The biggest competitive advantage: UMSL interns embrace opportunities in first Ameren Accelerator cohort

Yaniv Dudaie (at left) and Alex Zvibleman converse with Warner Baxter, chairman, president and CEO of Ameren, in March during the Ameren Accelerator launch event. (Photos by Ala Al-Lozi)

The shared workspace is buzzing with conversation. Entrepreneurs, students and partners who fill the room, which is dubbed the fish bowl for its exterior glass wall, move quickly between desks as they strategize on their latest ventures.

As the commotion crescendos, Alex Zvibleman can’t help but sit back and observe – not out of distraction, as most reasonably would, but out of admiration.

He watches participants in the first Ameren Accelerator cohort from afar and imagines himself, an aspiring entrepreneur, in a similar position.

“These are people who came through on a startup idea and are now seeing success and working together,” said Zvibleman, a business management major at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. “It’s companies that thought they would never interact, and now they can bounce ideas off each other.”

The Ameren Accelerator, an innovative program that assesses, mentors and invests in energy technology companies, began its inaugural cohort in July after selecting seven finalists. Since then, 10 UMSL students have worked alongside the startups as interns during the 12-week program.

The skill sets and career interests of the interns vary from budding financiers to website developers, but they share an enriching and immersive experience.

“It’s very fast paced,” said Zvibleman who is working for WIFIPLUG, a United Kingdom-based company. “Every day is a new challenge, but every day that a challenge comes, a solution comes.”

At the center of these solutions are the interns who are contracted to work 20 hours a week – although many eagerly clock in more.

Bailee Warsing (at left) works with Rebate Bus Program Manager Jake Ekum in the Cortex Innovation Community, St. Louis’ innovation and technology district. Rebate Bus has already extended Warsing an offer to continue with the company after the conclusion of the Ameren Accelerator program. “Bailee has become an integral part of our Rebate Bus team and has helped us design and develop our new website,” Rebate Bus CEO Joe Pater said. “We are happy to have met Bailee, and she will be continuing on with us in a part-time role as she continues school.”

“As an intern, you’re thrown in with these companies who are also going through this accelerator program, and they are very quickly becoming larger and more successful,” said Bailee Warsing, a computer science major and Pierre Laclede Honors College student. “You’re forced to learn very quickly, and every day is something new. We’re doing real work that the rest of the company is doing, so you really feel like a valued member of the team.”

The matching process for the startups and interns was a learning experience in itself. The 10 students, who were already narrowed down from a pool of 30 applicants, stood in front of the CEOs of the startup companies and had just a few minutes to pitch themselves – an intimidating but worthwhile experience as many recall.

Then the roles were reversed and the panel of executives explained their products and the skills they desired in an intern. From there, the matchups fell naturally.

Warsing, a Rebate Bus intern whose already been offered a part-time position with the company until she finishes school, said she’s learning to embrace the networking opportunities offered within the internship. She’s not only working directly with an individual startup but standing among partners in the program, which include the vast networks of Ameren, UMSL Accelerate, the University of Missouri System and Capital Innovators.

Zvibleman also made note of the advantages of merging the resources of these thought-leading organizations.

For one of his projects, Zvibleman developed a survey for WIFIPLUG that was distributed to 5,000 Ameren customers. He was called upon to craft the questions, administer the survey and then analyze responses.

“Beyond the connections, beyond the people I’ve met and the opportunities that I’ve had, I’m a firm believer that if you learn something, it’s with you forever,” he said.

Warsing said her individual projects have also challenged her to pick up new coding skills that she hasn’t yet learned in her UMSL curriculum.

“Whenever I got there, I didn’t know how to do certain coding things that they were using,” the sophomore explained. “But it was good to learn it because I will eventually be using it. I’m kind of excited now for my classes. I’m struggling a bit to learn it, but I know a year from now, I’ll be in a much better place.”

Mohammad Aljamaan (at left) and Yaniv Dudaie are two of the interns working with companies in the Ameren Accelerator cohort.

In addition to technical skills, OmegaGrid intern Yaniv Dudaie has developed a fresh mentality for approaching new tasks and situations. He embraces each encounter offered through the internship as an opportunity to learn something new from driven and motivated individuals.

A promising entrepreneur himself, Dudaie considers his career lane to be the “business of doing good.” As evidenced by his selection of undergraduate studies in finance, supply chain and international business, he doesn’t want to limit his experiences to a single industry. He saw the Ameren Accelerator internship as an ideal outlet to continue this pursuit and gain experience in the energy sector.

“As a student, it gives me the biggest competitive advantage there is,” he said. “Business in the past was very concrete and not open-minded. There was a certain way of doing things. This internship proves that since I’m studying business, I can do whatever I want to do. There are so many opportunities out there.”

Similarly, the startup executives are raving about the students.

WIFIPLUG CEO Leon Doyle admires Zvibleman’s professionalism and willingness to “go above and beyond at every turn.”

“Alex completed a white paper with his own set deadlines amongst loads of other things,” Doyle recalled. “He even offered to pick up the UK team members from the airport, hanging a UK flag on his car so they couldn’t miss him.”

The accelerator program will conclude later this month with Demo Day on Oct. 26 at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center, but the lessons provided through the experience will have long-term benefits.

“I’m a part of a school that is going above and beyond and changing the face of the earth – literally creating something that doesn’t exist anywhere else,” Zvibleman said. “Just to know that I’m with a program like that, it’s exciting and it’s rewarding too.” The UMSL Experience

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