Ricardo Sanchez ’21 on designing with empathy to make an impact

Buying new soccer cleats was Ricardo Sanchez’s yearly ritual throughout high school. An avid player, Sanchez started to research the design of the newest footwear models. He remembers watching a YouTube video that explained the different design decisions of the pair he was using at the time. That is when his love for design started.

“I want to work on projects with an impact,” he said. “At the end of the day, I want to contribute to someone else’s day.”

Years later, Sanchez is working on a mentorship program for college and high school students with intellectual and physical disabilities. He pitched his idea in the Blackstone LaunchPad’s $15,000 Impact Prize Competition this November. He is a 5th year VPA Industrial and Interaction Design major and also co-founder of a startup that won the American Heart Association’s $50,000 EmPOWERED to Serve Business Accelerator Competition last year. He is also working on a thesis researching the living communities of migrant and seasonal farm workers.

Sanchez said all of these projects are tied together with one goal in mind: making an impact.

In order to make that impact, Sanchez says empathy is key.

“Anyone can be a designer, as long as you can put yourself in the shoes of who you are designing for,” he said.

In the summer of 2019, Sanchez was a part of Invent@SU, a six-week intensive program in ideation, prototyping and presenting a product. On the second day without an idea he noticed his partner, Russell Fearon, going through the steps to take his blood sugar before lunch. Fearon had been diagnosed with diabetes a few years prior. He started asking questions about the process, and realized it was very cumbersome.

So, the two set out to make it streamlined by inventing a smart watch with the capability to check blood sugar levels. They did not win the Invent@SU competition, but a few months later they took home over $50,000 from the American Heart Association for their idea, SugEx.

Sanchez built empathy again more recently as one of the first students to participate in a new Intelligence ++ Inclusive Entrepreneurship program. The interdisciplinary program is focused on inclusive entrepreneurship and design, and is being offered for the 2020-21 academic year through a partnership of the Blackstone LaunchPad & Techstars at Syracuse University Libraries, the Taishoff Center for Inclusive Higher Education (InclusiveU) and the  College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) through a generous donation by Gianfranco Zaccai ’70 H’09 and the Zaccai Foundation for Augmented Intelligence (Intelligence++). The program offers new innovation courses and culminates in a spring design and entrepreneurship competition with $30,000 in prizes.

Tasked with designing a solution that would help those with disabilities and their families and support networks, Sanchez set up a tag along with a member of InclusiveU, a program for Syracuse students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  By talking to those students one-on-one and in group settings, Sanchez began to understand their needs and desires. That was when the idea was hatched to create a program between InclusiveU students and high schoolers with disabilities in Syracuse to create a network of role models and mentors who could support each other and also encourage young people to think about college pathways as personal and professional options. He presented his idea at this year’s Impact Prize Competition at the LaunchPad and received great feedback from judges who are professionals in the design and accessibility community.

By taking the time to understand his target audience, Sanchez focuses on designing with empathy and a deeper understanding of approaching problems and solutions.  Sanchez uses that mindset in every idea, researching and understanding his user before brainstorming. He avoids making any assumptions about his target audience.

“You can have an idea, but at the end of the day it’s not for you,” he said. “It’s for someone else.”

Story by Patrick Linehan ‘21, LaunchPad Global Fellow; photo supplied by Ricardo Sanchez.