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Idea Contests: Beneficial to Students and a Nation? - Or Exploitation of Entrepreneurial Ideas?
Recently, the Turkish Daily News had a very generous front page article, ("Young Turks' career question: Why?") concerning Unilever's IdeaTrophy Contest. A business strategy contest for university students throughout Turkey, IdeaTrophy provides a competitive platform for students to form teams, culminate ideas, and present to Unilever executives. Winners of the yearly contest are rewarded with small cash prizes (and potential for employment). While I agree that the contest provides a good framework for teamwork, business planning education, presentation skills and valuable experience working with a multinational corporation, I will stop short at saying it promotes and improves innovation and entrepreneurship for Turkey.

This is the problem I have with these "idea" contests. For these large MNC's, they are quite simply building a marketing focus group for free, and a permission-based recruiting network. By asking for ideas (bordering on exploitation of rather entrepreneurial ideas that are not their own), the MLC focuses on the best of the best, refines them, and "rewards" (disguises) it with a contest prize incentive. Whether the student winners are hired is immaterial, the objective of garnering valuable market data on Turkey's youth, the largest demographic in Turkey, has been achieved. I find it interesting that last year's contest was on product development, as they received hundreds of brainstormed ideas for free. Having completed that production of an abundant array of Lipton Tea products (Long Tail?), this years contest decided to focus on customer attraction and retention. Hmm.. how interesting. (Back in the day, people used to actually work for a living)

Cem Tarık Yüksel, Unilever's veteran human resources manager, (interestingly enough) was quoted as saying,
"the first question youth ask themselves is whether they were doing a meaningful job or a “brand-name” job. “In the past, ‘brand-name jobs,' such as being the so-and-so manager of company X, used to be in high demand. But now they look at whether that job has a meaning,” he said. He added that people were not satisfied with “brand-name” jobs that did not provide them with real responsibilities."

The competitors have to pass various elimination processes, just as in pitching an idea to the board of a multi-national company. “The first one is at the idea level. The goal here is to promote innovative thinking. The roughly 50 teams that make it through the first elimination are asked to prepare their business plans,” said Yüksel. The second elimination yields 20 teams and these make a presentation to a board made up of the manager of the related brand and human resources group. Ten teams are chosen as finalists and are then invited to a three-day camp, where they receive training on their subject. The last day of the camp is “the big day,” when teams make a presentation to members of Unilever Turkey's board of directors."
Ironically, later in the article, interviews are made with previous winners of the contest who just so happen to work for Unilever, as they fit so nicely into their "brand name" jobs. Here's what they had to say the contest did for them.
Mehmet Çelikol is a member of the team that won the IdeaTrophy prize in 2005. “I was studying computer engineering in Bosporus University, but I had decided to go into marketing,” said Çelikol, who currently works as a products manager assistant for Dove Hair at Unilever Turkey. “So this was important for me. It was a turning point in my career,” he said.

Mirella Kasuto is another IdeaTrophy winner who has joined the ranks of Unilever Turkey. She was a member of the winning team in 2001, the first year the competition was held. She believes that the competition had positive results and was influential in her decision to apply for a position with Unilever. “The competition taught not only me, but the whole team quite a lot. It allowed us to have a real business life experience as students. It was also an opportunity for us to get to know Unilever better,” she wrote in an e-mail interview from a business trip abroad as customer marketing manager in charge of the Lipton and Amaze brands at Unilever.

How many entrepreneurs wake up one day and say, "I want to be the product manager for Dove Shampoo!" Do I dare say this is the reply to your primary school teacher's question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I think not.

So who are the real winners here? Does Turkey, as a nation, increase its wealth? Have we increased the entrepreneurial spirit and spurred innovation? Some may argue that the valuable job experience, which so few young educated Turks have, is of the upmost value. Others might argue that young Turks are able to sample new products first-hand. And this is an incentive to compete?

OK, OK, I'll get off the rant. But regardless, if you are a student with minimum ideals, prospects, dreams and/or ability to take risks, than these contests are an excellent opportunity to flaunt what you think you got. Take the 50 year job, get the gold watch and parachute. For other contests, you should also check out TRUST International Management Game by Danone, or Loreal's E-Strat Challenge just to name a few. Don't get me wrong, these contests are a great experience for students, but the hidden benefits for the company are greater.

That said, how many university students do you know that opted for an internship vs. a summer in Bodrum? The point is that it takes all kinds. Everyone is different. However, if you think you are an entrepreneur and your ideas will set you above the rest, then don't waste your time. Wait for the next business plan contest, and pitch your idea to real VCs. You may die broke, but atleast you weren't a numbered cog.

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Posted @ 22:24  
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