Jeff Hsu (MDM, 2012) has been asked, “How is it that a guy like you ended up at IIT Institute of Design? What made someone who had been in investment banking then an infantry officer decide to completely change direction and jump fully into the world of design thinking?”

His reply? The United States Marine Corps.

On his third deployment as the forward operations officer for the 22nd marine expeditionary unit, Jeff was sent to plan and lead a humanitarian aid mission in Djibouti, a small desert country on the Horn of Africa. The only instruction he received was to “make African lives better.”

His team figured the greatest impact would be through improved water distribution facilities, specifically, a gravity-fed water storage tank so the villagers had access to water even if the power went out. While playing soccer with local village kids and waiting for the heavy equipment to arrive, they realized they were about to make a huge mistake. These kids had no shoes and were malnourished, the homes were constructed of broken stones and corrugated metal, and the government provided barely any support, let alone healthcare or infrastructure. While their solution had been engineered and designed perfectly to US Marine Corps standards, it wasn’t the right solution for these people. The US Marine Corps was planning to come in, build something without local involvement, then leave. There would be nowhere for villagers to turn if the facility broke or was pillaged.

The team took a step back and, in collaboration with the village, redesigned the entire water tank so that the system was less complex and easier to maintain. Jeff felt it was critical to give the villagers ownership of the solution in order to build their confidence and ensure that the solution was sustainable. Together the marines and the villagers built a water storage tank in an African desert. It was a triumphant—and pivotal—moment for Jeff. That’s when he saw design thinking prove its ability to change the world.

Design thinking and innovation are about solving complex problems creatively and connecting the dots between people and technology in order to create value—giving meaning to something, adding form to function. After four years in the Marines, Jeff turned in his rifle and went to business school, where the most important thing he learned was that he needed to go to design school. He wanted to learn the fundamentals and applied vocabulary of the principles and concepts of design thinking—which he’d already put to use in the Marines. IIT Institute of Design gave him that opportunity.

Now Jeff is The Far Eastern Group’s (FEG) chief innovation officer, reporting directly to the chairman and board of directors. He leads innovation initiatives across FEG’s companies that are responsible for either modernizing operations or redefining business models. He has served on the board of directors for U-Ming Marine Transport for seven years and became the board’s senior vice president in operations in October 2013.

Prior to joining FEG, Jeff worked as a strategy and design consultant in the United States with clients ranging from high-tech startups to Nestlé, DENSO Automotive, Kia Motors, and Target. He served with distinction in the United States Marine Corps as a captain in the infantry.

Jeff graduated with both a bachelor’s degree and an MBA from the University of Notre Dame. He then earned a master of design methods degree in design and innovation methods in 2012 from IIT Institute of Design in Chicago.