As a high school student, Maysa Alqaisi enjoyed public speaking and participated in numerous debates and mock trials. Later, at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin), Alqaisi wanted to continue those experiences and enhance her problem-solving skills. She discovered case competitions.— competitive events where teams of students work under pressure to develop and present an effective solution to a realistic business challenge.
During her freshman year, Alqaisi, who is now a senior finance major in UT Austin’s McCombs School of Business, placed third in two such competitions. Afterwards, Alqaisi says “the thrill of strategizing to solve a problem under time constraints and sometimes with limited information and pertinent industry experience” kept her competing again and again.
Each year, business students participate in case competitions in the U.S. and abroad. At these events, which are often sponsored by major corporations, small teams are given real-world scenarios that typically involve a complex business question or decision. Their goal is to effectively resolve and address these cases to the satisfaction of an esteemed panel of judges and, in some instances, to win prize money. To do so, according to the Case Center, an international clearinghouse for case competition information, students must apply business and management theory and effectively use skills “including negotiation, analysis, teamwork, decision-making, and defending and challenging viewpoints.”
“Participating in a case competition is the best way for students to learn how to crack a real-world business case,” says Cyndi Huang, another student in McCombs School of Business. “[Students] conduct industry research, apply analytical and critical-thinking skills, and work efficiently with a team. All of this happens in a very compressed timeline, and the final product is pressure-tested in front of a panel of judges. In many ways, case competitions allow undergraduate students to get a glimpse of the real business world and pick up skills they would not have acquired otherwise.”
Alqaisi endorses that view. “The intensity of the pressure [for teams] to problem solve is significant,” she says. “For a lot of students, a case competition is their first application of concepts they are learning in the classroom.”
Case competition judging panels are often composed of accomplished business executives and professionals who engage the teams in high-pressure Q-and-A sessions to test their resolve and their proposed solutions.
“A [significant] part of case competitions is the delivery of a team’s solution,” explains Alqaisi. “A good delivery requires confidence, quick thinking — especially during the Q-and-A — and charisma. These characteristics are essential to success in the real world and are given [room] to grow in case competitions.”
A conventional case competition is designed to help students develop business skills involving sales, marketing, finance, and related strategies. For example, students might be asked to devise an approach to help a company dealing with steep declines in product sales to avoid bankruptcy.
Success for companies and organizations in the U.S. and global business workforces is becoming tied to diversity and inclusion more and more. According to a Forbes study, organizations are increasingly finding “having a diverse and inclusive workforce as critical to driving the creation and execution of new products, services, and business processes.”
With that and similar principles in mind, some business schools are sponsoring case competitions that focus on diversity- and inclusion-related scenarios. For instance, such a competition may have students devise a diversity and inclusion program for a Fortune 500 company. Or they may be asked to address a scenario involving reported discrimination or bias in the workplace from a management consulting perspective. The goal is to help students cultivate contemporary leadership and critical thinking skills that can help them effectively navigate diverse business environments.
In April 2017, Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business hosted its inaugural Diversity and Inclusion Case Competition, sponsored by TD Bank.
“Our case competition … was not about the company’s product … but about the culture within the company and how employees could feel comfortable self-identifying,” explains Porsche Johnson, assistant director for undergraduate programs at LeBow. “[The case] allowed students to tackle issues in the workplace related to diversity and inclusion. This is important for students as they prepare to enter the workforce … where there are many companies — large and small — that have committed to developing a culture of inclusion.”
Also focusing on inclusion and diversity, in terms of team composition, is McCombs School of Business’ National Women’s Case Competition, which the school has hosted twice in the last two years. Title-sponsored by Ernst and Young, the 2017 competition welcomed 12 all-female teams from undergraduate business schools across the U.S. The event had sponsors and judges from high-profile corporations including Phillips 66, Accenture, Wal-Mart, AT&T, Toyota, and Shell. The top award for first place was $3,000, and second and third place teams received $2,000 and $1,000, respectively, for their approaches to a conventional business case scenario.
Stephanie Hinojosa-Galvan, MEd, director of Texas BBA (Bachelor of Business Administration) Student Life at McCombs, was instrumental in creating the Women’s Case Competition.
“[At McCombs,] we have great gender diversity in our student body, which is rare for business schools,” Hinojosa-Galvan explains. “That is why I was concerned that more women were not participating in case competitions. It gave me pause that something had to change.”
The Women’s Case Competition started as a local event in 2015 and has continued with largely positive results. “We have found that women participants are [filling] some of the roles on case competition teams that they were never assigned or never took naturally when the teams were coed,” says Hinojosa-Galvan. “Performing all the roles on a team has strengthened their skills and, in some cases, boosted participants’ confidence to return to coed competition groups.”
[Top: A McCombs School of Business student presents at the school’s 2017 National Women’s Case Competition. (Photo by Thao Nguyen)]
She says that the National Women’s Case Competition has spurred important conversations with university advisers, as well as raised essential consciousness among business school and university leadership regarding realities and best practices surrounding inclusion and diversity.
“Often, women do not want to complain about subtle things they are experiencing that affect what opportunities they take and the challenges they face,” explains Hinojosa-Galvan. “Many of our minority business students reported experiencing less-than-positive group dynamics stemming from gender, race, and stereotype bias that sometimes were not previously considered or recognized.”
Hinojosa-Galvan credits McCombs’ dean, Jay Hartzell, for embracing diversity awareness and encouraging other schools to replicate what McCombs is doing. “Good [university] leadership and awareness is huge,” she says.
Johnson also acknowledges the importance of awareness of issues of diversity and inclusion in business and business education. “Amid growing discussions and experiences throughout the nation and world, a focus on these issues in case competitions is important,” she says. “Since many social movements are being spearheaded by … college-aged students, it is vital to provide a platform for [them] to discuss the issues at hand and to offer opportunities for learning.”
Huang, who is a rising senior double majoring in business and management information systems, describes participating in case competitions as the best decision she has ever made. “After having zero idea as to the type of career I wanted to pursue — [despite] taking an entry-level course in almost every business major — participating in business case competitions led me to my post-graduation dream job at a leading business consulting firm,” Huang says. “Every case competition was completely different. Much like in the management consulting industry, the learning curve never ends.”
Alqaisi, who is currently the Women’s Case Competition chair of UT-Austin’s Undergraduate Business Council, also believes that her case competition experience has positively affected her everyday life.
“Every case I attempted to solve came with obstacles — from not having the right experience because it’s tech-heavy or not having access to … useful data because information is private,” Alqaisi explains. “However, the teams that succeeded used what they had instead of dwelling on what they did not. Learning this life lesson [has impacted] how I address any school- or life-related issue I face.”●
Kelley R. Taylor is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.