Undergraduates Up To Gumball Challenge

One week might seem like an awfully short time to both conceive a fundraising event and bring it to fruition. What’s more, twenty-seven gumballs and twenty-seven dollars probably sound like strange and scant resources for such an undertaking. Undergraduates in Assistant Professor Anastasiya Zavyalova Strategic Management classes proved up to the task, raising over $11,000 during the Gumball Challenge.

“The idea of the Gumball Challenge is to use limited resources to help someone in need,” explained Dr. Zavyalova. Fourteen teams ranging from four to six students each were given the gumballs and a small sum of money and told to raise as much capital as they could within seven days. All proceeds went to charities of each team’s choosing.

The challenge itself originated at Stanford University in 2007 as a student competition. It expanded to other schools the next year, as a centrally run competition, and while it is no longer organized in such a manner, it is still commonly undertaken at schools throughout the nation. Familiar with the challenge, Dr. Zavyalova decided to initiate it here at Rice during her first year of teaching at the university.


“The twenty-seven dollars is representative of the original micro-loan made by Muhammad Yunus,” noted Dr. Zavyalova. Yunus’ work in developing the concepts of microcredit and microfinance earned him and the Grameen Bank a Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. He was also the speaker at Rice commencement in 2010. The gumballs themselves represent people in poverty. “Such a small amount – twenty five cents – helps a gumball come out of the machine,” Dr. Zavyalova explained, “in the same way, a small amount of money can help people come out of poverty.” 

For Dr. Zavyalova, the Gumball Challenge was an alternative to having her Strategic Management students merely writing another paper on what they’d learned in a class. “I wanted them to have a hands-on experience with some aspects of running a company, including scanning the environment and identifying competitive forces — the other teams — and conducting internal analysis to figure out everyone’s skills and capabilities.”

Time was the largest obstacle for most students competing in the project. With only a week to undertake the task, students were forced to make decisions on how to efficiently carry out the project while maintaining their already busy schedules.

“We really had to economize our time and efforts,” said Scott Norgaard ’13. “We came up with a lot of ideas for fundraising during our brainstorming sessions, but we ruled out many of them because they would be too time- or labor-intensive. In business, you are also constrained by time and resources, and must manage your use of both,” he stated.

The gumballs are largely symbolic at this point, with some teams choosing to implement them into fundraising efforts, but most teams opted for multiple strategies in order to maximize returns by utilizing diverse skill sets.

“The hardest part was convincing individuals to part with their money without soliciting. We had to somehow create value for people,” said Kai Sheng ’13. “Many of the common fundraising tactics on campus… churn out low profits. Therefore we tried to offer specialized services at higher prices to individuals on campus. I offered photography sessions at a discounted rate. Another student on our team tutored for financial interview preparation.”

One team embraced the fundraising challenge while also striving to emulate Yunus’ mission of helping people out of poverty. Requesting sponsorship donations for their time, the team went to a homeless shelter to help people with building resumes. While that team did not raise the most funds, one person they helped with a resume wound up getting a job as a result.

The students were under pressure not only by their time and resource constraints, but also by the weight of the project, which was worth twenty-five percent of their grade in the course. However, the teams stood up to the challenge, exceeding Dr. Zavyalova’s expectations for the project. “I was overwhelmed personally. I really did not expect them to raise so much money in so little time,” she said. “One team alone raised $3866. I believe this is more than any participating team in the United States has ever raised.”

Dr. Zavyalova’s personal goals for the project were a rousing success as well. In addition to having her students gain the hands-on experience and provide help to someone in need, she wanted her students to get to know each other better. “I wanted them to have fun. They live in different colleges and have different majors, and I liked that they made some new friends.”

— by Marc Brubaker