Making a Dent
Rajan Patel hopes to help Indian youth tap into their creative potential and collaborate to solve social problems.
Not many people can say they’ve saved thousands of lives, but Indian American Rajan Patel has done it. He co-invented the Embrace infant warmer, which costs one percent of a traditional warmer and works without electricity.
Patel holds a bachelor’s degree in Biomechanical Engineering and an MBA, both from Stanford University in California, and a Master in Public Administration degree from the Harvard Kennedy School in Massachusetts. He was named the 2016 Social Innovation Fellow of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. The fellowship provides funding and support to graduating students who want to start a nonprofit venture to address a pressing social or environmental issue during the year after graduation. Patel is using his fellowship to co-found an entrepreneurship and design-thinking academy called Dent Education, based in Washington, D.C. It aims to help students tap into their creative potential and collaborate to solve social problems.
Excerpts from an interview.
At Embrace, you led the design and development of an infant warmer which has already saved thousands of lives. How did this experience influence the creation of Dent Education?
That experience truly made me realize the power of user-centered design. Glass-box incubators were designed in the West and yet, they were the only technology available in rural clinics [in India] despite the fact that they are often too complicated for nurses to operate and require constant electricity. Our approach was to start from scratch and re-invent the solution, rooted in an understanding of the unique user needs and context. We were able to do this effectively because at Stanford, we learned the methods of design thinking process, how to prototype and build products, and how to be scrappy, lean innovators and entrepreneurs.
At the same time, I realized there was an extreme irony in the fact that I, a middle-class American and complete outsider, was in these villages trying to empathize and understand a context so foreign to me. I couldn’t even speak the local language to talk to users directly. However, as we built our team and hired local engineers, it became clear that they were the best fit to do this work. It became our job to teach them the methods we had learned. When they were exposed to a culture and environment that gave them the space and resources to discover their inner potential to be creative problem solvers, they thrived, and we successfully built our product.
Dent Education was born from this idea that instead of building solutions for foreign communities myself, I could be more effective in empowering others with skills, experiences and resources so they can be the local change agents for their communities.
What positive changes do you hope Dent Education will initiate in the community and children it will work with?
The communities we will work in face many challenges—challenges that are often addressed by outsiders. We hope to empower local talent and leverage their unique understanding, passion and abilities to become agents of change for their own communities. In doing so, students will explore their own potential to be creative problem solvers, innovators, makers and entrepreneurs. We will leverage our own resources and networks to offer students a de-risked pathway to making their ideas a reality by pursuing them after the program.
Dent Education will also build professional relationships with companies that can offer students bright opportunities upon graduation from our program, and to help companies find the creative, capable talent they often struggle to find.
We are currently running programs in both Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, but we hope to expand to other locations. Dent Education will also offer exchange programs to give students the opportunity to travel to other communities and collaborate with them.
What kind of programs will Dent Education launch in India?
Before a recent pivot to stay in the U.S., I had run many pilots in India and also developed partnerships for establishing Dent Education there. While we set up operations in Washington, D.C., we hope to continue running programs in India, doing at least one this year. In addition, we look forward to building an exchange program where Dent Education students from both the U.S. and India can travel to the other country to collaboratively identify and address problems. Not only will this introduce a fresh perspective vital to the creative process, it will also give students exposure to other communities and people, hopefully building a stronger identity of what it means to be a global citizen.
What was the overall outcome of Dent Education’s pilot program training course?
In a pilot run with college students in the small town of Hubli, Karnataka, three students went on to found start-ups shortly after the one-month workshop. Others have secured placements at top companies like Accenture and Infosys. One of the students built a social enterprise that now serves over 100 farmers in his community.
Kimberly Gyatso is a freelance writer based in San Francisco, California.