What seems a new buzzword in business and engineering, Design Thinking, took center stage at Impact HUB Oakland on Wednesday night as a panel of experts assembled by the Alliance for Community Development described how it might be put to use.

Design thinking can help a company or organization be more intentional with its decisions, aligning possible actions with company values and goals, said the group who included a manager from Cisco Systems, the former president of Presidio Graduate School, a senior marketing director for Walmart, and two Oakland entrepreneurs. The result, they said, can lead to decisions that benefit all of a company’s stakeholders and to creating products that people want.

“Ultimately it is a mindset,” said Seyed Amiry, Presidio’s former president and an entrepreneur who founded Cooperative Education Ventures in Oakland, the organization launching Uptima Boot Camp this spring. “So when you are making a decision, you consider whole aspects of that decision.” It is a realization that “the organizational structure itself has a lot to do with interests and products and services.”

Francesca Barrientos,  a manager of user experience design for Cisco Systems, said, “to me, design thinking is a process: how do you define problems, get input from all stakeholders, and then help them articulate [what is important to them] and put it into a process.” The end goal, she said, is “so we can make the right product.”

Design thinking might be an alternative to the “move-fast-and-break-things” mantra so popular in some large Silicon Valley companies, Amiry said. Sometimes a situation calls for moving slower and more deliberately, he and others said, and that is when design thinking is best put into use.

Local Our Volts founders James McBryan and Anca Mosoiu said they are using design thinking to build their startup, which is a volunteer time management and scheduling system. McBryan said they decided on this approach after they failed at an earlier startup launch because they hadn’t taken into account user interest. Mosoiu also founded TechLiminal in Oakland; McBryan runs TechScouts.


“We failed. We built the wrong product for the wrong audience. Now we are using design thinking to design the new product,” he said, “and we don’t design anything unless we have 25 people banging on our door asking us to do that.”

They don’t eschew failure, however. In fact, McBryan and Mosoiu said failure is necessary to arrive at what works – and their fellow panelists agreed. What they learned is they have to listen to potential users, carefully. “We built something few people really, really wanted,” Mosoiu said. So when they went back to start their second business, they introduced their product by increments – putting it out there among a small group of people, getting feedback, and then doing a new iteration.

Debra Beresini, chief executive of Invencor, a strategic consulting and fund management business, said that when she worked in the venture capital industry she and her colleagues would not fund a venture unless someone on the venture’s management team had experienced starting a business that failed. Failure is the greatest teacher, she said.

Anna Banks, senior manager of category marketing for Walmart Stores, said part of the value of design thinking is “about clarity, about knowing who you are designing for.” She said it is very important for companies or product teams to know their audience and get “a really deep understanding of who your audience is and then testing (a product or service) before them.”

One of the pitfalls of design thinking, the panelists said, is that it slows things down. In Silicon Valley, slow is not a positive value.

“I work for a really big company with really smart engineers. It is hard to say we need to step back and think about what is the vision. Design thinking slows things down, you step back and define a problem,” noted Cisco’s Barrientos.

Beresini said “in Silicon Valley, you have a lot of people who want to charge ahead,” so it takes a special situation and special skill to slow the process down for a more intentional result.

There is a fine line, Barrientos noted, “to balance short and long term business objectives, “ in essence, knowing when it is time to stop thinking about it and move a product out the door. “You have to balance the constraints of the business and know when you’ve got to stop where you are and go with what you have,” she said.

Oakland — noted Darlene Crane, the organizer of the Bay Area Capital Connection forums and executive director of Alliance for Community Development — is in the midst of an intentional build out of its technology sector, something that holds Oakland’s core values of economic justice. Design thinking could be used to build a more inclusive economy, she explained.

Asked how a company could best go about building a strong diverse employee team in Oakland using design thinking, Mosoiu, McBryan and Amiry  each said that just the act of starting a business in Oakland suggests the entrepreneurs are interested in building inclusive employee teams, because that is the value of being here.

There will be two more forums coming up, and a fall conference:

BACC Forum II – Creating Value Through Inclusion:
Understand how tech companies create value financially and through social, environmental and economic impact. Explore the methods and metrics used to demonstrate a company’s financial and social value.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014, 6 – 8 p.m.
Cost: $15
Impact Hub Oakland
2323 Broadway
Oakland, CA 94612

BACC Forum III – Pitching a Company, Not a Product:
Learn how to present your company so that you can find and attract investors aligned with your mission, financial, and impact objectives. Three tech entrepreneurs (TBA) will pitch their company to a panel of top-tier investors.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014 6 – 8 p.m.
Cost: $15
Impact Hub Oakland
2323 Broadway
Oakland, CA 94612

2014 BACC Conference — Investing in an Inclusive Economy:
The 2014 BACC Forum Series is building to the 2014 BACC Conference “Investing in an Inclusive Economy,” scheduled for October 9, 2014. This annual half-day conference engages entrepreneurs, investors and other professionals in supporting technology companies in achieving their financial, social, environmental and economic impact goals. The conference features expert panels, interactive sessions, and a Startup Pitch Showcase in which a select group of startups will present their businesses to a panel of investors and successful entrepreneurs.

Thursday, October 9, 2014, noon – 6 p.m.
Cost: $50
Kaiser Center Auditorium
300 Lakeside Drive, Oakland, CA