Mention the tight-knit community of the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) and outsiders likely think of new graduates tapping talented alumni for jobs. But the GSB might soon be better known for tapping its community’s Facebook and Twitter pages to help the world.
Three students, Lavanya Ashok, Aastha Gupta, and Karla Gallardo — from Jennifer Aaker’s Power of Social Technology (PoST) course — created a four-minute video and spread it via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Vimeo, with the single goal of raising money for Embrace. During the next 10 days, more than $4,000 was raised, the San Jose Mercury News ran a major story on their efforts, bloggers amplified the story, MC Hammer, Loic Le Meur, and Jeff Clavier started tweet waves about it, and Oprah’s O magazine came calling. Abroad, the CEO of India’s first interactive digital billboard company offered to play a short version of the video on his screens, pro bono, and the president of the Rotary Club of Bangalore announced that Embrace will be his fundraising project of the year.
Embrace was born three years ago in Jim Patell and David Beach’s Design for Extreme Affordability (EDEA) class, which Patell (a GSB professor) created within Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (the “d.school”) seven years ago. Patell is all about collaboration, a concept intrinsic to this chain of events, and that spirit starts with the heterogeneous make-up of his class: the group that would found Embrace — a company that makes low-cost incubators that could save millions of premature and other low-birth-weight babies every year — included GSB student Jane Chen, computer scientist Linus Liang, electrical engineer Rahul Panicker, and aerospace engineer Naganand Murty.
Patell recruits NGOs who have identified unmet needs at the bottom of the pyramid. In that year, Medicine Mondiale, based in Nepal, challenged three EDEA student teams to create affordable incubators for low birth weight infants in the developing world, many of whom are born in rural areas far from large urban hospitals. Chen loved the idea of empowering mothers, she says, and also the incubators’ potential to lower India’s birth rate: Parents would no longer anticipate their babies dying and would plan smaller families.
Extreme Affordability students also collaborate with the people ultimately using their product or service. Taking a design thinking approach, they visit their stakeholders to find out if their big idea actually works in the context of people’s day-to-day lives. When the team interviewed mothers in Indian villages, for instance, they discovered that many dismissed the incubator’s digital temperature readout — either they couldn’t read numbers or they had adopted their village’s practice of automatically halving the recommended dosage of anything Western, and therefore for “bigger” people. 43 degrees would be better than 86 degrees, in their view. The tweak? A digital happy face when the baby’s temperature was right, a sad face when the caretaker needed to slip the removable pouch into hot water for reheating.
Patell himself demonstrates a collaborative spirit, Chen adds. For one, he connected Chen to his wife, Colleen Patell (Stanford ’85). “She sewed their first prototype in our kitchen and worked with the students over the next year on the early design improvements,” Patell says.
Since its creation on campus Stanford students have remained engaged with Embrace. Lavanya Ashok interned for Embrace on a Barrett fellowship last summer. Aastha Gupta, a native of India, connected the company with the Indian government through her mother to help the organization conduct clinical trials and distribute incubators.
When Karla Gallardo discovered Embrace in Aaker’s class last winter she immediately identified Embrace’s incubator as a “genius product”; she had grown up in Ecuador and knew how desperately people in the developing world needed health care. On day two of the PoST class, Aaker and her collaborators from the Stanford d.school immersed her students in an innovative, live empathy experience. As Embrace founders had done, the students interviewed mothers and were tasked to map out their needs versus wants. What did they say versus do? What did they think versus feel? What was surprising? Based on their empathy map, students created a hypothesis about how to address those needs and wants.
The experience resonated. Ashok, Gallardo, and Gupta teamed up for their PoST project assignment of creating a viral video and jumped at the opportunity to support Embrace in the process. From there, Aaker brought in social innovation heavyweights as tutors and placed chairs surrounding the students’ circle of desks in a “fishbowl structure” so they could easily offer advice. Facebook’s Randi Zuckerberg presented the Obama campaign as a case study; Sarah Milstein talked about how to harness Twitter; Avinash Kaushik discussed how to leverage data; Robert Scoble and Beth Kanter talked about harnessing social media for impact; Dave McClure and Julio Vasconcellos shared insights on engineering virality; Charlene Li taught how to design for open leadership; and Jessica Jackley, a GSB alum and Kiva cofounder, shared the Web-based nonprofit’s success story. Further, the students learned storytelling skills: Pixar’s Oren Jacob and Justine Jacob taught the basics, Duarte Design discussed how to communicate visually, and Dan Greenberg of Sharethrough shared the psychology behind viral videos.
Gupta, Ashok, and Gallardo took away many nuggets of wisdom: that humor was one of the best ways to engage people; that it’s difficult to grab people’s attention effectively and to sustain it for the period you want — “so keep it short and cut the verbiage,” as Gupta says; word your plea for donations carefully. “We were given feedback to make the ‘ask’ subtle and induce action through gentle persuasion, not aggressive persistence,” Ashok says.
They then tested their social media prototypes, “failed fast,” and iterated, as Aaker prescribed. The student group ended up asking about 130 people for feedback and spending 80 to 100 hours each on the video. After that came the social media part of the process, which proved to be the biggest and easiest collaboration of all.
For her part, Aaker had put little stock in the power of social technology until Robert Chatwani, a student in her Creativity & Innovation course at the Haas School of Business, presented a PowerPoint presentation he had made to tell the story of how he and a small group of friends and family members harnessed social media to save the lives of their friends, Sameer Bhatia and Vinay Chakravarthy. Both had recently developed leukemia and faced a 1 in 20,000 chance of finding a match (www.HelpSameer.org).
“His presentation was transformative,” Aaker remembers. “I had always thought of social media as a complete waste of time — focused mostly on making us increasingly self-focused, and increasing the amount of noise in our universe.” But Chatwani’s story told of friends and family who spurred 24,611 South Asians to register as bone marrow donors in just 11 weeks, and their effort led to matches for both Bhatia and Chakravarthy. In response, Aaker developed the Power of Social Technology class, intending to teach the theoretical ideas beyond virality — emotional contagion (emotions, like disease, can infect others), and how to harness social media to help others.
“We are still only beginning to understand how these technologies can fundamentally shift how we inspire all these ‘networked’ people,” she says. Yet the potential is staggering, she adds. “Each day over 175 million of us log onto Facebook. Each minute, 20 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube. Each second, over 600 Tweets go out. If we used these avenues for social change, how many people could we empower to participate in global movements?”
A lot, Gallardo now believes. “In the PoST class I learned that little ripples can have a huge, compounded effect. You don’t need to be an influential political or business figure to change the world anymore,” — Especially if the Stanford community, and its proven spirit of collaboration, is just a click away.- Jennifer Roberts