Creating Economic Opportunities in ThailandCEE Masters student Tessa Roscoe (MS CEE and ETIM, 2015) spent her summer working in the Chiang Rai region of Northern Thailand evaluating the feasibility of three projects designed for use by impoverished villagers. We recently caught up with her to talk about her experience.
CEE: What did you work on over the summer?
Tessa: I was hired for an internship for a non-profit organization under the jurisdiction of the Royal Family of Thailand, the Mae Fah Luang Foundation. It was started by the Princess Mother to get the locals out of opium production and try to find new sustainable business models for them. She had this idea that all people are good, they just don't all have the opportunity to do good, and she wanted to give people this opportunity.
We looked at a free-range chicken farm, an aquaponic garden, and a solar-cell lighting unit. We evaluated all three of those within the village where we were living and compiled a report of what we found: How would you build it, what would be the value of it, and do we think this is worthwhile, will it be a good option for the villagers?
CEE: How did you get involved in the project?
I had actually had another position here in Pittsburgh for a local start-up company that was going to be a paid position. It was really interesting and I thought it would be really cool. Then I saw this position on TartanTRAK advertising for this organization in Thailand and it just sounded so wild. They billed it as focusing on the aquaponic garden and the chicken farm in terms of feasibility. I thought it would just be the perfect confluence of my two degrees.
CEE: How do you think this experience has influenced your career goals?
Tessa: I think in a big way. It very directly influenced where I'm going in my career. I've been the one who focused on communications, management, ethnographic and solution selling, context and cultural stuff, so it's been a very unusual career path that I'm going towards. I feel that this experience gave me a stepping stone to that future that I've always wanted.
CEE: What part of the project did you most enjoy?
Tessa: Because we were the tech team, we had a much more direct connection to the people that were living and working there. I think that's so important to engineering because oftentimes we're very removed from our clients or our end users. I felt that was the most useful thing. We got to see how that voice of the customer idea actually plays out in reality. You're getting all this input from so many different backgrounds and so many different levels of experience. They have ideas you never would have thought of and they see the challenge from a very different perspective. I thought that was a very valuable experience, to understand that participatory design process.
CEE: What skills did you pick up or develop while working on this project?
Tessa: I think it was kind of a reiteration of what I learned working in China, in that you end up with conflicts in the workspace. Not a harsh conflict, but we can't really make each other come around to the other side, and you have to take a step back. I think that what's really important when you have multicultural and interdisciplinary teams is to recognize that everybody frames problems differently, and everybody breaks those problems down differently.
We're both fighting for our stakeholders, as we saw it, and we realized that it was this kind of backing up from the problem and realizing that it's not attacking each other, it's teaming up to attack the problem. It's backtracking to each other's values and understanding how those different priorities and values can create conflict, but often in that conflict, that's how you find moments for agreement. Understanding stuff from each other's perspective, especially when you're coming from different cultures and different contexts, I think is so important.
CEE: What did you find to be the most surprising or interesting part of the project?
Tessa: I really wasn't ready for the reaction from the villagers. We had to prove to these villagers that we were invested in their success and they couldn't understand that. It was showing them that we really were invested in this, trying to tell them that we really do care. We opened up and talked to them, trying to say, "We need to know if this is going to work for you," and they realized, "Oh, wait, you want to know if this is going to work for me. Not just if this is going to work, you want to know if this is going to work for me." It took a while, it was right towards the end, but that was by far the most rewarding moment.
I thought it was a very interesting project because you're not only evaluating the tech side. Yes, it's technically feasible, but is this going to work for this client and this customer and this situation? It takes a lot of understanding your client and understanding your client's value structure. We talked a lot about understanding the client's needs. Needs aren't just an immediate thing; sometimes, there's underlying systemic issues that back those needs. If you understand somebody's value structure, you can start to do that subconscious digging to find out how to solve bigger problems and broader-based problems.