Run to Supply Chain Global Finals Ends Just Short of Podium

TOM students at Global Student Challenge with American flag

*Huy Tran is a Technology and Operations Management student and communications assistant for the College of Business Administration. The United States Navy veteran and current ROTC candidate is one of four members of Sparkling Lint, winner of the 2018 Global Student Challenge California Regional. The first article of his two-part series is available here.

In a sentence: Traveling to the Netherlands as a finalist in the world’s largest collegiate supply chain competition was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The team, Sparkling Lint, began as four Technology and Operations Management students that thought it would be fun to compete in the Global Student Challenge. Six months and a trans-Atlantic flight later, the first comparison that jumps to mind is making a tie-dye shirt: Preparation of time and resources require way more time than the work. However, the end result is long-lasting and colorful.

As a name, Sparking Lint originated from thirst and tidiness. When we arrived at host college, Windesheim University of Applied Sciences, what it turned into became surreal. Reality was blurred further by sleeping accommodations provided to the finalists - a village of small wooden huts built inside a Windesheim gymnasium.

Right then, we decided regardless of outcome, we were leaving the Netherlands with more friends and meaningful connections than any other team. We started by connecting with a French team from Bordeaux and wildcard entries from Morocco. The group became best friends for the week, but the first night, as teams trickled into our GSC hut village, we tried to greet as many as we could.

COMPETITION – DAY ONE

The GSC kicked off the next morning when teams gathered for breakfast and an introduction to the week’s schedule. Organizers planned more than the competition; all non-sleeping hours were occupied with receptions, tours and networking events. The friendly mood gave way to a competitive atmosphere.

With a palpable aura of seriousness overtaking the room, we questioned our strategy. Did every team but us spend all night in huts reviewing Excel models? We had literally just spent months preparing and Jacky went through the effort of packing Dance Dance Revolution. Should have exercised our brains instead of legs?

Free-spirited as we entered the day, reality of being a finalist in the world’s top collegiate supply chain competition hit us hard. It didn’t take a survey for us to know our team was most likely the youngest. A lot of the regional winners came from grad school programs. Sparkling Lint’s youngest member was a freshman and three-quarters of the team still had a sizeable number of credits until receiving an undergraduate degree.

Organizers jumped right into the deep end, posing incredibly difficult questions and challenges. It could have been the jetlag toying with my concentration or the unsurmountable setback triggered by a moment of panic. Regardless, I did not ready feel ready for the scope of the problem. Sitting in 14th place after the first round was not the start we were looking for either.

LEARNING FROM EXPERIENCE

The sting of our first-round stumble continued through the next morning. A dawn stroll through the canal-wrapped Windesheim campus helped me reboot. With a re-centered perspective, I knew my teammates would benefit from a dose of optimism. I challenged the group to embrace the remainder of the week as an opportunity to experience different cultures and expand our network. Our new objective was to stay positive and participate in all planned activities with optimism. As a unit, we headed to the venue well-rested and hopeful.

There was a shift in mood among the other competitors as well. The formation of friendships helped set a more relaxed environment. As we analyzed data looking for ways to improve a juice company’s supply chain, it seemed like every decision we made came out in our favor. Although we lost one big gamble, by day’s end, I knew we had a chance. Climbing to 7th place also offered reassurance we were headed in the right direction.

Celebration time was limited. We went straight from the competition back to our hut for a quick break before heading to pre-arranged dinner party. Activities for the entire week were quite structured.  Wednesday’s off-day was spent touring nearby companies on a small cruise boat with other teams. We did find time to enjoy the Port of Rotterdam sightseeing. The day ended with a big dinner at a local Moroccan and Armenian restaurant. At that point, I’m comfortable saying I wasn’t the only one doing my best to enjoy the experience as much as possible. For a few hours, the competition was second on all our minds.

THE FINAL PUSH

We were finally getting used to the time difference and of course the competition was almost over. Organizers kept us on edge by presenting a new simulation called, “The Cool Connection.” To this point, our focus was on all the elements of an end-to-end supply chain. The introduction of money flow further complicated operating a business relying on perishable goods.  

Our strategy remained that of a responsive supply chain company. As vice president of finance, I asked my customer to pay early and extend pay terms on the supplier side. The intent was to have a minimal amount of overdraft backed by an emergency loan. I trusted my teammates to effectively fill their roles while making other critical choices. We took some risks at the end and hoped for the best result. As the competition closed, the final matter of business was the closing gala dinner where winners were to be announced.

Two hours later after our last supply chain decision, Sparkling Lint joined the other teams on a short bus trip to the center of Zwolle. Dinner took place at Grote Kerk, a 15th Century church with some of the most breathtaking views inside and out. It was the faciest meal I’ve ever eaten. In the background, a cello and violin duet played a soft variety of melodies. The soothing sounds helped ease the anticipation of hearing our results.

As we were finishing the main course, Dr. Steeman, professor of the Supply Chain Finance and Inchainge’s Windesheim partner, slowly provided rankings, starting from the 27th. A lot of team names were being announced and we still were waiting to hear ours. By the time Dr. Steeman was getting to 10th place, we were expecting our turn. As the numbers became smaller, time came to a halt. When he finally said there was initially a tie for third place requiring judges recalculate every last point, I was overcome with emotion when I heard Cal Poly Pomona’s score was slightly lower.

The congratulatory words were bittersweet. On one hand, we traveled to the Netherlands with the intention of winning and didn’t. Being one of only three undergraduate teams isn’t an excuse though. We wanted to improve on the finish of last year’s team. Like the second day of the competition, perspective can change an accomplishment. Looking back, we finished fourth top out of more than 4000 teams.  We survived a rigorous regional competition and proudly represented CPP on a global stage. We experienced different cultures and learned so much from our new friends. The experience itself ended up being an outstanding consolation prize.