The Student Entrepreneurial Program (StEP): Innovating Student Entrepreneurship

It’s no secret that starting a business isn’t easy. Add that to being an undergrad and the mix gets even more difficult. Yet, somehow, student-run businesses are surprisingly common at WashU.

From Bear Bites to Bear Bikes, from U-Shuttle and UTrucking, the list of student-run businesses at WashU is impressive. This can, of course, be attributed to the creativity and hard work of the students who run them. But WashU also has something special that helps foster student innovation and entrepreneurship on campus.

StEP, the Student Entrepreneurial Program, provides students with the opportunity to purchase or start their own business while still in school. Founded in 1999 with the goal of bringing together student businesses already on campus and encouraging the creation of new ones, the program welcomed its first five businesses in January 2000. Today there are 13 StEP businesses.

A unique program

The program is unique in that it empowers and trusts its students to fully own and run their own businesses. Student businesses receive no money from the university and must be profitable in order to stay open. The program, which is part of the Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship, provides advising, access to loans, and subsidized storefronts on a highly-trafficked portion of the South 40 (the underclassmen living area), but other than that, students hold full responsibility.

“There are a couple of program advisors and a board of directors, but for the most part, we only provide basic guidance. All business decisions are left to the owners,” says Jessica Stanko, the campus services coordinator for the Skandalaris Center. “For students who choose to start something new, it’s an opportunity for them to try launching a real business in a safe environment that provides a lot of support.”

StEP alumni Max Schoenfeld, BA ‘14, and Jacob Goodman, BSBA ‘15, were so inspired by the StEP model that they went on to start their own business using what they had learned. As part of StEP, the two had owned UTrucking, a shipping and storage company for WashU students.

College Truckers founders Max Schoenfeld (left) and Jacob Goodman (right).

Having entered WashU with no strong inclination towards entrepreneurship, Schoenfeld’s experience with StEP had a real impact. “The experience UTrucking gave me was unlike anything I ever expected to have in college, and I really do credit it for changing the direction of everything that I would do after,” Schoenfeld says.

Goodman entered WashU with a very different mindset. Already interested in entrepreneurship, WashU’s commitment to supporting and cultivating student entrepreneurs caught Goodman’s eye. “The StEP program was one of the most influential reasons I chose WashU,” he says.

Alongside owning UTrucking while at WashU, Goodman also took over Fresh Prints, a custom apparel company catering to student groups on college campuses. After graduating, Goodman moved to New York City with his business partner Josh Arbit, BSBA ‘13, to run Fresh Prints full-time.

Schoenfield, on the other hand, moved to New York City without a job, not knowing what he wanted to do. As he and Goodman discussed their experiences in StEP, the two came up with an idea.

“How can we bring the StEP-like experience to as many students as possible, because we know just how valuable it was,” Schoenfeld pondered.

Modeling the company framework after the model used by StEP, the two entrepreneurs started College Truckers, a storage, shipping, and moving service for college students. “What we do is essentially empower teams of student entrepreneurs on campuses nationwide to start and run their own storage shipping company on their campus,” Schoenfeld says. “We provide the product and all of the big-picture support needed to get their company off the ground.”

As in StEP, College Truckers gives its student entrepreneurs needed support but lets them handle the responsibility of running a successful campus business. When student owners graduate they can sell their shares to younger students at their universities. These new owners then take over and continue to run that campus’ College Truckers company.

College Truckers’ StEP-inspired business model got the two featured in a Huffington Post article on successful young entrepreneurs.

Starting a new StEP business

Each person that goes through StEP has a different story.

Alongside three friends, Shea Gouldd, BSBA ‘17, started Bear-y Sweet Shoppe during her sophomore year. The first all-female-founded student business, the campus candy shop proved to be a success. Gouldd emphasizes the importance of being willing to try a new concept. “I think one of the big mistakes is assuming that because some of the businesses have been around for so long, that means they’re [StEP] not open to new ones,” she says.

In the past three years, five news student businesses have been launched through StEP. Interested students create a new business idea, meet with one of the program’s advisors, and come up with a business plan. Students then present on the concept and complete an interview with the StEP Board of Directors. Approved business ideas must then raise the funds needed and complete the necessary requirements to operate in the St. Louis/Clayton area. For Shea and her fellow founders of Bear-y Sweet Shoppe, the last step was particularly relevant. Their by-the-ounce candy store was the first StEP business to sell food. After working with the St. Louis County Department of Health and candy vendors, the store opened its doors in January 2015.

This past spring semester, Gouldd and her business partners sold their candy shop to a new crop of student entrepreneurs. Although bittersweet, Gouldd is continuing on to new things. She will be working at Red Ventures, a digital marketing consulting company, at their Charlotte, North Carolina location. “It’s a small company, it’s kind of got a startup vibe without being a startup itself,” she says. “It’s really awesome.”

An entrepreneur since high school, Gouldd started her own bakery at age 14. By the time she had graduated high school she had already been named Young Women Entrepreneur of the Year by the National Association of Women Business Owners and Young Entrepreneur of the Year by the National Foundation for Independent Businesses. Despite her extensive entrepreneurship experience, she still emphasizes how formative StEP is. “It’s definitely an invaluable experience, it being the only program in the country that allows you to have that experience,” she says. “It almost seems silly to let that experience go to waste and not take advantage of it.”

Not everyone in the program is a serial entrepreneur. Senior Caleb Diamond, one of the owners of the campus laundry and dry cleaning service Wash U Wash, wants to go into politics. Attracted to StEP because of the hands-on experience that owning a business would provide, Diamond co-purchased Wash U Wash in 2015. “While I love my classes, I viewed participation in StEP as a way to gain real-life business experience and to strengthen my education in a way that the theoretical material we learn in class does not,” he says.

Despite no previous business experience, Diamond feels he’s gained the tools to succeed. “StEP does a very good job of balancing business freedom with oversight,” Diamond says. “My business partners and I feel completely comfortable exploring potential new ideas and working through the challenges of owning a business because StEP gives us guidance and a community to learn from.”

StEP has created something unique on campus. As part of the university’s continued support of student entrepreneurship, the program provides to students the very real experience of running a business. While already-motivated entrepreneurs like Gouldd and Goodman are drawn to the program from the get-go, others get involved with StEP as their interest in starting or owning a business grows. Either way, the program has an incredible impact.

“It’s quite literally the only program like it in the entire country, and that’s pretty crazy to think about, and I think all too often that could sort of be taken for granted at WashU,” Gouldd says.

“When I look back at WashU, my experience with UTrucking and my experience with the StEP program was, is, and will remain the defining aspect of my college career, there’s no doubt about that,” Schoenfeld says. “WashU has far and away one of the most robust and just one of the best entrepreneurship infrastructures of any school in the country and I encourage every young entrepreneur I meet who’s in high school thinking about colleges to put WashU at the top of their list.”