Business students use power of the Web for good, not frivolity

WebThrough an experimental class at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business that tries to use social media for the public good, a trio of students posted a video to YouTube this spring promoting an organization that hopes to save the lives of millions of prematurely born babies in India and other developing nations by creating an innovative low-cost baby incubator.

A version of the students’ video on behalf of the nonprofit organization Embrace will soon be appearing on digital billboards across India, after it was noticed on YouTube by the CEO of India’s first interactive digital billboard company.

That instant digital connection from Palo Alto to Mumbai ? unthinkable before the era of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter ? is the focus of “The Power of Social Technology,” a new class that Stanford business professor Jennifer Aaker was inspired to teach after watching one of her students launch an effort on the Internet to find South Asian bone marrow donors for two friends who were critically ill with leukemia.

Enlisting an all-star cast to help teach the course, ranging from entertainer and Twitter apostle MC Hammer to executives with Pixar and the international microlending organization Kiva, Aaker is trying to make the point that a company can earn a profit and help social change, and that platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can be powerful tools for that change.

“Everyone gives business schools a bad rap, and everyone gives for-profit companies a bad rap,” but both have great potential to be vehicles for the public good, Aaker said.

Before business school, the trio of MBA students who produced the video ? Karla Gallardo, Lavanya Ashok and Aastha Gupta ? worked in the world of high finance in London and New York. They said creating the Embrace video was a highlight of their two years in business school. Gallardo is now working on founding a social media company of her own called TinyFeet, a kind of online baby scrapbook that new parents could share with their families, and that she hopes could become the basis for more social entrepreneurship.

For Ashok, who worked as an investment banker with Goldman Sachs before business school, the video was a revelation about the power of a community to galvanize change. “In business school, most of our classes are centered around thinking,” said the 27-year-old Ashok. “This gave me a deep sense of fulfillment.”

Making the video, which can be viewed at, also changed her view of platforms like Facebook. “I definitely did not view it as a tool to create micro mass mobilization the way I do now,” she said.

“Close your eyes. Open your hands. Imagine what you could place in your hands,” their video begins. “What about … a life?” it asks, before opening on an image of an impossibly tiny infant cupped in a pair of adult hands.

Embrace, the organization the students were trying to help with their video, also has its roots in Stanford. It began in 2007, when a group of graduate students at Stanford’s Institute of Design tried to tackle the challenge of helping the 20 million low-birth-weight or premature babies born each year, many in the developing world, by creating an incubator that would cost 1 percent of a $20,000 hospital incubator.

The design institute is a place where faculty and students from the university’s engineering, medicine, business, humanities and education sectors come together to learn design thinking and work together to solve big problems.

In 2007, a group of graduate students including business student Jane Chen, computer scientist Linus Liang, electrical engineer Rahul Panicker and aerospace engineer Naganand Murty began working on the incubator problem and came up with a concept that costs about $25 and looks something like a high-tech sleeping bag.

What they discovered in fact-finding trips to Asia was that their incubators needed to go to the baby rather than the other way around, and therefore they had to be portable as well as cheap, because the remoteness of many rural villages prevents mothers from traveling to a hospital to give birth. The baby-warmer uses a waxlike substance that changes phases between solid and liquid, releasing heat if the baby gets too cold, and absorbing heat if the baby overheats.

Embrace believes its incubator can save the lives of 100,000 children a year and prevent hundreds of thousands of others from developing chronic conditions such as diabetes after becoming hypothermic after birth. The organization is trying to raise $3 million to complete trials and begin manufacturing and distributing the baby-warmer to hospitals, government agencies and nonprofit groups in India.

For Embrace, whose founders have all moved to India to work on the project, the Stanford video is a welcome boost.

“As many videos as we can create, as many networks as we can tap into, that will only be helpful,” said Christina Chao, who heads U.S. fundraising for Embrace.

The video produced by the Stanford business students had an almost immediate impact on both sides of the Pacific. In its first 10 days online in March, the video raised more than $4,000 in donations, inspired the president of the Rotary Club of Bangalore to adopt Embrace as his fundraising project for the year, and caught the attention of Gaurang Shah, CEO and founder of Digital Signage Networks of India, who plans to show a version on his billboards.

Ultimately, Embrace says, the incubator will cause declining birth rates in developing countries, as parents decide to have fewer children because fewer die soon after birth.

“Within 20 to 30 years,” Chao said, “we figure it will change the mentality of families in India.”

Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.