School News

Michigan Ross MBAs Organize Extremely Successful and Impactful Health Equity Case Competition for Graduate Students Around the Globe

By Bridget Vis

The COVID-19 pandemic illuminated major disparities existing in the U.S. healthcare system and the devastating outcomes caused by healthcare inequities in underserved populations.

In response, Full-Time MBA students in the Health and Life Sciences Club at the Ross School of Business organized a case competition focused on health disparity for graduate students from universities across the world. Interest in the inaugural Henrietta Lacks Health Equity Case Competition was great: 49 teams from 27 universities, spanning three continents, applied to participate. 

The HeLa Health Equity Case Competition was inspired by the life of Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells – code named HeLa – were taken without her knowledge in 1951. Those cells became one of the most important tools in medicine (still being used without approval today) — with damaging consequences for her family, many of whom often struggled to get access to the very health care advances their mother’s cells helped make possible. 

“One of my goals entering Michigan Ross was to expand the exposure of health equity issues. The relationship between Black people and the medical community has been tainted as a result of the racism within healthcare institutions,” said Brittani Banks, MBA ’22, who conceived the idea for the competition. “Hearing stories like that of Henrietta Lacks, the Tuskegee syphilis study, and several others can be infuriating at best and maddening at worst as a Black woman in America. Unfortunately, many other underrepresented communities share similar stories.”

Our hope when creating the Henrietta Lacks Health Equity Case Competition was to bring light to the countless disparities that exist in the healthcare industry as a result of both historical events and current systemic inequalities, and find novel solutions to address them.

Brittani Banks, MBA ‘22

The competition invited teams of three to five graduate students to respond to one of three prompts that required them to develop innovative solutions to address pervasive health disparities in areas such as health coverage, chronic health conditions, mental health, and mortality in underserved populations. Out of the dozens of teams that submitted cases, including several from Michigan Ross, 18 were invited to compete in the virtual competition in early October. 

Making the competition a success 

During the virtual event, student teams had the opportunity to present their ideas to experts in the field, form new connections with their peers, and to engage with industry leaders. Helping to increase the relevancy of the competition, Banks and her fellow HLS club organizers were able to land the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson — one of the largest healthcare organizations in the world — as the presenting sponsor. 

Many Michigan Ross alumni from Johnson & Johnson also participated in the competition. The keynote address was given by Vanessa Broadhurst, MBA ’94, company group chairman of global commercial strategy organization; Bradley Birenbaum, MBA ’17, product director of neuroscience marketing, served as a judge; and Dawn Janukowicz, BBA ’04, product director of neuroscience, and Sangeetha Krishnan, MBA ’13, group product director of oncology marketing, joined a career panel to talk and answer questions about their work.

In addition, Michigan Ross and University of Michigan faculty held various roles, including Tom Buchmueller, senior associate dean for faculty and research, who served as a judge; and Dr. Michael Rubyan, clinical assistant professor at the School of Public Health, who gave a fireside chat. 

“The fireside chat with Dr. Rubyan was terrific and Vanessa Broadhurst was so inspiring,” said Ana Taylor, MBA ’22. “Their personal stories and careers weaved seamlessly into the intention of the case competition.” 

Impactful and actionable presentations

After a semifinals round, one team from each prompt made it to a finals round to again present their ideas for a chance to win part of nearly $15,000 in cash prizes. First place went to a team from the University of California Berkeley for a peer-to-pipeline mental health program targeting historically black colleges and universities; second place to a team from Yale for an equity informed platform to facilitate recruitment in clinical trials; and third to a team of five U-M PhD students for an education campaign with the goal of democratizing information and increasing health literacy to empower patients and restore patient trust​​. There were also three honorable mentions and an innovation award.

As part of the planning committee, Taylor said the semifinalist presentations were her favorite part of the event. 

“It was so heartwarming to see the amount of research, time, passion, and effort every team put into their solutions,” said Taylor. “All of the judges were impressed and immediately thought of ways to incorporate these solutions into their respective responsibilities. Seeing the impact these teams had on each other, our judges and faculty, as well as our viewers — that was everything we could have hoped for.”

Fellow organizer Jazmin Branch, MBA ’22, also was impressed with the strength of the teams’ solutions. “It makes me excited for the future of healthcare if these are our future leaders,” she said.

With such impactful presentations, the Michigan Ross MBA students heard positive feedback from competitors and judges about the relevancy of their work to business today, and what they learned through participating in the competition. 

“Our team received multiple points of feedback from competitors on how important they felt the work was, as well as how much they learned about how health equity issues can be applied in a business context,” said Nick Broady, MBA ’22. “More than that, the competitor’s solutions were so inspiring we had judges encouraging teams to write up their potential solutions in a whitepaper, given how impactful and well researched their ideas were. Not only was this year’s competition an emphatic, empowering success, but our team has plenty of interest in making next year’s competition even better.”

Educating and motivating participants to act on health equity issues

With the first successful HeLa Case Competition wrapped up, members of the planning team reflected on what they hoped participants took away from the event. 

“I hope that people left the competition optimistic about the prospect of a future where health outcomes can be equitable, and gained exposure to the complexity of designing solutions that need to account for the distinct (and sometimes misaligned) priorities of the multiple players in the healthcare industry,” said Katarina Nguyen, MBA ’22. “I also hope that this competition galvanizes participants and attendees into keeping considerations of equity and access front of mind as they embark on their graduate school and post-grad career journeys.”

I hope this competition exposed both the participants and judges to the reality of the injustices in our healthcare system, and ways we can change that. Ultimately, I hope people take away that while there are a lot of health inequities to address, but we have both the imagination to come up with ideas for an equitable healthcare system and the tools to build it

Jazmin Branch, MBA ’22

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