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|
|Our intimidating storyboard|
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|
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"|
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.