Entrepreneurship Through Acquisition Exploding At WashU Olin & Other B-Schools

Entrepreneurship Through Acquisition Exploding At WashU Olin & Other B-Schools

Olin Business School MBA students working in class. While Olin is a leader in MBA entrepreneurship, ETA interest is exploding there — as it is at B-schools across the country. Olin photo

Max Kleeman is searching for a small to medium-sized service company, possibly focused in healthcare or home service. Think HVAC, tree care, or a niche medical spa. Ideally, he’d like to find the company in the Chicago or St. Louis areas, or in a metropolitan area in the West. Maybe Denver or Salt Lake City.

Drake Hill is more geographically focused, but industry agnostic. He wants to stay in the Midwest, close to family around his home state of Illinois. He wants to build a company that has a nice return without chaining him to an office chair.

After graduating from Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, both Kleeman and Hill swore off jobs in consulting, banking and other industries typically favored by MBAs. They don’t dream of starting their own ventures, though you’d have to describe both as entrepreneurial.

Instead, both are actively searching for small, family-owned businesses that they can buy, run and build with the help of all the skills they learned at Olin.

Entrepreneurship Through Acquisition Exploding At WashU Olin & Other B-Schools

Drake Hill, JD/MBA ’23

“Nobody these days wants to waste away in a corner office in their 20s and 30s. Our generation likes to be outside. We like to be with family. We’re not like our parents who were raring to go to the cities,” Hill says.

“And also, the financial returns are crazy. These businesses are very stable and lucrative and have shockingly low valuations. So if you can buy something that makes a million bucks a year, and you can grow it a bit or just keep it going, in five or six years it’s going to be a great little business and a great little life that you’ve built for your family.”


Entrepreneurship through Acquisition (ETA) is one of the hottest conversations at business schools across the country, particularly for MBAs not interested in more traditional MBA landing spots.

It entails finding, buying and operating established small- to medium-sized businesses, often family owned and providing needed services in their communities. Taught at Harvard and Stanford for decades, ETA courses and resources are now exploding at B-schools of all tiers.

Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management offers a comprehensive ETA track in its competitive Zell Fellowship program. The program offers coaching, mentoring, and connection to ETA searchers as well as CEOs who have acquired small businesses. The Wharton School received a $10 million gift in 2022 to establish ETA programming at University of Pennsylvania’s Venture Lab. Dartmouth Tuck, Duke Fuqua, Babson, and Case Western’s Weatherhead all offer ETA courses, conferences, or other programming to support aspiring entrepreneurs in the space.

It’s not hard to imagine why. Small businesses account for 99% of U.S. businesses and employ nearly half of private sector employees. They generate 43.5% of American GDP, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Meanwhile, MBAs are facing a much tougher job market in consulting, banking, and other sectors over the last couple of years. Last year, McKinsey, Bain, and Boston Consulting Group froze salaries or pushed back start dates far into the spring. The Class of 2023 overall struggled to secure full-time employment after graduation compared to previous classes. Only 86% of Harvard Business School job seekers, for example, received offers within 90 days, a significant slowdown compared to the 95% job placement rate for 2022 and 96% for 2021.

It’s a perfect storm for those interested in entrepreneurship in general and ETA in particular.

“All MBA programs have students interested in entrepreneurship. Very few of the entrepreneurial students, however, have what we professors would consider to be ‘solid’ startup ideas,” says Doug Villhard, academic director for entrepreneurship at Washington University.

“Thus, the opportunity to instead buy a company that already has product-market fit is not without risk, but yet at the same time very appealing.”

Entrepreneurship Through Acquisition Exploding At WashU Olin & Other B-Schools

Washington University’s Olin Business School


WashU’s Olin Business School has a long entrepreneurial track record. It has topped Poets&Quant’s own ranking for MBA entrepreneurship for five straight years. In the latest edition, Olin reported that 100% of its MBAs engaged with a startup in some capacity during their time in the program.

The B-school is also located in one of the fastest-growing startup hubs in the world. And it has multiple resources for the entrepreneurial minded, including the university-wide Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship with entrepreneurs from all eight of WashU’s academic schools. The center offers everything from workspace to logo design, from funding to trademarks and copyright expertise.

But, startups are not the only path for budding entrepreneurs.

“In Olin’s entrepreneurship program, we first teach students to fall in love with the customer’s problem, and then we teach them how to do something about it. ETA only works if the acquired company grows post acquisition,” Villhard says.

Entrepreneurship Through Acquisition Exploding At WashU Olin & Other B-Schools

Doug Villhard, academic director of entrepreneurship

“That’s where the real entrepreneurial, managerial, and strategic skills are put into practice, just as students would with a startup. Thus, what we teach applies to starting a company or managing one that already exists.”

Today, Olin has two courses focused on ETA: Entrepreneurship Through Acquisition is taught by adjunct professor Brian Wolfe, an attorney and an adjunct professor at WashU’s School of Law. Ownership Insights is taught by Spencer Burke, adjunct lecturer and Eugene F. Williams, Jr. Executive in Residence, and Peter Boumgarden, the Koch Family Professor of Practice in Family Enterprise.

The school has a new student-led ETA Club which Kleeman co-founded last year. And, several graduates, including Kleeman and Hill, are out actively searching for their first acquisitions.

“We’re proud of where Olin’s ETA program is today, and I certainly anticipate we’ll continue to invest in it,” Villhard says. “I also expect to see the number of students performing searches exponentially increase as our program matures. It’s exciting times at Olin.”


There’s a reason startups get most of the attention – from reporters and MBAs. Startups are sexy. The mythos surrounding Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos is irresistible compared to telling your buddies that you run a pest control business with great recurring revenue.

But, it’s something business schools should be teaching, says Wolfe, who serves on the national council of the Skandalaris Center. He’s also an Investor in Residence, having built his own portfolio of acquisitions and exits, and he judges WashU’s various pitch competitions. The school does an amazing job on the startup side, he says, but that’s not all an entrepreneur can or should pursue.

Entrepreneurship Through Acquisition Exploding At WashU Olin & Other B-Schools

Brian Wolfe, attorney and adjunct professor at WashU’s School of Law

“My view, and the statistics show this, is that startups are really, really hard. Only about 10% of companies ever get to $1 million in sales, and only 1% ever get to $10 million. It’s great that we teach our students how to start a startup. But, the truth of the matter is, they are a viable path for only 1% of students,” Wolfe says.

“One of the things I really love about ETA is it allows a lot of our students, our MBA students in particular, to be able to explore entrepreneurship, but within a framework where the likelihood of being successful is just much, much higher.”

There are several approaches to ETA. Many MBAs pursue a traditional search fund where they find a group of investors to support them through the search process – a labor-intensive task taking 18 months or longer. It involves finding small to medium companies with great returns and often cold calling the owners. In exchange, the investors get a stake in the company or promised returns upon exit.

A sponsored search is similar, but the aspiring owner works with fewer investors or a private equity firm which often provides mentorship and industry connections along with the capital.

In a self-funded search, the entrepreneur secures their own funding – either personal savings or debt. The U.S. government has created SBA loans with very favorable terms to stimulate entrepreneurship through small business ownership. The upshot is more control and greater ownership of the acquired venture. However, they also take in more of the risk.

Kleeman and Hill are doing a variation of a self-funded search. After taking Wolfe’s ETA class and spending countless hours with him outside of class talking about their plans, they joined Wolfe’s private investment firm Funded Ventures as partners and entrepreneurs in residence. The two are both looking for their own companies to acquire, while getting access to Funded Ventures advisors and investors. The firm signals to sellers and sell-side brokers that Kleeman and Hill, while young, are serious buyers.

Wolfe also sees Funded Ventures as a vehicle for other WashU students interested in pursuing ETA.


Kleeman, who graduated in December, went to business school because he thought he wanted to be a consultant like his twin brother. He even did an MBA internship at a healthcare consulting firm in Chicago.

But, at Olin, his ambition changed. Through Wolfe, he started connecting with people in the ETA space and just picking their brains. The conversations reminded him of the small healthcare service provider where he previously worked. It was the quintessential family business, owned and operated by a husband and wife, serving people from the St. Louis area for more than two decades.

Entrepreneurship Through Acquisition Exploding At WashU Olin & Other B-Schools

Max Kleeman, MBA ’23

“I truly believe it’s one of the best ways to blend the opportunity to create meaningful work, providing good jobs and all of that, while also having the opportunity to generate a financial return,” Kleeman says.

Hill grew up in a small town in southern Illinois. He always thought he’d be a lawyer, so he did whatever he could to get into a great law school. He ultimately chose Washington University because it was close to home and he got a full scholarship.

But law school showed him what it would mean to be a lawyer, particularly a young lawyer building a career. He realized he didn’t care about prestige or working on Wall Street deals. He just wanted to do something interesting, rewarding and that created value. Something with a semblance of work life balance.

He randomly came across a Tweet that explained how to buy a business from a retiring baby boomer with the help of government-backed small business loans. He dove down the rabbit hole. He enrolled in the Olin MBA program to help him pivot fully away from the law. He graduated with his JD/MBA in May 2023.

“I could have probably done big law, I could have probably gotten into banking or classic private equity, but at my core, I’m a low key, small-town guy,” Hill says. “The idea of spending my life investing in this space and into these people is much more exciting.”


You could say prospective MBA buyers and small business owners are a match made in entrepreneurial heaven.

Family owned businesses provide goods and services communities can’t do without or would prefer not to: Pest control and plumbing, hotels and physician managed health clinics, childcare and funeral homes.

But fewer than half of them have an exit strategy or anyone to leave the business to. As baby boomers look to retire in the next five to 10 years, there are a lot of small businesses that will have to change hands or close down for good.

Enter the ETA-minded MBA. While the family business owner knows their community and market, they may not know anything about the latest tech for inventory management or online marketing for customer acquisition. The business student has the skills to take the business and grow it.

And, a lot of young professionals simply want different things than their parents did. They want their evenings and weekends and more autonomy in their careers.

“Small business ownership gives them a lot of the things that people are craving,” Wolfe says. “A lot of these younger people, they care about things that maybe people of my generation didn’t care about as much. They really believe that buying a small business is doing something that’s important and good for their community. It’s not just a financial return exercise.”

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