26 Jan 2021

A Different Kind of Case: HBS MBA Students Take Part in Inaugural John R. Lewis Racial Justice Case Competition

Two teams make semi-final round, one takes home audience prize

In response to the national reckoning in 2020 over racial inequities and deaths of George Floyd and others, students at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School led the creation of a case competition honoring the late John R. Lewis (1940-2020), the civil rights icon and U.S. Representative from Georgia’s 5th district. It’s the first case competition focusing on the intersection of business and racial inequality, and the family of Lewis gave permission for its naming.

Over 100 teams from more than 50 universities represented undergraduate and graduate teams from various business, public policy, public health, law, social work, and medicine schools across the U.S. Two dozen judges, mostly from companies with a social justice mission or from universities, screened the entries to produce the 24 semifinalists, including two teams from Harvard Business School (HBS).

Each semifinalist team conducted research to form recommendations for one of six major companies, including HP, Johnson & Johnson, Salesforce, Southern Company, Truist, and Walmart, around one central question: How can that corporation best use its various resources (not just financial) to address issues of racial justice in one or more of three areas: wealth/income disparities, health outcome disparities, and educational/skills attainment gaps?

Half of the overall $50,000 in prize money will go to a company chosen by each category winner, which must be involved in racial reconciliation and inclusivity work.

One of the semifinal teams was Team School Daze with Ariel Barlow (MBA 2022), Kevin Sani (MBA 2022), Chichi Anyoku (MBA 2021), and Ronnie Wimberley (MBA 2021) working together with Johnson & Johnson.

Team Jedi from HBS, made up of MBA 2022 students Angel Wang, Ashley McCray, William Fields, Bailey Wilton, and Olutosin (Tosin) Sonuyi, was partnered with Truist. Their recommendations resulted in their winning the Audience Award, worth $10,000. They chose to donate half of their prize to the Advancement Project, a next generation multi-racial civil rights organization.

We caught up with Team Jedi to learn more about their experience taking part in the competition, and taking home one of the top prizes. After the Q&A, check out the press release from the competition announcing the winners and a LinkedIn blog post from Angel Wang to learn more.

Why did you enter the competition?

Angel Wang: As MBA students, we feel that businesses have a financial and moral responsibility to the communities they serve. In our application, we stated that businesses are obligated to address issues of racial injustice both internal and external to the company.

Tosin Sonuyi: We feel that even if a company can’t show that they have explicitly contributed to racial injustice, very few companies exist that do not benefit from it. Racial injustice does not disappear at a company’s door…or Zoom screen.

Angel Wang: More specifically, as Harvard MBA students in our first semester, we take our school’s mission seriously: to become leaders who make a difference in the world. Regardless of the outcome, we knew we would gain an incredible breadth and depth of knowledge about corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion.

How do you feel after winning?

Ashley McCray: Ecstatic! We focused on “running our own race” during the competition. Now that the event is done, we’re appreciating the fact that we placed in the top three out of 105 teams from 50+ business schools. We feel humbled by the support we’ve received, honored to represent Harvard Business School, and committed to the cause—our work isn’t done yet.

What are you going to do with the prize money?

Tosin Sonuyi: One of the many reasons we were excited to participate in the case competition was that we got to choose a non-profit organization to donate half of our prize money. We’re happy to share that half of our prize money will go to the Advancement Project, a multi-racial civil rights organization focused on tackling inequality by empowering communities at the local level and driving for policy change nationwide.

What was your pitch?

William Fields: We believe the boldness of our recommendation really resonated with our audience. In our presentation, we asked a major national bank to own up to its participation in years of discrimination against people of color, and to make significant changes in its strategy and operations to serve the people it has historically excluded. We proposed new non-predatory revenue models, fee-free banking programs, and re-investing hundreds of millions of dollars collected from non-interest income, overdraft fees, and other fees. Truth be told, we were initially hesitant; we debated whether or not we should propose such a radically different revenue model. Ultimately, we decided not to censor the power of our recommendations and presented this recommendation using a data-driven and tailored approach.

Why do you think you were the audience's favorite?

Bailey Wilton: Winning the Audience Award showed the power and strength in numbers. We did not do this alone—we interviewed several classmates, faculty, banking experts, mentors, and requested materials from the Baker Library Research Group. We held detailed focus groups with unbanked and underbanked brothers and sisters. When it came time to vote, our personal and professional communities showed up. Sectionmates, Harvard professors, and HBS alumni were all messaging us in the final minutes of the poll! It was great!

Team Jedi on Day 2 of the competition.

What did you learn?

Collective Team Jedi Responses

Open communication is key in a virtual environment: Being a diverse team meant we needed to be honest about our thoughts and respectful of others’ perspectives. Days before the competition, we fundamentally restructured our entire recommendation, and we gave each other the grace to voice our feedback and ideas.

Work collaboratively and consistently. We met on a near-daily basis (17 meetings across the 40 days of winter break, which included holidays, start-up bootcamps, and SIPs).

Empowerment. We did not have a rigid organizational structure among our five-person team. Instead, we embraced an entrepreneurial mindset by encouraging everyone to pitch in wherever possible.

Be curious with a small ego and keep asking questions. During our focus groups, we heard intense criticism about banks that shifted our whole paradigm and forced us to scrap many of our earlier solutions. We even abandoned an entire educational program that was going to be the cornerstone of our recommendation because we uncovered deeper insights.

Don’t censor your creativity but know your judges. We were concerned that our recommendations would be too bold for a traditional bank. Therefore, we used a data-driven approach to quantify a radical recommendation, and then tailored the narrative to ensure it would resonate with our financial services peers.

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