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USC Marshall Team Wins 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 2020. Emory has named a new case competition for him. Emory University photo

“This competition is the culmination of six months of hard work by a large group of students, faculty, and staff to have a direct and impactful reaction to the continued movement of racial justice and equality in America,” Kristen Little said in a Zoom meeting last Thursday (Jan. 21). “We’ve all witnessed the numerous racial injustices that have occurred and continue to occur in this country. And these injustices have called us to action.”

Little, current MBA student at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, was introducing the culmination of the inaugural John R. Lewis Racial Justice Case Competition, the first major case competition focused on racial justice at a major business school. Announced late last summer as a way for MBA students to work on solutions for how business schools and corporate America can address racial inequalities and injustices and work toward a more racially equitable business world and society, the competition came down to six finalist teams this month, and featured their presentations and multiple keynote speakers.

“Racial justice is one of the biggest social challenges of our time and we believe that business (and) corporate America has a major role to play in making true progress,” continued Little, president of Goizueta’s Black MBA Association and the John Lewis competition’s associate managing director.

The winning team from USC’s Marshall School of Business

WOMEN-LED TEAM FROM USC MARSHALL TAKES TOP PRIZE

The competition, which Poets&Quants first wrote about in November, attracted teams from virtually all top business schools in the country. Two dozen semifinalist teams from 18 universities, including Harvard Business School, UC-Berkeley’s Haas School, Northwestern Kellogg, MIT Sloan, Wharton, and others were whittled down to the six finalists that competed for cash in Thursday’s multi-hour event.

In the end, Coalition 4 Change, a team of four women from the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, impressed the corporate judges the most, taking home the top prize. The team consisted of Aria Aaron, Libby (Elizabeth) Blasser, Michelle Matsuba, and Isabella Palacios and they worked on a case for Johnson & Johnson.

COMPETITION STEMMING FROM SUMMER PROTESTS, MBA ENTHUSIASM & HBS CASE NOTE

Willie Sullivan. Courtesy photo

The competition is the brainchild of second-year Goizueta MBA student Willie Sullivan. Last summer, after the widely publicized police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville — as well as the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed by two white men while jogging in Brunswick, Georgia, about four and a half hours southeast of Emory’s Atlanta campus — Brian Mitchell, associate dean of the full-time MBA program at Goizueta, hosted a Zoom call to discuss the racial justice and police brutality protests occurring across the country in response to those killings. Sullivan was on the call with a large group of other rising second-year MBA students and was surprised by the many racial and ethnic groups that made time for the Zoom call.

He was also surprised by the energy from his fellow classmates.

“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 told P&Q last November.

Around the same time, Harvard Business School started re-circulating its 33-page case note, African American Inequality in the United States. Sullivan was skeptical of the case note at first.

“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 recalls. “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.”

Not only did it hit upon some of the more nuanced and complex policies and history leading to institutional racism, it was written by HBS and in a way specifically for business students to digest. It was also the basis of Sullivan’s 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.”

But that idea eventually evolved into the competition, named after John Lewis, 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. Lewis’s family was involved in the competition and the congressman’s nephew — Jerrick Lewis — announced the winners at the end of the competition. Sullivan and his team gained sponsorships from major organizations like Walmart, Salesforce, HP, Johnson & Johnson, and Truist Bank. Each corporate partner not only provided cash for the prize packages worth tens of thousands of dollars but also specific prompts to help their companies address structural racism.

‘MOMENTS LIKE THESE ARE WHY I CAME TO BUSINESS SCHOOL’

All four members of the winning team from USC Marshall are members of The Consortium. Sullivan, also a member of The Consortium, personally emailed Coalition 4 Change’s Aaron, who passed it along to Marshall’s case competition leadership, who forwarded it to the rest of the Marshall student-body. But Aaron knew as soon as she saw Sullivan’s email that she’d want to participate in the competition.

“As a Black woman, I feel the gravity of racial justice daily, and my success is a product of those giants who fought before me, like Congressman John Lewis,” Aaron tells Poets&Quants. “I feel a responsibility to follow in that legacy, and I see my contribution being within corporate America. There was no better way to start that work by competing in this case competition.”

Matsuba had similar feelings towards the competition.

Of all the case competitions, I knew I needed to participate in this one. Moments like these are why I came to business school: to drive impact for good and push corporations to do the same,” she says. 

Palacios heard about the competition through Marshall’s main case competition network and reached out to the other three women to organize what would eventually become the winning team. “As future business leaders, we have the power to alter the conversation; and the John R. Lewis Case Competition was the perfect place to develop tangible solutions to help solve the collective problem of racism and bring on positive change,” Palacios says.

THE BUSINESS SCHOOL’S ROLE IN RACIAL AND SOCIAL EQUITY

Videos of the brutal killings of mainly unarmed Black men by police has thrust not only the issue of police brutality but how the U.S. has treated racial issues throughout history into the limelight. This morning President Joseph Biden announced on Twitter he’d be introducing “action to advance racial equality.” The nation-wide push for that advancement has moved its way into business schools. Last October, the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business hosted a virtual dean’s panel with the sole purpose of discussing race and business schools. Other schools from Harvard Business School to Indiana University’s Kelley School have been introducing racial equality plans.

“As future business and thought leaders, I believe MBA students are absolutely critical components to the success of racial and social equality in this country,” USC’s Blassar says. “Diversity and Inclusion courses should be integral to all MBA coursework and should become a larger focus for all programs going forward. Understanding how biases are formed, instilled, and dismantled are skills that are not taught in general education. It’s not enough to be ‘woke,’ we need students to be actively influencing impact throughout their careers at school so that they are prepared and ready to bring that to their professional careers.”

Palacios sees it the same way.

“Business Schools must play a role in enacting social change,” she says. “Vague solidarity statements are not enough, they must invest in action. I personally believe that the educational system has a high level of responsibility for improving racial, social, and gender equality. A great place to start is on the core curriculum. Business Schools should implement more business cases that portray strong female and ethnically diverse characters rather than just relying on old, preferred cases in which leaders are most likely to be white males. Educational materials play a crucial role in shaping gender and racial roles and norms; however, a majority of schools have not yet made significant progress to better represent women and minorities on course curriculums.”

BUSINESS STUDENTS AS FUTURE LEADERS

MBA students will become the future leaders of this country, and business schools are training those students, so both have a large impact — for better or worse — on the push for racial justice and social equity, Aaron explains.

“At the minimum level, MBA students must learn how to check implicit biases, learn how to be truly inclusive, and recognize detrimental practices that limit equity in order to be better managers and leaders in their own workplaces,” Aaron continues. But, Aaron says, leaders should go much further than public relations statements supporting Black Lives Matter or other popular movements. Business leaders can lobby for change and make internal corrections to ensure their workforce reflects true equity, Aaron explains.  “

In order to have such bold leaders, business schools must train them to be such,” she says. “Schools must make equity, diversity, and inclusion a priority by hiring diverse faculty, increasing diversity within the student population, and creating spaces of belonging and inclusivity. Changing the curriculum to make EDI courses required and choosing cases with diverse subjects are essential to the learning. Having affinity clubs and encouraging participation in them is essential to the sense of belonging within the community.”

OTHER POETS&QUANTS‘ COVERAGE OF RACIAL EQUALITY IN BUSINESS EDUCATION:

STANFORD, YALE, ROSS, DUKE DEANS TALK ABOUT RACE & THE B-SCHOOL CLASSROOM

EYES ON A CHANGING WORLD, INDIANA KELLEY STRIVES FOR GREATER DIVERSITY

INSIDE STANFORD’S GROUNDBREAKING DIVERSITY & INCLUSION PLAN

HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL DEAN APOLOGIZES FOR RACIAL FAILURES

HBS’ RACIAL EQUALITY PLAN: VAGUE PROMISES, NO TARGETS

YALE SOM DEAN KERWIN CHARLES ON RACISM IN AMERICA

DARDEN DEAN CONDEMNS RACISM ‘IN ALL ITS FORMS’

WHARTON DEAN JAMES TO PRESIDE OVER CONFAB ON RACE ISSUES

STANFORD GSB OFFERS FREE ‘LEARNING ENGAGEMENTS’ FOCUSED ON RACE

MINORITIES AT THE TOP 25 U.S. MBA PROGRAMS

CAN THIS CASE STUDY END RACISM AT HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL?