Tag: Entrepreneurship

Allison Halpern, BSBA ’18 and CEL marketing student associate, writes on behalf of the Center for Experiential Learning.

Through the CEL Practicum, students have the unique opportunity to consult for companies on a global scale, from startups to Fortune 50 firms.

Professional MBA student Elise Hastings and a team of student consultants recently traveled to Mumbai to meet with their CEL Practicum client, ArtO2, an independent art organization aiming to increase the awareness of contemporary art practices. Elise reflects on the consulting process her team undertook in Mumbai, and why site visits are essential to project success:

What was the biggest takeaway from consulting in-person, rather than remotely?

Elise: It was extremely important that our team understood the context of our project by meeting with our clients in person. We met with all the stakeholders involved and were able to build a relationship. They treated us with immense kindness and respect. They helped show us the rich culture of the city and prioritized hospitality. We understood that relationship building and trust was important in the business culture there, and being with the clients in person greatly facilitated these interactions. We also met with some of the people our clients served, which made it easier for us to understand the challenges and opportunities of the organization and areas we could provide support.

What unique value did your team contribute to ArtO2?

Elise: Our team has a variety of skill sets and backgrounds–including law, accounting, strategic planning, nonprofit fundraising, and social enterprise consulting. We were excited to work with a relatively younger and smaller organization like Art Oxygen, because we could play a larger role in structuring the organization for growth. With our group’s skills, we can support a lot of the strategic planning and organizational structuring that can best position ArtO2 to grow their impact and reach sustainability.


What were the most rewarding—and most challenging—aspects of working with your client?

Elise: It was a great opportunity to work with a group of passionate individuals that are attempting to bring contemporary art to Mumbai and build an arts infrastructure in a rapidly urbanizing city. We enjoyed building connections and understanding the process of creating an international consulting relationship. Although this relationship-building experience was rewarding, it was challenging to achieve. Being in a new place and cultural landscape over just a short timeframe, it was difficult to build that base of trust and understanding. Throughout this process, we enjoyed witnessing the impact of their work and learning how we as a group could help the organization grow that impact.

A special thanks to our partners at IIT Bombay, our IIT Bombay-WashU Research and Educational Academy family, and most especially, Executive MBA alumni Ravi Vishnu and Saurabh Shrivastava for their support in making this project happen.

Learn more about the CEL Practicum experience on the CEL’s website.

Most successful leaders are able to point to a handful of defining moments in their careers – instances that defined the trajectory of their career and their company. Olin’s graduate-level course Defining Moments: Lessons in Leadership and Character from the Top examines these situations by bringing in notable leaders who exemplify both business excellence and personal character.

Perri Goldberg, MBA ’18, wrote this post on behalf of the Bauer Leadership Center.

Managing change—even drastic change—happens more naturally if a company has built a strong, values-based culture, according to Alaina Macia, MBA ’02, president and CEO of Medical Transport Management.

Speaking to Olin’s “Defining Moments” class recently, Macia highlighted the fact that leading a values-driven organization helps eliminate the fear of implementing drastic changes—as long as the changes are aligned with the company strategy, culture, and values.

Macia provided unique perspective as the female leader of a private, family-owned business—particularly because most of the speakers for our “Defining Moments” class have been senior executives of large public corporations.

Macia started her career as a research engineer at the Washington University School of Medicine, following her undergraduate education at WashU focused in biomedical engineering. After a couple of years as a research engineer, Macia realized she was more attracted to business, and enrolled at Olin for her MBA.

Following her MBA, Macia worked at Maritz Inc., but joined Medical Transportation Management, her family-owned business, as an analyst, and was quickly promoted to director of corporate strategy, VP of operations, and finally to president and CEO.

Culture is a touchstone

A key to MTM’s success is its corporate culture, one that fosters successful company growth and an environment in which employees work hard but also have fun. Maintaining that culture is important in the company’s hiring practices, Macia said.

“MTM hires slow, but fires fast,” she said, stressing the importance of hiring the right individuals for the right roles to maintain the company culture and drive success.

I really enjoyed Macia’s focus on the importance of peer-to-peer learning and surrounding yourself with the appropriate individuals at all stages in your career. When she first joined Medical Transportation Management, Macia admitted she did not know everything she needed to know to be successful.

As such, she made it her mission to surround herself with those who could teach her what she didn’t know and support her through decision-making processes, company reorganizations, and dramatic growth spurts.

Finally, one of the biggest takeaways from Macia’s presentation was her emphasis on self-awareness. Understanding your strengths, weaknesses, leadership style, and values will help you understand your colleagues and guide you through your career. Whether you are self-aware or not, she mentioned that it can easily be learned and will only benefit you as a leader.

Macia’s presentation was extremely insightful and a fantastic way to kick off a great class filled with many successful senior executives across all industries.

Jim Enright, senior vice president for development at LockerDome, one of Cultivation Capital

A major St. Louis venture capital firm—which includes three WashU alumni among its cofounders—has released an analysis that shows Washington University accounts for more employees in its investment portfolio than any other university.

Cultivation Capital has invested in more than 100 early-stage startups since it was founded in 2012. Combined, those portfolio companies employ 84 WashU alumni—far and away the most of any university. The University of Missouri-Columbia was second with 52 alumni at Cultivation Capital companies, then the University of Missouri-St. Louis with 39.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Saint Louis University rounded out the top five with 36 and 32, respectively.

“WashU is bringing world-class talent to the region,” said Cliff Holekamp, a Cultivation Capital cofounder and senior lecturer in entrepreneurship at Olin. Thanks to the pedigree of its cofounders, the fact that four out of 11 of its employees are WashU alumni—and the trend among its portfolio companies — “I see Cultivation Capital as being an external validation of WashU’s successful focus in entrepreneurship,” Holekamp said.

The firm’s employment analysis also showed that its firms have contributed at least 2,586 new jobs to the economy in firms based in St. Louis, around the country and around the world. The largest share of those employees—19 percent—are working in St. Louis. More than 11 percent work in Silicon Valley, 6 percent in Chicago, and about 4.5 percent in New York City.

The firm used LinkedIn data to determine how many people its portfolio firms had employed, where they lived, and which schools they attended.

LockerDome, a St. Louis-based technology firm, is among Cultivation Capital’s portfolio companies with more than $18 million invested—and a number of WashU grads on the payroll. LockerDome’s Jim Enright, senior vice president for business development and marketing (not a WashU grad himself) tattooed Cultivation Capital’s logo to his bicep after one of its funding rounds.

Holekamp noted that “despite having international reach, 20 percent of our jobs are being created here.” About a quarter of the jobs created among Cultivation companies were in engineering; 21 percent in business development; 13 percent in information technology; and 13 percent in sales.

About 11 percent of employees in Cultivation firms classified themselves as simply in “entrepreneurship.”

Holekamp said the analysis was a great illustration of the big things that can happen among smaller companies. “There is too much emphasis on major corporate hirings and firings,” he said. “All along, in the background, we have small companies hiring.”

As an alumna of Olin’s Executive MBA program, I was invited to attend this year’s 13th annual St. Louis Business Journal’s Women’s Conference on January 26. Although I had heard of Rent the Runway, I didn’t know anything about it until Jennifer Hyman, founder and CEO, gave the luncheon keynote.

Founded nine years ago with friend and fellow Harvard classmate Jennifer Fleiss, Hyman’s company has raised $190 million in venture capital funding. RTR earned $100 million in revenue in 2016. Its Series E round of $60 million that year was among the largest ever for a woman-run company.

Hyman’s message epitomizes why I love going to this conference. She talked about her idea, why it works, how it has grown, and emphasized that if she can do it, anyone can. This conference highlights successful women who want to share their stories and help other women achieve their goals.

The overall business case for RTR is compelling. In an economy where we rent everything from cars (Uber) to bedrooms (Airbnb), renting clothing makes sense. RTR grew from the concept that for special occasions in particular, women are willing to spend more than they can afford on designer clothes they won’t wear more than once.

By offering rentals of special outfits at a fraction of the cost, RTR makes high-ticket items accessible to a wider audience. The company has expanded the concept beyond special occasions to everyday fashion.

Hyman’s experience and advice applies to anyone in business, but especially to entrepreneurs. Here are the tips that caught my attention:

If she can do it, you can do it

A self-deprecating and funny Hyman explained the very basic actions she took to start her business. Hyman conceived of her idea when her younger sister bought a dress for a special event that cost more than her rent. Hyman and Fleiss brainstormed, which led to the $190 million question: “What if we could rent dresses?”

From there, they pursued an in-person, five-minute meeting with the most influential fashion icon they could think of—Diane von Furstenberg—and cold-emailed her by trying different combinations of her initials and name, until one of the attempted addresses made it through.

You don’t have to have it 100 percent figured out

Hyman and Fleiss did not have their business model worked out when they met with von Furstenberg. “We didn’t know what we were doing when we walked into her office,” Hyman said. “We just threw on von Furstenberg dresses and did it.”

They came up with the name “Rent the Runway” on the spot and pitched the idea. “I think entrepreneurs sometimes make the mistake of being secretive about their ideas, trying to get it all worked out before talking to people about it,” Hyman said.

Instead, Hyman and Fleiss could form their business plan based on conversations they had with the people they talked to about it.

If the answer is no, ask why

“By the way, she hated the idea,” Hyman said. von Furstenberg initially resisted the premise that renting clothes could be profitable, but the conversation continued. By asking questions about the resistance von Furstenberg had, Hyman learned that the von Furstenberg brand appealed mostly to women in their 50s and 60s, but that their marketing targeted a younger demographic.

The five-minute meeting extended to two hours. Hyman said the other designers with whom RTR now has great working relationships were also resistant at first. By keeping the lines of communication open, Hyman continued pursuing the conversations.

People at the top don’t always have the best ideas

At the end of their two-hour meeting with von Furstenberg, Hyman and Fleiss asked for the names of two or three other industry people they could talk to. “It’s the people on the front lines who know the most about the business,” Hyman said. Talking to von Furstenberg was a foot in the door, but great ideas can be mined among lower-level people.

Never stop dreaming bigger

With success in special occasion rentals, RTR could have continued to grow. Hyman kept pushing, however, for expanding the reach of the “Cinderella moment.”

“Women grow up believing that the only day they will feel like Cinderella is on their wedding day,” Hyman said. Believing this didn’t need to be the case, she came up with a subscription concept that would allow women to rent and exchange items for a monthly fee.

Your alma mater can be your calling card

It’s interesting to consider why von Furstenberg took the meeting with Fleiss and Hyman.  As Hyman tells it, their email to her was a one liner: “We are two Harvard business students with an idea and could we have five minutes of your time?”

Whatever her reasons, you can’t underestimate the impact of their academic credentials. In my experience, in St. Louis, a reference to Washington University can and does have a significant impact.

I’m in an older demographic than RTR’s target market—20-somethings who value wearing and being photographed regularly in a wide variety of high-end clothes.

I also wear plus sizes, which, though available on the website, are not offered in great numbers. If Hyman is thinking about this additional area of growth—older, larger women seeking Cinderella moments—I look forward to becoming a subscriber.

Students in the International Impact Initiative provide real-world, team-based consulting for business leaders in a global setting.

This is part two of a look at a student consulting trip to Ethiopia, where MBA students Molly Goldstein, Brenna Humphries, Paul Dinkins, Jerrod Anderson, and Raisaa Tashnova worked with US-based nonprofit Dignity Period. You can read Part One here.

Raisaa Tashnova writes about the team’s experience.

Our first destination in Mekelle, Ethiopia, was the factory where the reusable sanitary pads are produced. A traditional welcome of carefully laid palm leaves guided us from the gate of the factory complex to the main building. There, we found more than 50 women working in a neatly organized production floor.

It was impressive. Since its inception nine years ago, Mariam Seba Sanitary Products Factory has grown into a well-organized, mid-sized production facility. Many of the employees have worked there since the beginning.

As her first employees in the factory started their families, founder Freweini Mebrahtu started a day care center in the factory complex to accommodate new mothers and allow them to continue working. An unexpected delight was our visit to the day care center, where seven tiny inhabitants looked at us intruders in awe as we “oo-ed” and “ah-ed” over them.

On another day, to understand the full value chain of the Dignity Period project, we visited two of the project schools in the nearby city of Wukro. Each of these public schools had a “Gender Office” where students could lie down in a rest corner—a cool, inviting, curtained-off segment of the room reserved for the girls. The facilities were amazing for us to see. But what took the prize for the day were the students themselves. Thanks to Dignity Period’s education and intervention, the students were confident and strong as they told us about the positive impact the sanitary pads made in their lives.

Over the next few days, we set off to find more opportunities for Mariam Seba Sanitary Products Factory and Dignity Period to expand their reach and impact in Mekelle and all northern Ethiopia. To design a commercial distribution network, we needed to understand the competitive landscape, so we set out to research available brands of menstrual pads and their prices in the local markets.

We uncovered the dominance of Chinese manufactured imports in the markets and the high prices for low quality, disposable products. There definitely was opportunity to introduce a higher quality, locally manufactured product in the market.

In our week of exploration in Ethiopia, we gained more from this project than ever imaginable—for us as students, but more importantly, for our clients. We did not only learn about doing business in Africa, but also about education and the extensive healthcare network of the country.

We met with people from diverse industries—from nonprofits to business to psychology and healthcare—and came back with a holistic understanding of how Ethiopia works.

We learned to look beyond the obvious for inspiration and to be inquisitive as we shifted our expansion plan from a traditional retail market route to the healthcare channel route. In the process, we helped empower our clients to think differently and gave them what they wanted most from this engagement: hope.

Students interested in learning more about the Center for Experiential Learning’s Practicum experience can find information on the CEL’s Website.

Students in the CEL Practicum: International Impact Initiative provide real-world, team-based consulting for business leaders in a global setting. Second-year MBA student Raisaa Tashnova describes the experience of working with Professors Al Kent and Hillary Anger Elfenbein and fellow second-year MBA students Molly Goldstein, Brenna Humphries, Paul Dinkins, and Jerrod Anderson to consult for US-based nonprofit Dignity Period. 

Puberty for girls in Ethiopia comes with a double whammy. First, menstruation is a taboo subject, causing embarrassment, shame, fear, and surprise as girls have their first period. Second, this cultural taboo creates a shortage of menstrual hygiene supplies, causing makeshift remedies, accidents that cause embarrassment, missed school, and more.

Interviewing the director of a rural health center

Dignity Period, a US-based nonprofit that’s addressing the issue through education and access to sanitary pads, has seen tremendous results. But through Olin’s Center for Experiential Learning, I had the chance—with a group of fellow students—to help Dignity Period’s mission become more sustainable.

Few of us have traveled to Africa. Even fewer have seen how business is conducted on the continent. Learning about the African economy is what motivated me to apply to serve on the Dignity Period student consulting team. Because of the client’s visionary social impact, the opportunity was even more exciting. After our recent trip to Ethiopia, I was inspired by business opportunities in Ethiopia and humbled by this opportunity to represent Olin and the CEL in Africa.

Dignity Period came into existence through Freweini Mebrahtu. Freweini grew up without access to menstrual hygiene products, a fate common to women in Ethiopia. Upon graduating from high school, she was awarded a scholarship to attend college in the United States. When Freweini returned to Ethiopia in 2009, after a successful career as an engineer, she decided to address the lack of access to menstrual hygiene products.

Inspired by Freweini’s vision and leadership, Dr. Lewis Wall and his wife, Helen Wall, founded Dignity Period, a US-based nonprofit. Its mission: Keep Ethiopian girls in school by providing free access to sanitary pads and the health education needed to break the powerful social taboo around menstruation.

Since 2014, Dignity Period has reached more than 73,000 boys and girls with menstrual hygiene education and sanitary products. In selected schools, girls in grades 5 and above receive a free kit of four reusable pads and two pairs of underwear, all sewn in Freweini’s factory. Both boys and girls receive education around menstruation so that all may help break down taboos. Research conducted by Wall and his colleagues identified a 23 percent reduction in school absenteeism for girls after the Dignity Period intervention. With such a powerful effect on the community, Dignity Period is now looking to expand its reach and create sustainable change in society with the help of the CEL student consulting team.

Our five-member student CEL team and two faculty advisers were tasked with assessing the question, “How does Dignity Period grow?”

Motivated by the organization’s mission, we wanted to bring our business knowledge to help Dignity Period reach more women and girls in Ethiopia and become a sustainable business for the long term.

Before our client visit in Mekelle, Ethiopia, we distilled our project focus into two areas: operations and market expansion. The operations agenda included analyzing Freweini’s factory’s value chain, identifying her pain points, and recommending solutions to streamline the production of the pads given her high-quality, patented design.

The market expansion agenda involved identifying new channels to distribute the reusable menstrual pads, creating a market for them.

But the biggest solution we could provide for our client was hope: Hope that what they created from nothing could and would continue. Hope that the mission they embarked upon could be accomplished.

Stay tuned to hear more about our student consulting trip to Ethiopia in Part II!

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