.

Dr. Mohamed A. Zayed, EMBA 2023, with an image of the check he and his team received at the Rice Business Plan Competition in Houston.

A WashU-based life sciences startup that patented a groundbreaking bloodstream marker that flags potential cardiovascular disease recently won a $250,000 investment prize in a major national pitch competition.

Dr. Mohamed A. Zayed, EMBA 2023, is cofounder of AirSeal, founded after he and his colleagues accidentally discovered an enzyme that attaches to the “bad cholesterol” in the bloodstream. AirSeal later created a simple blood test for the enzyme that can flag patients who might be at risk for cardiovascular disease.

Zayed pitched the company and its groundbreaking, patented discovery in mid-May at the Rice Business Plan Competition in Houston. The competition doled out $3.4 million in prizes to 42 startups.

“It was an extraordinary experience, which was full of excitement, thrill and a lot of hard work,” Zayed said. “It was also wonderful to be surrounded by such an accomplished field of innovators with transformative ideas that have the potential to change the world.”

AirSeal won the Texas Medical Center Innovation Healthcare Investment Prize of $250,000. The company also won a $500 prize for best pitch in the life sciences category. More than 1,000 companies initially sent pitches in hopes of an invitation to the competition May 11-13.

“This investment is an important milestone in our young company’s life,” said Zayed, who is also an associate professor at the WashU School of Medicine and director of its CardioVascular Research Innovation in Surgery and Engineering Center. “It was our honor and privilege to represent WashU and the Olin Business School at the event.”

The founding team was recently a finalist in the 2023 Global Impact Award, hosted by WashU’s Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

The next milestone

He said the substantial prize would be a significant catalyst toward AirSeal’s next key milestone: developing a product the FCA can evaluate. “It provides us with access to additional experts and partners as we continue to execute our key deliverables,” Zayed said.

The enzyme, known as circulating Fatty Acid Synthase, or cFAS, is essential for making saturated fatty acids that can lead to atherosclerosis—a plaque buildup that hardens the arteries. The research team conducted clinical studies in hundreds of patients to develop a blood test for cFAS, publishing the results in multiple journals. Zayed credited Olin’s Ron King, emeritus professor of accounting, and Doug Villhard, director of the entrepreneurship program, for helping the AirSeal team take the discovery to the next level.

“We leveraged their guidance and expertise,” he said. “They provided critical feedback and advice that helped us develop a competitive business plan and pitch.”

Pictured at top: Dr. Mohamed A. Zayed, EMBA 2023, with an image of the check he and his team received at the Rice Business Plan Competition in Houston.

Olin will honor Joe Blomker, founder and CEO of Maryville Consulting Group, on Friday, April 21, as the 2023 Dean’s Medalist.

The Dean’s Medal is a WashU Olin Business School tradition that honors friends of Olin who have contributed valuable time, service and dedication to the school. Blomker, EMBA 1990, will be recognized for his dedication to advancing not only Washington University and Olin, but also for advancing the St. Louis community.

He has served as the CEO and president since founding Maryville Consulting Group in 1994.  Maryville Consulting Group is a Fortune 2000 consulting firm that helps companies transform into technology-enabled businesses.  Blomker’s career also includes leadership roles at Digital Equipment Corp., AT&T, Southwestern Bell, Stout Industries and McDonald’s.

“At Olin, we know our purpose,” said Olin Interim Dean Anjan Thakor. “We exist to discover knowledge, enrich people and advance business to change the world, for good. And as I review Joe’s accomplishments, as I reflect on the many ways he has touched our community, served in leadership and engaged with our students—well, I know he is helping us fully live in our purpose.”

Blomker has served on WashU’s Technology Advisory Committee and on the National Council of the Olin Business School.  He led the search committees for Olin’s corporate relations leader, marketing leader and technology leader. He has been an orientation and commencement speaker for Olin’s EMBA program. Blomker enjoys frequent interaction with Olin students, faculty and staff and has engaged students in practicum courses, internships and as a mentor. Olin recognized him as a Distinguished Alumni in 2002.

‘Remaining involved is very important to Joe’

Blomker has been a member of the Regional Business Council of St. Louis since its inception in 2000. He serves as chair of the Higher Education Collaboration Committee, chair of the K-12 Education Committee and as a member of the Workforce Development and Public Policy committees. He was founding chair of St. Louis Social Venture Partners. Blomker also served on the Board of Trustees at MICDS, where he chaired the Education Policy Committee.

Blomker initially engaged with St. Louis’ Premier Charter School in 2006 as a community adviser when he learned the school was struggling financially. The school’s emphasis on character as the foundation for effective academic learning and the school’s diversity intrigued him. He was elected to the board in 2007 and has served as board chair since 2008. This fact exemplifies the school’s academic success: In a typical school year, selective high schools in the metro area accept more than 80% of the school’s eighth-grade graduates. Since 2008, the school has consistently operated with an annual surplus while relying strictly on its public funding. It has grown to a 23-acre campus.

“It has become clear to me that remaining involved is very important to Joe,” Thakor said. “He is energized and passionate about supporting students in their academic journey and beyond.”

Blomker earned his BSBA at the University of Missouri in St. Louis and EMBA at WashU Olin. He and his wife, Kim, have two sons, Joey and Jeff. Joey is also a WashU alum; he obtained his BSBA from Olin in 2009.