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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University December 1, 2008 | Vol. 38 No. 13
SAIS Team Takes First Place in Thunderbird Challenge

Winners Caroline Levington, Victoria Wilson, Kimberly Wattrick, Sarah Austrin-Willis and Lauren Witlin create Olympic rings to pay tribute to China, the focus of one of its presentations as well as the site of the recent Olympics.
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By Felisa Klubes Neuringer

For the second year in a row, a team of international relations graduate students from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies finished in first place competing in the Sustainable Innovation Summit Challenge hosted by Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Ariz.

The overall competition included 138 teams representing 47 universities in 11 countries.

SAIS was the only non-MBA school participant among the 10 teams from around the world competing in the final round. An MBA team from Thunderbird won second prize, and a team from Queens School of Business in Canada won third prize. The winners were announced Nov. 15 at an awards dinner capping the competition, which reflected a commitment to economically, environmentally and socially sound business practices.

Sarah Austrin-Willis, Caroline Levington, Kimberly Wattrick, Victoria Wilson and Lauren Witlin made up the first-place SAIS team, taking home a $20,000 prize. They were the only all-women team participating in the finals, which called for the students to develop innovative and sustainable business solutions addressing real-life challenges presented by the two global sponsors, Johnson & Johnson and EcoVerdance.

Each posed a question. EcoVerdance asked, What is the best model for implementing a for- profit business that will address food security in sub-Saharan Africa, carbon dioxide reduction capability and nitrogen runoff, and offer an attractive return to investors? Johnson & Johnson asked, What strategies should our pharmaceutical business units in China adopt to assure that they attract, develop and retain a diverse and vibrant pool of leaders to accomplish their goal of caring for the health and well-being of every local community in the country?

For EcoVerdance, the SAIS team proposed utilizing pre-existing social networks to address sub-Saharan African food security. The group identified buying scale, access to credit and information asymmetries as the greatest barriers to increased farm productivity. They therefore suggested working with farmers' groups, such as the Sabatia Small Scale Farmers Association; microfinance institutions, such as the Equity Building Society of Kenya; and technical assistance providers to develop a model addressing the challenges. Once piloted in Kenya, the team said, their model could easily be scaled throughout the region.

For Johnson & Johnson, the team developed a three-pronged approach that leveraged social capital to create human capital. Given the entrance of the single-child generation into China's work force, the students' focus--from the attraction phase all the way through to the retention phase--was on team building. Ultimately, the SAIS students proposed a strategy that utilized innovative competition, online professional networking through an intranet Web site and the creation of a team culture through intramural sports and community development teams.

Kimberly Wattrick, the SAIS team captain, said that although the questions were very different, her team focused on answering both by demonstrating that a company can create a sustainable venture by building its social capital. "The competition was challenging, but I believe the holistic SAIS education truly set us apart," she said. "Drawing on our understanding of culture, economics and foreign languages, we were able to propose unconventional yet highly effective solutions to the sponsor questions."

Neil Currie, a judge from Johnson & Johnson, said, "The winning team combined a good overall strategic approach to their presentations, gave details and stuck their necks out and identified the focus areas and priorities they recommended. They went a step beyond the rest of the group," he said.

EcoVerdance executives surprised final-round participants by giving each 1,000 shares in their company.


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