Mental Health & The MBA: Inside Haas’ First-Of-Its-Kind Competition

Michael Martin, left, and Team Green, winners of the John E. Martin Mental Healthcare Challenge. Team Green includes (left to right) Jackie Browning, MBA candidate at Duke Fuqua; Kayla Thompson, MD/MBA candidate at Duke University; Michael Gao, biostatistics Ph.D. student at Duke University; and Iris Yang, Clinical Psychology Ph.D. student at Southern Methodist University. Photo: Business Wire

The world is in the midst of a mental health crisis, and business must act.

Business schools, as the talent pipeline for the world’s major companies, are essential partners in the mission.

That’s the outlook underpinning a first-of-its-kind competition hosted earlier this month at the University of California-Berkeley Haas School of Business: that a global pandemic, political division and violence, climate change, and growing economic inequality are driving anxiety, with people of color and under-represented communities shouldering a greatest share of the stress, in and out of the workplace. In the John E. Martin Mental Healthcare Challenge, which concluded December 3, graduate B-school students teamed up to develop innovative solutions and strategies to fight workplace mental health challenges — while competing for $25,000 in prize money.

“Business schools are preparing future leaders of global businesses and organizations,” says Mauricio Dubovoy, Haas MBA Class of 2022 candidate and a member of the UC-Berkeley team that competed against more than a dozen other teams from leading MBA programs across several days of competition. “As MBA students with leadership ambitions, we believe it is our obligation to educate other future leaders on the importance of workplace mental health. This is our opportunity to establish a new culture that de-stigmatizes mental health while also challenging organizational leaders to better tailor mental health benefits and services that support the diversity of lived experiences.”


Michael Martin, Haas 2009 MBA and founder of the John E. Martin Mental Healthcare Competition, named for his father

In its Business of Branding report, released this month, CarringtonCrisp and EFMD found that mental health support is major — and growing — consideration in student choice of B-school. Asked what activities could enhance their school’s reputation, nearly one-fifth — 19% — of students in the survey said mental health support.

The two-round, global John E. Martin Mental Healthcare Challenge, hosted by the UC-Berkeley Haas Healthcare Association and internet search giant Google, is, in many ways, a response to this demand. Consisting of a business case competition, speaker series, and diversity, equity, and outreach programming and launched in the depth of the pandemic last year, the competition focuses on the intersection of mental health, tech, and DEI, seeking to address what research has shown to be an epidemic of rising anxiety in the professional class — an epidemic that has led to what some have dubbed “The Great Resignation” as stress sparks an exodus from the workforce.

This year, the competition’s virtual semi-final round included teams from Harvard Business School, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, INSEAD, Dartmouth Tuck School of Business, the Anderson School of Management at UCLA, Duke University Fuqua School of Business and others, including two HBCUs, Prairie View A&M and Morgan State. Teams presented business strategies to confront how big companies can address mental health challenges in a culturally responsive way that supports and amplifies employee wellness.

The competition’s final round was held over two days at the start of December in Berkeley with six finalist teams, including host Haas, HBS, Fuqua, Anderson, and Tuck. Google staged a symposium for HBCU administrators, and several speakers, including celebrity sports agent Leigh Steinberg — speaking on his own mental health journey with alcoholism — addressed participants. In the end, Duke Fuqua’s “Team Green” won with a solution that featured a multi-pronged process of diagnosing problems diverse suppliers face, creating a supplier association to provide resources, collaboration and mentorship opportunities, and creating a credentialing program where suppliers are incentivized to prioritize mental wellness. The winning team included Kayla Thompson, MD/MBA candidate at Duke; Iris Yang, clinical psychology Ph.D. student at Southern Methodist University; Jackie Browning, MBA candidate at Duke Fuqua; and Michael Gao, biostatistics Ph.D. student at Duke.

“We have learned so much from the experience and from the other presenters throughout the competition process,” Thompson says. “It is humbling that the judges highlighted our solution. The holistic challenge has been so rewarding, and we are truly honored to be a part of these important conversations.”


Michael Martin, a 2009 Haas MBA who is currently the APAC energy markets, regulatory and sustainability lead at Google, founded the Mental Healthcare Challenge to honor the legacy of his father, John E. Martin, a Vietnam war veteran and mental health counselor to veterans returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan. His son founded the competition as a way to scale efforts to improve the quality of, and access to, mental healthcare; like Emory Goizueta’s John Lewis Case Competition, which focuses on social justice, it also addresses equity and access issues.

The elder Martin died tragically in an automobile accident in 2013.

“As I thought about what my father’s life meant, the idea of redemption kept coming to mind,” the younger Martin says. “The suffering brought on by the tragedy ceased when I found meaning in it, and embarked on a journey to carry on my father’s work that focuses on improving the quality of and access to mental healthcare.”

Ann Harrison, dean of the Haas School, says the 2021 mental healthcare challenge reflects her school’s priorities: supporting the mental well-being of the community, and reiterating the twin goals of diversity and inclusiveness, particularly amid the continuing coronavirus pandemic.

“Mental health and diversity, equity and inclusion are top priorities at Haas,” Harrison says, “and we are concerned by the pandemic’s impact on both. I am thrilled that students are working on innovative solutions to this global crisis.”

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