Research

Engineering the Creative Mindset

Written by Jen A. Miller

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Ashwini (Asha) Srikantiah, clinical professor of engineering, engages in complex discussions about people—probably more than most engineers. But that’s for a good reason. Her work and research focuses on human-centered design, which means “keeping humans at the center of your mindset and your practice while trying to understand problems and developing solutions and ideas.”

Srikantiah found the discipline in a roundabout way. A film major from Syracuse University, she started her professional career in the entertainment industry, where she worked on things like television productions and festivals. “I knew that I wanted arts and creativity in my life,” she says, but while she was surrounded by extraordinary talent, she also realized she wasn’t creatively fulfilled herself. “I started to get more attuned to all kinds of problems and issues we have in the world, and I felt this drive to help contribute to making some sort of tangible difference.”

She went back to school, earning her MBA in strategy, innovation and business design from the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management. There, she discovered that “there’s a whole industry of people who are dedicated to applying creative mindsets and problem solving techniques to real-world problems.”

She then joined Fidelity Investments, working in design and then product management at Fidelity Labs. The keystone project that she worked on for six years before coming to Harvey Mudd College was heading up the Fidelity Student Debt Program, building it from scratch to scale.

“Fidelity cannot be in the business of long-term savings if we don’t help people with the situations they’re in today,” she says. That meant getting a deeper understanding people’s real financial lives, not just barking at 20-somethings to stop drinking fancy coffee. “We were going into people’s homes and having them show me the ways that they set up their own money hacks,” she says.

Through this kind of primary research, Srikantiah’s team found that workers were having a hard time paying off student loans and felt unempowered in their situation. So they created a line of workplace benefit programs that promote financial literacy and enable employers to contribute directly to their employees’ student loan payments. Srikantiah also successfully advocated for legislative change to make employer payments to student debt tax free for the employee, helping student debt holders even more.

Srikantiah came to academia because she wants to teach the next generation of designers how their work also can help people solve real problems, and she chose HMC because of the school’s focus on making an impact, which is part of the College’s mission statement. “I was ready for my next challenge, and coming to a space with students who are really hungry and eager to make a positive difference in the world is a good match for me,” she says.

As she just joined the College in 2021, she is still setting up research projects that will use “the tools, mindsets and methods of human-centered design and apply all of that toward tackling gnarly problems with partner organizations,” she says. She’s also senior associate director of The Rick and Susan Sontag Center for Collaborative Creativity (The Hive), which provides learning experiences that move students through ambiguous real-world challenges toward creative solutions, and serves all seven Claremont colleges.

While working on building partnerships locally to create community impact, she’s also looking for international opportunities to broaden learning with students, so that when they enter the workforce, Harvey Mudd graduates won’t “swoop into new contexts and immediately build things,” she says. By having design exchanges that foster empathy while in school, “they will really understand the people they’re working with, the context of different environments, and use design as a tool to ensure that what they’re bringing to the table is relevant and meaningful.”

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