Business Schools

The Great Race


A trip to India and a final lap around the business-plan-competition track leave a Kenan-Flagler MBA winded

My vision of the second half of the second year of my MBA program never wavered during the grueling exams of the first half of my first year. I'd fantasize rolling out of bed at 10 a.m., just in time to walk out and catch the sunlight beaming onto my deck, where I'd enjoy a leisurely breakfast of fresh strawberries, scrambled eggs, and the biscuits I'd had time to bake the evening before. My cell phone would chirp at around noon—it was always tough to guess who wanted to play tennis or golf in the middle of the day, but it was important to schedule these things a few hours in advance so I could take a nap beforehand. A quick trip to the links and then it was off to the bank to make a withdrawal so I could take another bath in my signing bonus.

I think the death of that dream began when I chose not to take a summer internship with a large, prestigious employer, and opted instead to go to India in between my third and fourth mods, and to launch a new business. It turns out the second half of my second year has been an all-out sprint to a finish line that is just barely illuminated by my non-traditional career interests and obscured by the thick fog of recession.

Around the World in 12 Days

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler Business School offers the opportunity to take Global Immersion Elective (GIE) courses that allow you to study up on a country and culture and then travel there in a group to visit sights and businesses. I enrolled in this year's India GIE. Every other week a group of first- and second-year students got to learn about Indian culture, history, and modern-day business practices. We were all required to research various businesses and report on them—the interesting twist is that every business we researched was one we would actually get to visit during spring break. We had 12 days in India to combine business and pleasure, drinking in India's rich culture and hot, sticky air.

India was a glorious country to visit; the Taj Mahal and Elephanta Caves took our breath away, but ultimately it was the people at the companies we visited that left us most impressed. I am far from an expert, having only spent several days immersed in Indian business culture, but I feel India is at the forefront of a "knowledge economy" revolution. While it was at times dismaying to notice infrastructure challenges, and at other times daunting to imagine trying to set up an American-run business in India, the deep talent base embedded in several of the companies we visited led to many new ideas for future business endeavors. Trips to Delhi, Mumbai, and Agra yielded hundreds of memories and many fantastic relationships among our group—it was the highlight of my year.

We also had some less conventional experiences. For instance, one of my classmates was getting married in Mumbai when we were in town and hosted us at his wedding. Myself and two students who were part of my first-year study group, and another student who was on the GIE with me, all bumped into each other for an impromptu reunion on the dance floor.

It was a well-run trip, the perfect balance of education and entertainment, but life left me no time to recover, as I'd already committed to a major undertaking before my travels.

Putting the Business in Business School

Despite my tongue-in-cheek opening paragraph, I've never had designs on becoming an I-banker or McKinsey consultant, as much as I respect the hard work and intelligence that my colleagues who have successfully pursued those posts have demonstrated. When it comes down to it, that's just not who I am.

My chance to combine creativity, sustainability, general management, and a permanent life in North Carolina presented itself in our Launch the Venture class—a class where MBAs can start their own business or help someone else launch theirs. I entered the class as an MBA volunteer to work on a friend's project, which quickly turned into our potential post-graduation jobs.

The company involves some very cool green technology that is applied to sports gear and ultimately packaged as a fashionable new brand. We brought in three classmates who were perfect fits for the project and began the business plan writing process, as well as the business plan competition process. Because Launch the Venture is absolutely outstanding, we were able to rapidly accelerate our development and enter three business plan competitions right at their deadlines, despite our nascent state.

There is a business plan competition circuit and culture (BusinessWeek.com, 11/13/07), and for better or worse, I was the proverbial Yankee at the Nascar race. By the time we got to our first competition most people were on their fifth. By the time we made it to Rice University for the biggest prize money in the world ($675,000 distributed, with 32 qualifying teams drawn from 234 applicants), other teams had full-blown table displays while we didn't even have business cards. We showed up to the practice round wrinkled and casual; apparently students are supposed to wear suits.

This didn't stop our ragtag outfit from going all out in the first round by developing a new kind of presentation that specifically distinguishes our business from the crowd—that is, a company with an extraordinary management team that requires relatively little capital to play in a fun space with high exit multiples.

Top Contender

After the first day at Rice, the 36 teams were divided into three flights: 24 teams that did not move forward, six wild-card teams competing for one finalist spot, and six guaranteed finalists. After the first day, despite being about six months behind schedule, we qualified as a wild-card team.

Staying up late into the night making several rounds of changes to our presentation to address judges' input, we came in the second day and put on our best performance ever. At lunch, we were announced as the winner of the wild-card round! We were in the top seven with a chance to win the $125K grand prize. In college basketball terms, we were this year's Davidson or George Washington, a team on barely anyone's bracket that now had a chance to cut down the nets in Houston. We charged up to our practice room to prepare for our big performance, and interview with Fortune magazine.

Forty-five minutes later, one of our teammates was in the parking garage and given a clap on the shoulder by a sad-looking competitor who we'd befriended. "I can't believe they did that, I'm real sorry for you guys." My teammate assumed this person was joking around about our finals placement, and accepted the "mock" condolences, but as the next half-hour unfolded we discovered the shocking truth—the judges had miscounted a ballot and the recount moved us out of the winning spot. I was later told some judges called for another recount while others proposed two wild-card teams in the finals, but the organizers made a quick decision to drop us from the finals and then, making an honest mistake, failed to inform us of the decision.

We finished in eighth place, and despite getting a People's Choice award and a Top 3 Elevator Pitch award, we were miles away from generating significant seed capital. The good news is that we had a blast. The Rice competition was top-notch, and since then we've been approached by several generous and intelligent investors, so now it's time to discuss the future of our business as a team.

A Different Kind of Startup

There is a second-year MBA phenomenon that takes place which you are now about to become a part of—people start announcing pregnancies. My wife is due in August, with a baby boy!

Starting a company from scratch and starting a family are two exciting, rewarding, and daunting enterprises generally done separately—doing so concurrently will be a big challenge.

So it's back to the drawing board, which will get moved into another room because we're making space for the crib. It's time to either kick this business into overdrive or find a job, preferably one with health insurance.


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