By: David Richards, MEM ’15
Eat something, you’ll need the energy,” my supervisor remarked.
The I-zone meeting room – short for innovation, inspiration, or really any positive word starting with an ‘i’ – was empty now, but soon it would be filled with a collection of executives, primed to hear our toilet market entry recommendation. I grabbed the closest boxed lunch and managed a few bites of my sandwich before their voices drifted inward…
I may be getting a bit ahead of myself here. In 2011, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation issued a challenge: reinvent the toilet. Not just the porcelain object we all know and love, but the entire infrastructure around it.
Back in Research Triangle Park, RTI International applied their wide variety of capabilities in chemistry, materials science and international development to build a water-less, energy balanced system that also has the potential to fulfill RTI’s mission, “Improve the human condition by turning knowledge into practice.” This process was documented in an awesome blog entitled “A Better Toilet”.
RTI’s project successfully caught The Gates Foundation’s attention. In 2014, RTI was awarded a substantial sum to create a working prototype and bring this revolutionary technology to market.
Enter me, an inexperienced Duke MEM candidate, ready to begin my role as an open innovation consulting intern! The first day, I was led into a room by my incredibly intelligent supervisor, and explained everything. RTI seeks to enter the India sanitation market, but we want you to develop and communicate the entry recommendation. Go.
With a few markets in mind and a rough outline of the story we were going to tell, I got to researching. And I researched. Hours and hours were spent pouring through publications and news articles. They discussed statistics about India’s state of sanitation: only 36% of the population has access, and of those that do, only 13% of their waste is treated. Because of a lack of toilets, girls do not attend school and women must trek to remote locations for privacy. I came to realize that, though this phenomenon isn’t publicized in the media much, it is an enormous problem – and not just in India.
There are dozens of countries that suffer from low access to sanitation and will have unprecedented water scarcity by 2025. India was chosen as the target location for three reasons:
- It has a large and growing economy
- It has a democratic and cooperative government
- RTI has both an office and several partnerships in the country
These three factors allowed for the possibility of not just making an initial dent in the problem, but a sustained impact.
As I collected more and more data, a market clearly presented itself and an entire deck was created with this recommendation in mind. My supervisor gave me the tremendous opportunity to present my work to six vice presidents and two senior directors in a capstone meeting.
In the end, I realized that though my level of experience paled in comparison to my audience, what I learned over the last three months uniquely positioned me as an expert on this project. I knew where all the numbers came from, had a comprehensive understanding of why our recommendation presented the best opportunity, and understood the nuances of the engineering backstory for the toilet and the Gates Foundation’s stipulations. They listened as I spoke and I answered as they questioned. It was a remarkable experience that I will remember for the rest of my career.
More generally, having participated in 20+ projects over the last three months, I learned three important lessons about the process of working, especially juggling multiple tasks.
First, I realized it helps to carefully divide and conquer – whether you’re working on one project or five. You need to divide each task into manageable chunks and make sure you are working efficiently. This required not only planning but also giving yourself the confidence to say “no” to other projects when you are aware of how little time you have to spare.
Second, you must adapt to your supervisor’s working style as soon as you begin working with them. Since I was involved with so many projects, I collaborated with a large number of project managers – each one with a completely different style of working. Some liked for me to communicate in person, others via the phone and a few only over email. Questions must be asked early and effectively.
Third, and most importantly, you must strive to add your personal brand of value to every task you participate in. This means thinking critically about your assignment and going above and beyond what your supervisor asks you to do. It helps to come up with questions at the beginning of a task – some may be simple clarification questions; others may lead you to take the task in a completely different direction. Conscientiously adding value does not only differentiate yourself, but also gives you the chance to think creatively about your work.
RTI International’s Innovation Advisor’s group was a fantastic place to intern this summer and I hope that their relationship with the MEM program continues to strengthen.