Through Design Thinking, Pivot Fellows Reimagine DC’s Penn Social

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Georgetown Pivot Fellows presented a flurry of creative ideas for revamping a downtown D.C. business, putting their new skills to the test in a real-world design thinking challenge.

Over the last few months, Pivot Fellows worked in teams to develop dozens of ideas to reinvent Penn Social, a downtown sports bar and event venue, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the industry and neighborhood.

The presentations were the culmination of the Pivot Program’s design thinking class, taught by McDonough School of Business Teaching Professor Evelyn Williams. Williams described design thinking as a five-step process: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. 

“It’s a very iterative process,” Williams said. “The Fellows were constantly talking to the client and were engaged in interviews to come up with ideas. Now we are at the stage of presenting those ideas to the client so he can evaluate for feasibility and viability.” 

During the interview stage, the Fellows were tasked with defining potential end users so they could tailor their ideas to those individuals. Prior to their final presentations, the Fellows garnered feedback from Georgetown McDonough MBA student volunteers to refine their proposals. 

Penn Social owner Geoff Dawson, who co-founded the restaurant and bar development group Tin Shop, worked closely with the Fellows to identify his key priorities. He wanted to create a 24-hour hub for artists and musicians in the District by better utilizing the large venue space. Dawson also wanted to incorporate his passion for helping returning citizens and foster a welcoming work environment with a re-training component. 

“Penn Social is in a place to rethink what they want to be moving forward,” Williams said. “From a design thinking perspective, you could not ask for a better client.” 

The Triad: Joe Houston, Maya Moore, and Deron Webb

The first team, nicknamed “The Triad,” consisted of Pivot Fellows Maya Moore, Joe Houston, and Deron Webb. Their ideas included rebranding the downstairs space as “The Incubator,” a vibrant underground scene with live music, improv and comedy nights, and theater shows. The group also suggested introducing morning yoga and meditation classes to attract a new crowd of young professionals. To retain talent and create an encouraging work environment, they also outlined a new compensation structure offering monthly pay bumps to employees. 

The Idea Shack: Muhammad Al-Mahdi, Amber Crowder, Donald Hines, and Robert Smith

The second team, nicknamed “The Idea Shack,” joined together Muhammad Al-Mahdi, Amber Crowder, Donald Hines, and Robert Smith. Their pitches included transforming the outdoor space to host a dog play area and food trucks. They also proposed the “Penn Social Returning Citizen Support Program,” a shadow training program through which returning citizens could work towards a bartender, culinary, or managerial license.  

Both teams received positive feedback from Dawson and other guests. 

“I’m impressed by the way you all have methodically identified ideas, eliminated some, latched on to others, and then tested,” Dawson said. “I’m really proud of this group and happy to be a part of your process.”

The design thinking project is a key part of the Pivot curriculum because it teaches human-centered design, teamwork, and creativity. Academic Director Alyssa Lovegrove said it also lays the foundation for the Fellows’ next big project: developing and pitching their own business ideas.

“Part of the reason we get so excited about this part of the curriculum are the parallels between the process of developing any new venture,” Lovegrove said. “These are skills the Fellows will apply again in the entrepreneurship process, and these are the makings of some standalone business ideas that are potentially very promising.”