Jodi Innerfield and Marco Hidalgo found themselves in a room full of aggressive reporters, trying to explain why their bottled water company, AquaStar, had contaminated the Milwaukee water supply leading to multiple infant deaths. “They just kept coming back with questions,” Innerfield says. “They would really pry about every little detail we said. And we were standing in front of an auditorium full of people and being held accountable for the decisions we made which were based on minimal information.”
That’s not the most fun situation. Innerfield and Hidalgo fielded questions about the tragedy, government bribes and large-scale protests. The only thing good about the occurrence was it was fictitious. The reporters were journalism fellows from the University of Michigan. AquaStar was a bogus company and no real crisis was taking place. It was all part of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business Leadership Crisis Challenge, a competition that puts first-year MBAs in a 24-hour crisis situation.
Innerfield and Hidalgo were both on finalist teams in the challenge but where they came from and how they got to Ross is drastically different. Innerfield grew up outside of Manhattan and graduated in 2009 from Columbia University with a degree in psychology. She worked in the film and documentary production with the goal of getting her name in as many credits as possible. After that, she worked in HR for a digital marketing startup—all in New York City. Hidalgo came from a family of seven siblings in small-town Texas. After graduating with a business degree from the University of New Mexico, Hidalgo wanted to escape a narrowing career path in finance. He figured an MBA focused on general management would be good enough for a solid career switch.
‘THE ROSS BRAND REACHES FAR AND OPENS DOORS’
For Innerfield, her MBA decision came down to Ross and Virginia’s Darden. Ross’s “well-rounded and immersive academic experience” combined with an alumni base that is not coast-centric led her to deciding on Ross. Hidalgo was looking for a school that did a lot really well. He was making sure to avoid specialized programs. Hidalgo had to decide between Northwestern’s Kellogg, Berkeley’s Haas, home state Texas’s McCombs and Ross. A conversation with a Ross alum at the beginning of his application process was the deciding factor for Hidalgo.
“He talked about how Ross emphasized the success of the group being more important than the success of the individual,” Hidalgo recalls. “I also learned the Ross brand reaches far and opens doors.”
A BLOCKED PENALTY KICK SETS THE TONE
And so they both ended up in Ann Arbor in August. Confirmation of Ross being the right fit came in different ways. Hidalgo realized it in the high-stakes championship soccer game at the Ross MBA Games. His team was down a goalie when a fellow section-mate, who had never played the sport, stepped up. “Another student stood behind him the entire time and coached him,” Hidalgo says. “He blocked a penalty kick and we won the game. It was unreal. It was the first example I saw at Ross of someone taking a risk and someone else supporting along the way.”
A tone for the year was set.
“I saw someone step way out of their comfort zone and knock it out of the park,” Hidalgo says.
So Hidalgo entered the annual Ross talent show where he wowed the crowd with his yo-yo skills. Unfortunately, he ran into a natural born performer—Innerfield.
“Jodi wins everything,” Hidalgo says laughing.
COMFORT IN THE LIMELIGHT
Sure enough, she won the talent show which not-coincidently jump started her career as a singer in the Ross Rock N’ Roll band (rumors are swirling around a potential upcoming weekend tour to Ypsilanti and Romulus). “I actually wrote about joining the band in my application essay,” Innerfield says. “It has really turned into a great way to meet MBA2s. Instead of just joining the marketing club or something, this has allowed me to bond and form deep relationships with other band members. We learn the songs together and connect and network. One singer is already planning on going to Amazon and one is going to Zinga.”
When given the chance, Innerfield will be on stage. “My mom often asks if I am getting an MFA with an MBA,” Innerfield says. So when it was her team’s turn to field questions in front of a room full of journalism fellows, Innerfield took the opportunity. One thing she didn’t realize until inside the auditorium was that the panel of judges included actual local executives from Google, Deloitte, Chrysler and others. Not fake ones.
A TRICKLE OF INFORMATION AND FLOOD OF TWEETS
The press conference is the culmination of the 24 hours. The 100 participating MBAs are broken into 25 teams of four members and spend the night watching and responding to a fake situation spiraling out of control. At the beginning of the challenge, students are provided some basic information about the company and what has happened, but the flow of information is more like a trickle. The teams spend much of the night monitoring and responding to fictitious social media accounts with disgruntled citizens and employees as well as government officials and journalists trying to get to the bottom of the story. All the while, they are furiously drafting a strategic crisis response plan for the Board of Directors of the company in the morning. That board is made up of professors, local execs and communication consultants.
“We had to come up with a solution and plan based on very little information,” says Innerfield. “But then we would receive a phone call or see a new tweet that would completely change the scenario. Being able to pivot quickly and change strategies were valuable lessons.”
Five teams are selected to hold a press conference. The winners are chosen based on how they handle meeting with the press. Innerfield was up to her winning ways again as her team topped Hidalgo’s for the victory.
STRESS AND SOCIAL MEDIA
Receiving real-time feedback from professors, communications consultants and the local executives is what both Innerfield and Hidalgo say is the most valuable experience.
Hidalgo comes from a family of entrepreneurs and plans to continue the enterprising tradition. The interaction through social media is something he says will be particularly valuable for him in the future. He’d never really considered being a part of leading and managing a brand, and the role made him think and act in ways he had never considered before.
Innerfield describes the 24 hours as more stressful than fun. “But it was really an incredible learning opportunity,” she says. “There is no other way to be in such an intense and real situation but also be in the safe space of the auditorium.”