2021 Best & Brightest Business Major: Leah Wren Hardgrove, Washington University (Olin)

Leah Wren Hardgrove

Washington University in St. Louis, Olin Business School

“With braided hair I’m Disney Princess Elsa’s doppelganger, except with better jokes and worse eyesight.”

Fun fact about yourself: I spent the last year making and distributing accessible face masks that have a clear plastic covering over the mouth that allows for reading lips and other facial cues while still preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Hometown: Orlando, Florida

High School: Trinity Preparatory School

Major: Marketing, Organization & Strategic Management

Minor:  N/A

Favorite Business Course: Brand Management

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles During College:

Extracurriculars: Varsity Track & Field (2017-present), Alpha Omicron Pi sorority (2018-2020), Alpha Phi Omega community service fraternity (2018-present), Google Accessibility Trusted Product Tester (2019-present)

Community Work: Alpha Phi Omega community service fraternity – Semester-long community service projects for the greater St. Louis area, such as volunteering regularly at a greenhouse, making blankets for children through Project Linus, and volunteering at the St. Louis Walk to End Alzheimer’s.

Leadership Roles: Vice President of Standards for the Alpha Omicron Pi sorority, Diversity & Inclusion Chair for Alpha Phi Omega community service fraternity, Family Head of Alpha Phi Omega community service fraternity, Lime Connect Fellow

Where have you interned during your college career?

  • Google, remote with my team based in Mountain View, California, Associate Product Marketing Manager Intern, June 2020-September 2020
  • AlgoFace (formerly NUDEST), remote with my team based in New York, New York, Assistant Marketing Manager, April 2019-June 2020
  • Visit Orlando, Orlando, Florida, Global Communications Intern, May 2019-August 2019
  • PathNorth, Washington D.C., Communications and Event Coordination Intern, May 2018-August 2018

Where will you be working after graduation? Google, Bay Area, California, Associate Product Marketing Manager

Who is your favorite professor? My favorite teacher at WashU is Professor Staci Thomas, the Management Communications professor. She typically teaches sophomores, and I think she’s a great role model for young female business students. She has a powerful, positive presence that earns her instant respect from whoever she comes in contact with. She has high expectations and won’t stand for mediocrity, but not in a harsh way. She’s always willing to provide extra guidance on assignments and goes out of her way to help students who ask for it. The feedback she gives on work is always constructive, always looking for ways that students can improve themselves and their skills.

What makes Professor Thomas really stand out is her genuine interest in all of her students. From the first day of classes, she encourages students to make time to chat with her so she can get to know them better. Because of my schedule, I took her class in fall 2020, right in the middle of this pandemic. Part of the class was online and part was in person, socially distant. Despite the non-traditional classroom format, her class was the most engaging one I’ve taken at WashU. She made time for Zoom calls with her students, planned safe, fun class activities, and clearly explained how what we were learning in class was relevant to the real world.

I was personally dreading taking Professor Thomas’s class my senior year as the class is tailored to sophomores, with its focus on building a resume, learning how to interview, and creating a LinkedIn profile. Already having a job offer, I felt like this class would waste my time. However, Professor Thomas worked with me to make sure I was still benefiting from class. She created an independent research project for me where I got to leverage my virtual internship experience and create a guide to navigating remote internships for other students. She saw my strengths and changed the curriculum for me so that her class would still be useful to me. Professor Thomas cares about students’ experiences in her class, and for that I really admire her.

What advice would you give to a student looking to major in a business-related field? The business world is full of moving parts and hard deadlines, so make sure you keep an up-to-date calendar and to-do list with you at all times. You might think you can keep track of everything mentally, but you really can’t. Classes can get overwhelming, so staying organized and being aware of what you need to accomplish is the only way to succeed.

Looking back over your experience, what is the one thing you’d do differently in business school and why? I officially transferred into the business school after my sophomore year, so if I could change anything about my business school experience, I would have enrolled in it from the very beginning. While hindsight is 20/20 and few first years know what they really want to study, I wish I would have had the extra semesters to take more business classes. If I had started my first semester of college, I would have had more guidance when applying for internships, making connections, and building my resume, but I’m also grateful for the time I spent studying other things as it’s made me a more well-rounded individual.

Which academic, extracurricular or personal achievement are you most proud of? I’m most proud of being selected as a Lime Connect Fellow in 2019. This fellowship is designed specifically for high achieving college students with disabilities and being selected was the first time I had met other students with disabilities like me. I’m legally blind, so I’ve dealt with a lot of barriers during my time in college. Microsoft Excel is in tiny font, the board is always too far away in lectures, and slides are too small to glance when I give presentations. Becoming a Lime Connect Fellow made me feel like all my extra effort to overcome societal barriers was worth it.

I got to join a community of people just like me who deal with the same issues I do. I learned their tips for navigating college and got to share mine. Joining Lime Connect reminded me that I’m not disabled because of my eyesight but because of how systemically the world is built. The fellowship inspired me to fix that problem through business. I’m proud to be part of something that is truly improving the world.

Which classmate do you most admire? The classmate I admire most is Alyssa Despotis, another WashU senior majoring in Math and double minoring in Speech & Hearing Sciences and Computer Science. She consistently has the heaviest course load out of anyone I know and is on the WashU ice skating team. Still, she makes time to make the world brighter. As an RA, she baked cookies every week for all her residents. She single-handedly started a club that delivered Christmas gifts to over 188 people last year. The first week of her first year, she wrote a personal note to every person who lived on our dorm floor saying how excited she was to get to know them.

No matter how stressed she is, she always takes the time to send a smile and ask how my day has been. I know I can call her anytime and tell her anything with absolutely no judgement. She always sees the good in people and has the biggest heart out of anyone I know. There’s a lot of negativity and hate in this world, and I admire how Alyssa is able to spread happiness wherever she goes. She inspires me to be a better person. Because of her, I always try to look on the bright side of life.

Who would you most want to thank for your success? I want to thank my grandfather, Bernie Slessinger. He was legally blind like me, but he couldn’t go to college because there were no large print entrance exams back then. It didn’t matter though, because he became a computer expert, joke master, and all-around amazing role model. He travelled around the world and had three wonderful kids, the best one being my mom. Even after he developed emphysema and had trouble breathing, he still volunteered at our local hospital and science museum. He lived his life to the fullest and didn’t let his disability stop him from doing what he wanted to do. Through his accomplishments, he showed me that being disabled doesn’t mean being unable. Whenever I get overwhelmed with life, my memories of him keep me motivated. My success is driven by my desire to make the world a more inclusive place for people like him and me. I hope he’d be proud of me, and I wish he knew how much of him I bring with me in everything I do.

What are the top two items on your professional bucket list? I really want to give a TedTalk or another type of presentation about the importance of accessibility/disability inclusion to a large audience, hopefully in the next few years. In the long term, I want to eventually launch my own accessible makeup brand, including large print packaging, adaptive brushes, and an app that will assist in applying makeup by assessing if your makeup looks even and good using AI.

What are your hobbies? I really enjoy competitive Rubik’s cubing; so far, my personal record for solving is one minute and 37 seconds. I also enjoy building LEGO sets—I’m currently building the Great Hall from Harry Potter. I really like cooking with my friends. Every Sunday, my roommates and I make homemade pasta together. I like to watch cheesy movies with my mom and play cards with my dad when I’m home on break. I’m very much an extrovert, so any time I can spend with my friends and family is my favorite activity; socializing is my favorite hobby.

What made Leah such an invaluable addition to the Class of 2021?

“Few students have taken active ownership of their learning like Leah has. She’s confident, introspective, and able to express her strengths and challenges in a way that quite literally changed how I teach and attend to students. She’s so proactive in maximizing her education that I was able to challenge her with projects that will add long-term value for my future students. Having Leah in the classroom was a game-changer. I learned as much from her as she did from me.”

Staci Thomas
Professor of Practice in Communications
Olin Business School


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