Emory MBA Creates First Major Racial Justice Case Competition

Congressman John Lewis gives the keynote speech at Emory University’s commencement ceremony in 2014. Lewis, a civil rights icon, died in July. Emory University photo

In early summer, Brian Mitchell, associate dean of the full-time MBA program at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, hosted a Zoom call to discuss the racial justice and police brutality protests occurring across the country in response to protests stemming largely from the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville and the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed by two white men while jogging in Brunswick, Georgia, about four and a half hours southeast from Emory’s Atlanta campus.

On the call were a group of Emory’s rising second-year MBAs. Willie Sullivan was among them.

For Sullivan, 33, the call sparked a pair of revelations. The first was who was there: It wasn’t just under-represented minorities; many racial and ethnic groups were represented.

And the second surprise was how energized his fellow classmates were. “People were saying they were protesting, they’re out in the streets, they’re donating, but they feel like they’re not doing enough,” Sullivan says. What’s more, at least some of the non-Black students on the call were confused as to how events around the country had escalated.

That was disheartening for some of the Black students on the call, Sullivan says — but for him, it was energizing. “You’ve got all of these new people in the conversation,” he tells Poets&Quants. “And they want to do more and learn more.”


Sullivan decided to find a way to help them do just that. Now, half a year later, his efforts have resulted in the student-run John R. Lewis Racial Justice Case Competition, the “first case competition of its kind focusing on the intersection of business and racial inequality.” The competition, named after the late civil rights icon and congressman who represented the congressional district covering most of Atlanta for the past three decades before passing away in July, is currently reviewing applications.

In a few short months of planning, Sullivan and his team have gained sponsorships from major organizations like Walmart, Salesforce, HP, Johnson & Johnson, and Truist Bank. Each corporate partner is not only providing cash for the prize packages worth tens of thousands of dollars but also specific prompts to help their companies address structural racism.

Applications are being reviewed on a rolling basis until the end of November, but Sullivan says they’ve already received applications from teams representing about 40 business schools, including Harvard Business School, Yale School of Management, Wharton, Dartmouth Tuck, Michigan Ross, Northwestern Kellogg, Columbia, and many others.

Willie Sullivan. Courtesy photo


Sullivan’s path to business school was unique, to be sure. Raised in Jonesboro, Arkansas, Sullivan went to Arkansas State University in his hometown to major in music. Wanting to be an opera singer, he earned a master’s in music from the University of Michigan to study under George Shirley, who was the first Black tenor to perform in a leading role at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Shirley became the director of the Vocal Arts Division at Michigan’s School of Music, Theater, and Dance in 1987.

“After that, I went out and tried to live that life of being a starving artist. And that lasted all of two years,” Sullivan says, adding that he decided he wanted to do more with his life and career. “That life wasn’t for me. But also, being an artist is a very isolating experience.”

Spending all of his time focusing on auditioning and always being prepared to sing for someone “at the drop of the hat” was a bit too closed off for Sullivan.

“I didn’t feel like I was doing anytime meaningful,” he says. So Sullivan went back to the University of Michigan to work in a marketing and fundraising role for the University Musical Society, a nonprofit performing arts center associated with the university.

Sullivan then decided he’d like to gain more experience related to running a nonprofit organization, which led him to the full-time MBA program at Emory. But once he got to Goizueta, Sullivan felt like he could do more impactful work through the corporate world, which led to a summer internship in the human capital strategy department at New York City’s Deloitte office.


A racial justice protest from this past summer. Courtesy photo

As Sullivan began his summer internship, the racial justice and police brutality protests began gaining steam. “Atlanta was one of the ones that led to a lot of national attention,” Sullivan recalls. Then Emory’s Mitchell hosted that Zoom call. And around the same time, Harvard Business School started re-circulating its 33-page case note called African American Inequality in the United States.

Revised in May of this year, Sullivan admits he was first skeptical of the case note. “I read through it and I was like, wow, they hit a lot of the major things over the history of African-Americans in America over the past 400 years,” Sullivan says. “And not just some of the high-level things like slavery and Jim Crow laws, but also things like the Great Migration and explaining what it was as well as redlining and things you hear a bit more about now.”

The paper is incredibly in-depth and does indeed do a good job of covering the history and context of where the U.S. now is as a country in relation to racial injustices. From the first documented arrival of African slaves in 1619 to the failure of Reconstruction after the Civil War to housing policies like Restrictive Covenants and Redlining and criminal justice-related issues like the war on drugs, mass incarceration, and the rise of private prisons, the majority of the paper reads more like a policy case study than a corporate or business one.


But it was written by Harvard Business School and in a way specifically for business students to digest, Sullivan points out. And it was the basis of his initial idea, which was to take that case note and create a prompt for business students to think about racial justice-related problems in a classroom setting.

“How can a multinational technology company address structural and institutional racism and inequality and injustice,” Sullivan says as an example. “Because that’s something we haven’t truly figured out yet.”

Sullivan wrote a one-pager and brought it to Lynne Segall, who is a senior lecturer in organization and management and the associate dean of Goizueta’s Management Practice Initiatives. “She was like, we need to make this happen,” Sullivan recalls. So Segall put together a faculty-administrator working group and Sullivan formed a student-working group, which have been the two teams behind the John R. Lewis Racial Justice Case Competition.

Early Civil Rights marches. Courtesy photo


The two broad goals of the case competition are education and action.

“The first thing people need to do is educate themselves about the issues in a much deeper way,” Sullivan says. “And unfortunately, education in the American school system — public or private — is not going to do that for you.”

MBAs wanting to help make a change need to first understand the structures in place that lead to the murder of George Floyd and others like them.

“First, you need to understand what is going on that even led to someone like George Floyd using a counterfeit bill at this store,” Sullivan explains. “Because looking at his biography, he’s never stopped working. He’s always been working. How is it a person can work their entire life and end up in a place where they’re using a counterfeit bill?”

And then MBAs need to learn about and understand their roles within that system, Sullivan says.

“Understanding how those conditions of inequality continue to perpetuate allows you to say — as an investment banker or consultant — as I’m moving numbers around, am I understanding what those numbers actually mean and what they could mean for the person outside the door,” Sullivan says. “Maybe that person who’s waiting for this meeting to end is waiting because they’re going to come in and clean this room. And maybe that person happens to be a Black woman who has children she is supporting and one of those children happens to work for the company that you’re saying that child’s division needs to be cut out to save money on this spreadsheet. Thinking about things in that way. There’s no excuse for someone going to one of these schools that’s going to work for one of these companies or even starting their own to not understand what the impacts of their decisions are tied very directly to these issues of inequality.”


Sullivan says naming the competition after Congressman Lewis was an easy choice, although he did consider naming it after Atlanta’s first Black mayor, Maynard Jackson.

“A lot of people consider him being the reason why Atlanta became the Mecca of the Black middle and upper-class because of the policies he created in order for Black businesses to thrive in Atlanta,” Sullivan says.

But Lewis’s life and his philosophy of “good trouble” were something he thought young business students could relate to. “That was centered around young people,” Sullivan says of Lewis’s early activist days and the role he played in the Freedom Rides and his work alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma and Birmingham, Alabama.

“He was saying to young people to really go out and put yourself out there and do something that is going to change,” Sullivan continues. “Some people might not like it, but that’s where the trouble part comes in. It’s a good thing to do but it might get you in trouble.”

Creating engagement among many different types of people, like what was represented on the initial Zoom call back in June, is key to moving forward, Sullivan says. “These issues of racial justice and inequality, the reason why we’re still dealing with them the way we are is because of the lack of engagement of everyone,” Sullivan believes. From the get-go, Sullivan says he’s been intentional in creating diverse teams to help him with the case competition. And, he adds, diversity will be one of the criteria for evaluating applications for the case competition.

“I intentionally didn’t go to all of the Black students at the school,” Sullivan says. “Because I knew they’d be interested in getting involved. I wanted to make sure that, frankly, we have white male students involved that can say, that’s not going to hit with our group, we need to change this or do this in order to get them involved. Because, for me, it’s about meeting people where they are so we can get to where we all want to be.”


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