How DSI Alums Are Putting Social Design to Work

Feb 7, 2017 10:30 AM ET
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She came to DSI in the first class as a Fulbright Scholar, from a family devoted to social issues in Mexico City, and her dream was always to return to her native country to help its citizens. Now, Gabi is an Innovation Strategist at Cirklo, a design innovation agency there. She has learned that untangling difficult challenges doesn’t lead in a straight line: “At Cirklo we like to think of ourselves as a problem-solving laboratory but sometimes, when we follow the innovation process for solving complex problems, we find more questions, so I guess we are problem seekers too.”

Cirklo has a commercial practice, serving banks, hotels, insurance, as well as a social practice, where clients are corporate foundations, impact investment funds, universities, global NGOs like UNICEF, and local nonprofits. This is where Gabi is most involved.

The company is a fast-growing startup. Gabi joined a year ago as the 7th staff member; today, they number 17 young professionals from around the world. “We’re always learning from each other, and from our clients. We make time to share these insights, host guest lectures, and celebrate small wins. We want to make Cirklo feel like a learning and exploratory space – in this respect, it’s very similar to DSI. We all agree that we have found a place from which we can contribute to Mexico. That commitment makes us unique.”

Gabi discovered Cirklo while working at the Synergos Foundation, an opportunity that came through DSI. Cirklo is one of the only consultancies in Mexico that defines itself as social. “I read about some of their projects but especially what they want to create, their vision and values. And I knew I had to meet them. I was very lucky that I had the opportunity to put ideas and concepts into practice almost from the first day at DSI, working on projects with Cheryl. This opened doors and pushed me to meet people with whom I am still in contact with. These connections helped me find my current work in Mexico.”

For her thesis project, The Conscious Giving, Gabi worked with non-profits to give them the communications tools they need to engage supporters and thrive. At Cirklo, she’s staying engaged with these issues and has been able to develop her thesis concept with a more systemic approach, in which those communications tools are complemented with finance and administration tools. “We work with NGO clients to help them take their first steps out of the donations cycle. Our eventual aim is to get them ready to develop their first social product and develop a more sustainable income stream.”

Right now, Gabi and one of her clients, a corporate foundation, are working with indigenous coffee and honey cooperatives from southern Mexico to help get their products to the market. There are many challenges. The cooperatives currently export their organic products to Europe as raw materials. But they want some of their good quality coffee and honey to stay in Mexico for national consumption, as a final product. They want to turn the typical value chain on its head, where typically the large profit margins come from selling finished products like roasted and brewed coffee or packaged, branded honey, but small margins go to the farmer.  Extra profits from this commercialization will go directly to the small land holders and their families. “We’re talking about people with a family income of less than $2,000 dollars a year. So, the idea of helping them get better prices for their hard work is exciting to me.”

In this project Gabi is working with Tzotzil and Tseltal communities that produce coffee on the highest areas in Chiapas and with Mayan beekeeping communities in Bacalar, Quintana Roo. Because Spanish is not their first language, it’s a challenge to communicate.

“We need to walk them through an innovation process, understand our findings, insights and learnings, participate and construct with us what they want.”  This requires exchanging ideas in Spanish, and that is where the language barrier comes alive. Gabi is finding her DSI experience helpful. “I remember some years ago, trying to make myself clear in English in my classes at DSI, so now I feel more empathy with these small land holders. I remember how language can become a barrier but how patience, humility and friendship can overcome it. I apply the same approach I learned at DSI to this project, making myself vulnerable so I can be a better listener. I wouldn’t be able to find the patience and tools to make myself clear if it were not for my experience working with multicultural teams at DSI.”

Gabi came to DSI with a background in graphic design, and experience working for organizations that promote sustainability and social development. “I quickly realized that even a brilliant image wouldn’t be enough by itself to address important social matters.”

She learned about DSI while searching online for inspiration and information on combining design with social innovation. “When I read what Cheryl had written about the new role of design and designers, something struck me. Someone had put into words what I had been feeling for a long time. I felt connected with the program’s goals immediately. So coming to DSI was an easy decision for me.” To help realize her ambitions, Gabi secured four scholarships, including the Fulbright Scholarship, a FONCA scholarship from the Mexican government, and a PEO Scholarship for young Latin-American women who want to pursue postgraduate social studies in the U.S. She says, “As you can see, I really, really wanted to study at DSI!”

To prospective students, she says that at DSI, you’ll find people who are willing to take extra time to understand you, who are open to new perspectives and ideas, who get excited when you start talking about home, about your people, your traditions, about you. “My best memories from the time I spent studying at DSI are of those people, and those moments when they taught me the universal language of care and empathy, to be patient by being patient with me, to show respect by respecting me. They have made me wiser by showing me what ‘to listen’ really means, and that understanding goes far beyond borders of culture and nationalities.”

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