Interdisciplinary Yale Team Takes Top Prize in Patagonia Case Competition

Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.

2017 Case Visit Morning Surf
During their visit to Patagonia's California offices the members of the finalist teams spent one morning surfing the Pacific.
A year ago, a team of Yale graduate students, including three from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES), nearly won the first Patagonia Eco Innovation Case Competition. Their pitch, which addressed the environmental challenges of water repellents used by the outdoor apparel company, earned the team second place.
They came so close to victory that Serena Pozza ’17 M.E.M., who led last year’s team, wanted to try again this year.
This time around, the Yale team won.
The six-person team, including students and recent graduates from F&ES and the Yale School of Management, took the top prize with a three-part proposal for how Patagonia can help scale up regenerative organic agriculture (ROA). Regenerative agriculture is farming and grazing practices that rebuild organic matter in soil and restore degraded soil biodiversity.
According to Phil Graves, managing director at Patagonia, it is also “one of the most important ways to tackle climate change.”
The Yale team offered a three-pronged approach. First, they suggested creating a region-based approach to ROA, and defining region-specific metrics and best practices for different soil regions in the U.S., said Chris Martin ’18 M.F./M.B.A, one of the team members.
I think our team represented a really broad diversity of knowledge and experience that we were all able to bring together with the proposal.
— Emily Oldfield, team member and Ph.D. student at F&ES
Next, they proposed creation of a “seed network,” in which farmers would be selected to serve as ambassadors to promote ROA locally and address cultural barriers to adoption. The third piece included a financial planning tool that farmers can use to project their finances through the transition from conventional to ROA, and a green bond to finance the transition.
“They stood out above the rest, in terms of the research they put into it,” Alex Kremer, manager of corporate development at Patagonia, said at the company’s Poets & Quants blog. “They had very diverse backgrounds, and they hit on a few key things that we thought were important. They took a regional approach, and realized they couldn’t have a one-size-fits-all approach. You could tell they had done their homework.”
In addition to Pozza and Martin, the team included Nitesh Kumar ’17 M.B.A., the team leader and another member of last year’s Yale team, Nathan Hall ’17 M.E.M./M.B.A., Nikola Alexandre ’18 M.F./M.B.A., and Emily Oldfield, a Ph.D. student at F&ES.
The Yale group was one of 68 teams to submit proposals. The competition is coordinated by Patagonia and the Center for Responsible Business at the University of California-Berkeley Haas School of Business.
In addition to a $15,000 cash prize, the Yale team was invited to visit Patagonia’s offices in Ventura, Calif., where, after spending a morning surfing in the Pacific, the members repeated their presentation to company employees.
A key to their success was the interdisciplinary insights and experiences each individual brought, team members said. Hall, for instance, has spent eight years exploring ways to implement regenerative practices in the context of mining-impacted lands in Appalachia. Oldfield, meanwhile, brought an expertise in soil ecology.
“I think our team represented a really broad diversity of knowledge and experience that we were all able to bring together with the proposal,” said Oldfield. “Having no business background, it was really fascinating to learn about a specific green bond financing mechanism; and I hope the rest of the team learned about some of the nuances involved in managing for soil organic matter.”
We created a framework for partnering with those who will be the leaders of change on the ground; the farmers themselves.
— Emily Oldfield, team member and Ph.D. student at F&ES
For Hall, the trip was valuable beyond simply winning first prize in the contest. “Getting to know the Patagonia and Provisions team was incredibly rewarding, and those initial contacts have evolved into a consulting gig wherein I will be helping Patagonia to develop an ROA soil testing protocol,” he said.
He also met an agroecology researcher from Cornell University who happens to be from Charleston, W.V., where he now lives. “We may collaborate on work to restore soil ecosystem health on mining-impacted lands in Appalachia in the future, and we may have never crossed paths otherwise,” he said.
“These kinds of case competitions aim to collect the best and the brightest ideas for innovation, but they’re too often developed in a vacuum,” said Alexandre. “It was important for us to remember that, although we’re immensely privileged in our access to academic resources, at the end of the day we’re suggesting changes that will affect people’s lives in a very real, non-theoretical way.”
“We have ideas and can see the big picture, but the true experts are those folks living directly off of the land,” he added. “From the start, we needed to make sure we weren’t merely exporting our values and our perceived solutions. So we created a framework for partnering with those who will be the leaders of change on the ground; the farmers themselves.”
– Kevin Dennehy    203 436-4842