Business School Competitions: Friendly Rivalries, Real Challenges - Part One

March 11, 2013

This week, Crystal Mario takes a look at three business school competitions and how they encourage innovation and find solutions for real-world problems.

Part One: Refreshing First Coffee at Darden

I’m a big fan of business school case competitions and business plan challenges. Granted, I’ve reached the stage (age) where I’m more likely to be a judge than a participant, but I enjoy them nonetheless, and always learn from them.

I recently had the opportunity to judge a case competition at the Darden Business and Society Conference. The case involved a business problem close to Darden’s heart:  how do you move a time-honored school tradition to zero waste?  Since 1952, all the members of the Darden community have gathered each morning at 9:30 for First Coffee, a chance for faculty, staff, and students to relax, connect, and, quite simply, enjoy being part of Darden’s unique culture and community.  This daily ritual, however, creates approximately 1.8 tons of waste per year, and stands in the way of Darden’s goal to become a carbon-neutral and zero-waste institution by 2020.

Darden uses the case method of instruction so, not surprisingly, a talented group of students created a first-rate case on the “First Coffee” matter. At the conference, teams had 11.5 hours to create their presentations. Competition was fierce, as you might expect at a top business school.

All of the teams presented thoughtful, innovative, and cost-effective solutions to the problem.  What I especially loved about the approach of the winning team was that their attention to real-world detail. They measured classrooms, coffee cups, and bins.  They interviewed kitchen and dining room staff.  They even built a prototype of a device that could be used to store and transport reusable cups and deal with liquid waste.  If they had had access to a 3D printer, they likely would have been ready to take orders for their new device. This was more than an academic exercise for them; they were really attempting to solve the problem for the school. Their presentation was polished but it was their interest, ingenuity, and systems thinking that set them apart.  I understand that big changes will be taking place before First Coffee kicks off again next fall at Darden, and I’m eager to see the progress that the school will make by September.

Stay tuned for Part Two on Wednesday, featuring the Walmart Better Living Business Plan Challenge.



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