West Windsor, N.J. – Six students from Mercer County Community College (MCCC) were all business at the 2019 New Jersey County College Case Competition at Rutgers Business School on April 5, capturing first prize for their creative, yet practical, business plan for a fledgling chocolate company. The competition, now in its fourth year, is sponsored by Rutgers Business School and M&T Bank.
Students Ahmed Alvi, Nunana Honutse, Kevin Pogreszewski, Aaron Van Cleaf, Shuchen Wei, and Mabel Yeboah worked on the case from the early days of the spring semester, spending approximately 60 hours on what would be a prize-winning business strategy.
With guidance from MCCC Business Administration faculty members Laura Sosa and Eva Csige, and Alvyn Haywood (Communication), the team delivered a presentation that stood out among teams from Bergen, Hudson, Middlesex, Sussex, which won second place, and Morris, which won third. Members of the winning teams received cash awards.
In a wrap-up session after the event, students shared their thoughts about building their case and their ultimate success. “Our first step was procrastination,” Alvi said with a smile.
But once they got started, they continued nonstop, even during Spring Break in March, when they worked for several long days at the college.
Team members noted that the case forced them to make some shared assumptions. “We kept changing our ideas until we finally decided on our direction. We came together as a group,” Pogreszewski said.
Sosa notes that the team’s diversity was one of its strengths. “They were equally split by gender and included two students from Ghana, one from China and one from Pakistan.”
Sosa continued, “Their success is evidence that diversity leads to greater creativity and productivity. This is something that we stress in our Principles of Management class. The ability to work with diverse people is a global skill demanded in the workforce. This experience will be quite an asset for these students.”
Van Cleaf agreed. “When we finally decided on our direction, it allowed for creativity. Three of our PowerPoint slides were just to cover the assumptions we made in putting the case together.”
The team built their plan by starting with a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats analysis, known as SWOT. They also reached out to experts at the Small Business Development Center at The College of New Jersey and M&T Bank, as well as distributors.
With a lack of hard data upon which to base their case, the team conducted a survey of 200-plus MCCC students and staff members about their chocolate buying habits and the situations in which they would be willing to pay more for a product.
Alvi explained that their approach included creating the role of the company’s owner, “Mary,” played by Yeboah. Additionally, they factored niche events like weddings and a “mobile treat truck” into their marketing strategy. Lastly, they added a Corporate Social Responsibility component, selecting Smile Train, the medical organization that works globally to provide corrective surgery for children with cleft lips and palates, to receive a portion of the profits.
“Our survey showed that people would be willing to pay a little more if they knew that some of the proceeds would go to a good cause, especially one that benefits children,” Alvi said.
Pogreszewski, who had raised money for Smile Train before, concurred and noted that an international organization would continue to be a relevant cause should the company expand beyond the United States.
As part of their research, team members visited instructor Frank Benowitz in the MCCC Culinary Center, where they learned about different types of chocolate and the chocolate making process. They presented hospitality students with a recipe to create chocolates to take to the competition.
The students also practiced responses to questions they thought they might be asked by the judges. Pogreszewski noted, “The presentation was strong. We prepped with harder questions than they asked us so we were able to answer them easily.”
Advising them along the way was M&T Vice President Andy Zalescik, who served as the Mercer team’s M&T mentor. "He visited the campus twice to offer input. He suggested ideas and validated what we were doing. He really cared,” Pogreszewski said.
As the competition drew near, they practiced, practiced, practiced. They presented in front of Professor Sosa's Principles of Management class, three times in front of Professor Haywood, and every day in the week prior to the competition.
The Mercer team went last of the six – enough time to settle into their surroundings, but also enough time to feel the jitters. Each student was responsible for presenting components of the plan.
Yeboah, who played Mary, said, “I knew if I failed, then we would all fail. I was nervous, but once I saw the judges smiling, they put me at ease.”
All team members agreed that practice does make pretty close to perfect. For Wei, it was familiarity with the material that led to her smooth delivery. “It was phenomenal to win,” she said.
Another “sweet” touch was distributing chocolates prepared by culinary students to the judges. The bite-size dark chocolates were decorated with a white chocolate drizzle and topped with a cranberry, reflecting New Jersey’s position as the country’s third largest grower of these berries.
A panel of experts and a Rutgers Business School instructor served as judges: M&T Bank executives Mallory Boron, Thomas Comiskey, Prudential Financial executive Jennifer Rodrigues, Frank Giarratano of SGW Integrated Marketing Communications, and Rutgers Business School faculty member Arturo Osorio.
The students say they came away from the day with a huge confidence boost – and a very strong extracurricular activity to add to their resumes. Honutse, an international student from Ghana, said, “I put in the effort in class and Professor Sosa saw potential in me. I have already added this to my LinkedIn profile.”
Yeboah, also from Ghana, explained that this was not just a college experience for her. “It was an American experience. In my country, I would not be doing this. Because I am an international student, I take my education very seriously,” she said.
Sosa and Csige cannot stress enough how proud they are this team. “Entrepreneurs are often faced with unknowns. The way this team approached the case came very close to real life. That’s why they won,” Sosa said.
Haywood, who helped the students make their presentation sizzle, observed, “You did all that and then some.”
All the students say they learned lessons that are likely to help them in the future. Pogreszewski, who plans to join his father’s company, Tile Masters in Bordentown, said, “You can use things from your textbook, but it’s so much more than that.”
Yeboah is interested in supply chain management and plans to one day get her master’s degree in the field, along with a law degree as well. Alvi, who is studying finance, is interested in real estate, while Wei, a Liberal Arts major, would like to focus on international relations and economics. “I had never studied business. After taking a Global Business class, I decided I was interested in doing this. It was fun and will be a wonderful memory of Mercer,” Wei said.
Van Cleaf, who also participated in the competition last year, when Mercer came in third, is showing good financial sense as he decides on his future direction. “I want to figure out my next steps here at Mercer and not get into a financial hole with huge college debt,” he said.
Csige noted that the public/private partnership between Rutgers and M&T Bank is benefitting business students across the state. “We are grateful to Rutgers and to M&T Bank for their hospitality and professionalism. They took good care of us at the event.”
Sosa notes that everyone is feeling great about the win. “But the growth that I saw in each individual student and the team’s development was even more rewarding. They learned how to work together. By the end, they encouraged each other and gave honest feedback. That is the true definition of teamwork.”