Winning in Life’s Real ‘Shark Tank’: Mentoring Students via Critical Conversations

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 22–23, 2019

University of Miami
Miami, Florida

Communication must be HOT: honest, open, and two-way.

Dan Oswald


It is said that the biggest satisfaction that educators get from mentoring students is to see the students’ life goals become achievements and their dreams turn into reality. We, a group of business faculty from Chaminade University of Honolulu are blessed to be able to enjoy many of those precious moments when we see our student mentees succeed in the International Business Case Competitions organized by the International Accreditation Council for Business Education (IACBE) over the past decade. As documented by Stanulis and Russell (2000) that conversations are crucial in mentoring, all of these will not happen without the critical conversations we had with our students in this two-way mentorship. We are glad to have this opportunity to share our stories and experience, along with the student reflections with others.

Background information

Many of us know the television reality series, “Shark Tank.” In this show, entrepreneurs get to give a planned speech or pitch that seeks to persuade “sharks” to lend both their time and money to develop their business to gain market share, increase profitability, and basically, set the world on fire. Some candidates are successful, while most are not. Yet, all seem to agree that the experience of being in the “tank” was the best part. The IACBE International Business Case Competition is similar to this “Shark Tank” show. The competing student teams are required to develop a business plan for a real company. They present their ideas to a group of judges, including the founders of the company, university professors, and experienced business leaders from the industry. The students have eight weeks to get themselves familiarized with the firm and its product. In the meanwhile, they conduct extensive research to create a feasible and reliable business plan before providing a written executive summary and presenting their plan to the judges at the competition.

Photos of student teams and IACBE Awards received inside the School of Business and Communication
Picture above: The “Wall of Fame.” A display of pictures of previous student teams and IACBE Awards received inside the School of Business and Communication at Chaminade University of Honolulu.

We have been bringing students to this international business case competition starting from the year of 2001, and we have made our frequent appearance on the winner’s podium ever since. For example, in the most recent competition we participated in in April 2019, our students created a business plan for an evolving technology business that was moving from a face-to-face approach to a mass direct individual consumer online model. Our clients, the CEO and the CFO of this technology company, were attempting to launch a writing improvement app to ensure their users get instant singular, personalized feedback. Also, their product encourages users’ self-correction and self-improvement, which is enforced by rewriting and resubmitting through the online learning platform. After learning about the company and the uniqueness of its product, our students conducted extensive market research to identify close competitors and targeted a niche market. They carefully examined all similar products available and offered a detailed product review to demonstrate the pros and cons of our clients’ product compared with those of the competitors and provided advice for improvements from the user’s perspective. They also interviewed the founders, listened to their needs, and designed and conducted a survey to collect data from potential consumers. The students won the judges over with their deep understanding of the market and the product, a thorough strategic plan, and persuasive arguments.

In the past decade, our Chaminade student teams have been placed many times, including twice championship in this international completion. We give credits to our excellent students, their hard work and dedication, as well as the faculty mentors and their approach of mentoring — through both casual and critical conversations.

Mentoring via conversations

Lucia Ballas Traynor, the Director of Hemisphere Media Group, has a famous quote on mentorship. She said that “The mediocre mentor tells. The good mentor explains. The superior mentor demonstrates. The greatest mentors inspire.” Indeed, mentoring can be done via various types and levels of communication. As mentors, our conversation with students is casual and critical at the same time. On the one hand, our conversation is casual because the faculty mentors make all efforts to create an easy learning environment to foster students’ growth and development. We build personal relationships with our students and encourage teamwork and collaboration among students. On the other hand, our conversation is critical as we are very straightforward when giving students constructive criticisms, challenging them, and bringing them out of their comfort zones. Although doing so may cause temporary discomfort, it is suitable for students’ long-term growth. Besides, when this type of critical conversation happens in the friendly, collaborative learning environment we created with casual conversation, students are more likely to listen, respect, and follow. Furthermore, our conversation with students is critical not only because we offer constructive criticisms to improve their work and help them to construction and reconstruction of ideas; but also, it is vital as we challenge the students to think on a higher level, ask them to form good habits and become better individuals.

Honest, open, and two-way communication also reshapes the mentors’ perspectives and viewpoints and improves how they mentor. To ensure everyone becomes a better self during the mentoring process, mentors need to forgo their privileged positions. Let the students bring their personal values, beliefs, and characteristics into this education journey (Cochran-Smith, 1991; Feiman-Nemser and Rosaen, 1997; Hawkey, 1997). When faculty mentors inspire and set examples, challenge but also provide commensurable support to their student mentees, the students and faculties move forward together as one team.

From the students’ perspective

Daniel Maximo, who was a junior student at Chaminade University when he participated in the IACBE case competition, has a great analogy when being asked why he thinks the experience of a real-world business case competition is essential. He says, “how do you feel when your flight is about to take off, and the flight attendant announces that the pilot today has completed thousands of hours of flight simulation, but this is his or her first time actually flying a plane?” If you are thinking about getting off the plane immediately, you should understand how employers feel when they hire new college graduates. This is why experience like the IACBE business case competition is valuable to students. It is an excellent opportunity for them to use the knowledge gained at school and translate it to their future careers. As Daniel shared with us, “there are many things that we learn in the classroom, but there is so much more that we can learn in a non-traditional setting, such as simply talking to our professors who are experts in their fields and have gone through the same things we have gone through.”

Other students also echo Daniel’s feelings. Our students say that the best part of joining in this case competition was being part of it. As one of our recent graduates said, she is grateful not only for the opportunity to represent the University, but also for “gaining skills I will be using in my career” and learning that “it is important to believe in your team and yourself.” She mentioned that being part of the competition is “a memorable experience that I will take with me after my years here in Chaminade.” Many students say that it was important for them to attend this competition because it pushed them out of their comfort zones and threw them into the real world, the real business world that is. Besides winning the competition, which pays off all the team’s hard work, the new friendships they had fostered with their teammates, coaches, and students and faculty from the other institutions attending the conference that “in itself was the true win.”

College is a life-transitioning time for students. It is time to learn independence and experiment with emerging adulthood, but for many, this can be a slippery slope. This is where the proper mentorship from a faculty member plays a huge role in a student’s success, especially for someone who struggles and needs a lift. After all, it is easy to let oneself down; however, it is a lot harder to let someone else down, especially someone who cares about you, and you also care about. In retrospect, all students agree that their college experience is or would be made easier and more rewarding when having a mentor, or loosely speaking, someone they can trust and talk to, who happens to be older and wiser. We also ask our students how they find their mentors. They say that a mentor-mentee relationship usually starts from a casual talk. The minute a professor has those simple yet moving conversations with his or her students, suddenly the professor becomes an individual, not a robot who is just there to teach, grade, and nothing more. From there, it becomes a domino effect — students will begin to trust the professor more, care more for their learning, and soon enough, the professor becomes someone they look up to — he or she becomes a mentor, with or without the title.


Cochran-Smith, M. (1991). Learning to teach against the grain. Harvard educational review, 61(3), 279-311.

Feiman-Nemser, S., & Rosaen, C. (1997). Guiding Teacher Learning: Insider Studies of Classroom Work with Prospective & Practicing Teachers. AACTE Publications, One Dupont Circle, Suite 610, Washington, DC 20036-1186.

Hawkey, K. (1997). Roles, responsibilities, and relationships in mentoring: A literature review and agenda for research. Journal of teacher education, 48(5), 325-335.

Stanulis, R. N., & Russell, D. (2000). “Jumping in”: Trust and communication in mentoring student teachers. Teaching and Teacher Education, 16(1), 65-80.

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Spring 2020: Critical Conversations and the Academy