In late October, Online MBA student Curtis Webb left work early to catch a flight to New Orleans. It would be his first case competition presentation and one that he and his teammates, Crystal Burey, Praveen Pallapothula, and David Smikle – all second-year Full-Time MBA students – had been preparing for months.

While it's not uncommon for MBA students who go beyond their academic commitments to compete in a national case competition, few do so as a virtual team – especially one made up of students from different programs. Yet that is exactly what Webb and his teammates did for the National Black MBA Association (NBMBAA) Graduate Student Case Competition held in New Orleans Oct. 11-15, 2016. This year's case required teams to develop market launch plans for autonomous driving vehicles.

The team was assembled and advised by Associate Professor Marla Baskerville Watkins. She taught Burey and Pallapothula and believed they would be good teammates. “Once I observed how involved everyone was in the process of preparing their analysis, I knew that they were going to be an all-star team.”

Though building a virtual team didn't come without challenges. She added, “There were some struggles initially, but the team rose to the occasion. Not only did the team not have the benefit of having face-to-face meetings because they were all in different places, they also didn't know each other.” Ultimately, she said, the team was committed to make it work.

When the team arrived in New Orleans for the competition, it was one of the few times they had been able to be together. Between regular video and phone conference calls on the weekends, the team had to work hard at understanding each other's attributes from afar. “We were really organized,” Webb said. “We took personality tests and worked through a team charter that included goals, what we'll do and not do.” They realized they each had different strengths and worked hard to create a space for everyone to share their ideas. Webb said, “It replicated a real-world environment, because it's common in my work for staff all over the country to spend weeks preparing for a meeting together.” The team didn't take home a win, but Webb wasn't discouraged. “We had a remote team. It was a weakness but a good one. It required us to adapt.”

For the past two years, Webb has been taking Online MBA courses while working full-time in digital payments for a global financial institution based in New York. “Juggling daily class requirements, a 40-60 hour full-time career, and nightly/weekend family responsibilities have been interesting, to say the least,” he said. But he said he has been able to bridge his online learning with experiential opportunities at D'Amore-McKim. From a week-long Innovation Entrepreneurship Residency in Seattle with students and faculty, to a Design Thinking Workshop in Boston, Webb is active in the D'Amore-McKim community. “There's a myth that you don't make that connection with other students as an Online MBA student, but it's not true.”

“Some of the best moments I have had in the program have been making myself uncomfortable and saying yes when presented with opportunities to connect in-person as part of the online program,” Webb said. He even meets up with his virtual classmates who might be located in or passing through New York for business, and he's done the same on his own business trips. And he jumped at the opportunity to join the case competition team.

Webb is now in his final days before completing his degree, and he recently started a new position managing the strategy for digital payments in a new company. He said he has taken lessons learned from the case competition back to the office with him. “The competition gave me new knowledge in another industry and another field,” he said. “It was an opportunity for me to connect, network, and put the materials he's learned over the years into practice.”

Story by Emily Turner

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