In the early days of June, at the height of protests over nationwide racial injustices, Brian Mitchell, associate dean of the full-time MBA program at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, hosted a check-in Zoom call with rising second-years about what was happening across the country.
Consortium member Willie Sullivan recalls his surprise at the diverse makeup of the group and their collective desire to both understand the root of such injustices and do their part to help.
“It wasn’t the normal people who would show up to a call around a social justice issue; this was a group of very racially, ethnically diverse students who were all very invested in the conversation,” he says. “There was this feeling of ‘not only do I feel like I’m not doing enough, I am surprised that something like this could still happen in this country,’ and they wanted to understand more of what led to it.”
For Sullivan, the call — coupled with growing interest by companies in addressing issues of racial injustice — was a rallying cry.
“At the same time that all these students were having these feelings around racial justice and wanting to do more, all of these corporations were coming out with statements of solidarity and were saying, ‘We want to be part of addressing and helping solve issues of inequality and injustice,’” Sullivan says.
He saw an opportunity for students and companies to partner to create meaningful change. How great would it be, Sullivan thought, if students “could look at these structural problems and apply the same strategic thinking that we do to business problems to these kinds of problems in our society?”
“That’s where the idea for a case competition came from,” he explains.
After taking his concept for a racial justice-themed case competition to a faculty member, Sullivan put together working groups made up of faculty, administrators and students to begin ideating. The result, which they presented to Goizueta Dean Karen Sedatole, was a student-run event that sought to connect business students with corporations in an effort to create innovative and actionable corporate racial justice initiatives. “The dean was incredibly supportive right from the beginning,” Sullivan says.
Aptly named for the late civil rights leader and Georgia congressman, the John R. Lewis Racial Justice Case Competition fills a void for both students and companies. It serves to both increase students’ education around these issues and provide an outlet for them to make a difference by applying their skill sets. Companies, on the other hand, gain a fresh, diverse perspective on these issues and receive solutions they can actually implement.
“I think it’s going to be a 360 learning experience for everyone,” says Kristen Little, a second-year Consortium MBA at Goizueta and associate managing director of the event.
One of Sullivan’s hopes for the competition is that it will attract those individuals who may not normally gravitate toward or be directly impacted by these issues. “In my opinion, part of the reason why we still deal with so many issues of racial inequality and injustice is because the people who are most affected by it are the only ones who are really involved in the day-to-day heavy lifting,” Sullivan says. “So this is an opportunity for us to get other students involved in this, by doing it in a way that they already understand — case competitions are a big part of business school or school in general for a lot of programs.”
The competition brings together teams of students from colleges and universities across the country — not just business schools — to answer the question, “How can corporations best use their various resources to address issues of racial justice in one or more of three areas: wealth/income disparities, health outcome disparities and/or educational/skills attainment gaps?” In the preliminary application, for which the deadline was Nov. 30, teams had to address four key areas in what Sullivan calls a PowerPoint Statement of Intention:
- The role business should play in addressing issues of racial inequality and injustice
- How they would approach solving this problem (i.e., utilization of resources like time and money)
- How they would propose to invest the prize money (half must go to a racial justice cause)
- How they represent diversity
“We were looking for creativity, we were looking for passion, we were looking for not just anecdotal reasons for some of the answers to these but also empirical evidence that shows that you’ve thought about this and done some research,” says Sullivan.
The 105 applications received by Sullivan and his 12-person planning team represent all types of institutions — from historically black colleges and universities to Ivy League schools to big state schools. A committee made up of university faculty, corporate partner representatives and racial justice/equality experts screened all applications and selected 24 teams from 18 different institutions, including 11 Consortium member schools, to advance to the semifinals.
Each team was randomly assigned to a company, with each company receiving four team assignments. From Dec. 7 to Jan. 21, they conduct primary and secondary research — with a research budget provided by event corporate sponsor Survey Monkey — to examine and think deeply about issues of racial injustice and develop a business solution based on their company’s racial justice case prompt. Participating companies include HP, Johnson & Johnson, Salesforce, Southern Company, Truist and Walmart. Areas of focus are based on companies’ goals.
“They’re conducting research to really educate themselves on and understand what role business is playing in larger systemic injustice at a much deeper level before they apply it specifically to the corporation they’ve been assigned to,” says Sullivan. “They meet with company representatives twice to ask questions and get a better understanding of where the company is and its goals. The rest of the time, they are putting together recommendations.”
On the morning of Jan. 21, teams will present their recommendations to a panel of judges consisting of corporate partners, academic scholars, elected officials and leaders in diversity and inclusion. Six teams — one representing each company — will be selected to move on to the final round based on several criteria: potential for impact, feasibility, creativity, boldness, research quality and evidential support for recommendations, story structure and more. Winners from this round each receive $5,000.
In the afternoon, finalists will compete for their chance to win $20,000. The winning team will receive half of the prize money to distribute amongst themselves, while the other half will go to the racial justice or equality cause they identified in their initial application.
“The wonderful thing is that these corporations are going to get four really great recommendations from the semi-finalist teams, and what’s probably going to end up happening is they’ll take some from this one and some from this one to figure out what they can do,” says Sullivan. “These students are going to be coming at this from a completely different perspective than people who work internally at the organization.”
“I think there are going to be some uncomfortable conversations between our students, who are really functioning as consultants, and these companies,” adds Little, “and I think out of that discomfort is going to come something great.”
She believes students and companies alike have something to gain from the experience. For students, it’s the fact that they can make a real difference; for companies, it’s the realization that these issues are something they care deeply about.
“For students, I want them to feel like they’ve made an impact on a corporation that could make a difference in our country and that they’ve really gotten some feedback they can use going forward in their careers,” Little says. “From the company side, I want them to take this time to figure out if this is something they just give lip service to or if they want to fundamentally change their corporation so that they’re having a positive impact and not contributing to continuing inequities.”
For Sullivan, the racial justice case competition ultimately serves a greater purpose: It’s an opportunity to help advance The Consortium’s mission to ensure equal opportunity in corporate America.
“One of the reasons why capitalism has not been having its greatest moment is not because of the system itself, but the players within the system. The founders of The Consortium understood that,” he explains. “What we’re trying to do is add to what The Consortium is trying to do — not just to have underrepresented minorities in corporations but so that the communities those people come from will be better represented so that corporations can make decisions that have a positive impact for everybody, not just a small slice of society.”