The Leeds Net Impact Business Case Competition Travesty

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I had the opportunity to attend this year’s Leeds Net Impact Business Case Competition in Boulder, Colorado over the weekend, which claims to be “The premier case format competition built around businesses facing sustainability challenges, while succeeding financially.” If that really is the case, then the bar for sustainability has been set very, very low.

Let me give you some background. The competition focuses on a problem in business focused on sustainability. The sponsor this year, Ball Corporation, provided the case with the aim to reinvigorate stagnant recycling rates in the US. 63 teams entered in the first round, 20 of which were selected to move on to the semi-finals. Two of those teams were from my school (BGI).

I would like to preface my next comments with this: I think the students and volunteers running this competition did an exceptional job.  This competition takes months of preparation and many, many hours of hard work.  I saw no hiccups in the execution of the competition, and with 20 teams and dozens of judges this is an impressive task.  Good work guys, you should be proud.

I was in Boulder cheering on my teams, one of which was chosen to be one of the five teams in the finals. I was able to sit in on four of the five final presentations, beginning with my school’s team. Their case was fantastic: set up recycling kiosks in high schools, where a portion of the deposit will go to the school lunch program. The students will essentially help pay for meals for the students sitting next to them in class. Talk about a social motivator! The kiosks will pay for themselves easily and feed into the recycling program in order to buy more kiosks for other schools, creating a self-sufficient program which would eventually recycle billions of cans and save millions of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, all the while helping feed healthful meals to millions of students. The practiced delivery was flawless, all questions were handled with confidence and ease, and the team was relaxed and professional.

Then the other teams presented. UW, who eventually got first place, pitched an iPhone app called “Loop” which would tell you where the nearest recycling can is, as well as the ability to track your recycling rates. (Guess what? Already exists. And it isn’t going to change the habits of anyone who doesn’t already care about recycling or owns an iPhone.) They were the only other team to remotely mention environmental savings, which the BGI team blew clear out of the water.

USC, who got second place, pitched a Facebook game about recycling that needed 15 million users to break even. Their pitch was stumbled and canned, and they didn’t seem to realize that it already exists as well. Again, not going to change anyone’s habits who doesn’t already care about recycling and is limited to Facebook users. (And they wanted to partner with Zynga and Waste Management, both of whom are currently running direct competition to this game. Not to mention Zygna is one of the most despicable gaming companies around and would steal their idea in a heartbeat if given the chance.) The team didn’t even mention environmental savings.

All told, BGI’s was the only team that mentioned the triple bottom line with a social motivator to get kids to care about recycling. You think that would matter in a Sustainability Competition.

So what happened? After the winners were announced, some students spoke to some of the final judges and discovered that another judge from a major corporation had already tried a kiosk campaign once and rejected any teams who used them, not letting them place in the top three. Major arguments for BGI to place went unheard and the strongest and most stubborn personalities refused to look at the presentation on its own merits. BGI was not to get any higher than 4th place.

Nice try, Judges.

This experience has taught me three major lessons:

#1 The Sustainability movement has a long, hard, uphill battle to fight against the status quo. Watching a fantastic idea get ignored for flashier ideas that won’t work has shown me how stubborn old industry hands can be.

#2 Leeds really must change the judging methods for the competition to weigh sustainability higher.  I can tell you right now that students from my school know more about sustainability than 90% of the judges in the competition (and in this year’s case, definitely more about social media as well). The competition is currently judged by the sponsors, and from reports from the judging room it sounds like opinion and personality take precedence over a non-partisan rubric. The Walmart Better Living Business Challenge does this really well, weighing sustainability higher than profitability in a well-defined rubric.  If the Leeds competition claims to be about sustainability, then back up your claim and make it less of a farce where giant companies can wash themselves in green. This is a fantastic competition that is in danger of losing credibility for giving too much power to the sponsors. Which leads me to my third lesson…

#3 The Net Impact brand is in danger of diluting into another greenwashing tool. This competition showcases a school’s ability to use  the “Net Impact” title to highlight its progressive efforts towards sustainability without really flexing its muscles to prove it.

Time to buck up, Leeds. You can do better than this next year.

The opinions in the article are solely those of the author (who is extremely pissed off) and not of BGI or other students in the competition.


19 responses to this post.

  1. one should note that mobile apps and facebook games don’t guarantee that aluminum cans actually get recycled. these do not address the issue of physically obtaining the can for reprocessing and reuse. however, the kiosk model does, especially with the motivating factor of feeding children. i’m still appalled that the judges overlooked this fact. they really had no place dictating the results of a sustainability competition.


  2. Posted by Schuyler on February 22, 2011 at 6:54 pm

    Good point Patty, not only does it not address the issue of physically obtaining the can, but could you imagine what kind of data we could get simply from having recycling kiosks like these in schools? Sure the sponsor of the program would benefit (as well as the kids getting meals), but the real empowerment would be focused where it should be – locally at the school district level. That way, schools could figure out who would be doing a good job of recycling and who wouldn’t. Little to no funding would be needed to pinpoint where recycling education is needed, but the social payoff would be huge. You’re right, bad choice.


  3. Perhaps BGI should host a truly sustainable, business case competition??


    • My thoughts exactly, Melissa. When should we start?


    • Posted by glotakis on February 22, 2011 at 9:22 pm

      I spent a lot of time thinking about BGI hosting a competition before, during, and especially after the competition. I look forward to helping with that. Seeing the hard work and great job Leeds did in organizing made me pause at the amount of time it takes during a busy school life. Perhaps this would be a great place for BGI and Presidio to partner and bring true sustainability into the business case landscape.

      That said, I also appreciate running head long into business case competitions with companies that may not get sustainability… and dropping it on them. The idea of planting seeds of change is a wonderful concession.


      • Posted by Kelly on February 24, 2011 at 2:27 pm

        I think this could be a great opportunity for BGI alumni – perhaps in collaboration with Presidio alumni, too. Graduating C8’s could take on the initiative to plan/host a business case competition at the school next year – enabling us to stay engaged with the community and give back, while providing BGI students a chance to strut their stuff, without the added burden of planning/hosting the competition itself. I have no doubt we’d publish the grading rubric ahead of time – and choose judges that have real-world experience in sustainable business. Thoughts?

    • I’m in.


  4. Posted by andrew on February 22, 2011 at 7:55 pm

    alex, i appreciate your succinct description of the competition and for proposing questions around the sustainable validity of the Leeds Net Impact Case Competition. i am still reflecting on this experience and undoubtedly i am grateful. the difficult challenge of transforming current business practices and mindsets is now real.

    an excerpt from the images of organization helps frame our current challenge and potentially what can be expected: bringing a system to the edge of chaos is typically meet with much tension between where it needs to be and where it currently is; however consistently utilizing new contexts, new actions, and new understandings will eventually transform the system.

    forward on!


  5. First of all, congrats to the BGI teams for making it as far as they did, despite a rigged competition.

    2nd: Great post Alex!

    3rd: this sucks!

    4th: Glad to hear some people want to do something about it. I think that while having BGI organize its own sustainable business case competition may seem a daunting, logistically complex task (As a former BGI team participant from years past, I can tell you from direct experience, the logistics are NO PICNIC!) I still think the payoffs could be huge. I hope BGI really does consider taking this on. It might also make sense, in the interests of pragmatism, to see about partnering with other MBA programs in the Seattle area: Foster School of Business (UW) and Albers (Seattle U.) – I hope this initiative takes off!


  6. Posted by masai on February 23, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    Alex, it takes a lot of courage to take a stand and say that “the emperor has no clothes”. This is s testament to your strong leadership capacities. Thank you for caring so much about sustainability, and for wanting to engage the collective to fix a broken system. Your posting has already generated great conversation and problem solving.

    This deserves a ‘shout-out’ in opening circle!


  7. Posted by Bob on February 23, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    Change is not easy, particularly when mental models are so strong around business profit being compromised by sustainability. Wal-Mart has been moving hard toward sustainability (environmentally, at least), and there are few who would mistake that for an altruistic tree-hugger motivation. What do they get that others still do not? Mental models are changing, and yet social/stakeholder impacts are not yet a large-scale part of that change.

    Teams knew going in that this case competition has so far not understood the social impact piece of the equation, and still they went that direction. This not selling out takes guts. It also means it is getting easier for the next teams, as these seeds planted this year and in past competitions take root.

    First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you…


  8. Posted by Dave on February 23, 2011 at 8:11 pm

    I see throughout this article that you are pissed off. Mainly I see that because you did not fully think about your arguments. I was a volunteer at this event last year and am privy to the inner workings. The sponsor (in this case Ball Corp) is the primary driver of the competition subject and is the primary driver of who is declared the winner. The people judging this competition are mainly CEOs of major public and private firms, which gives them the right to judge the BUSINESS FEASIBILITY of all the ideas from the teams. Yes, this case is about sustainability, but it is about making the BUSINESS CASE for sustainability. BGI was unlucky that a judge had a poor experience implementing their idea. The judges also did not have the benefit of time and the internet to see that the other teams ideas existed already.

    Additionally, the purpose of this competition is not to win. Net Impact and Leeds put this competition together to allow talented MBAs from across the country to produce innovative ideas to solve real business problems. I think that this goal was met. The amount of teams and companies that participate and the great ideas that come from this event is what makes this a premier event.

    Lastly, I will respond to your three major lessons. Yes, there is a long way to go in the sustainability industry. Propose a better judging system instead of just reflecting that this one doesn’t work. If Net Impact brands an event that focuses on sustainability over the importance of business feasibility then that will truly be greenwashing. There needs to be a balance between running a business and being sustainable and that should be a part of this competition.


    • Thank you Dave for your response. I was a member of the BGI team that went to the competition last year and was blown away by how well run it was. You and the other volunteers did a fantastic job.

      You are correct that the CEOs have the right to judge the business feasibility of the ideas from the teams, but I’m worried about how quickly you disregard the importance of sustainability in a competition seeking solutions to sustainability problems. If the ideas created to solve the problem make a ton of money (great business) but destroy the environment (unsustainable), is that still successful in the eyes of this competition?

      And should the sponsor of the competition have that much power over who is declared the winner? If that’s the case, why have more than one judge in the first place? I think if this is being branded as a Net Impact event that a representative from there should be a final judge as well (please correct me if this is already the case) in order to bring in someone more experienced with sustainability.

      For the students competing I think the entire point of a competition is to win. Why compete at all if money and bragging rights weren’t on the line? And for the sponsors, beyond new ideas, they get to announce their support for a sustainability competition on their CSR blogs. You are right that the competition creates ideas to business problems, but these are business sustainability problems. As Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” We can’t continue to fall to traditional business values to fix problems created by those same values. That’s where the importance of sustainability and diverse viewpoints on the judging panel comes in.

      Finally, I did propose a better judging system. Use a defined rubric with sustainability weighed equally as much as profitability. Follow the link about the Wal-Mart Business Challenge and you will see what I’m talking about. By using a rubric like that each judge has equal say in deciding the winners, and the competition itself can prove how important it views sustainability or viability to be. And people like me will shut up and move on to the next thing we find annoying.

      If Net Impact runs an event that focuses on sustainability over business feasibility it would be overly optimistic, not greenwashing. Greenwashing is when you claim something is sustainable when the reality proves otherwise.

      Beyond that, I absolutely agree 100% with your last statement. “There needs to be a balance between running a business and being sustainable and that should be a part of this competition.” Well said.


    • If the goal isn’t to win, then Leeds and Net Impact need to rebrand this as a WORKSHOP and not a competition.

      More importantly though, if I were a Leeds student, I would be extremely irritated about others using the name of an organization that I’m a part of to greenwash their businesses. I partially understand the tone of your post, Dave, but moreso, I’m confused why you aren’t more upset about the events inspiring this blog post.


    • Posted by Greg Lotakis on February 23, 2011 at 11:30 pm


      Thank you for putting yourself into this conversation. I appreciate your points, as well as Alex, and can find support in things you have both said.

      A couple of further thoughts and I plan to follow up with a few of those that helped run the competition (Matt & Will) so these ideas don’t stay here:
      1/ Make sure feedback for the final 5 teams is provided as it was during the semi-final round. This continues the learning process for teams and gives them a chance to understand what they could have done better.

      While it may not be about winning (unless you thought you were in the top three and potentially paid for your trip to Boulder) it should certainly be about learning.

      Also, to place at a competition for BGI means quite a bit more for us than it may mean for a big name school. Put yourself in our shoes and you may have a different perspective.

      2/ Scoring rubric shared and understood by judges, volunteers, and participants.

      I walked away from the final round after seeing 3 of the 4 other teams present feeling very good about our chances for a top 3 finish based on: Addressing the case with a viable solution, considering and incorporating the twist, presenting cleanly in the given time, and handling question and answer professionally and with little issue.

      3/ Sustainability as a critical component of the competition. Without being too critical of other teams the concept of a triple bottom line is still being missed by many. Not only do we need to stretch our judges… we need to stretch our participants.

      I had a great weekend in Boulder. Not getting our name called on Saturday night stung. I felt we earned a spot in the top three for sure based on how we performed and the presentations I saw – such is life. My team and I (and school) will absolutely be preparing next year’s cohort for this competition if a team chooses to enter. My hope is that we will continue to compete at these even if it means pounding sustainability into businesses.

      All the best and please feel free to contact me if you wish to take this conversation off-line.
      907-748-2158 cell


  9. Being pissed is a good start, but it’s only a start. Anger, even when righteous, only makes us smaller in the end. With that in mind, I don’t see a lot of anger in your post, Alex. I see passion.

    Participating in business school competitions is a great way to experience the “real world” and encounter the kind of limited vision thinking that dominates business today. As Dave so aptly points out, CEO’s have the ability to cut through it all and focus on the bottom line. I believe the kind of change we’re seeking in business leadership attempts to counter this single-minded thinking (a la the 3BL, for example). BGI, in many ways, produces systems thinkers ahead of the curve. And, it can sometimes be frustrating to be ahead of the curve when you forget that’s where you are. When encounter people still mired in a “technology will save us” mindset, it becomes clear that there’s much work to be done.

    I support your right to be pissed, Alex. I also encourage you (and know you will) to keep fighting this fight with grace, humor, humility and determination. There’s far too much at stake to permit old-school thinking to go unchallenged.



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