Eric Lam On Designing With, Not For, Disadvantaged Communities Worldwide


Eric is a Partner at Exygy, which is a digital innovation studio on a mission to build resilient and healthy communities.

As a certified B-Corporation, they empower organisations that promote positive social change by providing product strategy, design and engineering expertise.


Eric shares his experience working with a number of communities globally to improve health, and by doing so explains the key lessons learnt to effectively create positive change and design with a human centric approach.


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Michael Keller] - You started working in the social sector as early as your undergraduate career at UCLA. Could you please share with our listeners what inspired you to get involved, especially as a busy student studying mechanical engineering? [2:19]

[Eric Lam] - Sure! So it actually started way back in high school. When I was in high school, I was part of the band there. The concert mandates that were there have several hundred people and so what I really enjoyed about it was being a part of something that was bigger than yourself. Right? You can't play symphony, you know, so going into college into UCLA, I was missing part of that because I didn't join the band when I went to UCLA. So I was on a search to try to find other organisations to be part of; any extracurriculars outside of engineering. So I remembered my brother and my dad volunteered with Habitat For Humanity so that was really interesting.

I was in a mechanical engineering major, so anything hands on was really exciting for me. So I started checking out the Habitat For Humanity chapter at UCLA and just fell in love with it. I think what really grasped me, was more the people that's part of it. I became friends with the people at the organisation and ended up going to build days every Saturday. And going to build days, I think, part of it was really helping people and being able to work alongside people just the way that Habitat For Humanity models their organisation. But at the end of the day, it also became just hanging out with friends, and I think the thing that got me attracted to it and just kept me going was that those people were also trying to volunteer. Those were the people that I have found were most authentic, the most caring. And those are the people that I'm still friends with to this day that I respect. Those are people that want to learn from and grow with.

I was just really inspired by the people that are also passionate about the same things.

So that's kind of what attracted me and kept me going there.

What we find in a lot of these interviews that we do with social entrepreneurs around the world is, it's really just a sense of community that keeps people around. We find that the community is really global in that way. Work is interconnected across borders. And the work you did with Habitat For Humanity, sounds like that's what inspired you to stay around. This is a nice segue into the work that you did with the Global Sustainability Project. Speaking of communities, you were working with people across borders and El Salvador and I'm curious about where that idea came from in terms of working with that particular community? Was it a need? Was it somebody that you met? [5:31]

It was actually through Habitat For Humanity. So as part of Habitat For Humanity, they have what they call 'alternative spring breaks' or 'global village trips', where every weekend you would go to a community near the school. And then during spring break or during the summertime or during the December break, we would actually take a trip abroad. So oftentimes we would take a trip. For example, I led a trip to New Orleans to help with Hurricane Katrina. One December we started leading trips internationally and we went to El Salvador and that was actually working with the Fuller Center for Housing who has a very similar model as it was started by the same person; Millard Fuller.

So we went to El Salvador and we spent a week building homes with them, and got to know the community and as we were leaving, I recognised that they now have homes that they can live in and the Fuller Centre was providing that, but they still weren't sustainable.  They still needed a lot of other resources.

What I saw that was missing was, was there anybody empowering the community to really look at them holistically and trying to understand what are all the things that they need, not just homes? Do they need education, do they need support from the health side?

And so I think from that recognition and from my experiences in consulting, I found that,

'what if we did a model where we started with the community, we spent time first understanding the communities themselves and work with them to understand what their pain points are and understand all of their needs and then start reaching out to organisations that specialise in those?' 

So if we found that they needed housing, we'd reach out to organisations like Habitat For Humanity. I started thinking more about this and then started forming the Global Sustainability Project with a friend of mine. And from that we decided to do a pilot project and we decided naturally we had built a bond with Bell Sabra community. So we wanted to go back and start with them to see if is this model was going to be sustainable. So that's how it came about.

That's really cool actually. It kind of reminds me of Bill Drayton. Then the whole Ashoka model, how they build up these social enterprises locally. They find local champions as opposed to the model that some companies like Tom's take, where they have a really single touch approach where they'll do something like donating shoes, but they're not really thinking about the economic ramifications or the genuine needs that these people have, and whether or not the philanthropic group that they're contributing to is actually beneficial to the community.

Working with your partner over in the El Salvador community, what was your experience finding local champions and really understanding the needs of the people? Because I think that that's something that a lot of social entrepreneurs miss. [8:29]

I'm glad you brought that up. And you also hit on a key point...

When working with the people that you're serving, that really is where you need to start, right? It's, it's not about, hey, I can provide this service, now I'm going to look for communities or individuals that need my service. So it's not a solution, looking for problems to solve.

It's really starting with the people and the approach that you're taking, and then finding the solutions from that. And so I think in working with that community, what we started doing for the pilot operation in El Salvador, was we started knowing the communities, but we knew that we didn't know them enough. We could do a lot of homework in advance like in the States. And that's actually what we did. We came up with the list of eight different initiatives that we wanted to do, anywhere from helping them find employment to not just building homes, but building a community centre that started building a bond between the communities and even activities like building a playground for them. And then when we got there, we actually spent the first 10 days interviewing every single family in that community. There are about 60 families there. So we sat in their living room and I actually just listened to them, took notes and tried to synthesise all of those, and figure out what initiatives are they telling us they need, not what initiatives are we observing and telling them what they need. So we started doing that by doing the user interviews and then from there, the next step was really led by those interviews. One the lead designers at Exygy taught me...

you design with and not for people.

So I think in the spirit of designing with, the next step to do after the user interviews was, 'how do you empower the community to be motivated, to be invested in these initiatives and not initiatives that these outsiders are coming in and telling us that they need?' 

So we actually did team bonding activities. We got all of them in a big circle and got them to know each other, know their neighbours. And then from there, what was actually really interesting is up those eight different initiatives that we initially came with, the most successful was one of them actually came up with on the spot. And so, what stood out from a lot of the interviews was a lot of the families were saying, 'Hey, I do want to find a job but the challenge is, I have a young young child at home.' And we heard that over and over again for a lot of families. So that idea started evolving into, 'what if we created a daycare?' And by creating a daycare and a system with that daycare saying, 'alright, for Monday we're going to have this family and the parents take care of all the children in the community.' So all of the other families can find jobs. They have the time to do that. And that actually became the most successful and the community bought into it. And in the years afterward, the community went and painted all the walls and put libraries and things like that in there. And by creating a daycare and the system for it, that the community has bought into, that allowed the community to have a job. It wasn't about, hey, let me help you find a job. That was the result of it.

That's a really cool approach. It sounds like you really looked at their situation and approached it with empathy, like you were trying to get a good understanding of their genuine problems and get them involved in the problem solving, in a human centric design way. [9:11]

Exactly. It was awesome.

So what was your experience working with a culture and a group of people that's so vastly different from what we've experienced here with the problems that we see here in San Francisco? I think that a lot of people who are interested in getting into social entrepreneurship and philanthropy, they have empathy and they can feel deeply and they can try to understand other people's needs, but maybe they haven't had experience working with the community outside of their country or one that's vastly different from what they're used to on a day to day.

Yeah. I think that's something that I continue to learn and even to this day, with the team at Exygy that's teaching me that...

a big part of it is starting with empathy, and not having any assumptions that you're going into it with. Not because this is important to me, but that it has to be important to you as well. 

And I think we talked a lot about working across borders and two different countries, but even in our own backyards, the work that we're doing right now. With Exygy and work with the city and county of San Francisco and looking at the San Francisco as your community, right? There's a lot of diversity in everything that we do. We think of things like accessibility; is what we're producing, even if it is a digital platform, is it going to be accessible by everybody? Accessible by people who are blind, who have hearing impairments, who are elder, right? And they're not able to see the screen very well or, 'scrolling down a page hurts my fingers.' 

I think approaching a lot of these without any assumptions and really just asking and communicating with the people that you are going to be serving. And so I think there are a number of different methods you could use. You could do secondary research to learn about it. If you want to cast more of a wide net to learn, you could do things like surveys, right? If you want more qualitative, deep learning, you can do more user interviews or observations or like play a day in the life of.

I think there are a lot of different tactics to do but first I think it's breaking down your previous assumptions and going in it with empathy and just wanting to understand.

A lot of our listeners are not familiar with what or who Exygy is outside of the scope of what we gave in the introduction. You gave a really good example there about the work that you do and how you approach these different design questions, these different product questions. But I'm curious, do you have an example of one of the projects or the clients that you worked with at Exygy that inspired you or that's top of mind that could illuminate what Exygy is all about? [15:49]

Before getting into an example of some of the work, maybe it's better elaborate a little more on what Exygy does. Our mission is to build resilient, healthy communities and we want to look at a community holistically, like what does resiliency and what does healthy communities really mean? It's not healthcare, it's health and everything that revolves around that. And that includes things like social determinants of health and expands to understanding what are all the different environmental factors that may impact someone's health. So looking at things like housing.

Housing is a big deal here in San Francisco and we worked a lot within affordable housing, how to make affordable housing more accessible. 

A lot of what it starts with is, what are the big pain points within a community or how do we enable them to be more resilient and healthy?

And then working with organisations that are committed to making that movement or pushing that forward. And so the way that we work with a lot of our clients is through digital innovation and so that could mean a couple of things. It can be working with organisations that just have an idea or certain initiatives that they really care about, but they're not really sure how to approach it. So we work with them in that initial stage of, 'how do we strategise around this is it even the right solution?' Is a technical product the right solution, how does technology fit into your roadmap? And then if we decide product is the right way to move forward, then we can work with them to do the actual discovery user interviews, design and build that technology for them. And I think the really inspiring part is actually enabling and empowering our clients themselves and teaching them how to be human centred. Teaching them how to have empathy for whoever they're building products for and supporting them.

Examples that come to mind is a non-profit that we've been working with for a little while now and their mission is to build capacity for non-profit leaders serving the global south in developing communities. What's really inspiring about them is, they're recognising, the resources that are available to people who are working on the ground in the global south and how do we build a community around them? And these nonprofit leaders in the global south who are working on the ground, a lot of them are working in isolation. They don't have an active community immediately around them that we take for granted in San Francisco. We did a lot of user interviews and found the sense of community was really important to them. And so what we did with this organisation is, we built an online platform that really allowed them to do two things. One was to take advantage of an online community where they can share lessons learned. They can share resources that they have with people who are trying to do something similar within the neighbourhood, even organise a meetup for them. The second big thing there was providing really high quality courses for them so that they can better market their work, they can better manage the finances, do fundraising. That's what we mean by capacity building is allowing them to operate at a higher capacity so that they can serve their beneficiaries even more effectively. 

So that's one example that's more on a global scale. We also do a lot of work even within the United States. Working to figure out how do we help fight epidemics? Even with this past flu season, there's a scare and a lot of people comparing this to the flu season a hundred years ago. And so how do we prevent that? How do we inform epidemiologists to do better research, to do more research, or how do we inform the work that they're doing? So we're doing a big project around that. And then for the local level, like we mentioned working with affordable housing in the city and county of San Francisco and how to make that more accessible.

I have one more example, I guess from Exygy, from my own personal experience because I think the work that you guys do is incredible. We did a section with Atlas Inc, which is a running application that empowers people to a run, bike or hike and donate money to charities through business sponsored challenges. And they told me that they actually just reached out to Exygy through the 'contact us' button on their page and without them knowing a person who reached out to them immediately via email was like, 'let's understand your problems. Let's see how we can get involved.' They found out after five days of correspondence that this was the CEO of Exygy and a founder. So it shows that empathy, that Exygy approaches with where they aren't stuck up on roles and titles and responsibilities and how people fit into that kind of professional ecosystem.  They just want to solve problems. They want to help others. So that's one store that that'll be interesting to bring to the forefront. So you worked at Accenture before you joined the Exygy right? And you moved up at Accenture for quite a while, in a similar fashion that a lot of people who are interested in philanthropy do. That they'll be working in a different career path for a long time before they actually make that jump.

Do you have any advice for our listeners who are currently working in a space where maybe they would like to get more involved in philanthropy on a regular basis in their careers, and how to build courage to build that jump and to navigate that space? [20:56]

For me personally when I left college, I think I knew I wanted to do something that I was really passionate about and I'm still passionate about philanthropy and social entrepreneurship. That's why I started and continued doing global sustainability projects. After college as I was like in parallel to working at Accenture, right? And then I made a decision of recognising that I personally had a lot to learn still and so I decided, 'I'm going to dedicate myself and present to learning as much as I could at Accenture and working with a lot of phenomenal organisations and a lot of leadership there.' And I really just kind of put my head down and just tried to learn as much and gain a lot of experience, just said yes to a lot of things; any responsibility that was available. And like you mentioned, I was there for a number of years and rose to an executive to a point where I felt like I had learned a lot and I think it was time for me to provide those lessons learned and those experiences to the social impact space.

And so when I felt it was time to move I started looking at B Corporates. And then that's how I came across Exygy. And so while I was carving my path, I knew I always wanted to return and I agree it's sometimes a big leap to move into that space.

I think the lessons learned; maybe two things.

You don't necessarily have to work directly in the philanthropic space, or the social impact space, to make a difference. 

Even while I was at Accenture and I wasn't working directly on projects on a day to day basis that were socially impact driven, on weekends I would continue to volunteer. I would continue to talk to people and learn about people's experiences and just contribute in any way as possible in addition to being an advocate for it and educating people about health equity, right? And what that means and what opportunities are out there.

I think anybody can take advantage of those and continue to contribute. It doesn't necessarily have to be your career long-term. I think the second thing that I would recommend that was a big lesson learned for me, which is when you're approaching the space, it's designing with and not for people. And I think that's really important because when I initially started our pilot operation and really designing things in advanced and then going into the community providing those initiatives, and a lot of them not really being sustainable.

Where I think time is most well spent, is really starting with empathy and understanding and starting with the people and getting them motivated as well. Think about behaviour change; how do you motivate the communities that you're serving and even people around you? Because I think a lot of times that's how you inspire others and I think that's how you can possibly do the most impact is by inspiring others to do the same.

With that in mind and with designing with people and like kind of like doing these user interviews in sort of understanding the space of social life, the social sector effectively, you've probably had a lot of experience both at a centre and Exygy of just talking to people and hearing about their problems in different spaces from homelessness to a lack of community resources to whatever that might be. So given that experience in the work you do with the Global Sustainability Project, have you given any thought into maybe a new project that you might want to work on in the future or sort of like what the next steps would be for you having been made partner at Exygy?

I think what I'm really passionate about is health and the social determinants of health. Because I think that encompasses a lot of what I was saying, is when you are looking at a person and empathising with them, you're empathising with all of their environmental factors and really understanding their day to day, and what they're doing on a 24 hour basis. What are they going home to, right? How are they even getting to work? What's their transportation like? Are they having to travel two hours each way? Are they having trouble finding childcare along the way to work? So I think that really encompasses understanding whoever you're serving holistically.  So that's been really what's drawing me and I think that's what's really exciting me about working with communities. My North Star has always been whatever I see is going to allow me to deliver the most impact or inspire others. And so at the time I see a lot of that in the work that we do at Exygy.

I think you're in a really good place at Exygy. We like to share podcasts and books and media with our listeners and I'm curious if you have any that you'd like to recommend to everyone listening in right now? [20:07]

Yeah, I have a couple. Exygy sends out a newsletter. I think that's a good resource. And in terms of newsletters and within the health space, our friends at Rock Health also produces a pretty good newsletter that consolidates a lot of material within the space. And lately I've been really into self improvement and even team improvement, culture improvement. So the big thing that we practice at Exygy is, 'how do you communicate with one another and create that culture?' And there is a good book around nonviolent communication. It tells you a lot of methods around, not just how do you communicate with one another, but that even helps you if you're going to be doing user interviews. So I think that's really helpful. Just kind of all around. I think at the end, the best thing is just talking to folks and just learning about their experiences firsthand and seeing it and using all your senses.

For our listeners that if you're curious; there's a book by David Bornstein called How To Change The World. It's all about stories about social entrepreneurs, much like the people that Eric works with on a daily basis. So if you're curious about getting a little bit more inspired in hearing more of these stories that are global, that's a book that I would recommend as well.


Initiatives, resources and people mentioned on the podcast

Recommended books


You can contact Eric on LinkedIn or Twitter. Please feel free to leave comments below.

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