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
Washington University in St. Louis and Olin Business School got more good news this week about their entrepreneurship education programs, this time from The Princeton Review‘s 16th annual ranking of undergraduate and graduate schools for entrepreneurship studies.
The Princeton Review‘s ranking comes on the heels of the third annual ranking of MBA entrepreneurship programs by Poets & Quants, which placed WashU Olin in first place for the third consecutive year.
“At WashU, entrepreneurship is highly experiential and collaborative. We encourage our students to connect with the St. Louis community and beyond, thus expanding their network. Most notably, the majority of entrepreneurial opportunities at WashU are open to ALL undergrad and grad students, faculty, staff, postdocs, and alumni”, said II Luscri, assistant vice provost for innovation and entrepreneurship and managing director of the Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “It is this blend of curricular and co-curricular; campus and community; creativity and entrepreneurship; not bound to discipline or school, that distinguishes our entrepreneurial offerings.”
Support of WashU student entrepreneurs has been crucial for venture success. In the last 10 years, 279 companies founded by undergraduate students have engaged with the Skandalaris Center and gone on to raise a combined $5.2 billion. Of those companies, 62% are still in business today.
On the graduate side, in the last 10 years, 240 companies started by WashU graduate students have engaged with the Skandalaris Center and eventually raised a combined total of nearly $288 million. Of those, 55% are still in business today.
“Since the mid-2000s when we first reported these ranking lists, student interest in entrepreneurship has grown dramatically, as has the commitment to entrepreneurship studies within higher education,” Rob Franek, The Princeton Review‘s editor-in-chief, said in a written statement. “We heartily recommend the fine schools that made our entrepreneurship studies ranking lists this year. Their faculties are outstanding. Their programs have robust experiential components, and their students receive awesome mentoring and networking support that will serve them for years to come.”
The Princeton Review‘s ranking is based on the results of a 60-question survey, which collects data on the percentage of faculty, students, and alumni actively and successfully involved in entrepreneurial endeavors; the number and reach of mentorship programs; scholarships and grants for entrepreneurial studies; and the level of support for school-sponsored business plan competitions.
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.”
For the third consecutive year, WashU Olin placed #1 on Poets & Quants ranking of MBA entrepreneurship programs. Indeed, “this year it wasn’t close at all. You all won by a lot,” according to one person connected with P&Q’s ranking process.
“I am beyond gratified—but not surprised—to learn that WashU Olin’s MBA entrepreneurship program has again topped the Poets & Quants ranking,” said Mark P. Taylor, dean of Olin Business School. “Our decisive claim on that ranking this year is a testament to the priority we place on sparking the entrepreneurial spirit in our students. We count entrepreneurship among Olin’s four pillars of excellence, and we take care to imbue that spirit throughout our course offerings and programs.”
Following publication of the site’s ranking, editors from Poets & Quants hosted a livestream event at 11 a.m. CT today (see video below) to formally unveil the results and interview Dean Taylor and Doug Villhard, professor of practice in entrepreneurship and academic director of the entrepreneurship platform.
“It’s hard for any one school to stay on top for three consecutive years, particularly in a field that has seen many schools double down on their commitments to entrepreneurship,” P&Q wrote in its ranking story. “But Olin pulled off a three-peat with little difficulty.”
The P&Q ranking was based on an analysis of 16 components of a school’s entrepreneurship program. They included dimensions such as the number of startups launched, available elective courses in entrepreneurship, students in entrepreneurship clubs, the percentage of MBAs taking related courses and the percentage of faculty teaching related courses.
WashU Olin placed first in only two of those dimensions. As P&Q wrote: “WashU won top honors for having the highest percentage of MBAs launching companies (2017-2020), and the highest percentage of MBA students involved in a startup this past year.” Given that showing, Olin’s first place overall suggests steadiness and consistency across the P&Q methodology, rather than significant ups and down across categories.
“We came in strong across the board because we have a culture of innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit infused throughout the school,” Villhard said. “And our student body is diverse, thus our startup founders are also diverse. Which makes for really rich ideas and a really special place to advance one’s entrepreneurial pursuits.”
Innovating within innovation
WashU Olin topped the list with a total weighted score of 100. Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, took second with a score of 82.67. Rounding out the top five in P&Q’s ranking were Rice University in Houston; ESADE in Barcelona; and IE Business School in Madrid.
“I’m proud of and thankful for the leadership Doug, II and the entire Olin team provide in this area,” Taylor said.
That collaboration has led to innovations in the program, some implemented only in the past year. They include new courses such as Innovation for Healthcare, Innovation for Defense and Acquisition Entrepreneurship. Another new course, aimed at star student startup founders in the digital and tech space, is known colloquially as “The League,” an accelerator of ideas that features coaching from Olin’s “Mount Rushmore” of the most successful WashU graduates in the field.
Justin Matthews, Olin MBA ’23 candidate, has loved game nights since he was a child. Now he has created a guessing game called Utter that draws from friends’ tweets. Already, people have played nearly 500 games nationwide. Said Matthews, “Our goal is to make social media actually ‘social.’”
“I’ve always been a fan of game nights. I can remember vividly beating my parents at Scrabble for the first time or playing Heads Up with college friends. Games are a great way to bond, and I saw an opportunity to make game nights more meaningful if we added our personal stories to it by using Twitter.
“Twitter is basically someone’s diary, and every tweet has a story. I learned I could pull tweets with Twitter’s APIs and thought it would be fun to guess which of my friends tweeted it. So far, the response has been very positive. Almost 500 games have been played nationwide, and I’ve hosted over a dozen games that had a lot of laughs, great stories and more connecting in this virtual new world.”
What are the next steps?
“Our goal is to make social media actually “social,” so we want to give you more game modes that fit your interests and allow more players to get in on the action. Currently we have two versions of the game.
“‘Team’ mode allows you to enter in your own Twitter account, and ‘Categories’ mode is preset with Twitter accounts that match the theme. We have themes like Sports and Movies, but I plan to have a whole library of additional categories in the future.
“Right now, you can only play on one device, but we are hoping to expand so that each player can use their own device. Once we have that multiplayer functionality, the sky is the limit. Can you imagine Utter on the jumbotron at St. Louis Cardinals game and guessing which player tweeted what for a free hot dog at the game?”
Does this game dovetail with your career goals?
“Absolutely. The goal is to become a product manager at a business to consumer-focused tech company. This project is helping me hone my craft of collecting customer feedback, working with developers and marketing my product. I like to think it has helped me in a couple of interviews already because I can speak about how I’m growing my skill set in my free time.”
Is this a side hustle, or do you have more in mind for Utter?
“I would consider this a hobby right now because I haven’t monetized it yet. My definition of side hustle is something that is generating some type of revenue. Right now, I just want to build the best experience possible for users.”
Why did you decide to come to WashU Olin to get your MBA?
“I decided to come to WashU Olin when I saw the need to grow my toolkit as a product manager. I had always worked on business-to-business products but wanted to work with more consumer-facing brands. I applied for graduate school through the Consortium, and WashU is the founding member school and had a curriculum that fit my entrepreneurial interests. Prior to applying, I had never been in person. But he relationships I made during Diversity Weekend stuck with me, and they made the decision that much easier to uproot me and my wife from Atlanta.”
Any idea how many people have played Utter at this point?
“We’ve had almost 500 games played since we first launched last year! That’s has mostly come from word of mouth; I haven’t paid for any advertisement. Most players are from the USA, but some people have played as far away as the UK and India. We definitely have a lot of room for growth, but this is just the beginning and I’m excited about what’s next.”