IT WAS EARLY EVENING when they came rushing out the door of Credit Suisse First Boston's New York City headquarters and into the June heat, young men and women in groups of four, corporate dress shed for more casual togs, running shoes double-knotted. Sporting cell phones, digital cameras, street maps, and clue sheets, they were all geared up for the Urban Challenge. Part trivia contest, part scavenger hunt, part road race, the game guides participants through a dozen clues as they race from one spot to the next, snapping a photo with their teammates for posterity — and proof.
Clue No. 1 was a piece of cake: Find a statue of the first admiral of the Navy within a half-mile of race headquarters. No. 2 was a bit trickier: Locate an eatery whose two-word name rhymes with “jive late.” Hmmm. Ultimately, the race goes to the smartest, not the swiftest: The team that solves all 12 clues wins, not the one that finishes first.
It was October 2001, and Kevin McCarthy's daughter Kate was about to celebrate her 12th birthday. He wanted to give her something extra-special. So McCarthy, a Phoenix entrepreneur, runner, and game buff, came up with an adventure game that sent Kate and her friends running around town, solving clues, finding checkpoints, and snapping photos. The game laid the groundwork for Urban Challenge.
“We had our first race in Phoenix in May 2002, with more than 200 participants,” he recalls. “Everyone who did it loved it, and I realized that it really touched a chord. So I began to grow it and expose more and more people.”
Although the game was conceived for individuals rather than for businesses, interest emerged from the corporate world, which surprised McCarthy. “It hadn't even occurred to us that there might be a way to extend this into the business environment.”
But it did occur to two executives at Credit Suisse First Boston in Manhattan: Michelle Desena, firmwide campus recruiter for CSFB, who oversees the investment bank's summer intern program, and Eva Alexander, program manager for firmwide recruiting, who puts together after-work events for the interns, a group of about 120 men and women, ages 19 and 20.
Desena and Alexander began planning the interns' official welcome event — held the evening of June 23 — back in March. They had not been happy with last year's event, a casino night held at a New York City restaurant, because there was no element of teamwork. “I was looking for something interactive and fun that everyone could participate in,” says Alexander. She went hunting on the Internet and found Urban Challenge.
From a strategic point of view, Desena and Alexander hoped that the game would jump-start networking among the interns, because it was the only shot they had. “This was the only event all summer in which all of the interns were together on their own,” Desena notes. “Their other activities — a golf outing at Chelsea Piers, laser tag, cooking classes — are done with their divisions, not with the group as a whole.”
Alexander got in touch with McCarthy, who met with her and Desena to discuss ways he could customize the program for CSFB. He estimated the cost per person as somewhere in the $50 range, “depending on how many people attend and when it's held.” By then, he had done 27 Urban Challenges in cities all over the country, and he was talking to other companies about putting on similar events for them. The Urban Challenge for CSFB would be his first corporate event.
The basics of the Urban Challenge are simple. Teams of players compete to solve a series of clues that lead to 12 checkpoints. These must be visited in the order given on the clue sheet, and team members must take photos of themselves at the sites to prove that they've been there. (Digital cameras are provided.)
Each team is given a passport with a photograph of the “Skip Man” (or, in the case of a woman, “the politically incorrect ‘Skip Chick,’” says McCarthy). If a team finds the Skip Man along the way and has a picture taken with him, they can skip one checkpoint. Team members travel only on foot or by public transportation.
The race is preceded by a Trivia Challenge, a series of 30 rapid-fire questions with multiple-choice answers. The teams with the best scores get to start the race first. As soon as team No. 1 hits the street, the official event clock begins.
For Credit Suisse First Boston, McCarthy modified the trivia quiz by inserting several questions about the company. “We asked them what kind of values they'd like us to reinforce through the Trivia Challenge,” he says. “For example, we might ask ‘Which of the following are CSFB core values,’ or ‘What five things are important for determining credit?’”
He also reduced the amount of time that was devoted to trivia questions during the game, “and made sure the ones we asked really suited our group,” says Desena. CSFB did not want its interns to have to run all over the city, so Desena imposed a 1.5-mile search limit around her office. She also shaved a few hours off the race so that they could start the event after work. “We cut the event down from five hours to 1½, with pizza for everyone afterward.”
Desena and Alexander expanded the typical two-person teams to four, primarily to increase the number of contacts that people made with those from other divisions. They also made sure that the teams were diversified and did not include interns from the same hometown, the same college, or the same program.
At the end of the evening, all the teams came back tired and hungry, but it was clear that the Credit Suisse First Boston version of Kevin McCarthy's brainchild had been a success. The pizza and soda disappeared in no time flat, the short feedback forms were quickly filled out and collected, and Urban Challenge silver medals on blue ribbons were handed out to everyone to signify their achievement. The winning team received fleece-lined logo jackets as its prize, but it was almost an afterthought.
There was a palpable feeling of camaraderie among the group that had not been present before, and the sound of laughter rose high in the air. “At the start of their careers, these young interns accomplished something with their teammates, met new people, and had a snack and a schmooze together,” says McCarthy. “That was the real value of this event.”