Indya was astonished by what she had set into motion. Five members of the SF Opera’s executive team were on their hands and knees crawling on the ground in front of her. “I wouldn't have thought that it was possible to ask somebody to do that for the sake of design before this experience”, she later remarked.

Two students and ten executives from a century-old institution executed seven bold prototypes in just ten weeks. Indya McGuffin ‘19 Science, Technology, and Sociology undergraduate and Ravindra Mistri '18 MSx Sloan Fellow of Stanford Graduate School of Business were partnered to work together with SF Opera to seek inspiration from extreme users who haven't historically been thought of as traditional Opera guests. These fresh perspectives helped inspire bold experiences that SF Opera could deliver but hadn't yet explored. D.leadership is an immersive d.school class that connects real-world organizations with Stanford students. Students become ‘d.leaders’ and work closely with an organization to tackle an important business challenge using design.

...will they trust me to lead them into a space that’s going to ultimately contradict how they think?
— Indya McGuffin '19

Here's what the experience felt like from the inside.

 Rav (second from left) and SF Opera team engaging in a design session in San Francisco.   All photos by Patrick Beaudouin

Rav (second from left) and SF Opera team engaging in a design session in San Francisco. 

All photos by Patrick Beaudouin

 Indya (right) is 1 of 3 undergraduates (of 18 total students) that was accepted to the Stanford 2018 d.leadership class and captivates people with her animated way of speaking. She’s a proud Chicagoan that identifies as a self-titled creative and runs a visual design company while being a full time STS student.

Indya (right) is 1 of 3 undergraduates (of 18 total students) that was accepted to the Stanford 2018 d.leadership class and captivates people with her animated way of speaking. She’s a proud Chicagoan that identifies as a self-titled creative and runs a visual design company while being a full time STS student.

Hierarchy disrupted

Hailing from different ends of the campus and diverse life perspectives,  Indya and Rav work side by side with folks from SF Opera, ranging from senior executives to junior team members.  During one of their sessions, Rav and Indya led multiple small group brainstorms. Mid-way, they mixed up the groups during while ideating which led to concepts that were the result of three different contributions. This prevented emotional attachment of a certain concept and promoted cross pollination of ideas. Rav explained, “no one had singular ownership of any idea, it meant that there was more awareness and an ability to carry forward an idea without any singular agenda”.  

 Rav, equally engaging as Indya, listens thoughtfully and replies with great intention. Originally from Johannesburg, he’s a recent graduate and Sloan fellow from Stanford GSB with a tenured career in private equity and venture capital.

Rav, equally engaging as Indya, listens thoughtfully and replies with great intention. Originally from Johannesburg, he’s a recent graduate and Sloan fellow from Stanford GSB with a tenured career in private equity and venture capital.

In front of the classroom, it was clear that their entire team had great chemistry. It was no different behind the scenes.

Indya: “This is one of the first classes I've taken where I feel not only connected to the curriculum but also to the individuals that I'm experiencing the course with. I think the coolest part about this program is that I've gotten to know Rav not only as a [class] partner but personally as well. I'm very energetic. I use my hands a lot. I use a lot of voices and accents [when I facilitate] and I can look over to Rav and pass the ball to him.  I think the combination of that really keeps the team engaged and excited to work.

This was the first time I felt young in a design space. I thought, ‘will they [SF Opera team] trust me to know what I'm doing and will they trust me to lead them into a space that's going to ultimately contradict how they think?’ I think your title in terms of your age gets thrown out the window as soon as you walk into this room and as soon as you enter the partner's space. It's a trust that because you're in this class, you have that knowledge, the know how, and the confidence to convey change and to teach others.”

Rav: “I've been really lucky in the sense that I've been paired with a really great co-partner, Indya. We pick up from each other’s energy. When one is low, the other one kind of steps in...I also think that myself and Indya have spent time getting to know each of them [SF Opera team] in different capacities. In doing so, we were able to bring out their different strengths and step back as they stepped up to the plate.. It was a subtle balancing of the professional fast paced nature of our engagement with a soft interpersonal dynamic.”

Leveraging uncertainty

The teaching team keeps students on their toes, often presenting the next assignment or challenge only a day or two in advance. To Indya and Rav, this felt fast-paced and uncomfortable. Uncertainty can throw a team off-track. In this case it did just the opposite—it broadened their possibilities.

I really appreciated being in a space where it’s just ‘let’s see how fast can you go’.
— Rav Mistri '18
 A snapshot of one of their prototypes, an invite only event targeting millennials for an interactive evening with members of the SF Opera. 

A snapshot of one of their prototypes, an invite only event targeting millennials for an interactive evening with members of the SF Opera. 

Indya: Usually we'd get another piece of the design puzzle from the leadership team every three days–that would then influence how we ran our sessions. That was new [to me]. I do like having control and in that case you really don't have control. It allows you to not only think on your feet but remain fresh. At the same time, it was very uncomfortable not knowing what was happening the next week but it allowed for us to really live in the moment and then brace ourselves for change.  Which really got us into this whole mentality of ‘OK we're going to keep working, prototyping, iterating, and set the pace’.

I think going through this process gave me confidence that the life that I imagined for myself, where I get to interact with people and have these conversations and challenge organizations, is something that is needed in the world and will always be needed...so, I definitely feel validated as a designer, as a visual designer, as a creative thinker, and as a self entitled creative. Now I am sure there is a space for me in the world and I did have to go through this process to realize that.

Rav: This is not a space where someone is going to guide you and mentor you gently along the way. This is a class in which you know you're going to have to step into that uncomfortable space and move forward very quickly. There is no try, just do, with a strong bias towards action. I really appreciated being in a space where it's just "let's see how fast can you go".  

My recent role as a PE and VC transactor afforded less opportunities to lead really large teams, as compared to my time at Deloitte. Even as far back as highschool, I've always been very good at seeing potential in others, and nudging them into spaces where their individual strengths shine through. And this [d.leadership experience] has kind of given me a sneak insight back into that strength of mine and has made me quite excited about leading large teams again albeit this time with a new design thinking skill set.

To learn more about their class experience and learnings first hand, Rav and Indya has a journal entry on Medium that you can find here.

 All photos by Patrick Beaudouin

All photos by Patrick Beaudouin

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