Design Thinking and Building Entrepreneurial Creativity

IMG_0107-001Author: Carrie Ellett
Akilah Academic Director & Burundi Country Director

Akilah’s Class of 2015 Entrepreneurship students have completed the first Design Thinking course at Akilah, led by Entrepreneurship Instructor Moses Ssenyonjo.

Design Thinking is a strategic process that designers use when creating or improving a product. Essentially, it is a series of cognitive steps used to innovate new ideas. These can be redesigns of products that exist or new ideas that solve an issue. The process is used for both commercial and social gains.

While the concept of Design Thinking is not new, it has gained popularity with the success of IDEO and the leadership at Stanford’s Institute of Design. There are now books, videos, and lesson plans dedicated to teaching this process to students at all ages. At a recent Segal Family Foundation conference, participants were given a 1.5-day seminar on Design Thinking by the Amani Institute. (The Segal Family Foundation is the key supporter of Akilah’s expansion to Burundi.)

Design Thinking is very new to the students at Akilah. It gives them an opportunity to put to use their creativity, empathy, rationality, and critical thinking skills. They are also able to gain confidence and tools they can apply in their life and careers as entrepreneurs.

The students began using the steps for Design Thinking in the Market Research Analysis and Product Design course. This course follows an intensive eight-week format focused on allowing budding entrepreneurs to practice integrating the many skills they need when running a business. The class combines the surveying and observation skills needed to conduct market analysis along with the design thinking process needed to improve and develop products.

During the first half of the course, students practiced building a bridge out of dry spaghetti and rubber bands. The challenge? Build it so it’s strong enough to hold a 250-gram bag of sugar. Students also designed a wallet for a fellow student after finding out what they used their wallet for, what they wanted in a wallet, etc.

The next level of the class puts students in pairs. They spend a few days observing classrooms at Akilah and doing market research together. Then, they are asked to redesign an Akilah classroom using the knowledge gained. Students could present their project by actually changing a classroom at the Institute, or presenting one through PowerPoint, or constructing a small-scale model.

Here’s what a group of students found while sitting in on a Hospitality Management course: Students were too squeezed together, with tables facing in different directions and not everyone seeing the whiteboard. The teacher could not easily move around to different groups to check on their progress, and students had to get up and out of each other’s way whenever someone needed to move about the room, creating a loss of concentration. And, because half the chairs faced the window, many students were distracted by whatever might be going on outside the classroom.

Design Thinking students rearranged the desks and chairs in a uniform direction to create extra space and ensure that all students had a clear view of the instructor and the white board. The new arrangement allowed any student to stand up without interrupting others.


We are excited to be pioneering creative thinking processes with students in order to build their skills and inspire them to create new and innovative products that will solve existing social problems or market gaps. For a bit more about Design Thinking, we recommend you watch IDEO founder David Kelley’s TED Talk about building creative confidence.

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