Illinois students travelled to Brazil in June 2011 to participate in the C40 International Business Plan Competition. This event started with an on-campus preparatory course, culminating in a trip to São Paulo, Brazil from May 29 - June 7. Illinois undergraduates worked in high-performance, interdisciplinary teams and collaborated virtually with students from two overseas universities to create business plans related to the theme "Sustainable São Paulo.” Students from the three universities then gathered to present their proposals in conjunction with the C40 Large Cities Climate Summit.
The 14 Illinois students represented four colleges and nine different majors. They formed 7 teams along with 14 students from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and 14 students from the University of São Paulo.
The course, taught by Prof. Sunny Jeong, provided an opportunity for students to apply classroom learning to real world problems and engage directly with representatives from government and industry as well as students from other countries. The competition forces students to confront the tension between the global challenge of sustainability and the need for locally appropriate and private sector responses.
For two months, the multinational teams communicated with each other via the Internet to research and develop their sustainable businesses. To help students develop their ideas and business plans, they also attended lectures, practiced their elevator pitches, and received feedback from faculty members and industry leaders. Students also learned about economics, government, and the challenges of doing business in Brazil and around the world, from local business executives and faculty.
An Illinois student noted: “Although the trip … was certainly a highlight of the program, the preparation conducted in advance (i.e., introductions to language, culture, customs, history, politics, environment, etc.) was also incredibly valuable in its own right and made the travel more meaningful and productive.”
This innovative experience is a collaboration between the University of Illinois, overseas university partners, and the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. The C40 is a group of large cities committed to tackling climate change and sustainability issues. It is the second time the C40 group has invited the University of Illinois to offer this international competition in conjunction with their bi-annual summit meeting. In 2008, participants attended the C40 Climate Summit in Seoul, South Korea, through an invitation from Oh Se-hoon, the mayor of Seoul. 2011 was the first time the competition was held in Brazil.
Asked why she was involved, a civil engineering undergrad from the University of São Paulo noted: “I am very interested in the overall theme of the competition. After all, [sustainability] gains more importance every year that passes. And also, I want to work with social and environmental issues in the future and I saw the competition as an enriching opportunity in my career. Moreover, the complexity of the subject itself and the opportunity to work with people from several continents seemed quite challenging, and I love challenges.”
In Brazil, the students were able to hear from President Bill Clinton, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the president of the World Bank, Robert B. Zoellick, and were hosted at receptions by São Paulo mayor Gilberto Kassab. As one student noted, “The social events at night were great. We got VIP treatment – we were treated like the mayors themselves. We listened to orchestras, famous Brazilian musicians, and the #1 Samba school came to perform specifically for us. It was quite an honor.”
Students visited economic development sites and favelas in São Paulo and Rio, and interacted with government officials, executives and entrepreneurs. Prof. Hector Almeida talked about the ease of doing business in Brazil, and differences in government policy, economic environment and business practices between the United States and Brazil. At the C40 Competition the students fine-tuned their plans before presenting their ideas to a panel of judges consisting of academics, venture capitalists, policy makers, and entrepreneurs.
An urban planning student, interested in environmental issues and economic development, found the opportunity to meet a range of people in Brazil valuable: “In Brazil, we were focusing on meeting different people. We used that time to ask experts in the field specific questions relating to our project. Do they agree with what we’re doing? Do they have suggestions? After the conference we were interviewing people, networking with people at the conference and working all night long – the content, the feasibility, the backup. … The sitting down of the group – talking about formatting, and hashing out issues – hearing different people’s expertise in business, engineering and other fields really brought the ideas together. The competition taught me a lot, and I was also able to give a lot, which was a good feeling at the end of the day.”
Throughout the competition, students strengthened their teamwork, problem-solving, and presentation skills. As one undergrad noted, “The C40 Competition made me acutely aware of my own priorities, skills, and contributions for project team work. For example, I tend to be extremely task-oriented and often struggled with accepting group dynamics when they strayed away from the preparation of the business plan itself. The competition let me recognize and correct these behaviors and habits before similar experiences in a career setting.”
Other students also valued the collaboration. “There were students in engineering – civil and other, environmental studies, and we were working with engineering students and business students – in marketing, finance – from other countries. That was really valuable – everyone in the group was learning something new and seeing how their backgrounds could be useful in a collaborative setting.”
In August 2012, the seventh business plan competition finals will be held in Hong Kong. Students from several universities will visit locations in Hong Kong and mainland China, and work together to create business plans that address sustainability issues in that emerging economy. They will interact with local entrepreneurs and business leaders, and experience the challenges of finding entrepreneurial private sector solutions for sustainability that take into account local contexts.