How Kogod alum and entrepreneur Michael Bleau successfully pivoted his live events company during COVID-19.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, businesses large and small were faced with a daunting challenge—adapt to the new normal or perish. Some companies changed their operations with only short-term survival in mind. Fashion houses and designers, like Christian Siriano, for example, started making masks. Whiskey producers “brewed” hand sanitizer. To-go cocktails kept the restaurant industry afloat and rose to the surface as a product here to stay. Airlines offered cargo-only flights.
A sector hit especially hard by the pandemic was the events industry. For the first time ever, some of the most famous festivals, tournaments, conventions, and trade shows shut down. While adaptability has long been a key to business survival, the pandemic forced event companies to wrestle with the unthinkable—what if there were no more events?
Michael Bleau (Kogod/BSBA ’07), co-founder and CEO of EventHub, was among the many business owners considering how to pivot their operations in the new locked-down environment. Thanks to the unique solutions EventHub provides and the entrepreneurial mindset of the team behind it, the company not only weathered the pandemic but found new customers, added new capabilities, and solidified its standing as an industry leader.
Bleau traces the spark that ignited his entrepreneurial fire back to his participation in the annual Kogod Case Competition. “That put the bug in me for entrepreneurial initiatives,” he says. “And then throughout my time at Kogod, I was able to do some things that opened my mindset. I did a study abroad program that really started opening me up to a global mindset versus just thinking very locally.”
EventHub was the first company that Bleau started, and while it was positioned to successfully navigate the pandemic that began last March, it didn’t start out that way. “It took a while to develop to the point where it is now,” Bleau explains.
The company began as a consulting and event production firm, but securing funding from investors through the Techstars Anywhere Accelerator allowed Bleau and his team to expand their technological capabilities and shift their focus from managing events to connecting event organizers and potential sponsors through an event management platform—a capability no one else in the events industry had yet developed.
“EventHub does a really nice job matching event sponsors with potential event opportunities,” he says. “There’s not really another platform that does a good job of it. That’s why we decided to start it.”
When the first hints of a full-scale global pandemic began appearing in February 2020, Bleau and his team knew they were going to need to pivot their business model. So how did they do it?
First, the company identified long-term trends created by the pandemic, namely the rise of remote work, social distancing, shorter supply chains, and the need for more robust technology. “We realized that all of our customers are live event organizers, and they were going to need to adapt and want to do some type of virtual version of their events in lieu of a live event,” Bleau says. “There are very few large, public event-type platforms, so that was our focus.”
Then, it extended its already-existing capabilities instead of abandoning what its reputation was built on, preventing confusion among its existing customers and offering valuable services to new ones. “In March, we started developing a virtual platform that could sit on top of our sponsorship platform that was very focused on consumer and public events versus business-to-business conferencing because there’s a ton of B2B conferencing out there,” Bleau explains. “We worked with the Bank of America Chicago Marathon on their virtual event; we worked with food and wine festivals, county and state fairs. It really led us in some ways to get more on the map with these larger events because we were the only real, good-fit solution out there for these consumer-oriented events.”
Finally, EventHub pivoted as rapidly as possible. “One big lesson learned for us is that fast, aggressive pivots are possible as long as you have a clear, strategic vision and a path to getting there,” says Bleau. “Your team should feel like there is an executable plan that everyone can get behind. Think about what your company does differently and what is needed in the market.”
Responding to unforeseen challenges is a part of business, and pivoting may not always be the right strategy. But finding a balance between being reactive and adaptive and determining whether the pivot is an added value rather than a temporary fix may be the difference between a business weathering a storm or shuttering for good.
Professor Stacy Merida, Kogod’s new assistant dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion, describes her mission to shape a more inclusive Kogod community.
What do diversity, equity, and inclusion look like in a university setting? Who are the stakeholders of diversity initiatives? These are challenging questions, and the Kogod School of Business’s new assistant dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion, Stacy Merida, is finding answers. Merida, who teaches music entertainment industry classes in Kogod’s business and entertainment program, accepted the position in January 2021. She is leading the school not only in learning what these terms mean to its students, faculty, and staff but also in implementing meaningful changes based on input from the entire Kogod community.
Merida has a broad view of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) that not only comprises demographic characteristics like gender, race, and ethnicity but all dimensions of a person’s identity, such as immigrant and first-generation status, economic background, education, and more. Of course, some of these characteristics are more salient to people’s identities, and some, because they are more visible to society, affect how people are treated more than less readily observable traits.
“One of our strategic goals is to cultivate a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive Kogod culture where every individual, regardless of background, has the full opportunity to flourish and thrive,” says Merida.
The daughter of a civil rights leader, Merida has been passionate about social justice since her childhood in Alabama. And that passion has driven her throughout her career. Her PhD dissertation examined cultural competency and proficiency in higher education administration. She serves as a board liaison for diversity and inclusion at the Music Entertainment Industry Educators Association (MEIEA) and represents American University as a committee member on the GRAMMY Museum’s diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility affiliate committee. Her most recent initiative was reaching out to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic and Tribal Universities to join the MEIEA through free membership.
In her new role as assistant dean, she will implement several initiatives that include creating a DEI task force, DEI fellowships, policy and procedure reviews, ongoing training, and surveying faculty, students, and staff. Her goals include ensuring students and staff reflect the diversity of our global society and transforming the faculty’s makeup to reflect the diversity of the student body. Another major goal is improving the academic outcomes for students from underrepresented, low-income, and other marginalized groups, in addition to securing transparent and more equitable outcomes for staff and faculty.
Diversity, as the word connotes, is about difference. But it is not about eliding or ignoring that difference. Rather, it is about ensuring that difference doesn’t lead to inequitable outcomes.
“There are distinct differences between equality and equity,” Merida explains. “Equity involves giving people what they need to be as successful as non-minoritized groups; conversely, equality is to treat everyone the same.”
Diversity is valuable in all areas but especially important in business. When a company has a diverse culture, it welcomes more viewpoints, allowing it to reach a wider audience. According to a McKinsey & Company report, “Companies in the top-quartile for ethnic/cultural diversity on executive teams were 33 percent more likely to have industry-leading profitability.” Google recently completed a study, Project Aristotle, that identified psychological safety as one of the most important factors of a high-performing team. Employees feeling included and able to be their authentic selves at work frees up their minds and energy to focus on their performance.
“Diversity is extremely important in the business community where different perspectives are and should be highly valued,” says Merida. “Organizations that value diversity and inclusion strive to provide a space where all members are respected. If a system or structure perpetuates inequity and inequality, we should encourage one another to challenge this system or structure.”
Merida is also acutely aware that no one holds just one identity. The term intersectionality, coined by Black feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, describes how individual characteristics like race, class, and gender interact with each other to form how someone sees—and is seen by—the world.
“Our students will find themselves working with employers, coworkers, and clients from diverse backgrounds,” explains Merida. “By experiencing diversity, we are laying the groundwork for all to be comfortable working and interacting with a variety of individuals of all nationalities.
“However, efforts in this space are nothing new as Kogod is ranked no. 9 by the recent Bloomberg Newsweek Diversity Index for its long-term commitment to diversity. I am exhibit A, as the creation of my position only exemplifies the continuation and broadening of Dean Delaney’s and the DEI committee’s visionary leadership. We are intentional in being the guiding example for our students, faculty, and staff.”
Merida’s new role is a testament to the hard work she and the Kogod community continue to engage in to create a diverse, equitable, and inclusive business school that prepares students not only for successful careers but to be thoughtful, compassionate, and engaged citizens of the world.
Shakira sang about she wolves in the closet, which (albeit not) might as well have been a reference to the absence of popular media portrayal of the She Wolves of Wall Street. Kept pent up for far too long, women’s roars are finally falling on some eager ears.
In reality and on screen, Wall Street has been a boy’s club. Not only are women less represented, but they are also less remunerated. Citi — one of the world’s largest banks– reported in 2019 that its female employees earn 29 percent less than its male employees globally.
In celebration of Women’s History Month, here are some bankable portrayals of women and money:
- Equity–is a corporate thriller that follows Naomi Bishop, an investment banker working on the IPO launch of a Silicon Valley company. While taut and engaging (and thrilling), it is also a very sophisticated exploration of the power dynamics on Wall Street between and among genders. One of the most memorable lines from the movie is Naomi’s deadpan, “I like money.” Taking a Wall Street opening bell hammer to the groan-inducing gold-digger trope, director Meera Mennon, portrays women as enjoying the competition, the chaos, the hard work of their careers but the perks, too (hello, enviable power wardrobe). And while Naomi’s character has been a caretaker for those around her, she reminds us that “Don’t let money be a dirty word. We can like that, too.”
- Drug Short on Netflix’ “Dirty Money”–Dubbed the “femme fatale of short trading,” Fahmi Quadir, a brilliant short seller who left a Ph.D. program in algebraic mathematics for a career on Wall Street, takes on drug behemoth Valeant…and wins.The recent Gamestop kerfuffle and techbro Elon Musk’s relentless Twitter beef has shorted short sellers, portraying them as predatory. Fahmi is a testament to a different kind of a short seller–one who looks to identify corporate malfeasance and (yes) reap the rewards. When she says, “I do my work in the shadows,” she is referring to the fact that short selling is sleuthing and hours of poring over quarterly earnings reports. In other words, you won’t find the kind of information Quadir unearths readily available and even less so revealed by the companies themselves. Short selling is especially male-dominated, so this documentary on a world understood by very few is illuminating: “All short sellers are outsiders. And women are especially outsiders in this world,” says Quadir.
- Capital in the 21st Century–”We have a mythology that what’s good for Wall Street is good for Main Street, but that’s really never been true,” says Rana Foroohar, financial journalist associate editor of the Financial Times, in this documentary take on Thomas Piketty’s tome of a book. Foroohar’s commentary features prominently in the film. And her recently-released book “Don’t Be Evil: The Case Against Big Tech” is a searing indictment of the extent to which tech behemoths are monetizing our data.
- Bethany McLean’s podcast “Making a Killing” Known for her book “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” journalist and contributing editor to Vanity Fair magazine, McLean takes issues you may think you understand and complicates them, featuring clever titles like “Keynes was wrong. Gen Z will have it worse.” Her more recent 2018 book “Saudi America: The Truth About Fracking and How It’s Changing the World” is also thoroughly engrossing and a must-read for the energy heads out there.
While portrayals of women in finance have been scarce, the tide is certainly turning, as is the cash flow, with more women asserting their seat at the table at this former boys’ bastion.
At the beginning of the pandemic in March, home sales fell by 8.5 percent as potential buyers lost their jobs, contended with economic uncertainty, or simply avoided moving due to health concerns. Existing home sales in April fell by almost 18 percent, but prices rose 7.4 percent compared to a year ago.
What could explain why basic supply-and-demand principles don’t seem to apply here? A huge drop in demand should put downward pressure on prices as the market sways in the buyers’ favor. But in this case, while demand dropped, so did supply. Sellers withdrew from the market for the same reasons that buyers did. New home listings fell dramatically after the stay-at-home orders, with estimates ranging from 29 percent to higher than 50 percent.
The drops in supply and demand were generally proportional to each other, but the lower number of transactions made it more difficult to analyze how prices moved in aggregate. “Data is so scarce that one blip sends things teetering toward one end or the other. It is hard to come by meaningful averages,” explains Teitelbaum.
Limited housing supply is likely to be a more prominent issue in certain areas. The pandemic has also affected new build construction. Professor Kim Luchtenberg, professor of finance and real estate, says, “The DC area will remain relatively sheltered from a real estate sector downturn because housing is in such limited supply. This will keep prices high, so buyers will not see much change.”
The number of homes listed for sale in the DC metro area dropped more than 37 percent compared to April 2019, resulting in the lowest inventory in the past 10 years.
A decrease in overall home sales has a number of effects. Home sales generate much spin-off economic activity. Local governments rely on revenue from deed transfer taxes to fund public services. Occupations like real estate agents, home inspectors, and other agents lose streams of income, as do support services like moving companies, furniture and appliance stores, landscapers, and maintenance technicians.
From a social perspective, people often buy homes when relocating for work, having children, getting married, or downsizing for retirement. An economic downtown that makes homeownership inaccessible may delay many of these milestones. For example, the Great Recession caused delayed household formation among young adults.
A much more grave concern is what will happen to the homeowners affected by the general economic downturn. “Foreclosures and mortgage defaults are sure to happen once the protection period ends,” says Luchtenberg. No one is sure how this will affect the real estate industry or the economy as a whole.
With so much turmoil in the stock markets and retail and hospitality real estate markets, plus general economic uncertainty, are investors attracted to the seemingly untouchable residential real estate sector? Luchtenberg and Teitelbaum concur that this trend is afoot, but in an unusual permutation—investment in single-family home rentals. This was the case immediately following the 2008 collapse, and currently, these kinds of rentals are one of the fastest-growing investment vehicles both for large corporations and individual investors. “The second-best option to owning a home is renting a single-family unit. Investors see that,” says Teitelbaum. Luchtenberg is currently writing a research paper on this phenomenon as well.
While understanding the “new normal” seems like an impossible proposition, in the DC area, at least, the old normal of a robust residential real estate market remains.
So much of our everyday life involves making predictions—from picking the best route for our morning commute to bringing an umbrella to choosing a partner. “We predict all the time, so the process is natural,” says Grant Fiddyment, adjunct professor of predictive analytics at Kogod and data scientist for the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers. “In a lot of ways, it’s the same way we interact with technology and the world. For instance, how can I phrase my web search so that the site will match what I’m looking for? How can I pronounce a word so that a virtual assistant will understand what I’m saying? Without knowing the technical details, we implicitly learn how these technologies work.”
What is predictive analytics, and how does it offer us a glimpse into the future?
At its most fundamental level, the discipline calculates the likelihood of future events by simply (although many would cry foul at this characterization) counting the possible outcomes. Its foundations were laid in a 1654 letter exchange between French mathematicians Pierre de Fermat and Blaise Pascal discussing how the winnings of a coin-flipping gambling game should be split. And while we all know that the house always wins in Vegas, few would know to credit Jacob Bernoulli’s Law of Large Numbers from 1713 as the reason why.
Despite predictive analytics’ old roots, it is responsible for many facets of modern-day life we give little thought to—things like credit card fraud detection, virtual chess partners, and, of most interest to Fiddyment, creating professional sports super teams.
As a data scientist on the research and development team for the 76ers, Fiddyment helps frame and analyze the predictive questions that arise in sports—for example, how will signing a new player impact a team’s title odds, or how well will a tall lineup play against a smaller, quicker one?
Predictive analytics has long been used in sports, going back to the analog days of yore. Baseball has historically led the movement. One of the most famous success stories is told in the movie Moneyball, which follows 2002 Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane as he uses predictive analytics to hire under-valued players and send his team on a crowd-wowing 20-game winning streak. But the methods developed in Oakland have application across all sports.
“Most teams were asking, ‘How often does a batter get a hit when they go to bat?’ Instead, the A’s asked, ‘How many bases does a player get when they go to bat?’ Looking at total bases turns out to be more predictive of how many runs a team will score,” explains Fiddyment. “Similarly, in the NBA, teams used to ask how often a player will make a shot. But this overlooks the fact that all shots are not equal. So now teams are asking, ‘How many points will a player get when they take a shot?’”
In the past decade the number of three-point shots in the NBA has increased. Is the rise just due to random luck or is it part of a well-crafted strategy? Fiddyment and other fellow data scientists employed full-time by sports teams work to answer new questions like these. He credits the invention of video tracking as the proverbial game changer. “Chip or camera-based systems will follow players as they actively play a sport, and the data we get is much more nuanced than a single-number summary,” says Fiddyment. “For example, we can answer how many pick-and-rolls the team ran last game or how open were the shots they generated. We can analyze the individual and team as a whole.”
At the moment, this kind of data collection is limited to professional teams, making it difficult to spot up-and-coming superstars. “College and international teams typically don’t have the same camera systems, so projecting which players will become successful remains a very challenging problem,” Fiddyment says.
Despite rapid advancements in technology, however, not all data is created equal—or, perhaps, equally useful. The limitations of data translate to limitations in predictive accuracy (as meteorologists can confirm). “We need to be aware of computers’ strengths and weaknesses,” Fiddyment advises. “Computers can process vast amounts of data much more quickly than humans ever could. But they are restricted to the data they have and operate very literally, so we should never expect them to behave exactly like a human, even if they can match our performance at a given task.”
From the glitz of Vegas to the life-saving powers of storm forecasts to the way opinion polls affect voters, predictive analytics is ever-present in our lives. Advances in machine learning and big data models are improving our ability to look into the future, but they are also raising some thorny issues, one of the most notable being the boundaries of data privacy. For now, however, Fiddyment has scored a slam dunk for the NBA.
My story for Kogod School of Business
Each year, roughly 200,000 US service members transition from the military to the private sector. Although veterans are twice as likely as non-veterans to be self-employed, their rate of business ownership has dropped precipitously from the entrepreneurial high of their predecessors in the last century.
Half of World War II veterans went on to own or operate a business—a similar rate to the 40% of Korean War vets who did the same almost a decade later. Of the more than 3.6 million people who have served in the military since September 11, 2001, only 4.5% have started a business. What has led to such an enormous gap in veteran entrepreneurship?
In short, more challenges—and fewer resources to overcome them.
Although 25% of veterans say they want to start their own businesses, they face more obstacles securing the capital needed to get their ideas off the ground than in the past. Unlike the GI Bill of 1944, the updated 2008 version does not include access to low-interest loans to start a business. The financing needs of veteran and non-veteran businesses are similar, research shows, but even though would-be veteran business owners submitted more loan applications and reached out to a wider variety of lenders, they typically obtained less financing and got lower approval rates.
Because of frequent travel and work abroad, some veterans are also struggling with building a credit history and amassing collateral. And while previous military drafts drew from all segments of society, this century’s all-volunteer armed forces are more likely to come from military families, making them increasingly isolated from the non-military community and the networks that facilitate business success.
Seda Goff—a Kogod adjunct professor and MBA alumna—is helping veteran entrepreneurs overcome these challenges in her role as the director of veteran entrepreneurship at the PenFed Foundation. Through the foundation’s Veteran Entrepreneur Investment Program (VEIP), veterans can get the seed capital and mentorship they need to build and grow their ventures.
“Veterans have given a lot to serve and protect us, and the skill sets that they gained in the process lend themselves perfectly to entrepreneurship,” Goff says. “This new generation of entrepreneurs feel that same desire to serve and to make a difference and be bigger than themselves.”
After graduating from Kogod, Goff worked for the US Department of Veterans Affairs before moving to PenFed, where she was able to build the nonprofit investment program from the ground up. Her passion for helping veterans stems from growing up in close contact with service members.
“My father was in the Turkish Navy. He worked for the navy for almost 30 years after we came to the US,” Goff recalls. “I loved being around service members and their families. Everybody is very mission- and service-oriented.”
Since launching in March 2018, the Veteran Entrepreneur Investment Program has invested in and offered resources to veteran entrepreneurs. And because veterans are 30% more likely to hire other veterans, the program’s benefits extend to the entire veteran community.
VEIP is funded by outside donors, with PenFed Credit Union matching up to $1 million in contributions. Returns on all investments go back into the program to support future veteran-owned ventures. “The success of veteran entrepreneurs allows the program to exist,” Goff explains. “The dividends go right back into investing in more entrepreneurs. The multiplier effect translates to growth for businesses that are ready to launch, established businesses that want to grow, and those that are still in the exploratory stages.”
In the future, the PenFed Foundation aims to develop new resources for veteran entrepreneurs in all stages of the business cycle, with a focus on women veteran entrepreneurs—who have grown from owning 2.5% of veteran-owned businesses in 2008 to 4.4% in 2012.
Goff, who works with the American University Entrepreneurship Incubator, hopes to one day launch an incubator for veteran entrepreneurs at Kogod, too.
“I feel like the majority of entrepreneurs are just problem solvers. And if you point them in a direction, they’re going to solve problems,” Goff says. “In my work, I have seen how a military career is not something that you need to transition away from to be successful. Serving already has given vets the tools for success.”