Big Ideas Judge Jill Finlayson: Mentoring and Marveling at Founders

Big Ideas sat down with long-time judge and mentor Jill Finlayson to learn more about what makes her optimistic about the future of technology.

By Veena Narashiman

There are few people as committed to judging the Big Ideas Contest as Jill Finlayson. A lifelong advocate of mentorship and a graduate of UC Berkeley, Finlayson has been a Big Ideas mentor since the competition’s inception in 2006. She currently serves as director of Women in Technology Initiative at CITRIS (Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society) at UC Berkeley, where she supports research and initiatives to promote the equitable participation of women in the tech industry.

Previously, Finlayson led mentorship and incubator and accelerator programs for Singularity University Ventures, ran the Toys category for eBay, managed a community of social entrepreneurs at the Skoll Foundation, and consulted for the World Bank, Gates Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. Her passions include social entrepreneurship, open government, civic tech, startups, education, innovation, women, mentoring, tech for good, impact, and leadership.

Big Ideas sat down with Finlayson to learn more about what makes her optimistic about the future of technology and what brings her to Big Ideas.

Your background is fairly diverse—from running eBay’s Toy category to consulting for the World Bank. How has working in different sectors informed your view on technology’s role in society?
The nice thing from working in so many avenues is that you get to see similarities between supposedly different sectors. It really increases your empathy and understanding at a systemic level. But it also gives you the advantage of a cross-sector lens to view potential collaborations. None of these efforts exist in a vacuum—to get working on issues with deeply entrenched root causes, you will work with governmental agencies as well as the private sector, large organizations, and startups. If you are able to take the metrics used in social enterprises and marry them with the design thinking and urgency used in tech startups, you’re at a huge advantage.

How do you see the landscape for women entrepreneurs today? Do you see a change in culture from when you first started out?
The biggest win has to be awareness. We have enough data for people to see and understand how harmful microaggressions can be. We have studies that show discriminatory practices toward female academics and Venture Capitalists asking biased questions toward female founders—this data makes it easier to help people understand the challenges and make needed behavior and system changes.. Though the technical workplace may still have significant attrition for women, we’re seeing better and more informed policies that promote equitable participation. The notion that people “have to be a guy” is decreasing. Companies are placing more value on stereotypically “soft skills”—things like communication, collaboration, and global mindset, and they are devoting more resources to fostering inclusive leadership which will lead to a more level playing field.

How important are female founder/role models to burgeoning entrepreneurs or engineers? What do you think people can get out of mentorship?
Mentorship is beneficial in a myriad of ways. We’re a great sounding board—it can be a bit lonely at the top, so having someone to bounce ideas off of is such an asset. Mentors offer valuable criticism, forcing you to either have a sound rationale or to pivot. It’s much easier to change course early before you invest a lot of time and money. Finally, we offer a network. Every day, I think about who I can connect my team with to inform their solution. We are your ultimate champions, and hopefully, our cumulative knowledge may help you bridge sectors.

All this to say that mentoring is also benefiting us! Mentors are able to feed off the dynamic energy of founders, while constantly learning from complicated startup challenges. It’s an opportunity for us to leverage hard-earned knowledge to help create concrete applications and to help founders achieve their potential and their vision. Founders have the same energy throughout the globe—you will feel at home in any startup space from in the world because they are filled with people trying to solve big problems. Anyone with the courage and excitement to build something from nothing is someone I want to work with.

What are the most important qualities of a successful founder?
You have to be in love with the problem—not the solution. A founder must pivot, and you cannot afford to be too attached to anything. Imagine what you think success would look like, what kind of metrics you would use to demonstrate impact for an ideal scenario. These questions can guide you to figure out what you would like to achieve.

The best teams have a shared vision and psychological security; you want to make sure that your team members are able to say something crazy without being penalized. This comes with avoiding micromanaging, having the belief that your team is qualified, and doing your best to support them and remove any barriers to their success. Diversity in backgrounds is important to avoid blindspots and foster innovation, but ensure that everyone shares the same exponential vision for the company.

Helming a newfound project is equally as exciting as chaotic. Be ready to learn and strive to engineer serendipity – put yourself in places where you might meet collaborators and discover best practices from other sectors. Figuring out how to marry what you learn in one sector to another one can be challenging, but it brings immense fulfillment and sustainable innovation.

Ultimately, you have to be ready to think BIG. You might do a pilot as a proof of concept, but you are not here to fix a little thing. Try to think systemically and don’t be afraid to challenge assumptions.

What is unique about the startup world? Do startups have the resources to challenge the status quo?
Startups are the only ones with the ability to attack systemic issues! Founders are the ones who want to disrupt the status quo and thus are uniquely incentivized to move fast. We desperately need people to keep asking the question of why. More often than not, our assumptions and the bounds of our problem statement are based on our own experiences. Without diverse creators and people constantly challenging assumptions, solutions will fail to serve everyone.

Big Ideas Judge Ishita Jain: Human-Centered Design for Social Impact

Ishita Jain, a judge in the 2018-2019 Big Ideas Contest, specializes in using design as a tool for social impact. She works at the Autodesk Foundation, where she supports entrepreneurs and innovators focused on innovative design solutions

By Francis Gonzales

Ishita Jain, a judge in the 2018-2019 Big Ideas Contest, specializes in using design as a tool for social impact. She works at the Autodesk Foundation, where she supports entrepreneurs and innovators focused on innovative design solutions to the world’s most pressing social and environmental challenges. Ishita honed her passion for design through a Master in Design for Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts, where she developed skills in ethnographic research, facilitation, user experience, systems mapping, data visualization, social entrepreneurship, and leadership.

Big Ideas sat down with Ishita to learn how social entrepreneurs can use the human-centered design process to drive their work forward and increase their impact.

How would you describe human-centered design?
I would define human-centered design (HCD) as a bottom up process where end users and other stakeholders play a key role in shaping solutions that meet their needs. The HCD approach prioritizes participation by community members and helps remove biases that we might have as people coming from outside of that community attempting to solve a problem.

What are the differences between the use of human-centered design in the private sector versus the social impact sector?
Ultimately, I think the difference between HCD in the private sector as opposed to the social impact sector comes down to intention. The driving goal in the private sector is to make a product user-centric, so that people will consume more of it and thus increase corporate profits. In contrast, in the social sector, HCD is a tool that can be used to understand and develop solutions to problems where there may not be a monetary incentive.

What role do you see human-centered design playing in the social impact and international development space today?
I see HCD as a tool to create environmental and social value. It can be used in many ways, but the four that resonate most with me are:

  1. Problem Finding: The HCD methodologies and frameworks help you get to the core of a problem. The problem statement will evolve over time and the longer you look, the closer you’ll get to the true problem.
  2. Community Understanding: As practitioners in the social impact space, we often come from outside the community we’re trying to help. Our decisions and hypotheses are initially based on assumptions. HCD methodologies can be used to engage community members and build empathy to prove or disprove those assumptions.
  3. Rapid prototyping: Sometimes we can get stuck in research mode, but the HCD process forces you to test early ideas. Presenting your prototypes as works in progress will help users feel comfortable commenting on what they like or don’t like.
  4. Continuous learning and reflection: The HCD process encourages daily reflection and analysis. The key here is continuous learning. With each finding, asking yourself, “What does it mean?” and “How does it change my work?”

Is there an example of an organization successfully using HCD methods that you can share?
The one that immediately comes to mind is Proximity Designs, a nonprofit social venture working to reduce poverty and hunger for tens of thousands of rural families in Burma/Myanmar since 2004. Proximity addresses extreme poverty by treating the poor as customers and offering innovative and affordably designed technologies and services. For example, its customers replace their rope and buckets with Proximity’s foot-powered irrigation pumps and typically double their net seasonal cash income. Proximity spends countless hours observing and interviewing rural households, learning what they value, identifying root problems and most importantly, developing empathy that leads to lasting solutions to the problems they face. The insights Proximity gleans from intimate exposure to customers are what drives its on-site product design lab. Products are manufactured locally and reach customers through a nationwide distribution network linking independent agro-dealers, village entrepreneurs (who work as product reps), and village-based groups.

What advice do you have for a team that’s been working on a project for six months or a year and then realizes they want to apply HCD methods?
The HCD process can be applied at any time, but you can’t be so wedded to your current solution that, if you learn something new, you’re not willing to pivot. You might realize that you’ve been working to solve the wrong problem, and then think you have to start from scratch. But actually, you don’t have to, because you’ve learned everything that got you to that point and you can build off of that.

Do you have to be a designer to practice human-centered design? What does it take to practice human-centered design?
Absolutely not! Anyone can practice HCD. It’s all about having the right mindset and toolset. In terms of mindset, the five things I think about are: 1) Being open to ambiguity, 2) Adaptability, 3) Ability to learn from failure, 4) Empathy, and 5) Collaboration.
In terms of toolset, the things I keep using are:

  • Mapping frameworks: Stakeholder mapping and systems mapping can be used to better understand the landscape.
  • Storytelling methods: Framing the problem/solution in a compelling narrative is essential when communicating with stakeholders including partners, funders, and users.
  • Monitoring and evaluation: Design is such an iterative process that your objectives will change over time, but it’s important to figure out what your north star is (e.g. reduce plastic waste) and use M&E to assess your progress in reaching that goal.
  • Facilitation: Design is a team sport. The best designers are adept at bringing people together from diverse backgrounds to work towards a shared goal.

What resources would you suggest to people who are interested in starting to incorporate human-centered design principles and methodologies into their social impact work?  
Podcasts are a great way to get a sense of what people are doing all over the world. My favorite podcast is Social Design Insights by the Curry Stone Foundation. Another resource I would recommend are open innovation challenges. Tackling an issue you care about on a challenge site like OpenIdeo is a great way to start practicing HCD. I participated in an open challenge and found it interesting to see how people from all over the world were thinking about the same challenge in different ways. Toolkits are also a great free resource. The top on my list are Design for Health from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID, the DIY toolkit by Nesta UK, and the NYC Civic Service Design toolkit. Another resource that I can’t emphasize enough is conversations with people working in the HCD field. These informational interviews will give you a fuller sense of how you really do this work.

Any final words of advice for student innovators reading this?
Make sure that the needs of the people are at the heart of your innovation. I would also challenge budding human-centered designers to think about a new concept: environmental-centered design. This involves asking: “How does one design for a ‘client’ who doesn’t have a voice?” While I see a lot of value in the HCD methodology, I am critical of thinking about human needs in a vacuum, without considering wider environmental concerns. This is especially true for the private sector. We want so many new things, but at what cost? It’s becoming more and more necessary to know our own limits in terms of how far we can stretch our planet’s resources.

Big Ideas Judge Ryan Shaening Pokrasso: A Commitment to Social Impact and the Law

Ryan Shaening Pokrasso (JD ’13), a San Francisco Bay Area attorney who specializes in assisting social entrepreneurs, has been a longtime judge and advisor for the Big Ideas student innovation competition.
Ryan entered the legal profession by way of nonprofit

By Francis Gonzales

Ryan Shaening Pokrasso (JD ’13), a San Francisco Bay Area attorney who specializes in assisting social entrepreneurs, has been a longtime judge and advisor for the Big Ideas student innovation competition.
Ryan entered the legal profession by way of nonprofit policy advocacy. He served as program director for New Energy Economy, a nonprofit organization in New Mexico, prior to attending law school at UC Berkeley School of Law. While with New Energy Economy, Ryan organized to support a cap on carbon emissions in New Mexico and he co-authored, lobbied for, and helped pass the New Mexico Green Jobs Act to provide funding for training programs in sustainable industries for disadvantaged individuals and families. He also led an effort that culminated in the establishment of the New Mexico Green Chamber of Commerce—an influential network of over 1,200 local businesses dedicated to strengthening local economies through sustainable business practices.

While at Boalt Hall, Ryan was a leader of Students for Economic and Environmental Justice and served as a board member for the Ecology Law Quarterly journal. Ryan worked with students, faculty, and legal practitioners to establish a student run Environmental Justice Clinic to provide pro bono legal services to communities disproportionately impacted by carbon intensive industries and to promote community-driven sustainable economic development in the Bay Area and California Central Valley.

Ryan’s diverse legal experience includes serving as: a law fellow for Accountability Counsel, where he supported indigenous communities impacted by large energy projects paid for by international financial institutions; a law clerk for Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP, where he supported litigation on environmental issues on behalf of community groups, government agencies, and municipalities; and a law clerkship for U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein’s Senate Judiciary Committee office where he provided extensive policy analysis of congressional proposals for the Senator.

Big Ideas sat down with Ryan to learn more about his career trajectory and commitment to supporting early stage social entrepreneurs.

Why did you found SPZ Legal?
My co-founder—Hash Zahed (UC Berkeley JD ’13)—and I had just completed legal fellowships when we decided to start SPZ. We were both in the process of thinking about next steps and “applying for a job” didn’t sound like it was the right fit for us. When we were in law school, we had talked about the possibility of starting some sort of business together, so that was on our radar. When our respective fellowships were ending, I texted Hash and asked him if he wanted to just start our own law firm. He wrote back, “Yes!”
We agreed that starting a firm would give us the opportunity to meet a lot of common goals. Specifically, we could structure our lives in a way that is often lacking from a career practicing law, we could have a great impact through using our legal knowledge and tools to assist social entrepreneurs in building business focused on social change and environmental stewardship, we could create a great place for others to work, and we could do all of this while making a good living for ourselves (which we did not do for the first couple of years!).
In law school, there is a common idea that you can either make a lot of money, work endless hours, and not be focused on having an impact on society, or you can not make money and have a societal impact. We thought this was a false dichotomy, so we started SPZ.

Can you talk about the dynamics between you and your co-founder? How do you complement each other? What advice do you have for students looking for a co-founder?
Hash and I were great friends prior to founding SPZ. You often hear that you should not mix friendship and business. And in working with our clients, we have definitely seen situations where friendships fell apart in the context of business relationships. But the reason that these friendships fall apart is a lack of communication—when friends were hesitant to have “hard conversations” with each other. Oftentimes, friends just assumed that they are on the same page about plans, roles, and responsibilities for the business, when they were not. However, when friends turned business partners are intentional about communication and focus on discussing things as they arise and as they are envisioned, then it can be the best type of business relationship. The reason for this is that friends have each others’ back in a way that business partners may not. When my son was born, Hash took on everything for a long time and never asked for anything in return. A business partner would not have done this. I am happy to say that Hash and I are still friends! And in fact, we recently added another partner to the firm—David De La Flor—who is also a great friend of ours.
So what I recommend to students looking for a co-founder is to focus on communication and personality fit. Skills, competency, and experience are obviously important, but if you do not enjoy working with your co-founder and spending A LOT of time with them, then it is not going to work.

What is it about working with startups that you’ve found most interesting?
Learning about our clients’ amazing work is by far the most interesting aspect of working with startups. We are learning about deep technology and innovative models for impact on a daily basis. It is really inspiring! And it is also so fun to be able to re-experience the excitement that comes with starting a company over and over again, as we work with first-time entrepreneurs.

Do you think more startup founders are trying to embed social impact into their business model from the start these days?  
Absolutely! I don’t have the exact answer for why this is the case, but I feel like my generation and (even more so) the younger generation after me was raised with the idea that community is important and that there is a calling for each of us to be there for our community. And as community becomes more and more of a global concept, I think that the desire for folks to be there for the broader community around the world is increasing.

If you could give one piece of general advice to an early-stage social entrepreneur, what would it be?
Focus on communication—with co-founders, with customers, with vendors, with colleagues, and with anyone else who touches your business. If you have a perfect company and product but you don’t know how to be clear and friendly in communications, opportunities for success will fall by the wayside.

What’s one legal question that is never too early to start thinking about?
I would say that you should be thoughtful about protecting confidential information and IP as early as possible!

To learn more about SPZ Legal, please visit their website:
This is the first in a series of Q&As with Big Ideas judges and mentors.