Using a case competition to make campus more sustainable – 6 questions with Jenn Hart from Olin Business School

The Olin Sustainability Case Competition (OSCC) began during the 2009-2010 academic year as a way to increase awareness and expand educational opportunities about sustainable business practices at the Olin Business School. Open to all Washington University students in both undergraduate and graduate level programs, the case competition provides participants with a chance to learn about practical, real-world applications of corporate responsibility and sustainability concepts, so that they can make an impact in the world around them.

Designed as a traditional business case study, the competition is based on a current business problem and prepared with the assistance of leading experts in the field of sustainability and Olin faculty.  Any student enrolled in any academic program at Washington University can participate. Teams can be made up of two to five students from any school. I recently had the chance to speak with Jenn Harp at Olin Business School about the Case Competition.

1. Why did you decide to create a case competition that focuses on greening the campus and how did you go about starting it?

We found that increasingly our students were interested in sustainability and were craving ways to learn about it, even outside of the classroom. At the same time, our students were expressing interest in more case competition opportunities, so a blend of the two was a great outcome.

This was very much a team effort between student organization leadership and Olin staff. A great deal of thought went into exactly what kind of competition we wanted to create, so initially there were numerous meetings to establish goals and objectives. After that, we just “ran with it,” making decisions as we went along and reacting to the pulse of the student body with regard to topic selection, how to best market the competition, etc.  The committee consisted of (and still does to this day) students from a cross-section of our programs and staff not just from Olin, but also from across campus.

2. How has the case competition been received by students? By staff and the wider university community?

Our students have been increasingly interested in this competition. Generally, we have anywhere from 25 – 30 teams interested in the competition. That said, we are pretty proud with the amount and quality of first round submissions during 2012. In 2010, there were 16 submissions. By 2011, this number increased to 14 and, this past year, we went up to 18 submissions.

The Olin staff have been great supporters of the OSCC. It was started by an MBA student and staff member, but has blossomed into an entire committee of Olin community members. This past year, our oversight committee was composed of a diverse group of Olin staff, faculty, and students. Additionally, we have been lucky to gain the full support of the Washington University in St. Louis administration as well. Offices from around campus, including our Office of Sustainability, Facilities Planning & Management, and Chancellor’s Office have provided support to this project over the last three years. Their input and assistance has served as a valuable resource and has been crucial to the success of the competition. Chancellor Wrighton has welcomed our OSCC winners into his office to present their ideas to him and other key University administrators each spring. This is a great honor for our students. As a result of this high level of interaction, many of our students’ ideas have been put into action around campus.

The community has been a great support as we continue to build this competition. Over the last three years, we have received generous donations from Anheuser-Busch, Edward Jones, Novus International, Peabody, and Tarlton. They believe in the importance of sustainability as well as our students’ ability to develop and present unique ideas as they relate to sustainability within our University. We are grateful for their continued support. Not only have they donated toward our competition’s cash prizes, but they have also given their time as OSCC judges.

3. What are some of the projects that students have done, what is the impact that students have had?

2010: During our first competition, we tackled the idea of parking on campus. The case topic was entitled, “Where have all the parking spots gone?” You can read more about the case topic in this article.

2011: Our 2nd annual OSCC topic focused on the carbon footprint of the University’s science labs. Lab Manager Magazine wrote a great article detailing the results. You can also read more about some of the ideas that were implemented from the OSCC suggestions here.

2012: Last year, the OSCC topic was Beauty at what cost?: Landscape Strategies for Washington University. Since this competition just took place, we are still looking at how the ideas might be implemented on campus. One of the suggestions was permeable pavement, and during the team’s presentation to the Chancellor, he seemed very receptive to that idea. Maybe we will see that in upcoming construction? But for now, we will have to wait and see.

4. What have been some of the challenges and how have you overcome these?

While we have been lucky to have such strong support from local companies, it can sometimes be a challenge to secure funding given the timing of our competition. We place corporate sponsorship solely in the hands of our student corporate sponsorship chair. While we provide him/her resources and access to companies in the area, it can be a difficult task. Students are on campus starting in September, and our competition takes place in early February. This is a very short window for a student to find sponsors and secure the funds we need to make the competition run smoothly and provide a significant cash prize.

In order to overcome this hurdle, we try to make it as easy as possible for the student corporate sponsorship chair by providing him/her with guidance from our Corporate Relations Office. They will teach the student the best way to make the “ask” and encourage them to be diligent in their efforts. Because we do have a short window of time, the student must put their full effort into building a sincere relationship from the start. I am hopeful that as the OSCC continues to be successful, our past sponsors will see it’s unique benefit to the Washington University community and continue to provide us with their generous support.

5. What are your plans/hopes for the competition moving forward?

Going forward, our hope is to continue to grow the competition. This past year, we reached a total of 18 completed submissions after opening up the competition to all students across the University. I am hopeful that with a good marketing campaign, we can grow this number to 20-25 submissions. I believe that we can certainly handle that growth, and the more implementable ideas, the better. My hope is that the OSCC continues to be recognized across campus as a competition that really contributes to the overall betterment of the University. That could be by connecting students and administration from different schools, by creating strong partnerships with local companies, or by implementing our winners’ ideas on campus.  Empowering our students through sustainability case competitions is a great way for the University to solidify an idea that it was already thinking of undertaking, or, hopefully, to learn of an idea that it had never even considered before.

6. What would you recommend to other schools thinking of putting in place a similar competition?

It is crucial to have a good support team behind your effort. Without the support we have received from the Olin Business School and Washington University communities, the OSCC would not be successful. Having the right people on your team will make it easier to choose the right case topic, secure knowledgeable competition judges, and find corporate community supporters. If you are attempting to hold a case competition where the winning strategy can actually be implemented on your campus, you also need to make sure your University’s decision makers are fully on board. Be sure they are involved in vetting your topic. And, if it makes sense, let that office have a voice during the initial rounds of judging. For example, our Office of Sustainability has been in full support of our efforts. It is essential to have buy-in from offices like theirs from the beginning, if you ultimately want to see the students’ ideas implemented on campus.


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