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Brooks Competition Participants Take on The Interview

On the surface, it was a tangle of international intrigue, corporate hacking, and Hollywood politics. Underneath, the situation played out in charts and graphs, spreadsheets and data analysis, and cold hard cash.

The annual Brooks Case Competition provided Drake actuarial science and finance majors the opportunity to enter the intrigue—and practice their academic skills in a real world scenario. This year’s case study focused on The Interview, which caused a stir when North Korean cyber criminals hacked into Sony Pictures Entertainment, released internal information, and threatened theatres that planned to show the film. Drake students competed in teams of three or four over the course of one weekend to analyze the film and present projected revenues before the hack occurred, during the threats, and after theatres began pulling the film.

“It was a really interesting scenario that was in the news and provided a great capital budget analysis opportunity,” says Toby White, associate professor of finance and actuarial science, and the faculty leader of the competition.

Each of 11 teams had the unique opportunity to engage in real-life financial analysis and consultation involving big players in Hollywood, the corporate world, and international politics. Students not only showcased the skills they’ve learned in Drake classes thus far; they also gained new knowledge and experienced different components of the finance industry.

For Jessica O’Donnell, a senior actuarial science and finance major, her first year participating in the competition was partially inspired by a desire to collaborate with her peers in the CBPA.

“We have teamwork opportunities in a lot of our classes, but it was fun to participate in something that had nothing to do with class, no grades,” says O’Donnell. “It was just an opportunity to work with new people and practice our skills.”

Students applied academic concepts like capital budgeting, moving cash flows, tax, debt versus equity, and business writing to The Interview in order to gain a deeper understanding of the film and make their analytical recommendations. But teams also needed to delve beyond the financial factors to consider the risks and consequences associated with the larger political and entertainment contexts of the film.

“It’s not just quantitative skills involved because to be truly successful in the competition, students need a strategic component to support their recommendations with a good narrative that makes sense,” says White. “There were all of these issues not only financially, but also strategy, national security, and other qualitative factors.”

Looking beyond boundaries of the weekend competition, the Brooks Competition experience gave students an insight into the real-life pressures and skills associated with their future actuarial finance and finance careers.

“It was really a great application of the abstract theoretical concepts we learn in class in a real world setting,” says Russell Pang, a senior actuarial science and finance major who competed in the competition for the third time. “It’s important because employers don’t want to know if you know the concepts but if you can apply them and how you use them.”

For Pang, who will be working in financial risk management after graduation, and his peers, the Brooks Competition also served as an insight into potential professional projects.

“This is a nice example of some different work than what’s in the classroom and relevant to what they’ll be doing in the field,” says White. “Especially for actuarial consultants, work like this is pretty representational of what students might be hired to do and the tight timeline they have to analyze and make their recommendations.”

Brooks Competition participants also received more concrete awards for their long hours of hard work. Drake finance faculty judges graded the teams based on knowledge of the case, organization of information, and delivery and presentation skills. Beyond the traditional first, second, and third place awards, students also received recognition with specialized awards like best teamwork and most creative report.

Jessica O’Donnell and her team were awarded with the second place prize, even among a tough pool of competitors.

“We were so surprised to get the award just because there were so many talented, smart people, and it was tough situation for us to work with,” O’Donnell said. “We were really proud because we did work so hard, but there was still that element of uncertainty because there was no right answer, and even Sony didn’t know what the right answer was.”