Duet Tackles Refugee Crisis

Marshall and Viterbi students launch nonprofit connecting refugees, donors and local businesses

November 05, 2019

It was in a refugee camp in Lesvos, Greece, where Marshall student Michael Cesar ’19 met a man who had just spent his small monthly stipend to buy a fishing rod.

The rod would enable him to supplement his family’s meals, he said. He was a Muslim, and much of the food in the refugee camp was not halal. His wife was pregnant and needed more to eat. The rod would enable him to supplement their meals.

“It was in that moment that I realized that, with just a little autonomy and financial flexibility, this man was able to radically transform his situation,” Cesar said. “We realized that the refugees themselves knew more than anyone else what they needed to help their families.”

Out of this experience, Cesar and Rhys Richmond, then a sophomore majoring in biomedical engineering, were inspired to co-found Duet, a web-based platform that connects refugees, donors and local business owners.

Duet aims to provide refugees some autonomy, help the local economy and forge personal connections.

Duet is an example of Marshall students collaborating with students and professors across disciplines at USC to find solutions for pressing global problems.

Families ask for exactly what they need, providing a photo of the item from a local store. When donors click on a family photo, they learn about the family and can choose to donate any of the items shown. The money goes directly to the local store, where the family picks up the item.

“Being able to route the donations through the local economy was originally an added bonus, but this is now a central tenet of our company in that we want the local community as a stakeholder,” Cesar said.

Refugee camps have a negative impact on the local economy, as refugees have little disposable income and tourism is driven away. By sending donor money to local stores, Duet aims to make a difference in the community, both socially and economically.

“We want to increase the positive interactions and the positive relations that can be created when refugees and store owners interact,” Cesar said. “We love when we hear stories of families walking into town, picking up an item and then sitting with a cup of tea nearby, normalizing their presence and slowly deconstructing animosity.  A store owner working with us told us that he has become friends with the Duet refugee families, calling them the ‘good refugees.’”

Building a Better Business through Collaboration

Duet was developed in Innovation in Engineering Design for Global Challenges, a USC Viterbi course open to all majors. The novel interdisciplinary course offered through the Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, brings engineering innovation and design to bear upon global challenges.  Student teams are given prototyping funds and nine months to build a solution that addresses a validated need in the field. In 2018 – 2019 the students traveled to Greece to identify solutions for the more than 50,000 refugees transitioning through the Greek islands and currently living in camps.

Duet is an example of Marshall students collaborating with students and professors across disciplines at USC to find solutions for pressing global problems.

“Duet brings efficiency and scale to on-the-ground relief efforts for some of the most vulnerable people in our world today,” said Abby Fifer Mandell, executive director of USC Marshall’s Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab. “ I am inspired by the powerful creativity that comes from a cross-disciplinary group of students from a variety of our programs – Undergraduate Scholars, Bennis Scholars, and the Society and Business Fellows – really listening to what’s hard for their customers and working together to find a solution.”

The Viterbi course had prepped students to find pain points, and then identify solutions, Cesar said. “We came back with several ideas, but Duet really took off.”

“Duet is a true example of user-centered design and the power of cross-disciplinary collaboration,” said Burcin Becerik-Gerber, professor of civil and environmental engineering who co-teaches the course alongside David Gerber, associate professor of practice civil and environmental engineering and architecture, Brad Cracchiola lecturer and industry expert and Daniel Druhora, a documentary filmmaker. 

“The team, made up of engineering, design, and business majors, underwent multiple iterations and field testing before arriving at their current solution underscoring the importance of doing real innovation under real conditions to affect people’s lives.”

Cesar credits the class for identifying a passion. “It was very much not your typical class,” he said. “It was actually about creating a product that was important to refugees’ lives,” he said. “We were proud to be able to run a few pilots throughout the year, progressing in their complexity, to the point where we could truly know that we were ready to launch.”

Duet was officially launched in March of 2019. Since then, the platform has helped 15 families get 160 necessities totaling $5,000.

But the need is great. UNHCR estimates there are more than 71 million displaced people worldwide.

The Marshall Connection

Viterbi student Raghav Maheshwari ’20, a computer science student, joined the Engineering Design for Global Challenges mid-semester, and has been co-leading Duet’s product engineering efforts since the spring.

But it was through Marshall’s Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab that he discovered his passion for social enterprise.

After being accepted as a BSEL scholar, Maheshwari was introduced to human-centered design during a BSEL cohort meeting led by Fifer Mandell. He signed up for her design thinking class.  

“Being surrounded by such talented students, mentors and faculty made me realize that a career in social impact was possible and I could use my skills for good,” he said.

“While working on Duet and conducting user interviews with refugee families in Greece on the class trip last semester, I was able to apply what I learned in professor Mandell’s class, which really helped us ask the right questions and get to the root problem that we were trying to solve through Duet.”

Other Duet team members include: Lucas Hu a senior studying computer science and electrical engineering; Stephanie Van Sickel MBA '19and Marshall undergraduate Spence Blood ’21.

Back-end and front-end development of Duet was supported by a team of senior computer science students enrolled in Associate Professor Jeffrey Miller’s capstone course in the USC Viterbi Department of Computer Science.

Next Steps

Right now, Cesar, Richmond, Maheshwari and their team are expanding the reach of Duet in Greece.  

There is plenty of need: The Naseri family from Afghanistan needs shoes and backpacks. The Rasouli family, also from Afghanistan, needs clothing and shampoo.

“These are basic, inexpensive items that donors buy for themselves on a regular basis,” Cesar said. “I had a friend give sunscreen to a family of refugees for $18. It’s something she uses every day and takes for granted, but for this family, the item had a huge impact on their day-to-day life.”

“We have created a platform where anyone, regardless of their financial situation, can make a difference,” he said.