Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Guest Post: Entrepreneur as Change Agent, New Orleans

I'm still recovering from jet lag after returning from India on Sunday evening.  Will be back with a post on my trip once I recover my full mental capabilities next week.  In the meantime, my classmate Casey Bi has provided a guest post.  Casey traveled to New Orleans over spring break and observed first-hand how entrepreneurship is working to rebuild the city.  A reflective essay showcasing how the Darden experience, in following with the school's mission, works to develop principled leaders that will improve society.

Casey Bi
My first visit to New Orleans was this past week for the Entrepreneurs as a Change Agent course at Darden, and I came away with a sense that New Orleans is a city of juxtapositions. Side by side are rich and poor, white and black, luxury and poverty, hope and despondence, filth and sparkle. I’ve found conversations with cab drivers to be just as illuminating as the presentations from the notable education innovators that we met. The people of New Orleans are a special breed: resilient, proud, determined, and independent. The devastation of Hurricane Katrina has left much more on the city than water marks on the levees and houses with graffiti markings from the rescue effort. It has tapped into the fierce spirits of the residents of a city that refuses to be torn down and trampled on, and instead, among the darkness and poverty and despondency, a phoenix is rising from the ashes. There is something happening in New Orleans.

A new mixed housing development in NOLA
New Orleanians are working side by side with the outside aide workers and non-profits and entrepreneurs that have come to the city post-Katrina to help with the rebuilding effort, and the next generation of the city will remain 100% true to the ethos of the city that existed before the flood, reflecting the independence and spirit of the residents that live in it. The differences will embody positive change: viable mixed income housing developments, ready capital access and financial literacy for all residents – not just the middle and upper income – and improved student test scores from the work of the master teachers who continue to push the standards of education up.

For me, the imperative is to start with the youth. This movement is the most compelling out of all the social programs we’ve learned about this past week and I believe is the most effective in combating the apathy that yes, does exist, in some pockets of the city’s poor. However, the youth of New Orleans represents the most promise for positive change. New Orleans is committing to the children of the city in a big way – with the overhaul of the OPSB and the institution of the Recovery School District to run the networks of charter schools that are reinventing education in a state that is 49th out of 50 in terms of education standards, there is a relentless focus on improvement. Everyone knows that the student performance in New Orleans is abysmal – but the failures of these students have stemmed from the failures of the infrastructure around them, the corruption of school administrators and the school board, and more broadly, the society in which they were born into that refused to give them something so basic - a fair chance at life.

The stories I heard and witnessed about the youth are heartbreaking. Youth who come to school the day after the death of a parent so as not to get behind, youth who cannot graduate despite being a valedictorian because of their inability to pass the state-wide academic standards test five times, youth who get on a bus at 5am to travel to a cafĂ© that teaches them basic communication and social skills with the hope that one day they may be qualified enough to work as a restaurant server. Society has clearly failed New Orleans and its youth in a big way, and this is why the city must rebuild. Former Education Secretary Arne Duncan faced widespread criticism for saying that “Katrina was the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans” but he was 100% right. A corrupt, ineffective, widespread system is difficult to overhaul, but now, here is the chance to start from scratch.

Darden students enjoying a free moment
The reinvention of education in New Orleans will serve as a national purpose as well, and for this I am grateful. With the successful rebuilding of the city’s failing schools, and with the continual rises in student test scores as a result of the charter school system that has taken over the city, the rest of the nation will see and learn. New Orleans can serve as a test case to prove that low-income failing students can actually learn, education in American can be improved with decentralization and structural changes to scheduling and curriculum, and attracting and investing in high-quality teachers who come from the upper echelons of prestigious universities will pay off for the schoolchildren. The students in New Orleans can be empowered to learn, to go to college and vocational school, to come back to their city and invest in the local economy, and continue to build on the work that social workers and educators and entrepreneurs are doing right now in reestablishing New Orleans. This is a city of proud heritage, of culture and history, and ultimately, of opportunity.

The KIPP school that we visited this past week has the word “Courage” painted on top of the doorways. The children who walk under these doorways every day carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, but they also carry this courage. I think we can learn from these children and also have courage – the courage to question and disrupt a failing status quo, the courage to look ahead to the future with vision and hope, and the courage to remember that a phoenix will rise out of the ashes.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Darden Wanderlust

We're on spring break now at Darden, so of course the only way to keep in touch with what my classmates are up to is via the Facebook news feed.  Every day, pictures pour in from all corners of the globe.  From Mexico.  Peru.  Brazil.  London.  Amsterdam.  Turkey.  Dubai.  Israel.  China.  Japan.  Thailand.  Vietnam.  South Africa.  As one of my classmates described this, it's "Asians in Latin America, Latinos in Asia, Americans in India, Indians in Middle East and Europeans in America."

The fact that all these students are spending money they don't have to throw themselves out into the world says something interesting about our collective priorities.  It demonstrates a refreshing curiosity about the world, which can only serve my classmates well as we soon take our diplomas and depart into the world to (hopefully) become global managers.

As someone who traveled abroad for two months before business school and keeps a list of "travel destinations to visit" handy on his iPod, I am not immune to this wanderlust feeling.  In fact, I am one of the aforementioned Americans in India right now and have already become ill while here, so will have plenty more to blog about when I return to Charlottesville!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

What is a case competition?

It's the end of Quarter 3 for second-years here at Darden, and hard to believe that we only have 6 weeks left of class in our business school lives.  We are in the exam period now and I am taking a few minutes to write before heading out of Charlottesville for my last Spring Break!

I wanted to write about a case competition I was in with a group of second-years at the University of Colorado a couple weeks ago.  However, when I tell my non-business school friends that I'm in a case competition, the usual response is "Huh?" or "What is that?"  So I think I actually need to define what one is before I go on.

A case competition starts with the presentation of a business "problem", usually presented as a short story (or "case") with accompanying data and exhibits to illustrate key aspects of the situation.  Teams of students are then asked to identify how they would solve the problem and present their solution to a panel of judges, who evaluate the analysis and the effectiveness of presentation.  Basically, it's designed as a simulation of a real-world business issue that one might face as an MBA, with an overload of data, ambiguous facts, and no clear solution.  As Darden is a case-method school, we're quite familiar with this approach, but someone who has never read a business case study may find this to be a foreign concept (perhaps I should write another blog post about the case method).

Some examples of case competitions will make this a lot clearer:

1. Deloitte Case Challenge, November 2010
I entered the Deloitte competition with a group of classmates hoping to learn what this case competition experience was like.  This was a preliminary round with 20 Darden teams competing for a chance to participate in the national Deloitte case challenge finals in Miami, and a chance to snag an internship offer from Deloitte.  I wasn't looking to work at Deloitte but I wanted to build my case competition muscles.

Team "Bottleneck Elevators". Time of photo = 3:36 AM
Without a doubt, this competition was the most grueling 24-hour period I have experienced at Darden.  The format could only delight a masochist.  We kicked off at a Thursday lunch hour with the presentation of the problem: evaluate the E-reader market and decide which segment (devices, intermediaries, or content providers) would make the best investment.  In other words, would you invest to build a product competing with the Amazon Kindle (device), would you develop an online store to compete with Barnes & Noble (intermediary), or would you invest in the publishers developing the content?

Our intimidating storyboard
Overwhelmed with data and with a 20-minute presentation due the following morning, my team staked out a learning team room and got to work.  We decided to pitch an investment in content providers and raced to research this market.  The time allotted was far too short, and at midnight every team was still at Darden!  It was as close to an all-nighter as I've come at this school, by far.  At 5:30 AM, strung out on 5-Hour Energy and trail mix, my team finally wrapped up our slide deck.  We each took a two-hour nap, reawakened, put on our suits, practiced our delivery a couple times, and somehow rocked it with the judges, taking 2nd place overall.  I definitely didn't want to work for Deloitte after that, and swore I would not try another case competition again...until...

2. Michigan Renewable Energy Case Competition, January 2011
I blogged about this last winter so no need to repeat everything here. The title sponsor was Duke Energy and the problem this time was: How should the company respond to potential emissions regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which could shut down several coal power plants over the next five years?  This time we were given a week to prepare, which I discovered doesn't necessarily make things easier.

Darden gets to know UCLA Anderson and HEC Montreal
The organizers sent us a bunch of data and expected us to develop a detailed financial model of the situation.  Unfortunately our model kept crashing in Excel and we spent countless hours debugging.  Furthermore, the timing of this competition couldn't have been worse for a first-year student: right in that nexus between on-Grounds internship interviews and first-year classes.  By the time we arrived at the University of Michigan, after a week of 4-5 hours of sleep per night, we were exhausted and our presentation wasn't our best.  But it was a great learning experience, a chance to network with the folks at Duke Energy, and Ann Arbor is always a fun (albeit cold) place to visit.

3. Sustainable Venture Capital Investment Competition, March 2011
Another case competition that I have posted on already, so quick summary here.  For this, we traveled to the University of North Carolina and were placed in the shoes of a venture capitalist evaluating three potential startup investments.  We were to decide which company to invest in and draw up a "term sheet" that dictates the parameters of the investment (company valuation, how much money to place in the company, investor protections, etc.).  We also needed to evaluate the degree to which each investment provided the best bang for the buck in providing social and environmental impact.

In hindsight my team, with a total lack of VC experience and competing against teams which did, never had much of a chance at this event, but we all took away valuable lessons about the world of entrepreneurs and how they start their companies.

4. Net Impact Case Competition, February 2012
I was pretty certain that I had hung up my case competition shoes in first year.  As a second-year MBA student now on cruise control, the desire to work my butt off for a week in a case competition had waned considerably.  But with the chance to reunite with two of my three teammates from the Deloitte case challenge, I couldn't turn down the chance to compete at this year's Net Impact Case Competition.

Darden's "Team Cavalier"
This national event started in November with a two-week "virtual round".  Roughly 50 teams were competing for 20 spots in the finals at the University of Colorado.  The sponsor was Encana Oil & Gas, the second largest natural gas producer in North America, and the subject was a hot topic ‒ hydraulic fracturing for shale gas. For the virtual round, we were presented with a potential opportunity to drill for gas in the Eastern U.S. and asked to focus on Encana's role in engaging the local community.  How should Encana bridge external stakeholders' sustainability expectations with the company's future financial growth estimates?  How should Encana communicate its sustainability policy to the local community and how will we know if this communication is working?  My team whipped together a PowerPoint presentation in the week after Thanksgiving, shipped the presentation to the judges, and waited.  A couple days later we discovered we had been selected as finalists for the February main event, along with a second Darden team.

The final round case had a different focus.  How does Encana gain public acceptance of the natural gas industry?  While the company is focused on convincing the public that hydraulic fracturing is a safe process for the environment (which, for me, the scientific jury is still out), it also needs to build demand for its product ‒ natural gas prices are at historic lows currently in the U.S.  We were to be evaluated on recommendation quality, presentation delivery, and understanding of the merger between business acumen and sustainability.

You might think that as wise Second Years we might have learned our lessons from case competitions past.  But no.  We procrastinated on getting all the work done, and even with two weeks to research the natural gas industry from home we still traveled to Colorado with a presentation to build.  This wasn't going to be another all-nighter, though; the hours of travel from Charlottesville to Boulder had exhausted us.  The organizers also played a cruel trick on us by throwing in a last-minute "twist" ‒ how does the company deal with the recent spill of hydraulic fracturing fluids by a competitor?  We put together a decent presentation of recommendations for the company I thought, but in the end were not victorious.  Despite this, we had fun as a team and learned a ton about the challenges of the natural gas industry.

For me, case competitions have provided a valuable supplement to the MBA curriculum, giving me a chance to apply the lessons from Darden into real-world contexts.  The competitions have also extended my understanding of the challenges and opportunities for applying sustainable business practices in the world of business.  By breaking away from the ivory tower of the classroom, these competitions have tested my new knowledge and have prepared me to be a more complete business leader when I graduate from Darden.