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How a college competition honors the legacy of Rep. John Lewis

·Senior Producer
·3 min read
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Six weeks after the murder of George Floyd, the world lost 80-year-old civil rights icon and long-time Georgia congressman John Lewis. It was July 2020, and Willie Sullivan, then an MBA candidate at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School in Atlanta, knew he needed to step forward and do something in the fight for racial justice.

So he pitched something that is a bedrock of business education: a case competition.

And that is how the John R. Lewis Racial Justice Case Competition was born. Now in its second year, the competition is open to students from colleges and universities across the country, and matches them with companies eager to address issues of racial justice within their own organizations and beyond.

“We really zeroed in on corporations, because corporations were coming out and saying that they wanted to have a seat at the table and trying to deal with systemic racism, racial inequality, and racial equity,” Sullivan told Yahoo Finance.

Feb 3, 2019; Atlanta; U.S. congressman John Lewis rides along the sidelines during warm-ups before Super Bowl LIII between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 3, 2019; Atlanta; U.S. congressman John Lewis rides along the sidelines during warm-ups before Super Bowl LIII between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

This year, teams of students from more than 40 universities applied. Those selected were paired to work with five corporate sponsors on issues of social justice. The companies include UPS (UPS), Moderna (MRNA), Accenture (ACN), Taco Bell (YUM), and the global open-source technology program Call for Code from founding partner IBM (IBM).

Together, the students and companies are working to tackle issues that are extremely diverse in scope —everything from as attracting and retaining diverse talent to reducing lending discrimination at financial institutions.

“I think one of the main challenges continues to be how to make the business case for diversity, or equity, or inclusion, to be really specific,” Sullivan said, adding, “It’s really exciting to see that work come to life.”

Sullivan, who received his MBA in 2021 and is now a senior consultant at Deloitte, said the competition gives students invaluable experience working with real-world professionals and gives participating companies access to new and innovative ideas from the next generation of workers.

“I would say that being in the 'real world' has opened my eyes to how important an initiative like this actually is,” he said. “Many of the questions that the students are trying to answer for these major corporations are truly the kind of questions that they're trying to get answers to on the ground.”

The final five teams will compete on Friday, presenting their ideas to a panel of 17 judges, including Sullivan and Joseph Handy, president and CEO of the National Black MBA Association. As its official media partner, Yahoo Finance will livestream the competition on its YouTube channel on Friday, Jan. 21, beginning at 1pm ET.

Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) is photographed in his offices in the Canon House office building on March 17, 2009 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images)
Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) is photographed in his offices in the Canon House office building on March 17, 2009 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images)

The winning team will receive a $20,000 cash prize — half to keep and half to donate to a racial justice organization of its choice.

“The finalists have been working over the past few weeks to research and really create meaningful solutions and recommendations for these companies,” said Jasmine Burton, current Goizueta MBA student and co-managing director of the competition. “So we're really excited to see them present their recommendations based off of this intentional research.”

The competition has the blessing of the late John R. Lewis’ family, said Lewis’ nephew, Jerrick Lewis.

"[My uncle] would have been proud of the initiatives brought forth by the John R. Lewis Racial Justice Case Competition,” he said during the inaugural event last year. “By bringing attention to social change and equality, [the participants] are not only honoring my uncle’s legacy, but also initiating long-lasting social change within the business world.”

Willie Sullivan and Jasmine Burton were interviewed for Yahoo Finance's weekly program, "A Time for Change," which explore issues of race, diversity and inclusion in the worlds of finance, business, politics and beyond.

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