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Homepage / The Unilever Challenge

The Unilever Challenge


Orla Hennessy and Eilis O’Keefe are both Environmental Management for Business MSc students that have been shortlisted for this year’s Unilever Challenge. Let’s find out more about it.

Can you tell me what the Unilever Challenge all about?


It’s an extra-curricular challenge in cooperation with Unilever and Cranfield. You can either apply as an individual and find your group that way or can apply as a group. You have to have a mixed group of say, management students, engineering students or environment students, and then you’re tasked to find sustainable innovations for some of Unilever sectors and products.

How did you two get involved?


We saw the advert and realised we were both interested but obviously, we’re from the same course, so we needed someone from the School of Management. We’ve got friends that are studying the Management and Corporate Sustainability MSc so we knew this might be something that would also be interesting for them, so we reached out and formed a group together.


Then we got one more from Supply Chain Logistics MSc, so there are five of us altogether. I think it is a maximum three to five in a group.


I think there was about 40 teams initially applied. We had to submit a three page proposal about our idea, covering financial and environmental aspects and then they cut it down to a shortlist of 8 groups.

Can you tell us about your idea?

Wow, we actually can’t say a lot, as the idea has to remain confidential. We can basically just say, it’s a sustainable innovation for one of their sectors. Unilever came with three different sectors (ice-cream, tea and spices) of their company with three different challenges based on sustainability. And you’ve got to pick the sector that you’d like to focus on. I think we can tell you that our proposal was in the tea sector.

We had the proposal stage, then the shortlist stage, then there’s a finale, which is where we have to do a presentation of how it’s fully going to work. Throughout that process we’ve had calls with different people who work at Unilever. And they (along with Cranfield staff) have helped us to improve our proposal or suggest things they think we should change.

What do you think you’ve enjoyed most about it so far?


The training day was really good. Because you got a moment within the schedule to talk to staff at the university, as well as the Unilever staff and get feedback on our idea. Everyone was really positive. Obviously, it’s quite a big achievement to be one of the shortlisted teams and have that connection with the industry.

On the training day they provided a few lectures and gave us information that they thought that we should know about the marketing, the consumers and the customers, and then linking it to the environment of the circular economy and what they’re doing at Unilever. Then the afternoon was more of a one-on-one session with different mentors so that you could talk freely about your idea.


I think working with the groups been really fun as well, although it’s been quite a bit of work, it’s still been really interesting, and quite challenging. I wouldn’t say it’s been so much that we felt overwhelmed. It’s quite intense, but because it’s quite a short period of time, it’s over and done with quite quickly.

What skills do you think you have learnt during the challenge?


I say project management. So before now, I hadn’t done any formal project management. Whereas for the Unilever project, we have had to do Gantt charts and that sort of thing. And then that has copied across into my MSc group project now. It’s quite nice to have had the experience already and know how to apply it.

The other thing I would say is working with a client, because I think before this, I’ve not worked with a company, actually one on one. And our MSc group project involves that as well.

I think also, to be quite proud of your own ideas and quite self-assured because these big companies are actually very interested.


I’ve done group projects before in my previous product design degree. This kind of innovation challenge has allowed me to go back there a little bit, which is nice for me because I do miss the practical side of that.

But I definitely think this Unilever challenge has helped prepare us for the MSc group projects.

What’s one thing that you will take away from this


I think just the experience as a whole. I think it’s been very unique and really fun. It’s  hard work but enjoyable at the same time. It was really exciting when we were shortlisted and to have had the experience with a company as big as Unilever is rare.

There’s actually the opportunity to do your individual thesis with them following this.


All the staff are very, very genuine, they want you to succeed. They’re very good at providing feedback and the information that you need to make sure the idea is as a whole as it can be. I think it’s just been a really good experience.

What would you say to students next year, if they got offered to do the Unilever challenge?


I’d say do it.


Yeah, I’d say go for it. I think it really helped with the MSc course. It really helps solidify what you’ve learned.

What happens at the final?


The final is from 2pm- 8pm. It’s presentations, and then there’s a chance to socialise with the mentor staff from Unilever and from the university.

The winning team gets £5,000, 2nd and 3rd prize get £1,000.

What about the other teams?


I think even if you didn’t win, because the three challenges are very different they might still take your idea forward.


I think they have also said they might take the people forward as well and carry projects on as part of their thesis.

Thank you very much for your time and good luck for the final.

Update ….


Sadly, we did not win. However, the day was brilliant.

There were 9 groups, 3 for each challenge, who presented their ideas to the other teams and the judges from both Cranfield and Unilever. There was a winner from each category, and one was selected to be the overall winner. We had the opportunity to network during the day and at the end, once the results had been released. It was a brilliant opportunity overall!

Written By: Wayne Coulter

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