MBA Internships: Design Thinking in Practice at IDEO

Sandeep Pahuja, MBA 15, is interning with global design consultancy IDEO in San Francisco. Here’s an account—in his own words—of his experiences as a business designer in the Food Studio.

Man on the street: Sandeep conducts ethnographic research for a consumer packaged goods IDEO client.

Man on the street: Sandeep conducts ethnographic research for a consumer packaged goods IDEO client.

Student: Sandeep Pahuja, Full-Time MBA 15

IDEO because: During Orientation Week (exactly one year ago!), IDEO Partner and Berkeley MBA 83 Alumnus Tom Kelley spoke about IDEO and design thinking. I had certainly heard of IDEO, but this was the first time I heard someone really explain the company in detail. It immediately became my dream internship. I sought out the role of business designer because it is the perfect blend of creativity and strategy.

Excited about: IDEO’s human-centered design approach starts with understanding user needs by talking with and watching users in context. I was thrilled to do ethnographic research this summer and engage with potential users directly.

For one of my projects, we worked with a large consumer packaged goods (CPG) company to help them enter a new category by creating a new brand and products. We made numerous prototypes to take out in the field and show to people. We were able to talk to more than 140 people in a few days about the brand and prototypes we were working on.

It was incredible to get feedback from that many people so quickly—it forced us to rethink some assumptions. It was an unbelievable learning experience that informed how we proceeded.

A highlight: The magic of IDEO comes from interdisciplinary teams. One of my teams included industrial product designers, graphic designers, a writer, a food scientist, an anthropologist, a former brand manager, a former Google product manager, and me. When you put together a team like that, you have everyone looking at problems from a different angle, and generating totally different ideas about how to attack them. It creates an incredibly rich environment that is very exciting.

Being surrounded by smart and talented people every day has been amazing, and getting to dive deep on problems with smaller teams has been enlightening.

Inside IDEO: The culture at IDEO is weird in the best way possible. Like Haas, IDEO has its own core values: be optimistic, collaborate, embrace ambiguity, learn from failure, make others successful, take ownership, and talk less/do more. Taken together it’s creative, informal, fun, serious (in project spaces), transparent, random, and rebellious. IDEOers are constantly sharing, learning, and doing.

Every day we get at least one company-wide email from an IDEOer is seeking inspiration for a project, and the whole company gets many thoughtful responses. We have Google groups where people post links to the things they believe are worth sharing. IDEOers take it upon themselves to help others learn new skills. This summer, we’ve had IDEOers from our China and Japan offices come in to share not only their amazing work but also what they’ve been challenged by in their countries. I love that people are always willing to help out, coach, and teach.

Design humor

Design humor

One example of random fun at the office: one of our bathrooms has a chalkboard wall that has different questions on it. Right now the question is “what do you collect?” In true IDEO fashion, there are many different answers on Post-it notes, but my favorite has to be the hilarious collection of corny jokes. It’s the little, random things like this that really add to the IDEO culture.

Haas skills applied: Most new problems we face are different from the last ones, and they challenge us to look for different angles. Design thinking enable teams to turn big, unwieldy problems into digestible chunks. Thankfully, Haas teaches design thinking in the core program with Problem Finding, Problem Solving, so I was able to start my internship already having been through parts of the process.

Advancing career goals by: My #1 goal a year ago was to work at IDEO and really get into the design-thinking process. I’ve been lucky enough to have an incredible experience at IDEO this summer that has let me do both. Coming back to Haas, I plan on taking as many opportunities as possible to practice design thinking and to keep developing my skills.


MBA Internships: Consulting on Main Street


Wine by the barrel: Kory rolls up his sleeves at Brooks Winery in rural Oregon, where his MBAs Across America team did a comprehensive cost and break-even analysis.

Student: Kory Vargas Caro, MBA 15

Interning with: MBAs Across America, a startup organization that’s sending teams of business students on six-week summer road trips to both help and learn from small entrepreneurs.

This is the inaugural year of the program, which was started by four Harvard MBAs who gave the idea a test drive last summer.

Before the trip, Vargas Caro and his teammates identified, screened, and selected six entrepreneurs with specific business challenges. They’re now traversing the country, from Montana to Colorado to Detroit to North Carolina, spending one week on each project before hitting the road to their next gig.

Their projects have included  a comprehensive cost and break-even analysis for a winery, and a go-to-market plan for a line of custom guide-dog harnesses, and a shipping and distribution strategy for a subscription box service—focusing on hand-crafted products from Nashville—that is expanding to five new states.

MBAxA because: “People forget that small businesses are the largest engine of growth in America, and the largest providers of jobs. These are people who are having a positive impact in their communities, yet they are often overlooked.”

“Our team particularly wanted to focus on women and minorities. I was a small business owner (political fundraising and organizing), so this is an opportunity to combine the tools that Haas has given me with real-life experiences to help people who are just like me.”

Excited about: “Getting the chance to meet impressive small business owners in areas I’ve never visited. The people we’ve worked with are leading the way on how entrepreneurship should be done. In Bozeman, Montana, we worked with the owner of a café and pizzeria who was pushing the envelope on farm-to-table dining in her community. We worked with a winery owner in rural Oregon who was building a $1.2 million tasting room that would transform the Valley into a destination for wine tasting, helping out local wineries in the area.”

Highlight so far: “The strength of the team. We’d never met or worked together before. Now we’re spending 24-7 together on the road. We’ve gotten closer. The work has gotten stronger. We understand each other’s strengths. In Detroit we met the other teams on the road. It was a great learning moment for me, when we got to share our experiences with one another. I’m very thankful for being exposed to this movement and making these friends and building this amazing network.”

Team Ross/Haas and Tiffany Lach, the owner of Sola Cafe in Bozeman, Montana.

Team Ross/Haas and Tiffany Lach, the owner of Sola Cafe in Bozeman, Montana.

Haas skills applied: “Team Haas/Ross is the only mixed-school team, and that has turned out to be a big advantage. It’s also helped me see what we do well at Haas. We put a lot of emphasis on teams, and we really do lead the way in design thinking.

I’ve put this into practice every day. The first day, we just ask questions and we take notes. Questions like: can you help me understand why this is important to you? We keep asking questions, and we look at the assumptions underneath. Is it true that you have a bottleneck here? Is it true that the technology you have isn’t working for you? Instead of people telling us what they want us to fix, we start by making sure it’s the right problem.”

Big takeaway: “I came into this knowing nothing about wine, nothing about restaurants, nothing about dog collars. I still know just a bit about them—but now I know the questions you need to ask. Once you get to the problems and get through to the answers, the rest is mechanical. With a few more experiences in other industries, I could do absolutely anything.”

Advancing career goals by: “I came into Haas wanting to explore the world of entrepreneurship. Having been a small business owner, I knew I would eventually start another business. This trip has helped solidify my belief that I’ll end up in the start-up world. This is where I’m most happy. I’m recommitted to the path I started on.”

Read the Ross/Haas team’s blog posts here.

Read about the team’s week at Brooks Winery in Oregon’s Statesman Journal, and in the Denver Business Journal.