January 30, 2015, BY Matt Hughes

On an afternoon last November, Anna Astakhishvili '15 and Rachel Wahl '15 stood at the front of a ballroom at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City, attending one of the most prestigious undergraduate business conferences in the world. Watching as they and their teammates prepared to present and defend the marketing plan they had developed over the previous two days were nearly 150 of their peers from top business schools in the U.S. and more than 20 other nations. Between work sessions to prepare for this moment, the Bucknellians had rubbed elbows with leaders from some of the most powerful and influential companies in the world. You could forgive them for feeling a bit nervous.

"There were a lot of talented teams and individuals out there — it was really competitive just to be there," Astakhishvili, a global management major, said. "We were a little overwhelmed."

But the two School of Management students each took a deep breath, remembered the skills they had studied and practiced in Lewisburg, and nailed it. Their team (which also included six students from other universities) took home the top prize in the centerpiece Case Study Competition.

We were nervous in front of all those people, but the School of Management does a great job helping us learn how to be confident in presenting," said Wahl, a markets, innovation & design major. "We're constantly doing group projects, learning how to work with one another and combining different ideas."

The annual Business Today International Conference, held Nov. 23–25, 2014, is among the most competitive undergraduate business conferences worldwide. Only about 6 percent of applicants are accepted, and all expenses, including hotels and airfare, are covered by Business Today, a business magazine run by Princeton University undergraduates that was founded by Steve Forbes.

Ken Langone '57, who had connections among the conference organizers, first suggested that Bucknell be included this year. Because it was the University's first year attending the conference, the Bucknell students were nominated by faculty members and then hand-selected by President John Bravman, Dean of Students Susan Lantz and Director of the School of Management Michael Johnson-Cramer. Chosen to attend along with Astakhishvili and Wahl was Trey Lauletta '15, a managing for sustainability major.

"We're grateful to Mr. Langone for making this possible," explained Johnson-Cramer. "Rachel, Anna and Trey are amazing individuals. They're also great representatives of the rising generation of engaged, passionate and creative students that the School of Management's new inter-disciplinary curriculum is attracting to Bucknell."

The centerpiece of the conference was its case competition, sponsored by Deloitte, which broke students into groups of eight to develop a finance and marketing plan for a fictitious exercise band (similar to the FitBit) that could reduce health insurance premiums for users.

Astakhishvili and Wahl said the case challenged them to draw not only on their experience working in teams, but also on the knowledge and real-world experience they have gained at Bucknell.

"I did the Institute for Leadership in Technology and Management program on campus after my sophomore year, and the consulting part was very similar," Astakhishvili said. "After having to consult a health care agency for six weeks about wearable technologies, this case was in my comfort zone. I also worked with Deloitte Consulting during my ILTM program. I knew what they were expecting of us and how high their standards were."

While most of the other groups focused on reducing the cost of the band to increase sales volume, Astakhishvilli and Wahl's group focused on alternative ways to make money from the product. They developed the more novel approach of using the bands to collect anonymous, aggregate health data from users, then selling that data to insurance companies and the U.S. government.

"I think that was something really innovative in our team's pitch — and the reason that we won," Astakhishvilli said. "Every other team had made some stripped-down version the band — not for $350 but for $200 or $100. No one else said, let's work with the data, not the actual product."

The conference also gave the Bucknellians a chance to meet and impress power players at more than 45 global companies, including GE Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt and New York Times Company CEO and President Mark Thompson, as well as to learn where their companies stand on the conference's organizing theme: business and morality.

"It was one of the coolest experiences I've had in my life so far," Wahl said. "Even some of the CEOs said that they had never been in a room with so many other successful CEOs."