On August 11-15th, over 110 DFA students with 50+ majors representing 33 campuses across the country gathered with expert guests, community members, DFA Alumni, and more for the sixth annual DFA National Leadership Studio!

Held each year at Northwestern University, DFA Leadership Studio brings together student leaders from across the DFA network to learn and practice the design innovation process and build campus studio leadership skills. The weekend prepared students to return to their individual campuses ready to lead, innovate, and respond to key social challenges in their communities.

A key component of the weekend was a two-day design sprint, focused on improving the voting experience. Students worked in interdisciplinary teams and connected with activists, community members, and other stakeholders to immerse themselves in the problem, brainstorm and build ideas, and test their solutions. At the end of the sprint, they presented their prototype to local designers, voters and other community members at a Project Expo in The Garage, Northwestern’s entrepreneurship hub. Read more about the process and the innovative ideas the students identified here!

Opening night included enthusiastic participation from Michael Muilenburg, 3M Operational Technology Manager, NU Alum McCormick ’90, and Leadership Studio sponsor. Muilenburg stressed the applicability of DFA in the real world, especially the interdisciplinary approach and value of fearlessness to take on complex problems.

3M’s Michael Muilenburg kicks off the weekend by discussing real world applications of Design for America projects.

Another key goal of Leadership Studio is to foster connections among students from different schools. DFA has a strong network that encourages sharing best practices and peer support throughout the school year. DFA Faculty Founder Liz Gerber spoke twice about the power of the DFA network, strongly encouraging students to reach out to one another whenever they want help, no matter if their ideas are “half-baked” or ready for implementation.

This theme was highlighted in a variety of breakout sessions that brought students together from different schools to work together to make their studios stronger. Their discussions ranged from identifying meaningful projects, to securing resources and funding, to working with community partners and mentors.

Jason Barr (UC San Diego), D’Van Howard (U Cincinnati) and Stephanie Hatz (Duke) learning about different perspectives on voting from community member interviews.

Leadership Studio participants also had opportunities to connect with DFA Alumni. DFA now boasts almost 800 Alumni nationwide. To showcase the various opportunities Alumni have pursued after graduation, Ellen Su ‘14 from Yale, Giselle Malina ‘13 from Cornell, Aaron Horowitz ‘12 and Michael Narea ‘14 from Northwestern spoke Pecha Kucha-style about how DFA influenced their lives after graduation, whether it was training kids in the design process in cities around the globe, to failures and second attempts at building things, to pursuing medical school or starting a business along side another DFAer.

Giselle Malina (Cornell Alum), Aaron Horowitz (Northwestern Alum), Ellen Su (Yale Alum), and Michael Narea (Northwestern Alum) sharing stories of their lives after graduation.

Four engaging panels on implementation continued the conversation about post-DFA life. Managing Director of MATH Venture Partners and Techstars Chicago Troy Henikoff, Cofounder and CEO at Sproutel Aaron Horowitz, and Cofounder and CPO at SwipeSense (and student Cofounder of DFA) Yuri Malina spoke about what it takes to build a startup. Evan Fried, Venture for America fellow and DFA MSU cofounder, Mandy Dorn, Director of Health for America, and Adam Preslar VentureWell E-Team alum and COO at Hazel Technologies spoke about their respective post-grad opportunities. Current DFA Students Kelly Wisneski, Sydney Cheng, and Claire McCloskey shared their stories on balancing school with project implementation. Lastly, Cofounder and CEO of Luna Lights and NU DFA Alum Donovan Morrison, VP of Healthbox Ateet Adhikari, and Associate Director of The Garage at Northwestern, Billy Banks discussed how Luna Lights transitioned from a DFA project to a start up.

After an exhausting but exhilarating day of ideating, building, and testing on Saturday, students bonded and celebrated with a DFiestA on the Lakefill full of good food, friends, hula hoops and more!


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DFA Wash U smiling for the DFA photo booth!
Leadership Studio participants from the University of Cincinnati and San Jose State relax by Lake Michigan.  

To wrap up the excitement and prepare for the school year, DFAers returned to work with their studio leadership teams on the final Monday morning of Leadership Studio. They planned out next steps for success during the upcoming academic year and how to share all they’d gained during DFA LS ’16 when back on campus. By the end of the weekend, all of the students went home feeling confident as leaders, and excited about making impact through design in their local communities!

“Thank you for everything you’ve given me and my studio this past weekend. From new friendships to strong campus-wide connections, from silly conversations to inspiring project ideas – my experience couldn’t have been any better.” Cindy Cheung, DFA UC Davis

“I met and worked with some incredible people from other studios and managed to do a semester’s worth of work in about 2 days. It was an eye opening experience, and I can’t wait to go back next summer!”  Austin Feydt, DFA Case Western

Special thanks to the Blake Family and our wonderful partners that made this weekend possible:

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