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How MBAs Help Patagonia Solve Big Issues

Patagonia Case Competition winners go surfing with Patagonia. Courtesy photo.

Last year, Yale School of Management MBA Nitesh Kumar competed in the first-ever Patagonia Case Competition. His team came in second.

This year, he says, he was determined to come back and win.

The competition, in partnership with the Center for Responsible Business at the University of California-Berkeley Haas School of Business, invites graduate students from interdisciplinary backgrounds to help Patagonia address an issue chosen by the hiking and outdoors equipment company. Patagonia targets about 40 MBA programs, especially those with agricultural elements; in fact, while most teams have MBA members, many also have graduate students in the sciences.

This year’s problem was broad: How can Patagonia scale regenerative organic agriculture practices? Regenerative agriculture is farming and grazing practices that rebuild organic matter in soil and restore degraded soil biodiversity — “one of the most important ways to tackle climate change,” says Phil Graves, managing director at Patagonia, “especially now that the United States has pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords.”

A COMPETITION WITH A LONGER TIMELINE

The Yale SOM team at the Patagonia Case Competition. Courtesy photo

However, it’s a challenge for farmers to convert their land to organic or regenerative organic status. It costs a lot of money, and takes time before they’re allowed to label their food “organic” and charge more. MBA teams were asked how Patagonia could change the market for regenerative practices — and how they could do it in a big way.

Kumar, a second-year MBA this time around, says he doesn’t have a background in environmental sciences or agriculture. Before getting his MBA, he was a consultant working with manufacturing companies. His background, he says, was very technical and analytical.

Even so, he wanted to participate in this particular case competition because of its longer timeline. “The reason I participated both years was because unlike any other case competition, this one gives you three to four months to work on the problem,” Kumar says. “You can get multiple perspectives, you can do research, and it was more realistic.”  

68 TEAMS SUBMIT PROPOSALS TO PATAGONIA

Kumar built his team with that in mind. Four members — Serena Pozza, Chris Martin, Nikola Alexandre, and Nathan Hall — were joint-degree MBA and Master of Engineering Management candidates. The sixth teammate, Emily Oldfield, has a Ph.D. in soil ecology from the Yale Forestry School.

They started working separately, each looking at the problem themselves and identifying what they thought the main issues were. After two weeks, Kumar says, they got together as a team and tried to categorize all the ideas they’d come up with.

“We threw things into three big buckets: How do we work with farmers in different regions? How do we change cultural values? And how do we deal with the financial aspects of switching to regenerative organic agriculture?” he says. “I saw that most business problems aren’t just about solutions, they’re about bringing stakeholders together and finding common ground.”

But they were far from the only team doing this. Sixty-eight teams submitted proposals to Patagonia; only 10 would be invited to the pitch day at Haas, and only the top three would be invited to visit Patagonia.