David Poldoian, popular adjunct professor, retires after two decades of teaching entrepreneurship

  • May 22, 2024
  • By Jill Young Miller
  • 5 minute read

David Poldoian, a beloved adjunct professor who taught Introduction to Entrepreneurship at Olin for 20 years, has retired.

“David’s the most inspiring teacher I’ve ever had, and his commitment to helping students is second to none,” Kyle Tabor, PMBA 2013 and a product manager at Uber in Seattle, said in an email.

Olin students voted to honor him with the Reid Teaching Award three times over the years. He also received the William C. and Glenda L. Finnie Adjunct Faculty Fund Award, which recognizes professors whose enthusiasm, teaching and business experience motivate students.

During an interview in Olin’s Knight/Bauer Atrium, Poldoian is impeccably dressed in a suit jacket and fashionable, understated glasses. His eyes are intelligent and kind. They tear up a bit when he talks about teaching, and he apologizes.

“It was a privilege to teach at Olin,” he says. At 70, however, he felt it was time to step away. “The opportunity to teach MBAs has been one of the highlights of my professional career.”

And he’s had an impressive career. It all started when he went into business at age 15, selling stamps and coins. More on that in a minute.

'Positive and engaging'

Poldoian’s affiliation with the school dates to 1997, more than 25 years—a generation—ago. Then-dean of Olin Stuart Greenbaum, who was a neighbor in Clayton, Missouri, invited him to serve as a volunteer and advisor to students in the Hatchery, where entrepreneurial students workshop their ideas. In addition, Poldoian advised students in the Taylor Community Consulting Program, where he also served as a client sponsor. 

In 2004, when Simon Hall was home to the entire business school, Greenbaum invited him to teach Introduction to Entrepreneurship to part-time MBAs. 

“The combination of his work experience, which was very responsible and important, and his personality, which was positive and engaging, made it a slam dunk as far as I was concerned,” Greenbaum said in a recent phone interview.

Poldoian’s business experience is vast. He is an operating partner at Lewis & Clark Ventures, an early-stage venture firm in Clayton managed by former founders and operators. Previously, he held numerous chief and senior executive roles, including CEO of Ironrock Investments, president and CEO of Everest University Online, division president of Eagle Snacks, an Anheuser-Busch company, and partner at Bain and Co.

He received his BA in 1975 from Tufts University and his MBA in 1977 from Harvard Graduate School of Business.

“David was an inspirational professor, always believing in our students and helping them to dream big—but plan carefully, rooted in economic forces and market reality,” said Mahendra Gupta, Olin’s dean from July 2005 through June 2016.

“Whenever we talk about Olin’s rise and reputation in the entrepreneurship programs, we will find David’s fingerprints all over our success.”

Said Doug Villhard, professor of practice in entrepreneurship and academic director for entrepreneurship, “Hundreds of full- and part-time MBA students have benefited from his wisdom and dedication throughout the years.

"Not only has he been a gift to our students, but I've learned invaluable lessons from him as well."

An entrepreneur at 15

When Poldoian was a kid, he collected coins and stamps. By 15, he had his own business in his hometown, in the suburbs of Boston. He rented space in a jewelry store and bought and sold rare coins.

“It was all bootstrapped,” he said. “My parents didn't have a lot of money. But the business was successful.”

When he got into college, his parents told him to stop playing with coins. “You’ve got to get serious about school,” he recalled they said. “Shut the business down.”

So, he did. “But by the end of my freshman year, I was getting bored. And I missed it.”

If he was going to make money, he knew he'd have to find a good place to buy—and sell—coins. He picked a place with retirees, who might want to sell off some coins and stamps, and tourists, who might want to buy them. He chose Hyannis, on Cape Cod, opened a standalone shop, hired a couple of people to work for him and commuted from Tufts University to work on the weekends. During summers, he worked in his shop full time and lived a few miles away in his parent’s modest home.

In his senior year at Tufts, he applied to Harvard, was accepted and decided to sell the shop. The economy was lukewarm in 1975, but he found a buyer who turned over enough cash to pay for a big chunk of Poldoian’s MBA and some land. Namely, 11 acres on Martha's Vineyard. Poldoian still has nine of them.


Former students and teaching assistants have flooded Poldoian’s personal email with fond memories of him and gratitude. Their words portray a teacher whose influence extended far beyond the final exam.

"You have made such a positive impact on countless students over the years, and I'm sure the students at Olin will miss you," wrote Dr. Neha Dahiya, MBA 2008, clinical assistant professor of pathology at the University of Arizona School of Medicine. "It was a privilege to be your TA, and I learned so much from you that shaped my own approach to entrepreneurship and also my career path as an educator."

Tabor, who also became Poldoian’s teaching assistant, said he was “my most challenging professor at Olin, but also my favorite.”

"David described his class as a 'strategy course masquerading as an entrepreneurship course.' Every case study was eye-opening," he said. "He could uncover the subtle nuances of each case as if the entrepreneurs were protagonists in a New York Times bestselling mystery novel."

Paul McCain, who founded the automotive LED lighting company Diode Dynamics, in St. Charles, Missouri, said, “He always made you think harder about what you were doing, what you were saying, how you were going about the work that day or that year.”

McCain is a classic entrepreneur who started his business in his parents' garage in high school. He wasn't Poldoian’s student, but his wife, Kirsten, was. “My goal was to get more of an understanding and appreciation for what it's like to be an entrepreneur and the different things they have to consider,” she said.

Kirsten, PMBA 2018, took Introduction to Entrepreneurship and said she was stunned when she won for the best new company idea of her class, a project she and three other classmates worked on for that semester. The idea focused on a company where people could rent decorations for bachelorette parties, baby showers, baptisms, all sorts of celebrations—and not be stuck with a mountain of decorations they’d never use again.

Paul McCain met Poldoian when Poldoian and his wife, Carolyn, invited the winning team and spouses to their house for a celebratory dinner. Over the following years, Paul invited Poldoian’s classes to his company and was invited to speak in Poldoian’s class. “He was just excellent at trying to—like any leader would, any teacher, any boss—just make you realize that you can do a lot more than what you're doing today by asking a lot of questions and challenging your ideas,” Paul said.

Kirsten seriously considered launching her company, but she opted not to, saying one entrepreneur in the family is enough. She’s a senior human resources manager at Bayer. Nonetheless, she said Poldoian’s was the best MBA class she took.

“He does such a great job of asking questions to get people to think through their thought process,” she said. “He's got such a gift for asking the right questions to bring that out of people very naturally.”

Later, she added: “He's a teacher worth honoring.”

About the Author

Jill Young Miller

Jill Young Miller

As research translator for WashU Olin Business School, my job is to highlight professors’ research by “translating” their work into stories. Before coming to Olin, I was a communications specialist at WashU’s Brown School. My background is mostly in newspapers including as a journalist for Missouri Lawyers Media, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Washington Post and the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida.

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