Anyone aiming to reach the top in business needs to bring their “A game” to the office or boardroom day in, day out. It is no wonder, therefore, that universities and business schools are encouraging MBA students to enter the growing number of case competitions which now vie for attention on the international scene. Stephen Nason, professor of business practice at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) Business School, believes the “real world” situations students tackle in such competitions provide valuable insights and experience. “They don’t take a case that is two or three years old, but instead use a problem that a company is currently experiencing and probably doesn’t yet have a solution for,” Nason says. “Also, the students get a chance to present their recommendations to the firm’s executives, so they get a lot of grounded feedback right away.”
Substance is more important than style in these contests, but Nason admits that the participants’ analytical and problem-solving skills are not the sole factor determining success. “In a perfect world, the content of the recommendation would be the only thing that was important, but the reality is that if you can’t convince people and communicate the quality of your recommendation, then the best idea in the world won’t have any impact.” Simon Wen Zhu, Nicky Loh and Clément Dieudonne are all members of a HKUST team which has struck a successful balance between the quality of the message and of the delivery. Amongst other impressive results, the trio, who are all part of the 2012 intake, helped their team take first place at the InnovateChina 2013 Entrepreneurship Challenge in Shanghai and win the best “elevator pitch” award at the 30th Annual Global Venture Labs Investment Competition in Austin, Texas. The trio with two other members also championed the One Million Entrepreneurship Competition held by HKUST last month.
“Nothing is more satisfying than getting recognised for our hard work,” says mainlander Wen. “Our classmates love it whenever we inform them about our success in competitions.” Dieudonne too has revelled in “the public victory and the glory”, but the Frenchman has also enjoyed the friendships developed among the team, with other teams and with judges. Noh, who is from Singapore, points out that success takes application and effort. “Coming up with a well thought through business plan that investors will want to put their money into - and let grow with us - is the most difficult part,” he says. “But taking part in business plan competitions has been useful in preparing me for my working life. It has taught me how to see things from many different perspectives and challenged me to be a more resourceful person. I have also forged many new friendships along the way and these could be very helpful as I build up my career.” Dr Michael Shulver, assistant dean at Warwick Business School in Britain, believes that success in such contests can also get students noticed in the jobs market. “They are something that employers really value as they show students applying the knowledge they have gained from the MBA in a business setting,” Shulver says. “We advise all our students to take part. It allows them to demonstrate their initiative, drive, willingness to go the extra mile, and real evidence of their business competence and personal skills. Those students who entered the Hult Prize had a lot of interest from the judges and the companies involved.” This competition, run by the Hult International Business School, is aimed at budding social entrepreneurs. Shulver says Warwick has also pointed its students towards the relatively new MBA World Trophy, the International Business Ethics Case Competition in San Diego, and the McKinsey Challenge.
Nason cites the Hult Prize as the leading competition specialising in non-profit and social cases. “For more corporate, multinational case competitions, I would probably rate the one run by the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business as the most prestigious,” says Nason. “For business plan cases and as an entrepreneurial competition, the University of Texas, Austin, holds the equivalent of the world championships.” Supriya Mundra from Mumbai, director of a family-run high-fashion textile business, is currently a full-time MBA student at Warwick. With four fellow students, Mundra entered the latest Hult contest, taking on a case about the problem of food security for 200 million people living in urban slums around the world. “We had to fly to San Francisco and present in front of six judges in our heat,” Mundra explains. “We won the heat and were then straight into the regional final, presenting in front of 500 people. It was an excellent experience, but I was very nervous. We gave a 10-minute pitch in front of 24 judges, with two of us doing it, and then we were questioned on our business plan.” Despite her apprehension, Mundra and her team finished with something to celebrate. “The pitch was also the most rewarding part of it because we got second place and it felt really good beating schools like Harvard and Stanford.” Success in such competitions, or even having a good shot, requires some sacrifices. “These competitions come on top of the students’ academic work and it is all done in their spare time,” Shulver says. “It is extra-curricular for them as the MBA is a very intense course anyway. We help with funding and flights, but they have to do the work in their own time and they have to manage it while doing their MBA.”