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Practical, profitable experience: how RSM100 gives first-years a taste of entrepreneurship

Rotman professor Michael Khan on the purpose, function of the business case competition
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Most Rotman Commerce students will be learning online this semester. TOSIN MAIYEGUN/THE VARSITY
Most Rotman Commerce students will be learning online this semester. TOSIN MAIYEGUN/THE VARSITY

Every year, hundreds of students learn about the fundamentals of the business world in RSM100 — Introduction to Management. The course is mandatory for all first-year Rotman Commerce students and equips them with the tools they need to tackle future management courses.

Michael Khan, an associate professor in the Rotman School of Management’s teaching stream, has been instructing RSM100 for the last eight years. He has stressed the importance of “collaborative learning,” and previously introduced an applied competition component — the business case competition — to the course.

The Varsity spoke to Khan about the pedagogical purpose of the competition, the experience it provides students, and how he is adapting it to online learning, pursuant to Rotman Commerce’s course delivery plans.

Recent origins

At the suggestion of his teaching assistants (TA), Khan introduced the business case competition to the course two years ago. “I was very against it,” Khan said, referring to his initial reaction to the idea. “I thought it was a great thing to do… but I just thought it would be very difficult in a class of over 800 people” — people, he specified, who had just graduated from high school.

“It was a challenge; it continues to be a challenge… But I think the benefits certainly outweigh the costs.”

In years past, students were assigned groups and asked to develop and pitch business plans. Khan and his TAs then selected the competition’s semi-finalists based on these pitches. Those who were selected would present to their peers, and the student body chose the finalists. The competition concluded with the finalists pitching their ideas to a panel of business professionals for a chance to win $5,000 in prize money that would be shared amongst the top three teams.

“One of the key aims of the case competition is to build those soft skills that are necessary for life in business and life in general,” Khan explained. “So things like teamwork, verbal communication, written communication, and essentially making students prepared for not just an academic career in Rotman, but then their actual career once they leave Rotman. Essentially, we are trying to make a more well-rounded student.”

Pandemic preparations

Because of COVID-19, the competition is moving totally online this year, along with the rest of the course. Students will also be given the opportunity to select their own groups.

“One of the things that I am trying to do is… show them the importance of networking,” explained Khan. “[Students] can see other people participating… and be like ‘Hey, that person participates. I want them in my group because I see that they are engaged in discussions.’  ”

These changes accompany changes in lecture coverage, where Khan plans to introduce pandemic-related case studies — for example, the ethical, economical, and operational issues attached to reopening a gym. “When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade, right?” Khan said, referring to COVID-19. “See what you can do to leverage off the situation.”

Student impressions

Last year’s winning team consisted of members Enzo Hao, Jack Hewitt, Emily Kemp, Adnan Khan, Sylvia Qi, and Sabrina Shafi. They formed the fictional company “IndePendant,” which would manufacture a necklace with a GPS tracker and alarm inside the pendant. The Varsity received emails from Kemp, Qi, and Shafi — all second-year Rotman Commerce students — with comments about their experience.

“The competition greatly benefitted me, and was a highlight of my first year at U of T,”  Kemp wrote. “One of the biggest things I gained from it was finding out that I (along with my amazing group) could create a real business plan and present it professionally. When I look back at the proposal now, I am still impressed that a group of first years, with very little business background at the time of creation, could make this!”

“Working on this business plan taught me how to materialize a creative idea into existence,” Shafi wrote. “No amount of practice prepared us for the kind of questions we got but that experience made me look at our product from different, new angles and this really helped me develop my analytical and quick-thinking skills.”

“I feel so grateful to Professor Khan for giving students the opportunity to push themselves in the RSM100 competition,” Qi wrote. “I think it is important to gain experience working with people on a multi-month project. Other RSM group projects typically take a week or two, whereas this one took long enough for everyone’s strengths and personalities to mesh into a powerful group dynamic.”