Divergent paths to entrepreneurship

Olin Business School’s new Entrepreneurship Summer Stipend program expands options for entrepreneurial-minded MBA candidates.

Balancing act

Entrepreneurship is, by definition, a walk down an unbeaten path — one that many a startup founder has had to tread with limited support. In response, and in the spirit of innovation, Washington University’s Olin Business School has launched an Entrepreneurship Summer Stipend program. The business school established the  merit-based program so MBA students with an interest in entrepreneurship do not have to choose between following their passion and taking a corporate position in the crucial summer between their first and second year.

The program was launched in the summer of 2017 and runs for a minimum of 12 weeks. It is open to all full-time students in Olin’s MBA program. In addition to mentorship, each of the four students in the first cohort received $5,000 and free coworking space in St.Louis for the summer, giving them financial autonomy as they worked to achieve the goals they set when they applied for the stipend. Cliff Holekamp, Senior Lecturer in Entrepreneurship and Academic Director for Entrepreneurship at Washington University, set the vision for the program: “We don’t want to have any students who do not pursue their entrepreneurial dreams just because of financial feasibility,” Holekamp said.

The risk of choosing entrepreneurship over a corporate position is more than just financial: Summer internships are seen as pivotal stepping stones in the competitive world of business. Using one’s summer to work on a personal project could make it difficult for employers to quantify the student’s achievements in the future.

The real value of the stipend program might be the precedent it sets —  students can pursue entrepreneurship without being forced to pull off a balancing act between purse and profession.

“They are juggling their education benefits, the career impact and the financial realities,” says Holekamp.

“In the MBA program at Olin we want to make sure that working at a startup is viewed as just as viable a summer internship as working in a big corporation. This program helps create a richer personal narrative than what might otherwise happen.”

Diverging narratives

The narratives from the four students in the first cohort are as rich and divergent as Holekamp might have hoped. Chad Littrell is running Incellab, a private company developing nanoparticle-based therapy for cancer patients suffering from glioblastoma. Nathan Vogt is working with Givable, a  micro-donating platform that informs people about social causes and simplifies donating to them. David Allston is running the Adelphoi Fund, a nonprofit that establishes self-sustaining communities in rural Kenya by connecting them with funds and training. Josh Henschen is doing market research in Bulgaria and across Eastern Europe, testing the feasibility of starting a chain of Western-style travel hostels.

These young entrepreneurs took the same opportunity and radiated it out in different directions. They came upon the opportunity in different ways as well. Chad Littrell was inspired to start his company by the Skandalaris Center’s WashU Patent Challenge. He discovered a patent for an antibody that was unused and had been sitting on the shelf for years. Tapping into his background in formulation science, he founded Incellab with the lofty goal of creating a therapy for glioblastoma, an aggressive type of cancer that claims the lives of 95% of all who are diagnosed with it. He says he would not have been able to pursue his own business without the stipend program. “We are shooting to go to Mars… I came to appreciate that a student, even a first-year, can have the skills necessary to put in the work and get it done.” Littrell said.

Nathan Vogt’s interest lies in a different kind of entrepreneurship. “Entrepreneurship is really neat,” he says.  “But I like the idea of intrapreneurship: being an entrepreneur inside a company, big or small.”

Vogt, who is in Washington University’s 3-2 program, will spend 3 years earning his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and 2 years earning his MBA. He would eventually like to work in the corporate sector but has concentrated his internship experiences on nonprofits, which are often smaller than corporations and work on limited budgets.

“The stipend is a fantastic opportunity because it allows me to work for a startup that ordinarily would not be able to pay me,” Vogt said.

Working at a startup also provides an opportunity for Vogt to work on making nonprofits more efficient and self-sufficient. “That drives me,” says Vogt. “At a startup, the answers haven’t been solved yet; that’s the difficulty but it is also the entertaining part.”

David Allston is working to solve problems for a nonprofit as well, but in his case, one that he started himself. His parents are missionaries and he grew up in Togo, West Africa. As an adult, he did mission work in Kenya and now is drawing on his past to take a hands-on approach to sustainable development. His company, the Adelphoi fund, partners with community organizations (like churches) in Kenya to provide them with the resources they need to develop their communities and move toward providing for themselves. “Our goal is that ten years after we get there we are irrelevant. We are always trying to work ourselves out of a job,” Allston said.  

For Allston, the stipend also serves as an endorsement of his hard work. “It was great to have someone at the school look at what I’m doing and say: ‘We think there is something here and it’s worth your time.’”

Henschen

“It helps if you are [physically] in the country or the region of the world where you are hoping to have a bigger impact.” Henschen said. “That shows a greater level of dedication to the real long-term goal than if you’re just some American guy who’s throwing money at startup companies.”Josh Henschen already had plans to tap into his corporate experience and become a full-time consultant. But after joining the MBA program and taking Holekamp’s  entrepreneurship course, he began to think about starting his own company, possibly in Eastern Europe, where he’d worked previously. The stipend gave him flexibility to spend the summer in Bulgaria conducting market research. His time there will inform his current business as well as his plan for running a startup or accelerator in a foreign country.

The Olin Business School’s MBA Entrepreneurship Summer Stipend program provides a means for students to grow their business ideas or work for causes they believe in without having to compromise for financial reasons. Chad, Nathan, David and Josh are using their stipends this summer for journeys of their own – journeys on unbeaten paths.