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How MBAs Help Patagonia Solve Big Issues

yale school of management patagonia

Yale SOM’s winning team poses with Patagonia representatives. Courtesy photo

WHAT PATAGONIA WAS LOOKING FOR

“They all had different answers, which was great because we wanted a diversity of ideas,” says Alex Kremer, manager of corporate development at Patagonia. “Some people had a really good finance-based solution, and some were market-based, and some were science-focused. What we were really thinking about was, ‘Is this something that Patagonia would actually do?’”

The company picked 10 teams, including Kumar’s, to come to Haas for a pitch day. Each team presented for about 10 minutes, and then the judges, including Patagonia’s CEO and COO, asked questions.

“What we’re realizing now is that there are a lot of smart minds out there,” Kremer says. “The timing this year was perfect. Regenerative agriculture is in so many conversations. And this is a great opportunity to meet students and create a network. It isn’t a recruiting tool, but it’s a great way to learn what people are learning in MBA programs. It’s a community that I think is fairly new to Patagonia.”

Kremer and Graves were both in Berkeley for the pitches; Graves says they especially liked the ideas that came from teams with both MBAs and experts in other fields, because they were able to address real-world issues that Patagonia would face if the proposals were implemented.

“It was important that it wasn’t a drumbeating session for Patagonia to talk about how great we are at sustainability,” Graves says. “We wanted it to be very real-world, and see if these ideas couldn’t be implemented.”

WHAT’S IN IT FOR MBAs?

It isn’t only Patagonia that stands to benefit from the competition. Kremer, a former MBA himself, says he thinks the chance to work with experts in other fields is something MBAs might not get within their schools.

“The Yale team had someone with a degree in forestry,” he says. “Sometimes in an MBA program it’s hard to cross the barriers to another school.”

Kremer adds that the Patagonia competition is different from most case competitions because it involves real issues that Patagonia doesn’t have the answers to. “It’s not ‘that team’s right and that team’s wrong,’ it’s more like we’re asking for help,” he says. “We really want to learn from them, and we’re looking for implementable solutions.”

And yes, there’s a monetary prize. The first-place winners were given $15,000, second place got $5,000, and third place got $2,500.

THE WINNING TEAM

When Kumar and his team from Yale pitched at Haas, their solution stood out to the judges. They had four parts to their pitch. First, Kumar says, they needed to partner with farmers across the United States, educating about climate change and about regenerative agriculture. Second, they suggested investing in a seed network, finding a few farmers in each region to work as ambassadors in their areas. These would be farmers who are already thinking about the environment, Kumar says.

The third part of the plan would happen after Patagonia has farmers on board. Since shifting to regenerative agriculture is an investment, they suggested that Patagonia create a financial planning app so farmers can see how their investments will grow. “It has to be a realistic picture, so that through the app, farmers can understand what it will take, and how long it will take,” Kumar says.

And finally, to ease the financial burden on farmers who choose to convert to regenerative agriculture, Kumar’s team suggested partnering with a financial institution that can provide loans. The farmers can pay Patagonia back in produce, and Patagonia can pay off the loan.

“They stood out above the rest, in terms of the research they put into it,” Graves says. “They had very diverse backgrounds, and they hit on a few key things that we thought were important. They took a regional approach, and realized they couldn’t have a one-size-fits-all approach. You could tell they had done their homework.”

‘IT WAS WORTH IT’

yale school of management patagonia

During their Patagonia visit, case competition winners visited a local farm. Courtesy photo

The Yale team took the first place prize and was invited to visit Patagonia, along with the second and third place winners, to repeat their pitch to company employees. “We really try to incorporate the solution, and that’s what the visit is all about,” Kremer says.

The day began in a very Patagonia sort of way — with surfing. After that, the team was brought to campus to meet with various Patagonia departments, talking about how the company might be able to actually incorporate their ideas. At the end of the day, they gave their pitch one last time to the whole company, so employees could be exposed to why they do the case competition, and also why regenerative organic agriculture is important.

Though Kremer says the case competition is not meant to be a recruiting event, Patagonia is still working consistently with the team that won last year and company officers hope to create lasting relationships with MBAs.

“The whole competition was a really wonderful experience,” Kumar says. “My team was very diverse, and people had different solutions and different approaches, and you get to learn so much. There were clashes of opinions that had to be worked out, and we got to do this in a very safe environment. It was worth it.”

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