Rajan Patel, MBA ’16, was partway through running an eight-week summer program, helping at-risk students from Baltimore learn entrepreneurial skills and design thinking, when he got a lesson about the lives of those students.
He was driving kids to City Garage, the innovation and manufacturing space they worked out for the summer. One of the teens, who goes by the name of Taz, looked down at his phone.
“Come on, Taz; let’s go. We’re already late,” Patel said, as he remembers the conversation.
“They got him,” Taz replied. “They shot my man; they killed him.”
Taz had seen a post on Instagram delivering the news that one of his friends had been killed. Patel watched Taz over the next few hours as he absorbed the news, coming to terms much faster than Patel could imagine.
“They’ve seen their own friends and family members shot,” Patel says. “This is the reality for them.”
It’s stories like this that Patel wants to change. With help from the summer program co-created by Patel and Jackie Bello, Taz worked on his own organization called Youth Leading Youth, which aims to spread positivity and love and provide mentorship. He has also engaged with the local government and nonprofits to reopen the rec center in his neighborhood. If the center hadn’t been closed, his friend might have been shooting hoops instead of getting shot, Taz told Patel.
The intensive summer program has continued into the fall with a weekly after-school program.
A year ago, Patel was on a different path, aiming to help young people much farther from his native Florida. Set to complete both an MBA from Stanford GSB and an MPA from Harvard Kennedy School in 2016, he had won a Stanford GSB Social Innovation Fellowship.
“My plan was to use the money to start an education nonprofit in India to teach design thinking,” he says.
Patel wanted to give young people in his parents’ homeland the same gifts he’d been given at Stanford: knowledge of design thinking — a human-centered, prototype-driven process for innovation — and a set of entrepreneurial skills. By offering a three-month curriculum, he planned to help youths develop the creative mindset to start social ventures or become entrepreneurial employees at Indian companies.
He was in his final months at the Kennedy School when Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.
Patel heard other students — including those who were Muslim, who were gay, who were African American, who came from undocumented families — share their fears about how the new president’s policies could affect them.
“I had a one-way ticket to India. … But the election results were a shock, a punch to the gut.
“We are not defined by what’s at the top, but by what we as a people do,” Patel continues. “There’s a big need here. I feel like it’s a time when I need to stay.”
As he talked with close friend and business school classmate Bello, MBA ’16 — who has taught at the high school, college, and professional levels — they started to develop an alternative plan to help a population in need right here at home. Now, the duo has launched their nonprofit, Dent Education. They have begun by focusing on the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore areas.
The majority of public school students in the United States, 51%, come from low-income families. “In public schools, a growing number of children start kindergarten already trailing their more privileged peers and rarely, if ever, catch up. They are less likely to have support at home, are less frequently exposed to enriching activities outside of school, and are more likely to drop out and never attend college,” The Washington Post reported in 2015.
Patel had seen the great need in India for curricula that would help youths develop critical thinking skills and creative mindsets. He and Bello knew that a similar need existed in the United States, especially in under-resourced communities. Through their hands-on curriculum, they aim to help young Americans develop a sense of agency.
Patel’s previous stint with social entrepreneurship — a company called Embrace, also the brainchild of Stanford students — had led him to the developing world, where the team builds low-cost baby warmers for rural areas without modern medical equipment or electricity.
“But with education and inequality, you don’t have to go to a developing country. That is real and present in the United States,” he says.
The Novel Idea
Dent Education’s curriculum is based on three pillars: design thinking, making, and entrepreneurship.
The duo has conducted pilot programs, learned, and adjusted since January.
Some of their first attempts were after-school programs held once a week. This schedule put limits not only on the curriculum, but also on the ability to build trusting relationships with the participants.
“A huge challenge is that when you parachute in, it’s hard to create a transformative experience. Attendance is variable,” Patel says.
They also discovered that charging even as little as $50 a week would exclude the teens they most wanted to reach. Dent has offered all of its programs for free — which, in its early days, was possible thanks to the fellowship funding.
While considering and experimenting with different time frames in Baltimore and Washington, Dent has had its greatest success with an eight-week program it co-created called Bet on Baltimore. Students are pushed into the real world to employ their design-thinking skills, exercising empathy in order to identify people’s needs. They then hold brainstorming sessions, work on prototypes, and launch their own organizations. Dent has partnered with a local maker space at City Garage, The Foundery, where students learn fabrication skills, from woodworking and sewing to laser cutting and 3-D printing.
“As participants learn to make things and solve real problems in their communities, they feel empowered and realize they can be producers and agents of change,” Patel says.
The eight young men and women in the initial class worked on projects ranging from designing an upscale doghouse to creating a low-cost vanity mirror to peer mentoring — the organization that Taz is working on. They are now part of an after-school program with the Dent team that includes one-on-one coaching.
“One of the most powerful aspects of the program was not in the curriculum per se, but in creating a safe space, having open and tough conversations, and developing socio-emotional learning,” Patel says.
Key participants in the development of Bet on Baltimore also include Larry Rivitz, founder of public charter school Green Street Academy, who raised the funds and has joined Dent’s board. And Kevin Plank, Under Armour’s CEO and the creator of City Garage, had his creative team make a mini-documentary series following the students’ journeys through the program.
Patel is driven to help others find opportunity in part to honor his parents, who immigrated to the United States from India.
“When my dad came to this country, he didn’t have much money. He was working labor jobs in paint factories, and eventually took the risk of starting his own business: a factory that anodizes aluminum.”
From the time he was a child, Patel planned to be a doctor. But as a pre-med student at Stanford, he took engineering and design-thinking classes that changed his career path.
He was part of a Stanford design-thinking team that founded Embrace, the maker of low-cost infant warmers used in the developing world. He spent four years with the company, which is estimated to have helped more than 200,000 babies and whose products are used in over 20 developing countries.
Patel acknowledges that it was the transformational, hands-on learning he had at Stanford that enabled him to be confident in himself and become an entrepreneur. Now, he’s teaching those skills to students like Taz.
“I think we can have a huge impact here,” Patel says. “It’s going to be a long, long haul to make the impact we want, but I am learning so much about the realities in my own country. These kids are brilliant, and as they learn how to create change in the world around them, we believe we can make a dent in inequality in our country.”
— Elizabeth MacBride
Rajan Patel received an MBA from Stanford GSB and an MPA from Harvard Kennedy School in 2016. That year, he was awarded Stanford GSB’s Social Innovation Fellowship, which provides up to $180,000 in funding, along with advising and support, to graduating students who want to start a nonprofit venture that addresses a pressing social or environmental need during the year after graduation.