Experiential Learning: Part of Olin’s DNA for a century

Business trends come and go, but one component of business education has been a constant at Washington University since 1917. On-the-job experience has been a hallmark of every student’s time at the business school since its founding.

The business school’s first dean, William Gephart, realized that academic training alone could not replace the centuries-old tradition of apprenticeship, and he made summer internships at local businesses a mandatory requirement for students. In fact, Gephart viewed St. Louis banks, manufacturers, and all potential employers’ firms as a “laboratory” for his students at the new School of Commerce and Finance.

By the late 1980s, “on-the-job experience” had taken on a new moniker—experiential learning. “Students wanted more hands-on experience before graduation,” says Bob Virgil, Olin’s dean from 1977–93. “As part of the $15-million challenge grant from the Olin Foundation [in 1985], we agreed to do more experiential learning and create a Management Center for that purpose.”

Dean Virgil appointed Russ Roberts, a young economics professor, as the first director of the Management Center. “It was a strange choice,” Roberts recalled with a chuckle during a phone interview. “I didn’t have any real-world experience.”

But Virgil recognized Roberts’ talent as a creative teacher who had built a career on making the “dismal science” interesting and accessible to his students. From novels featuring plots based on economic theory and more recently, videos starring rock star economists like Keynes and Hayek as battling rappers, to his award-winning podcast EconTalk, Roberts has been an innovator for his entire career. He is currently a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

During eight years as director of the Management Center, Roberts helped launch many of the signature programs that still exist today: the Practicum, Taylor Community Consulting Program, and the Hatchery. The center’s name was changed to The Center for Experiential Learning—or C-E-L, for short—when Roberts left Olin to join the Weidenbaum Center at WashU.

The Hatchery: An introduction to entrepreneurship

Roberts, like his successors Staci Thomas, Mark Sozcek, Ron King, and Daniel Bentle, was responsible for soliciting companies to participate in CEL Practicum projects, recruiting students, and vetting and coordinating teams. Roberts said the Hatchery course was Olin’s first foray into entrepreneurship as an academic discipline. In the beginning, Roberts recruited local entrepreneurs to present their startups to the class. Students had to compete to form teams to work on a business plan for each startup. As students began showing interest in starting their own companies, the Hatchery changed with the times and focused exclusively on student-proposed business plans as it does today.

Cliff Holekamp, who teaches the Hatchery course, speaks with a student at the St. Louis incubator T-REx.

“The final exam for the Hatchery course is unlike any other. Teams of students present the business plan for a startup to judges made up of real-world investors, experienced entrepreneurs, and other experts. The judges ask detailed questions about the new product or service, the financial projections, patent-worthy innovations, and the return on investment they can expect,” says Cliff Holekamp, senior lecturer in entrepreneurship and director of the Entrepreneurship Platform.

Growing into the 21st Century

“When I was CEL director,” recalled Mark Soczek, who served from 2004–12, “We had six to eight Practicum consulting projects a semester; 10 to 12 Taylor projects; and two to three Global Management Study trips per year.” Today, Soczek continues to oversee the consulting projects with local nonprofits funded by the Taylor Community Consulting Program and notes that there are 22 Taylor projects for the spring 2017 semester.

Student interest in working with nonprofits has mushroomed with the millennial generation, according to Soczek. He says it’s a win-win situation for the community organizations and the students. “Staff of nonprofits may not have a business background, so it helps to have students who can bring that knowledge,” Soczek says. “It’s very rewarding for the students because they can usually see the impact they are having fairly immediately.”

A student team works with the Women’s Bakery in Rwanda, which was co-founded by MBA student Markey Culver (second to left). The Women’s Bakery offers business education and skill building to the women it employs in East Africa.

Ron King, Myron Northrop Professor of Accounting, was director of the CEL from 2012–16. While he acknowledges the significant increase in the number of students and projects, he points to the ramp-up of quality of projects as one of the biggest improvements in the CEL programs under his leadership. “The quality of deliverables was increased by disciplined processes that the CEL implemented to guide and enable teams in their efforts,” King says.

Former CEL Director Ron King at Mt. Everest’s base camp.

King believes the CEL’s projects make a substantial impact on the community and provide an innovative learning focus for students, a sentiment the current CEL Director, Daniel Bentle, MBA ’13, echoes.

“It takes the classroom one step further. Their skills are incredibly valuable and can bring about real change. That’s an awakening for the students,” Bentle says. “We’re hoping that will help them make decisions about their career paths, whether they want to work with corporate America, family businesses, a nonprofit, or elsewhere.”

On-the-job experience has been the goal for a century

Soczek says the CEL has worked to promote student awareness of its growing menu of opportunities over the past decade. By participating in a CEL project, career-focused students gain more than just an experience to put on their resume. “They have a unique, individual story to tell in a job interview. The skills they use on the projects from teamwork to project management are skills that translate well into the workforce. And the six-week to semester-long projects are like mini-internships,” Soczek says. In addition to building a student’s portfolio of experience, the CEL “offers a kind of safe zone to try out or dabble in an industry or skillset that is outside your comfort zone.”

As Olin begins its second century, the emphasis on experiential learning is stronger than ever. Both undergraduate and graduate students are encouraged to participate in CEL projects, and most are open to all WashU students on campus, allowing for rich, intra-disciplinary talents to work together on teams. The once new-fangled “experiential” descriptor has evolved and expanded to include more entrepreneurial experiences, student-led global study trips, a small business initiative focused on North St. Louis, and a unique partnership with the United Way that allows MBA students to participate as active, voting members on a nonprofit agency board for a year.

Students discuss marketing plans with the owner of Hollow Woodworks in Ferguson, Missouri, as part of the CEL’s Small Business Initiative.

Bentle says today’s CEL projects involve very real challenges in the business world. “What we have is extremely talented, high-caliber students who, once they graduate, will be working for the very same consulting companies our CEL clients typically hire. It’s giving students a mission, something real. It’s a critical component of the experience at WashU.”

Read more about today’s Center for Experiential Learning on Olin’s website and in the recent issue of Olin Business Magazine, available online.

25 years of experiential learning at a glance

  • 1991 The CEL Practicum program pairs faculty-led teams of talented Olin students with companies seeking smart solutions to management challenges.
  • 1992 The Taylor Community Consulting Program is a six-week consulting program that pairs teams of Olin students with St. Louis area nonprofit agencies. The goal is to help these agencies compete more effectively by providing them with short-term, pro bono business expertise.
  • 1995 & 2004 Quality School is a collaborative effort between Olin Business School, Washington University’s George Warren Brown School of Social Work, and St. Louis area public schools. Student teams work with administrators, teachers, and parents to implement total quality initiatives that improve school procedures and processes.
  • 1996 The Hatchery (Business Planning for New Enterprises) is the university’s capstone entrepreneurship course. This course is offered by Olin in both the fall and spring semesters and is open to all WashU students.
  • 1997 Global Management Studies (GMS) are student-directed courses that focus on industries, management styles, or emerging markets in a country or region outside the United States. Graduate-level students select the subject for intense study, plan a 10-day visit to the area, and arrange for company site-visits, meetings with executives, and business leaders.
  • 1997-2012 Investment Praxis (IP) is a course that allows students to gain hands-on investing experience with actual monies by managing a portion of Olin’s endowment funds over a semester.
  • 2003 Curriculum for Olin’s undergraduate major in Entrepreneurship includes the Hatchery as the capstone class.
  • 2010 Olin/United Way Board Fellows program takes second-year MBA students from the classroom to the nonprofit boardroom and provides a unique lesson in leadership.
  • 2012 The CEL Entrepreneurial Consulting Team (CELect) course fosters an active relationship between the Washington University and St. Louis startup communities.
  • 2015 The Small Business Initiative course delivers impact to the St. Louis economy by connecting passionate undergraduate WashU students to local small business owners.
  • 2016 The CEL Metrics clinic is the capstone case analysis at the end of the first semester of the MBA program. The clinic matches teams of graduate students with entrepreneurs to help develop and deploy effective financial metrics, empowering entrepreneurs to advance decision making and effective communications using financial metrics.
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