Lesley Sager

My day jobs are being founder of Merry-go-Strong, on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and head of Sager Designs, an interior design firm.

Merry-go-Strong (MGS) is a non-profit I founded to nurture sustainable grassroots development efforts. It’s a take off on “merry go rounds,” which are a type of community microfinance: Community members each put a small amount of money into a pot and have the opportunity to borrow from this. They pay back the money, with a small amount of interest, and these have become self-sustaining programs that make a big difference in impoverished communities.

I founded MGS on the premise that good design has the power to change people’s lives. I’ve been working with women artisans in Kenya to help them use their skills to become successful entrepreneurs, with the goal of creating a sustainable income stream for themselves and their families. You can read more about my journey to create MGS here.

Through MGS, I’ve met amazing women who are leading efforts to stop female genital mutilation and creating education programs to serve both young girls and women of all ages. It’s been an exciting and rewarding journey.

I’m also on the faculty of the UW Design Studies program, in the School of Human Ecology, where I head up the Interior Design Program and recently started work on the School’s Design Thinking Initiative efforts. I’m incredibly committed to design thinking and the difference it can make in people’s lives.

My most memorable caffeine is the coffee I was drinking the day I inadvertently started a new design thinking initiative at the School for Human Ecology!

I’d had quite a bit of caffeine one day soon after my first trip to Kenya. I was incredibly excited about everything I’d experienced on my trip and the amazing things the women were doing there—especially Aniceta Kiriga, who started the Tharaka Women’s Welfare Project and created the annual Alternative Rite of Passage as a way to give young girls an incentive to turn away from female genital mutilation. (Aniceta is amazing: learn more about her here).

I was sharing my excitement with a colleague and talking about my vision for having our students at UW apply their design thinking skills to a joint project with the women in Kenya. Before I knew it, I was talking to the dean and things took off from there!

My current caffeine of choice is a cup of black coffee. It takes me a while to get through a cup and I always worry I’ll give myself food poisoning if I have cream sitting around all day—so I’ve learned to drink it black.

My favorite place for caffeine is Barriques and I’ve been spending most of my coffee drinking time at the new one on Old University. Coffee if you’re there in the morning and wine if you’re there at night—perfect!

The person I’d love to share a cup of caffeine with would be Wangari Maathai. She was born in Kenya and started the Greenbelt Movement, which was an organization she founded that used trees to empower women. She saw trees as critical to people’s quality of life, especially in the areas of nutrition and water quality, and her group helped plant over 20 million trees.

Maathai was a true practitioner of design thinking: she stressed the importance of putting people first and knew the difference it made when a program was directed toward women. (Plus she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 and was elected to Kenya’s Parliament with 98% of the vote!).

 World problem that could be solved with the right amount of caffeine:  continuing to help the women of Kenya. Coffee—especially coffee combined with a walk!—gives me the clarity I need to take on my next adventure.