Pitching Business Ideas: An Interview with OMBA Students at the Hult Global Case Competition

The odds were against us. Five first-year MBAs. No background in solar energy. No connection to Eastern Africa. But when the Hult Global Case Competition picked our team to represent the University of Oregon, we couldn’t resist a good challenge. Our task was to design a solution to increase access to clean, renewable solar energy in Africa. As one of 300 teams picked from over 4,000 applications, we were set to compete against schools from around the world.

What was the case you were working on?

We were consulting for SolarAid, a U.K.-based company. They have two divisions within the company and the division we consulted for, SunnyMoney, sells solar lamps and chargers in East Africa. There is a huge need for solar in developing markets, but it is difficult to implement because of cost barriers. Africa is still dependent on kerosene for light. Kerosene is really toxic, dangerous, and extremely expensive for rural African households. Solar is clean, safe, and renewable – freeing up money for families to spend on food, education, etc.

SunnyMoney has had some success in the countries they are currently in– Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, and Zambia – but they were ready to scale and needed to figure out how. That’s where we came in. The Hult Competition allowed SunnyMoney to crowd-source the best student ideas for scaling their business.

What was it like to work on this kind of project?

It was incredibly challenging – but in an awesome way. Andrew sums it up: “This was a truly rewarding project that required me to think creatively, contribute to a team environment and work outside my typical comfort zones, in order to develop a unique solution to a challenge that needs to be resolved.” We were consulting for a business that wanted a good bottom line, but also had a social goal of affordable lighting. We had to balance doing well financially and doing good socially, which stretched what business is traditionally about.

The team meetings leading up to and in San Francisco were incredibly fun with a ton of team bonding happening, and that made it easier when we were working hard to research and learn about the economy and culture of East Africa. There were even several nights we got kicked out of Lillis because the building was shutting down.

Watching our team and ideas evolve was also satisfying. We really went from “a big jumble of everyone’s initial thoughts to a unique and well planned model,” Shannon explains.

We were blown away by the support we received from the University of Oregon. We were extremely lucky to have the support of Randy Swangard and Dave Boush, who helped us secure funding to get to San Francisco. We also had help from Anne Forrestel and Ron Severson who gave us insights on pitching, and microfinance, respectively. Finally, Cleven Mmari, a native of Tanzania was gracious enough to detail the Tanzanian political and social structure, and LCB alum and CEO of EcoZoom Ben West helped us understand manufacturing and distribution in Africa.

               

What secrets do you have for others considering case competitions?

We learned so much! But if we had to distill it down to a few quick and easy tips:

Remember the emotional connection. It’s easy to get lost in the details of your strategy. Andrew explains: “When you only have one shot to impress people, you need to be extremely clear and concise while also telling a story that evokes an emotional response.” Another trick that helps add substance: “Unbeknownst to me was the importance of using photos” in your slide deck, says Paul.

Forget about the numbers until you’ve reached a great solution. Paul sums this up well, “The fact that a number appears in the solution makes it easy to conclude that numbers are important in execution. In reality, an excellent idea trumps a good-but-not-great cost-effective solution. One team’s solution required an investment of $8 million, but when a big return, both financial and social, is as clear as they made it, $8 million is probably not hard to generate.”

Obviously you need both good content and delivery to be successful, but great delivery will set you apart. Every team had great knowledge, but what really set the winning team apart was their delivery. Though we collected a lot of information, we could have spent more time on giving a compelling and emotional presentation.

The competition was truly a team effort, but it wasn’t just about the five people on our team. “Helpful connections are everywhere – you just need to open your eyes to them,” says Jess.

What’s up with those sunglasses?

That’s a funny story. We won these Shady Peeps (a business started by UO alums) on the OMBA rafting trip during Prologue. There was a contest for which boat had the most spirit and the prize were pairs of Shady Peeps. Every member of our SunnyMoney team happened to have been on that winning boat.

We wore green and Shady Peeps at the competition to show our Oregon pride. As Jess puts it, there was a beautiful moment when we were “having our team’s picture taken in our suits, green shirts and ties, and Shady Peeps, in front of the Hult backdrop, with a swarming crowd of competitors and colleagues. We wore green with pride and didn’t take the responsibility lightly.” We weren’t afraid to be recognizable.

          

We are looking forward to the next opportunity to create a better world through business. Thank you for putting up such a great event, Hult.

-The OMBA SunnyMoney team
Grace Chang, Paul Chun, Shannon Oliver, Andrew White, Jessica Zutz

 

Written by UO Business

The UO Lundquist College of Business empowers an engaged community of students, faculty, staff, and stakeholders who create, apply, and disseminate knowledge that contributes significantly to their professions, communities, and society. The college delivers a dynamic learning environment where world-class professors engage and get to know students, where students work on real projects for real companies, and where alumni go on to high-powered jobs worldwide.