Atlantalytics: Behind the Scenes – The John R. Lewis Racial Justice Case Competition

JLCC 21-22 and 22-23 Leadership Teams at the Transition/Celebration Dinner

Imagine being an MBA student in a position to propose that a major retail player fight recidivism and help upskill formerly incarcerated individuals. Picture a major healthcare firm developing a plan for sourcing, attracting, hiring, and retaining underrepresented minority talent, or a technology firm establishing a first-of-its-kind racial justice hub right here in Atlanta. Many MBA programs offer project-based experiential learning opportunities where students can make a real difference valuing companies, pricing products, improving operations, etc. However, many of us wonder how we can apply what we are learning for a higher purpose. The John R. Lewis Racial Justice Case Competition (JLCC) emerged in response to this quest.

America has a history of racial violence supported by individuals and institutions that were entrusted to maintain equality under the law. Widely-acknowledged examples include the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 and the police beating of Eric Garner in 2014.  George Floyd’s death, which came after an officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for over 8 minutes, came just after citizen outrage over the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Both the timing and the circumstances of these deaths brought long overdue attention to this shameful history of racial violence. It caused people to respond to the challenge by John Lewis to get into good, necessary trouble in order to right these historical wrongs.

These students wanted to do more and were looking for ways to act. Simultaneously, corporations were pledging hundreds of millions of dollars to address the very same issues students were fighting for. Seeing an opportunity, Willie Sullivan (Emory MBA21) immediately began working to create something that could make a real difference. When Congressman Lewis passed in July 2020, Willie immediately knew this would be an amazing initiative to honor the late congressman. After receiving the blessing of the Lewis family, the Emory University’s John R. Lewis Racial Justice Case Competition was officially born.

SO, WHAT IS JLCC?

JLCC a student-run case competition that focuses on the intersection of business and racial inequality. The competition connects corporations with students interested in business to create bold, innovative, and actionable racial justice initiatives for those corporations over the course of six weeks. While the sponsoring firms get actionable recommendations, the student participants have an opportunity learn more about the history of racial injustice in America and grow as future business leaders.

Case competitions are an opportunity for students to develop and showcase their teamwork and critical thinking skills, all while providing them with a learning experience that will help them be able to solve complex problems with innovative, pragmatic solutions. The need for novel solutions in the racial justice space is clear. While typical case competitions are often focused on a fabricated case “prompt,” JLCC is unique in its goal to create real, lasting change.

WHY DID I JOIN THE TEAM?

I was one of THOSE students. While I had never been directly involved in civil rights initiatives or would have considered myself an advocate or ally, I’ve always been passionate about providing opportunities for others and doing the right thing. In 2020, I donated, signed pledges, listened to friends and classmates, and learned more about bias, injustice, and empathy. Still, I felt like I wasn’t doing enough and that there was more I could do. When Willie reached out to the GBS students to help run the newly formed competition, I immediately jumped on the opportunity.

Over the past year-and-a-half, I’ve continued to grow my role in competition and was incredibly honored when Willie put his faith in me to succeed him. I wasn’t sure I was the right person for the job, but Willie’s approval and the opportunity to be a part of something important enough to make a real difference was not something I was going to pass up. While I still have much to learn, I am grateful that I’ve been able to be part of something so important.

Luckily, another opportunity presented itself soon afterward when I was assigned as Jasmine Burton’s (Emory MBA22) onboarding buddy for the 1YR MBA cohort. When she asked how she could be involved in the competition during our first meeting, I immediately knew that her passion, expertise, and attitude were exactly what we needed to ensure success. Without hesitation, she agreed to join the JLCC Leadership Team as the Co-Managing Director, alongside myself.

From Left: Baird, Jerrick Lewis (nephew of John Lewis), and Burton

HOW DOES THE COMPETITION ACTUALLY WORK?

Student teams from across the nation apply by responding in detail to four questions focused on how racial inequality is present in corporate America. From there, they outline the team’s problem-solving approach, explain how the team represents diversity (however they define it), and list how the team would invest the prize money. Applications are then judged by a panel of university faculty and staff, leaders in corporate America, and leaders in the DEI, Civil Rights, and racial justice space.

The top 20 teams advance to the semifinal round, where they are paired with a corporate sponsor, each having their unique case prompt. With budget, time, and touchpoints with their respective sponsors, teams conduct research and develop a recommendation that they will then present live to another panel. This panel will then  judge them on potential for impact, feasibility of recommendations, creativity of solution, boldness, research quality and evidential support for recommendations, story structure and narrative, slide craft, and presentation delivery.

Additionally, in this 2nd year of the competition, we wanted to include other schools in the planning and execution of the competition and were lucky to partner with leaders from Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, Howard University School of Business, Rice Jones School of Business, and Yale School of Management. In addition to assisting with all of the planning (see next section), the partner schools each managed a sponsor relationship, hosted the semifinal round for their sponsor, and recruited numerous judges, applicants, and audience members.

Congressman John R. Lewis speaking at Emory University. Lewis died in July 2020. Emory photo

WHAT GOES INTO PLANNING AN EVENT WITH SO MANY MOVING PARTS?

While the competition culminates in a one-day final event, the coordination with sponsors, judges, applicants, participants, attendees, partner schools, and even our own school and leadership team cannot be understated. Our leadership teams met weekly to evaluate strategic and structural decisions, discuss progress on deliverables and milestones, address whatever current fire needed to be put out, and brainstorm about how we could be doing a better job. We seemed to have new priorities each week, but always did our best job to keep the mission of the competition as the focus. One week, we’d be sending out thousands of marketing emails. The next, we’d be reaching out to all judges with their onboarding packets to ensure they were prepared for the finals. After that, we’d be going through event logistics to ensure every second was accounted for during the entire 4-hour program. Through this competition, we really learned the importance of planning and coordination.

My most nerve-wrecking experience was actually on the application due date, November 19, 2021. It’s  5 PM, applications are due in 7 hours, and we’ve only received a handful of applications. As students, we’re familiar with students procrastinating, but also aren’t expecting too many students to be working on a case application on a Friday night. I began checking the intake form every few minutes and am wondering if we’re even going to have enough applications to run the competition. Will all our work over the past 8 months result in a complete failure? Will I be able to show my face at school on Monday? At this point, there was nothing we could do but trust that we had done a good job with marketing. We took deep breaths (or at least I told the team I did) and exhaled as the applications started flowing in throughout the evening. In the end, we had a strong turnout and learned great lessons in patience and when to set deadlines for students.

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