Rafaela Valencia-Dongo, founder of Retablo, on finding the courage to realize her dreams
Rafaela Valencia-Dongo was born in Arequipa in Peru, but her go-getter attitude led her to journey all the way to Madrid in order to pursue the Bachelor in Design—a program Rafaela hoped would give her the expertise to redefine traditional design processes and create positive societal impact. Thus, IE University became an arena for exploration and experimentation, all while giving her room to develop an entrepreneurial mindset. She started her first two years in Segovia and went to Madrid to finish her career.
Rafaela learned how to be a multi-faceted designer here, whose vision for a better tomorrow informs the projects she is developing today. For her, design is about innovation and creating products that truly meet people’s needs. After graduation, she founded Retablo—a design studio that develops design projects in collaboration with local communities to ensure that their voices are heard during the decision-making process.
Where does your passion for design stem from?
I come from a family of innovators and risk-takers—my father was a prime example of this. He was always thinking of new ideas and products that could solve simple, everyday problems. I believe this trait is ingrained in me as well: I am constantly seeking opportunities to tackle challenges and improve people’s lives through design.
My education at IE University has equipped me with the skills and knowledge to turn my ideas and concepts into reality. For me, design is not just a specific area of expertise, but rather a mindset and approach to work that requires constant learning and adaptation. I see it as a catalyst for change.
What is Retablo?
The story of Retablo begins at IE Tower, where I was challenged to create a fictional design studio for a design management class. I saw this as an opportunity to craft a meaningful and engaging story—and Retablo was born.
Retablo is a strategic innovation practice that focuses on community-centered design to make a real impact on society. We believe in the power of design to bring communities together and involve them in the design process to create solutions that truly meet their needs. To this end, we innovate co-design approaches and reinterpret existing design frameworks and tools to help organizations co-create impactful and community-driven products and services.
Which skills did you learn in the Bachelor in Design that have helped you the most in your professional career?
Everything! The Bachelor in Design helped me build my portable and modular toolbox of concepts, techniques and ways of thinking. Now, I approach problem-solving in a structured but creative way. I was taught skills such as making blueprints, empathy mapping, phrasing challenges and building presentations driven by storytelling. On top of that, I learned everything I needed to know about creating visually appealing and well-designed products and services, from choosing the right typography to exploring hex colors, making grids on Keynote and illustrating concepts.
But none of this would matter without knowing how to deliver that innovative concept or product you’ve been building for months. My days engaging in debate and making presentations in class have made me a great speaker and presenter. I’ m lucky to have received such a well-rounded education in design.
“Never allow your passion to fly be overtaken by the ease and safety of walking.” This phrase has become a key element in my entrepreneurial journey. If I could give some advice to students, it would be to take risks. Jump into the pool—what’s the worst that could happen? Learning comes from experimenting and experiencing new things.