The MIT Sloan Challenge:

Planning, Execution and Analysis of a Student-Run Networking Event


Jennifer Houser

B.A. Economics

Haverford College, 1990

and Felipe Payet

B.A. Economics

Yale University, 1991

Submitted to the Alfred P. Sloan School of Management

in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of

Master of Business Administration

at the

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

May 1999

 1999 Jennifer Houser and Felipe Payet. All rights reserved.

The authors hereby grant to MIT permission to reproduce
and to distribute publicly paper and electronic
copies of this thesis document in whole or in part.

Signature of Authors______

Alfred P. Sloan School of Management

May 7, 1999

Certified by______

Nader Tavassoli

Assistant Professor of Management

Thesis Supervisor

Accepted by______

Lawrence S. Abeln

Director, The Master's Program

The MIT Sloan Challenge:

Planning, Execution and Analysis of a Student-Run Networking Event


Jennifer Houser and Felipe Payet

Submitted to the Alfred P. Sloan School of Management

on May 7, 1999 in partial fulfillment of the requirements

for the degree of Master of Business Administration


This thesis focuses on the management of a MIT Sloan School of Management fundraising event benefiting a local non-profit charity. The thesis consists of documenting and analyzing the process of creating and executing the event. In the spring of 1998, a group of Sloan students created and hosted the first annual MIT Sloan Challenge -- a business case competition pitting teams of students, business leaders, and faculty against one another. The second Sloan Challenge was held in the spring of 1999, with the organizing team implementing various process improvements for the program.

We focus on the managerial issues surrounding the structuring and execution of the event, including:

-Building a management structure that best supports the event and its goals

-Challenges to and stresses on that working structure

-Changes to the management structure based on previous and on-going experience

-Recommendations for a sustainable management structure

Thesis Supervisor: Nader Tavassoli

Assistant Professor of Management

The MIT Sloan Challenge:

Planning, Execution and Analysis of a Student-Run Networking Event

Table of Contents


1998 - THE BIG EVENT......


Timing of event......



1999 - A NEW CHALLENGE......


Timing of event......





Timing of event......



APPENDIX: 1998 Organizational Chart......

APPENDIX: 1998 Sponsor List......

APPENDIX: 1999 Organizational Chart......

APPENDIX: 1999 Sponsor Categories......

APPENDIX: 10/6/98 Meeting Minutes......

APPENDIX: 1999 Mission Statement......

APPENDIX: 1999 Player Survey Results......

APPENDIX: Biographies of the Authors......

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What is the Challenge? What the thesis is and isn't.

The MIT Sloan Challenge is a non-profit fundraising event organized by Sloan students. The goal of the Challenge is to strengthen the school's relationship with the business and local communities. The event consists of a fun, mobile, high-tech game where teams of players are essentially handed a startup/young business to manage for the day. The teams tackle a series of challenging real-world business situations that test essential business skills such as teambuilding, networking, negotiating, marketing, and selling. The competitors are some of the smartest and most successful business leaders, professors and MBA students in the world. Equipped with the latest mobile technologies, participants leave the comforts of the office to face business challenges that unfold throughout the day around the city of Boston. This year, the MIT Sloan Challenge benefits City Year Boston, a non-profit organization that unites young adults for a year of community service and leadership development.

The authors of this thesis are two of the four lead organizers of the 1999 MIT Sloan Challenge. This thesis documents the formulation and growth of our team's management strategy. It begins with a review of the management practices employed during last year's event. Then, it identifies key aspects to be changed this year and analyzes the outcome of those changes. It concludes by outlining recommendations based on this experience for future teams. This thesis is not meant to be a criticism of any organizers, past or present, rather it is a study of the effectiveness of the management strategies.


Why did it start? How was it run? Pros/cons of management

The idea for the MIT Sloan Challenge grew out of a discussion within Sloan's New Product and Venture Development (NPVD) Steering Committee in the Fall of 1997. Many committee members were having trouble getting the full-time marketing positions they wanted. As a result of their job search experiences, the committee members felt Sloan graduates were seen as "number crunchers with no team skills" by recruiters and executives. They felt that reputation was unfair, and wanted the school to be recognized for marketing and "soft" skills. They discussed ways to change Sloan's image and liked the idea of having a "big event" that would showcase the students' creativity and breadth of business skills.

The following list outlines and reviews some of the management practices used in the inaugural MIT Sloan Challenge.


No clear vision or leader (outside forces like pressure of getting job) or structure caused disorganization & frustration, buy-in, responsibility, meetings too large & unproductive, no planning/meeting/storage space

In early 1998, one of the most striking aspects of the planning team was the leadership void. The idea of having a "big event" was very attractive to many students, but each was hesitant to take that idea and create a clear vision for the event. This hesitancy was not due to a lack of interest or capability but more a result of the students' competing priorities. Most planners were second year students with an interest in high-tech marketing. The top priority for many of those students is finding a full-time job, and that job search heats up in the early spring. Schoolwork is also a priority because many of the specialized marketing courses, which are directly applicable to full-time jobs, are available only in the spring semester. Family and friends are yet another priority. Finally, many students want the spring to be a lighter workload before they return to the pressures of the "real world". These priorities do not leave much room for other activities like the Challenge.

As a result, early planning was slow and frustrating. Students were willing to tackle individual jobs, such as planning a reception or obtaining press coverage. However, it became obvious that someone had to define a strategy for the event and manage the implementation of it if there was to be an event at all. Finally, Paul Cheng, a second-year student and member of the NPVD Steering Committee, decided to take on that role. Jennifer Houser, a first-year student (sounds weird referring to myself this way - are we using 1st or 3rd person?), agreed to help Paul manage the event. One reason Paul was able to commit the time involved to plan an event of this scale was that the NPVD faculty advisor, Nader Tavassoli, supervised the project as a thesis. Without this support, Paul would not have been able to assume the lead role.

After Paul's decision to lead the team, planning began to move more quickly but two problems continued to plague the team. The first was the organizational structure. Given that the team now had less than two months to create a large-scale event, they had to work closely together. Paul hoped that decision making could be decentralized. To promote communication, representatives from each of the 13 sub-teams[1] formed the "core" team and set up a weekly meeting. Despite scheduling a regular time for this meeting, it is difficult to get 13 people to arrive on time, stay and be productive for the entire meeting. Decentralized decision making was not feasible given the difficulties communicating the vision that was being created and refined quickly. However, these meetings were not a complete loss because they served to increase buy-in by the team. By helping to make the decisions, the team felt ownership over the event.

A second problem for the team was a lack of planning space. The MIT Entrepreneurship Center gave Paul a desk and a computer but the rest of the team did not have anywhere to keep files, make phone calls, receive packages or hold meetings. In addition, communication between team members was not frequent and occurred mostly during chance meetings in the hallway. The productivity of the entire team suffered as a result.

Timing of event

No thought given to it because of late start

As has already been mentioned briefly above, last year’s event was handicapped by the late start of planning, which by default pushed the actual event date as far into the spring as possible to give the organizing team enough time to plan the Challenge. Given the amount of work required to recruit participants and sponsors, actors, and volunteers, and create the fictitious business around which the event was held, there was no choice but to delay the event as much as possible, concentrating in the first year on tactical/execution issues instead of strategic considerations like the impact of having chosen a particular date for the Sloan Challenge. Due to these pressures, the 1998 Sloan Challenge was scheduled for Friday, May 8, 1998.

While the event was an unqualified success in its first year, the choice of such a late date did pose some problems, both tactical and strategic. On the tactical/operational side, the event date turned out to be the day after the MIT $50K Competition final awards, which caused some difficulty in recruiting players, Challenge actors, and volunteers from the MIT community. Many of the people potentially interested in participating in the Sloan Challenge had already committed their time to the $50K Competition. Furthermore, by holding the event the week before the end of classes, the Sloan Challenge was competing for students’ and faculty’s attention with end-of-year pressures like final papers, exams, and a shift in focus away from Sloan related activities to “the real world”.

Finally, having held the event a week before the end of classes left precious little time for the organizing team to bring the Sloan Challenge to a close for the year, which included thanking sponsors and participants, planting the seed of next year’s event in sponsor’s minds and calendars, and transitioning the event to a new student-management team for 1999.

On the strategic side, given the previously mentioned time pressures of organizing the inaugural Sloan Challenge, there was no choice but to hold the event in the late spring. A more in-depth discussion of the strategic implications of the event date will follow in the discussion of the 1999 Sloan Challenge. (****enter page or section here?? ******


Who was the original customer? Value proposition? Call this section strategy?

As discussed above, the inaugural Challenge was conceived to better the reputation of Sloan students' soft skills. The customer at that time was loosely defined as a "high level corporate executive". One assumption that was made (intentionally or not) was that the recruiters were the same people as, or were influenced by, the players that attended the event. The original value proposition included a number of benefits for the executive:

Recruiting - meet students in a fun yet intellectually rigorous setting

Professional - network with other leading executives, promote your brand

Personal - compete against the best, win great prizes

Charity - contribute to a worthy cause

Selling to the "corporate executive" proved harder than expected. Many recruiters felt the recruiting season was over and their budgets were spent. The networking benefits were unproven since the guest list was incomplete. Similarly, the competition could not be sized up until other companies bought in. Luckily, no one disputed the benefit of helping a non-profit organization and a number of sponsors were secured[2].

As is common with most start-ups, all efforts were focused on creating the product (a fun event) and none were given to understanding if it had achieved the desired outcome afterwards (changed perceptions about Sloan). This was due in part to the late date of the event which left little time for follow-up analysis.


Not much thought given to this - Jenn learned most by doing, Paul's attempt at database and files, little documentation

Given the time pressures already discussed above, and the focus in 1998 on execution of the inaugural event, there was not much time nor energy available to devote to succession of the Sloan Challenge to a new management team for 1999.

Paul Cheng and the organizing team did repeatedly stress the importance of involving first-year students in organizing and executing the Challenge, who would then take over management for the following year. In practice, the organizing team in 1998 was essentially all second-year students, which meant the opportunity to expose first-year students to the management of the event was lost. A large number of first-year students did participate, as members of the organizing teams, players, or event-day volunteers, but their exposure to the management of the Challenge was not sufficient to create interest in taking over for 1999, nor to transfer substantial management knowledge from 1998’s event. The authors of this thesis are among the few exceptions to the above. As already mentioned, Jennifer Houser worked closely with Paul Cheng in managing the event, and in doing so gained valuable experience to take over management for 1999. Felipe Payet was more peripherally involved, but was close enough to the management team to know that he wanted to take a leading role in planning and executing the event in 1999.


Why are we doing it again? What are we doing different this year? Why?

The inaugural MIT Sloan Challenge was seen as a great success by the organizers, school administration and the participants. Although no success measures were defined or tracked, other factors indicated this success. The energy on event day was very positive and upbeat. At the end of the day, many participants requested invitations to future events like the Challenge. In addition, the student organizers felt that planning the Challenge had been a great way to pull together and expand on the skills they had learned at Sloan. This success encouraged the authors of this thesis to plan a second Challenge.

During the fall of 1998, Sloan received low rankings in US News and World Report. The school had slipped from number 3 to 15. Many students felt this ranking was not an accurate gauge of the quality of the school. This press and the resulting questions from recruiters made the pressure to enhance Sloan's image even greater.

The following sections document the changes that were made to the 1998 management strategy by the 1999 planning team.


Have a team space, regular meeting times, size, new org structure, outside forces like pressure of getting job, who to be on team (personality vs experience), thesis also gets buy-in to event

Given their involvement in the 1998 Challenge, the authors of this thesis had the experience and interest to lead the event together in 1999. However, we also knew this role would require a tremendous amount of work and time over the course of the year. After having worked with Paul Cheng the year before, Professor Nader Tavassoli had seen the potential of the learning experience provided by an activity like the Sloan Challenge. He offered to supervise one or two thesis projects to encourage participation in the event. Besides allowing the time to work on the event (is this inflammatory?), a thesis also secures a greater level of buy-in because of the course credits involved. This opportunity allowed us to commit to the project and begin planning during the 1st semester.

One of the things we wanted to change about the event was the size of the planning team. Having seen the difficulties and frustrations caused by a large team during 1998, we felt a smaller "lead" team could create the strategy for the event and manage sub-teams to implement it. In addition to being more productive, we hoped the smaller team size would create an even stronger feeling of ownership among the leads. We felt this buy-in was important because of the amount of work to be done not just in planning the event but also in laying the foundation for future Challenges. With Nader Tavassoli's support, the lead team could conduct this work as part of a thesis by incorporating and expanding of the skills we were learning at Sloan.