Business Society and Culture

Business students step up to make an impact on Edmonton’s economy

Innovative case competition draws on ideas and talents of more than 1,000 students to tackle challenges of local revitalization.

  • November 10, 2023
  • By Geoff McMaster

In the first year of her business degree at the University of Alberta, Caroline Schmit thought she was firmly on track for law school, content with getting decent grades and “hanging out with friends.”

“That was about it,” she admits. “I never really wanted to be more involved on campus.”

That all changed in her second year. First, she was surprised to find that she enjoyed accounting and finance, and thought she may one day like to help clients with wealth management.

But it was the Axford Impact Series in the Alberta School of Business — a program giving first- and second-year business students experience engaging with businesses in the local community — that truly altered her career path.

In partnership with the City of Edmonton, some 1,200 students were asked to come up with ideas for restoring vibrancy to the city’s downtown core, an especially challenging assignment given that activity there had dropped in the wake of the pandemic.

Of 200 teams who submitted projects in the case competition last fall, six were eventually selected to present their ideas to a panel of judges, and Schmit’s team came out on top. Their winning pitch — called the YEG 75 List — would have businesses compete to be on a list of top downtown activities, which would then receive extensive promotion from the city.

Presenting the idea to an audience of 1,200 convinced Schmit that she had talents, especially for public speaking, that she never knew she had.

“I never would have thought that case analysis and presenting in front of such a big group was something I would enjoy until being forced out of my comfort zone to do that.”

YEG 75 was a hit with the panel of judges mainly because it seemed so easy to implement, compared with more ambitious visions to build something akin to another Ice District.

I never would have thought that case analysis and presenting in front of such a big group was something I would enjoy until being forced out of my comfort zone to do that.

Caroline Schmit

Caroline Schmit
(Photo: Supplied)

“It was a really simple and effective way to engage young people, and to reach an audience we’ve had a hard time reaching and getting excited about downtown,” says Puneeta McBryan, executive director of the Edmonton Downtown Business Association and a consultant on the downtown vibrancy case.

“We’re trying to give people a reason to be downtown, getting more traffic into businesses, and making a compelling case to live downtown and get more residential development.”

The YEG 75 team members were invited to pitch their recommendations to the city after winning the Impact Series. McBryan has let Schmit’s team know that if they want to take the idea further, the association would be an eager partner.

The year’s series, sponsored by the accounting firm MNP, will focus on a related case, also designed to help businesses respond to the negative impacts of the pandemic, says Leo Wong, associate dean of the business school. The scope has expanded geographically beyond downtown, he says, but is still aimed at local economic revitalization.

“There have been changes in how people live, work, play and buy things, and how businesses are trying to respond and adapt.”

The theme of each Impact Series will follow participants throughout their degrees, says Wong, and three new courses will be launched over the next few years to further develop skills introduced in the series. Students will be challenged to “think more globally and take a systems approach to addressing complex issues,” he says.

A capstone project in the final year will require students to work with real-world partners to solve specific challenges.

“They will learn about the complexity of the business environment, particularly through the lens of social, economic and environmental factors,” says Wong, “ideally realizing the type of positive impact they can have in the world.”

The Impact Series was first conceived two years ago by Eric Axford, a former chief sustainability officer for Suncor Energy, and Wong, both of whom were convinced community engagement lies at the heart of a business education.

“Understanding the complexities of the community you’re a part of is central to being a strong leader,” said Axford at the series launch, attributing his own success to realizing the power of collaboration in the U of A’s business school more than 30 years ago.

McBryan, herself a U of A graduate, says the focus on community is what impresses her most about the Axford Impact Series.

“It’s something the younger generation of business graduates really care about — the role that business professionals play in the community around us, and having to pay attention to what’s happening in the world,” she says.

“It’s the bigger question of, who are we as a community? Why do cities matter?”