Asia Sultan: Trailblazing the Design Thinking and Innovation Industry

We are always looking for women who are constantly changing the game and that’s why Asia Sultan’s story was so inspiring to us at SLA.

Asia is a young trailblazer in the industry of Design Thinking and Innovation. She uses her experiences as a woman to apply the human approach that is needed to excel in the Design Thinking industry.

During this interview, Asia chats with us about why more women should be in Design Thinking, the power of innovation, and how we can uplift each other in the career space.


 On starting out In Design Thinking…

Curiosity into the field of innovation is what led me to explore this discipline in 2016 when the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design Thinking opened their first school in Africa.

I was pursuing a Masters in Property Studies at the University of Cape Town at the time. I immediately fell in love with Design Thinking because the human-centered approach truly resonated with my personal philosophy.

After spending 6 months at the institute I felt that the final piece of the puzzle had been put in place. Design thinking has allowed me to experience problem-solving in areas that I hadn’t ventured into before.

I’m very grateful to be living my purpose which is to use my experiences, education, and design thinking practice to create innovative solutions that make our world a better place.

Being a woman is actually my greatest strength in the innovation industry - Asia Sultan Click To Tweet

About Switch Innovation and what they do…

Switch innovation is an innovation management company that specializes in corporate innovation. We are a balance between technology and advisory as we help large companies with legacy issues to deliver disruptive products to market and build new businesses.

We use design thinking and lean startup methodologies to drive innovation strategy and process for our clients who span across various industries.

Challenges women in the design thinking industry face…

Being a woman is actually my greatest strength in the innovation industry. Design thinking is a human-centered approach to problem-solving.

It starts with the people you are designing for and ends with solutions that are tailor-made to suit their needs. It requires building deep empathy with the people you’re designing for and this comes very naturally to women.

Because of this, I am able to create solutions that are not just technically powerful, but also have an emotional value proposition for end-users. In a world where consumers are spoiled for choice, an emotional value proposition is a massive competitive advantage.

 Women that I look up to…

My late mother, Hanifa, is the best woman I’ve ever known. I’m an unapologetic feminist because of my mother.

Growing up, both the girls and boys in my household participated equally in doing house chores.

She instilled in me from a young age the importance of education hard work, perseverance, equality and believing in myself.

Most importantly, my mother taught me to love and care for others. This has contributed to strengthening my approach to empathy, an attribute that is crucial in my work.

As a designer, I spend a lot of time understanding people, putting myself in their shoes and owning their problems in order to best design solutions that are relevant to their lives.

 

As a designer, I spend a lot of time understanding people and owning their problems in order to best design solutions that are relevant to their lives. Click To Tweet

Professionally I look up to Oprah Winfrey, a longtime advocate of female education. I am inspired by her story, especially how she overcame hardships in order to become one of the most influential women on this earth.

I admire that she uses her platform to break gender barriers on a global scale and even uses her resources to invest in education and improving the lives of women.

Lastly and similarly to Oprah Winfrey, I truly admire Rebeca Gyumi, Founder of the Msichana Initiative. She pursued and won a landmark case on child marriages through the petition she filed at the High Court of Tanzania to challenge the Tanzania Marriage Act, 1971, which allowed girls as young as 14 to get married.

The law was amended and raised the minimum age of marriage to 18 for both boys and girls.

My advice to anyone trying to jump-start their career in the Design Thinking space…

I would advise anyone starting in the design thinking and innovation space to try to learn as much as possible.

  • Read books
  • Subscribe to newsletters
  • Engage with other designers through platforms like IDEO and LinkedIn.

A lot of changes are happening in the world of innovation and every day there is a new technology, tool or method designed.

Design thinking entails working with clients across different industries, therefore you need to understand different industry trends so you can use methods, material, and approaches that are relevant to them.

Join design thinking groups on professional networks, subscribe to newsletters, attend design thinking meetups in your area, keep learning and you will be unstoppable.

Why I think uplifting women is so important in the workspace…

 

Empowerment is created when the strengths that women already bring to the company are recognized and utilized.

If you build organizations of high trust, respect, transparency, engagement, open participation and empowerment your employees will respond accordingly.

When people find meaning and happiness at work, wonderful things happen to the organization; culture and moral changes, staff turnover reduces, employees are more creative, innovative, confident, open-minded and generally more motivated.

As a leader, isn’t that the environment to work and operate in? I champion efforts to uplift women in the workplace because women have so much to offer the world and often times they don’t get equal opportunity to be heard or showcase their gifts.

 

The importance of empowering women in the workplace is documented in “The Business of Empowering Women”, a survey of 2,300 business executives.

The survey found that the companies who focused their efforts on empowering women reported significant business benefits.

A third of the businesses surveyed reported that their investments in women resulted in increased profits; another third reported their investments were expected to grow in the short-term.

In summary, to quote the late Kofi Anan,

“There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women”


Interested in contributing for She Leads Africa? Click here.

Bathsheba Bryant-Tarpeh: Young women of color have a unique perspective that should be valued, and we deserve a seat at the table

Meet WANDA Woman Bathsheba Bryant-Tarpeh, M.A., a doctoral candidate in the Department of African Studies and Research at Howard University, specializing in Public Policy and Development.

Supported by the USAID Feed the Future program and motivated by her desire to advance the well-being of communities within the black diaspora, Bathsheba performed her six-month dissertation fieldwork in northern Ghana where she focused on the gender implications of land-use change as a result of large-scale commercial agribusiness.

Despite rural African women being put forward as the main beneficiaries of policy changes that underwrite agrarian transformation, women are often left most vulnerable when commercial agri-business interests are put above the interests of smallholder farmers.

Bathsheba worked directly with local farmers, both men, and women, to provide strategies to maximize their productivity. 

 


What are you studying at Howard University?

 

I am a doctoral candidate in the Department of African Studies and Research.  My specialization is Public Policy and Development.

Why do you think this area of study is crucial to the development of your country and the African continent as a whole?

 

As an African American, I believe strongly in collaborating and forging relationships, networks, and organizational and professional work in helping to advance the lives of all peoples of African descent within the diaspora and on the African continent.

As the world continues to become more integrated, it is important that national development policies and international agendas are designed for the benefit of people on the continent. The Diaspora can play a critical role in the development of the continent and we must see this as a collective challenge.

As Black people, we cannot be fully liberated until we ensure our fellow sisters and brothers are free, from the United States to the continent, to Asia and Europe and the Caribbean. Learning from each other and building coalitions whether through business, non-profits, educational institutions, is a key strategy in the era of globalization.

Tell us about the project you worked on in Ghana. 

 

I was a U.S. Borlaug Global Food Security Fellow, a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Feed the Future Leadership Program.  As a U.S. Borlaug Fellow in Ghana, I was provided financial and institutional support for my six-month dissertation fieldwork.

I am really interested in how the advanced global economy and international policies impact the livelihoods of rural, agrarian communities, especially for women and their families.  This is an incredibly important topic because women play such a significant role in providing food and managing the nutritional needs of her family.

My project focused on the gender implications of land-use change as a result of large-scale commercial agribusiness. I conducted a focused ethnographic case study on Dagomba communities in northern Ghana that were affected by the biofuel industry collapse in the country.

I am really interested in bringing the experiences of the women and men to the fore and how they are adapting to changes in their environment and the implications on their food and nutrition security.   

Often times during agrarian transformation, women are more vulnerable to losing access to land within societies that are already discriminatory against women with respect to land-use rights.  Additionally, the large-scale agribusiness, in this case, was destructive to the environment, damaged the soils through use of harsh chemicals and pesticides, and deforested vital trees like the Shea tree and Dawa Dawa tree.

These trees are significant culturally and also economically and nutritionally as products derived from these trees are a great source of income for women and provide nutritional and medicinal benefits to the communities in which I worked.

What did your experience in Ghana teach you? 

Being in Ghana was my first time on the African Continent.  As a woman of African descent, being in Ghana was one of the most exciting, meaningful, and transformative experiences of my life.

The beauty of the country and the warmth and hospitality of Ghanaians and the friendships I made was such an incredible part of my time in Ghana.  Visiting Cape Coast and Elmina Slave Castles and the Pikworo Slave Camp in the Upper East Region, near Burkina Faso allowed me to learn about the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade from the African context and it helped me connect the dots, so to speak, about our history and was one of the most memorable parts of my trip.

On a personal level, it made me want even more to discover my roots through genetic testing.

Academically, through my collaboration with other students and researchers in the country and most importantly, my work in the villages, I learned that I truly want to work in the arena of helping to improve the lives and welfare of vulnerable communities.

What intrigues you the most about the people you have met and supported through your work?

 

What intrigues me most about the community members in the villages in which I worked was the sincere level of gratitude shown toward me.

The communities were very much aware of their challenges and were so open to sharing their experiences with me and together we devised ways to improve their livelihoods in the short-term through creating farmer’s groups.

This was not an initial plan but evolved, as a response to community needs. I was able to provide informational sessions to communities, both women and men’s groups, on how to register their farming groups and provided strategies to maximize their productivity, how to get technical training from the local agricultural extension and gain support from the local assemblies for community needs.