Business plus ethics for the win!

Mount Holyoke’s winning team at the IBECC event in Santa Monica: from left, Shanae McDonald ’17, Pearl Umoye ’19 and Hadassa Mikalixen ’18, with the competition’s founding director, Thomas White.

By Kathleen Mellen 

On the homepage of the Victoria Secret’s website, a slender woman pouts her painted lips and toys with her light-brown locks, offering customers a come-hither look. The young model is just one of the faces promoting the company’s “Very Sexy summer selection.” Scroll through and you’ll find others: A brunette luxuriating in a black, lacy bra and panties, and a couple of blondes, tresses draped seductively in their faces, hawking a see-through mesh T-shirt and a bottle of Bombshell perfume. 

Well, three Mount Holyoke College students have a message for Victoria’s Secret, the nation’s largest seller of women’s lingerie: If the company wants to grow its business and more effectively expand its markets, it would do well to abandon its overly sexualized, provocative advertisements, add women to its boardroom and rethink its northern-Eurocentric notion of beauty. 

That message earned the students first place at the 21st annual International Business Ethics Case Competition (IBECC), held in April in Santa Monica, California. This is the first time Mount Holyoke has competed in the event.

Shanae McDonald ’17, Pearl Umoye ’19 and Hadassa Mikalixen ’18 represented Mount Holyoke at the competition that this year featured 33 teams from 15 states and five countries. Competitors came from as far away as Hong Kong, Australia, England and Spain. 

The Mount Holyoke students took first in all three components of the competition, the only school to sweep its division. They also won the Tourist Division of IBECC’s World’s Most Intellectually Daunting Biathlon competition, which raises money for good causes: This year’s recipient was L’Ecole de Choix — the School of Choice — in Haiti. Participants in the Tourist Division (there was also a Run/Jog/Walk Division) were issued a pedometer and logged their steps while sightseeing. Those results combined with presentation scores determined the winner. 

The team’s participation was sponsored by the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives, which leads the College’s commitment to expand students’ global competence through its study abroad and international students programs, international internships and research, and a global curriculum and conferences. 

"The McCulloch Center funds student conference participation when they present on international issues,” said Eva Paus, the Carol Hoffmann Collins Director of the McCulloch Center and professor of economics. “We were enthusiastic to support the participation of a Mount Holyoke student team at IBECC.” 

In the competition, teams of three to five students in graduate and undergraduate divisions choose a contemporary case that has legal, financial and ethical dimensions. They present in three mandatory components: a 25-minutes presentation in which they describe a problem and propose a solution; a 10-minute Q&A with judges who are mostly corporate executives; and a 90-second presentation during which a student tries to persuade the judges that there are ethical issues that need to be addressed. 

“This is essentially a business-presentation competition,” said Thomas White, IBECC’s founding executive director. “Teams imagine themselves as a consulting company, adopt a fictional business identity and view their audience as senior management or a board of directors.” 

White is also the Conrad N. Hilton Chair in Business Ethics and director of the Center for Ethics and Business at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, which co-sponsors the event. “The goal is to take students used to working intellectually and to place them in simulated real-world situations,” he said. 

Recently relocated to Amherst, Massachusetts, White taught a course in business ethics at Mount Holyoke this spring, in which the three competitors were enrolled. The course is part of the College’s interdisciplinary minor in entrepreneurship, organizations and society

All the skills needed for the competition are transferable, White noted. 

“No matter what career students are going to go into, learning to work on teams, learning to communicate effectively and balance competing demands is something they can always find useful,” he said. 

The Mount Holyoke team decided to address ethical issues in Victoria Secret’s branding, including its presentation of an unrealistic and unhealthy body type as ideal, the hyper-sexualization of young women, the objectification of women for the male gaze and the narrow representation of beauty in terms of racial diversity, body type and size. 

The team’s recommendations were simple, said McDonald, a politics major with a minor in entrepreneurship, organizations and society. “Use models from different racial backgrounds, refrain from culture appropriation, have more female representation in the boardroom, expand the range of bras they carry, use models with a variety of body types and rethink branding. There was a lot to be done but these were simple changes the company could easily make. We felt these were important so that no woman would feel excluded or inadequate.” 

The judges praised the students’ work, White said, including the passion and mastery they showed for their topic as well as their poise, confidence and realistic approach to understanding the problem and solutions. 

“They not only touched all the bases,” White said, “but they obviously did them really well.” 

Umoye, an international relations major who also minors in entrepreneurship, organizations and  society, said she and her teammates were elated by their win. 

“We didn't think it was possible,” she said. “I'm still riding on the euphoria. It was definitely a high point this semester, and rewarding to see that we connected with different judges on such a specific topic.” 

The students’ hat trick at their first appearance at the IBECC demonstrates the College’s strengths, said Paus. 

“We are absolutely thrilled that the team won every single competition. Power to them!” she said. “The team's achievements reflect, first and foremost, the thoughtfulness and prowess of the students. But they also reflect the power of a liberal arts education that has enabled the students to present an ethical dilemma with such complexity, creativity and persuasion.”

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