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Educated Girls Uncover Unmet Design Needs

Last week, M.S. in Sustainability Management alum Diana Sierra (‘12) was featured on TriplePundit for her work with Be Girl, a for-profit social enterprise that she co-founded for the purpose of empowering women through design. Having had experience as a product designer for Nike and Panasonic, Diana joined the program with the goal to develop more environmentally and socially responsible products. You can read the full article below as well as here.

Photo: Be Girl
Photo: Be Girl

Flip through any fashionable design annual, and you’ll read of something called “Human Centered Design.” The practice of HCD places emphasis on user testing, interviews, field research and high-touch iterations to solve problems. As contemporary design, and especially sustainable design, increasingly comes to rely on HCD-inspired techniques, greater attention is being paid to social features.

Diana Sierra and Be Girl have developed their own version of the process, which they call Humanity Focused Design. Despite years of experience designing products for brands like Nike and Panasonic, Diana Sierra felt the need to change course.  She enrolled in the Sustainability Management program at the Earth Institute – Columbia University seeking to develop better products, not only those that boosted the bottom line but products that where responsible to the environment and the people. That was the drive that gave way to Be Girl, an idea to create “extremely affordable and high-performance products” that focus on “women’s and girls’ autonomy and confidence” through design.

Sierra first came up with the idea of developing a new kind of sanitary napkin after conversations with girls and women in rural Uganda as part of a U.N. Development Program project. She learned that many young women, lacking access to any feminine hygiene products, would miss school when they began menstruating. Her solution was a pad/underwear that may be fitted with almost any locally available absorbent material. In fact, Sierra’s original prototype was assembled from fabric she re-used from an umbrella and mosquito net.

This “open architecture” approach to design mirrors how Be Girl’s resourceful design approach delivers maximum impact with minimal materials. By working closely with a variety of communities to co-create, girls are empowered to develop products that not only responded to their immediate needs, but also reflected their aspirations.

Photo: Be Girl
Photo: Be Girl

Talking about menstruation is not an easy thing, especially when it is taboo or culturally inappropriate to even broach the topic. But “when a stain of blood is standing between a girl and her chance to a reach for a better future, you don’t need to be a designer to figure out that the minimum intervention to level the plain-field for girls is to make appropriate menstruation management solutions as part of the toolkit for girls to stay mobile pursuing and reaching opportunities,” Sierra said.

Teaching girls to form a new relationship with their bodies is at the heart of BeGirl’s design efforts. Through a sustained relationship with the designers, girls learned how to express their needs through feedback. This would often spark a discussion about other problems that needed fixing. For instance, the lack of girls’ bathrooms in the schools in Uganda pointed to larger infrastructure problem. Once a design discussion begins, it can lead to reassessing the environment and create a sort of domino effect. Humanity Centered Design may start by solving apparently “small” problems, but the aim is big. In the case of Be Girl’s sanitary napkins, Sierra explains, “We are not talking about rocket ships, we are talking about pads. Yet they both have the same effect on people; they take you places.”

Simple solutions can be revolutionary and truly worth giving it all, because every girl deserves the right to manage her body with dignity, and to have access to an education as well as all the opportunities that come with having mobility and autonomy, key components to reach the immense potential that is in every human being.

This article was first published on July 20, 2014 for TriplePundit and written by Elizabeth Schaeffer Brown.

The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Continuing Education, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. The program requires the successful completion of 36 credit points. Those credit points are divided among five comprehensive content areas: integrative sustainability management, economics and quantitative analysis, the physical dimensions of sustainability, the public policy environment of sustainability management, and general and financial management. Visit our website to learn more.  

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