From real-world experience to industry partnerships, case competitions propel Daniels students toward career success
Even for a seasoned, highly successful firm like AEM Consulting, this felt like a tough spot.
Not only did Alisa Sautter, Emily Winn and Megan Banks have to figure out how to help aerospace electronics company Ideas-TEK use its semiconductor chips in new industries—they first had to figure out what a semiconductor was.
“We were in over our heads,” Sautter said.
Winn agreed: “We learned back to the very basics of how chips are built, how semiconductors work, the different sizes of chips and what that means for technology advancement. It was really cool, but we were definitely not prepared for that level of technicality.”
AEM Consulting is not an incorporated business. Sautter, Winn and Banks are students at the Daniels College of Business. But the problem they took on for Ideas-TEK at the 2023 Global Scaling Challenge was entirely real: How could the company access new technology markets, expand to Europe and take more of its work in house?
In March, 25 schools from around the world began devising strategies for companies to achieve rapid massive growth, as part of an annual case competition sponsored by the University of New Mexico’s Anderson School of Management.
The next month, 21 of them moved on to the final round.
And on April 15, the University of Denver team emerged with a gold medal, a $15,000 cash prize and a new way to apply lessons learned on campus.
“In case competitions, you’re genuinely seeing the return on the investment of all the classes you have taken, which I think in and of itself is a rewarding feeling,” said Banks, a marketing and business analytics major.
The specialized knowledge is a huge boon, said Winn, a marketing 4+1 student earning a master’s degree in applied quantitative finance.
“At the core of a business school education is businesses,” she added. “And any time you actually get a direct line into how a business works, it’s very powerful and very helpful.”
What is a case competition?
Case competitions have existed for decades, inviting business students to creatively approach issues facing real companies.
In their most basic form, events require students to spend days, weeks or sometimes months researching a written problem, often presented in narrative form. The work culminates in a slideshow presentation to a panel of judges.
The focus and format of each competition can vary. Some, like the Daniels Inclusive Excellence Case Competition, zero in on a specific topic. Others, like the annual Race & Case competition, mix problem solving with a downhill ski race.
Many of them offer sizable cash prizes and the opportunity to pitch to executives who are leaders in their respective industries.
“Really, most of us don’t ever get an opportunity to do that in our entire professional lives,” said Kate Dillon, senior director of corporate and community relations, who helps facilitate many of the on-campus competitions. “It’s a moment to prove your research recommendations and solutions are the best. Standing up and representing yourself and your team in front of a panel of judges and companies is a very big moment that students want to take advantage of.”
Daniels used to buy cases from other universities, like Harvard. But for the last several years, Daniels faculty and industry partners have written their own. (Previous competition cases have focused on Breakthru Beverage, Western Union, Newmont Mining, Lockheed Martin, Charles Schwab and NBC Universal.) Not only does that present students with relevant, hyperlocal cases, but it puts them in front of local business leaders. And the solutions they suggest make a difference.
“Companies don’t just chuck [student findings] in a drawer,” Dillon said. “They are literally here to get some insights. They don’t take it lightly. They’re giving real money and they are getting real results.”
A rewarding team experience
While competitors coalesce to represent their colleges and universities, in many instances, they don’t know their teammates very well—if they know them at all.
That changes quickly.
Miranda Bender, a student in the Executive MBA program, estimates that she and her team spent 150 hours preparing for this spring’s Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative Case Competition, in which they took first place. A Daniels team also took second place in the undergraduate competition.
For her teammate, EMBA student Antonio Valencia, the time commitment was, at times, overwhelming, but also the most gratifying part of the competition.
“My favorite part was learning about me and my partners,” he said. “We had several deep conversations that made me really think about core values, what drives and matters to us. We questioned our thought process and assumptions, and respectfully challenged each other to think outside of our comfort zones.”
The Daniels Fund case asked teams to identify ethical issues (including privacy, employee monitoring, conflicts of interest and remote work) for a global supply chain company. It’s meant to be a thought-provoking endeavor, similar to a situation students might face in their professional careers, equipping them with practical tools for ethical decision-making.
Judges weighed each team’s recommendations against core Daniels Fund principles, like integrity, trust, accountability, transparency, fairness, respect, rule of law and viability.
“This competition helped me preparing and getting more experience performing at high levels of stress or with limited resources,” Valencia said.
Bender agreed, adding that the effects of her case competition experience will extend long beyond the event.
“Students involved in this case competition help build a legacy of ethical leadership that will make the world a better place for everyone,” Bender said. “I will take away incredible memories and a lifelong friendship and connection with my cohort members. I will also benefit from a broader ethical perspective that has already helped me in my current job and will continue helping me make better business decisions throughout my career.”
Keys to success
Building a well-rounded team is one of the keys to success, said Sautter, Winn and Banks, who have participated in (and, often, won) somewhere between 5-10 case competitions during their collegiate careers.
“You have to have a team you can trust,” said Sautter, an international business major in the 4+1 business analytics program. That means getting to know your teammates before seeing the case.
Adaptability, flexibility and dependability are musts, especially when working around job, class and personal schedules.
“If you want to be successful,” Sautter said, “you have to be constantly working together, looking at the slide deck, researching, and making sure your idea is stable and good enough to last until the competition [presentation].”
Professional connections help too. The AEM team reached out to family members, former classmates and LinkedIn connections during the research phase—anyone who could help them craft a better solution.
The best of what we do
On more than one occasion, Dillon says case competitions have led to professional connections, mentoring relationships, and even internship and job opportunities.
“It’s a lot of the best of what we do [at Daniels] coming together,” she said. Faculty write the cases in tandem with industry partners. Industry partners, many of them alumni, revel in the energy of the day while they judge presentations from students. Students flash their smarts and the things they’ve learned in class.
“I think there is this increased commitment of partners knowing that we can’t do these things without them,” she said. “They have to be involved for us to provide these learning experiences so our students can be the best coming out [of school].”
The AEM Consulting team has certainly seen the benefits.
Banks drew from her case competition experiences at her internship with Ent Credit Union. Winn, who will be working as an investment banking analyst, acquired an abnormal amount of relevant knowledge, specific to her telecommunications clients. Case competitions steered Sautter’s career path toward consulting.
For all three, case competitions have exponentially boosted and expanded their options for the future. Who knows what could be next?
“Maybe we’ll have a real consulting firm,” Sautter said. “Let’s check in 20 years.”