How many cases do MBA students read over their two years at Harvard Business School (HBS)? 500. Ranging in topics from finance to entertainment to sustainability, cases share the story of a business leader (the case protagonist) making a key decision in a difficult situation. In the classroom, students discuss and debate potential solutions with fellow classmates, bringing their personal, cultural, and professional backgrounds to bear. While all cases help broaden the perspectives of future leaders, students find some to be more meaningful than others. We asked members of the MBA Class of 2023 about a case they read that made an impact on them, how the lessons will help them become leaders who make a difference, and more.

Furman Haynes (MBA 2023)

Furman is a member of Section H. He will be working to launch an employee-owned company with the goal of building wealth for a diverse and middle-skill workforce.

What case made an impact on you and why?
The “QuikTrip” case stands out for me. The case features a CEO who is expanding his business to a new market and must decide what kind of growth strategy to pursue.

In the classroom we discussed an operating model that was carefully designed to alleviate burdens for frontline workers. The model—which included elements like scheduling, cross-training, and optimal store layouts—freed up employees to create a better service experience for customers. This led to increased profits, a re-investment in their workers, and higher employee retention when compared to competitors. It was fun to find a virtuous cycle within a business model that has nothing to do with the network effects of a tech platform.

The case was extremely important in highlighting why we should look deeply into businesses that employ frontline workers. These companies often use operating models that fail to meet the needs of the employee, whether that be because of unpredictable scheduling, zero cross-training, or unsustainable job design. These organizations achieve short-term financial success but long-term it results in hiring and retainment crises.

In what class did you read this case?
In Managing Service Operations during my EC year with Professor Ryan Buell.

How do you see yourself applying the lessons from this case in your future endeavors?
My post-graduation focus is on growing and selling a high-growth business with broader equity ownership (approximately 50 percent worker owned). While long-term wealth creation for frontline workers is great, I don’t want it to distract from the more immediate challenges that these workers face. By designing my operating model like Quiktrip’s, I’ll be able to build a business whose competitive advantage derives from removing friction and obstacles for workers while allowing them to create more value.

Kevin Huang (MD/MBA 2023)

Kevin is a member of Section G. He will be joining Brigham and Women’s Hospital as a resident physician in internal medicine.

What case made an impact on you and why?
Erik Peterson (A).” The case discusses the problems that a recent MBA graduate faces when he joins a new company and has a difficult time managing people. A lot of us are trained to be individual contributors from a young age. Prior to coming to HBS I focused on my individual performance, my test scores, and how well I did in school. The Peterson case made me realize that career success from a managerial perspective is less about individual contribution and performance and more about team-based collaboration.

It made me think about questions such as: How well do you understand other people and their motivations? How do you incentivize your employees? How do you work with others to create change?

I came to HBS thinking that I would learn all the hard skills such as accounting and finance—which I did—but I also realized that a lot of the value from my time at HBS has been building on interpersonal skills that will help me interact with others in successful ways. I attribute Peterson’s failures to his individual contributor mindset and it’s something that I think would have gone differently had he switched his mindset prior to stepping into a managerial role. The case represented a fundamental switch in terms of how I think about myself as a leader in my career for the rest of my life.

In what class did you read this case?
In LEAD during my RC year with Assistant Professor Anjali M. Bhatt.

How do you see yourself applying the lessons from this case in your future endeavors?
Short term, it’s helped me have a better understanding of how to work with teams, especially when dealing with individuals from different backgrounds, with different skills, and different personalities. Long-term, I have a goal of one day leading organizations that are dedicated to developing new medicine for patients. As a leader, I’ll be managing multiple employees from different disciplines to advance our common mission and goals. The principles from this case will help me build a collaborative team.

Paola Lopez (MBA 2023)

Paola is a member of section J.

What case made an impact on you and why?
My mind keeps going back to the case “Anomalie.” The company was founded by two HBS graduates who, while planning their own wedding and shopping for the bride’s wedding gown, discovered that a city in China produces more than 75 percent of the world’s wedding dresses. The bride sees a drastic difference in factory and bridal boutique pricing and realizes that by working directly with these factories, she can bring these boutique gowns to brides everywhere at a much more affordable price. As they continue to build their brand, the couple come to a crossroads and must decide how they want to scale their business.

As a recent graduate, this case highlighted the importance of true partnership, patience, and alternative ways to launch a business. When the case protagonists came to class, I asked them what it was like to start a company with your partner. They both mentioned that it was important to trust a co-founder as much as a life partner and that the same elements that make a marriage successful are those that make a co-founder relationship successful. Both founders also followed traditional career paths after HBS, which contradicted the pressure to have our lives perfectly mapped out immediately after graduation. Witnessing their journey inspired me to embrace the notion that it's alright not to have all the answers right away and that taking the time to find the right opportunity is a worthwhile pursuit.

We are in a time in which founders face increased scrutiny and the need for solid proof of business viability before raising capital. The scrappiness and resilience displayed by the protagonists resonated deeply with me. Their focus on achieving product-market fit and establishing sound unit economics before seeking funding exemplified an alternative approach to entrepreneurship. Their story ignited a desire within me to explore diverse strategies and think outside the box when it comes to building and scaling a business.

In what class did you read this case?
In Scaling Tech Ventures during my Elective Curriculum year with Senior Lecturer Jeffrey Rayport.

How do you see yourself applying these lessons in your future endeavors?
I will prioritize surrounding myself with the right people in both life and business. The case made it crystal clear how essential strong partnerships are. Trust, collaboration, and a shared vision are the bedrock of success. So, I'm committed to seeking out like-minded individuals who align with my values and bring their unique strengths to the table, but who also challenge my thinking and complement my skills.

Lastly, I’ll stay both curious and patient to make sure that when I do take “the plunge” it’s for the right reasons.

Temi Olonilua (MBA 2023)

Temi is a member of Section B. She will be joining McKinsey & Company as an associate.

What case made an impact on you and why?
Kwame Owusu-Kesse at the Harlem Children’s Zone.” This case is about a newly appointed CEO who, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, has to decide whether the national expansion of his nonprofit organization is feasible. He must take into account his organization’s goals, the clients and communities that will be impacted, and the already depleted staff who will help him lead this effort.

The case gave me a deeper look into the world of nonprofits as businesses. The protagonist took a non-traditional path and went straight into a nonprofit after graduating with his MBA from HBS. Under his leadership, the organization has scaled its impact tremendously in the Harlem community and beyond. The case crystallized how a nonprofit can be run as a business in order to grow and scale its impact.

It also gave me a great example of a visionary leader who was leading with purpose, authenticity, and vulnerability. By investing his time in building strong partnerships with other local organizations and stakeholders, driving teamwork, and fostering alignment around the organization’s goals, the protagonist was able to meet his objectives. We were fortunate enough to have him as a guest during our classroom discussion and I was able to get his point of view and the reasoning behind some of the decisions he made.

In what class did you read this case?
In Leadership and Organizational Behavior (LEAD) during my Required Curriculum (RC) year with Assistant Professor Ting Zhang.

How do you see yourself applying the lessons from this case in your future endeavors?
Similar to the protagonist, I will put a huge emphasis on building strong relationships that are rooted in trust—both in my personal and professional life. As a consultant, I will be working with various groups including clients, peers, and other stakeholders, and I plan to lead with vulnerability and authenticity in a way that helps me build trust with people early on. I will also continue to build a mindset of continuous learning and encourage my teams to learn from both our successes and failures and use that knowledge to improve our outputs.

I also know that as a leader, I will have to make difficult decisions. Leaders often make decisions based on the numbers alone, but I will also make it a point to look at who these decisions will impact. I will lead authentically not only for myself, but also for those on my team.

Melissa Yang (MBA 2023)

Melissa is a member of Section E. Melissa plans to explore career paths in Hollywood and complete a novella before returning to management consulting.

What case made an impact on you and why?
The Black List.” The case is about an entrepreneur who notices how easy it is for great movie scripts to be rejected or unnoticed, and begins wondering how he can build a better system for discovering great screenplays. He starts a company that identifies potential hit movie scripts via crowdsourcing and data analysis—essentially giving unproduced scripts and undiscovered writers a second chance. The Black List is now a Hollywood institution, and some of my favorite films—like Slumdog Millionaire and The Social Network—might not have been produced if not for this platform. In the case, the protagonist is looking at new ways he can support screenwriters and considering the potential challenges and barriers he may face as he enters the competitive film industry.

The case left such a lasting impression on me that it’s altered my immediate plans post-HBS.

There are many reasons I’ll remember it: how the protagonist bootstrapped this operation with nothing but a spreadsheet and an anonymous email address, or how it demonstrates the critical role that MBA-type skillsets can play, even in creative spaces. But most of all, I’ll remember it because of how values-driven the protagonist was and how the entire DNA of the Black List arose from his core values: a sense of good and an appreciation for the arts. Even the name of his venture was a very intentional branding decision. In the worlds I build someday, I hope to be as values-driven—through and through—as he is.

In what class did you read this case?
I read this case as part of an independent project with Senior Lecturer Henry McGee about distribution and marketing in Hollywood.

How do you see yourself applying the lessons from this case in your future endeavors?
Before coming to HBS, I sometimes knocked myself for not having the right background for what I wanted to do. Seeing how the Black List has created so much good in Hollywood and knowing that it was hatched inside the head of a self-professed “numbers geek” like me made me rethink that. I came into HBS after six years on Wall Street thinking it’d be difficult for me to be taken seriously in Hollywood (or in the literary world) if I didn’t go to a film school or make movies in my basement when I was 12.

The case was a powerful reminder of the impact that smart, creative people can have in Hollywood by drawing on their divergent life experiences. I already have some of my own ideas for other data-driven business models, and this case gave me the inspiration to pursue them.

This post was originally published on the HBS Newsroom page.