Innovation Challenge Recap

I participated in the Darden Innovation Challenge case competition finals in Charlottesville, VA a couple weekends ago. The pre-Thanksgiving crunch, post-Thanksgiving malaise, and post-post-Thanksgiving scramble have kept me from jotting down my thoughts on the experience until now.

The Concepts

We had to answer 2 basic questions:

- How can American Express help its small business customers grow their businesses internationally?
- How can Hilton raise awareness for its efforts to implement environmentally sustainable practices and operations?

Obviously - these were pretty difficult questions. Both sponsors provided some helpful resources and a general sense of what they wanted to see. Other than that, everything was completely open ended.

(I don't think that I can legally discuss the details of our concepts because they're now the property of Hilton and AMEX.)

My friend Danvers - a 2nd year that finished 2nd in the competition last year - gave my team some help getting started, which was incredibly gracious on his part considering that we were his competition. Only after the fact did I realize that he gave us only enough help to avoid embarrassment and no where near enough to actually be competitive...

Our biggest handicap was the fact that we were first year MBA students that were already waaaaay over-extended. Given everyone's class work, recruiting events, and other personal commitments, we didn't have much time to pull our thoughts together.


I missed the first day of the event to attend CVF Match Day, so I only participated in our Hilton presentation. Unfortunately, we had to follow my friend Danvers' team - the odds on favorite going into the competition. As expected, they knocked it out of the part.

As I kicked-off our presentation, I tried to position our concept against all of the others. Without going into the boring details, every presentation to that point - and even after - offered a slightly different take on the same handful of themes:

- Hilton "goes green".
- Reward points for guests for making "green" decisions.
- Ambitious - and unrealistic - partnership programs.
- An environmental scorecard program.

Our concept only had one of these - the scorecard. We consciously avoided the others in a bit of gamesmanship. (Obviously it didn't work because we didn't win...)

Still - it was fun to stand up there and honestly say that our idea was (kinda) different from everyone else's and see the judges respond/agree.

The problem with our presentation was that we didn't really practice...unless you count the one 6AM run-through we pulled together that morning. Plus, we didn't prep for the 15 minutes of Q/A. As you might imagine, we took a pretty good pounding from the judges. My team and I tap danced as best as we could, but still couldn't dodge all of the blows.

The Event

First class all the way. Darden is a beautiful school. The judges were all top-caliber and quite friendly. The event was well organized. Best of all - I didn't spend a cent the entire time I was there and will be reimbursed for my travel expenses.

For me, the highlight was the awards dinner in The Rotunda. Dean Robert Bruner from Darden made a few remarks and led us all in a toast to Thomas Jefferson - a (somewhat odd) tradition at UVA. I sat at a table with my teammates and executives from Hilton and Whirlpool. The food was good and the conversation was enjoyable.

After the dinner, Polly LaBarre - author of "Mavericks At Work" - delivered the keynote. She offered a number of interesting ideas as told through a handful of fascinating business anecdotes. For what it's worth, her book is on my Christmas list.

As expected, the other UNC team took home the prize. A team from India School of Business won 2nd - (this was a bit of a shocker...I was not impressed at all by their Hilton pitch.) - and a great team from London School of Business placed 3rd.

One of the judges at our table told my teammate that we were "right there" and "in and out" of the top 3 - so we took that to mean we finished 4th. (Which probably isn't true because I thought our AMEX concept was a bit of a turd...and because the judge was probably just letting my overly eager teammate down easy. Still - I'll continue to pretend like we finished 4th.)

After the dinner, we headed back to Darden for the after party, sponsored by Google. Good times.

The Takeaways

A few quick thoughts because this has already taken way too long to type:

- The networking was absolutely fantastic. I especially enjoyed my conversations with the sponsor representatives from Whirlpool, Harley Davidson, and Google and the MBA students from the UC Berkeley Haas team.

- Q/A is about giving more information and clarifying concepts, not disagreeing (or arguing) with judges. (I learned that one the hard way...)

- You win these competitions by presenting the most ridiculous idea that you can articulate and defend as reasonable/profitable/feasible. If I had it to do over again, I would have kept pushing my team to think bigger. I felt like we were on the right track with both concepts, we just stopped the ideation process too soon...

- The biggest lessons I learned through the process revolved around teamwork - building consensus, disagreeing respectfully, iterating ideas, etc.

- Can't wait to do it again next year. The $20K prize is coming back to Kenan-Flagler.