By Sarah Bernardo
On March 16, 2016, the Development Engineering 210 graduate seminar welcomed Jean Shia, Head of Operations for the Autodesk Foundation, to give an overview of the foundation’s goals as well as share her experience managing a social enterprise.
Before coming to Autodesk, Shia earned her MBA at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business then served as Director of Finance and Administration, and Vice President of Business Operations at the start-up Driptech.
Driptech began at Stanford University as the brainchild of a small group of graduate students who wanted to find a way to make drip irrigation more affordable for small plot farmers in developing countries. Shia joined the Driptech team in 2010 to help make the students’ vision of high quality and low cost irrigation systems a reality. The team developed manufacturing technology that produced drip irrigation parts at a much lower cost than other commercially available systems.
In addition to product development, Shia explained that Driptech also focused on marketing and distributing the irrigation systems in Africa and Asia. Shia explained that the start-up went through a series of growing pains that taught her three key lessons. First: Changing user behavior is challenging. In India, the adoption of Driptech’s product was expected to be swift, but the competitive market in combination with governmental agricultural subsidies meant that farmers were slow to switch. Second: It’s important to carefully manage growth, particularly as an international startup. Attempting to hire local people in target markets while simultaneously rolling out their product posed a challenge for the company’s limited resources. Lastly, Shia learned the importance of balancing key stakeholder priorities including from investors and customers. As a for-profit enterprise, Driptech had to balance financial performance with technical and operational efficiency.
Shia joined the Autodesk Foundation in September 2015, and now manages the foundation’s growing portfolio of grantees, many of which are innovative companies working in developing economies. Shia explained to students in DevEng 210 that the Autodesk Foundation has several key elements that they look for in potential grantees, but three are particularly vital: design, impact, and scalability.
The Autodesk Foundation is unique in its focus on supporting design-driven solutions. Shia describes applied design as the “upstream process through which buildings and products are made,” which usually requires expertise in areas like architecture, engineering, or product design. Whether potential or immediate, impact is also an important element because the foundation seeks projects that can demonstrate significant benefits for the target population. The foundation also focuses on scalability in order to determine if a company’s model is applicable to other geographies or industries. Potential grantees must be able to show that their work is applicable on a large scale.
In February, the Blum Center became one of the Autodesk Foundation’s first ever academic partners. In sharing Autodesk’s commitment to supporting social innovators and the concept of “Impact Design,” students in the Blum Center ecosystem, including in Big Ideas, GPP, and the Development Engineering graduate minor, will be engaging in development-related challenges at home and abroad.
According to Heather Lofthouse, the Blum Center’s Director of Special Projects, “the Center will use the partnership to infuse more impact design work into all its initiatives. Specifically, we will be launching a new Big Ideas category in Fall 2016 called ‘Hardware for Good.’ And we’ll host a pop-up course with an impact design focus for the DevEng program.” The pop-up course will be the first in a series that focuses on hands-on design coursework. The partnership with the Autodesk Foundation will also support future impact design workshops and travel grants for DevEng students seeking to collaborate on location.
Professor Alice Agogino, who teaches DevEng 210, explains that DevEng is meant to train students through coursework, mentoring, and professional development to create technological interventions that produce a number of societal benefits. Agogino says that DevEng 210 is unique in that it “focuses on in-depth research and allows students to share their research and receive feedback from faculty and practitioners from a range of disciplines.” As part of the immersive experience, students learn from practitioners like Shia who have been growing the community of design impact makers and doing DevEng even before the field was formed.