Products for the other 3 billion

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Jim Patell is perhaps the only member of the faculty at Stanford Graduate School of Business to come to class sporting police-issue cargo pants with a black Benchmade knife clipped to the right front pocket.

Patell differs from his B-school peers in another way too: Instead of teaching in a lecture hall filled with diligent students typing away on laptops, he operates out of Stanford’s design school, where he teaches a class called Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability. His classroom looks a bit like your typical high school wood shop crossed with the lobby of the United Nations. Whiteboards are covered with scenes of village life and subsistence farming in Ethiopia, India, Nepal, Rwanda, and parts of Southeast Asia.

The pictures are a reminder of the class mission: to teach a new generation of entrepreneurs to use their business and engineering smarts to design and sell products – profitably – for the developing world.
No mere do-gooders

Two such budding entrepreneurs are Nedjip Tozun and Sam Goldman, founders of D.light Design. D.light makes cheap, solar-powered lights to replace the kerosene and diesel lamps so common in the developing countries of Asia and Africa. Tozun and Goldman met in Patell’s class in 2006 and quickly connected over their mutual passion for helping the poorest communities tap into basics, like light, that the developed world takes for granted.

For smart, ambitious students of Tozun and Goldman’s generation (they are both 29 years old) professional success and saving the planet aren’t mutually exclusive. Patell’s class is supercompetitive; people regularly are turned away because there’s not enough space. Some of the students – a mix of would-be MBAs, engineers, and designers – truly are do-gooders, but a fair number think building good, cheap products is a skill any corporation would value.

Source: Fortune Magazine (link opens in a new window)