Reflections on a Case Competition

Ok, deep breath, you got this, 15 minutes and it’s all over. This is what was going through my head right before presenting in the final round of the Simon Fraser University Sustainability Challenge. This was my first live case competition and I never thought our team would get this far. We were three Americans, competing in Canada, in a business and cultural setting we knew little about despite the similarities between our countries.

When we first heard about the SFU Sustainability Challenge, my team including Seth Lenaerts, Leah Goodman, and I, were all excited. We saw it as a great opportunity to compete in an international live case competition with a focus on sustainability.  Once we saw the case, however, we knew it was going to test our education, business ethics, and values. The case prompt was to provide feasibility and pre-engagement advice to the FortisBC team with respect to the potential for natural gas conversions in First Nations communities on Vancouver Island. Our initial reaction was, “are we supposed to market natural gas to First Nation communities?” It was difficult to see the link to sustainability and tested our ethics.

Feeling confused and a bit disheartened we sought guidance from a couple of advisors. We were questioning our values and trying to decide what our next step should be. Upon re-reading the case we realized we were not being asked to come up with a marketing plan but to consider if natural gas could be an option for these communities, what these communities’ values were, and how these related to the natural gas company. Once we realized this, we were reenergized and dove back into the case, viewing it as a challenge to bring environmental values to a fossil fuel company.

Incorporating sustainability into our proposal was not the only challenge we faced. We were also dealing with the cultural differences between Canada and the United States. Canada is a big proponent of natural gas as a clean energy source whereas our group still viewed it as an extractive fossil fuel. We were also playing catch up on the cultural context and understanding the history and relationship of First Nation communities in Canada. While these challenges hampered our understanding of the case initially, having an outsider’s perspective may have helped us in the end.

Our team worked wonderfully together, building off each other’s ideas and helping each other understand the nuances of the case. When someone struggled with an idea or concept we would take the time to go over the issue and ensure everyone was on the same page, often leading to a breakthrough in how we structured our case. Our finalized product was something we could all be proud of, a values-driven suggestion on how FortisBC could use renewable natural gas (something they were currently offering at a premium) to these First Nation communities.

When we made it to Canada we weren’t quite sure what to expect. During the opening ceremony, we were chosen as the first to present the following day. We quickly returned to our hotel room and practiced our presentation until we knew it backwards and forwards. We felt good about our presentation but were not confident we would move onto finals.

The next morning, we got ready, practiced once more, and headed off to present. Wow, that was rough. We were torn apart by the questions the judges asked us. We recognized our weaknesses: some points weren’t supported enough, some examples not fleshed out, some questions we simply couldn’t answer. At that point, it was hard to focus on what we did well, especially without getting to see other presentations for comparison. We decided that no matter what, this was a valuable experience and at least we would be able to see the final presentations to learn what a winning presentation would look like.

After a few hours exploring beautiful Vancouver we came back to hear who would move onto the finals. Four finalists were chosen, each picked out of a cup in dramatic fashion to determine what order teams would present in. Once the third name had been called our team was pretty convinced we were not going to be picked; we were happy to simply enjoy the other presentations and learn from our competitors. Then it happened, they called our name “Sustainasaurus.” We were to be the last finalist presentation!

A variety of emotions passed through our group from disbelief and excitement about making it to the finals to disappointment that we would be unable to see any other presentations. After taking in this new information we quickly made our way downstairs where we would spend the next two hours practicing our presentation and working on answering those tough questions we faced during the first round.

And now here I am, taking a deep breath and about to step out in front of the panel of judges and students. Our presentation went well. Again, we were faced with tough questions, many of which we could answer well, some of which we had no answer for. We then took a seat ready to hear the judges overall feedback for the day.

We all got it wrong. Almost every single team managed to read the case incorrectly. We were never asked for a plan on how natural gas could work for First Nation communities. We were asked what information the company needed to gather in order to make their own plan. The entire audience of students sat stunned once we heard that. A case that did not require a plan of action? Being MBA students meant we were trained to associate presenting cases with presenting solutions. The judges went on to give us more feedback on how the teams could have performed better, what information could have been included and what information should not have been.

We reflected on what had just happened and were reeling from some of the feedback we had heard. We felt good about our presentation but had no context on how we compared to others. We didn’t know if the judges only hit us with the tough questions or if everyone had faced those. We didn’t even know what other teams had proposed to see if what we said was even viable.

Walking into the ending ceremony felt amazing. There was a giant sense of relief that presentations were over and that, no matter what, we had made it to the finals. When they began to announce the winners, there was a sudden hush around the room as we all crowded around the podium.

“Third place goes to team Sustainasaurus.”

No one has been more excited to receive third place then us. We quickly found each other in the room and made it up to the podium. For the rest of the night people kept coming up and congratulating us; we could not have been happier! We made positive connections with other competitors and professionals within the industry, several of whom we are looking to work with in the future.

We learned a lot from this experience and are eagerly looking forward to taking that knowledge with us when competing in future case competitions.

Written by Llyswen Berna

Llyswen is a 2018 MBA from the Center for Sustainable Business Practices. She is a motivated individual with extensive leadership experience and a passion for sustainability. Most recently, she worked on the quality assurance team at Epic, a top healthcare software company. Before that, she was an AmeriCorps volunteer, where she advised low-income students about getting into and through college. At Oregon, Llyswen plans to build on her skills in project management and sustainable business practices. After graduation, she’s interested in consulting with companies and nonprofits to develop sustainable business strategies.