Implementing Innovation in the Real World [Podcast]

UMBC and United Way of Central Maryland recently partnered up on a project with students from UMBC’s Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Leadership graduate program to brainstorm new ways of approaching business goals. We spoke with graduate student, Mehrshad Devin, about his experience working with his peers to bring ideas to the table.

Storytelling is Powerful

“Attending UMBC showed me how powerful stories could be. I think this institution really is driven by stories.” Mehrshad Devin, graduate student, UMBC’s EIL graduate program

A Project’s Impact

“I would describe the partnership with UMBC’s entrepreneurial class and United Way of Central Maryland as one of the most exciting partnerships and collaborations we have been involved in here at United Way. To see and feel the ideas, energy levels, the sticktoitiveness to the topics that are difficult; to march through and see the persistency of the students engaged, the eyes wide open of my team members and United Way from some of the tremendous ideas of the students was just so exciting to behold and experience firsthand.” Franklyn Baker, President and CEO of United Way of Central Maryland

A Snapshot of the Project

Listen to Mehrshad’s podcast episode

https://www.buzzsprout.com/1689946/11567303

Transcript from Interview

Dennise Cardona

Thanks for tuning into this episode of UMBC’s Mic’d Up podcast. My name is Dennise Cardona from the Office of Professional Programs here at UMBC. Today I am joined by Mehrshad Devin, a graduate student who is graduating in December of this year in the Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Leadership graduate program. We are going to talk about his experience working on a project for his course, Entrepreneurship and the United Way of Central Maryland. Thank you so much for being here with us today Mehrshad, it’s wonderful to have you on UMBC’s Mic’d Up podcast.

Mehrshad Devin

Thanks for having me. So exciting to be here.

Cardona  

So, you had an exciting project that you worked on this past spring semester in an Entrepreneurship course at UMBC in the Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Leadership graduate program. Why did you take that course, Mehrshad? Tell us about that a little bit?

Devin

One of the first courses that I took within the program was Creative Problem Solving with Professor Bogash when I was an undergrad; I was on the accelerated path for the EIL program. And that was the second semester that the master’s program was partnering with the United Way. So I was immediately drawn into that partnership.

My initial project was related to homelessness – I don’t quite remember what it was – but I was working to alleviate some issues regarding homelessness, preventing and also helping individuals when they lose their housing.

The second semester, I took another course with Professor Bogash that was also a partnership with the United Way. And by then I decided that I was going to continue taking Professor Bogash’s class because they’re fun and practical. And she uses real life examples; that second course was on how we can think through building an accelerant institute for the organization that could highlight some of their processes.

And the third semester, which was last semester, I  wanted to follow suit with the previous semesters so I took another Professor Bogash class which was on entrepreneurship, and was also a partnership with the United Way. 

Cardona

You mentioned something about a real world hands-on type of experience. That is one of the biggest gifts as a graduate student, isn’t it? Being able to learn something, and then go apply it in the real world?

Devin

Yes, yes. It’s great to learn about the theories, but to actually be able to apply that in a real world setting helps the students in many ways.

Cardona

Yeah. Now, the term entrepreneurship is, I think, very familiar to most people, myself included, but what is intrapreneurship? What is that all about? What did you learn about it? 

Devin

Intrapreneurship is very similar to entrepreneurship. Based on my understanding, it’s essentially partnering within an already set organization, rather than starting an entirely innovative new one. Thinking about how you can be a champion of bringing innovative change to traditional processes and elevating the work that’s already being done to address many more problems or elevate the work that you’re doing.

Cardona

Thank you for that description. Because I do think that a lot of people maybe hear the term, but are not familiar with it. So you explained it nicely. Now, what excited you most about working on an intrapreneurship project with the United Way of Central Maryland?

Devin

So, I have some experience working in the intrapreneurial setting, but in an unofficial setting. As an undergrad, I was very involved in the shared governance processes, at UMCB I was a student officer within Student Government for all four years, in the last two years of my undergrad career I was serving as the student body president.

So I was sort of being an innovator within the framework of an already existing institution. And I think having to do that at an institution that’s not a higher education-focused institution was very exciting to me. And doing that with an organization such as the United Way that’s doing such great things to help the people in the greater region Baltimore, I was immediately in love.

Cardona

Oh, that’s great. There’s nothing greater than when you have that Kismet moment as they call it where everything falls into place and it feels so natural. So unforced. I always say, when something is unforced, you kind of know you’re on the right path. It just feels like it’s effortless. And yes, there may be challenges. So not effortless in that sense, but effortless in terms of, it’s not one of those things you dread doing, that you feel totally out of your element. There’s just that feeling of connectedness with a project with an organization with a field of interest.

Devin  

Yeah, I absolutely agree with you. And I think especially this class, I had one of the most fun times that I ever had in any other class. Just because it was fun, the whole entire process was fun,  I didn’t necessarily see it as hard work. It was a lot of hard work, but I didn’t view it as that. It was something that I was really passionate about, and I think that also allowed me to be motivated to follow through and do everything that was supposed to be done.

Cardona

Yeah. And you know, when you work with an organization who values that input – because I know, I spoke with Franklyn Baker, the CEO and President of the United Way of Central Maryland – and he was so taken by everybody in the class and all of the effort, the passion that was put forth, and he saw a real value in everything that all of you were submitting.

When somebody feels that way about your work, you just feel like you want to work harder for them. It’s one of those feelings where there’s that connected sense of community. And you know that people may be depending on you to be able to come forth with some ideas. And I think that puts your foot to the pedal even more and accelerates the process.

Devin

I think Franklin and the rest of the United Way folks were really open to learning with us. And then we’re sort of like unofficial classmates within that class, which I think was really helpful, you know, sort of working through the semester together and learning together. I think that was beneficial for all the parties involved.

Cardona

Absolutely. Now, Mehrshad, what considerations or challenges did you run into when thinking through the needs of the United Way of Central Maryland?

Devin

For me individually, as someone from the outside of the organization peering inside of the organization and not necessarily having all the institutional and organizational knowledge, I think getting to that place where I could confidently make decisions and assumptions about the organization was difficult. That was one of the biggest challenges, doing it in such a short amount of time. I think once we started to get rolling we had about two and a half months to get these projects sorted from conception to something deliverable that we could present by the end of the semester. And I think having to do all of that in such a short amount of time was another challenge. A big one.

Cardona

Yeah, I would imagine. I’m also in a graduate program at UMBC, Learning and Performance Technology. And that seems to be one of the challenges to most of us as graduate students; the semester is only so long. If you’re in a summer semester, it’s twelve weeks or six weeks, depending on what course you’re in.If it’s a regular semester, it’s fifteen weeks. So that’s a lot to do; it’s a tall order to learn about the organization, put these ideas together, and then create a deliverable. I completely agree. But, man, when you do that, the result is so powerful, because now you walk away with something tangible that you can add to your portfolio. And it also gives you that sense of contribution that you really added value there.

Devin

Yeah, 100%, especially with the partnership that we had. We knew that we were doing this to help a lot of people. And I think that was also a great motivator to finish on time, and to put out a really great and valuable deliverable.

Cardona

Now, how did you come up with the ideas for the United for ALICE Advocacy Day, and for the Interactive Donation Interface? Those were the main focus areas of your project from what I could see from the presentation I watched. It seemed like there was so much involved in that; how did you come up with these ideas for it?

Devin

So the United for ALICE Advocacy Day was actually sort of stemming from my own experience being involved in the university system. Maryland Student Council has an advocacy day for all University of Maryland students that happens once a year in February. I was thinking about the ways that we could help the economic advancement division of the United Way be more involved in policy making decisions and represent the needs of the ALICE population in the legislative process.

I immediately thought of the student advocacy day and I thought to myself, “why couldn’t we have one for ALICE and have the United Way be a medium for that?” And we thought through it, of course, how it was going to be different for the ALICE population than it was for students. My team members were actually really helpful with helping me think through those processes and how we can adjust what we have to the United Way and their needs. 

For the second idea, which was the interactive donation interface, I was a big fan of children’s storybooks growing up. I always tried to find a good ending, because I was never satisfied when the protagonist didn’t have a good ending. And I think when we started thinking about ways that we could help the marketing and innovation division of the United Way, I thought about how might we display the work of ALICE and the United Way, but at the same time raise awareness and engage donors and voters. And I said, why not do a choose-your-own approach for a donation interface to engage the donors, but also to raise awareness on the issues of the ALICE population. And that’s where the idea for the second initiative sort of came from.

Cardona

I loved the simulation idea. Before we get to that, I want to just make sure that the people listening or viewing this on YouTube are familiar with what ALICE actually stands for. Can you give us a quick description of what the ALICE program is?

Devin

So ALICE stands for asset limited, income constrained, employed, and these are individuals that do not necessarily qualify for federal or state benefits, because they make just enough that they don’t qualify for those benefits, but not necessarily enough to be able to finance their daily or weekly or monthly needs. And I think they’re put in this very uncomfortable situation where they have to prioritize what they need to do within a week. It’s a sad thing.

Cardona

Absolutely. Yeah, I agree. And I know that I’ve worked on a video project for this program, the graduate program in Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Leadership in the United Way. And we did it on the ALICE program; it was pretty in depth. If you’re listening or viewing this, check out our YouTube channel; there’s some really great stories about the ALICE program. But going on to the simulation and the whole storytelling, pick your own story, pick your ending. I love that concept.

Storytelling is such a powerful way to reach people, to connect with people, to connect to the empathetic side of all of us, and to put ourselves in the seats of those who are suffering or challenged by certain life situations. And I think that you did such a great job on that presentation and presenting your ideas on this simulation aspect, the storytelling aspect for this donation interface. It was really remarkable. Now, what analysis steps did you take to come up with what the problem or root cause was? What were those potential solutions?

Devin

Absolutely. I think the specialists in class, especially Professor Bogash, were really helpful to help us illuminate some weak areas of each idea and work through them. I don’t quite remember for this specific project, what those conversations were. But I think one of the biggest challenges that I had was getting the concept right, getting a good depiction of what the struggles are, and how we could display them in a simulation setting.

I think one of the first prototypes that I made was not really appropriately depicting ALICE struggles. And I think once I had conversations with Renee Beck, who was the vice president of the marketing and innovation division of the United Way, we were able to figure out what these scenarios could look like. Then I think I was able to put together a final prototype, which was close but not really close to what we’re hoping to achieve right now. But it was more appropriately depicting those needs.

Cardona

Yeah, it was foundational. It was a foundation of what you are putting forth now. And I loved the whole storytelling and simulation component. We talked a little bit about your idea; was there anything else that helped you decide on that idea?

Devin

Attending UMBC showed me how powerful stories could be; I think this institution really is driven by stories. So I had that on the forefront of my mind. But I also wanted to sort of engage donors in the process, because it’s really their financial means, as you know, facilitating a lot of the work of the United Way. It’s crucial for their programs and the individuals that they help. So I wanted them to see firsthand how their financial contributions are affecting a lot of people in the greater Central Maryland region.

Cardona

I know people listening or viewing this might be like, “well, what are they talking about? What is this simulation? I can’t visualize what that means.” Can you give us a little visual snapshot? A verbal snapshot, I should say, of what one of those actually looked like?

Devin

Sure, I’ll try my hardest. The concept would sort of look like: you are introducing an issue that, let’s say an ALICE individual, or an ALICE family is having within the central Maryland region. You see the problem, you see the cause. And you see the fact that there really is not a lot that they could do to solve it at that point. Then you get this pop up screen on the video that asks whether you would like to donate or not. And then if you go ahead and make that donation, you unlock the following scenario, which shows how the United Way interjects and comes in and helps this individual live, or achieve whatever it was that they wanted to achieve, or they were having problems with.

Cardona

That was so powerful. I actually got chills just talking about that because when I was watching it, I thought, oh, my gosh, this right here is a wonderful roadmap or model for a lot of nonprofit organizations who struggle with getting donations in place. And it’s a wonderful way to present a choice for people. And a lot of times it’s really what it is; what it comes down to is a choice. “Do I donate? Do I not?” And what is that deciding factor? The storytelling component, the simulation component, the follow up after somebody donates to see what actually happens with those donation dollars is a very powerful motivator for a lot of us who donate so kudos to you on that idea. Now, what parts of the ideas, what parts of your ideas are the United Way considering implementing?

Devin

We’re still working through to figure out what is feasible and what is not. There’s a lot of similar technology out there, doing similar things, you know, interactive videos and how they look, but I haven’t been able to find anything like this yet. Now, that could mean that it’s possible, but no one’s done it before, or it’s not possible. And I think we’re figuring out what that looks like right now. We’re having conversations and getting people to talk and think through it with us. But I think once we have a good understanding of what is possible, we sort of can figure out what’s the best part of it, and what would be helpful to both the organization and to the individuals that we’re serving.

Cardona

Now, as I understand it, the United Way of Central Maryland hired you as a consultant to help implement some of these ideas. What are you doing now with them to help launch these ideas into reality? I think that’s just so exciting that this all came from a course you took.

Devin

That’s a great question. I’m still learning as I’m going. I haven’t done anything remotely similar to this before. Right now I’m putting together a request for proposal documents to sort of bring the ideas into one document and send it out to a list of possible candidates that could help us bring this to life. And within the last week, I started working on storyboarding some concepts for what these video simulations could look like.

Cardona

And one of my last questions is, how did working on this entire semester project prepare you for your future and the role that you’re in today?

Devin

That’s a great question. I’m actually hoping to go off to medical school soon; I’m in the application process for medical school. And I think one of the biggest reasons why I took this master’s program was so I can equip myself with the tools necessary to be a physician that at least tries to make some change in the world and the future. And I think having had this experience, I’ve had a glimpse into how I could do that within an organization especially. But I think as I continue learning within this program, I’ll be able to have other broader experiences and knowledge and tools within my own career as a physician.

Cardona

I’ve interviewed many people in UMBC programs, and especially the entrepreneurship program, and all different walks of life, all different paths, and avenues that people are taking. And I have to say, the medical world is a different one than I’ve seen. And it’s so important to point out that no matter what field we’re talking about, out there in the world, there is an entrepreneurial spirit behind the actions that we have to take as professionals. And wow, it’s really exciting and interesting to listen to your pathway and your future goals when it comes to the things you’re learning in this program.

Devin

Absolutely, absolutely. I think it’s applicable everywhere. Like you said, you can always innovate new solutions to every traditional process. Everyone could do it.

Cardona  

This has been a really great conversation. I’m so grateful for your time and to hear your story and that you’re willing to share it with us. Thank you so much.

Devin

Thank you.

Learn more

Learn more about the United Way of Central Maryland. And learn more about UMBC graduate program in Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Leadership. Also tune into Franklyn Baker’s podcast episode!

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