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! I think it actually started back in high school. When I was in high school I was part of the band. What I really enjoyed about it was being a part of something that was bigger than myself - you can't play a symphony alone. Going into college I was missing part of that, so I was on a search to find other organisations that I can be a part of outside of engineering. I remembered my brother and my dad once upon a time volunteered with Habitat for Humanity.

I was a Mechanical Engineering major, so anything hands-on was really exciting for me. 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 the people. I became quick friends with the people at the organisation and ended up going to Build Days every Saturday. These were people that I found to be most authentic and caring.

I was really inspired by people that were passionate about the same thing.

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]

That's a great question. It came about it through Habitat for Humanity. As part of Habitat for Humanity, they have what they call Alternative Spring Breaks and Global Village trips. Like I mentioned, every weekend we would go to a community near the school. And during spring break, the summer, or the December break, we would take a trip abroad. One December, we started leading trips internationally and went to El Salvador. We spent a week building homes with them and got to know the community. As we were leaving, I recognised they now have homes, but they still weren't sustainable. They still needed a lot of other resources.

Was there anybody empowering the community and looking at them holistically to understand what are all the things that they needed - not just homes? Do they need education? Do they need support from the health side?

From that recognition and from my experiences in consulting, I thought - what if we did a model where we started with the community? We spend time first understanding the communities themselves and work with them to understand what their pain points and needs. And then we’d reach out to organisations that specialise in those [domains]. 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 formed the Global Sustainability Project with a Partner of mine. We decided to do a pilot project with this El Salvador community.

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, which is that we were starting with the people that we’re serving - that really is where you need to start.

It's not about – “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 then finding the solution from that.

And we started doing this for the Pilot Operation in El Salvador. We knew we didn't know them enough. We could do a lot of homework in advance 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 building a community centre and a playground for them. When we went back to El Salvador, we actually spent the first 10 days interviewing every single family in that community. We sat in their living room and just listened to them, took notes, and tried to synthesise all of those to figure out what initiatives they were telling us they needed. One of the Lead Designers at Exygy taught me, which I didn't realise we were using, was you... 

“design with and not for people”.

So I think in the spirit of designing “with”, the next step in doing user interviews was to empower the community to be motivated and invested in these initiatives, and not initiatives that these outsiders are coming in and telling you that you need.

So we actually did team bonding activities [with the community members]. We played games and got them to know their neighbours. And then from there, what was actually really interesting is of those eight different initiatives that we initially came with, the most successful was one that we came up with on the spot. From the interviews, a lot of the families were saying, “I want to find a job, but the challenge is I have a young child at home”. We heard that over and over again for a lot of families. So that [thought] evolved into – “what if we created a daycare and a system with that daycare? On Monday we're going to have this family take care of all the children in the community, so all of the other families came find jobs. And you alternate.” That actually became the most successful [initiative] and the community bought into it. And in the years afterward, I'm learning the community painted all the walls and put up libraries and things like that in there. It wasn't about helping them find a job. That wasn't the pain point. 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.

I think that's something that I continue to learn to this day with the team at Exygy.

A big part of it is starting with empathy and not having any assumptions that you're going into it with.

With the work we’re doing with the City and County of San Francisco, there's a lot of diversity. We think of things like accessibility, even if it is a digital platform.

Is it accessible for people who are blind, who have hearing impairments, or who are elder? We approach a lot of these without assumptions and really just ask and communicate with the people that you are serving.

There are a number of different methods you could use. You could do secondary research to learn about it. If you want to test a wide audience, you could do things like surveys. If you want more qualitative and deep learning, you can do user interviews or even observations like playing a day-in-the-life of.

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, I’ll elaborate a little more on the kind of work Exygy does. Like I mentioned, our mission is build resilient and healthy communities. We want to look at a community holistically and ask what does resiliency and what does healthy mean? And even if we nitpick the word “health” or “healthy”, it's not “healthcare”. It's everything that revolves around you, including things like social determinants of health. This expands to understanding all the different environmental factors that may impact someone's health. So we’re looking at things like housing. Housing is a big deal here in San Francisco. We work a lot on how to make affordable housing more accessible.

I think what we start with is asking "what are the big pain points within a community and how do we enable them to be more resilient and healthy?"

and then working with organisations that are committed to pushing that movement forward. The way we work with a lot of our clients is through digital innovation. That could mean a couple of things. It can be working with organisations that just has an idea or certain initiatives that they really care about, but they're not really sure how to approach it. We worked with them in that initial stage to strategise around the solution. Is a technical product, the right solution and how does technology fit into your roadmap? And if we decide a product is the right way to move forward, then we can work with to do the actual discovery, user interviews, design and build. And I think the really inspiring part is actually enabling and empowering our clients to be human centred. Teaching them how to have empathy for whoever they're building products. I think an example that comes to mind is a nonprofit that we've been working with for a little while now, whose mission is to build capacity for nonprofit leaders serving the global south or developing communities. What's really inspiring about them is that they're recognising the resources that are available to people who are working on the ground in the global south [are limited]. From our user research, we're finding that these nonprofit leaders in the global south are working in isolation. They don't have a community immediately around them, which we take for granted in San Francisco. What we did with his organisations 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, and even organise a meetup. The second thing that we provided was really high quality courses so they can better market their work, manage the finances, do fundraising, etc. That's what we mean by capacity building - allowing them to operate at a higher capacity so that they can serve their beneficiaries even more effectively. That's one example that's on a global scale.

We also do a lot of work even within the United States. For example, we’re working to figure out how we can help fight epidemics. With this past flu season, there's a scare and a lot of people compared this season, to the one we had a hundred years ago. And so how do we prevent that? How do we inform epidemiologists so they can do better research? We're doing a big project around that. And then at the local level, like mentioned, we’re working on affordable housing in the city and county of San Francisco and making 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 at that time it was philanthropy and social entrepreneurship. That's why I started and continued doing Global Sustainability Project after college, and in parallel to working at Accenture. And then I was recognising that I personally had a lot to learn still, so I decided I'm going to dedicate myself to learning as much as I could at Accenture, working with a lot of phenomenal organisations and leadership there. I just put my head down and tried to learn as much as I could. I just said yes to a lot of things, like any responsibility that was available. Like you mentioned, I was there for a number of years and rose to an Executive where I felt like I had learned a lot and it was time for me to provide those lessons learned and experiences to the social impact space. I started looking at B Corps and came across Exygy.

I think there are two lessons learned that I’ll mention.

One is that 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 working on projects that weren’t socially impact drive, I would continue to volunteer and be an advocate. I think anybody can take advantage of those and continue to contribute. It doesn't necessarily have to be your career. The second thing I would recommend, that I'll bring it up again, is when you're approaching the space and any space for that matter, it's about designing with and not for people.

Time is most well spent when you start with empathy, understand people, and get them motivated. Think about behaviour change and how you motivate the communities that you're serving. I think that's how you can possibly do the most impact - by inspiring others.

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 what that term is, including social determinants of health. I think that encompasses a lot of what I was saying. 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, what they're doing on a 24 hour basis. What are they going home to? How are they getting to work? What's the transportation of life? Are they having to travel two hours each way? Are they having trouble finding childcare? That's been really drawing me in and I think that's what really excites me about working with communities. I think personally I wouldn't necessarily say I have a concrete next step or next project. My North Star has always been whatever I see is going to allow me to deliver the most impact or inspire others. I see a lot of that in the work that we do at Exygy and I think that's what continues to drive me forward.

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 think I have a couple. Exygy sends out a newsletter. I think that's a good resource. And in terms of newsletters within the health space, our friends at Rock Health also produces a pretty good newsletter that consolidates materials within the space. And lately I've been into self improvement, team improvement, and culture improvement [readings]. The big thing that we practice at Exygy is how we communicate with one another. A good book around this is Nonviolent Communication. It shares a lot of methods, just for communicating with one another, but also user interviews.

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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