That first year, no one knew what to expect. A team of graduate business students was going to jump into a national "case" competition--a contest that involves intense research, analysis, strategy and presentation skills. But not just any competition, a national contest with grad students from some of the best business schools in the United States competing.
That Hopkins team--Jerome Alston, Helen Holton, Blair Johnson and coach Tina Rodriguez--not only competed in the 1994 National Black MBA Case Competition, it won it, firmly planting a seed that has flowered into a winning tradition.
Since that team competed, four other Hopkins case teams have gone on to compete, and three have brought home second-place honors against fierce competition from such programs as MIT, Duke, Stanford, Michigan and Wharton.
"I don't think any school nationwide has done as well over the last four or five years," said Stanley Gabor, dean of the School of Continuing Studies, which houses the university's Division of Business and Management. "I think it's incredible. And it's a credit to Hopkins."
Gabor was at a recent luncheon that brought together members from all of the Hopkins case teams to celebrate this year's team's success--it finished second--and to reflect on the program's overall success.
James Calvin, assistant professor of management and the case team faculty sponsor, concurred that there is now a solid foundation for future teams, who will have broad support to excel and demonstrate a range of analytical and problem-solving skills in real-world scenarios.
Like members of an elite military force, these case competition veterans have a special bond, even though some had never met each other before sitting down for lunch. Each of them had gone through the same thing, and they understood each other right away.
What they all went through was one month of intensive preparation, leading up to a presentation before a panel of leading and senior-level business professionals, who would probe them with questions and who would act as judges.
Each team has practically lived at the coach's house during the weeks leading up to the competition, poring over research material, making points, outlining arguments, tearing presentations apart, honing and refining, putting together slides to present its case.
"It really is the kind of experience that forces you to push beyond your comfort zone," said Helen Holton, a member of the first team, who later went on to win election in the 5th District to the Baltimore City Council.
It all started with that first year. Alston, Holton and Johnson came together to research and plan a national marketing campaign for a hair care product.
"We didn't know what to expect," Holton said.
It was Holton who had suggested that a certain professor she had might make a good coach. Holton didn't know it, but she couldn't have been more right. The professor, Tina Rodriguez, had been a high-profile business consultant for years, researching and preparing cases to solve difficult business problems.
She didn't have to be talked into it.
Department chair Jo Ellen Gray, who helped get the team going that first year, said she didn't know what to expect but thought it would be a good idea to compete. She didn't envision the effort and the success that lay ahead.
With a seasoned pro as a coach, and with a lot of hard work, the Hopkins team of 1994 won the competition. It did it by having a good case to present, and also by having an edge. When it came time to answer questions, the Hopkins team not only was prepared to answer the questions, it had color slides to illustrate its point. The other teams had black and white.
"That was a beautiful moment," Alston remembered.
Intense research, dogged preparation; these have come to be traits of Hopkins case competition teams.
Students must try out to make the team, and, this year, for the first time, there were additional students who formed a research squad--Terence Proctor, Patrick Ford and Oral Muir.
The presenters--John Williams, Stephan Jackson, Ronicsa Chambers and Michael Christian--had not only the benefit of the research team supporting them but also the support of alumni, who volunteered to watch a practice presentation and offer a critique.
This year's case: Predict the next major car manufacturer merger, backing up the answer with facts and analysis. The team placed its bet on Ford.
Jackson, 29, an assistant product manager at Black and Decker, said he realized once he got involved that this truly was a team effort with a budding tradition of excellence. That became clear when past participants watched a practice presentation and then grilled the team members.
How was that?
"Brutal," Jackson said with a smile.
Chambers, 30, an assistant product manager for DAP Inc., said faculty, staff and alumni listened to their case on a Monday, just four days before they presented the case competitively in Detroit. The feedback was tough, but important.
"We were like a different team on Friday," she said. "We were so much better."
The experience of researching and preparing a real world case gave Christian, 37, who operates his own real estate settlement firm, confidence not only in presenting but in solving problems. "To work through that, I feel like I can do anything," he said.
Williams, 29, is an insurance broker from Rockville who played middle linebacker at Morehouse College. He compared the intensity of college football with the case competition.
"It's definitely as intense" as football, he said. "You really have to push yourself, and push each other. This was a way to see if my skills were comparable to some of the best minds in the country."