Reflections of an Emerging Markets Institute case competition judge

By: Janice Endresen
nine nine case competition judges sitting around a conference table and looking at the camera

Judges for the Emerging Markets Institute 2019 Case Competition

By Ari Betof, Cornell Executive MBA Metro NY ’21

There has been a lot of streaming of the show “Top Chef” in our house during the pandemic. Without the ability to travel or go out to restaurants, we have taken solace in watching people struggle to make amazing food in beautiful locations. A defining feature of the seventeen Top Chef seasons is the behind-the-scenes look from both sides of the judges’ table—both the contestants and the experts evaluating the food. In that spirit, and as I approach the end of my two years as a Cornell Emerging Markets Institute (EMI) Fellow at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, I share my reflections on serving as an EMI Case Competition judge.

EMI Case Competition 2019 and 2020

 It has been a pleasure to serve as a case competition judge for the past two years. The Emerging Markets Institute‘s 2019 Case Competition, held at EMI’s Annual Conference in New York City, focused on a Chinese consulting company seeking to expand internationally in connection to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Judging was held over two rounds, with the initial phase based on a submitted presentation deck that was stripped of identifying team information. Finalists were selected to make live presentations in person or remotely. The winning team was from the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia, and the other three finalist teams were from CKGSB (China), Cornell University, and INSEAD (France/Singapore).

15 student case competition finalists dressed in business attire posing for a picture
Emerging Markets Institute 2019 Case Competition finalists at EMI’s 2019 conference

The 2020 Case Competition, held online in November 2020 as part of the Emerging Markets Conference 2020, was part of EMI’s ten-year celebration. Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, the competition focused on how emerging markets companies that are increasingly reliant on a globally interconnected supply chain are facing Covid-19—specifically in the pharmaceuticals industry. The winning team was from the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad and second place went to the team from the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore. Third place was awarded to the team from Universidad de los Andes in Colombia.

Case study and case competition

After completing coursework in two graduate degrees, including numerous cases, as well as teaching using cases as a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, it has been enjoyable and illuminating for me to be on the reviewing end of thoughtful case competition submissions. Some of my most important takeaways from this fellowship have come from listening to the wisdom and varying perspectives of others on the judging panel. This group, who pulled from a wealth of knowledge and lived experiences, included Johnson Advisory Council member Roberto Cañizares ’71, MBA ’74; Sofia Kalantzi, lecturer of economics at Johnson; Juana García, professor at the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia; Fernanda Cahen, visiting researcher at USC Marshall’s Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and an assistant professor of management at Centro Universitario FEI, Brazil; Sharyl Cross, director of the Kozmetsky Center and distinguished professor at St. Edward’s University; and Christina Valauri, MBA ’20, founding partner at Sagestone Advisory.

Beyond lessons gleaned from deliberations, one of the joys of reviewing several dozen case competition submissions from around the world was seeing the variety of frameworks and perspectives. Although the quality of submissions was consistently high, approaches taken by the teams were considerably different. Some of these differences were likely idiosyncratic. Submissions from teams in the same city or country varied—perspective, of course, is not only driven by geography, but it was elucidating to see themes in paradigm and style emerge across different regions.

Context and personal perspective

Some of these differences in approach related to personal insight. In 2019, teams from China approached the Belt and Road Initiative with a far different lens than teams from countries where substantial work was being funded by the Chinese government. We saw a similar trend in 2020 relating to the pharmaceutical industry, especially in India.

Context matters. So does a broader perspective. As Ronald A. Heifetz wrote in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World: “To diagnose a system or yourself while in the midst of action requires the ability to achieve some distance from those on-the-ground events. We use the metaphor of ‘getting on the balcony’ above the ‘dance floor’ to depict what it means to gain the distanced perspective you need to see what is really happening.”

There is an ability in the best of the case submissions—and certainly in the finalists’ presentations—to reflect a nuanced understanding to zoom out to look at broader implications. This does not strictly require direct experience, but teams clearly benefited from it. A lesson to carry even beyond the sterility of a case competition is the importance of contextual awareness and seeking local insights when addressing questions in our interconnected world.

I have thought a lot about my direct experience this past year as COVID-19 has spread around the world—classes and conferences have been held virtually, and our program’s international trip was cancelled. At the same time, I have been reflecting on the privilege of my educational opportunities.

My education has been overwhelmingly U.S.-based in geography, pedagogy, and curricular focus, even as I have often sought out an international perspective. After a traditional American suburban public-school education, in high school I attended an international boarding and day school outside of Philadelphia with students from more than forty countries. I then enrolled at a small, liberal arts college in North Carolina for my undergraduate studies, where I majored in mathematics and physics and was part of an interdisciplinary honors program. In 2011, I completed a doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit organizational and financial sustainability. Two years ago, I enrolled in Johnson’s Cornell Executive MBA Metro NY program.

My only extended formal education outside of the United States was when I spent a semester studying at Sydney University in Australia. That experience was eye-opening—there were more students sitting in a mathematics seminar than the total of enrolled students in my undergraduate college. I found that Australian and American higher education are just variations on a theme, but the differences were still illustrative. I left the country deeply influenced by an aboriginal studies course I took less than three years after the first National Sorry Day, with the backdrop of national debate about reparations.

I have spent much of my professional life working for and consulting international independent schools and institutions of higher education. Earlier in my career and before COVID-19, I regularly traveled internationally, initially with a focus on admissions and then as a fundraiser. Soon after starting our consulting practice, I spent a year serving as senior advisor to the New England Association of Schools and College’s (NEASC) Commission on International Education. As our firm Mission & Data has grown, we have worked with numerous international schools based both in the United States and abroad. In addition, I serve as chief advancement officer for Minerva Institute for Research and Scholarship, with a focus on our flagship undergraduate program that includes students moving as cohorts through seven cities around the world over four years.

Implications for American MBA programs

For all of the progress that has been made in top American MBA offerings, there is still much more work to be done to weave an international thread through the fabric of the program. There is a growing awareness of the importance of using cases and articles that reflect diverse leadership and focus on different areas of the world. It is still only a fraction of the course content and not yet widely seen as an essential element of overall program design. Even less of this content comes from emerging markets, especially those other than China. Overwhelmingly, we think about U.S.-headquartered organizations or multinationals with a sizable American footprint. There is little content from Africa, South America, and the Middle East among the myriad of other geographies. When we do focus on international context, it still is too often from an American lens and with our biases unchecked. Courses touch upon cultural competencies, cultural context, and geopolitical dynamics, but we rarely do much more than scratch the surface. Without question, there is only so much sand that can be put into the sandbag of an academic program.

I would argue that familiarity with the spectrum of international markets, including emerging markets, is a core competency alongside finance, accounting, strategy, marketing, leadership, etc. Such understanding is essential in an interconnected world. It impacts almost every industry every day. Some of us will choose to dive deeper. I am grateful for Cornell’s Emerging Markets Institute and the opportunities this program offered me over the past two years.

As MBA programs look to craft the perfect progression and flavors, no graduate will be an expert in all things. But they must be prepared to show versatility in the kitchen. If they do not understand how to cook bilton from South Africa, shawarma from the UAE, or pabellon criollo from Venezuela, they may be asked to “pack your knife and go” when competing on a world stage.

About Ari Betof, Cornell Executive MBA Metro NY ’21

headshot of Ari Betof

Ari Betof is a co-founder and partner of Mission & Data, a custom data products and integrated consulting services firm, and chief advancement officer at the Minerva Institute for Research & Scholarship. He is a leading thinker and consultant in the areas of organizational stewardship and nonprofit financial sustainability. Betof has been an instructor in the University of Pennsylvania’s Mid-Career Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership and served as a mentor in Harvard University’s School Leadership Program. He recently completed the Cornell Executive MBA Metro NY program at Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, where he was an Emerging Markets Institute Fellow.