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Harvard | Ms. Gay Engineer
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Inside The John Lewis Competition: 70+ Teams, 40+ Schools & Deep Passion For Change

Congressman John R. Lewis speaking at Emory University. Lewis died in July 2020; an MBA case competition named in his honor launched in 2021. Emory photo

Tech and other top companies made a wave of commitments in support of racial justice in 2020. George Floyd’s murder, and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, prompted companies from Silicon Valley and beyond to pledge more than $4 billion for DEI initiatives — more than double the amount they had pledged in the previous six years combined.

But when the dust settled, it was evident that the initiatives hadn’t done much to address the deeply embedded issues of racial injustice within their companies. Today, according to recent studies, fewer than 5% of tech company executives come from an underrepresented group.

“Tackling racial injustice isn’t just a one-time thing,” Vivian Chong, a Yale School of Management MBA student, says.

NOT JUST TALK — ‘REAL & ACTIONABLE’ IDEAS

Yale MBA student Vivian Chong

The first John R. Lewis Racial Justice Case Competition was staged by Emory University Goizueta Business School in early 2021, shepherded by MBA alumnus Willie Sullivan. The competition — still a first-of-its-kind after two iterations — is to address racial inequality issues within business. It differs from most case competitions because instead of working through hypotheticals, students are tasked with solving the problems of real businesses. It also educates business students on the history of systemic racism in the country, and it is entirely student run.

This year, more than 70 teams from more than 40 universities participated to an audience of nearly 4,000 in the 2022 competition that concluded in January.

Vivian Chong was one of six Yale SOM students in Team JAVELYN, which won the 2022 competition. Their team worked with IBM’s Call for Code, a global program for developers to collaborate on open source technology projects that address social issues. The question their team sought to answer was: how can technology companies tackle racial injustice in the long run, even when it isn’t front page news?

Team JAVELYN identified three major barriers that were all connected: There is a skills gap for BIPOC entering the tech field, which creates less BIPOC employees, so final products are homogenous. In the team’s extensive research they found that tech companies that opened hubs in more diverse cities, hired more people of color, meaning that location was critical to closing the racial gap. Team JAVELYN’s solution? To create the Racial Justice Hub – a physical tech hub in Atlanta.

The team’s solution included everything from where exactly IBM should place the hub, to floor plans, to program content.

“This competition is a lot more real and actionable than a lot of the competitions you’ll see around the world and around the U.S,” says Kegan Baird, managing director of the case competition, and current Goizueta MBA student.

‘FRAMING THE FUTURE OF RACIAL JUSTICE & BUSINESS’

Another factor that makes the competition unique is that half of the winnings are given to a racial justice organization. As first place winners, Team JAVELYN won $20,000, half of which they chose to give to Black Women Tech Talk – a conference for Black women entrepreneurs and technologists.

While the John R. Lewis Racial Justice Case Competition provides a few racial justice trainings and workshops, the students must be proactive in educating themselves on systemic racism.

“To basically advance in this competition you have to do significant research and understand the history and reasons for why we are where we are today,” Baird says.

For the competition’s co-managing director, Jasmine Burton, the competition itself was a major reason why she chose to attend Goizueta for her MBA. “I was really just moved by the sustainable and impactful ways that this competition was framing the future of racial justice and business,” she says.

RAPID EXPANSION

Emory MBA student Jasmine Burton

Burton and Baird heard from several other first-year students that the case competition was foundational in their decision to attend Emory as well.

“The competition really shines a light on just how broad systemic racism is in corporations in society, and enables really creative solutions,” Burton says. It’s evident when students present diverse solutions in the final round, she says, that there isn’t a one-size-fits all solution.

“Sometimes people think that addressing racism in an organization looks like one specific thing,” she says, “but there’s so much opportunity to innovate, and think about what it means to be inclusive.”

Goizueta partnered with Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, Howard University School of Business, Rice Jones Graduate School of Business, and Yale School of Management for this year’s competition. Jerrick Lewis, the nephew of John R. Lewis, for whom the competition is named after, presented the awards.

Since starting in 2021, the competition has expanded and developed more partnerships to reach all of the schools that are interested in the model, without them having to reinvent the wheel. The other major change is the increased focus on accountability and impact. While the competition was always focused on impact, this year they worked with sponsors to make sure the companies understood that the commitment to participating in the competition wasn’t just during the actual competition. The competition organizers are going to be working with sponsors to see what they’re doing with the recommendations and help hold them accountable for implementing real change.

“It’s not just about recognizing that there’s issues, it’s about actually committing resources, time, and having those hard conversations,” Burton said.

A SOURCE OF PRIDE — AND HOPE

The unique competition is a source of pride for both Emory Goizueta and its students.

“In all of my years in academia, this competition represents one of the most poignant examples of the power of student voice and the unbreakable intersection between business and society,” Karen Sedatole, interim dean of Goizueta, said during the opening remarks.

As a business student from an unrepresented background herself, Burton says she was inspired by how quickly the competition came together in the wake of the racial justice protests in 2020, and the possibility the competition represented.

“These organizations have been around for a long time. There’s endemic problems within them, and the fact that they’re coming to the table saying ‘we want to do better’ is indicative of the future,” she says. The competition is also representative, she says, “of this generation of students that wants to see action, talk about things that don’t work, and actually move the needle forward.”

“To me, all of those pieces are the future that I want to be a part of. That’s the future that I am hoping to help build.”

DON’T MISS EMORY MBA CREATES FIRST MAJOR RACIAL JUSTICE CASE COMPETITION and IN 2ND YEAR, BIG CHANGES TO EMORY GOIZUETA’S JOHN LEWIS CASE COMPETITION