In an MBA program, it’s expected that the business knowledge gained through the degree will ultimately be put to work solving real-world challenges. In the Kelley School of Business Evening MBA Program, that knowledge is tested even before classes start. Students begin the top-ranked program with an orientation case competition.
“Our orientation case competition is a way for us to involve our students right away in solving real business problems,” says Kyle Anderson, Evening MBA faculty chair and clinical assistant professor of business economics. “We identify a company with a need and present the issue to our students, who begin working to solve the problem immediately.”
The orientation case competition is a hallmark of the Kelley Evening MBA. By welcoming students into the program with a team project that partners them with new classmates, the orientation case competition builds rapport among the incoming cohort and raises the stakes of what it means to earn an MBA to solve real-world challenges.
“This isn’t some Harvard Business case that exists only in the abstract or theoretical. During fall 2020, our students helped small businesses significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic keep their doors open,” explains professor Anderson. “That applies some pressure beyond getting a good grade. Our students are responsible for making solid recommendations to help a company survive and help the business community thrive as a whole.”
The fall 2020 Evening MBA students were asked to assist Black Circle Brewing Company, a small live music venue and craft brewery in Indianapolis’s SoBro neighborhood. Having shifted events and food and drink service to his outdoor space throughout most of the 2020, owner Jesse Rice, MBA’21, faced uncertainty as the temperatures began to drop.
“Surviving during the pandemic, I needed as much help as possible to get through winter 2020,” says Jesse. “Having participated in two other case competitions as an Evening MBA student myself, I wanted to be very clear that I wasn’t asking for a redesign or any new product. I wanted to know: What can we do to get Black Circle from November to March without laying off employees?”
Jesse presented his case to the students via a Zoom class meeting. The students were placed into teams of five and were given a week to research and compile new strategies for Black Circle. At the end of the week, the teams presented their recommendations to faculty judges, who selected three finalist teams. The finalists presented their findings to the business owner, with Jesse and professor Anderson determining the winning team.
The team of Rebecca Hollander, Prateek Choudhary, Bridget Dotson, Kyle Hendricks and Mark Ziemba won overall champion by focusing on online sales and the simple idea of free shipping during a pandemic.
“We looked at current trends during COVID, which is online sales, and focused on how to promote this option and get the product out to customers who are staying home,” says Rebecca. “As we gathered more research, we realized free shipping is critical. People are accustomed to free shipping from online retailers and have come to expect it from everyone else. Research revealed that shipping fees are the number one reason people abandon their online shopping cart. We recommended that Jesse adopt free shipping.”
“I decided to offer free delivery and see if we’d have more orders,” says Jesse. “We’ve certainly had more orders than we did in the spring. I’ve also added tip options to the shopping cart, which basically recategorizes a delivery fee to support our staff.”
Diverse teams, diverse thought
Another team that recommended online delivery strategies included Vik Nevrekar, Kiran Madduri, Rama Patchigolla and Krystle Swanson. In addition to delivery options, this team also suggested expanding the Black Circle’s loyalty program to attract repeat customers.
“We have 220 members in our ‘Button Mashers’ loyalty club, and I was under-engaging them,” says Jesse. “I assumed that paying a $100 mug fee and receiving discounts were enough to keep them coming back, but nearly every Evening MBA team suggested I reengage them on a regular basis. It seems so simple, but I wasn’t even thinking about that. We developed a monthly newsletter and monthly 4-pack for them, and we’re probably at 60% of revenue from that idea.”
Among the benefits of starting an MBA program with a case competition is that the experience helps incoming students identify gaps in their knowledge, which they can lean into over Kelley’s 24-month, part-time program.
“On our team, the two engineers were knowledgeable in logistics; they explained the technical considerations for online ordering. I was in charge of the finances, making sure the financials made sense based on the budget Jesse provided. Another member was in charge of marketing,” says Vik, a transactions manager at Merchants Capital. “We leveraged everyone’s skill sets to create our strategy. Our team worked so well together that we paired up again in our marketing course in the next quarter.
“A key benefit of the Evening MBA is in the networking to build connections and learn from different people. Everyone has a unique background and something they bring to the table.”
The other finalist team, which included Sami Roberts, Srini Bodla, Elise Brown and Mac ODonnell, suggested that Jesse winterize the outdoor space and offer outdoor events during non-peak hours. Sami, an accountant with experience working in Indiana government, says her team also relied upon the unique skills each member brought to the team.
“My teammates drew upon their experience in the service industry to come up with a plan to buy a large tent for hosting outdoor events and identify the brewery’s non-peak business hours for new events,” she says. “From my experience, I knew there were several government programs offering COVID relief for businesses. The Winter Grant Program would reimburse Jesse for purchasing an outdoor tent and equipment. Knowing how much everything cost and how to pay for it made our idea a viable solution; we just had to be sure to implement it correctly.”
Just a couple years out of college, Sami says the orientation case allowed her to learn from more experienced teammates and build her confidence to tackle actual business challenges.
“Your classmates help you understand their unique perspectives and how they arrived at a recommendation. I’m very open to constructive criticism and advice, so for me, this experience was incredibly important,” she says. “The biggest takeaway from the orientation case wasn’t just what we offered Black Circle, but it set the tone for how to approach future opportunities. At Kelley, you start right off the bat using your business expertise to help the community.”
Making a difference
Ever since the orientation case was added to the Kelley Evening MBA curriculum, student cohorts have provided strategic recommendations to both small businesses and large corporations. The goal of the case is to give Evening MBA students a glimpse into the real implications of their degree while helping the local business community.
“What students are going to learn over the next two years is how to help businesses survive and thrive. In our orientation cases, we talk about the employees of these companies and how they’re dependent upon the businesses doing well,” says professor Anderson. “You’re making an impact on people’s lives. These businesses employ people who are feeding their families, and helping them thrive has a real impact; it’s not just lining someone’s pockets.”
Students gain insight into business problem-solving, but they also get a glimpse into various businesses and the inner workings from an employer’s perspective.
“Not only did you see the raw numbers, facts and challenges, but you also got to see how it affected employees who need to support their families—you got to see that balance,” says Rebecca, a manager of R&D at cardiology software company GEMMS. “The case allowed you to see what many businesses are going through right now during COVID. It’s not just a homework assignment to get a grade, but an opportunity to help this business and meet the people behind it.”
The case allowed you to see what many businesses are going through right now during COVID. It’s not just a homework assignment to get a grade, but an opportunity to help this business and meet the people behind it.”
Sami, who comes from a family of small business owners, felt the orientation case was not only a good start to her MBA education, but to understanding the impact of doing business well.
“With this orientation case, I think Kelley not only serves the community of Indianapolis, but it helps us see the wider impact of the pandemic, the hardships of owning a business and keeping it alive,” she says. “It’s an altruistic endeavor for the school that provides realistic insight for the students.”
The Evening MBA is a degree designed to be immediately applicable to students, with takeaways they can apply long before they graduate. Much like the orientation case, the classroom lessons translate to tools students can deploy to confront challenges in their industries. As a part-time program, students are able to attend courses at night, and return to work the next day with fresh ideas.
“I was working on a deal for a client, and we were discussing market segmenting,” says Vik. “Something I heard in a marketing class shows up as a tool for talking to a potential client and selling them on using my company to be the originator for their loan. We presented some ideas, and there were pieces from marketing that I was able to apply in my work.”
I was working on a deal for a client, and there were pieces from marketing that I was able to apply in my work.”
Having been on both sides of the orientation case—as a student and a business owner—Jesse says the experience allows all parties an opportunity to grow and learn.
“Getting these informed ideas made me stand back and look at the bigger picture of my business, as opposed to my daily perspective,” says Jesse. “It’s a growth move to welcome new insights and see what the Kelley MBAs come up with. None of the recommendations upended my entire business plan, but there were good strategies I wouldn’t have considered on my own.”