When Michael Dugbater was considering where he’d like to pursue graduate studies, he noticed something.
Specifically, he noticed the Carol A. Ammon Case Competition, held each year for graduate students in the Alfred Lerner School of Business and Economics at the University of Delaware. Student teams study a regional business or organization and vie to come up with the most compelling plan to meet that business’s needs and goals.
“It was actually one of the defining factors for me to choose UD ahead of any other school that I applied to,” Dugbater said.
His enthusiasm paid off. Not only did he get the experience, but when the competition wrapped up on March 17, Dugbater’s team, Diverse 4, was announced as the winner of the contest and a $2,500 prize.
“There were smiles all over, because we had put in a lot of work and a lot of hours,” Dugbater said, calling it a surreal feeling.
The team’s name stems from the wide range of experience and backgrounds the different members brought – about as diverse a group as you’re likely to find anywhere.
Dugbater studied business administration and accounting in his home country of Ghana, where he also earned a master’s in business administration.
Teammate Trevor Mario Waring earned a bachelor’s in electronics and communication engineering in his native India, then spent some time working in software and information technology before pursuing graduate studies.
Charles Chifamba, of Zimbabwe, studied political science and economics in South Africa. He also had marketing experience.
Winfred Amewonor Etsey, of Ghana, focused on geoscience for his bachelor’s, then earned a master’s in finance.
Where they all converged was at Lerner, where they are in the master’s program for business analytics and information management. There, the group of friends agreed to take on the case competition challenge together.
They analyzed the business of another Lerner alum, Maya Nazareth, who launched Alchemize Fightwear in 2019 when she was an international business student. With encouragement and support from Horn Entrepreneurship at Lerner, she built her business selling martial arts gear tailored for women, a story told earlier this year in a series about Horn alumni. She won startup funding in a Horn competition, and the business, now based in Philadelphia, grew rapidly.
An avid practitioner of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Nazareth said, “I was obsessed with jiu jitsu. I just wanted to train all the time.” But martial arts is male dominated, and “there just wasn’t a lot of gear that was thoughtfully designed for women.” There’s more such gear now thanks to Alchemize Fightwear, which donates part of its profits toward efforts to improve women’s safety.
Other businesses featured in the case competition have included Rent the Runway, local favorite Dogfish Head Brewery, and the Down Syndrome Association of Delaware, to name a few.
Kurt Norder, assistant professor of management and the Lerner faculty member who picked Alchemize Fightwear for the competition, said he was looking for a business that wasn’t in a simple context.
“I was looking for a company that was complex enough to make the competition challenging, connected to the UD community, and making a broader positive impact,” he said.
Twelve teams competed, with 12 Lerner alumni judges in the first round, said Amy Estey, who has long organized the competition (and is not to be confused with Winfred Etsey, whose surname looks identical if you read it too fast).
The judges, working virtually, reviewed three presentations each and winnowed the competitors down to three teams for the final round, she said.
“It’s a little bit like watching March Madness,” Amy Estey said. “I call it our own March Madness, or the Olympics, because in every one of those competitions, [for] one or two people, their stars really come out.”
The case students examine is like a story, Estey said, revolving around a business making a specific decision. Teams learn information about the company, its situation and the industry, and come up with a recommendation for what the business owner should do.
The students also got a firsthand introduction to the topic. The team of instructors at Elite Jiu Jitsu in Newark, where Nazareth had trained as a student, allowed students to watch and participate to get a feel for the grappling nature of the sport, according to Norder.
Team Diverse 4 came into the contest with most of its members ready for the experience, like a chance to practice public speaking, but not hoping for too much.
“We thought it was going to be super difficult for us to win,” Dugbater said, and most of the others concurred, although Winfred Etsey maintained he had a good feeling going in.
They had to do a ton of research, for one thing. Initially, Waring said, they had no clue what the apparel industry was like, the challenges it faces, and what they were even supposed to be looking for.
This was on top of all the other schoolwork they had to do, and they only had a couple of weeks to work on their project. They couldn’t even all meet at the same time, so they used tools like Google Docs and WhatsApp to collaborate, sometimes working until late at night.
“It was so overwhelming,” Dugbater said.
But after they made it to the final round, their confidence increased quite a bit. They’d dived into researching what they could about the apparel industry and felt their material was solid. They also thought their final presentation went well.
That didn’t mean they weren’t nervous, Dugbater admitted. “You never know what’s going to happen on the final day.”
After the third place team is announced, Amy Estey said, “everything gets really tense.” Both teams wait to hear who gets second, and by extension who the winner will be.
This year, Estey looked over as second place was announced and it dawned on Diverse 4 that they were the winners. They broke into “this spontaneous group hug that was just incredible,” she said.
“That was really fun to be recognized for our efforts,” Chifamba said.
One of the final three judges was Nazareth herself. She said all the teams’ pitches were really well done and very insightful.
“People were really well prepared. I think what made the winning team stand out is that they did their own market research,” Nazareth said. And, she added, “what I really liked about their presentation is they had a timeline of how we would roll out those changes.”
Nazareth said she’s more of a doer, so it was helpful to get an academic perspective on how to use different tools and analysis methods.
For his part, Dugbater said, he was inspired by Nazareth’s story of founding the company at such a young age, and the astronomical growth she’s built since.
Diverse 4 also valued the time of learning to work together as a team, and growing in understanding of what is required for business strategy.
“I had some experience in the field already,” Winfred Etsey said. “But I think back home, it’s quite different from (how) it is here, so this competition actually exposed me to how things work here in the United States.”