Tag: Entrepreneurship

Spring Zhou standing in front of her store Gallery 314, part of the StEP program

Olin students looking to get a jump on business ownership can access a WashU program that channels their entrepreneurial energy into on-campus stores or services. The Student Enterprise Program (StEP) offered through the Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship helps students put their business education to work in an immediate, hands-on way.

Through StEP, students can propose business ideas, apply for business loans and operate on campus, even renting storefront space on the South 40.

Student owners say the program provides practical use cases of their business education. “It’s fascinating how all these things I’m learning in class are being demonstrated in this store,” said Spring Zhou, BSBA 2026. Zhou owns Gallery 314, which offers hand-crafted gift items by WashU students and St. Louis makers.

Other current StEP businesses include several food providers, a student-run laundry business and Bears Bikes, a bike rental/storage/repair business.

When student owners graduate, they sell their shares of the businesses to younger students.

“The business ideas serve the WashU community—students, faculty and staff,” said Gabe Breternitz, venture development specialist for Skandalaris. “They’re meant to be ideas that will stay here and get passed down. A common feature is the buying and selling of businesses.”

Seeking investors

Bears Bikes, which has operated since 2004, is among the StEP enterprises seeking new investor-owners. Eashan Kothari, BSBA 2024, bought a share as a freshman and is looking for an owner to take it over once he graduates in December.

The bike company’s ownership structure ensures there are always experienced owners in place. Departing seniors typically sell their shares to first-year students. “I’m trying to bring someone on early to help mentor them before I graduate,” Kothari said.

Zhou is the only owner of Gallery 314. She also is looking for investors, since she plans to study abroad. “I need someone here to be in charge then,” she said.

StEP has several avenues to assist business owners, Breternitz said. A loan program provides up to $10,000 to start a new business or purchase a share in an existing one, at favorable rates. StEP holds workshops on accounting, marketing and other important skills. Zhou, an international student, said the program helped her find legal assistance to take over Gallery 314 because she lacked a Social Security number.

The program’s advisory board includes Olin faculty and staff who provide specialized guidance. Mark Soczek, director of Olin’s Master of Accounting program and a senior lecturer in accounting, recently joined the board. “A lot of organizations were wrestling with accounting issues, including valuations (of businesses being sold),” he said. “They thought it would be valuable to have someone on the board who could help with that.”

Breternitz said his office offers support, but otherwise prefers to be hands-off and let the students lead. “Everything is handled by the students—that makes it a more valuable learning experience,” he said. “We have rules in place to keep it fair and equitable.”

Hard numbers and soft skills

Both Zhou and Kothari said owning their businesses has enhanced their education—and vice versa.

Zhou said her experience buying Gallery 314 piqued her interest in the legal aspects of running a business. She’s pursuing a minor in legal studies and in her business law classes, “I felt very confident speaking about my situation, and the things I did when I was acquiring the business.”

Kothari said his classes have helped him keep good financial records at Bears Bikes. “When we’re selling the business, we have to release all the financials—discounted cash flows, revenue projections. All those things are the core foundation of our classes.”

Soczek said that StEP entrepreneurs deal with business issues that might not arise in class. “It may seem glamorous to start a business, but then the onus falls on you to operate it,” he said. “Soft skills—managing your space optimally, handling differences of opinion with other owners—those are particularly important.”

As Kothari prepares to pass on his share of Bears Bikes, he anticipates making roughly what he paid for it nearly three years ago. This is in addition to the share of the profits he has been receiving each year.

“Overall, the experience I got was way more valuable than any money I could have made from the business,” Kothari said.

The StEP program offers two workshops for aspiring student entrepreneurs: a Starting a Business session on October 11 and a Buying a Business workshop on October 25, both from 4 to 5 p.m. Registration is required.

Main photo: Spring Zhou, BSBA 2026, owns and operates Gallery 314, a gift shop on the South 40. The store is one of many student businesses operated through StEP.

Second photo: Eashan Kothari, BSBA 2024 (front row, left), and his three co-owners of Bears Bikes outside their store.

Clockwise from top left: Minju Lee, BSME 2023; Helen Telahun, EN 2024; Rachel Johns, AB 2025; and Heath Rutledge-Jukes, MD 2026.

In the third year for Inno’s recognition of young business innovators, the spinoff publication from the St. Louis Business Journal has named four WashU students or alums among its class of five new honorees.

The Inno under 25 program “seeks to spotlight some of St. Louis’ up-and-coming innovators. This year’s group is impressive, notably for its ambition,” the publication wrote in its recognition story in early September.

Minju Lee, BSME 2023. Olin connection: He has taken Olin’s Hatchery business plan course and the follow up, the League of Extraordinary Entrepreneurs course. Lee used the pandemic summer of 2020—and time from a canceled internship—to take an entrepreneurship course from the University of Chicago. That, combined with his WashU Olin degree, has propelled him to found Mozi, a startup focused on creating an app to bring people together for events and hangouts. Read more from the St. Louis Business Journal’s Inno interview with Lee.

Helen Telahun, EN 2024. Olin connection: She’s earning a second major in entrepreneurship. She gained her inspiration from a personal finance class she took at WashU—but not the kind of inspiration you might have expected. It compelled her to launch Article 26, which focuses on an AI-driven app to help provide a personalized approach to users for their money management and financial literacy questions. Read more from the St. Louis Business Journal’s Inno interview with Telahun.

Rachel Johns, AB 2025, has no Olin connection. She pivoted at WashU from aspirations in veterinary medicine to earth science and geospatial analysis. She’s received a US Department of Defense Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation Scholarship and has made a two-year commitment to work at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency following graduation. Read more from the St. Louis Business Journal’s Inno interview with Johns.

Heath Rutledge-Jukes, MD 2026. Olin connection: He took the summer innovation pathway on the medical school campus taught by Doug Villhard, entrepreneurship director, and Linda Wu, adjunct professor. He used his lackluster reaction to available medical school test preparation tools to create a better mousetrap: King of the Curve is a startup that produces a mobile app that gamifies the process of MCAT test prep, as well as other standardized tests. It makes prep more like a video game. Read more from the St. Louis Business Journal’s interview with Rutledge-Jukes.

Pictured above, clockwise from top left: Minju Lee, BSME 2023; Helen Telahun, EN 2024; Rachel Johns, AB 2025; and Heath Rutledge-Jukes, MD 2026.

Student entrepreneurs at Startup Connection, hosted by WashU Olin

WashU Olin hosted entrepreneurs from across the region at the 2023 Startup Connection on September 20. The event provides a platform for new business owners to spread the word about their startups and network with one another—and for aspiring entrepreneurs to gain some inspiration and practical knowledge.

Among the nearly 50 startup businesses showcased at the event were many launched by current and recent Olin students.  

One is Tossup, a platform offering a social approach to sports betting. Its four founders are WashU seniors, including two Olin students. Adam Haiken, BSBA 2024, said the team brought Tossup to the event to give it broader exposure. “We’re just launching now, and we wanted to advertise that we’re in beta testing,” he said. Their display included a QR code that attendees could use to access Tossup.

Haiken’s colleague, Max Williams, BA 2024, said the jam-packed event was a great showcase. “We’ve been set up for seven minutes and we’re really busy.”

The Tossup team has already taken their startup through Olin’s Hatchery business plan course and owners are currently participating in The League of Extraordinary Entrepreneurs accelerator class.

At last year’s Startup Connection, Izzy Gorton, BSBA 2025, and Chiara Munzi, BA 2023, had just launched ChiChi, their chickpea-based breakfast alternative. “It was a month into our startup,” Munzi said.

This year, their product is available online and in local grocery stores. “We’re hoping to get more people to learn about it and test new product ideas,” she said.

Like the Tossup owners, Munzi and Gorton have benefited from their connections to Olin and to the Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “We’ve worked with them a lot,” Munzi said.

The Startup Connection is part of STL Startup Week, a series of events to promote and encourage St. Louis’ entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Photo: Adam Haiken, center, BSBA 2024, talks to attendees at the 2023 Startup Connection about Tossup, a platform that offers a social approach to sports betting.

Seedlings sprouting out of the earth. Story is about the Holekamp Seed Fund

The 19 winners of the 2022-2023 Holekamp Seed Fund grants are taking on challenges as varied as end-of-life planning, sustainable fashion and diagnosing cardiovascular disease. What they all share is a big idea and a plan to realize it.

The Holekamp Seed Fund provides a boost to those plans in the form of $1,000 grants that founders can use to defray some of their expenses. Seed fund founder and former Olin professor Cliff Holekamp describes it as “a nudge of encouragement to help them take their entrepreneurship ideas from concept to real business.”

Often, it’s the first stop on the road to success. Previous winners include Daniel Schindler, whose Buoy hydration supplement is available in stores, and Tyler Richards who also won a $75,000 Arch Grant in 2022 for his pcBee circuit board printer.

“There are so many students at WashU with great ideas who come to me looking for even the tiniest bit of acknowledgment that they might be onto something,” said Doug Villhard, Olin academic director of entrepreneurship. “I’m fortunate to have the Holekamp Seed Fund available as a mechanism not just to say ‘keep going’ but also as a way for WashU Olin to show that we support you enough to be the first to invest in your startup.”

This year’s awardees

Cynthia Johnson, OMBA 2023, whose RiverCity Bancshares is a community banking and affordable housing venture.

Stephanie Goss and Monica Vela, both MBA 2023, whose Dickerson’s Source helps with the business side of end-of-life planning.

Raj Thaker, BS 2023, founder of XChanger, a financial platform that offers AI investment recommendations and community collaboration.

Joey Lanfersieck, BE 2024, co-founder of Sobriety Hub, sober living home management software.

Abdul Oganla, MBA 2023, whose SevPay assists African students in the US with making required payments to the US government.

Sydney Nagorsky, BS 2023, founder of Magnifi, an AI-powered recruitment and job match platform.

Don Soffer, MBA 2023, whose GEMS Media LLC is a personalized storybook company.

Henry Borska, BS 2023, developer of Cache-it, a scavenger hunt app.

Samuel Brehm, MD 2023, whose Flexure Medical is developing a spinal disc implant.

Heath Rutledge-Jukes, MD 2026, co-founder of King of the Curve, which released an MCAT test prep app.

Mohamed Zayed and Stephen Wu, both EMBA 2023, co-founders of AirSeal Cardiovascular, offering a new way to diagnose certain types of cardiovascular disease.

Olivia Baba, BFA 2023, and Nisha Mani, BA 2023, co-founders of Mend Fashion, a service that connects clothing repair services with clients.

Robert Palla, BSBA 2024, and Max Douglass, BS 2023, founders of ACHORD, a platform connecting music teachers and students.

Linda Wu, MBA 2023, founder of MiDoc, which offers a vest with implanted sensors to assist in telehealth heart and lung examinations.

Parker Nixon, MBA 2023, founder of DPN Products, which sells single-serving cold brew coffee pods.

Applying to the fund

The Holekamp Seed Fund accepts applications year-round. Applicants must be current WashU juniors, seniors or graduate students and must have at least 25% ownership of a startup venture. Student entrepreneurs must produce pitch decks and deliver professional-quality pitches for their companies.

Winners are chosen by the fund directors—Holekamp, Villhard and Elise Miller Hoffman, MBA 2016 and investor in residence at the Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Applicants are accepted on a rolling basis until the funds run out.

To apply, visit the Holekamp Seed Fund website.

Back row: Chris Pitts, Maria Kamila Severiche and Helena Valentine. Front row: Jacob Hibbert and Kenneth Thomas. All five members of the MBA class of 2025 started their fellowship at the beginning of the academic year.

A second cohort of five students have joined WashU Olin as entrepreneurship fellows, a program initiated last year to continue leveraging the school’s reputation for fostering student innovation and to attract diverse and creative thinkers.

Entrepreneurship fellows receive tuition support for their MBA, networking and relationship-building support within Olin’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, and alumni mentorship and coaching. Fellows are housed within the Lewis Collaborative, which offers co-working and classroom space to facilitate idea generation and contact with other entrepreneurs. The fellowship attracts students who want to influence business and society in areas such as sustainability/environmentalism, social responsibility, global impact, and inclusion, diversity and equity.

This year’s fellows, all MBA 2025, are Jacob Hibbert, Chris Pitts, Maria Kamila Severiche, Kenneth Thomas and Helena Valentine.

Jacob Hibbert

Hibbert hails from from Edinburgh, Scotland, which he proudly describes as “not just the land of rolling hills, smoky whisky and endless rain,” but also as the birthplace of television, electricity and golf. He comes to Olin after working as a self-employed product consultant and earning his undergraduate degree from Durham University in England.

Chris Pitts

Pitts’ background in electrical engineering (bachelor’s degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham) and project management has contributed to a passion for supporting minority and women-owned small businesses in the St. Louis area. He’s determined to to help these businesses raise capital and gain valuable insights into entrepreneurship through acquisition.

Maria Kamila Severiche

Severiche comes to Olin with a master’s degree in human resources from EAFIT University in Colombia. She says she embarked on her first entrepreneurial venture at age 8 when her mother became her first investor, accounting teacher and boss as she started a candy-selling business. After working in HR, sales, international affairs and other areas, she went on to create a clothing brand, “Element,” with handmade products in Colombia.

Kenneth Thomas

Thomas comes to Olin with a bachelor’s degree in exercise science from Lindenwood University and work with WashU’s medical school in its division of oncology. A first-generation college student, he navigated a new culture, broadened his perspectives and fueled his passion for entrepreneurship and youth soccer development. He is keenly interested in private equity and venture capital with the goal of driving change and increasing representation.

Helena Valentine

Valentine, half-Swiss and half-German, earned her BSBA from the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland before moving to the United States late last year. She grew up around the biggest hop-producing area in the world and often joined her father in hop-grower meetings, which developed her passion for beer and its brewing process. After working as an investment banker with Goldman Sachs in London, she knew she wanted to start her own business. She’s already working on opening a brewpub in St. Louis focused on European-style beers.

Pictured at top: Back row: Chris Pitts, Maria Kamila Severiche and Helena Valentine. Front row: Jacob Hibbert and Kenneth Thomas. All five members of the MBA class of 2025 started their fellowship at the beginning of the academic year.