First Year Review: Case Competitions!
HI everyone, I’m Erik and I’m the current president of the Energy and Cleantech Club. Before coming to Tepper, I did supply chain management for four years in the Marine Corps. This summer, I’ll be interning at Oriden Power, a renewable energy developer located here in Pittsburgh.
Today I’ll be talking about case competitions, where teams of business school students compete against each other to solve a business problem. I’ll recap each of them below individually, but overall, I enjoyed the case competitions and the learning and networking opportunities that came along with them. Not only did they give me a way to apply what I was learning in class to real life (well, slightly fictionalized) business problems, they also let me get to know my classmates who were also interested in energy outside of class. This was super valuable in a year when our usual types of socializing were less prevalent.
As career switcher, case competitions gave me examples of concrete problems in the energy space that I had worked through for my interviews. While recruiters understand that not everyone will have perfectly applicable work experience, having one or two quick anecdotes about case problems to work into interviews is a great way to show that you’re interested in the industry and already know a fair bit about it.
Duke Energy in Emerging Markets Case Competition
This is usually the first case competition of the year, and historically has the highest total prize money, so it draws a pretty big crowd. Each year, Duke partners with an energy company in a less developed country and challenges teams to solve one of their major issues. Two years ago, that problem was electrifying remote areas of Nigeria. This past year, it was shifting Pakistan’s electric grid towards renewable energy by deploying 1GW of renewable energy by 2030. They hoped to accomplish this while keeping costs down and avoiding added congestion to Pakistan’s already fragile grid.
For me, this was an excellent introduction to project finance and modeling cash flows from a series of projects. It confirmed my interest in going into renewable energy development after graduation. Modeling a series of wind farms gave me some insights into the importance of cost declines in wind turbines over time, as well as how changing the debt-to-equity ratio of a project can affect its profitability. I talked about this case competition the most in recruiting. It helped me illustrate to recruiters that I had at least a surface level understanding of project finance.
In a normal year, we would have gotten to travel to Durham, North Carolina for the finals. We missed out on that opportunity this year, so I’ll be trying for it again next year as I personally think Durham is a severely underrated city with an amazing food scene.
Tepper Cleantech Case Competition (TC3)
Tepper’s home competition! This one was different from any other competition I did last fall because it focused on cleantech instead of strictly energy. It was also a venture capital competition, where we were tasked with finding a small portfolio of companies to recommend for a local VC firm to invest in for their Series A or Series B. This was a bit of a challenge since most companies in that stage of life don’t have a ton of public information, and sometimes it's hard to know whether companies are even still operating. One really cool thing about this one was seeing how willing founders were to talk about their companies, even to some random MBA student just on a team for a competition.
I also came into the competition not even really understanding how the VC and startup world worked (other than how it's portrayed in HBO’s Silicon Valley). The Tepper Case Competition gave me a crash course in a completely new area of business.
I’m currently working with the rest of the ECTC board on the next edition of TC3 next fall, and we’re really excited to be able to share more information about that as it comes closer.
Tuck Renewable Energy Finance Challenge
Like the Duke Energy in Emerging Markets Case Competition, this competition had two distinct parts: An acquisition recommendation for an oil company looking to pivot to renewable energy and an overall business strategy document supporting that overall transition plan.
Modeling an acquisition was something I also had no experience with, so getting to work with a valuation for a company was really interesting, and gave me some practice for when I had to do it for my finance class later in the semester.
Carnegie Mellon University VentureWell Energy Hackathon
While not strictly a case competition, and nowhere near business school-focused, I’m including this one to show the breadth of things you’re able to get involved in at CMU across the entire campus.
Every fall, the CMU Scott Energy Institute hosts a 24-hour long hackathon bringing together engineers, policy students, and the occasional MBA who wanders through to come up with technical solutions to real-world energy problems. Teams can’t be made up entirely of graduate students from the same program, forcing a level of collaboration that I didn’t see in other competitions.
This year, our three potential problems were energy use optimization for Giant Eagle, frequency regulation for Duquesne Light Company, and creating a renewable energy development dashboard for African countries for the World Bank.
As a brand-new MBA student, I didn’t have a huge network across campus, but the organizers randomly assigned people without teams to work together. I got to work with an energy policy student, a mechanical engineering masters student, and a materials science PhD student. Since I was the only without any real technical background, I felt a bit out of place for the first few hours while the rest of the team was discussing how to code and deploy the application. My ability to contribute, however, came from all the conversations I’d been having with renewable energy developers over the first months of business school. Through those, I was able to figure out what the major pain points in development were, and help the rest of the team think through what information needed to be presented on a dashboard to alleviate those issues.
The compressed timeline and virtual nature of the hackathon was a bit of a weird experience. Instead of working asynchronously over a few days, it was close to 20 hours sitting at my desk with Zoom on and people occasionally talking to each other. I really enjoyed it though, and will almost certainly be doing it again next year.
Michigan Renewable Energy Case Competition
Second time going to the finals! This one was a lot closer to the Duke problem than the others, but focused on the United States this time. We were also supposed to explicitly incorporate a focus on energy equity - making electricity reliable, inexpensive, and clean for all.
One really cool aspect of this competition was the integration of the sponsors into the event. Even though everything was done virtually, the host school did a great job setting up coffee chats with representatives from all the sponsors of the competition. This let me have a really good conversation with a recent MBA grad working at EDF Renewables, which hadn’t fully been on my radar prior to hearing about their work and company culture.
Net Impact Case Competition
As much as I’m an absolute energy nerd and love modeling cash flows of energy projects, this one may have been my favorite overall. This is also the only one where I have photographic evidence of having done it.
Net Impact is a national organization whose mission is to inspire and equip emerging leaders to build a more just and sustainable world. They have chapters at most major
MBA programs, as well as some undergraduate chapters and a number of professional chapters in major cities. The University of Colorado, Boulder hosted this case competition and tasked us with developing a plan to fully vaccinate a fictional European country against COVID-19. We were given a host of economic, political, and social constraints as well as constraints over when we would be able to obtain which vaccines, and in which amounts.
For the finals, we were told to ignore all of our work in the first round (because it had been successful!) and to focus instead on combating vaccine hesitancy through a variety of taxes, subsidies, restrictions, and incentives.
We took a hybrid approach to this problem - looking at which vaccines and which incentives to use by developing a constrained linear model (directly from one of our classes) while at the same time applying some of what we learned in marketing to develop personas for different categories of vaccine skeptic and applying different tactics to persuade each persona.
Because we ended up working on the project for so long (October to March!), we ended up getting to know each other really well - something that has been a little more challenging in a fully Zoom world. We also developed a pretty effective team culture that was hard to get from the shorter-term case competitions.
Some people may tell you that doing case competitions every other weekend during the fall semester is “unsustainable” or “will lead to burn out,” but I’m going to disagree. It’s an amazing way for you to bond with your classmates who have similar interests (or who you’ve talked into filling out the roster). It’s also a great way to apply the academic concepts from your classes using real-world (or slightly fictionalized) examples while generating good stories for your interviews.