When she was eight, Theresa Chiueh ’94, MBA ’01, tried to melt a Frisbee in a frying pan to mold it into a new toy. It wasn’t until a decade later, though, while reading The Design of Everyday Things at MIT and paging through design magazines in Rotch Library, that she finally put a name to her youthful interest: industrial design. “I was like, this is exactly what I want to do—it’s creative, it’s aesthetic, it’s functional,” she says.
After graduating, Chiueh took that realization to Ford Motor Company, where she used her mechanical engineering degree to design interior components of cars, from dashboards to cupholders. In the process, she discovered another interest: helping corporations approach design problems. To do so, she knew that she needed to better understand business.
Upon receiving her MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management, she joined the Boston-based firm Design Continuum. She spent 12 years—including five as director of its Los Angeles studio—working with companies including Zipcar and Nestlé, applying consumer research and design principles to such quandaries as how to deal with drivers returning cars late, or how to expand into new food markets.
Chiueh enjoyed the work, but something was missing. “As an external consultant,” she says, “you were never truly solving the problems because you didn’t really understand the company.” Why, she began to wonder, is it so difficult for large corporations to innovate?
Chiueh is now tackling this question at PepsiCo, where she is director of global design innovation. “I consider myself an innovation coach,” she says. “I’m trying to help the company learn from past mistakes and figure out what’s innovative, how you test innovation ideas, and how you get to market fast.”
To that end, Chiueh works with a cross-functional innovation team—which includes people who work in marketing, R&D, consumer insights, commercialization, business strategy, and finance—that is developing new plant-based food products that are sustainable, nutritious, and affordable. Chiueh challenges her team to keep an open mind about potential products, oversees the design of products in development, and even logs time handing out samples in airports and grocery stores to stay connected to consumer wants and needs.
Chiueh is optimistic about PepsiCo’s direction. “We’re thinking about sustainability and the food and water supply. There’s a higher-order reason to do these things,” she says. “If we can provide tasty shelf-stable products that have true nutrition, we’ve won.”
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of MIT News magazine, published by MIT Technology Review.
Photo (top): Karen Santos.