Open for business: High schoolers create case competition to bridge divide

·3 min read

Last summer, Frank Liu and Andrew Cheng got Tim Hortons executives to listen to high school students’ business ideas. This year, the Grade 12 students are pitching their services to the NHL and the company behind the Raptors and the Maple Leafs.

Frustrated with a lack of opportunity to practise business skills in a real-world but introductory way, the entrepreneurial pair created their own competition and launched it during the pandemic. They got more than 150 other high schoolers in 60 teams, mostly from around the Greater Toronto Area, to join them.

“The fact is that the Ontario curriculum doesn't teach as many practical or realistic concepts in their classes, in their business curriculum,” said Liu, who with Cheng is co-executive director of the Junior Open Toronto (JOT) Case Competition.

They created the month-long business case competition to fill that gap, and are widening the cast of their net this year, hoping to work with multiple companies and welcome students from across Canada and the world in the second virtual version of the competition.

“We want to make sure the solutions can actually be implemented by the company. Participants aren't just creating presentations for the sake of it, but rather these are fundamental things — they're tackling real world issues for these companies,” said Cheng.

In its first take, student executives pitched a partnership with carnival favourite BeaverTails and developed ideas to add more maple-flavoured items to the Canadian coffee and doughnut chain’s menu, offer Timbits at schools during lunchtime, or create TikTok challenges to engage youth on the social media app.

“Ultimately, with a case competition, it's a two-way street. On one hand, we're giving these companies an amazing chance to hear these unique perspectives,” said Liu, who attends University of Toronto Schools, a private high school established by the university and nestled in its downtown campus.

The competition also provides plenty of opportunities for first-timers to learn the basics of business, he said, providing resources such as seminars and workshops and even one-on-one training and feedback sessions during the preliminary round.

The half dozen teams selected to advance to a second stage get to tweak their pitches and address the company directly, while those that do not advance also have the option of receiving feedback on their submissions.

Judges last year included undergraduate students involved in university case competition clubs, a career coach, a hedge fund founder, and a Tim Hortons executive listening to pitches on how to make the brand more appealing to youth.

This time around, they are hoping to have multiple companies present open-ended problems for more students — perhaps up to 500 could take part before it becomes a challenge to fairly evaluate them all, Cheng says — to try to solve.

The pair have asked Bank of Montreal, Nestlé, the National Hockey League and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), which owns the Toronto Raptors basketball team and Maple Leafs hockey team, to take part by offering themselves as case studies.

The competition is free to enter and thanks to support from various sources, the pair said winning teams could this year walk away with gift cards in addition to priceless experience and exposure.

Liu said that a lot of the business case competitions that were available when events were still in-person were expensive, daunting, difficult to find out about or to get to if not from a major city.

Liu and Cheng have expanded their team this year to include Grade 10 and Grade 11 students and expect to move into advisory roles once they get to university.

But after testing the concept last year, they plan to expand it before they move on.

“We are just high school students, and it’s kind of ambitious to go out there and create a whole competition for our peers, but now that we’ve proved the idea and know people are interested in it, we’re prepared to take it to the next level this year,” Cheng said.

Morgan Sharp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, National Observer

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