Tech for Good: How One Leader is using Design Philosophy & Change Management to Transform the Public Sector Roshen Sethna, Partner at Exygy

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Roshen Sethna is a Partner at Exygy, a digital innovation studio and Certified B Corporation in San Francisco with a focus on building healthy and resilient communities. She leads Exygy’s civic sector practice.

Roshen is an operations guru, strategist, and change management leader all wrapped up in one. Her expertise lies in building and developing teams and helping organizations advance their strategic goals and internal capacity using design, technology, and the same agile and human centered design skills that designers and technologists use to build sound digital products. She has a breadth of experience in the social enterprise world where she was the COO for a social venture incubator, consulted on sustainable consumer packaging for a Fortune 500 company, and worked on affordable real estate and urban development.

Roshen was born in India and moved to the US when she was a year old. She grew up in the south and has a tremendous amount of love for where she spent most of her life – Durham, North Carolina. She has a degree in public policy and global health from Duke University where she was a Baldwin Scholar.

What initially inspired you to make a difference and what career path did you follow?

My view of the world and how I want to engage and contribute is rooted in my family’s history.  On my mother’s side, both of her parents were politicians during the freedom movement in India; they were both freedom fighters. In their professional lives, my mother’s mother was a professor and her father was a doctor, both highly involved in the community and in community organizing. On my father’s side, his parents were self-made entrepreneurs. My interest and skills have always been a combination of the social-justice-oriented civic history from my mother’s family and the entrepreneurial history from my father’s family. I’ve always wanted to work at that intersection of being an entrepreneur and doing good for my community.

The way I grew was through working on projects and with teams that were interesting to me.

As a child, my mother encouraged me to try almost everything. I was a Girl Scout, soccer player, swimmer, and avid volunteer. I literally went to clown camp – yup, a summer camp where I learned how to juggle. In college I helped lead retreats for the Center for Race relations and co-founded the Duke University chapter of Nourish International, a social venture that supported students in effectively volunteering abroad.

Now, I’m really interested in how I can develop as a leader, facilitator, and manager. But a lot of those skills I had already started building early on in all the roles my mother encouraged me to try. I’ve always focused on developing myself, even as a kid, by testing out leadership skills in different contexts. Putting on events around race, gender, and sexuality at Duke was especially formative for me – those are some of the toughest topics to authentically facilitate with a group. Nourish International helped me understand how to work within communities that aren’t your own and how to work alongside people versus imposing your views of change – how to be a humble and participatory leader.

Learning via the various teams and organizations I joined throughout my childhood and young adult life was one of the best ways to grow. I got feedback from others and learned how to operate in very different contexts. My leadership style today is pretty facilitative. And, because the contexts, people, and work are constantly evolving, my learning continues.

Building resilient and healthy communities

Tell me a bit about how you work to make a positive impact?

My role as a partner at Exygy involves focusing on our portfolio of work in the civic sector.  We work with a variety of clients across the non-profit, for-profit, foundation, and government spaces but, as the human-centered lead, a large portion of my clients are government agencies themselves. Our focus areas have mostly been in state and local government on issues such as housing, transit, and human services.

Exygy is exploring how government can be more agile and adhere to principles, such as human-centered design, that we see so frequently used in technology. I believe government should be the most human centered design organization in the world. Government should understand their users (citizens), design services to meet their needs, and iterate and evolve services as they learn what works best.

Government can be a massive lever for positive change at scale. Exygy is a strategic partner for government agencies, helping them use our skills in design, technology, product, and management to better serve citizens. Our work involves helping our clients validate an idea before investing resources into it, building and growing full digital products, and training our clients to build capacity within their teams.

What are some of the projects you’re most proud of that Exygy has worked on?

Oh man, it’s so hard to choose! Working to make housing and transit more accessible for all citizens is certainly rewarding. For me, I particularly love making organizations more effective. When most organizations come to us, they are asking us to build a technology product. What we often find is that for the technology to be successful – whether it’s a website, mobile app, API, database, or something else – we have to first fully understand the organization. Often times teams believe that a website or mobile app will immediately help them achieve their goals and solve all of their current operational hurdles. We have to first understand what those goals and hurdles are. What would success look like for them? Then we use our process to research, prototype, test, and learn before deciding on a vision for the technology product we are designing and building. And the learning doesn’t stop there. As we design and build that product, we are continually testing and getting feedback from end users as well as folks within our client’s organization to tweak our designs and ensure success with all stakeholders and operating environments.

Many people in government are subject matter experts in their respective policy or service area and have often had long tenures in their roles. Because of this expertise, they may not assume they need user feedback or that they’ll learn anything new from testing an idea with users. This is where our change management expertise comes in, slowly integrating habits, tools, and processes into our client’s approaches. We may ask them to spend a small budget with us to sketch and test an idea with just five users.

To get back to your question, one project we are working on currently is with the Judicial Council of California. We’re helping research and redesign how citizens interact with their local courts across the state when trying to complete tasks such as getting a restraining order, filing for divorce, or other civil law related items where, often times, people might be navigating laws and policies on their own and representing themselves.

We have also worked with the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development in San Francisco to reimagine the process of finding and applying to affordable housing in the city. This project has spanned multiple years and includes digital tools for housing applicants as well as for housing developers to manage incoming applications. Now, via our approach, the city can start gathering more data on the full housing need and iterating on their programs to better meet that need. Our vision here is for regional solutions to affordable housing to be rolled out beyond San Francisco in the Bay Area and in other major metropolitan regions in the country.

There are a bunch of other projects that have been exciting over the past few years including building an e-learning platform for nonprofit leaders in the global south to working on getting citizens critical information about the spread of viruses. We’ve even built an application that allows consumers to scan food and skin care products and understand the various health risks of ingredients in the product. Exygy’s major focuses of work are in the civic and healthcare sectors and we often see a lot of overlap between the two as we work towards our vision of healthy and resilient communities.

I’ll also mention that some of the projects I love working on are internal to Exygy. I’m one of three partners at Exygy and the three of us, along with our Chief of Staff, take on a lot of the day-to-day management of the company from People Ops to Finance to Account Management. Exygy applies a lot of the (human-centered) design and (agile) technology principles we use in our projects to our internal operations. We identify a need, do research, and prototype and test approaches, iterating to improve our results. Our users are our team and they give us feedback on what they need to operate optimally. One of the major internal initiatives I’ve co-led over the past year has been a move from a C-suite model (CEO, COO, CTO, etc.) to a more sustainable and scalable Partner model. Our Chief of Staff and I have also led the company to implement clear growth paths and feedback processes for our team. And, a major change we made this summer was to move towards a transparent salary system internally. All of these changes came with risks and benefits, due diligence, and, of course, an initial prototype of the new approach. We’ve learned by doing and continuing to improve the next time we test something. Helping position our organization to grow in a healthy way as our client base grows is fascinating to me.

Our expertise in change management shows up in our client work too. We train clients in using the same research, prototype, test, and iterate approach to any problem they are trying to tackle internally. Our team has conducted trainings on agile, product strategy, user research, and building effective teams.

I think technology is great and it’s going to continue to advance like crazy.  Our generation is going to see the automation of large swaths of jobs. But, at the end of the day, I believe we have to figure out the human side of it.

What is an organization, a team, going to look like in the future? How are we building products that are equitable and just and serve all people, even those that don’t currently have access to the internet? Products that put our humanity first and help us develop into the best versions of ourselves? Products that help us take care of our planet? How are humans going to govern themselves – what will government look like – in a technology dominant world? These are the questions I’m excited to see the next few generations answer.

Authentic leadership

What are the biggest obstacles you’ve had to overcome thus far?

Leadership is one of the most elusive things. And being a great leader depends on so many factors, including the environment and culture you are operating in and your identity as a person. I take so much joy in learning how to show up as a leader. And I believe this learning will continue forever. Leadership hindsight is one of my favorite things to dive into – what can we learn by looking at what actions we took (or didn’t take) and how things shook out?

Navigating the leadership path, given who I am – a short, younger, Indian-American female – is flat out a challenge. I have to navigate how people react to me differently than they would react to my male colleagues, White colleagues, or older colleagues. It’s tough to describe the subtle hurdles you feel when you are a part of an underrepresented group. A lot of times my male colleagues can’t believe that a client would react to me in a certain way or that, when I stand my ground, I might get way more backlash than they would. The toll this takes on you over your career, over a long period of time, is tremendous. You might start doubting yourself simply because others have doubted you so often.

At the same time I have to be aware of my own privileges and understand how I can lift others up who are more disenfranchised than I am. I went to a top US university, I don’t have an accent that is hard to understand in the US, I identify as cisgendered, and being Indian makes me less of an underrepresented group in tech than my Black or Latinx colleagues.

I believe great leaders support and develop others, support and develop teams. This pretty much never comes easily.

One of the biggest things leaders can do is to truly listen to people experiencing hurdles in the workplace that they may not experience themselves and find ways to be an ally, including improving policies and norms by which the company operates. This can apply not only to hurdles but also to listening to (or helping unearth) specific goals and aspirations your team members have – this way you can better support them. I’ve also found that demonstrating both vulnerability and self-care (and other positive habits) — so that your teammates know that those things are valued — helps to build a healthy work culture. I’m pretty solid on the vulnerability side and I’ve been working on self-care – integrating more consistent actions in my day-to-day that prioritize my health and wellbeing. Lastly, building a sound culture of feedback and being clear about what high performance looks like is key. If you don’t have integrity and are not holding yourself accountable, then you can’t expect others to do the same.

Any non-optimal habits you have as a team member are going to 100% bleed into your team, and this is only amplified if you are in a more formal leadership position. And we all have non-optimal habits we bring to the table, including myself. Which is a good note that everything I’ve said essentially applies to all people – not just formal leaders. Leadership is not just for those in formal leadership positions – anybody can lead from literally any position on your team.

Iteration to achieve change

What advice do you have for people that want to change the world or pursue their passion?

Sometimes change makers and high achievers put a lot of pressure on themselves to already have “done the thing.” One of my colleagues at Exygy challenged me to reframe my thinking to approach my time at Exygy as one massive learning opportunity.  Coincidentally, this is also a sound product principle.

When you launch a product, it’s the best hypothesis of what you know… The same applies to you. Even if you are a foremost expert – your work is going to be the best hypothesis of what is needed. You’re going to be in the role, improve, iterate, get feedback, and get better. No one has ever truly ‘done it’ the moment they begin.

The other piece of advice is asking good questions of yourself and others. Curiosity is so important.  One of Exygy’s values is a “spirit of inquiry.” So many people start out with their idea first. I’m going to build X product and it will solve Y problem. But how much do you actually understand about the problem? Target and prioritize the problem first. What you build may change and evolve the more you truly understand the problem. This principle can literally be applied to anything, from technology products to team dynamics to yourself.