At a recent class, MBA student Julian Galarza sampled snacks made with some unusual ingredients: pizza bites topped with mealworms, tortilla chips smothered in melted cheese made with ground crickets, avocado sprinkled with black ants, and more.
Galarza was one of 10 MBA students from the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business who earned academic credit by coaching teams of undergraduates acting as business consultants for real-world clients via a Grand Challenges Project course. This section focused on zero hunger, food access and food waste.
His team of five students served the edible insect snacks Nov. 14 in Warren Hall, marking the culmination of their capstone project.
With Galarza’s guidance, the team came up with new product ideas for their client, Joseph Yoon of Brooklyn Bugs, Inc., who visited for the presentation.
“One of my main tasks was helping students accomplish their goal while also helping them grow as people,” Galarza said.
The team set out to explore edible insect products as a viable business opportunity and a sustainable, affordable protein for the world’s growing population.
“Early on, we were thinking, how do we actually find a product that Joseph would be really excited about?” said Ashley Poon ’24, a student in the Dyson School. “And also one the market would be excited for.”
Poon said that, at first, the group took a very broad research approach, as if the goal was a term paper. But the information they found was not relevant to a business setting. “Then Julian sat us down and told us, ‘Unless you know what the consumer market needs, you could look at market sizes all day long but that wouldn’t be helpful for the client.’”
The team responded to the feedback by developing a survey to collect consumer data, so they could back up their recommendations with data.
“It’s important for students to be confident enough in their research to provide their opinion to the client,” Galarza said.
Other teams consulted for clients on projects ranging from the adoption of agricultural technology to the promotion of mental health.
Great coaching means building a team’s capacity, rather than directing their activities, said Jackie Barrett, MBA ’17, associate director of leadership programs at the Johnson School and coaching program instructor. “Coaches help the team consider new ideas and provide support, but the accountability for decisions and execution is on the team.”
The coaches, all in the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, attended skills workshops where they practiced active listening, learned facilitation techniques and role-played scenarios, such as navigating difficult conversations about group dynamics. Then, they coached their undergraduate teams, who defined their project goals, identified milestones, led client meetings and presented their recommendations.
The coaching program began as a pilot in spring 2023, launched by Laura Georgiana, MBA ’03, executive director of leadership programs at the Johnson School. The program has trained 27 coaches so far.
The Grand Challenges Project course was taught by Miguel Gomez, the Robert G. Tobin Professor of Food Marketing, and Daniel Hooker, senior lecturer, both in the Dyson School.
Galarza’s team offered Yoon two recommendations: Either partner with a meal kit delivery service to offer edible insect-infused fare, or develop a frozen pizza made with a cricket-powder crust as a consumer product.
Yoon, the founder of Brooklyn Bugs, LLC, and a self-described “edible insect ambassador,” plans to continue pursuing both ideas.
“I think that both the options are really viable, and I did not think about making a pizza as one of the options,” he said. “Hopefully the students will be able to look back and feel proud of their success.”
Alison Fromme is a writer for the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business.