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Healthy competition: why MBAs can’t resist a challenge

MBA competitions can be an excellent way to flex collaborative – and competitive – muscles, but they can also provide an opportunity to test a startup idea or build longer-lasting connections.

Healthy competition - Yale Healthcare Competition winners

A relatively new idea which gained in popularity in the late nineties, MBA competitions are usually organised by students and supported by business school faculty, local companies and venture capitalists, and in some cases, sponsors from the corporate world who are looking for their next star employees.

Competitions range from ones which test general business skills, such as the KPMG International Case Competition, to sector-specific, such as the MIT Clean Energy Prize. The process varies, but for most competitions, teams submit a presentation and if they are successful, present that in person at regional or international semi-finals or finals.

What kinds of competitions are there?

There are a few types of competitions which feature regularly, and the two most popular are the business case and the business plan (entrepreneurial).

Case competitions are very popular due to employers increasing using the case interview as a recruitment tool. Formerly only used by the consulting world, they are now a common feature and solving a case is a valuable MBA skill.

Case competitions generally take the form of a group being given a business challenge to solve, sometimes ahead of time, sometimes over a limited time at the competition itself. These competitions are often themed by a sector such as fashion, telecoms or healthcare (as with the Yale Healthcare Competition, which this year was won by Cambridge MBA students Gabriel Thia, Hannah Kanamori, Xin Qi, Yiwei Li and Takehiro Aoki).

Another common competition is the business plan competition in which contestants pitch an already existing business idea. Students use the competition experience to practise their pitch, gain valuable feedback about their idea, or win cash which can be invested into the venture itself.

Current student Tadashi Kubo who is working with fellow classmate Patara Panuparb on a venture called H24E Innova, a hydrogen-based clean fuel solution, has entered (and won) several competitions this year, such as The HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn’s Sustainability Award in Thailand. He says:

The most valuable thing about competitions for us has been the feedback. In fact, one competition has led us to completely change the market for our business based on feedback from VCs. We’ve also learnt a lot from other teams, especially in competitions such as the Clean Tech Challenge and McKinsey Venture Academy Competition.

It’s also been incredibly valuable to experience venture capital in the real world, as it’s a practical demonstration of what I’m learning on the Entrepreneurship Concentration.

Hackathons and intramural prizes

Another kind of competition gaining momentum is the hackathon where a team comes together for a day or weekend to develop a minimum viable product around a theme. Student Clare Dussman, whose team recently won the Sudo Hackathon in Cambridge explains:

“‘If you can’t code, what do you do?’ I often get this question when I say I went to a hackathon. The simple answer is twofold: firstly, partner with developers to make sure you’re getting the right stuff done, and secondly, surround great code with a concise and compelling business story.”

There are also several competitions which are open to University of Cambridge students. Cambridge University Entrepreneurs (CUE) hosts one of the most successful student-run business creation competitions in the world, having awarded over £600,000 prize money to over 60 startups. They take entries for their £100, £2k and £10k competitions which are anything from ‘just an idea’ to ‘we’re ready to scale’, and aim to guide entrants towards creating a commercially viable company – regardless of whether or not they win.

Students also frequently enter competitions within their Cambridge Colleges. Current student Carolyn Goddard recently won Pembroke College’s 2018 Parmee Prize, which is an opportunity for Pembroke students to win mentoring and advice, as well as £2,000 to get their business going.

Tadashi and Patara’s venture has also just won the 2018 Enterprise Society Award at Hughes Hall, gaining valuable mentorship and a prize of £1,250.

Team work

Finally, the thing that students overwhelmingly say about competitions is that they are great bonding experiences, and that working with their classmates under stressful conditions produces their best work.

Gabriel Thia sums this up well in his team’s experience of the Yale Healthcare Competition:

“We had a versatile team that worked remarkably together, and that contributed to our success in the case competition. The ideas presented by the other teams were outstanding, but we were well-prepared and confident in our pitch. We were able to implement concepts learnt during the MBA in a practical manner; this was the biggest reward in our competition experience.”