UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


MBA students apply leadership lessons in "Apprentice" style challenge


During the second “Apprentice-style” challenge of the Leadership Immersion Capstone Course, MBA students at UNC Kenan-Flagler competed in teams to design, produce and sell the most profitable product.
leadership immersion capstone course image
Each team received a startup fund of just $30 along with instructions to generate as much profit as possible through direct sales to consumers. The simple rules gave students maximum freedom to exercise their creativity. Their sales had to be based on a physical product, and they could only use cash on hand to purchase inventory and supplies. After multiple rounds of purchasing, product generation and sales, the team that delivered the most revenue in a three-day timeframe won.

“What I’m basically doing is creating a sand box that they can play in with a set of rules and a drive to keep to them focus and motivated,” said Matthew Pearsall, the organizational behavior professor who designed the challenge. “Everything that happens there is like jazz – it just evolves.”

The result: An extremely diverse set of products ideas that ranged from a pop-up carnival on the UNC Kenan-Flagler lawn to chicken curry lunches. The most successful teams took time during the brainstorming process to identify their unique strengths and design their products accordingly. One winning group leveraged a teammate’s previous career as a professional chef to bake and sell gourmet cupcakes.

“Typically in business school you have an educational environment with a lot of safeguards in place, but this competition is pretty much just figure out what you want to do and go do it,” said Todd Cobb (MBA ’13), who managed sales for the winning cupcake team. “Things like how we handled ourselves and how we reacted to our competitors came into play in a much more real-world way than anything I’ve done prior to it.”

Another team used its social network to form a profitable partnership with Stop Soldier Suicide, a non-profit organization co-founded by a UNC Kenan-Flagler student to connect soldiers to free mental health care. They told customers they would donate 20 percent of their revenue for one of their products, bottled water, to Stop Soldier Suicide. The organization’s mission resonated with both customers and the competing teams, which also donated all of their profits to Stop Soldier Suicide after the challenge for a total of $2,500.

“We felt great about giving to an organization that we know is doing good,” said team leader Jeremiah Meyers (MBA ’13). “It was also a smart, strategic decision that made our water more appealing.”

Overall, the challenge was designed to test students’ leadership, problem-solving and teamwork skills in a competitive, high-pressure situation. In addition to the stress of generating sales, teams had to adapt to changing conditions, such as when they received an email that designated a new team leader halfway through the challenge. These surprise twists highlighted the importance of dealing with adversity and unexpected challenges that occur in real-life work experiences.

“We focus on several critical leadership skills for future executives: problem-solving, the ability to influence and motivate others, and the ability to manage change,” said Pearsall. “When we look at career progression, the factors that become increasingly important over time are driving change and motivating others. These are the things that will make you stand out.”

After three days of planning, creating products and selling, teams debriefed the challenge with their classmates and executive coaches. In addition to learning from their competitors’ experiences through brief presentations, students received detailed, one-on-one feedback from executive coaches and team members. They focused on what they learned and how to apply it to future careers – instead of who won. In this scenario, everyone wins.

“The feedback component puts the level of learning on a whole different level,” said Cobb. “With executive coaches serving as both a sounding board and mediator, we were able to get to some really good dialogue.”

“It was an extremely valuable experience because it revealed a lot of our strengths as a team, but also areas that we’ll need to look out for when we go back to work full time,” he added. “You just couldn’t get that depth of feedback in a normal MBA class.”