Krista Donaldson is CEO of D-Rev, a Silicon Valley-based not-for-profit that brings medical devices and income to people living on less than $4 a day. D-Rev–which stands for Design Revolution—designs and, with partners, manufactures, and markets the devices at a fraction of the cost of traditional ones, aiming to make these products universally more accessible.
GoGirl managed to catch Krista before she was scheduled to jet off for work in Kenya. She shares with us how to make a difference and her experiences of working in and leading an industry that requires constant innovation.
How did you arrive at your career?
I went straight from my undergraduate years at Vanderbilt into graduate school at the Stanford School of Engineering. While there, I did an internship as a design engineer and researcher in Kenya for a company called Kickstart, the first really good non-profit company selling products to small-holder farmers there. Martin Fisher, the founder of KickStart, was one of the first to focus on extreme affordability.
While I was working on my PhD, I focused on engineering and social entrepreneurship in less industrialized economies, and also worked part-time as a mechanical engineer. At the time, the social enterprise field hadn’t yet been really developed.
Can you tell us a little about one of D-Rev’s products?
The JaipurKnee, a prosthetic device for above-the-knee amputees, has scaled up very quickly to fit more than 3,500 amputees because its performance is so vastly superior to the standard knees available now available in low-income regions. You see amputees using bamboo staffs or canes that give them spinal problems because they are hunched over. The canes also make it very difficult to carry things. The JaipurKnee addresses these issues, and is a fraction of the cost of traditional above-the-knee devices.
As a not-for-profit company, how can D-Rev afford to develop such high-end medical devices?
First, we focus on the core functionality of the products, getting rid of bells and whistles most users don’t need or necessarily value. Second, we raise grant money for the research and development phase of our product development. Then we sell the products, leveraging the private sector and what existing companies are best at; we want people to buy our products, so they have affordable price points.
How do you decide what devices to focus on?
We do a lot of fieldwork and extensively interview key users and purchasers about what products are needed. We speak with doctors, people who are in implementing and purchasing positions. They become our partners on the ground who are passionate about and able to implement our devices, which drives social impact.
What are you most proud of in your career?
I hope that is still to come – once our products start to scale and have impact. But I’d say now that I’m proud that at D-Rev, we’re getting some of these products up and out to people who need them. Hopefully we will change the paradigm of international aid. If someone else invents a better product that’s cheaper, I consider that a success as well – as long as the social need is being addressed.
What’s been most challenging?
Explaining our business model. People ask, “Why aren’t you a for-profit?” But once you’re working for profit, there is always a trade-off between profits and social impact. We focus entirely on social impact but take the best of the for-profit world to design the best products.
As a male-dominated field, how might the profession of engineering better attract women?
There is a huge need for mentorship for women, even among older women. We also need more mentorship from women in CEO capacities. There is a difference between middle- or upper-management and CEOs because we are the ones ultimately making the decisions. There are not that many of us.
Women do contact me for guidance, to meet for coffee, and I want to do it, but I also struggle with it because I have limited time–it’s a trade-off with family time.
Does D-Rev attract many female engineers?
Yes. I think it’s because women are very interested in the social impact of their work. Also, I think women tend to be attracted to workplaces with female leaders.
How do you like being in the decision-making seat?
Sometimes it’s hugely empowering. It’s your vision to implement at the end of the day. That said, it also comes with a lot of responsibility. I also want to make sure I have a happy staff and make sure things like retirement plans are in place, so it’s a balancing act between our products and our people.
If you knew early on in your career what you know now, what would you do differently?
I don’t think I would have done anything differently. I hear from recent grads that they are worried about finding the right job. Any job is the right job because you always learn useful, career-building lessons. If you come across a difficult boss, then you learn how to be a better boss.
What financial advice can you offer to younger women?
Start saving early–particularly women who decide to do more academic work and earn additional degrees. A lot of us who stay in school forever, graduate in our early 30s with a lot of loans, and we’re just then getting our first real jobs.