Lindner students win renowned Smeal MBA Sustainability Case Competition

Bearcats for Sustainability claim $10,000 first-place prize

Four graduate students at the University of Cincinnati’s Carl H. Lindner College of Business recently won the Penn State University Smeal College of Business Center for the Business of Sustainability’s MBA Sustainability Case Competition for Fall 2021, taking home $10,000 for their victory.

Operating under the name Bearcats for Sustainability, Delyse Lawless (MBA ’22), Wilhelm Louw (MBA ’22), Megan Kurose (MBA, MS ’22) and Keyu Yan’s (MBA ’22) winning presentation was the culmination of nearly two months of hard work and impressive collaboration.

The quartet knew each other from their first month of classes this past semester, but had yet to work together as a team. However, their fates were sealed after they all completed an exercise in their Leadership and Organizations class (MGMT 7014) that grouped them together by personality type — and they all ended up in the "extroverted group."

“One day after class, we were hanging out talking about a case competition we had read about in a recent newsletter to our cohort. The case competition required a team of two-five people, and we thought four was the perfect number!” Kurose said. “We all have a strong interest in sustainability, in addition to unique backgrounds (culturally, academically and professionally) that made us a solid and diversified team.”

The Smeal Case Competition was divided into two sections: a preliminary round of electronic submissions of analysis, and then a panel of reviewers selected five finalists to present their solutions for the first- ($10,000), second- ($5,000) and third-place ($2,500) prizes. Each team's electronic submissions were required to include a one-page "executive summary"; a PowerPoint title slide; and a maximum of 10 PowerPoint slides.

Eight days after Bearcats for Sustainability signed up for the competition, Penn State's Center for the Business of Sustainability emailed them a document outlining the case competition: "At a Crossroads: Tackling E-Waste by Leveraging Logistics and Customer Engagement."

An image of tree and a building are juxtaposed with text.

The title PowerPoint slide of Bearcats for Sustainability’s solution presentation, which includes the name of the competition and the name of their solution, "E-Cycle: Partners for Change." Image provided.

The task for entrants this year was to create "innovative, market-based solutions to the growing problem of electronic waste," per the competition website. The competition went on to state that "electronic waste, or e-waste, is a ripe opportunity for innovation as millions of tons of unique materials and minerals are embodied in our many devices. ... The case is about a global logistics and e-commerce company that sells a wide range of electronics through its online platform and wants to create a program for these products to be reused, repurposed, remanufactured, or recycled."

The competition was sponsored by an anonymous company, characterized as a "global corporation with a focus on e-commerce and physical retail stores."

According to the case document, the best solutions needed to accomplish the following: 

  1. Double the global e-waste recycling rate (17.5%) in the next five years.
  2. Increase customer awareness of e-waste recycling options.
  3. Build a solution that is cost-neutral or low-cost.
  4. Build a solution that has the potential to scale globally. 

Two weeks after filing their solution, titled "E-Cycle: Partners for Change," Bearcats for Sustainability were notified that they were one of five finalists that would present their solution to a panel of judges, including executives from the competition's sponsored company. The company was revealed to Bearcats for Sustainability during the final round, but asked to remain anonymous. After judges dispensed feedback on their preliminary submission, Bearcats for Sustainability had 10 days to adjust their solution and create a 30-minute PowerPoint to present virtually in the final round.

A PowerPoint slide with green and black text.

According to Kurose, “Serves” is an “acronym we designed to outline the solution and how it will be implemented. It's a one-stop shop for members to use existing serves to recycle e-waste. It's a membership organization that uses an app and website as its platform.” Image provided.

“We spent countless hours refining our solution, questioning our assumptions, forecasting financials, creating graphics, conducting secondary research, designing and distributing surveys, analyzing data, and practicing our presentation,” Kurose said. “Our team spent many late nights reworking our presentation to ensure that it addressed the judges’ feedback and presented a holistic solution that met all the competition guidelines.”

On the day of the finals, Bearcats for Sustainability were randomly selected to present first. At 9 a.m., the team logged onto a Zoom call and began their presentation. Lawless, Louw, Kurose and Yan each spoke for approximately seven minutes, and then fielded questions from the judges for about 15 minutes. At the conclusion of their presentation, they were instructed to log on at 4 p.m. for the ceremony that would announce the results of the competition.

“The judges appeared very impressed by our holistic, partnership-focused approach to the challenge,” Kurose said. “They also praised our team for leading with a data-driven solution.”

At 4 p.m., the five finalists logged on along with the case competition organizers and judges. As Bearcats for Sustainability's group text bustled in anticipation of the announcement, the judges provided feedback to each finalist. Next, the team were asked to mute themselves and turn off their cameras, with instructions to turn their cameras back on if they were announced as a winner. As the third- and second-place winners were declared, Bearcats for Sustainability held their collective breath. And then they heard three magic words.

We spent countless hours refining our solution, questioning our assumptions, forecasting financials, creating graphics, conducting secondary research, designing and distributing surveys, analyzing data, and practicing our presentation

Megan Kurose, MBA, MS ’22

“As soon as we heard the words "University of Cincinnati," we turned on our video cameras and cheered,” Kurose said. “We were ecstatic, humbled, and proud to have placed first in the competition. The many revisions to our solution, late nights, and challenges along the way were all worth it.”

Bearcats for Sustainability is splitting their winnings equally, and expressed their desire from the outset to not only to place in the competition and bring pride to Lindner, but also experience a case competition, as none of the team's members had participated in "anything like this before," according to Kurose.

“It ended up being a tremendous learning experience for all of us. We learned an enormous amount about e-waste, which is the world’s fastest growing waste stream, and how to responsibly recycle e-waste products,” Kurose said. “Beyond the topic of e-waste, the competition was a great opportunity to grow our soft skills: teamwork, communication, leadership, responsibility, decisiveness, problem-solving, conflict resolution, and perhaps most importantly, working under time pressure!”

Featured image: Bearcats for Sustainability members (left to right) Keyu Yan, Delyse Lawless, Megan Kurose and Wilhelm Louw. Photo provided.

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