This month we speak with two high school students who connected in the Wharton Pre-Baccalaureate Program in the summer of 2021 and have since put some entrepreneurial energy behind applying what they learned in the real world – specifically, to help small businesses (click on the arrow above to listen to the podcast). They are making their dual-coast business partnership work, with a little help from Zoom.
Wharton Global Youth Program: Hello Everyone and welcome to Future of the Business World, the podcast featuring teen entrepreneurs and innovators from across the globe.
I’m Diana Drake with the Wharton Global Youth Program at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. It’s our job at Wharton Global Youth to introduce business and finance education to high school students in ways that spark curiosity and competitiveness—and help prepare the next generation of business leaders.
Today’s guests have already started their business leadership journey with us, participating last summer in our Wharton Pre-Baccalaureate Program that lets high school students take online Wharton courses to earn college credits. That’s where the two of them met. And the rest is a story of entrepreneurship that is best told by them.
Gabriela Sirén and Henry Eisenhardt, thank you for joining us on Future of the Business World!
Let’s start at the beginning of your business partnership. The two of you met online last summer during our Wharton Pre-Bacc Program. Take us back to that moment in time. What class were you taking, what were you studying, and how did you decide to team up as entrepreneurs?
Henry Eisenhardt: It was the middle of last summer and I started my courses at Wharton. I was in a finance program and a business analytics course. Over the process of these classes, I was looking through the Zoom screen and seeing all the different people I was with — all these smart youth. Over the course of these classes, I realized that there was this one girl, who turned out to be Gabby, who was in both the finance class and the business analytics class. One day during this review session outside of class, which we call recitation, it was insanely difficult and I had no idea what was going on. I Zoom messaged Gabby and she came back right away with a precise, intuitive answer. And I thought, I definitely have to do something in the future with her. This could be a great friendship and partnership. As we neared the end of our courses, I ended up reaching out to her again and asked if she wanted to start something that we haven’t seen before. And the rest is history, I guess.
Wharton Global Youth: Your non-profit business was inspired at least in part by the course content – in this case, business analytics. What is Optimus Co. and how did what you were learning and what you were observing in the COVID economy fuel your idea?
Gabriela “Gabby” Sirén: As Henry explained, we were both taking this financial and global economies course. In that course, we learned about economic theory, which is kind of the basics, but we were learning about it in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. So we were relating a lot of the ideas we learned in class to what was happening in the real world. In the other course, the optimization or business analytics course, we learned about how businesses generally make their decisions in a very microeconomic scale. So when Henry reached out to me with the idea to take what we were learning in class to another level, we decided to try to combine the two courses. So, how can we help the economies at large, but really have an impact on the smaller businesses that would then have this domino effect on the economy.
Optimus Co. optimizes or makes more efficient or more productive the operations of companies. That’s the part we focus on. Henry, you can help explain what the optimized business plans are.
Henry: We create optimized business plans for these companies. You can think about it as the smoothing out of a business’s processes. You take their inputs, like the hours employees work, really any facet of a business, and you smooth it out and make the numerical best fit of what the most profit maximizing, cost minimizing option is for the company. We help to reduce their expenses and smooth out their entire processes. These little differences really do make an impact.
Wharton Global Youth: I want to know if you’ve seen that impact in action. Can you give me an example of a small business that you’ve worked with to generate optimization reports?
Henry: One interesting business that we’ve worked with is Lake Oswego Ice Cream. It’s right by me, this little ice cream shop. It’s a very stereotypical small mom-and-pop shop that doesn’t even have a website, to my knowledge. They have only a publicized phone number and no real email. Usually we would focus on the technology aspect, emailing and all that. But with this one I had to call and go in person. I talked to the business owner and to the manager and got a list of the expenses they needed help with. I hopped right on the call with Gabby and we created the optimized business plans for their orders, for their storage and where to allocate their different ingredients. Then they were able to implement our plan into their business strategy and could save on the input front, which would be their ingredients and all of that, and then on the storage so they would try not to create excess ice cream that would go to waste.
Wharton Global Youth: You have this next layer of learning where you take what you discovered about business analytics and are applying it to actual businesses. Have there been any surprises or unexpected results as you put these ideas from your class into practice?
Gabby: One thing we first really struggled with was marketing ourselves. We’re two high schoolers, we’re not even in college, and we came up with this via Zoom. So how on earth are we going to market ourselves to companies around the country and convince them that we are real people and that we can make a difference? We went on Google Maps and looked up little companies like cafés and book shops. I reached out to Talking Leaves…Books in Elmwood Village in Buffalo, N.Y. and asked them if they were interested in our consulting services because they mentioned on their website that they were in need of financial help, or were struggling. I asked them in an email if they needed support or advice. They told us they were uncomfortable with the idea of having two high schoolers help them, and so I explained that we were Wharton educated or took two courses there and know somewhat what we were doing. And there was a bit of a stigma around the Wharton name because it is such a well-known institution in the business world. So we had to explain that we are grounded people and we know what we’re doing and we are a small business ourselves and can relate to how the business is doing.
Wharton Global Youth: I want to stick on that moment of stigma that you talked about with Wharton. Is what you’re saying that they were a bit intimidated by the grandeur of Wharton as one of the best business schools in the world and they felt like maybe these concepts and practices were meant to be applied to bigger companies?
Gabby: Yes, during the pandemic there has been so much competition among companies. Bigger companies like Amazon and social media companies have been flourishing because of e-commerce and the resources they have. But the smaller companies have struggled. This hyper-competitive environment has been intimidating to them and I’m sure they were unsure what to do and how to stay on the safe side of things when I asked this.
Wharton Global Youth: Gabriela, you are in Buffalo, N.Y. And [Henry], you are in Lake Oswego. Where exactly are you located?
Henry: I’m right outside of Portland, Oregon – the greater Portland Metro area.
Wharton Global Youth: How has this coast-to-coast business partnership panned out? Have you ever met in person? Has it been difficult to maintain? How have you divided your responsibilities?
Henry: We actually haven’t met in person. The real strategy to keeping everything flowing in an organized plan, which is ironic given what we do is optimize and organize. We try to stay on a tri-weekly meeting schedule, so we meet on Mondays, Thursdays and Sundays for about an hour or two hours each, depending on what we need to get done. During these meetings we divvy up our work. So I might be like, ‘Hey, Gabby, can you work on this intro slide to this presentation for a company?’ And she might be like, ‘Henry, can you go plug these numbers into Solver or create a sensitivity report for this?’ We try to divide and conquer and overcommunicate and stay organized. Given that cross-continental, cross-world, online meetings and businesses are the future of the business world, getting a head start in the game can only be a positive.
Gabby: I think it’s funny because we haven’t met in person. I hope we do one day. Zooming has become such a norm today through working from home, that it’s kind of become not that hard. Definitely being in contact has been really important. If you’re not meeting someone in person, you have to be checking your email and everything like that. It’s worked out really well in my opinion.
Wharton Global Youth: Do you have a new appreciation for how small businesses contribute to our national economy? What do you want people to know about the mom-and-pop-shop business sector, which sometimes gets eclipsed by all of these large companies and news of how they’re changing. What have you grown to appreciate about small business?
Gabby: Businesses that are so small are a primary source of employment in communities. When they’re struggling, it means there is less motivation in a community and also if people don’t have jobs, that has a really big impact in the end on the economy at large. So, one, employment is really important. And two, innovation. Apple began in a garage. It was a really small company at first and now it’s in Silicon Valley, a huge company. If we can support these small companies that have so much potential and allow them to grow, then maybe they can go onto the big world stage one day.
Henry: We’re so fortunate that we live in communities that are so supportive of these small businesses. In Portland and in Oregon and in New York, people really understand the drive and the energy that it takes to be a small business owner. They are willing to help these people. We know that is not always the case everywhere across the country. We are fortunate to have so far been able to work in these areas that are really supportive of our mission and the people we work with and their mission.
Wharton Global Youth: You are a non-profit, correct?
Henry: We do charge for our services. All the money we earn goes to our OFEM scholarship, which is Optimus for Economic Minds. At the end of next school year, so we have time to build it up, it will go to either a junior or senior for a college scholarship. We’re hoping to give up to $25,000 for that.
Wharton Global Youth: What’s next for Optimus and for the two of you?
Gabby: So far we’ve been working in Oregon and New York. We’re really hoping to expand into America at large, maybe smaller communities in the South or somewhere we haven’t really thought of. It’s so easy now to reach out to places online because everyone is on Zoom and email, so I think expanding and helping other places is at the top of our list.
Henry: With Optimus, we’d love the opportunity to reach out to other kids like us who have gone through the Pre-Bacc courses like OIDD and give them the opportunity to work in these real-life scenarios of doing business analytics for companies. When we started this, I had no clue how I could apply this in the real world and I have never heard of another student startup that does optimization for local businesses. It would be a great opportunity.
On the personal side, I’m a junior and so I still have other courses I want to take. I’ll be applying to college myself and hopefully getting into Wharton, so that’s a goal for me.
Gabby: I’m a senior and in the college process myself. It’s busy and stressful, but I’m trying to keep my mind off of applications for now and work on Optimus and spend my last year of high school with friends and family. It’s out of the way for me now and I’m waiting to hear back in the spring.
Wharton Global Youth: One question I like to ask everyone on FBW podcast is if you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?
Henry: If I could change one thing in the world it would probably be irresponsible consumer spending. I would like consumers to be given the opportunity to be educated on companies that have a true mission statement in their hearts and their minds. I want the world to be a place where people can buy and consume from places that do better for each other and for everyone. It’s an idealistic scenario I’d like to work toward.
Wharton Global Youth: That fits nicely in a whole package of content that we are creating right now for high school students on the topic of ESG. Environmental, Social and Governance factors and how companies are trying to do better by consumers, employees, investors and everybody who is a stakeholder. So definitely check up on that on the Wharton Global Youth website. Gabby, how about you? What would you change?
Gabby: Building on the environmental aspect, I am really big on eco-friendly products. If there is one thing I’d change, it’s kind of a specific one, a lot of fast-food restaurants use plastic cutlery. I have been creating edible cutlery for some time. It just takes water, salt and some flour. It’s really simple. I’ve seen it done in Asia. I think that if there would be edible cutlery and less plastic waste from fast-food places, that would have a big impact on the plastic consumption in the world.
Wharton Global Youth: Let’s end with our lightning round. Try to answer these questions as quickly as you can. Since there are two of you, let’s alternate:
Gabby, what is your favorite emerging business trend?
Gabby: Social media marketing has been around for quite some time, but I feel that especially during the COVID-19 pandemic because everything shifted to online, there are a lot more resources for people who want to market online. This new trend of having online resources to market yourself is really important. We can definitely use this. Optimus is trying to market itself on Instagram. Now we know who to reach out to for advice on how to do that.
Wharton Global Youth: Henry, a technology you just can’t live without?
Henry: I don’t know if this is too cliché, but definitely the Internet. I don’t know who created the Internet or how you can even come up with that idea in the first place, but it’s involved with every aspect of my life, from socializing with my friends to doing my business. I do not think there is a community or a person who can live without it. It’s absolutely remarkable and mind-blowing.
Wharton Global Youth: Gabriela, a Fortune 500 company that truly interests you?
Gabby: I’m a big runner. I run cross-country and track. I always buy my sneakers from Nike. Recently, Nike has come out with these shoes that are 100% plastic recycled. Every material used is made out of recycled material. I think that is so cool and I have no idea how they do that, but I’m very fascinated by the concept.
Wharton Global Youth: Henry, your favorite corporate slogan?
Henry: Microsoft’s Where Do You Want to Go Today? is a really interesting one. It’s an ingenious marketing strategy on the play of technology and the Internet.
Wharton Global Youth: Gabby, if you could interview any businessperson, who would you choose…and what would be your first question?
Gabby: One of the founders of Twitter, Jack Dorsey. I would ask him if he ever expected Twitter to be such a politicized environment. It was first this much more relaxed place with hashtags. And now it has much more heavy topics being discussed on the platform. I’m curious if he ever expected that.
Wharton Global Youth: Henry, same question.
Henry: I would really like to sit down with Reed Hastings or Marc Randolph, the founders of Netflix. I want to ask about the experience of being the first big player in the streaming platform area. It’s really interesting to be the first major person to provide a service. I try to relate that back to Optimus. We’re providing a service and maybe we will blow up someday.
Wharton Global Youth: Henry and Gabby, thank you for joining us on Future of the Business World.
What does Optimus Co. do and what inspired Henry and Gabby to start this company?
What does this podcast teach you about the power of small business? In addition to the themes discussed here, why do you feel small business is important for the economy?
What does Henry and Gabby’s partnership suggest about the impact that technology is having on business?