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Why I took up the Design Thinking elective as an English & Philosophy student

The business side of things has always interested me. I have grown up in a family where business discussions were quite common. Identifying problems, strategising solutions, marketing, raising funds, team management, winning and retaining customers… I have found all these things fascinating from a young age. For a long time, the entrepreneurial bug was dormant in me.

This innate desire led me towards attending various business networking events during my first year of college. I joined the Trinity Entrepreneurial Society (TES) as the Incubator Ambassador, and also participated in the Provost’s Innovation Challenge. So when I saw “Design Thinking” as an elective for my second year, I instantly knew this would be my first choice.

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This is what the Design Thinking elective taught me:

1. The role of empathy in establishing a business

Empathy is often known to be a “people” thing. Empathy is what individuals have for each other, and this attribute makes this world a better place. But, in the first session of the Design Thinking elective, I saw a different side of empathy - the business side. The professor taught us about the importance of empathy in understanding the customer’s needs and channelling that understanding towards building a useful solution. And hence a sustainable business.

My most important takeaway about empathy in business was knowing when to draw the line: offer a solution you think will help the customer, not that the customer thinks they need.

This quote by Henry Ford sums it up well: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

2. Teamwork enriches ideas and makes your idea realistic

The first session did cover some of my most favourite topics - empathy and customer persona. What took this first session to the next level were the fun activities we undertook as a creative bonding exercise. I received a slip of paper with the word “rubber duck” on it, and my on-the-spot partner had the word “clock.” We had 10 minutes to turn these random words into a product we could sell. Yes, this sounds absurd. But within those 10 minutes, my partner and I considered some everyday problems and came up with some ridiculous ideas - and some very surprising ones too. Of course, there were no wrong answers here, and the freedom to develop an idea from this rather questionable concept was intriguing and exciting. Such fun ways of creative involvement continued throughout the elective and added a unique perspective each time.

After our first Design Thinking session, teams were formed. The way we went about forming teams was a pleasant surprise. We received an email with our group numbers. So, the next Tuesday, at 9 am, I sat on the table with the number “3”, with 5 other girls I had never met before. We introduced ourselves and realised how many diverse disciplines like law, arts and business came together for this elective. This group was now my team for the rest of the elective, and we would soon ideate a startup concept, create a PowerPoint presentation and present collectively our pitch to the class.

I had my anxious moments about working with people I’d never met before - but that’s what this elective made me comfortable with. I realised that it takes multiple ideas to create a realistic, actionable solution. Receiving the unique viewpoints showcased the importance of teamwork, communicating different views and market research.

3. Soft skills come from experience and interactions. And yes, they are important.

My undergraduate course of English and Philosophy is one that requires independent thinking and personal, individual assignments. The Design Thinking elective was the first course that involved a group project and group report, one in which our grades were dependent on each member’s work, creativity and productivity.

This group project required us to communicate clearly with each other. We defined our roles and responsibilities, and set up deadlines for each of them. Creating our PowerPoint presentation gave us a sense of the power of design and font, and pitching in front of our classmates ensured we put our best face forward. Further, writing the group report as a team improved our interpersonal skills and engaged us with each other’s viewpoints.

I am really glad I chose the Design Thinking module; as someone who has the identity of being the “girl from the Arts Block,” it gave me a taste of the business world. I highly recommend more students, across disciplines, to opt for this elective and gain a new, real business world perspective.

I now look forward to taking the next step in my interest in business, through the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Cert programme!


Blog post by Shreya Pattar, TSM English Literature & Philosophy, TCD
Published on 15th June 2020.

Insights for: Silicon Valley Bank Trek 2020

Boarding my flight home from San Francisco I found myself brimming with insights into the journeys of Silicon Valley leaders and filled with a new curiosity for other opportunities may lie within reach. Here’s my attempt to capture a three days whirlwind in a brief blog post! On January 1st I rolled in the new decade by flying to San Francisco to participate in the Silicon Valley Bank Trek. This journey to San Francisco had begun in September when an email from Alison Treacy, Student, Startup and Innovation manager at Tangent appeared in my inbox. It was a nomination for the Silicon Valley Bank Trek. I proceeded to apply to the Silicon Valley Bank and received word mid-October that I had been selected as one of 25 students who would form the SVB Trek Class of 2020.

Together, they develop innovative products and services, start new companies, and train a new generation of entrepreneurs. They bring ideas to market, turn students into entrepreneurs and, most importantly, they innovate. These partnerships are known as EIT Innovation Communities or Knowledge and Innovation Communities.

The SVB Trek brings together students from 20 universities; Harvard, Oxford, Stanford, Brown, Waterloo, Trinity and beyond, who study a range of disciplines including software engineering, clinical medicine, finance, entrepreneurship, biophotonics, mechatronics, health economics and many more. The achievements of this cohort include; building startups for early cancer detection, 3D printing of prosthetic devices and reduced traffic congestion in Mexican cities, and holding titles such as; president of the WHO intern board, co-founder of Miami Social Impact fund and Young Global Leadership scholar. These accomplishments seemed almost beyond belief until I met these people in person!

Pictured above: Kate Fuller, President of Trinity's Entrepreneurial eneurial Society (TES)

The Trek creates an opportunity for this cohort to connect with some of the leaders in technology, entrepreneurship and investment in Silicon Valley. These leaders included; Stanford professor, Stuart Coulson; Chairman of Magnet systems and co-founder of BEA systems, Alfred Chuang; blockchain entrepreneur and investor, Avichal Gard; founder of Array Ventures, Shruti Gandi; founder of Mapel VC, Andre Charoo; former Director of Executive Communications at Google and advisor to Twitter and Snapchat, Raymond Nasr; and Bloomberg Beta investors Lisa Wehden and Minn Kim... to name but a few.

As you may imagine, to detail all of the wisdom shared by guides and fellow students during the Trek is beyond this blog post. In an attempt to share these insights with as many people as possible and to make them actionable, I’ve broken them down for their target audiences.

Insights for: Soon-to-be Graduates

Don’t have a plan B — Go all in! Andre Charoo says that the most successful people he knows make bets in their career choices and focus on one thing. For the majority of the Trek cohort and for many of my own peers, who will soon take the leap from college into the working world, this insight has value.

Alfred Chuang reinforced this approach. His own journey to success was based on his mantra; ‘conviction, conviction, conviction’. This man co-founded the company BEA software, which was then sold to Oracle for $8.5 billion, was named Silicon Valley Philanthropist of the year, is the current Chairman of Magnet Systems Inc…and the list goes on. He says that having total conviction in his ability was essential; from the beginning of his education, through to his professional decisions to acquire million dollar companies, and in his everyday curiosity about the workings of society. If Alfred says to have total conviction in your decisions and to get rid of your plan B then I’m on-board.

Insights for: A Social Entrepreneur

Stuart Coulson, professor at Stanford University’s, leads a module which has spun out start-up, Embrace (amongst many many others). Embrace created an incubator for premature infants which costs less than 1% of the cost of a traditional incubator and has saved the lives of ½ a million babies across 22 countries to date.

Stuart is a Trinity College graduate, an angel investor and the co-founder of Launchbox, Tangent’s summer accelerator programme based in the Trinity Business School. He highlighted the book, Out of Poverty by Paul Polak, and the article, Making Money While Doing Good by Paul Brest (focusing on the increase in social impact investing) as some key resources to get stuck into.

Insights for: Blockchain-Curious people

‘If you could go back to 1995, before the explosion of the internet, what would you do? Whatever this may be, take this approach and apply it to the blockchain’ — advice from Avichal Garg. Avichal is a former executive at Google and Facebook, and Managing Partner/Co-founder of Electric Capital venture fund. He told us that we are at the beginning of a cultural shift created by blockchain technology. He believes that in the near future, the underlying technology of most firms will be on the blockchain. I’ve just finished reading, ‘The Truth Machine: The Blockchain and the Future of Everything’, and have already set about recommending it to as many people as possible. It’s jam-packed with visions of a decentralised future and is a wealth of information on the existing and potential applications of blockchain across all industries! Avichal’s enthusiasm for the application of blockchain is captured in this book and I can highly recommend it.

Insights for: A Job-Hunter

Andre Charoo (who hired the man now the head of Uber Global Operations) gave us three key factors he looks for when looking to hire brilliant people; Grit, a growth mindset and emotional intelligence. My key takeaway from his session was that those who have confidence in their ability to learn are the people who excel. To focus on building confidence your learning ability above all else, will allow you to succeed when faced with any challenge. In line with this, Shruti Gandhi, founder of Array Ventures, a data-driven VC firm, emphasised the need to adopt the mindset that you can teach yourself anything. Thinking in this way encourages you to continue picking up new skills as you delve into new areas, and to do so autonomously. This, along with her master class in leveraging Twitter as a leadership platform shed light on how to build your personal brand and prime yourself to be able to walk into any job with confidence.

Insights for: A Budding Entrepreneur

Timing plays a huge role in the success of a start-up. It’s not necessarily the best idea that wins out in the end but the one which is the right idea at the right time. Uber, for example, would never have seen such levels of success had it not been for the technological advancements created by Google maps which facilitated Uber’s platform, the economic downturn which left limousine drivers with idle hours during which they were willing to explore new revenue streams, and a cultural shift towards a sharing economy led by the growth of Airbnb. These three factors created a favourable timing for the launch of Uber on the market — without them, perhaps the ride-sharing startup which appeared on the market in 2010 wouldn’t even exist today.

'Pivoting' was a term used by many of our guides during their sessions. It describes the changing of paths or altering of approach by entrepreneurs while building startups. Serial entrepreneur, Conrad Burke, and Ryan Choi, of seed accelerator YCombinator (used to launch Stripe, Twitter, Dropbox etc.) both highlighted the prevalence of pivoting in the startup world. Being willing to pivot can be the make-or-break factor for businesses in rapidly changing markets and yet, it isn’t highlighted in the ‘quick success’ stories which we hear in the media. Both Conrad and Ryan identified pivoting as a frequent occurrence in behind the scenes.

In a similarly candid vein, SVB Entrepreneur in Residence, Shruti Shah explored the realities of failure and learning how to fail in the startup world. As co-founder of Move Loot, Shruti was named in Forbes 30 under 30 in 2016 and raised $22 million to scale her startup across the US. She spoke openly about the downturn of her company, the struggle of seeding decision making power to VCs and eventually, her change in careers.

Finally, Bloomberg Beta investors Minn and Lisa shared what they deem to be key features of the startups which they include in their portfolio.

1. Their ‘Criteria for Investing’ included the following; An exceptional team — people who are obsessed with solving their customer’s problem.

2. A unique insight — either an unusual approach to a known problem or the identification of an underexplored problem

3. A big market — one with the potential to make a 10 x return on their investments.


As a whole, this Trek has instilled in my mindset a new curiosity and an appetite to learn from others, act on instincts and take more chances. I’m extremely grateful to Tangent for nominating and sponsoring my travels, to SVB for their extreme levels of engagement throughout the Trek and their hours of organising. Finally, to the 24 extreme humans who shared this experience with me — I can’t wait to see what it is that you all do — I’ve no doubt many of your names will be in lights in the very near future. Thank you, Courtney, Jake, Claire and the entire SVB team! Some more key resources: Venture Deals (this was given to each cohort member by SVB and was also recommended by some of our guides. I’ve just started it and it’s a great base understanding of how venture deals come together), Secrets of Sand Hill Road: Venture Capital and How to Get it (Recommended by Raymond Nasr), Y Combinator’s Startup Library and finally, You Are The Placebo: Making Your Mind Matter (recommended by the wonderful Lucia Deschamps).