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Penn State Smeal names winners in first annual Undergraduate Sustainability Case Competition

April 6, 2021

By MELISSA MANNO

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. —The inaugural Smeal Undergraduate Sustainability Case Competition wrapped up recently, with the three winning teams demonstrating the college’s dedication to business that makes a difference not just a profit. 

The competition, which was organized by the Center for the Business of Sustainability (CBoS) and led by CBoS interns Skylar Hoover, senior CIENT major, and Andrew Marshall, second-year MBA student. The goal of the competition was to provide students with a hands-on opportunity to utilize their knowledge of business to solve real-world social justice and environmental conservation challenges. 

“The center believes strongly in giving students hands-on learning opportunities to wrestle with real-world problems,” said Erik Foley, the director of the CBoS. “We have offered a national case competition for MBAs for six years that has reached more than 800 students. We wanted to offer this same kind of opportunity to undergrads.” 

This year’s competition required students to work at the intersection of clean energy, climate change and economic development, focusing on how businesses can implement climate solutions while providing economic benefits to low-income communities. 

From the 20 teams that submitted materials for the first round, five were selected for the finals held virtually. Judging the final round was Smeal’s Dean, Charles H. Whiteman, Penn State’s Treasurer/Vice President of Finance & Business, Sarah Thorndike, Chancellor of Penn State Abington Margo DelliCarpini, Smeal’s Assistant Dean of Diversity Enhancement Jamie Campbell and Mid-Atlantic Director of the Coalition for Community Solar Access Leslie Elder. 

MakeSustainable Lions Consulting won the first-place prize of $3,000, BJC Consulting won the second-place prize of $2,000 and NLCGreen won the third-place prize of $1,000. 

“We were blown away by the level of interest and quality of the students’ work,” Foley said. “Our sincere congratulations to all teams, especially our first-, second- and third-place winners. We look forward to this being an annual tradition at Smeal.” 

First-place winning team MakeSustainable Lions Consulting from Penn State Lehigh Valley was comprised of four members including junior Hemil Patel who is studying project and supply chain management with a minor in security and risk analysis. 

His team’s prize-winning proposal detailed a partnership between Penn State and solar developer SolAmerica Energy to supply an estimated 7.3 million kilowatt-hours of electricity to the Lehigh Valley Campus, Berks Campus and low-income families in the Lehigh Valley sector. 

According to Patel, this plan would allow Penn state to reduce carbon emissions by more than 145 million pounds and save $3.6 million in electric bills over the life of the project. As for the community impact, their proposal provided electricity to approximately 580 homes. 

While the team took home the first-place prize, for Patel, merely being part of the competition was a lifetime achievement. 

“For me, the journey to take part in a case competition of this level was almost impossible five years ago due to not being able to fluently speak English and lacking essential presentation skills,” Patel said. “Smeal’s Undergraduate Sustainability Competition was a dream and winning is the best feeling.” 

Patel said prior to this competition, he didn’t know the meaning of the term, “community solar.” Now, he considers himself not only well-versed in the subject but equipped with the skills to advance clean energy in his career. 

In addition to Smeal’s dedication to sustainability, Patel said the competition exhibits how much the college values community. 

“With the power this institution possesses, Smeal is helping communities become more sustainable for the future,” Patel said.

Penn State sophomore Jillian Wagner was part of the second-place team BJC Consulting, which represented the Professional Business Fraternity Delta Sigma Pi. The team’s proposal included building a solar farm in Reading, which would power Penn State’s Berks Campus and provide employment opportunities to students. 

The proposal included the “SEEDS Coalition” which stands for Solar for the Environment, Equity, Diversity and Sustainability. Wagner said the coalition would include solar developer Lightsource BP, Penn State faculty and students, Reading residents and the Berks County Equity Committee. Its role would be to govern all solar energy produced at the 25 megawatt solar farm. 

If implemented, Wagner (sophomore-marketing) said her team’s proposal would save a total of 231,600 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions from entering the Earth’s atmosphere over its 25-year lifespan. 

“Not only will it reduce Penn State’s carbon footprint, but it will save the university more than $5 million in electricity savings,” Wagner said. “The proposal will spur economic prosperity and job growth in Reading that will inspire a generation of diverse community members to initiate more clean energy campaigns around the state.” 

Wagner said the competition challenged her and her teammates to dig deep into the research phase in order to come up with a comprehensive proposal to submit, adding that they learned “it takes more than just intuition to make investment proposals.” 

“Team projects like this have allowed me to learn how to work well with others, especially during a time crunch,” Wagner said. “It takes commitment, sacrifice and patience to complete projects this large and I’m proud of my team for executing and presenting our ideas to the best of our ability.” 

According to Wagner, this competition is reflective of Smeal’s efforts to encourage cross-disciplinary cooperation for solving societal issues. 

“Smeal has made it its strategic priority to remain dedicated to creating a more sustainable future,” Wagner said. “We are proud to belong to a business school that promotes sustainability and diversity enhancement efforts such as this case competition.” 

In third place and representing Nittany Lion Consulting Group (NLCG) was NLCGreen, which proposed a community solar project with locations tied to four different Penn State commonwealth campuses in an effort to support both the university and the surrounding locations. 

Vice President of Learning and Development for NLCG Cameron Vinson was part of NLCGreen and said the competition opened his eyes to the world of sustainability, specifically on the community level. 

“Very often it feels like sustainability is something handled by those at higher levels of organizations and feels distant from the average person, but by exploring community solar options I felt like I could actually make an impact,” Vinson (junior-finance) said. 

Like Wagner, Vinson said the competition is a display of Smeal’s values, emphasizing that the college is a frontrunner in the world of business sustainability. 

“I don’t know many other business schools that have made as large of a commitment to sustainability as Smeal,” Vinson said. “From integrating these topics into the curriculum to having the Center for the Business of Sustainability, the Sustainability Case Competition is just another extension of the commitment to creating business leaders who are able to use sustainability to reach their goals.” 

To learn more about Smeal’s Center for the Business of Sustainability, visit the Smeal website.

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