In this installment, we speak to Lilian Tse, a Senior Program Manager in our London studio, who has been with frog for more than five years. We cover what brought her to frog, what interests her about the future of social impact work, and her secret skill. The interview was edited for clarity.
When did you first know that you were interested in becoming a program manager?
It was actually at frog because before frog I was very much a traditional strategy person. I studied economics in undergrad, worked in management consulting at McKinsey, and got an MBA. I was always going down that strategy path. But when I received my MBA, I also did a Master’s in Public Administration because I was interested in social impact work. I felt like for me to do [impact work] well I had to learn the art of listening, and that’s ultimately why I decided to join frog. I had the choice of being a strategist or a program manager and I chose PM because I knew, in that role, I’d be able to learn and develop those listening skills through understanding the clients, the team, and so forth, whereas strategy would be a lot more cerebral.
Once you joined frog, you quickly raised your hand to be put on social impact programs, which at frog means working with social innovators to design solutions, systems, and strategies that address the needs and aspirations of people living in poverty. What have you learned from that work?
Social impact work is like service design at its most complex because any one of those important things is actually identifying all the ecosystem players. For example, we’re doing this project with farmers and you’d think, farmers – let’s just give them a smartphone. It’ll solve so many of their problems. You don’t realize that by giving them a phone, you’ve actually cut the job of the middleman, who is also a crucial person in the community. I think what’s really important to do at the beginning [of a project] is map out the entire ecosystem.
Also, I think a lot of people assume as long as there is a technology upgrade or there’s access to the internet, people’s lives will get better. We’re seeing that might not necessarily be true. As our team designs mobile experiences for these farmers, we are challenging ourselves to simplify the experience so that they find it useful. Just having access to a smartphone doesn’t mean much by itself.
“I felt like for me to do [impact work] well I had to learn the art of listening, and that’s ultimately why I decided to join frog.”
From where do you draw your inspiration?
One individual, I find very inspirational is Muhammad Yunus. He is the founder of microfinance. Reading his work has had a big influence on my whole career path and the importance I place on listening.
Yunus observed that 42 women who were making bamboo stools were financially struggling because they were constantly trying to pay back their loans for business. He listened to their plight and was shocked to learn that all the 42 women collectively were trapped in the cycle of poverty for just $27 totally of debt. He learned that women had difficulty paying back large lump sums of loans spread across a long time, and it wasn’t because they didn’t have the money. The repayment schedule of the loans simply didn’t match the income schedule. The whole financial system often assumes that everyone earns a monthly salary, but this is very different for the poor, who earn daily wages and need to manage their budget on a small, shorter timeframe.
So, he experimented by lending money from his own pocket and asked for a smaller amount of weekly repayment. To his surprise, most of the women paid back their loans diligently at a more than 90 percent rate. This was the bedrock of the whole microfinance industry. He created a new set of rules for financing the poor.
Yunus debunked the myth that the poor are not capable of responsibly managing their finances. By listening and then experimenting, he uncovered how to make financial services work for the poor and not the other way around. A key user insight that gets executed with a good concept can create a new industry.
On a more day-to-day level, I’ve volunteered to teach underprivileged children since I was 16. I think taking that time, usually an hour or two every week, and just reading to kids or playing with them, forces me to get out of my 9 to 5 mindset and just play. I really like going back to the basics.
Describe what it means for you to be a frog.
When I was more on the business side of things: I had a “work Lilian” and then I had a “personal Lilian.” What I’ve learned, I don’t know if it’s frog specific or if it’s part of the design world, but it’s bringing the genuine who I am to everything I do – whether it’s work, or conversations, or my tone of voice. When I felt very comfortable with who I was at work was when I realized, this is what frog is and it’s respecting everyone else who’s like that.
I don’t know if this story is appropriate, but one of my secret skills is being able to pee standing up. I have a special technique of doing that as a woman and it’s always been a secret that I had, and I would never share it. I think it was my first or second year at frog I felt like maybe it’s worth sharing. I just felt comfortable enough to share it to the whole studio during one of our coffee times. The response was great. Some of the other women were experimenting with it and everyone was just very excited about it. The studio really embraced sharing things that I thought were really embarrassing. It’s actually just being genuine, just being vocal about what I think or do – and it’s okay.
Is there an issue or subject area that you’re most interested in solving for or playing in?
I think there’s an increasing trend now where the issues of the impact world and the commercial world are actually starting to align. The impact world is now talking about Internet of Things, finance, and big data.
For example, Rwanda has now built the world’s first drone airport, and in South Africa you can do banking through Twitter and Facebook Messenger. Are there similar challenges in different communities? How can we learn from designing for the extreme communities and teaching what we learn there to other communities, and in other contexts?
For me, that’s what I’m interested in figuring out. Maybe then you can design something better for everyone else. Before, everything felt a little bit more niche, like agriculture or health, but I feel like the issues of the haves and have nots are actually converging now, which is very interesting.
“In the future, program managers will play a more critical role at frog. It’s almost like being the head of an orchestra, figuring out when you pull each person’s talents in and out, and balancing that.”
Looking to the future, what excites you about your field?
From a program management lens, I think that each individual is only going to get more multi-disciplinary as we hire. When I look at the young people we’re hiring, they tend to have two to three different things they’re really, really good at. In the future, program managers will play a more critical role at frog. It’s almost like being the head of an orchestra, figuring out when you pull each person’s talents in and out, and balancing that.
In terms of impact, what I’m excited about is what I was mentioning before – that I think the world of impact and commercial is starting to collide. My job is supposed to be 50 percent impact, 50 percent commercial; I’m finding now that it doesn’t have to be split that way. They’re kind of the same and companies are thinking that way too. They want to grow their products in the big markets as well as emerging markets. I’m excited about things blurring even further.
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