For three intrepid teams of MBA/MA in Design Leadership students, the challenge was too good to pass up.
As the first-ever Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) entrants in the prestigious Rotman Business School Design Challenge (RDC), held annually at the University of Toronto, the task was great, but so, ultimately, would be the reward.
Over the weekend of February 9-10, a Carey/MICA team made the final round and presented to the judges, one of just seven to do so, of the 30 teams accepted to compete. Another MBA/MA team was honored for the most creative application video – a handmade "Claymation" team biopic and business analysis.
The genesis of the journey started with student Christine Alix (MBA/MA in Design Leadership 2019), who learned of the Challenge through her Design Strategy internship at Fidelity Labs, where her mentor – Design Strategy Director Christine Wheatley – was a Rotman graduate and former RDC director. Alix pitched the idea of entering the Challenge to both the Carey and MICA administrations. With their support, she then rallied her classmates.
“Our program focuses on the intersection of business and design,” said Alix. “We’re interested in bringing together the numbers that underlie business and the stories of the people that populate it. The Rotman Design Challenge is a great forum for that.”
Jesse Banwart (also MBA/MA in Design Leadership 2019) was part of the Carey team to reach the finals.
“Participating in this case competition was a very integral part of the whole MBA experience,” he said. “It especially helped that we had support from both of our schools to make it possible and [it was] something that was really fantastic.”
Added Alix, “We purposefully built teams that spanned the two years of the program, which created both great bonding and networking opportunities.” This inter-cohort collaboration also produced “a new crop of people to explore and design with,” she explained.
In addition to Alix and Banwart, the other MBA/MA in Design Leadership students who participated in the Challenge included: Sharad Baliyan (MBA/MA 2020), Frank Giammo (MBA/MA 2020), Kat Lee (MBA/MA 2020), Jessica Ray (MBA/MA 2020), Justin Rogers (MBA/MA 2019), Alycia Socia (MBA/MA 2020), Stephanie Ulman (MBA/MA 2020), Kyle Vaughn (MBA/MA 2019), Kat Ward (MBA/MA 2019), and Jerry Wertheim (MBA/MA 2020).
The challenge, supplied by sponsor Kingspan (a global leader in the manufacture of insulation and other building materials), centered on disrupting the construction industry and imagining how the company could re-align and modernize its digital practices using design thinking processes. Alix remembers it as both expansive in scope and rigorous in execution.
“None of my teammates were construction experts at the start,” she said. “We needed to get smart fast.” That led to (besides a comprehensive strategic plan) primary research, a visit to a construction site, interviewing experts in the field and end-users, and conducting a survey with more than 110 respondents.
“Our design research formed our response and pitch to the Challenge,” she observed. “In the Design Leadership program, we’re focused on ensuring that we’re not only building better systems, but that we’re building systems with the end-user, or the end-beneficiary, in mind. This was no exception.”
“It was really rewarding and really validating to be able to get up there [before the judges] and speak the idea that we had worked hard to put together our team,” added Banwart. “Our team really believed in the process that we had done to get to our solution and we believed in our research and … we knew what we were presenting and what we were talking about.
“One important key to this challenge more than others is that these are people that get who we are and what we do,” he continued. Many of the other case competitions are MBA focused, Banwart explained, and while some MBA students understand what design thinking is, “very few actually practice it. We felt understood, we felt heard, in this space.”
“This was a great opportunity for us to present to people who were very able to give us great feedback and that recognition is pretty special,” observed Alix. “To see “Team Blueprint” (Baliyan, Banwart, Giammo, and Ulman) presenting as one of the top seven teams was pretty much the highlight of my time [in the program]. It was validating because a lot of other top design schools were at the Rotman Challenge.
“If I was a student applying to the MBA/MA program, I would be glad to know that both Carey and MICA are so supportive of students, not only at the cohort level, but helping us get out into the world, present our work, and get a response from people. It is really special,” she added. “The Rotman Design Challenge was a fantastic complement to our existing coursework.”
The RDC is a unique event in that it allows students to put design theories into practice in a collaborative environment where they are supported by academics, professionals, and consultants from the fields of business and design. Top business and design schools worldwide consistently compete.