After two years of piloting the simulation and another year of intensive development, the challenge was ready to debut. Space had been reserved for 25 students to spend 24 hours putting their management training to the test. Food had been ordered to fuel the five teams as they wove together their individual talents to tackle whatever obstacles came their way. Industry executives had set aside their time to judge the final presentations.
The date for the inaugural Duke Engineering Master of Engineering Management (MEM) Executive Challenge was set for March 13-15, 2020.
“I remember distinctly around March 8 or 9 thinking that we might want to consider not going through with it, and Dean Bellamkonda was smart enough to make the call early,” said Edward Marshall, Adjunct Professor of Management in the MEM program and of business administration in Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. “It took a month or two for us to gather back our energy, take a deep breath, and start to put together plans to make the event virtual. But it’s a good thing we did.”
The idea behind the MEM Executive Challenge is to provide students a capstone opportunity to put everything they’ve learned throughout their various classes to solve a real-world business challenge. Not unlike a hackathon, students form cross-national, cross-gender teams of five, each contributing unique skills gained from the courses they’ve chosen to take and their previous backgrounds. Before the Challenge weekend even begins, they form themselves as a collaborative team, deciding the rules for how they will work together.
After receiving a thick packet of information detailing a fictional business’s history, assets, financials, values, goals and more, teams have roughly 18 hours to put together a 20-minute, comprehensive presentation outlining their plans and rationales for how the company would move forward in the next 15 years.
“This sort of challenge is unheard of in any MEM program around the country. We’re really the pioneers of this, and the students were really excited by the prospect.”
“This sort of challenge is unheard of in any MEM program around the country,” said Marshall. “We’re really the pioneers of this, and the students were really excited by the prospect.”
Fast-forward a few months and the MEM faculty team, Professors Daniel Egger, Gregory Hopper, Luis Morales, Steven DelGrosso, Guerry Grune, and Marshall, were ready to take their 24-hour program virtual. Two teams were challenged to prepare a solution for making a global, high-tech company called GlobalCorp, Inc (GCI) carbon neutral by the year 2035 while simultaneously cutting 10 percent of its expenditures.
But the financials were just the beginning of the hurdles.
“We had to put together a comprehensive strategy that included critical leadership, finance, marketing issues and more,” said Carly Davey, a member of the team, “The 5 Forces” and recent graduate of the University of Miami. “This required a very high-level overview of balancing different tradeoffs between profitability and thinking green in the long term. Then we had to present something compelling that made sense from all angles.”
“My team had three students with startup experience, which helped a lot with strategy and long-term decisions on how to make the company sustainable over time,” said Swati Jain, a member of team “John Wick’s Apprentices,” who spent three years building her own company in India before joining the MEM program. “One student knew a lot about energy, another had a biomedical background, a third had a lot of financial experience, and we also had someone with lots of project management experience, which helped us figure out what questions definitely needed to be answered by the end.”
Davey was joined on her team by Joanne Xiao, Sandhya Kal, Revati Deshpande, Wei He and Xuechao Wang, while Jain’s team included Katie Wu, Ravi Gudipally, Prerena Prahlad and Tushnik Goswami.
The marathon event kicked off around 6:00 pm on a Friday night in November, after which the students had about 18 hours to finish their work and present to the judges. Not only were their efforts hampered by not being able to be in the same room, but also a few of the participants were on the other side of the world in completely different time zones.
Some teammates were married, others had roommates to contend with. Almost everyone received some form of help, whether a meal delivered to their desktop or simply patience with their working at odd hours of the night.
“At the beginning, I was somewhat hesitant, because it was my whole weekend and wasn’t for a grade or anything. But it was a lot more rewarding than I’d imagined. I learned a ton and it will be a great thing to put on my resume.”
In short, the experience was just about as real-life as you can get during COVID.
Both teams submitted their final presentations Saturday night, November 7, at 9:00, and reconvened on Sunday to hear the judges’ decisions. Deliberating over the event were three external and extraordinary judges from Duke Engineering’s Industrial Advisory Board, Tony Jeffs of Cisco, Charelle Lewis of GSK, and Marty Trivette of ABB. At the end of the whirlwind experience, Team 5 Force edged out John Wick’s Assassins by a nose.
But by all accounts, everyone stayed home a winner.
“It was very well organized. The case was well written and allowed the participants to focus on the main topics and not get bogged down in financials and miscellaneous data,” said Marty Trivette, global digital and systems director at ABB and one of the challenge’s judges. “I am glad the faculty team pulled this off in the pandemic environment because this is part of the great Duke experience.”
“At the beginning, I was somewhat hesitant, because it was my whole weekend and wasn’t for a grade or anything,” said Davey. “But it was a lot more rewarding than I’d imagined. I learned a ton and it will be a great thing to put on my resume.”
“This event was one of the most valuable things I’ve participated in this semester,” said Katie Wu, a member of John Wick’s Apprentices. “I had an opportunity to work on a superb team on a difficult and complex challenge, and present to faculty and the Industrial Advisory Board judges in a real-world simulation. I’ve taken many lessons from both of the teams’ presentations, and I know that these skills and lessons will help me succeed in future endeavors.