Tag: Undergraduate

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.

WashU Olin senior Yoelle Gulko has received a grant to create her documentary “Our Subscription to Addiction,” which aims to capture her experience with phone addiction and explore the emerging youth-led digital well-being movement.

Gulko, who’s studying organization and strategic management, received the grant from the Responsible Technology Youth Power Fund, supported in part by Archewell Foundation founders Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. In all, the fund granted $2 million to 26 youth-led organizations.

Maxine Zhang, an Olin senior studying marketing, is on Gulko’s team, as well. The documentary, currently in production, will be about 20 minutes long. The plan is to screen the documentary in film festivals and then in US schools, Gulko said.

Yoelle, what was your addiction like?

“I recognized my addiction early on in high school when I decided to delete my Instagram and Snapchat. Yet five years later, I still felt addicted to my phone. I refreshed my Gmail like I used to my Instagram likes, and worst of all I couldn’t crawl out of the YouTube rabbit hole.

“It always started with ‘just one YouTube video,’ and then three hours would pass by and I felt stuck on the couch, drained and a shadow of myself.

“I was always and still am a happy kid, yet this was the one weight that held me back from living the life I knew I was capable of.”

What made you decide to go public?  

“I tried everything to lessen my addiction. I turned my phone grayscale, turned off my notifications, deleted the YouTube app, and then relapsed looking it up on Safari. Yet no matter how hard I tried, I rarely felt I was making progress.

“This was a part of me that brought me so much guilt and shame because I knew it wasn’t really me, it was my addiction.

“I spent so many years blaming myself until I watched Netflix’s ‘The Social Dilemma’ and learned that our phones are psychologically designed to be addictive. And even though I knew why I was addicted, I didn’t know how to stop.

“I needed to share this story in my most natural form of self-expression: filmmaking. I realized by going public with my story it would no longer have the power to control me and I could find my voice in my newly discovered digital well-being movement.”

How would you describe the movement?

“The youth-led digital well-being movement is an incredible coalition of sharp, passionate and inspiring young people who are fed up with the monetization of our attention for profit.

“They’ve converted past pain into a passion to fuel diverse, coordinated initiatives for change—including social media detoxes in schools, lobbying for tech regulation legislation and using storytelling to transform the narrative.

“As I became more involved in this community, I discovered how committed they are to working together and helping one another succeed.

“This community is a unique and important case in which adults invest in young people and give them a seat at the table to make impactful change. I am extremely grateful to the fund for empowering me with the resources to capture the inspiring movement from the inside and give young people a lens for hope.”

Noah Vermes, BSBA 2024

Sometimes, the path to your future isn’t a straight line. You make a turn here and take an on-ramp there, and before you know it, you’ve ended up someplace entirely unexpected.

For Noah Vermes, an incoming senior in the BSBA program, those turns took him from WashU’s College of Arts and Sciences to Olin—and allowed him to craft a path that combines a talent for consulting and a love of education. 

He’s finishing up an internship in Boston that capitalizes on both—working as a summer analyst at Tyton Partners, a strategy consulting firm in the global education sector.

“I’m working on a long-term project with a university, providing them with a go-to-market strategy and pricing strategy for the near and long term,” Vermes said. “I’m researching the types of students they hope to attract and seeing how they make decisions about colleges.”

The internship couldn’t be a better fit with Vermes’ interests and goals. “I have loved working in consulting for a sector I am so passionate about.”

The pivot

Vermes, a Cherry Hill, New Jersey, native, entered the university as a math major. “I had no clue what I wanted to study,” he said. “But I liked math and knew I was good at it.” The son of a school psychologist, he thought he might pursue a career as a math teacher.

Vermes said he enjoys communicating with people and using math to solve problems. “That naturally led me to pivot to business school. I found that I liked management consulting, which brings in so many aspects of what I enjoy—solving problems, working with people.”

But he never gave up his interest in education and decided to take on a second major in educational studies. He wasn’t sure how to reconcile these two interests until he discovered the world of educational consulting. Researching firms in that sector, he found Tyton.

“They work with universities, schools, nonprofits, foundations, education technology firms, everything under the sun,” Vermes said. He leaned heavily on his preparation at Olin’s Weston Career Center and advice from his management professors Staci Thomas and Rebecca Dohrman in pursuing the Tyton internship. “I used them as a sounding board, saying ‘Here’s what I’m thinking about doing.’ It was incredibly helpful.”

A broader perspective

Vermes said this summer’s internship gave him a broader understanding of the opportunities available in education.

“I had settled on the idea that I need education in my life in some way, but I saw it as separate from my business classes,” he said. “I’ve learned that there are opportunities out there, whether it’s in grad school, education consulting, even education VC (venture capital firms).”

Now he’s heading back to Olin this fall reinvigorated—and with a big challenge ahead. He’ll be the head teaching assistant for eight sections of the Management 201 class, supervising 15 other TAs.

“I definitely pushed for this and said I’d love opportunities to challenge myself,” he said.

Vermes encouraged students to look beyond traditional career paths to find the best fit for their talents and passions.

“It’s easy to silo yourself and keep to the path that everybody else is taking,” he said. “Look at what you really like doing and find out what you like about it. Olin gives you the foundation to take the skills you learn and apply them toward something that you really enjoy.”

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)

Anika Sridhar, BSBA 2023

Anika Sridhar, BSBA 2023, was the student speaker at the undergraduate programs graduation recognition ceremony on May 14, 2023, selected by her peers. She soon begins a new position as an investment banking analyst for Goldman Sachs in New York City. Here is what she had to say to her fellow graduates.

What exactly does it mean to change the world? As students of business, many of us hope to have a great societal and economic impact. I myself will be leaving Olin emboldened by the privilege of my education and optimistic about the prospect of effecting change.

But what does change really look like? Well, two years ago, I never would have imagined a world in which 1,000-plus people would congregate to celebrate university graduation. And I could not be more honored to stand up here today, addressing you all. And a special thank you to the mothers in the audience, who have so graciously decided to spend their Mother’s Day here with us.

To the Olin Class of 2023, a big congratulations is due. We remained resilient amidst a global pandemic and continued to believe that one day we would get to walk this stage.

We are the final group that knows the “old WashU.” No class below us will understand when we reminisce over the Einstein’s Bagels in Simon Hall, the Ibby’s buffet during the week, the bird scooter crisis or the typical Thursday night going out to Big Daddy’s on the landing.

To all future generations of WashU graduates, these treasured moments are merely myths of the past.

Our campus has changed over time to reflect new versions of our community and society. However, it feels necessary to understand not only how the evolving needs of our society have impacted our campus but moreover how four years at this institution have transformed who we are.

When I came to WashU, I thought I knew exactly how to be a successful college student. All I had to do was follow in the path of high-school Anika! What did this mean? Develop my academic career around political science, join an a capella group, and make best friends during the first week of school, exactly as I had done in high school.

Well … by the end of my first year, I had been rejected from the a capella groups, had withdrawn from my first upper-level political science class, and felt as though I hadn’t yet found a group of friends I really belonged to. If high school Anika was the model for success, I was screwed.

It was, instead, the newness that I embraced which has most greatly impacted my college experience. I joined a few business organizations, not having a clue what I was signing up for or why I was doing it. Funny enough, that decision led me to meet my best friends, develop lifelong mentors, discover a passion for business, and eventually, during my fourth semester of college, become a student of the Olin Business School. And I can confidently say the skills I’ve developed in Olin will enable me to have a greater impact on whatever I choose to do in my future.

As we all begin to embark on new journeys, we should remember to think critically about every decision we make. Don’t conform to a version of yourself you once idealized but have ultimately outgrown. It is OK to embrace change, and changing the world may just start with embracing change in your own world.

As Albert Einstein famously said, “the measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”

However, while the past need not always define our present, we cannot forget those who helped us get where we are today.

To my family who encouraged me to believe in myself and explore new passions, thank you. To my friends who sat and cried with me through heartbreaks and disappointments and celebrated me during my greatest achievements, thank you.

To the Olin Class of 2023, who have challenged me to work harder in class, who have inspired me through creative approaches to problem-solving, and who also did not study enough for the MGT 100 exams and helped set a good curve, thank you.

As we go on to accomplish all the wonderful things this institution has enabled us to do, we must continue to support and uplift one another personally and professionally. When we hear that a member of the Olin community is seeking support, let’s make each other a priority because, truly, you have all changed the world for me.

Congratulations to the Class of 2023 and thank you!