Tesla Inc.’s Elon Musk is the most admired CEO in the United States, according to a 2016 survey of young MBAs by Poets&Quants, though the love hasn’t always been reciprocated. Musk once famously declared that he “wouldn’t recommend an MBA,” that an MBA “is a bad idea” and that it “teaches people all sorts of wrong things.” But there’s evidence his company’s ironclad resistance to MBAs was never all that ironclad, and may be softening even more.
The fact is, Tesla can hardly afford to ignore the waves of highly trained MBAs emerging annually from the B-school ranks. Like the rest of Silicon Valley’s major players, the company welcomes interns from the elite schools every summer (and sometimes even hires them full-time), and a cursory search of LinkedIn turns up a few names in Tesla senior management with graduate business degrees, too. Now Tesla is trying its hand at another of the time-honored traditions of business education: the case competition.
Representatives from the electric-car maker will present a case involving a real business challenge to teams from a host of top schools on the campus of Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business on September 22. Besides the host school, Harvard Business School, Stanford Graduate School of Business, Cornell Johnson Graduate School of Management, Chicago Booth School of Business, UC-Berkeley Haas School of Business, Northwestern Kellogg School of Management, Virginia Darden School of Business, and Texas McCombs School of Business, have committed to send teams; a handful of other schools, including The Wharton School and MIT Sloan School of Management, are considering participating, too.
“We felt this was a tremendous opportunity to bring together some of the world’s top business school talent to address an actual business case for the organization,” says Stephiney Foley, Tuck Class of 2018, who organized the event with colleague Alen Amini. “Tesla is one of the most innovative and disruptive companies out there. The company is an enormously popular company among B-school students, and we have already seen tremendous interest from the universities we have reached out to (to participate).”
THIS WILL BE TUCK’S INAUGURAL EXTERNAL CASE COMPETITION
Hard to believe, but Dartmouth Tuck has never before hosted a case competition involving teams from other schools. Foley and Amini, already veterans of several domestic and international competitions, couldn’t believe it themselves. They didn’t dwell on their disbelief for long.
“Tuck has never had a case competition,” Amini says, “so we wanted to really think through, ‘How can we make an impact and organize a real case competition with a real live business case, and show off the Dartmouth campus and make it a unique Tuck event?’ So we talked with representatives from business schools across the country.”
The key was getting a highly respected business to take part. A major disrupter, facing major challenges, that draws the respect of the business community. Foley, interning this summer at Tesla in San Francisco, knew the perfect candidate. From the start of her internship in May, she went into convincing mode.
“I just went around and asked until somebody told me yes. It’s been an upward battle but I’m glad everything worked out and I’m glad everybody at Tuck will be able to benefit from it. I think the administration is very excited, as well as the student population. We want to do it right, and hopefully we have the right people on board to help us move it forward.”
There are even suggestions Tesla has altogether abandoned its anti-MBA views: “Stephiney really sold them on why this would be a great way for them to come and have people looking at a real live business case,” Amini tells Poets&Quants, “but also it’s a very centralized pool of talented applicants, potentially, to have a pipeline from this campus. And it kind of came together.”
With the automaker on board, the students organized the case competition with the help of Tuck’s Career Development Office, as well as the Revers Energy Center, Center for Entrepreneurship, and MBA Program Office, in a wide-reaching partnership that Foley and Amini say has generated a great deal of excitement at the school.
WHAT PROBLEM WILL TESLA ASK STUDENTS TO SOLVE?
The case that Tesla will put before the teams gathered at Dartmouth Tuck next month is still being developed, Amini says. But there are some obvious challenges facing the company in the near future, so much so that it might behoove Tesla to take advantage of a set of young, eager business brains. The electric-car maker raised $1.8 billion in its debut bond sale on Aug. 11, with the eight-year bonds meant to help fund the rollout of the Model 3 — the “linchpin,” according to a recent report, “of Musk’s plans to turn Tesla into a mass-market vehicle maker.”
Musk says Tesla is working through nearly half a million current reservations, so demand is not one of the company’s problems. The real problem is production. If Musk’s dream of making Tesla into a challenger to the established automakers is to become reality, the company will have to “produce the vehicle on a scale that the carmaker has never come close to achieving before. Musk himself told employees last month, ‘We’re going to be in production hell’ trying to ramp up output in the second half.”
What, precisely, Tesla’s Tuck case will entail is a question no one yet knows the answer to. The case is still under development and won’t be revealed to contestants until a week before the competition. On the day of the competition, students will have a few hours to work before presenting to Tesla’s representatives. Foley says all that’s known now is that Tesla is presenting a vague case on how to “elevate the automobile industry to the next level through innovation.” It’s a similar prompt to the one she and a team from Tuck experienced in winning a case by JetBlue this year — purposely vague “because the execs are curious to see the level of creativity the MBAs will offer.”
The event will be held Friday, Sept. 22 in Hanover, N.H. Spaces may still be available for interested MBA programs to participate; inquire about fielding a team at firstname.lastname@example.org or Stephiney.email@example.com.