Finding inspiration in diverse experiences: A story of innovation

A father with his child

Eight years ago, Faheem Ahmed had a son who was born with autism and other developmental disabilities. Today he is leading the creation of a new technology platform for family caregivers called “Care Circles,” a case study in how diverse experiences and perspectives spur innovation. Care Circles is the story of one father’s journey – and it is also the story of embracing different ways of seeing, empathizing with people’s struggles and dreams, and daring to create what has not existed before.

What do you do at SAP?
I joined SAP 15 years ago as employee number one in Kenya. I helped open offices in Nigeria, Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe. Eighteen months ago I joined the Frontline Apps division in Palo Alto as entrepreneur-in-residence. Our job is to think outside the box completely. One product we started last year was an app for sports fans – how to engage them when they’re at events.

What else do you focus on?
We focus on sports, retail and health care. I lead the health care initiative. One question is how do we engage patients and their families to take better care of themselves and stay healthy? Today our health care system is set up to care for people when they are unhealthy.

Is that what inspired Care Circles?
The genesis of the idea came from my own experience. About eight years ago my son was born, and two weeks later Stanford called and said he was going to have severe developmental delays. He probably would be autistic and non-verbal. He certainly would not be able to care for himself, and we should prepare. That’s not what you expect when your child is two weeks old, a baby in your arms.

How did you cope?
It was nothing short of our world crashing all around us. Your children are your hopes and dreams for the future. When you get news like this, you have no idea what to expect. Your future is a big, vast, unknown gray, and you’re so scared. My wife and I resolved to find a way to get through this. We learned so much in the years to come – therapies, diets, how plastic the brain is. We met families with children with similar issues and saw the progress some had made.

You became armed with knowledge.
Yes, but our biggest frustration was we still didn’t know enough. You can’t spend enough hours on the internet, and you also get misinformation. People pray on your desperation. Then experts say “I know best,” and we would blindly trust them until we learned that they didn’t talk to each other. There’s so much being missed.

Is that what you hope to address?
There are really two problems. One is finding information that’s reliable. Whether for a child with autism or an adult with dementia or a spouse with cancer – this is not something you’re trained for. The second challenge is you have to share information with your team. Health care is a team sport – if you’re caring for your mother, maybe your siblings are involved along with a nurse and social worker. There has to be a better way to share information.

How did you have time take this on?
When my son turned five, I knew he was on the right track. My thoughts went to all the other parents who didn’t have access to the experts and the hope we found. There are five million kids in the U.S. with special needs. Then I realized that adults with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s need similar care and intervention. It’s the same for people with brain injuries or cancer.

So being a caregiver is not an isolated experience.
It’s something all of us will do at some point in our lives, yet most of us are woefully ill prepared. Care Circles is a platform to empower caregivers to find the information they need and act on it. It’s a Facebook for your family and whomever you invite into your circle.

How did you develop it at SAP?
At first I thought this had nothing to do with SAP. But the company said, “We want to do more innovation and design thinking. We need to explore different business models. Go ahead and work on it. Talk to lots of people.” I did this for months and months. The first week I’d have an idea. The second week I’d build a prototype. Then I’d show it to people and then report back. The whole team did a critique. We did 100 interviews over four months with entrepreneurs, families, doctors and experts in special education and health care. We collected as many perspectives as we could.

Anything surprise you?
One thing we added in was data collection. What if, as part of your caregiving activities, you could share data about things like your medication? And what if that data could contribute to better recommendations for others? The University of California is doing a pilot study right now tracking 40 families on educational interventions with autism. They’re using Care Circles to collect information.

Are there applications to your other work?
We’re showing how people think differently and work differently. For example, we’re trying to support dyslexia, and we have a lot of that in the workplace. I’ve also learned about the process of innovation. A lot of health-care providers were confused about why our app was aimed at the family first. They said, “We are the caregivers.” Well, my sister is in Belgium, my parents are in Pakistan, I have relatives in Australia and all over Europe and the Middle East – that is my team. These are things overlooked by people with a less diverse perspective.

What inspires you right now?
So many people at SAP came and volunteered time and help – they’d say, “I love what you’re doing. I only work four days a week and I’ll give my free day to you.” And Care Circles may lead to other innovations. We have big customers lined up to do a design thinking workshop and ideate on future scenarios we could address by building on the platform.

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