“I designed that!”
Rhea is now lead designer at JUST, where she’s responsible for researching and developing JUST’s products and designing their user experiences, but she came to DSI with a background in economics and international development, and degrees from Vassar College and London’s LSE. Rhea had been doing field work for MHFC in India, a housing finance company which provides affordable housing loans for the financially excluded, and became interested in storytelling as a way to demonstrate the impact of MHFC’s work beyond the balance sheet. Wanting to learn more about communication design, but not lose her social justice focus, she came to DSI.
Through DSI, Rhea landed a summer internship in communications design at the impact investment fund Acumen after graduating, where she met JUST co-founders, Natalie Grillon and Shahd AlShehail. Both Natalie and Shahd had been Acumen fellows in Uganda and India when the disastrous garment factory fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh, happened. Over 1,100 people died. It was an event that deeply affected them both.
It was also what spurred the original idea for JUST. “Most people don’t understand supply chains and know very little about what goes into the clothes they wear. We’re trying to make it possible for people to know the stories behind their clothing.” Although information on how clothes are manufactured and labor practices is available, it’s often hidden away in dense, jargon-filled company reports. Project JUST allows people to access that information easily and in a digestible format, helping people to make more informed choices about the clothes they buy and the brands they support. Rhea feels really fortunate to have been on board right from the start.
“Working with a start-up company has been an incredible experience. In a way it’s like my thesis project all over again – thinking through design, conducting research, user mapping and focus groups, and understanding the user journey.” The JUST team had initially considered an app as the right tool to share information, but research to test that assumption led them to rethink and pivot according to their users’ needs. Again, Rhea credits what she learned at DSI. “DSI stresses the importance of getting to know your user really well, doing your research, and being super creative to deliver the best possible experience and product.”
JUST’s online platform was launched at the end of 2015. The team is hopeful that the more people learn, they more they will become interested in knowing more. “The biggest barrier is the notion that ethical fashion is either super crunchy or very expensive. We want to challenge that stereotype and ultimately shift the status quo in the fashion industry.” It’s going to be a long journey but Rhea is inspired by the transformation in how people think about the food chain; 10 or 15 years ago, no-one was talking about locally sourced food or organic food, concepts that are mainstream now. “DSI tells us things take time. There’s no miracle cure to complex problems but change can happen if we keep pushing! So that’s what we’re doing.”
Rhea believes that what’s critical at DSI – and in life – is to stay curious and open to possibilities, as you never know what will inspire you. “DSI throws a lot at you and it can be overwhelming but also enriching. You discover yourself thinking and seeing things differently, and you’re challenged to throw away every assumption you have. Going to DSI makes you develop a thick skin – you invite critique of everything you do, but if you can handle that, you’ll create products that are strong, useful and beautiful.”