The Love’s Cup is a statewide business plan competition for college students that simulates the real-world process of researching a market, writing a business plan and making a presentation to potential investors. This year, an undergraduate team – Novel Neuro – and a graduate team – DevCycle – from The University of Tulsa’s Collins College of Business took first and third place respectively in their divisions.
“The Love’s Cup was a great introduction to the world of entrepreneurship,” said Whitney. “The competition and Professor Cornell’s course cover every aspect of start-up ventures, from initial market definition all the way to the exit strategy. With a technical product, we were grateful to have the support of a few Tulsa entrepreneurs and TU community members on our advisory board. My teammates and I had a neuroscience 101 crash-course at our first meeting and haven’t stop learning since! As the team leader, I gained experience in project management and I am now better equipped for my career!”
Novel Neuro is a patent-pending cognitive assessment platform that enhances the confidence of providers in the medical, personal injury and insurance industries by accurately identifying falsified (malingering) claims of brain injury. The technology was developed by TU’s Neuropsychology Laboratory with the assistance of Jordan Hoffmeister, a doctoral candidate in psychology. Through their research, the team discovered that 39% of this kind of injury claims are fake or exaggerated. Neuropsychologists need to be able to detect these false claims, especially in light of the fact that related insurance claims average $100,000 each.
At the Love’s Cup competition, the team sought $1.4 million to build the software’s platform, accelerate brand relationships and continue further research and development. In return, the team offered investors a 30% stake in the company while projecting an 11.32x return on investment in three years.
DevCycle comprised Israyil Alakbarov (team leader) and Jamala Talibova. Their faculty adviser was Professor Claire Cornell.
The focus of this team’s work was innovation within the $14 billion embedded software market. Embedded software is used to control machine interface and is built into a diverse array of products, including mobile phones, robotics, electric cars and medical devices. The market is growing by 10% each year.
The traditional embedded software development process consists of hardware design and software design. The DevCycle technology was developed by TU alumnus Jonathan Torkelson (BEE ’03, MEE ’04). It has improved the embedded software development process by enabling users to develop software, visualize the hardware, test and debug concurrently. This leads to a 50% decrease in development costs and a 40% drop in hardware development time.
“This was a great experience because we were working with a real project, learned a lot from our mentors and improved our business understanding,” said Alakbarov, a business analytics student. “Even though my background is all about business/economics/marketing, it was still very challenging and informative.”
Similar to Novel Neuro, the DevCycle team sought $1.4 million to start building their brand recognition and to continue research and development as they expand into new markets. For a 30% stake in the firm, they projected a 16x return on investment in three years.
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During the final semester of the full-time Partnering with Business MBA program, students form teams and undertake a consulting project for a real-life organization in the community. Most often, these projects involve clients in the for-profit sector. In fall 2019, however, a team of five students spent four months developing a robust plan to help Tulsa Hope Academy build on its success and expand to meet the educational needs of more people.
Tulsa Hope Academy is a private, accredited, Christian faith-based secondary school that opened in September 2005. It is located in the SpiritLife Church complex near 51st Street and Peoria Avenue. A nonprofit organization, Tulsa Hope Academy enables youths as well as adults who have found it highly challenging or even impossible to stay in the public school system to learn, thrive and complete their high school diplomas. There’s a pressing need for such safety-net education, given the 7.56% dropout rate among Tulsa Public Schools students and the 13% dropout rate across Tulsa County.
Forty students are currently enrolled at Tulsa Hope Academy. The school’s founder and current executive director/lead administrator, Debra Mann, along with her board would like to increase that number.
That’s where the TU MBA team came into the picture. The five diverse, ambitious individuals who comprised that group were Alyssa Bolliger, Grey Howard, Megan Senol, Yoeri Sijbers and Katarina Webster.
The faculty member who led the capstone course and oversaw the students’ work was Brice Collier, who has been directing the course ever since its inception. “The students get a real confidence boost from the experience,” he said. “This course uniquely and powerfully positions our alumni to hit the ground running in their careers. It’s good for the clients, and it’s what differentiates our program from the rest. Time and again, I’ve heard from employers that TU’s MBA grads possess real-world knowledge and skills.”
When it comes to putting together each semester’s teams, Collier aims “to create groups that not only bring the skills needed to the table, but likewise have diversity in education, personal background and thinking style. I also try to match students with clients that fit with what they hope to do in their careers.”
To help understand these dimensions of his students, Collier has each one complete a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® assessment. “The diversity of styles creates a powerful team if they use the diversity to their benefit, and most of the teams do,” he said. “It’s a great learning opportunity for their careers.”
For the Tulsa Hope Academy project, Collier observed, the two key disciplines the team had to address were strategy and marketing. Throughout the semester, team members met several times with Mann and her leadership team to understand their problems and goals, observed classes at the school and gathered twice each week as a group to share ideas and work on the project. “Our principal aim,” Senol noted, “was to provide Mann and Tulsa Hope Academy with the materials and resources to grow the business over five years in order to serve more students in Tulsa and beyond. These largely pivoted on fundraising, raising awareness and franchising.”
To that end, the team focused on several core activities:
Researching high school education trends and issues in Tulsa and Oklahoma
Consulting with the client to understand Tulsa Hope Academy’s needs and objectives
Creating presentation templates for fundraising requests
Assembling a database of foundations that might support Tulsa Hope Academy
Developing a franchise model that captures Tulsa Hope Academy’s vision and mission
Formulating recommendations and tools
The team delivered its five-year strategic plan report to Mann and several members of the school’s board in person on Dec. 11. The main elements of that plan were identification of growth areas for expansion, collaboration opportunities (e.g., with Tulsa City-County Library and Tulsa Public Transit) and fundraising strategies and tactics. The report included a financial plan and recommendations that projected out to 2025. Among the recommendations were the gradual creation of additional learning “pods” within Hope Academy’s current building and, beginning in 2023, opening additional locations – first in east Tulsa and then in north Tulsa.
For Sijbers, the most rewarding aspect of working on this project was “to have an impact on the students directly involved with the Tulsa Hope Academy’s programming. The results are so tangible, and it wasn’t about a corporate bottom line in this case. Yet, I was able to use all my business skills, especially my quantitative and analytic abilities, just in a completely new setting. When you are consulting, whether for a for-profit company or a nonprofit organization, you always have to keep in mind that every recommendation you make must align with who your client is and what they want to do.”
One of the consistent dimensions Collier has noted during the past seven years leading the consulting course is the fact that clients so often receive “fresh perspectives – things they never would have thought of on their own.” This result was evident in the case of the Tulsa Hope Academy project.
“I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of working with the TU MBA students,” Mann commented during a post-presentation conversation. “The students’ plan will have a huge effect on Tulsa Hope Academy over the next five years. That’s because they listened, they understood what we are about, they were thoughtful and they were very professional. It was so useful and exciting to have a fresh set of eyes on all aspects of our organization.”
For Mann, one of the “home run” elements in the final presentation was the fundraising toolkit, as one of her main duties is to spearhead the quest for donations. Mann was also strongly drawn to the students’ proposals for collaborating with other education providers in the city and noted that is one of the action items she will address earlier rather than later. “The idea of replicating a second pod here at the church and maintaining that consistency is also very attractive,” she commented. “My next steps will also be, as the students recommended, to raise awareness of what we are offering.”
Each team of students wants to generate ideas and plans that will advance their clients’ objectives. But these capstone projects are, of course, aimed at giving TU’s MBA students experiences that will help them build successful careers. So, how did the Tulsa Hope Academy team fare in this regard?
For Senol, one of the major elements the team had to tackle was defining the project’s scope. “That was where a lot of our effort went in the beginning,” she said. “There was so much potential to cover, and we didn’t want to miss anything. However, we needed to be realistic, for both the client and ourselves.”
Thinking more about scope, Senol commented that “The business skills I acquired during this course were all related to project management in some shape or form.” For Howard, project management is a “universal skill” that entails “taking the bare bones of a project and fleshing them out into something that’s a lot bigger than you expected. That’s useful for any career. When the path isn’t clear on a project, you need to be able to figure out with your teammates where you want to go.”
Along the same lines, Senol noted that “Creating the timeline and avoiding bottlenecks was key to accomplishing what we set out to do.” Webster concurred, adding that “It was really challenging to schedule everything out across an entire semester-long project. Time management was also very important, and these were valuable skills to learn.”
A further benefit for Webster was the development of her communication skills and ability to work as part of a team, elements that had not figured largely in her previous undergraduate accounting studies. “If those are things you want to hone, this is the program for you,” Webster concluded. Similarly, for Bolliger, valuable new tools she acquired were presentation and communications skills: “We also learned to gather huge amounts of information and then to sort through it to identify the most meaningful parts and what we could do with them in order to provide a solid plan for Tulsa Hope Academy to get to the next level.”
Catch a glimpse of a couple of other recent MBA consulting projects:
The full-time Partnering with Business MBA program is part of a suite of seven MBA programs offered by TU’s Collins College of Business. Whether you are interested in a career in the for-profit or nonprofit sectors, you are likely to find a program that suits your ambitions.
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