Amid The Media’s Decline, This Stanford MBA Still Sees Opportunity

The Stanford MBA hosts of Storyist

Just about everyone realizes that the media is a dying industry. Only last month, even some of the newer and presumably smarter digital players in the media landscape, including Vice, Quartz and BuzzFeed, began rounds of layoffs.

But the newspaper closures, big and small media restructurings and waves of layoffs hardly seem to matter to Judd Olanoff, who just graduated from the MBA program at Stanford Graduate School of Business. If anything, the industry’s turmoil has made it more attractive to the former i-banker at JP Morgan and credit investor at Highbridge Capital Management.

“I have been fascinated with media and the future of media for years,” says the 34-year-old Olanoff. “The headwinds the industry is facing, where it is going and how it will evolve has only made me more fascinated.”


Stanford MBA Judd Olanoff

His idea? To create video bursts of explanatory storytelling largely for a younger generation of viewers. Storyist is a short form cross between Vox, for its attempt to add context to key issues, and Vice, for its narrative storytelling approach. Whether Storyist will make it on the list of the most disruptive MBA startups is anyone’s guess. But Olanoff doesn’t lack for passion.

“I’m trying to create a new format that I am hoping could resonate more with millennials and Gen Z,” he says. “I’ve found that MBAs and young, educated people more broadly are often disconnected from the news because they’re busy, but also because they find the hype, tribalism and superficiality of traditional media unpalatable. It’s a misconception that millennials and Gen Z don’t care about the news. My mission is to craft stories to reach those people by focusing on context, explanation, and accessibility.”

The succinct videos, often snippets of five minutes or less, are delivered by a single narrator in the first person. They are filmed in natural environments in iPhone quality with some animation. There are no bright lights or slick news sets. No coiffed news anchors in suits. “I wanted to pick millennials or Gen Z hosts,” Olanoff explains. “I think young people want to hear from trusted hosts they can relate to. We want these to feel as if you are sitting down over a coffee with a friend you trust who walks you through a subject that is grounded in their personal experience. It needs to be engaging, and the viewer needs to learn something from the video. A hypothesis I am testing is that young people are looking for accessibility and authenticity. I am trying to reduce the perceived distance from the viewer to the person delivering the story. We then layer in their personal experience to make it authentic and real.”


The first dozen videos feature his Stanford MBA classmates and are being posted on Instagram. There’s Tylon Garrett, a former Boston Consulting Group consultant in Atlanta, who tackles systemic racism in less than seven minutes. Or Ben Leff, a former Goldman Sachs staffer and political junkie, on the problems with political polling. Or Carl White Ulysse, an anesthesia resident who just graduated with his MBA from Stanford, on how antibody testing works in under five minutes.

Thus far, Garrett’s Storyist video is among the most popular with more than 2,000 views. After a brief intro, Garrett dressed in a sweatshirt and a baseball cap speaks from his heart. “As a black man born in the south, this has actually been my lived experience. What I want to do is pull back the curtain and show you what the life of a black man can be like.”

There are facts interspersed with heartfelt storytelling. One in four black men will spend time in prison, we’re told, and black mothers are four times more likely to die in childbirth than their white peers.


At one point, his voice falters as he becomes emotional. “Being Black in the U.S. is one of the most unpredictable experiences,” he says. “You could be president or you could be shot running. People look at us as aggressive, violent and angry without even looking at the hatred that makes them that way. You can do everything right and then become a martyr for a cause that should have ended decades ago.”

Coming into Stanford’s MBA program, Olanoff says he knew he wanted to pivot from finance. “But I didn’t know to what,” says Olanoff, who is also getting a joint degree in public policy from the Kennedy School at Harvard University. Despite his time in i-banking and investing, he has been passionate about journalism and media for years. He was the editor of his high school’s weekly newspaper and has written on the side for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Boston Globe. “I came in knowing I wanted to do something about the future of media to help news engage young people but it was my experiences at the GSB that sharpened my interest.

“The GSB culture and experiences here got me to refine what I wanted to do with those passions and led to the project. I thought coming in that one track I wanted to pursue was early-stage investing in media companies. It was really at the GSB through the low keynote and the curriculum here which encourages you to explore and pursue your dreams. Every day you walk around in town square and you sense that your classmates are cultivating these ideas that will result in the companies of the future.”


One of the more popular rituals in Stanford’s culture are “LOWkeynotes,” TED-style mini-talks in front of classmates. MBAs pick topics they’re passionate about and where they believe they could possibly make a difference. “I applied to the program and got in and what rose to the top of the list was the future of news and how we can as a society reimagine the news to improve it,” he says. Since his talk, he’s been working in an independent study program with Glenn Kramon, a former New York Times assistant managing editor and business editor, who now teaches Winning Writing, one of the most popular electives at Stanford Business School.

And this past fall, at the Kennedy School, he was a research assistant to Adam Moss, the highly acclaimed former editor in chief of New York magazine. He describes Kramon and Moss as “inspirations and mentors.”

Why Storyist? “For one thing it needed to be inexpensive and I needed to bootstrap it in one-quarter of time at the GSB. A huge piece of this was just figuring out what was doable. Pick a format and pick a product that can be produced from scratch and get it out quickly at a low cost. I do the video editing with the help of the video editor at the Stanford student newspaper. The hosts are MBAs at Stanford. I was able to call upon resources at the GSB and put these videos together before raising capital. That is one piece of the story. The other side of it is that the project aspires to and satisfies certain ideals and criteria that are important in solving these problems.”


For now, there is no business model. “I think there are so many challenges and so many unknowns, but I really do believe that if you can put together a product that meets an acute need in the market and builds an audience that is engaged I believe there will be a business for that,” he believes. What is most important now is getting high-quality feedback from a smaller group of dedicated people. It’s not about growing the audience; it’s about taking stock of where we are, getting feedback on what worked and what didn’t, in terms of hosts and styles. The conversation I want to have with people is what are you looking for in a news product? How did our videos deliver against the things you are looking for? We’ll decide where to go from there.”

Ultimately, Storyist could evolve into a broad news platform for millennials and GenZers distributed largely via social media. “This is a school project right now. The focus is on getting these videos out there and collecting feedback. I want this to evolve into a news company that will address what Gen Z and millennials are looking for.”


Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.