Academics and Research

Unique business case competition puts focus on diversity

Great minds think alike!

Or maybe they did once, but certainly not any more. Savvy business leaders have retired that adage — along with the three-martini lunch and the gents-only boardroom. They know that in today’s global marketplace, thinking alike is a prescription for obsolescence and that different perspectives, experiences and philosophies result in business decisions that withstand the tests of the marketplace.

That’s the philosophy behind the Daniels College of Business’ Inclusive Excellence Case Competition, one of the only case competitions in the country that focuses on diversity and inclusion.

“The research is showing, more and more: Diverse teams produce a better product,” says Dorothy Lechowicz-Edwards, associate dean for diversity and inclusive excellence at the Daniels College. Along with a team of undergraduate and graduate students, she oversees the competition, which kicks off weeks before the final day of presentations and judging.

Launched six years ago, the competition puts several teams, each made up of students from different countries, ethnic groups and fields of study, to work addressing a “live” business challenge. The case is “live” in that it comes from a real business — typically the presenting sponsor — seeking real ideas for real challenges. Over the years, participating companies have sought help on everything from increasing market share among a targeted ethnic group to addressing diversity issues within their workforce.

The 2015 competition, which concluded on April 10 at the Joy Burns Center on campus, featured a case from presenting sponsor Newmont Mining, which asked the seven teams, each made up of five or six students, to help it devise strategies and tactics for attracting more women and millennials to its international workforce.

The teams were made up of students from seven schools and divisions and from 20 different programs across DU. Participants were almost evenly divided among graduate and undergraduate students, and they hailed from 10 different countries — from Venezuela to Bulgaria and South Korea.

The differing perspectives that come with such diversity make the process fascinating and fun, but they don’t make it easy, notes Addis Sisay, a senior majoring in international business, the daughter of an Ethiopian family that settled in Aurora, Colo., and a member of the victorious team, named Vision Inspired by Excellence.

“Learning how to communicate with each other and balancing different opinions — it’s tough,” Sisay says, noting that reaching consensus on the final ideas required lots of time-consuming give and take. “It had to be something that we were all proud of. And we had to be sure our ideas would be viable.”

As Vision Inspired by Excellence — featuring two undergraduate and three graduate students — batted around ideas and developed its winning concept, team members found themselves gravitating to one core idea: the creation of a “talent supply chain.”

The team’s proposal, says Christina Hunter, a first-year student in the Daniels Professional MBA program, aimed to create a durable means of recruiting and retaining the targeted groups. Although she couldn’t discuss the proposal or the company’s particular challenges in detail — in live cases, the company’s proprietary data and the team proposals are kept confidential — Hunter notes that the talent supply chain addressed everything from company culture and the ambiance of the work environment to mentoring and job-rotation programs.

As Sisay notes, “We wanted to create something that could be embedded in the company culture, and we wanted to establish that diversity and inclusion are an everyday operation.”

Once assembled, the participating teams were given a month to brainstorm strategies, research the viability and financial feasibility of their proposals, and plan their presentations. Teams had the opportunity to visit Newmont Mining headquarters, meeting with senior executives to hear about the company’s priorities.

On competition day, each team was given about 15 minutes to share its ideas and proposals with a panel of judges — an experience that resembles a presentation before a board of directors. The 2015 competition included two judges from Newmont Mining, as well as one judge each from CenturyLink, Kaiser Permanente, InnoVision International, Charles Schwab & Co. and Target.

Team presentations were followed by questions from the judges, who scrutinized everything from the budgets behind proposals to the legitimacy of the supporting data and research. “They grill you,” Hunter says. “They don’t hold back.”

After the questions, judges provided feedback, offering evaluations that help students improve their presentation, analytic and research skills. “Make sure you are listening and not just defending,” one judge advised a team fresh from a rigorous question session. “It’s important to persuade, not sell,” another added.

With its first-place finish, Vision Inspired by Excellence claimed a $6,000 prize, contributed by Newmont, divided equally in the form of a Daniels College Inclusive Excellence Scholarship, awarded to each team member. The second- and third-place teams received $4,000 and $2,000 prizes, respectively.

As welcome as the scholarship money is, it is not the only reward associated with the competition. “It was an amazing experience,” Sisay explains. “I have never learned so much about strategies and ways to help a company.”


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