Students gain real-world business experience through StEP program

Historically, the number of new, entrepreneurial ventures rises during periods of recession. If jobs aren’t available in the traditional market, the argument goes, why not start your own company?

Thanks to a program on campus, WUSTL students are doing just that, creating, purchasing and selling on-campus businesses as undergraduate students. It’s called the Student Entrepreneurial Program (StEP) and it helps uniquely position students to get hands-on experience as entrepreneurs while they still are in school.


The experience of running an actual business gives students a huge advantage when they graduate — years ahead of fledgling entrepreneurs taking their first steps.

“The students see this as an experience that will carry them forward, whether or not they are working in business after graduation,” said Mary Zabriskie, coordinator for special projects in Campus Life and chair of the StEP advisory board.

While there are more than 700 entrepreneurship programs in the United States, only a handful of universities offer students the ability to operate businesses with allocated, subsidized storefront locations. Students not only learn valuable business and entrepreneurial skills in the classroom, but they also learn and gain valuable experience managing their own businesses.

StEP was formed in 1999 to promote and support the entrepreneurial interests of all undergraduate students, not just those enrolled in Olin Business School.

To open a new business, students must present a business plan. Students interested in purchasing an existing StEP business are required to attend a “Buying a Business” workshop, taught by Clifford Holekamp, senior lecturer in entrepreneurship at Olin and a member of the StEP advisory board. A workshop on selling a business will start this year.

Business owners must be full-time undergraduate students. They must sell their businesses to new owners before they graduate.

Currently, nine student-run businesses operate on the Danforth Campus, seven of which have storefronts in the main level of Gregg House in the South 40. Businesses include a bicycle rental shop, a store for Greek goods and custom apparel, water cooler rental and monthly water delivery, and a laundry service, among others. University Trucking/Res Fridge, the oldest business, has been in operation since 1977.

Sophomore Atima Lui, an Olin student, helped found Salon Four Zero last year when lack of a car made it difficult to get off campus to get her hair and nails done. The salon offers hair and skin care for people of all skin and hair types, as well as sunless tanning services.

Lui said running the business allows her to apply the skills she learns in class and forces her to think creatively and critically, which she knows will be helpful when she leaves the University.

“Being involved with StEP gives owners a distinct advantage when entering the job market,” Lui said. “Given the current economic downturn, when I graduate in three years, I know that the competition for jobs will be fierce. I see Salon Four Zero as one of the key ways that I can differentiate myself and my skills from my peers.”

Senior Olin student Ross Kelley founded Sharing With A Purpose (SWAP) last year with five of his friends.

SWAP is WUSTL’s first and only nonprofit student-run business. It aims to provide affordable and convenient dormitory essentials to students during fall move-in week. All items are slightly used and recycled from students during the previous year’s move-out. All profits are donated to Lydia’s House, a local nonprofit organization that helps victims of domestic abuse.

“Students can read as many cases and listen to as many lectures as they want, but there are some things that a classroom just can’t teach,” Kelley said. “Being an entrepreneur and running your own business is one of those things.

“Making your own decisions and bearing all the responsibility for a real business is a very unique and powerful experience,” Kelley said. “It teaches accountability, resolve, competition, leadership and, of course, some humility. I think that the Student Entrepreneurial Program is an incredible opportunity.”

Zabriskie said applications for new businesses always are welcome.

For more information, call 935-7199 or visit