How Washington University Built An Entrepreneurial Powerhouse

The 4240 building in Cortex. Photo by James Byard/Washington University


The university made it easier for business students to take courses outside of the school, and also allowed other graduate students to take classes in the business school, which was instrumental in Holekamp’s plan to expand the program. It gave him enough students interested in entrepreneurship to expand the number of electives offered from two when he started with the school in 2008 to 15 by the time he left earlier this summer.

“I knew if I wanted to add an elective, I needed students beyond Olin because there weren’t enough students,” Holekamp says. Olin’s full-time MBA program is a relatively small one, having just 98 students enrolled this past fall. “About half of the students in our entrepreneurship classes are from other schools. That’s huge.”

According to data gathered from the rankings project, about 23% of elective courses at Olin are focused on entrepreneurship and innovation, which is seventh-best out of the 27 schools ranked this year (see Best Entrepreneurship Programs: The Data Dump). Three-quarters of students enrolled in the full-time MBA program are part of the Entrepreneurship Club — a higher percentage than all but one other school. A quarter of the student-run clubs at Olin are focused on entrepreneurship and research. Some 20% of core courses have at least 50% of their curriculum dedicated to entrepreneurship. And at 27%, Olin has a higher percentage of faculty members teaching in entrepreneurship than any other school included in this year’s ranking.


Thanks to a couple of recent changes in the structure of the MBA program at Washington University, those numbers are likely to grow. Over the past year as the school was re-writing its strategic plan, it came up with “four strategic pillars.” One of those is entrepreneurship. According to Dean Mark Taylor, who took over the Olin deanship in 2016, entrepreneurship was an early strength of the program he spotted. 

The other major change came this past year, when Olin added a question on the student course evaluations, asking about the strength of every course’s entrepreneurial focus.

“Every course at Olin has to be accountable to entrepreneurship and innovation,” Holekamp beams in an office in the T-Rex space. “In every single course evaluation now, there is a question at the bottom that asks to what degree was entrepreneurship and innovation a part of the course. Every single course. That took entrepreneurship from being a really strong niche to something every Olin student is going to be exposed to.”


While Holekamp continued to grow and evolve the entrepreneurship program at Olin, an economic shift was occurring in the community. Not far from T-Rex and the Olin Business School, in the Central West End neighborhood, an IKEA rests in the shadows of massive grain towers. It marks the eastern edge of the Cortex district and stands in stark contrast to the entrepreneurial renaissance in a city once decimated by the rise of suburbia and the fall of manufacturing. 

“There is no non-coastal city that has an innovation and entrepreneurship community of this scale,” Henry (Hank) Webber, says as he walks through the 203-acre district dedicated to innovation and entrepreneurship.

Webber is the executive vice chancellor and chief administrative officer at Washington University and was plucked from the University of Chicago by Washington University’s former chancellor, Mark Wrighton, in 2008 to build Cortex and essentially revitalize the city. 


So far, he’s done just that. 

Since its inception in 2002, Cortex has grown to include hundreds of thousands of square feet of coworking space and offices, and is home to more than 350 large and small businesses of varying maturity, about a half-dozen accelerators, some 4,500 jobs, award-winning restaurants, and soon a hotel space and apartment complex.

But, more importantly, alongside T-Rex, Cortex has helped lay a foundational spot for students to land after they graduate. “Embedding students into the community is such an important part of our strategy,” Holekamp says. “So it’s important to get them into Cortex and T-Rex so they can get the full St. Louis experience.”

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