A 10-Year-Old Lesson from the D-School That’s Still Valid Today

By Elina Zheleva, Managing Partner and Director at launchlabs Sofia


Elina Zheleva


I studied at the HPI D-School 10 years ago. I started my journey there with a vision, a big ambition and a matching ego.

I thought I was ahead, as despite my young age, prior to D-School I had obtained an engineering degree, an Executive MBA and significant professional experience behind my back. I had worked in one of the most technologically innovative industries - aviation, and I had had first hand experience with iconic projects like the creation of the European Aviation Safety Agency and the launch of the Airbus A380. I had come to the school to take a few new tools and go back to redesign aviation big time.

I threw myself at the D-School with an attitude and broke a little with every challenge we were given. Without going into the excruciating details, let’s just say that I learnt the hard way that preconceived ideas, a solid plan, expertise and pride are not exactly the mindsets to create innovation with. At least not one that positively impacts people’s lives. At the D-School I found out instead that iterations, empathy and co-creation can help a great deal.

The biggest lesson, however, that the D-School gave me was to look beyond me and my ambition. Instead of fixating on what I want to do, it taught me to be more perceptive of the surroundings and to consider what needs to be done.

Shortly upon graduation, I found myself in Bulgaria - my home country, from which I was willingly disconnected for almost 10 years. And while I saw a decade of positive change and an up and coming startup & design community, I was also confronted with an utterly unimaginative business environment that was focused on anything but customer, let alone employee experience and was not actively thinking about innovation.

These sweet & sour surroundings and my D-School upbringing ‘called me’ to start designthinking.bg - my first company. I put aside aviation, formed a small team, trained them into everything that I knew about design thinking and off we went to turn businesses in Bulgaria into more innovative ventures.

Over the years, naturally they taught me back, we expanded our expertise and our reach. We traveled for projects from Albania to Alaska. We became part of the launchlabs international network. We worked with Fortune 500 companies, unicorns, and governments. To give you a flavor, recently we were working with the leadership at one of the biggest media groups in the world and the goal was to innovate the way they do strategy. More importantly in the process, we had to redesign their mindsets towards a more innovative, agile and human-centered leadership style. In other words innovative strategy was the output, innovative leadership was the outcome.

Redesigning mindsets has always been at the core of our mission at launchlabs and one that we have always been proud to work on. I truly believed through the years that if we can help redesign one business that influences the lives of thousands of employees and millions of customers, at a time, we are making an impact. And we did. So, the ambition was to do more.

But recently I’m thinking more and more about my transmuting beginnings at the D-School and that lesson to put aside goals, the self and to be more perceptive of what needs to be done. With a war raging so close to us, this year specifically has made me more mindful.

As part of the tech community in Bulgaria, in February we got involved with the Ukrainian refugee crisis. We launched a simple, but effective evacuation platform on the first day of the war, then we built a crowdsourced accommodation and support center with more than 3000 volunteers and finally we launched the most successful donation campaign, in support of Ukrainian refugees looking to restart their lives in Bulgaria.

And while the society was very supportive in the beginning, now after months of well measured Russian propaganda on social media we see some negative moods against Ukrainians. So a few NGOs that we supported, reached to us with the question “How might we redesign the mindsets of people who are against refugees?” Similarly, a foundation who is working on LGBTQ rights in Bulgaria approached us with the challenge “How might we redesign the mindsets of people who are against the LGBTQ community?” Another think-tank met with us to discuss “How might we redesign the mindset of the public towards climate change?”

These are just a few examples of the challenges we are surrounded by. A few examples of the universe telling us to go beyond redesigning businesses who struggle with mindsets stuck in the past and think how we might redesign mindsets at large. We often say that time flies when you are having fun, but I would say that time flies even faster when you are having an impact. And this is one more reason to slow down, stop and reflect, look beyond yourself and your ambition and into the needs at large. Reflect whether you are not yet again ‘called by’, and maybe even perfectly ready to, solve a different challenge and create even more impact. I know most of us design thinkers are.