One Team’s Journey in the 2024 Cornell Case Competition for Family Ownership

By Mia Huang PhD '25 and Vanessa Wang, MPS ’24

By: Staff
Four female students in a classroom.

The Cornell Team poses with their coach Stefanie Kyles, a global executive with CEO and board-level experience, at the 2024 Cornell Case Competition for Family Ownership.

Winning the Internal Case Competition

by Mia Huang PhD ’25

In October 2023, Rebecca Shao, MPS ’24, Vanessa Wang, MPS ’24, and I, after having met in Randy Allen’s NBA 5690 Consulting Essentials course, decided to participate in the internal selection of the second Cornell Case Competition for Family Ownership, an opportunity for graduate students to examine a family enterprise case up close.

The competition is organized by the Smith Family Business Initiative (SFBI) at Cornell’s SC Johnson College of Business. Even though all three had been involved in our own family businesses to some extent, this was our first time examining a family business from a bird’s-eye perspective. Upon receiving the case on the Pritzker family’s business—the most widely known element of which is the Hyatt Hotels—we were surprised to find how difficult it could be to manage and balance a family business with three to four generations, involving family members who all have unique interests and perspectives.

We targeted the case from three angles and examined the leader’s influence and expected governance; family members’ perspectives and sentiments toward the current governance; and societal influences and perceptions of the family’s business and leadership type. Then, we submitted our pitch. It was early November 2023 when the three of us received an email from the SFBI team informing us that we’d won first place out of four teams and would represent Cornell at the official case competition on February 10. We were thrilled to be the team that stood out. It was an honor and a great opportunity to represent our school in an intercollegiate case competition on a topic that was personally and professionally meaningful to us.

Tackling Part A of the Case

by Vanessa Wang, MPS ’24

Three female students preparing for a presentation in a classroom.
Vanessa Wang, Mia Huang, and Rebecca Shao prepare for its first-round presentation in a classroom at the Tata Innovation Center.

The case competition consisted of two rounds. Part A of the case was distributed a week before the event. Part B of the case was assigned to us on the first day of the competition after Part A presentations. We had one evening to prepare for a presentation the next morning. Before the release of Part A, we met with our coach, Stefanie Kyles, a global executive with CEO and board-level experience. To us, she was a beacon of guidance and expertise. The meetings were crucial in helping us prepare. We discussed strategies, potential angles to approach the case, and how to divide the workload based on our strengths. Stefanie emphasized the importance of understanding the unique dynamics of each family business.

With the advice from our coach fresh in our minds, we drafted a comprehensive project outline. This served as our road map, listing the key information we needed to address, the research required, and the arguments we planned to develop. We refined the outline continuously as we delved deeper into the case and gained new insights. Creating compelling slides was our next step. This involved conveying complex information engagingly. The case was on Flickr and how two brothers, owners of photo-sharing website SmugMug, were making the enormous decision to buy it from Verizon’s Oath division. We decided to approach the case like consultants, weaving a narrative that highlighted SmugMug’s strategic decision to acquire Flickr while offering solutions to enhance Flickr’s growth and profitability. Even though, according to the rules, we could not communicate with our coach during this preparation time, we knew that Stefanie was there to root for us.

Delivering Our First Presentation

by Vanessa Wang, MPS ’24

Three female students at a podium presenting in a classroom.
The Cornell team presents to judges during the first round of the competition.

The competition took place at the Verizon Executive Education Center at Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island in New York City. Standing before the judges and audience for our first presentation was a nerve-wracking experience, especially since we were presenting as the last group—based on the results of a lucky draw. Despite our nerves, we felt a sense of pride in our work and were eager to share our insights to the audience, which included the teams that had gone before us. Presenting last had its pros and cons. On one hand, it heightened our anxiety as we awaited our turn; on the other hand, it allowed us to focus on our preparation without being influenced by other teams’ presentations since teams were not allowed to watch any presentations until they had finished presenting.

Image of several judges listening to presentations.
Judges listen to first-round presentations.

The judges were deeply engaging during the Q&A session. It was evident they were evaluating not just our solutions, but our understanding of the complexities of family-owned businesses. Their feedback was insightful and challenged us to think deeper and refine our approach. After the first-round presentations, we were given an opportunity to chat with SmugMug/Flickr’s leaders, Don and Ben MacAskill. We were happy to learn that some of the strategies we proposed in our first presentation were exactly what they ended up doing—and that they worked. It was an eye-opening experience to be able to examine a case retrospectively, proposing recommendations and immediately getting to know some of the real-life outcomes.

The Looming Challenge: Undertaking Part B

by Mia Huang PhD ’25

After dinner that evening, the SFBI team released Part B of the case. It prompted us to consider the future direction for Flickr and ways to diversify and attract users from other communities. Stefanie was there to help us again onsite during an hour-long time all teams had with their coaches. We had an energetic discussion and brainstormed ways to expand Flickr’s membership portfolio and increase market traction. International penetration, subscription tier changes, and commercial channels were some of the topics we examined.

Several judges engage with students to provide feedback.
Brothers Don and Ben MacAskill of SmugMug and Flickr interact with students after the first round of presentations to answer questions in preparation for the second part of the competition.

As a PhD student in biomedical engineering, my background was drastically different from the other participants, who were mostly in business school. I asked myself what I could bring to the table. An idea came to me. Photographers were not the only ones taking pictures. Millions of researchers around the world were dying to showcase their beautiful scientific images with others. I shared this idea with the group. Stefanie encouraged us to think about feasibility, market size, and societal impacts. We provided several potential future directions and touched on subscription pricing strategy, market awareness, and user interface improvement, and then we ended on the idea of expansion into the scientific community. Finally, because the competition was about family businesses, we made sure to touch upon the effects of market expansion on family ownership and leadership structures.

Second Presentation

by Vanessa Wang, MPS ’24

Because of the time constraint, the second presentation felt markedly different from the first. With only one night to prepare, we worried that we might not cover as much as we wanted. However, with one presentation behind us, we were more confident than before and could better handle our nerves. We incorporated the feedback from our coach. We strengthened our arguments and polished our delivery.

The second panel of judges brought a fresh perspective, and they challenged us with different questions while also offering new insights. This panel seemed more focused on the feasibility and implementation of our recommendations, pushing us to defend our proposals with more concrete evidence and strategic thinking. We went third this round rather than last, and watching other teams’ presentations was enlightening, as we saw the diverse approaches and creative solutions envisioned by our peers.

Our Final Reflections

by Mia Huang PhD ’25

We were proud and relieved to come in third place out of six teams in this year’s Case Competition for Family Ownership. It was a rewarding competition where we tried our best to analyze a real case both retrospectively and prospectively. The interactions we had with the other teams, SFBI members, coaches, family business leaders, and school ambassadors were precious. We are grateful to those who made the event possible, and we are particularly thankful to each member of our team for their unwavering dedication to collaboration.

Competition judges smiling
Competition judges Ben MacAskill, COO of SmugMug and Flickr, and Petru Sandu, Elizabethtown College, at the final round presentations

About Mia Huang PhD ’25

Female student Mia Huang PhD '25

Mia Huang is a PhD candidate studying biomedical engineering at Cornell University. She completed her undergraduate study at Case Western Reserve University, majoring in biomedical engineering. She studies biomechanics and bone mechanobiology with a focus on osteoporosis and the effect of mechanical stimuli on bone remodeling, morphology, and cell signaling pathways. She has made significant contributions to the Scientific Communication Committee at the Orthopedic Research Society (ORS) and the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research’s undergraduate, graduate, and medical professionals cohort. Outside of the lab, Mia is president of InSITE New York and a senior associate in the Cornell Graduate Consulting Club. Mia studied piano performance at the Cleveland Institute of Music and loves playing cello, skiing, horseback riding, golfing, and painting.

About Vanessa Wang, MPS ’24

Female student Vanessa Wang, MPS ’24

Vanessa is in the MPS in Management program at Cornell University. She earned her bachelor’s degree at Brandeis University with a major in economics and a minor in mathematics. Vanessa is an associate at the Cornell Graduate Consulting Club, working with the company Recoup Wellness. Vanessa has been a pro tennis player since middle school and played varsity singles during high school. She was also a member of Brandeis equestrian team.