Engineering degree positions alum to solve problems as entrepreneur

Two years out of the School of Engineering & Applied Science, Chris Holt already has startup experience with two companies under his belt — neither remotely related to his Washington University major.

Chris Holt at the co-working space TechArtista that he cofounded, standing next to the three-story pyramid on which local artists from the The Screwed Arts Collective painted a mural.

But he would never say his 2013 bachelor's degree in chemical engineering has gone to waste — in fact, quite the contrary.

"I wanted to utilize the skills I learned in the engineering school and apply them to problems that were a little outside the box," says Holt, a St. Louis transplant whose college and post-graduate experience has thoroughly enmeshed him in the community.

Startup No. 1 is called Bazaarboy, an online events integration platform that allows customers to schedule, promote and sell tickets for events. Holt came aboard before graduation when a fraternity brother pulled him in to help with the logistics of building and managing the product.

He continued with Bazaarboy as its operations manager. Those operations included finding a place to house the fledgling company — which led to his next startup idea.

It sparked to life when Holt and fellow WashU alumnus Eric Hamblett came across an empty building in St. Louis' Central West End neighborhood that once housed a Pierce-Arrow Automobile showroom.

The three-level, 13,500-square-foot space was more than Bazaarboy could use, but Holt and Hamblett decided to make it a co-working space. Holt and his partner sealed the deal and commenced renovation on the old building in October 2013.

The TechArtista co-working space opened the following May and now houses more than 150 members who take advantage of free coffee, Wi-Fi, a fitness room with on-site trainers, showers, laundry, a patio and regularly scheduled events.

How does a chemical engineer become a startup landlord?

"Converting the space into what it is now — there were a lot of deadlines and moving parts," Holt says, including ensuring tasks were done at the right time, in the right order; figuring out lead times for ordering raw materials; and arranging for custom-made materials in the new space.

Holt's deep integration into St. Louis' burgeoning startup scene may seem strange for a kid raised in Hong Kong, with no other Mound City connection. He was well on his way toward a career in environmental engineering, which would have used his core skills in chemical engineering, when an internship at a product design firm turned his head.

Then, one engineering class in "new product and process development" — taught by adjunct professor and WashU chemical engineering graduate Nicholas Nissing — really changed his thinking: "It empowered me to look at a whole way of developing products," Holt says. "I realized I didn't want to work in a lab somewhere."

The course change — and his time with Bazaarboy — delayed graduation a year. He decided to pursue a minor in operations supply chain management from the Olin Business School and completed another minor in Mandarin Chinese from the College of Arts & Sciences.

Throughout college, Holt also explored the St. Louis scene beyond the WashU campus. He taught at a science Olympiad at a charter school in the city. He worked in St. Louis and explored during summers. His love for the community now plays out in his work with TechArtista.

For example, Holt and his partners have collaborated with four other co-working spaces in the St. Louis area to create the League of Independent Workspaces, a coalition of geographically diverse spaces offering reciprocal memberships and other benefits. Among them: Possibly creating a cooperative health insurance buy-in program for members of TechArtista.

He's also working on creating a nonprofit connected to TechArtista that can engage with students sooner and encourage them to consider staying in St. Louis — while also doing a study to measure the economic impact of co-working spaces like his.

Developing and nurturing that sense of civic pride and responsibility is what he'd encourage future WashU graduates to do. He said making the effort to get out in the community has created experiences, understanding and connections that will continue to serve him well in his career — a career he might not have expected to have two years earlier.

"My career trajectory definitely changed, but for the better," Holt said. "What I learned I've definitely been able to apply to what I'm doing now."