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Making a Dent

When we first started creating our January issue of En Root, we knew that Rajan Patel of Dent Education had to be a part of it. As an entrepreneur, dedicated to empowering communities through design thinking, Rajan is changing Baltimore City (and 30 developing countries internationally) every day with his work.

If you are looking to be inspired, and are interested in learning how to view your world and career as malleable, read on! Also be sure to check out Rajan's feature in the latest issue of En Root!

Tell us about your personal and professional journey in Design Thinking.

It started in college. I didn't identify as creative before I went to college. In fact, it was quite the opposite. It wasn't until I took my first course at Stanford, and started doing the design thinking process end-to-end, that I started to realize that I was indeed creative. This gave me a whole new sense of confidence. Dent came from the belief that the world is malleable. My ideas can become a reality, and I can make a dent.

One of the courses is courses I took was called Design for Extreme Affordability, and in teams you apply design thinking to a problem, but you're partnered with an NGO in the developing world to be your user. We ended up partnering with an NGO in Nepal, and we realized that one of their major problems was that premature babies, born with a low birth weight, would often get hypothermia. We learned that they didn't have a real solution to keep them warm, because traditional incubators cost around $20K. They also require constant electricity and are very complicated to operate. So as our class project, we were redesigning the incubator for this user and context. Our final product came in at less than 1% of the cost, required no electricity to operate, and was designed to be very intuitive for this context. We ended up turning this project into a real company, moving to India and launching Embrace. We spent the next four years working in the company, and today, the product is in over 30 developing countries and has saved over 300,000 lives.

The fact that I started this company and built a product that is completely grounded in design thinking came from my experience in school, and the courses that gave me the confidence to be a problem solver. It was this experience that transformed how I approached my life.

At OutGrowth, we are committed to giving access. Tell us about your approach to creating access through Design Thinking, and what this concept of access has meant for you.

When we launched Embrace, we hired engineers. At first, they didn't feel creative, or see themselves as problem solvers, but we built this culture of design thinking at Embrace. When they went through that transition, the engineers became the best problem solvers on our team, because many of them came from the community we were serving, and had a level of empathy I couldn't build as an outsider. Even us Standford grads, no amount of empathy could help us to fully understand others' lived experience. When we were able to leverage their ability to be problem solvers, we ended up with a product that really met user needs. 

What should have happened was that THESE people should have invented Embrace. They understood the issues better than we ever will. They had all the potential to be inventors, designers and entrepreneurs. And why didn't they? They didn't have the privilege that I did to have access to Stanford, the resources or the courses. This made me think. I should not be creating the product-- I will have much more impact if I empower communities with access to tools that can enable them to be creative, solve problems and build solutions for their own communities. That is the genesis of Dent, and it marks a pinnacle point where I switched from being just a design thinker and inventor, to helping others to realize their own creative potential. I decided that I wanted to create a nonprofit that would create access to this type of thinking. I sought to enable the individual potential of all people.

How did this experience change the course of your life, your career or your outlook?

The pinnacle moment described above created a shift, making me realize how design thinking can impact one's career path. Design thinking enables you to realize your potential to make your vision of the world a reality. As a result, I found my place in the world as an entrepreneur. I began to realize that everything around me is malleable. I don't have to fit into something that already exists. And for all people, once they realize what they are capable of, they'll re-imagine what a career is, and what theirs can look like. They aren't bound by what exists.

What are your top three pieces of advice for students and professionals who may want to integrate DT practices into their personal lives and jobs?

1. When you're a student, entrepreneurship is the most de-risked it will ever be. - Do it now, because there is a greater opportunity cost when you are supposed to have a job or an income. It becomes much harder to test out your idea. It is also much easier to receive feedback on your idea as a student. People are more willing to say yes and help, so there is less pressure. There is really no better time.

2. Dream big. Start small. Act now. - Have a big vision of what you want to do, but don't get daunted by the seemingly-impossible. Instead, start small. How can you impact one person? Break the whole idea down. Don't be constrained or paralyzed by the vision. Literally act now. Don't wait until you have more time, or until you've graduated. That's the beauty of prototyping. There are very easy ways you can prototype. Don't let friction or inertia prevent you from starting today.

3. Leverage resources and people. - Read books like Creative Confidence or Designing Your Life. There are several free online design thinking courses. Most of the material is open source, so use it. And by people, I mean learn from those around you, who are using this and have already built something. Find a peer group of people in a similar position and learn from each other, and use each other for motivation and accountability. Work beside each other. 

If you could go back in time and give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?

I hampered myself by creating a false identity of who I was (and wasn't). I used to think: I can solve problems, but I don't know how to build things. I would like to go back and tell myself not to have a fixed mindset. You can grow and become better at literally anything. Take the uncomfortable risk of trying something new, and realize that failure = learning.

What is your favorite quote?

I have two:

"You can't use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have." - Maya Angelou

"Thousands of geniuses live and die undiscovered, either by themselves or others." - Mark Twain

Dent's goal is to un-tap that genius through a design thinking experience so that the rest of the world can then recognize that genius. 

Rajan Patel is an avid maker who believes we can build a better world. He co-invented the Embrace incubator, a product of empathy-driven design that has impacted and saved the lives of over 300,000 babies across the developing world. Today, as Co-Founder and CEO of Dent Education, Rajan is passionate about empowering the makers and problem solvers of tomorrow. He trained at Stanford's to become a teacher of design thinking and has organized and led programs of his own across twelve countries. Rajan holds a BS in Biomechanical Engineering from Stanford, an MBA from Stanford, and an MPA from Harvard.


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