Published: Nov. 28, 2023

CU energy case comp team

It was important to create a solution that would benefit people, not just make a profit.

So, when four Leeds School of Business MBA students began creating a model for a prestigious case competition, they started with the true need: how to work collaboratively with farmers and community members to provide consistent, affordable energy sources and cold storage to communities in Nigeria.

“We realized early on that if we did not create community buy-in from the ground up that no matter how good the tech was, the business will fail,” said Erik Coler, one of the team members. “We decided to create a model that would work with local community leaders to run a cold storage business and provide consistent, affordable electricity to people's homes all being run entirely off a solar grid. The model also gives local farmers the ability to store their food and increase their incomes while providing affordable, better-quality food to their communities.”

Their model, and work to promote it, won the team a second place award in the annual International Duke University Energy in Emerging Markets Case competition on November 7, 2023. All students in the Clean Energy Pathway in the Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility (CESR) at Leeds, Mary Boling, Richard Swistara, Nathaniel Reynolds and Coler beat more than 60 teams to get to second place.

Gold bar section divider

“Participating in this competition was exhilarating, offering us the chance to engage with and learn from other top MBA programs while tackling a case that realistically modeled renewable energy implementation in emerging markets,”

said Swistara.

In the final round, they competed with the best MBA programs in the world: IESE, third highest ranked global MBA according to FT; Northwestern, the second highest ranked MBA program in the United States; York University, the highest ranked MBA program in Canada; and Cambridge University.

“We loved how this competition allowed us to use our creativity and business acumen to address a real-world problem,” said Boling. “We are very grateful to Duke University for creating this opportunity to not only develop a solution but also get feedback on that solution from industry leaders.”

Clean Energy Pathway prepares students

“CESR offers an MBA pathway in clean energy linked to recommended courses, experiential learning opportunities, networks and jobs,” said Kathryn Wendell, executive director of CESR. “We are proud of our students for competing among many highly regarded business school programs and landing in second place. This demonstrates not only the high caliber of our MBA students, but also the significance of our pathway in preparing students to drive business solutions to environmental and social challenges.”

Back in September, Julie Waggoner, director of operations at CESR, introduced the MBA students to each other. She suggested they’d make a great team for the highly competitive Duke competition that features three rounds of competition to find the most innovative business-based solutions to a real problem faced by Okra Solar, a company that makes mesh-grid products to bring affordable and reliable energy access to all.

“I’m not aware that a Leeds team has ever participated in this competition before, so it’s very exciting to see them go so far,” said Waggoner.

And according to Coler “it came down to the razor wire for the judges who extended the original time for scoring.”

Wendell said it’s clear that sustainability is an important focus at Leeds today. More students are interested in sustainability. More faculty are integrating sustainability themes into their research and teaching, and there is increasing collaboration on sustainability initiatives across CU Boulder and with the private sector.

She said CESR would like to support more students in participating in case competitions like this and, to the extent possible, help offset costs so financial constraints aren’t a barrier to students’ participation.

“Each team brought innovative and unique perspectives in solving impactful real-world energy issues,” said Reynolds. “What a great opportunity to think deeply about complex problems and meet amazing people.”