Working as part of an interdisciplinary team on an independent study project last fall, Ben Freedman ’15 and Charlotte Wong ’15 set out to understand what prevents girls in the developing world from reaching their fullest potential, and what products could be created to improve girls’ lives and remove barriers to empowerment.
The Yale School of Management students joined forces with design students at the Art Center College of Design in California and identified a “real gap” in the availability of products that alleviate the challenges of using feminine hygiene products in developing countries. Together, the student team developed a product and business plan to launch Flo—a toolkit that allows girls living in poverty to wash, dry, and carry reusable sanitary pads.
The innovative product has since garnered a great deal of international attention. Flo has won design awards from the Industrial Designers Society of America and from the James Dyson Foundation, and has been featured in Fast Company, Business Insider, Good, and the Huffington Post.
“It’s been incredibly exciting,” says Freedman, who now works at Google. “The word is really getting out, and we’re trying to figure out how we use all this great momentum and positive energy to take the project to the next level.”
Freedman and Wong were among a group of 11 second-year MBA students in Yale SOM’s Design & Innovation Club who worked on independent projects in collaboration with the design students. Rodrigo Canales, associate professor of organizational behavior, and Tom De Blasis, design innovation director at the Nike Foundation, asked the student teams to draft solutions to the mundane obstacles that act as barriers to advancement for girls in the developing world.
The project was born out of the Nike Foundation’s Girl Effect initiative, which foster opportunities for adolescent girls as a means of creating social change in the developing world.
Tony Sheldon, lecturer in the practice of management and executive director of the Program on Social Enterprise; Amy Wrieznewski, professor of organizational behavior; and Jennifer McFadden, associate director of entrepreneurial programs, oversaw the students’ progress.
The project’s overarching goal, says Canales, was to encourage greater collaboration between product designers and the business professionals who bring their creations to market.
“Design thinking is such a powerful method, with its emphasis on the user perspective and its openness to feedback, but without business models to translate these ideas into the world in real workable terms, they don’t go anywhere,” Canales explains.
A collaborative approach between designers and business teams working on new, innovative models must begin right at the inception of a new product, Canales says, and be embedded in the entire project.
“The power of a project like this is that it lets students practice these skills on real-world issues, but in a safe setting, under the guidance of faculty,” Canales says. “Projects like this are among the most important experiences students can have in business school.”
Freedman says the process proved a valuable hands-on learning experience.
“We created a model that asked how you pair design with business right from the start,” he says. “It was a phenomenal exercise that built on what we learned in the D&I club and in Innovator.”
The next step is to find a way to turn the design into a viable product, and Flo poses some unique challenges, says Wong, who now works in marketing at Hasbro.
“We have consumers who are not purchasers,” Wong says, explaining that the girls for whom the product is intended will mostly likely rely on male relatives to buy it.
The power of a project like this is that it lets students practice these skills on real-world issues, but in a safe setting, under the guidance of faculty.
“They don’t really have that purchasing power,” she says. “It’s a big challenge for many products in the developing world.”
Freedman adds, “We have an incredibly exciting product that can make a big difference in girls’ lives if we can figure out a way to get it to them.”