Forest Park. Toasted ravs. Ted Drewes. The Cards and the Blues. And “Ope, look, there’s the Arch!”
These are some of the many muses that make St. Louis the city it is today. Being from the ‘Gateway’ metro area myself, I thought I knew everything there was to know about The Lou. It wasn’t until my first year at Washington University in St. Louis (WashU) that I discovered I couldn’t be more wrong.
You see, what sets St. Louis apart from so many other cities out there is the community and the opportunities that arise from its startup culture. In fact, it was listed at #6 for the 10 best “untapped” cities for startups in 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This achievement stems from the increasing value of venture capital investments as well as the low cost of doing business (which falls 8% below the national average). A burgeoning entrepreneurial ecosystem is one of many factors that led WashU to the top of P&Q’s first annual ranking of MBA programs for entrepreneurship. These facts do little, however, to exhibit how unique and warm the startup and small business environment in St. Louis truly is.
“It’s one of the only cities I’ve been to outside my hometown of Milwaukee where I really feel like people come together to take actual steps in helping their community,” says Noor Bekhiet, a senior at WashU studying Economics & Strategy and Architecture. Bekhiet is also the founder of SunPop Sook, a pop-up farmer’s market art collective. Here, artists, creators, craftsmen, and entrepreneurs of immigrant and refugee backgrounds can sell and promote their work.
Amazingly, Bekhiet is just one of many WashU student-entrepreneurs. As it happens, it isn’t rare for undergraduate students to take what they learned from their business courses and launch their own startups. This entrepreneurial mindset is one initiative that the Olin Business School so greatly values.
To get a better perspective on what makes the St. Louis startup environment so outstanding, I interviewed Bekhiet and a few other Olin students who are currently experiencing a taste of genuine entrepreneurship.
APPRECIATING THE UNDERAPPRECIATED
The idea for Sunpop Sook took many turns until it came out to be what it is today: “The pop-up arts market & collective you always needed,” as its website home page says. Bekhiet tells me her business idea originated from her Civic Scholars project, a program facilitated by the university’s Gephardt Institute which provides its students with a $5,000 stipend to create their own substantial civic project.
“I knew that I wanted to work in a space that uplifted immigrants, refugees, and my community,” states Bekhiet.
Just two months in, Sunpop Sook now has six vendors from all across the country. The firm is marketing and selling products that range from custom portraits to beauty products and clothing items—all of which are produced by BIPOC. While Bekhiet originally planned to start her business in St. Louis, COVID-19 drastically switched up her plans by moving to an entirely online-based platform. Down the line, she plans to venture into physical pop-up markets—and St. Louis is one of the destinations where she hopes to plant roots.
When asked about any advice she has for prospective business-oriented students looking at WashU, Bekhiet discusses the countless resources the university offers as an introduction into the St. Louis startup industry. From her experience with Gephardt-to-Olin courses such as Management Communications, Bekhiet feels there is no better time than now to take advantage of your creativity.
“If you have an idea, learn from other people, and find a way to do it,” she goes on to say, “St. Louis is one of the best places to get things started.”
STEPPING IN A NEW DIRECTION
After having his summer internship canceled, junior Evan Zhou got a text from his friend to help him with mapping out a financial budget for a project. Soon enough, Zhou was doing more than just budgeting. He joined his friend on the idea and began recruiting other WashU students to help them. The result? Eden Street, a sustainable footwear brand with $1.3 million in funding.
Zhou got his first taste of the STL startup ecosystem during an info session at the Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship his first year on campus. There, so much caught his eye. He even decided to attend a startup expo downtown soon after.
“It just really seemed like a cool idea,” he reflects, “building something from nothing.”
In terms of their company’s final product, Eden St. and its founders are in the midst of experimenting with multiple sustainable materials to see which is the most minimalist, efficient, and inexpensive. They anticipate their first line of products to drop in April of next year. “The shoe industry is very wasteful,” Zhou continues, “Large shoe companies pump out tons and tons of products each year; they don’t degrade, they pollute the environment.”
They were fortunate to receive such a large amount of funding from their strong relationship with an established shoe manufacturer. They pitched their idea of leveraging sustainable tech and materials for a direct-to-customer brand. After combining their budget and break-even analysis, it altogether gained them a whopping $1.3 million in funding to start their brand with.
With Eden St., Zhou and his teammates hope to overcome this wasteful behavior one step at a time with each new product they design.
TURNING DREAMS INTO REALITY
Camryn Okere was beyond shocked when she discovered Bobo Noodle House, one of her favorite University City restaurants, closed its doors for good. With their popular college student audience and strong branding, Okere thought the eatery would easily pass through the pandemic. While she couldn’t change the past, Okere then decided to do something else to protect her other favorite STL spots. Thus, Rem and Company was born.
Named after the stage of sleep where dreams occur, Rem and Company focuses its attention on small businesses struggling to stay open and who face customer retention problems. At the end of the day, they are, according to the website, “a social impact initiative focusing on keeping doors open and dreams alive.” Yet, Okere states they aren’t like any consulting company out there.
“A lot of the traditional consulting doesn’t work,” she says, “so we really have to work with empathy and getting to know them outside the usual strategic consulting we’re so used to.”
To her amazement, Okere was embraced by her WashU community as more and more students and alumni jumped in to help. They were followed by others all over the world—in total, around 200 employees. Now Rem and Company holds a variety of different projects, including four taskforce-initiatives, an online COVID resource center, and even an immersive curriculum for students called Rem on Campus.
What really surprised Okere, though, was the support and heart that encompassed the St. Louis community. For instance, some mom-and-pop shops would come together to release cross-company products. The opportunities were limitless. “At the end of the day,” Okere reflects, “we really are prioritizing people over product.”
Her next steps include joining the St. Louis Small Business Taskforce. There, she hopes to maintain this community that truly defines the spirit of St. Louis.
STARTIN’ UP AT WASH-U
These are just three accounts of Olin students taking the initiative of creating their own venture. And it’s one of the hallmarks that makes WashU and its relationship in the St. Louis community so unique in the business landscape.
There are plenty of resources that undergrads can take advantage of during their four years on campus. Students can always pop in the Skandalaris Center to listen to local entrepreneurs present on their unique career paths. They can even get involved in “IdeaBounce” expos, where they can pitch their ideas to current inventors – just as Zhou had done. Or you can take a different approach via civic engagement by joining one of the many programs the Gephardt Institute offers, such as the Civic Scholars program like Bekhiet is currently involved with.
Nevertheless, it goes to show that WashU is a great introduction to this startup initiative. After interviewing Professor Doug Villard, Academic Director for Entrepreneurship, it’s clear that this type of student energy is one of the best values that the school’s faculty prides itself on. When you combine it with the entrepreneurial spirit of St. Louis, it creates “a special recipe”, as Villard likes to call it.
“I think it [St. Louis] is the perfect place,” Villard states, “because it is big enough to matter and is small enough because one can get to know everybody. Not only do they want to succeed, but they help each other out.”
And for those students considering this career path? Villard offers the following advice: “There are three things that make a perfect market fit, both on campus and off. You can take Intro to Entrepreneur classes in Olin and you can go to Idea Bounces at Skandalaris. But always remember to participate in the ecosystem that is the St. Louis community, such as the Venture Café at the Cortex Innovation Center. Do these three things and that’s how you will learn.”
I am a senior in the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis majoring in Marketing and minoring in Spanish and the Business of Entertainment. I live about a half hour away from the Lou in Collinsville, IL a.k.a. “the home to the world’s largest ketchup bottle”! I plan on pursuing a career in marketing research and strategy, specifically in entertainment where I hope to improve accurate representation in television. I like to spend my free time reading, riding bike trails, binging TV series, hiking, adventuring with friends, and enjoying the occasional margarita at my family’s Mexican restaurant. I’m always open to new book or TV recommendations!