Case Competitions: Putting Learning to Work

Students demonstrate what they have learned at MBA case competitions.

Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to LinkedIn Share via Email Share

Tuck students take stock of what they learned—about business and about themselves—as participants in MBA case competitions.

Following their win in the ODYSSEY MBA Games in New York City in March, Eric Sparks T’15 invited his Tuck teammates over to his house for a dinner party to celebrate the victory. After eating, they popped the cork on the crystal-encrusted bottle of Moët champagne they won and toasted the achievement.

“Winning was great and exciting, of course,” says Sparks, whose team also returned home with guaranteed job interviews with LVMH Moët Hennessy – Louis Vuitton and $2,500 cash, “but growing closer to my teammates and getting the experience itself would have been more than enough even without the win.”

Case competitions like the MBA Games have long been a fixture in business education. And for good reason. They teach invaluable skills, challenging students to come up with innovative solutions to often real-world-based cases while also providing valuable networking opportunities for participants.

“We’re sending students all over the world to learn and compete, which is great for everyone involved,” adds Sally Jaeger, an assistant dean at Tuck and director of the MBA program. “It helps raise our brand awareness and helps our students make connections and put their skills into practice on a national or global stage,” she says. “Win or lose, case competitions are a wonderful showcase for what makes Tuck students so special.”

FROM THEORY TO PRACTICE

Ayobami Olufadeji T’16 was a medical student at Dartmouth when he signed up for a couple of electives at Tuck. Intrigued by what he learned, Olufadeji enrolled in the MD-MBA program with the long-term goal of starting a company to provide primary care services in his native Nigeria.

His medical background came in handy when he joined the Tuck team for the 2015 Kellogg Biotech & Health Care Case Competition. The challenge: develop the best U.S. launch plan for a new cholesterol-reducing drug.

Olufadeji also went on to participate in the 2015 McGill Desautels Integrated Management Competition, which was also pharma-based but with an added strategy component to the marketing challenge. Although the team didn’t place, Olufadeji and his teammates learned an invaluable lesson: no matter how expert an analysis may be, it needs to be vividly extrapolated.

You add to your versatility by learning something tangible…" Ayobami Olufadeji T’16

“What case competitions do is make you take theory out of the classroom and put it into the real world so you get a fuller understanding of what it really means. Now I can hold strong conversations about pharma, pricing structures, strategies, and marketing segments that I never would have otherwise,” he says. “That’s what it really comes down to—you add to your versatility by learning something tangible.”

That takeaway resonates especially strongly with Olufadeji, who is grateful for these experiences as he begins the process of founding his own company. Getting the opportunity to stretch and grow and even fail in a safe environment is excellent practice for the uncertainties inherent in entrepreneurship.

“I’ve learned so much about what it means to navigate real life, where everything isn’t as beautifully simple as it can be in class,” Olufadeji concludes. “I’m proud to be at Tuck, where people like Sally Jaeger are interested in our personal development and give us the backing to do things like this so we can become not just well-rounded MBA graduates, but well-rounded humans in general.”

PLAYING TO THEIR STRENGTHS

Erin Wall T’15 was in corporate finance before she came to Tuck, but always had her eye on exploring marketing and general management. After a summer internship at Liberty Mutual in Boston, she’ll be returning to the firm after graduation.

Last January, she participated in the 2015 Instituto Panamericano de Alta Dirección de Empresa (IPADE Business School) Global Case Competition in Mexico. Unlike many other case competitions, IPADE divides participants into diverse teams rather than by school. Wall was teamed with three students from IPADE and one from the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.

“I already know how to get up to speed quickly with a group of Tuck students, so I liked the challenge of going in with people who have very different ideas, experiences, and cultures to form a team and get a lot of work done in 24 hours,” Wall says.

Charged with creating a strategy and production schedule for the Kentucky bourbon whisky manufacturer Maker’s Mark, Wall says her team hit the ground running by playing to each other’s strengths.

“Participating in case competitions like this really builds your network,” adds Wall, whose team finished outside of the awards. “Working with people who come at things differently and have diverse perspectives is excellent practice, too, for the real world once we leave Tuck.”

A CHANCE TO EXPLORE

An AmeriCorps alumna, Frances Thunder T’16 came to Tuck wanting to expand upon her considerable nonprofit experience in order to transition into a business career.

As a member of one of the two Tuck teams selected as finalists for the 2014 Leeds Net Impact Case Competition, Thunder traveled to Boulder, Colorado, to compete. She was excited to visit the city with her classmates, but also eager to tackle the case, which concerned a fictional city planner’s attempt to increase the climate change resiliency of her coastal town’s infrastructure, despite a lack of financial and political support.

“I wanted to see what I’d learned at Tuck so far and how many questions I would be able to answer from my new business point of view,” says Thunder. “The whole experience was great mental cross-training.”

Sponsored by the philanthropic arm of CH2M HILL, a global consulting, design, and project management firm that counts the London Olympics among its many clients, the competition also afforded participants the opportunity to discuss combining business, social, and environmental responsibility to create real impact with top executives and professors.

It also offered a twist in the finals—teams were told that they had to identify new, non-governmental sources of funding for their proposed solutions without stalling the existing timeline.

“I really enjoyed how our team had to become more and more creative throughout the competition,” Thunder says. “It forced us out of our comfort zone and made us really evaluate our strengths, weaknesses, and even interests.”

Even after returning to Hanover, Thunder has continued to feel the benefits of getting to explore new industries, career possibilities, skill sets, teamwork situations, and strategies that this case competition made possible.

“It was a great reminder that business school is the time to explore,” she says. “Exploring without consequences, like in a case competition, lets you strengthen your skills and broaden your perspective.”

PROCESS, NOT JUST OUTCOMES

Like many MBA students, Raphael Bonacci T’15 arrived at Tuck with significant international experience. Bonacci, a dual French and Italian national, worked in corporate finance and strategy in London before coming to Tuck. After projects in Uruguay, India, and the Middle East, he is headed to Samsung in South Korea after graduation.

Last year, he participated in two big contests, the Instituto de Estudios Superiores de la Empresa (IESE) - Roland Berger International MBA Case Competition in Barcelona, Spain, and the Wharton Buyout Competition in New York City. Although the Tuck teams didn’t win either competition, Bonacci says the experience of being coached by professionals and networking with peers from around the globe was an invaluable experience.

“In Barcelona, I learned so much working through the problem, solving it with the team, and then presenting our recommendation to the former CEO of LVMH’s Moët Hennessy - Louis Vuitton Estates & Wines business,” Bonacci says. “Since the case concerned the wine business of LVMH, it was amazing practice for when we’ll actually be making recommendations to CEOs.”

In addition, in the Wharton Buyout Competition, Bonacci was glad to get the opportunity to work closely with other Tuck students he didn’t know very well. Keeping the Tuck community strong is important to Bonacci, who is also the chair of Tuck’s Case Competition Club. Throughout the year, he acts as a point of contact between the major competitions, other participating schools, and Tuck staff and students. Although Tuck wins several competitions every year, he stresses that participation regardless of outcome is crucial.

“I can’t encourage students enough to take part in these competitions—we’re a smaller school with fewer students so we need to increase Tuck’s visibility and show how strong we really are.”

REAL-WORLD CHALLENGE

Before Tuck, Matthew Shofnos T’16 taught electrical engineering in Singapore as part of a fellowship program through Princeton University. His affinity for the country inspired him to join one of two teams from Tuck competing at the 2015 National University of Singapore (NUS) Cerebration Case Competition.

The case involved a real home furnishings company that had achieved great success in Singapore and East Asia, but had failed when it attempted to enter India several years ago. Participants had to analyze what the company had done wrong and how it could successfully tap this huge market.

“We frequently study international business in the context of U.S. firms entering foreign markets, or foreign firms entering the U.S.,” Shofnos says. “Looking at a Singaporean country entering an emerging market was a completely new experience. Analyzing the different set of business challenges in that part of the world was fascinating.”

Perhaps the most heartening aspect of the entire experience, however, was the response they received from Tuck. To participate, Shofnos and his teammates had to miss a week of class, which would be considered unexcused absences. After weighing the benefits of competing, they went to Sally Jaeger, who gave them advice and encouragement. In the end, their faculty gave them the green light.

“Julie Lang T’93, our ManCom professor, not only excused us from the week of class, but also held a make-up session as well as an additional session to help us prepare for the actual case competition,” Shofnos says. “She didn’t have to do any of that. I was blown away, and so grateful.”

CULTURAL IMMERSION

James Goff T’16 came to Tuck to transform his career. A former banker who had worked in London, Hong Kong, and Amsterdam, Goff was looking to transition into management consulting, while at the same time having the opportunity to learn and grow alongside a diverse group of classmates.

He found opportunities to do all that and much more in both the NUS Cerebration Case Competition and the IESE - Roland Berger International MBA Case Competition.

“They are likely to be two of the most formative and definitive experiences I’ll have during my MBA,” he says. “The application of theory, the teamwork experience, the cross-cultural exchange, the opportunity to put our new skills and knowledge to practice—I’m so glad to have participated.”

“In Singapore, the final four teams competed in an enormous exhibition room in front of a huge audience and a very large panel of distinguished judges. To present to all them was daunting,” Goff continues. “Despite the pressure, our team did an amazing job. I’m really proud of the way we made it so everyone could clearly understand our message and the work that went to back it up. I felt the senior business leaders really enjoyed what we had to say and getting to know us.”

Although the competition schedules were so busy some teams worked around the clock, a highlight of both events was the bonding opportunity of sharing an adventure with friends.

“We had the time of our lives learning about Singaporean and Spanish business culture and then celebrating afterward,” he says. “I was able to make friends with most of our fellow competitors and this brought the Tuck team even closer together.”

AN OPPORTUNITY FOR GROWTH

Born in Taiwan, Stephanie Liu T’16 (Shown at right at the NUS Cerebration Case Competition.) attended college in the United States with the desire to pursue international business with a social enterprise component. She came to Tuck so that she could explore how consulting might lead to opportunities that merge all her interests.

“I’ve done two competitions—this year’s NUS Cerebration Case Competition and last year’s inaugural Penn State Smeal College of Business MBA Sustainability Case Competition,” she says. “What I really enjoyed about them was that both competitions were about real, challenging problems that CEOs are trying to solve at this very moment.”

The Penn State competition, in particular, struck a chord with Liu since it dealt with sustainability issues faced by SKF, a Swedish bearings manufacturer. The opportunity to learn about a field that was completely new to her—wind energy—while drawing on her b-school grounding, both during and after the competition, made a lasting impression on Liu.

“What’s great is that the competition always felt really friendly. Even though it was a new experience for many of us in terms of this specific knowledge, everyone seemed willing to share, take risks, and grow,” she says. “It really pushed us to try our best, fail if need be, and then try again in a safe environment.”

This opportunity to take chances, develop new skills, and innovate with old ones turned out to be Liu’s favorite aspect of both competitions, but she and her teammates were also glad to get to help Tuck expand its presence, both nationally and globally.

“I worked with so many different people on both of the teams, none of whom is in my study group. It was an opportunity to bond more closely with my classmates while we represented Tuck together,” she says. “I would encourage anyone to participate in a case competition. Sure, it’s challenging and there may be a learning curve, but the personal growth you undergo is absolutely worth it in every way.”

"PRESSURE-COOKER SCENARIO"

After 12 years in the Navy as a fighter pilot, Eric Sparks T’15 isn’t the kind of person who gets nervous easily. Still, when he and his ODYSSEY MBA Games teammates were waiting for the results to be announced, he started to sweat, just a little bit.

“The competition itself was structured in such an interesting way with four individual parts: an entrepreneurial pitch, a negotiations pitch, a sales and marketing pitch, and then the actual case competition. You really felt that this was the Olympics of MBA games,” he says. “So, yes, when they were announcing the winners, we were all feeling the pressure.”

As thrilling as it was for the Tuck team to win, Sparks counts the experience of competing as just as invaluable, whether it was the ODYSSEY MBA Games or last year’s IPADE Global Case Competition. Although Sparks’ team did not win the latter competition—a Tuck team led by Christine Hou T’15 did—he looks back on it as equally formative.

“Both IPADE and ODYSSEY were really phenomenal, really intense experiences. IPADE, especially, was a pressure-cooker scenario,” he says. “We flew eight hours from Hanover to Mexico City to focus and get to work. I’m going into consulting after Tuck, and I think that situation is so valuable.”

For Sparks, case competitions highlight the ultimate theme of the b-school experience: against a background of building your business acumen, you are challenged to figure out who you are and what you want to do.

“Academics talk about the classics and how it’s important to have a well-rounded academic persona, but business school is that way, too,” he says. “Case competitions are incredibly useful for us Tuck students to see where we are and where we can go. In just a short period of time, you are challenged to draw on all your experiences from business school while using a range of tools you might never have expected to need. It’s the ultimate preparation for life and a great reflection of how Tuck shapes us all.”