More ‘Good Trouble’ Than Ever: Fourth Annual John Lewis Case Competition Is Biggest — And Most Ambitious — Yet

Rice University’s Prosperity Without Prejudice, comprised of Class of 2025 MBAs Dzidefo Ababio, Damieanus Ochola, Talor Thompson, and Dominique Wilson, won the $20K first prize at the 2023-2024 John Lewis Case Competition. Photo courtesy Emory Goizueta

When he founded the John Lewis Racial Justice Case Competition in 2020, Emory University Goizueta Business School MBA Willie Sullivan said naming it after the legendary civil rights icon and Georgia congressman was an easy choice.

Lewis, who died in July 2020, was a close confidante of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and one of the civil rights movement’s youngest leaders during its most pivotal years in the early to late 1960s. In 2018, amid simmering racial tension across the United States, Lewis famously tweeted an exhortation to young people to “Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble” — a phrase that became the title of a documentary film about Lewis’s life and activism that premiered shortly before his death.

The expression resonated with Sullivan. “He was saying to young people to really go out and put yourself out there and do something that is going to change,” he told Poets&Quants in late 2020. “Some people might not like it, but that’s where the trouble part comes in. It’s a good thing to do but it might get you in trouble.”

The Social Innovation Group from the University of Virginia won Third Place ($3,000) at the 2023-2024 John Lewis Case Competition. Members are Jillian (Jill) Howland, Zuhayr Shaikh, Luis Otero, and Austin Paul Roye; all but Shaikh, an MBA-MD dual-degree student, and in the full-time MBA Class of 2025 at the Darden School of Business. Photo courtesy Emory Goizueta

WINNERS FROM RICE UNIVERSITY TOOK $20K FIRST-PLACE PRIZE

The John R. Lewis Racial Justice Case Competition that emerged from Sullivan’s and others’ efforts in 2020 examines how companies can address racial injustice within their organizations and industries while serving as a platform for business students and national organizations. Since the first competition that concluded in 2021, it has engaged over a thousand MBA, BBA and other students representing nearly 100 universities, generated 50 corporate action plans, and granted over $125,000 in grants to nonprofits advancing racial and economic justice. And it has gotten steadily more popular: The 2023-2024 event saw a 25% rise in applications to compete and expanded to accommodate the surge in interest.

“As the managing director of the John R. Lewis Racial Justice Case Competition,” says Maya Dantzler, Emory MBA Class of 2024, “my greatest hope is that it serves as a catalyst for future business leaders to embrace their responsibility in advancing racial equity.”

Last fall, a pool of competitors was narrowed to 15 teams of students representing 13 leading universities — including Emory, Duke, Columbia, Cornell, the University of Virginia, Georgia Tech, George Washington, Carnegie Mellon, and Rice. They spent weeks preparing their cases, then presented them at a final event in Atlanta with over 120 in-person attendees and more than 350 more via livestream. First-, second-, and third-place prizes were $20,000, $8,000, and $3,000, respectively, to be shared with a nonprofit of the winning teams’ choice that is devoted to racial equity and/or justice. The winners:

First Place ($20,000)
Rice University: Prosperity Without Prejudice
Winnings will be shared with Operation Hope
Members of Rice University’s team:

Dzidefo Ababio 2025 MBA
Damieanus Ochola 2025 MBA
Talor Thompson 2025 MBA
Dominique Wilson 2025 MBA

Second Place ($8,000)
Georgia Tech: Diversity Defenders
Winnings will be shared with Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation
Members of Georgia Tech’s team:

Pranav Batchu 2025 BSCS
Turner Davis 2027 BSBA
Victor Huang 2027 BSBA
Druvitha Lokasani 2026 BSIE

Third Place ($3,000)
University of Virginia: The Social Innovation Group
Winnings will be split with HoPe: The Hispanic Organization Promoting Education
Members of University of Virginia’s team, The Social Innovation Group

Jillian (Jill) Howland 2025 MBA
Luis Otero 2025 MBA
Austin Paul Roye 2025 MBA
Zuhayr Shaikh 2025 MBA, 2025 MD

Jerrick Lewis, nephew of late Congressman John Lewis, speaks at the 2023-2024 John Lewis Case Competition. Photo courtesy Emory Goizueta

CONTINUING A LEGACY OF CHANGE-MAKERS

The case competition is part of Emory Goizueta’s Business & Society Institute, which has a mandate to address complex challenges confronting people, the planet, and the business community. Part of the event is the John R. Lewis Racial Justice Summit, during which three student finalist teams shared proposals to address issues of racial inequity for this year’s partners Delta Air Lines, First Step Staffing, and Taco Bell. Partner organizations asked students to tackle complex questions such as: “How can Delta Air Lines address climate equity?” and “How can First Step Staffing create pathways to economic opportunity and mobility for women of color?” and “How can Taco Bell authentically attract more Black consumers?” A panel of judges reviewed each finalist presentation to determine the overall champion.

“The conversation around racial justice has shifted significantly since 2020 and yet the structural issues persist, making the John R. Lewis Racial Justice Case Competition as relevant as ever,” says Lynne Segall, associate dean for management practice initiatives and the competition’s faculty advisor. “This competition and summit connects student leaders with business leaders in a meaningful way to focus on bold initiatives and actionable change. Once again, these student leaders have given our sponsors a lot to think about and act on.”

This year’s competition also brought together leading faculty, business, and community leaders for discussion panels to explore initiatives, emerging ideas, and actionable insights for a more equitable future:

  • “Fearless Dialogues” featuring Gregory C. Ellison II, Ph.D., founder of Fearless Dialogues and associate professor, Candler School of Theology
  • “Making Inclusion Last: A conversation about strategies and practices for enduring inclusion in business” featuring Dane Mathews, chief digital officer of Taco Bell; and Omar Rodríguez-Vilá, professor in the practice of marketing, Goizueta Business School
  • “Prioritizing Racial Equity Panel: Why should companies commit to sustainable change?” featuring Ashley Black, managing director, equity strategies, Delta Air Lines; Kellie Brownlow, chief mission officer, First Step Staffing; KT Thornton, chief equity, inclusion and belonging officer at Taco Bell; and moderated by Wes Longhofer, associate professor of organization and management
  • “Insights to Actions: Meaningful steps for a better tomorrow” featuring Sara Prince, senior partner, McKinsey & Company

JOHN LEWIS’S NEPHEW: ‘THIS IS WHAT MY UNCLE WANTED’

Willie Sullivan, founder of the John Lewis Case Competition: “These issues of racial justice and inequality, the reason why we’re still dealing with them the way we are is because of the lack of engagement of everyone.” Courtesy photo

John Lewis’s life and his philosophy of “good trouble” were something 2021 Emory Goizueta MBA Willie Sullivan thought young business students could relate to.

“That was centered around young people,” Sullivan said of Lewis’s early activist days and the role he played in the Freedom Rides and his work alongside MLK in Selma and Birmingham, Alabama.

Creating engagement among many different types of people is key to moving forward, Sullivan told P&Q in November 2020, only few months removed from a summer of unrest sparked by the police killing of George Floyd. “These issues of racial justice and inequality, the reason why we’re still dealing with them the way we are is because of the lack of engagement of everyone,” he said.

To confront this, from the start he was intentional in creating diverse teams to help launch the case competition. Diversity was woven into the fabric of the event and made a mandatory component for evaluating competition applications.

“I intentionally didn’t go to all of the Black students at the school,” Sullivan said, “because I knew they’d be interested in getting involved. I wanted to make sure that, frankly, we had white male students involved that can say, ‘That’s not going to hit with our group, we need to change this or do this in order to get them involved.’ Because, for me, it’s about meeting people where they are so we can get to where we all want to be.”

Congressman Lewis died in 2020, but his nephew, Jerrick Lewis, executive director of the John R. Lewis Legacy Institute, attended this year’s competition and presented the winning teams with their awards.

“This is what my uncle wanted,” Jerrick Lewis told attendees. “This is what he meant when he talked about getting into good and necessary trouble.”

And Emory Goizueta Dean Gareth James, in closing remarks, added: “The John R. Lewis Racial Justice Case Competition is such a wonderful example of what we at Goizueta are called to do. We aim to bring insights to business to drive it forward, engage students in experiential learning, and build a better, more inclusive society. Business has immense power, influence, and resources—and because of this, we can drive real change.

“It takes a village, and we’re so grateful to all the partners who stepped up to become agents of change and make this event possible.”

To learn more about the John R. Lewis Case Competition, visit Emory.biz/jlcc.

DON’T MISS EMORY MBA CREATES FIRST MAJOR RACIAL JUSTICE CASE COMPETITION and USC MARSHALL TEAM WINS FIRST-EVER RACIAL JUSTICE CASE COMPETITION

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.