As a buzz of excitement rolled through McConomy Auditorium, where 140 sophomores from Pittsburgh’s City High awaited directions, first-year MBA Jaymin Patel threw them a softball of a question:
“How many of you play video games?”
Nearly the entire group raised hands to indicate that they were gamers.
Then Patel threw a curve:
“How many of you have put together a product plan for a national company?”
The room fell silent, but Patel had a quick follow-up: “After today, you’ll be able to say yes.”
For the fifth consecutive year, Tepper MBA students volunteered to mentor tenth-graders from City High in a case competition that introduces them to certain business skills while also offering a glimpse of what may lie ahead.
“It opens up educational and career windows that they may have never thought of before,” says Maureen Anderson, the City High teacher who is the event’s liaison. “Working with someone who is young, highly educated, and continuing their education has really powerful impact.”
For the first time, the competition involved development of a business plan for a real company: Etcetera Edutainment, a Pittsburgh-based start-up founded by alum Jessica Trybus. The company designs video games that are used for several purposes, including on-the-job training.
Students arrived at the Carnegie Mellon campus early and gathered for a demonstration of a new Etcetera Edutainment video game, currently known as “CrowdPlay,” which allows audiences to work in unison to operate the game on a large screen (“a full-theater Wii,” is how Etcetera employee Tom Corbett describes it). The students swayed together as they played a game of virtual beach volleyball before breaking into smaller groups to devise a business plan.
“The people who play with this software are high school kids,” says Darren Sabom, a 2008 MBA candidate who organized the event through in his role as the Tepper Community Outreach Coordinator. “This is a key demographic for the company, and if good ideas come out of the competition, they would concepts the company would like to think about.”
In the break-out sessions, students started by brainstorming venues where the game could be marketed. Second-year MBA candidate Kate Davis got the discussion going by asking a few leading questions (“Why would people use CrowdPlay?”) and throwing out a few prompts (“That’s a good way to think about how to pay for this,” she said in response to a City High student’s ideas for advertising).
“We realize it’s important to give back to the community,” explains Sabom. “We’re pretty lucky to be in business school and getting the great education that we are.”
The event started five years ago, when City High was only two years old. Tepper School alumnus Eddy Jones, then an MBA student, volunteered with City High, which emphasizes career readiness for inner-city teens. He came up with the idea of walking students through a business case competition to show them what might lie ahead in as part of their college experience.
The winning team was mentored by Tuesday Tibbs, an MBA 2009 candidate, and her friend Anton Doss, who will enroll in the MBA program in the fall and was on campus for a visit. The students proposed a version of CrowdPlay that simulates a game of dodge ball at a movie theater, an amusement park, or between innings at a baseball game.
To entice advertisers, the students suggested the game feature items that would periodically appear instead of the ball, such as a bottle of Gatorade to give the game characters more energy, a branded watch to earn more time, or a Band-Aid if the character got hurt.
“They were a really great team, extremely sharp,” says Tibbs, who describes the high-school students as ‘very inquisitive.’ They ran with it. By the end, they were hugging each other and giving each other high fives — it seemed like they built friendships in those six hours.”
Each of the winning team’s members received a $50 gift card, Sabom says. But according to Anderson, they all came away with a greater reward: the gift of ambition.