In the PwC Challenge, students learn to be critical thinkers, effective team members, creative problem solvers, and persuasive communicators by applying real-world skills to a complicated accounting problem. The benefits of the challenge, however, extend beyond honing skills and familiarizing students with academic concepts. They introduce students to invaluable mentors and a wider community dedicated to helping them succeed.
Professor of Accounting Michael Lynch, J.D., has been guiding Bryant’s PwC Challenge competition for 14 years. “The students invited to compete in the competition are some of University’s best and brightest,” he notes.
In the challenge, the students, all sophomores and juniors, work in small teams for 15 days on a case study so complicated that Lynch suggests it would take an accounting firm several weeks to analyze. This year’s case revolved around the fictional nation of Levenia, and teams were charged with identifying potential tax law changes that could be used to support the “greening” of the country’s construction industry. They were also asked to evaluate how their proposed changes might affect Levenia’s overall economy.
“You need to be able to see the problem from different angles – from an accounting perspective, from a tax perspective, from a financial perspective. When you get them all together, you can make sure all the pieces fit.”
While the challenge doesn’t require a background in taxation or accounting, it introduces students to the fundamentals, including key concepts and modes of analysis. “You have to do a lot of research, across a lot of areas, from tax codes to depreciation, and how they fit together,” notes Dylan MacKinnon ’22. “You need to develop a really complete understanding of a lot of things.”
The students’ proposals ranged from supporting new eco-friendly technologies to instituting tariffs on environmentally unsound building materials, and from investing in green opportunity zones to funding education programs.
“I really liked that this case allowed us to look at the overall big picture,” says Haley Bobek ’21. “It reminds us that there are bigger things we’re working toward. The accounting changes we propose have a real effect on economies.”
Understanding that bigger picture requires teamwork. “You need a team, because each person has a different background and interests,” explains Lynch. “You need to be able to see the problem from different angles – from an accounting perspective, from a tax perspective, from a financial perspective. When you get them together, you can make sure all the pieces fit.”
“You couldn’t pick a better person to run the Challenge than Professor Lynch. He’s so supportive with his students, and not just about their coursework. He helps them figure out their futures.”
The students’ work culminates in a day-long competition during which they present their findings to PwC partners acting as Levenian officials. The teams are grilled about their research, how they developed their recommendations, and the broader implications of their suggestions. Later, the judges offer advice about what the students can work on in the future.
A helping hand
Each team is supported by a student ambassador, who previously took part in the competition, and a PwC mentor, a former Bryant student now working for the firm who brings professional experience to the team’s efforts. “Our PwC mentor had so much us to give us,” says Bobek. “We were regularly emailing back and forth and every time he’d have advice or 15 questions for us to consider about our ideas. He helped us think about what people would need to know.”
For PwC Tax Associate Benjamin Harpel ’18, ’18 MST, being an mentor means more than just helping his team develop ideas. “We want to be someone they can talk to beyond the competition, whether it be for career advice or whatever else,” he says.
“You expect a big company like PwC to be really intimidating. But once you get to know the people who work there, that goes away and you realize ‘that could be me.’”
Professor Lynch also plays a key role in helping students prepare. The day before the competition, Lynch and his wife, Frances, aided by students serving as mock judges, work with the teams to hone their presentations, refine their thinking, and sharpen their insights. “He’s so invested. It's really obvious how much he cares about us as students,” says Melanie Funnye ’21. “He’s our biggest cheerleader.”
“You couldn’t pick a better person to run the Challenge than Professor Lynch,” says Keryn Birrell ’20, a former PwC competitor who returned this year as a mock judge. “He’s so supportive with his students, and not just about their coursework. He helps them figure out their futures.”
“That could be me”
For Shannon Flaherty ’21, the PwC Challenge was an important opportunity to get a head start on her career. “How often do you get the chance to practice presenting in front of a real PwC partner?” she notes. “To have that experience before you enter the workforce is really amazing.”
Lynne Dionne ’89, Managing Director at PwC and one of this year’s judges, says the Challenge often serves as a confidence booster. “After they’re done presenting, the students can say ‘Wow. I can do this. This is something I’m capable of.’"
“You expect a big company like PwC to be really intimidating,” says Timothy Mullen ’22. “But once you get to know the people who work there, that goes away and you realize ‘that could be me.’”
“Bryant and PwC have had a great partnership for many years now,” notes Bob Calabro ’88, one of this year’s judges as well as a partner at PwC and a member of Bryant’s Board of Trustees. “The Bryant students get a chance to connect with alumni, practice their skills and learn a little bit what it’s like to work at one of the big four accounting firms. For PwC, it’s an opportunity to raise awareness about our field, assist in the educations of these great students, and, hopefully, meet some of the people we’ll be working with one day.”