When it comes to Midwestern business, people often imagine a world in decline. They picture rusted factories and vacant downtown shops. In their view, rural Main Street has grown slumped, hushed and gray. In between, dinosaur brands, once certain and loud, lumber along, shedding employees with each passing quarter.
A GATEWAY TO TECH STARTUPS
For many, American business revolves around the coasts. You head to Silicon Valley to stake your claim or Manhattan to strike it rich. They are the home to big names and bold aspirations, the destinations that birth the innovations celebrated in Wired and the deals covered in the Wall Street Journal. Make no mistake: the heartland hasn’t been left behind. Instead, it is slowly emerging as a tech and startup center. No city better personifies this spirit than St. Louis, Missouri, home to the Olin School of Business at Washington University.
Known as the “Gateway to the West,” St. Louis combines the best of the east coast’s deep pockets with the west coast’s pioneering spirit. It boasts 19 Fortune 1000 firms, including Express Scripts and Monsanto, that account for nearly $221 billion in annual revenue. That doesn’t even count top brands like Anheuser-Busch InBev and Nestle Purina PetCare. However, the real story in St. Louis has been the explosion of its startup scene, which was ranked #1 by both Business Insider and Popular Mechanics in 2016. St. Louis IT startups alone attracted $176 million in capital last year, according to the St. Louis Tech Startup Report, with recent successes including Lockerdome, Answers.com, and Yurbuds.
What’s the city’s secret? It was a combination of several shrewd investments. For one, it began awarding Arch Grants, $50,000 seed funds to promising early stage firms that launched their businesses in the city. The region also nurtured several tech incubators and accelerators, including the famed T-Rex, which houses over 110 startups in a refurbished five-story downtown building. Such activity also inspired several venture capital funds, while organizations like Accelerate St. Louis worked tirelessly to connect startup founders and firms with each other.
“DOORS ARE ALWAYS OPEN. PHONE CALLS ARE ALWAYS ANSWERED”
More than that, the city had Olin’s Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Founded in 2001, the center has partnered with the business community to provide education, networking, and mentorship to aspiring area entrepreneurs. That gives Olin students a huge advantage in the area market, says Cliff Holekamp, a senior lecturer in entrepreneurship at the school, who boasts that students “can be a big fish in a medium-sized pond” through the school’s deep involvement in the area’s corporate and startup landscapes.
Many members of the Class of 2018 are hoping to take advantage of these ties and get onto the ground floor of this flourishing business scene. Paula Moscoso, an Ecuadorian securities trader, calls St. Louis an “entrepreneurial boomtown.” For Ramin Lalezari, a medical student who’s passionate about technology, the city’s resources and easy access to decision-makers was impossible to pass up.
“St. Louis is a powerful city to be in for a person interested in medical technology and innovation,” he shares. “It is not only home to one of the country’s strongest hospitals, drawing in some of the most brilliant medical minds of our time, St. Louis is also experiencing an entrepreneurial renaissance. The rate at which its startup community has been booming owes its growth in some part to the community’s unmatched eagerness to take a vested interest in others’ success. Doors are always open. Phone calls are always answered.”
“I AM A SMALL PERSON WITH A BIG VOICE!”
While many first years probably won’t launch a business after graduation, the program’s “entrepreneurial emphasis” inspired students like Gabriel Ortiz-Barroeta to take a leap of faith and join the Class of 2018 in St. Louis. “Although I am not planning to be an entrepreneur in the foreseeable future,” he admits, “I do acknowledge how important it is to have an entrepreneurial mindset. Employees and managers who think like entrepreneurs are, in my opinion, a company’s most important asset because they think outside of the box and come up with solutions to challenging problems.”
To produce these out-of-the-box thinkers, you need a diverse and gifted student body. This is an area where Olin has traditionally excelled —and the Class of 2018 takes this to new heights. Look no further than in how they introduce themselves. Kelvin Taylor, a “River City” native, who calls himself, “Perpetually skeptical, ruthlessly logical, fully committed to being my best self, and forever grateful.”
At the same time, Moscoso lives life by a simple credo: “I am passionate about leaving places better than how I found them.” He should compare notes with Sushanta Singha, a Queens native who has lived on three continents and considers herself a work in progress. “Everyday my goal is to be better than I was yesterday.” Three continents? That’s child’s play for Ravi Balu, an Air Force intelligence officer who graduated from Berkeley. He has been to 49 states. Indiana native Ryan Kirk was once a lead singer and guitarist in a rock band. No less impressive is Rob Garwitz, a Nike employee who has lived his brand’s revered “Just do it” motto by running six marathons and qualifying for the Boston Marathon five times. Whatever you do, watch out for Raisaa Tashnova, a closet poet from Bangladesh: “I am a small person with a BIG VOICE! Always asking life – what more is there to you?”
THE BEST CLASS EVER?
Their accomplishments are equally imposing. Looking for a rags-to-riches story? Think Seoul’s Eric Changhan Ko. In his early 20s, he was a postman. A few years later, he was working for Samsung, hawking music phones on a DJ turntable and traveling. Eventually, he developed a Fortune 500 distribution program for Galaxy EDGE smartphones that helped increase 2015 sales by $3 billion.
For others, the achievements were more personal and intimate. Take Sontaya Sherrell, a self-described “Army brat” whose first semester should be a breeze compared to what she faced. During her time at Fort Campbell, she purposely avoided Air Assault School, a 10-day venture that involves everything from grueling physical training like obstacle course runs and rappelling to intensive exams on areas such as rigging loads and hand-and-arm signals. Eventually, Sherrell cast aside her doubts about her physical abilities and fears over the training dangers and went all in. “The pride that I felt completing my final 12- mile ruck march and earning that badge was indescribable,” she exclaims. “My military career has allowed me to push my boundaries in so many ways and really transformed the way I approach obstacles in my life.”
Indeed, the Class of 2018 could be called an embarrassment of riches for Joseph P. Fox, the school’s associate dean and director of graduate programs. In fact, he goes so far as to label this class the best that he has seen yet.
“Each year I think to myself that the next incoming class of MBAs can’t possibly be more global, more cosmopolitan, more interesting or more diverse,” he tells Poets&Quants. “And to my everlasting happiness (and with gratitude to our admission team), it turns out that I am wrong each and every year. And that is saying something since this is my 36th year managing MBA programs. The Olin MBA Class of 2018 defies a simple description or a ‘catch-phrase characterization.’ Suffice it to say that they daily exhibit extraordinary character, intelligence, fortitude, charm, personality, vitality and ambition. And this is just in the first three weeks! We are so happy that they have become a part of Olin Nation.”
BUSINESS MAJORS REPLACE STEM GRADS AS THE BIGGEST BLOC IN THE 2018 CLASS
By the numbers, however, the 2018 Class slipped in several key measures. Although applications and the school’s acceptance rate remained nearly identical at 1,581 and 30% respectively, the average GMAT dropped from 695 to 687, with the median GMAT returning to the 700 score posted by the Class of 2016. At the same time, the average GPA of the class inched up from 3.40 to 3.44. Overall, the class features 128 students, down from its 141 student high in 2017.