Humanizing Data Science with Design Thinking with Saleema Vellani


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Saleema Vellani is an award-winning serial entrepreneur, keynote speaker, a professor, and the author of Innovation Starts With “I”. At the age of 21, Saleema co-founded and launched Brazil’s largest and #1 language school to finance an orphanage and social development programs, which has taught several thousands of students to date. Shortly after, she co-founded and ran a leading online translation agency in Italy to help companies expand their digital presence globally, while generating hundreds of jobs in the gig economy. 

The business was acquired in 2012. For over 12 years, Saleema has led 100+ international organizations, nonprofits, and Fortune 500 companies to their next stage of growth and innovation. As an intrapreneur, Saleema has been co-leading award-winning, groundbreaking research with the World Bank on solving food insecurity in conflict-affected countries through climate-smart technologies since 2016. Given her experience with running businesses online, in 2013, Saleema led startup education programs for Upwork (formerly Elance) to train Washington DC-based business owners on how to hire and manage remote teams.

Currently, Saleema is the Founder and CEO of Ripple Impact, which helps entrepreneurs increase their influence and impact through accelerating the growth of their platforms and businesses. She also teaches Design Thinking and Entrepreneurship at Johns Hopkins University and is a frequent guest lecturer at business schools.

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Here’s the timestamps for the episode: 

(00:00) – Introduction

(01:53) –  I was embracing a lot of the principles and the actual design thinking process. It is about iterations and cycles, but it was really about understanding a problem and that’s something that we talk about customer development, understanding who are potential customers and what’s the problem we need to solve. We realized we we needed to really carve our own niche and focus on what was working 

(05:16) – The skill of being able to think like a designer doesn’t mean everyone needs to becomes a design thinking expert or an innovation expert, but just the skill of being able to connect dots that seem unrelated and that’s also referred to as associative thinking, there’s different theories around this, but really trying to connect things I that already exist in new ways, that ability to think that way is one of the skills that’s going to be really important for the future of work.

(05:51) – We’re in the middle of this re-skilling revolution right now as stated by the world economic forum. Embedding that in the culture of an organization is becoming increasingly important.

(06:35) – Innovation starts with I, and the mindset and developing that innovative way of thinking and being able to only share creativity and really just knowing yourself, know your sweet spot, what do you do? Or what can you offer to the world? Understanding who are the stakeholders that you need to really understand when you’re solving a problem and then making your impact on the world through that and so that with more and more with technical fields.

(07:03) – Showing empathy. Understanding yourself and who you are, and that ability to make things more humane. Understanding humans really starts by understanding yourself.

(09:17) – Thinking about what data is available, but the design thinking mindset can be applied and data scientists, being able to question that and using design thinking principles, whether it’s starting from empathy to really framing the problem and that’s one of the hardest parts of design thinking is being able to frame the problem correctly, because oftentimes we’re thinking about the solutions without really understanding the problem.

(11:26) – We’re entering the fourth industrial revolution as we talked about we’re in this re-skilling revolution and a lot of businesses are stalling and they’re falling behind, or sometimes it’s hard to even see that you’re stalling when you’re so focused inside of the business and not on the business to develop that awareness until it’s too late and you’ve been replaced or you’ve been automated.

(18:15) – Resilience is really important for everyone to have and when it comes to innovation, entrepreneurship, design thinking. The time where you’re hitting a dip, you’re going rock bottom and you’re not sure whether you should go, you should keep working at it, what to do and it’s almost like crisis mode and that’s happened to me. Resilience is important because you have to be okay with failure and more and more companies are trying to adopt this culture where failure is and it starts by having a psychologically safe environment.

(22:48) – The Coronavirus has actually enabled us to be more human and really understand what’s going on in the world and developing that global awareness, which is another insight that I got through my book interviews is really understanding what’s going on with different cultures.

(26:12) – With design thinking, it’s important to understand the experience that humans or your customers go through and on the backend there is lot of the coding, a lot of that’s already being automated a lot of things are being replaced,

(28:04) – That ability to think in that way, like a designer, even just enough so that you can humanize the code or humanized data science, that’s going to be increasingly important. 

(29:46) – Constant learning, the ability to just constantly be in learning mode and going to conferences, absorbing content. Try to get at least one nugget per day and learn something new and make that part of your routine that’s really important to stay up to date with the trends cause it’s so easy to just become obsolete in today’s economy. 

(32:12) – This rise of entrepreneurship is like everyone wants to be an entrepreneur, a lot of people are trying to participate in the gig economy, being entrepreneurs and even the concept of an entrepreneur has evolved so much. There’s Instagram influencers, social entrepreneurs, focusing on the feeling and the impact that’s important, as well as figuring out how to collaborate with other people.