Maxwell VanHook

“If you have a vision for yourself, go for it.” When Maxwell VanHook told me that before our interview, I knew that he was about to drop some serious knowledge. And he did not disappoint!

We started off in an interesting place — the home — and he talked about how newlywed life and how he’s been re-evaluating the concept of work and code switching in this current age. He also shared a bit about his work as an associate creative director for Amazon Devices, and his role as co-host of the weekly IG Live show Designing While Black. For Maxwell, trusting your voice and values has been key to his success…and I definitely agree with that!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Tell us who you are and what you do.

Maxwell VanHook:
I am Maxwell VanHook. I am from Baltimore, Maryland, currently. In my professional life, I am an associate creative director on the Amazon devices team. That basically entails anything that has Alexa in it, but it also involves the devices that Amazon makes. You can think about your Echo Dots, Echo Shows, Kindles, emerging platforms like Amazon Luna, which is cloud gaming. Outside of my professional life, I am a music lover. I’m also the co-host of Designing While Black along with Bekah Marcum. That comprises who I am. First and foremost, I would say with all of those things, I like to show up as a friend. I’m just a friend, support system and a champion of other people’s dreams. I like to see people succeed. I’d like to see people win.

Maurice Cherry:
How’s the year been going so far?

Maxwell VanHook:
The year’s been good. I’m not going to lie to you. When COVID hit, I think that I had some psychological and emotional barriers. No, just in terms of shifting my schedule. I had a routine. I would get up every day, probably around 6:37 o’clock, do whatever I need to do for the morning, get dressed, go to work, probably get coffee when I went to work. And so it gets monotonous. All of that broke down once COVID hit. And so now, I’m at home. Now, I’m with my wife and I’m with my cat. Nobody’s really going outside. And so I had to create new routines for myself. I had to learn how to work out within at home, I had to learn how to run within my home, I had to learn how to make sure that I was keeping my mind active outside of my day-to-day work. I also need to figure out how to keep myself emotionally and mentally stable.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so it’s been good because I learned a lot about myself. I really had to scrutinize what I wanted from life and it allowed me to be still. I know that there were a lot of things that came along with the pandemic. But now that we’re somewhat out of it, I actually appreciate it because it allowed me to sit with myself and really be introspective about how I wanted to move forward in this next phase of life. I just turned 31 not too long ago. And so I feel like I’m at a crossroads in terms of who I want to be. This has been good for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I think a lot of people now, especially peer in the states who have hopefully gotten their vaccines or they’re seeing now that just restrictions are being lifted like nationwide and in many places, I think a lot of people are at that point of reexamining and reevaluating where they’re at now that they’ve come out of this and trying to figure out what moving forward looks like, because I think there’s been this big push to get back to normal. You got to get back to normal. But it’s almost impossible in many ways because the world is just a different place. We’re different people now that we have all collectively went through this extended trauma. It’s hard to just snap back into what you used to do before all of this.

Maxwell VanHook:
Now, it was important for me… I realized, especially like on a work-front, there are certain conditioning that you go through in terms of how you show up that especially in physical spaces, like when you walk into a corporate office and you’re not the dominant culture. And so things like code switching, dialect altering, I was with… not too long ago, we had someone that we interviewed and they used the phrase telephone voice. These are things that I feel black and brown people use every day to survive in these spaces. I just had to do a deep conditioning because when I was at home, I was way more relaxed. And then I realized that I’m not in the physical space with you and I’m not going to become someone different when I’m outside of my home.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so I had a conflict with myself, like internal conflict. This is the space where I am authentically myself, this is the space where I can be free and open and now I’m bringing work into that space. And so I like, “No, I flipped that on its head. Anywhere that I show up, that’s how I’m going to be.” And so working at home actually allowed me to do that, getting on the phone and not really caring how I’m phrasing things, not really caring on what type of vernacular I’ll use because I was just embracing fully who I am. Especially when you put it in the context of the pandemic, you realize, “Hey, life can be snatched at any moment. It’s up to us to live use the agency to own your life.”

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting. You’re like reevaluating… it’s funny… well, not funny, but I like that you said that you’re looking at home and how you bring work into it, because certainly for a lot of folks, having to work from home, it’s been tough, I think, for many people to really make that delineation between like, “This is work, this is home.” Even if you’ve got a dedicated space, you’re still bringing a totally foreign thing into your sanctuary. Home is where you… That’s where you sleep, that’s where you let your hair down, that’s where you let your defenses down. But now, it’s also your workplace and your gym and your daycare and all these other things now. Yeah.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah, all those things converged. When they converged in that manner, I just started to look at how I was showing up and then also how I was relating to people. I think you discover things about yourself throughout life because I believe that we’re fluid beings in that way. And just being able to sit at home, knowing that this is my space and I own it, I couldn’t even access any form of code switching or altering, if I wanted to, because it just wouldn’t sit right with me. And that just ultimately led me to say like, “Why was I doing it in the first place? Also, who told me to do this?” And that was another thing like, “Who told me to do this?” I was like, “No one told me to do this? This is a decision you made and you have to break and work to get out of this.”

Maxwell VanHook:
And so if there is a danger and not code switching, that’s just something that I’m going to have to deal with, but I would rather live my truth. I feel like most people should live their truth in that sense. There’s so many people who stay away from their unique sensibilities or their unique form of expression because of how other people will perceive it and that stops you from that expansion. That’s the goal. I’m trying to expand, I’m trying to try as many things as I possibly can. With curiosity comes failures sometimes. I don’t even look at failure as failure. I look at that as a lesson, a learning lesson. I want to fall as many times as I can. I want to show up in any form that I want to show up in. Yeah, I just want to own my space. I’m trying to walk away from conditioning that may have happened beforehand.

Maurice Cherry:
Does Amazon foster that kind of exploration for you as an employee?

Maxwell VanHook:
I don’t necessarily know if Amazon fosters it. But I will say that when I came to Amazon, I was met with some very real confrontational energy in terms of the people that I was interacting with. I know there are horror stories about Amazon. I do not believe that the majority of them are true, just not in my case. But there was this presence of trying to be A type, trying to be the best, trying to always be on. And for me, there was the double whammy of walking into a social environment inside the building where nobody looked like me, and then also outside of the building, nobody looked like me. And so I don’t necessarily know if there was a support system there. I’d argue that there wasn’t and they’re trying to build it now to foster that individuality and that freedom of expression, but it forced me to build my own.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so in that way, I would appreciate the experience of coming to Amazon, being able to live in Seattle, because it put me directly in line and maybe come face-to-face with who I am as a person, as a designer, especially as a man. And so it was like a forcing function. If I was half stepping in in who I wanted to be and how I wanted to show up, I couldn’t really do that there. And so there were a lot of things that I just started to think about differently life-wise once I started working at Amazon. More specifically, like my wellness, like self-care. I didn’t even get a therapist until I came to Amazon, which is odd, it’s super odd. That shouldn’t have been the case. I probably should have always had a sense of reflection or someone to help me process, but that stuff did not happen until I came to Seattle.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. We’ll talk about what brought you to Seattle and everything later, but I want to focus now on the work that you’re doing at Amazon. You said you’re an associate creative director when you’re working on Amazon products, devices I should say, Amazon devices. Amazon has been in the device game for a minute. I think everyone knows about the Kindle, but now there’s Echo, like you mentioned, there’s the Fire TV, there’s the Fire tablet. Amazon has also acquired other electronics companies. And so there’s wearables, there’s the ring security system, all this sort of stuff. There’s a lot that goes into devices at Amazon. Just like as broad as you can, and if you want to go into specifics, that’s fine, what are some creative considerations that you have to think about when it comes to Amazon devices because you’re really working with an entire ecosystem of tech here?

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. I would say at the center, there’s a leadership principle called customer obsession. Really without getting into too much jargon, essentially at the epicenter of any Amazon product or any Amazon device is this human focused, this human lens. Always creating product and always creating innovation with your audience in mind. And so anytime that I am getting ready to create a campaign or I’m getting ready to market a product, I always think about the audience that I’m trying to serve, because if I’m not thinking about that, then I’m probably being a terrible designer.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so I would say that one is that audience, but then also balancing that as you go through and you’re innovating from device to device, realizing how these technologies may create tension points. You want to look at like Echo Dot, for instance, the way that it functions is it very much so has to record. And so it’s constantly listening. It’s pinging to see if it’s being called every so often. And that’s why when you say the key phrase, Alexa, it’ll activate. And so how do I humanize technology like that? How do I humanize emerging technology to show people like, “Hey, this is new, this is novel, but it can fit within your day-to-day lifestyle and it can be a benefit to you”? And so that’s how I think about marketing any product with Amazon. What is the human entry point? What is the human lens? How does this product help serve the customer base and how does it help enhance their lifestyle?

Maxwell VanHook:
I worked on a product, a service within the Alexa app not too long ago, which is probably one of my proudest projects. It’s called Alexa Care. Essentially, it’s for the more senior, elder loved ones in your life. It allows people to stay in touch with those loved ones without infringing on their day-to-day lifestyle. Imagine you have a grandmother who’s 75, 80 years old. She lives by herself at home and you live maybe in another country or another state. How do you stay in touch with her? And so those are the types of products and that’s essentially how we would want any of the Amazon devices to show up. It needs to be a benefit, it needs to enhance, it needs to be brought into the life of our everyday customer and improve. If it’s not doing that, then we probably won’t make it.

Maurice Cherry:
Now that you mentioned, I’m thinking of other kind of Amazon devices. I think these might’ve been some that were discontinued. I remember at one point there was a… I think one was like a camera or a camera wand or something that went with Amazon wardrobe that would analyze your outfit. It reminded me of Clueless, like the opening scene in Clueless, where Cher is picking out her outfit on the computer and the closets got the dual conveyor belt curtains, or whatever, or the rods, or whatever, but thinking about like, “Is that really a benefit? Do I need to do all of that if I’m getting ready in the morning?” Probably not. I think Amazon discontinued it fairly shortly. But when you put it in that way of like the devices need to be a benefit, then I see why Amazon has made such a, I think, deep strides into the home with their devices.

Maurice Cherry:
The Echo is something that easily can blend in with your decor. The Fire TV it sits behind your TV, it’s out of sight. The ring it’s literally outside the house. You don’t really even see it. But the benefits that it adds, whether that’s security or extensibility or smart home functionality, stuff like that, it’s interesting how all of that still works together under the Amazon brand because now it, of course, ties into the services, it ties into Alexa, it ties into purchasing, or whatever that you want to do on the website.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. It’s really important to look at the ecosystem of devices that we have. I don’t even think there’s a lot of things that Amazon tries. I would say a year-over-year, we’ve increased our device output like 10 fold. I expect it to continue to grow and grow. Really, I think the goal is to provide through Alexa a service that can be personalized to the end user and can function in a way that benefits them specifically. I imagine a world… And these are not conversations that I’ve had with anyone in terms of how Alexa functions. But I imagine a world where there are no devices and potentially Alexa is integrated into the home itself.

Maxwell VanHook:
I could imagine like seeing a tiny home, it could start off there and it could just have Alexa integrated into. You don’t need to have these one-off devices in order to have it function. Imagine it already being built into the smart appliances, imagine it already being able to interface with your computer. You don’t need to have a suite of devices that ties into the Internet of things in order to function efficiently. That’s what I think is going on with most AIs. I think the overall goal is to arrive there and the device is just to open up new spaces and open up how customers relate to the voice assistance.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, because I imagine you get a ton of data with just seeing how people talk to Alexa, how they interact with the different devices, and then you can use that, of course, to upgrade the experience. But then as you said, you can venture off into greater implementations. Like I know there’s the Amazon Go store, which I think started in Seattle. I’m not sure if it’s started to spread nationwide yet, but it’s almost like a person list convenience store. You can go in, pick up what you need and walk out. As you’re doing this, you’re automatically being rung up, like the things that you’re buying are being tabulated, you’re charged when you walk out the door, and you don’t have to interact with a person. You just go in, do what you have to do, walk out.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. I think, if I’m not mistaken, not too long ago, and you probably find this online, they just opened up a full fledged grocery store here in Washington.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. I’m going to have to go check that out. Even like that concept, it’s interesting because it’s not like we haven’t tried that in history before. I look at the, on a smaller scale, like a lot of the grocery stores already have some form of self-checkout. But even the human psychology behind self-checkout, you look at it, realistically, if you were to assess how long it takes you to go into a store, get what you need and then go through the checkout line by yourself, it probably on average takes you a lot longer rather than having else. But it’s the thought that you are going to be a lot faster than that person who may be checking you out in line, which is interesting. But also even seeing Amazon try something like this and be relatively successful has a lot to do with studying the human behavior. But yeah, that’s not the first time in human history that we’ve we tried that before. [crosstalk 00:21:10].

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, no, no, I’m thinking specifically of the automat, which has been around since like the late 1800s. When Amazon is doing at least in… if you look at from the automat to the Amazon Go store is essentially taking that same concept and almost treating the store like a vending machine and just having this layer of technology that handles interactions throughout the entire process.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah, no, it’s crazy to see. I remember the first time that I actually went into… because I work in Day 1, and for anyone who doesn’t know what Day 1, it’s one of the buildings. I believe it’s actually the building that Jeff Bezos is. And so within the verticals and the business orders that he cares about, they all exist in that building, with the exception of AWS, Amazon Web Services. I remember when I first went into that store and it was such a weird thing. It was like coming from where I come from, just be able to use an app, walk in and walk out, and I stopped myself and I was like, “Am I like really…” It’s almost like you feel like you’re about to steal something like, “Am I really allowed to walk out with this?” Yeah, but it’s interesting in that I think as they become more successful with the rollout of the stores, yeah, you’re going to see a lot more of it.

Maurice Cherry:
I can see Amazon coming out with like the Amazon house of tomorrow. You know what I mean? It’s almost like those old Tex Avery cartoons where you got all the machines and robots doing stuff. It’s so interesting because these are concepts… Just this whole thing about home automation, for example, we’ve been fed that for like 50 years now. The Flintstones and all those little animals and shit doing stuff for them in the cave, we’ve been fed this whole thing about having the house work for us instead of us working in the house for such a long time. And so now you’ve got a company like Amazon that’s able to really do that through their devices. Other companies have gotten on this too, but I feel like Amazon was really one of the first to really do deep penetration into the home largely because I think it was tied to commerce.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah, no, I also think it’s so interesting to see the exponential growth of technology and the rate of change and the rate of innovation and technology. I’m sure that you’ve watched Black Mirror.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. And so I remember the first season and I was like, “Oh, some of the things that are happening in this series, like the grain, the grain where you can run back all your memories, that’s super far away.” And then season-by-season, I think I realized by the third season, I’m like, “No, these are things that can happen now.” And so I’m looking back because I always feel as though like art imitates life. I think we seed ideas within the consciousness of society and then some person out there will have the goal or have the genius to make it. And now, I think we’re at a crossroads where it’s like, “All right, you put that into the world, I can make that tomorrow.”

Maxwell VanHook:
And so yeah, I think you’re 100% right. We’re going to look probably within the next few years, there will probably be some sort of smart home that will have all this integrated tech. I think we’re at a stage where that next technological revolution, if it’s not already here, it’s getting ready to come underway. It’s pushing up against our beliefs about identity in how we think about ourselves. Going back to Black Mirror, that episode about VR and video games, I forget the actors that were in it, but…

Maurice Cherry:
Is this from the latest season, the Striking Vipers?

Maxwell VanHook:
Yes, Striking Vipers.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah.

Maxwell VanHook:
That was so interesting to me because it introduced a new topic, because that technology is not far away. It’s right around the corner. I want to say not to get too graphic, but there are streaming websites that people probably sit or shouldn’t be going to that get a lot of data and they have invested and have given seed money to companies who are creating bodysuits that can sense like AR/VR touchpoints and mimic haptic feelings throughout the body if you’re wearing these suits. And so, yeah, like seeing an episode like that and knowing… because I pay attention to angel investors, I’ll pay attention to what people are doing in the market, knowing that there are websites who want that technology and are spending money in order to make it happen means that that conversation may not be that far down the line. And that to me, it’s somewhat terrifying, but it’s also really interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
No, no, I totally get what you’re saying. I didn’t even think you were going to go that way with it. But now that you’ve mentioned it, I can see that. I was thinking more so about like now how… A couple of weeks ago I had this guy on the show, Brandon Groce, and we were talking about the metaverse and about how there are online personalities, YouTubers, podcasters, et cetera, that have a virtual realish avatar, like a VTuber or something like that. We’re starting to see it on YouTube, for example, people that have these online-ish identities that are getting some level of fame. There’s Dream, there’s Corpse Husband, there’s probably a few other folks. It’s like these are real people. No one knows who they are, what they look like, but they’ve presented this digital 3D avatar of themselves. They’re able to use that to, I guess, be themselves online in some sort of way. But to go back to what you said with the Black Mirror portion, I do see how that’s not too far away at all. Between augmented reality and things of that nature, it’s pretty close.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. Even what you just said, I love to unpack that even more, because in a sense, it’s the most ideal version of yourself. That’s what I think in a real way because I’m conflicted about social media and how it’s used, but you curated. A lot of people do not give this holistic presentation. It’s not like a direct one-to-one to your everyday life experiences. Yeah, you just amplify that and then now I can actually physically choose what I look like. If I want to be part animal, part human, or if I want to be a cyborg, I can do that. And now, we’re all in ready player one.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, absolutely.

Maxwell VanHook:
I can imagine that that’ll happen. Yeah, not too long from now. I feel like I’m watching kids now and at least my… I have a godson and he constantly in his video games. If he’s not in his video games, he’s watching streamers. I hear you on that one.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s switch gears here a little bit. I know we’ve been talking about your work at Amazon. One of the other things that you do is that you are a co-host of a show on Instagram called Designing While Black. Tell me about that.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. I think Bekah and I met in my first year at Amazon. And so Bekah is my co-host. What we realized is that internally there were no spaces for designers to come together, meet politic, learn from one another, and generally just have a social bond that feels like support. We wanted to change that. And so we got together. I want to say one day, we went to a mini golf session and we sent out a blast. We expected like five people to show up. I think like over 30 people showed up. So now, we realize like, “Oh, there’s a community within Seattle that we really, really need to access.” That’s where black designers of Seattle came from, just trying to create a space where black designers who may feel other, who may feel like there’s no one who shares the same interest or even walks in the same spaces that they do. There is a social circle out there that they can access.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so a lot of the times like when we were starting to have these gatherings, we weren’t talking about design at all. We were just having fun. We would go, pick a place, we would eat, and we would just fellowship. And then we slowly started to shift that and it became a little bit more educational. We started to bring people in like Tim Allen, I believe you had Tim Allen on your show.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), from Airbnb, yup.

Maxwell VanHook:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). We brought in Jessica Rochelle, Timothy Bardlavens. And so we were bringing in these different people who were really able to share knowledge, share their experience, and uplift the designers within our community. And then we were getting reached out to from agencies or other bigger tech companies because they wanted to host us in the space and then the pandemic hit and then things started to take a bit of a low. We try to figure out how to navigate the new world and the new situation that COVID presented to us.

Maxwell VanHook:
One of the things that we thought about was having a Zoom. But then outside of that Zoom, because we were specifically talking to designers within Seattle, we were really, really interested in being able to reach a larger audience. And within that larger audience, really speak to emerging designers. People who are either in middle school, high school, college, and wanting to walk in the same spaces that we’re currently walking. And it’s like, “How can we reach out to them? How can we give them content that can encourage them and allow them to know that there are people out here who look like them and are doing this work?” Because I firmly believe like if you don’t see yourself, then you may not believe it’s possible.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so that’s where Designing While Black came from. We spent a lot of time thinking about it, scrutinizing it, trying to design out the materials in the brand and a bunch of different ways. One day, Bekah and I just sat down and like, “We’re just going to do it, do it. We’re going to get out within a week, we’re going to bring on…” I think our first guest was Alyssa Johnson, “and we’re just going to keep going every week, short form content, bringing the people that we know and make sure that this gets in the hands of the right people.” And so uplifting those stories and disseminating them to the people that can access those younger folk who want to be creative and want to do design professionally, that’s our main goal.

Maxwell VanHook:
As COVID restrictions start to lessen and we get back to peopling again, our goal is to get right back into those physical spaces and those physical venues, and then maybe we can start to do those shows in a more brand way. But that’s where it started. I think her and I really, really believe in education and we both stand on the shoulders of the people that came before us. Like I specifically, one of my design mentors was in my church. I know that that’s not like a common story to have a professional graphic designer who can talk to you at the age of 14, 15 and guide you. But I want to give back to other people what he gave to me. That was the overall goal of just doing the IG Live show.

Maurice Cherry:
What have you learned since starting the series?

Maxwell VanHook:
One, I’ve learned that there are some magical black folk out there, real like, “You start to like.” You’ll sit down with some people and you think that you have a full understanding of everything that they’ve done. And when you sit down and you have a conversation with them and you really have to assess and dive deep into their life and their work, you start to realize like, “Yo, there are black people who are innovators in every single type of design that you could think of.” And that’s really encouraging to me, especially in the spaces that I travel. But I think the biggest thing is that like, “Yo, we’re killing it out here. We’re killing it out here, and not just when it comes to being like a director or a VP or an executive.”

Maxwell VanHook:
I met a young woman the other day, her name was Kiwi. She’s currently in school. But she was a producer on MasterClass. Yeah, and she has spent time producing for films. She just completely shifted and decided that she wanted to become an instructional, or she wanted to become not only like an instructional designer, but industrial designer more so. That’s probably like the most amazing thing like being able to meet people who have had just so many different types of experiences in life and aren’t afraid to try new things. That probably is the biggest thing that I’ve learned. I do want to ask you, as you were building out your platform, what probably is the biggest roadblock that you faced just in terms of making sure that, one, it was reaching the people that you wanted it to reach?

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a good question. I think it was two things. One was really me trying to get out of my own way. I think I certainly was trying to do, especially early on, a lot of partnering up with other entities to try to reach an audience that I just didn’t have yet. I should have been spending that time really cultivating the audience that I did have, like the ones that I knew were listening and were leaving reviews and stuff. Instead, I would try to talk to another design podcast or another design organization and see if there’s ways that we could work together and do some stuff. Oftentimes the answer to that would be no answer. It just wouldn’t go anywhere, even though I’m reaching out.

Maurice Cherry:
I think that’s probably been a big roadblock. To be fair, I’d say money is a continual roadblock. But in those early days, there wasn’t really a whole lot that I really needed that money for in terms of I think I wanted to have it as a status symbol to myself that I’ve created something that companies will pay me for. And of course, I would use it for operational resources and stuff like that. But I spent way too much time trying to chase sponsors and chasing audience I didn’t have and I should have been really focusing inward on cultivating the audience I do have and making them really rabid fans of what I’m trying to do that can see the vision that I see. I would have done that. Because yeah, in those early days, there was… I’ll say this, it was certainly not as progressive as it is now, not by a long shot.

Maurice Cherry:
When I was reaching out to people in 2013 and 2014 there was a lot of, “Oh, we’re post-racial, we don’t do this sort of stuff anymore, et cetera, blah, blah, blah,” which then just made it difficult when people ideologically feel that the work that you’re doing for some reason is racist and it’s not. It’s like, “Oh, well, I don’t see why you would think that.” The tenor of the design community was not as open and accepting and as, I’d love to say the word woke, but it was not as woke now as it was back. Back then, people were really closed off to like, “No.” Now, it’s a lot more open. I think there’s a greater consideration and a greater perspective for what black designers are doing and what they can bring to the table and their voices and such.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. I want to think back to when I first discovered your podcasts. I think, for me, especially I was young. I was fresh in the design game. And so you don’t see a lot of examples of people have had robust careers. I probably didn’t meet too many people outside of my actual mentor who had decades worth of experience in design. And so being able to access your podcast reassured me that like, “Not only can I have a long career in this, but I can aspire to do great things.”

Maxwell VanHook:
And so, yeah, I just wanted to I appreciate the platform that you built in that sense because it does not only spread knowledge, but it also reinforces some things identity-wise within a young designer to know like, “Hey, there are people who are out there and there are people who are great and they’re killing it.” And so, yeah, I was really, really, really excited when I found the show. I don’t even remember how I found it. I can’t even remember how I found it. I may have been searching online. It probably was like Facebook back then. Yeah, I would just check in, listen and use it to build not only my knowledge of self and what was happening in these different spaces, but also to explore new territories.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I’m certainly glad that you found it. It’s interesting because like I said, I’ve been doing this for such a long time. And oftentimes, it’s probably different with what you’re doing with Instagram because you have a live audience. But with podcasting, a lot of this is pretty solitary. I don’t really know how it’s being received unless someone leaves a review, or they write me an email, or they send a tweet, or send a DM on Instagram. Other than that, I’m just pushing episodes out into the void. I can see that they’re getting listened to and downloaded, but I don’t get that direct feedback. And that could just be honestly because of the medium. But yeah, no, I’m glad that you found Revision Path and that it was able to serve as an inspiration for you.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. I feel like we should give people flowers again maybe on the internet. We don’t do the best job of that, especially when you look good like the vacuum that is Instagram in the light system. But as I live and breathe, I just wanted to let you know that… And I definitely share your podcast with young designers and people that I mentor because I don’t want people to think it’s just me out here. I’m tired of that narrative. I’m tired of the narrative of being like, “Oh, I was the only one. I’m the only black designer that I know, I’m the only black designer for 100 miles.” Is exhausting. I don’t subscribe to it. I don’t want to hear it anymore.

Maxwell VanHook:
I also want to change the narrative in terms of how people of color relate to design because I tend to think that the way that you think about something has to be vastly different than the way that another person thinks about something. And the way that you will build something is going to be vastly different than the way that someone else will build it. I think inherently, black people are designers. Even thinking about systems that were placed on us and how we’ve navigated around them, we’ve organized. We have created structures, we have created innovation and process to be able to by step roadblocks that have been placed in front of us.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so I think that that’s a part of your heritage, that’s a part of your legacy. I think if you want to be a designer, you can do that. It’s just a matter of sending your mind to it. And so I tell people that all the time, especially younger folks like, “This is a part of your ancestry, bro, you’ve been creating long before you were in existence. It’s in your blood. Don’t let anybody tell you that it’s not.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Speaking of ancestry and going back, I want to go back to where you grew up. You’re originally from Baltimore, born and raised. Tell me about what it was like growing up there. Did you feel like you got a lot of exposure to art and design as a kid?

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. Both my parents are like… We’re really supportive of the arts. My dad, he forced me to take drama classes oddly enough. He came to me one day after school and was like, “You’re signing up for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. You have an audition two days from now.” And then my mom would make sure that during the summers and after school, I was doing some sort of arts and crafts. Baltimore has this program called TWIGS. It’s attached to this high school called Baltimore School of the Arts. And so when I would leave my middle school, I would just take a bus there. And so I’m learning foundational principles of traditional art. And also from year-to-year, I’m switching off. Maybe one year I’m doing more traditional art practices and then the next year I’m learning how to act.

Maxwell VanHook:
And then that evolved. As I started getting a little bit more focused, my mom would take me to MICA. Even in middle school, I was able to get a lot of exposure to institutions that existed within Baltimore that solely focused on art. And then when I went to city, city is… I’ll say it’s the best high school that exists within Baltimore, but they have a program called International Baccalaureate. That allowed me to get a little bit more focused when it came to how I was telling my stories through art.

Maxwell VanHook:
I had some teachers who were just really, really helpful and set the foundation for how I wanted to express myself. And one day, one of those teachers came up to me and was like, “You know that you could do this as a career.” I was like, “Huh, I didn’t really think about that.” This was just something I would do when I was just chilling or late at night or when I have free time. And so once he expressed that to me… because I was going to go to school for communications, which would have been really, really bad. But I had made the connection that what you’re probably passionate about, you should follow that. You should figure out how to do that as much as you can.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so what they saw in me, they really, really poured into me. And then I talked to my mentor and he opened up that lens a little bit more and he was like, “Hey, you could go to school for graphic design. But I see something different happening in the space. And so you’re going to need more than one skill when you graduate from school. He’s like, “Don’t do graphic design.” He’s like, “There are programs out there now that will teach you those principles, but you need to be more in the digital space.” That’s how I ended up majoring in multimedia and I got crazy amount of exposure to different things.

Maxwell VanHook:
I want to say we were doing physical computing. I was messing with Arduino boards, trying to figure out how I could trigger light within a physical space, doing sound production, messing with middies, a bunch of stuff like video production, pretty much all the different types of design and art forms that you could think of. I just had so much freedom, I think. Out of all the majors in that school, we had the most electives. It was wonky. I want to say like three to four years after I left, they shut it down. Yeah, they just rolled it into graphic design.

Maxwell VanHook:
But even that was indicative of the fact that graphic design as a major or as an industry had changed, and we were using new terms and I had no idea what a user experience designer was, but also those lines hadn’t been defined yet. But to go back to Baltimore, that’s my heart and soul. Even though I’m in Seattle right now, the goal is to always return back to it. It’s taught me a lot, is where I get my grip from, is where I get my perseverance from. It’s the place where I learned to be me. And so me and my wife, we’re here in Seattle now, but the goal is always to go back home.

Maurice Cherry:
Now growing up in Baltimore and everything and with what you’ve just described, when did you know that this was something you really wanted to do for a living? Did it click at any point growing up?

Maxwell VanHook:
When did I know that this was something I wanted to do for a living? It’s really odd, but it was probably my senior year of college because I wasn’t really sure how viable a design career was. I was going back and forth and as I was starting to get closer to graduation, I was having some apprehension. It was like, “Do I just go get a master’s degree?” Both of my parents have master’s degrees and they’re both educators. I just thought that that was the path. And then my senior year, I had a teacher… It’s interesting. He led our whole program. I had him like freshman year and he leaned on me. He’s like, “You don’t understand any of these programs.” He’s like, “You have great vision, but you can’t execute on any of your visions because you don’t have the technical knowledge.”

Maxwell VanHook:
And then I had him again in my senior year and he did the exact same thing, except it was a different message. He was like, “You could be so great.” He was like, “You could be so, so great.” He was just yelling at me. I could see this passion in his eyes. I’m seeing all my other classmates and they’re walking in with projects that are half thought out, or they did the night before. He’s just letting them come in and out, come in and out. What you said to me is like, “You’re not the same as them.”

Maurice Cherry:
In a good way or a bad way?

Maxwell VanHook:
In a good way, in a good way. He’s like, “That’s why I’m yelling at you.” He’s like, “I can see you doing this for the rest of your life.”

Maurice Cherry:
And so that really set you on that path. Yeah.

Maxwell VanHook:
It set me on that path because I woke up and was like, “Oh, do I need to get a master’s? Why am I going to get a master’s degree?” I lit fire within me because I didn’t have that confidence yet. There was nothing saying that I was meant to do design full-time, there was nothing saying that I was going to work at Under Armour, there was nothing saying I was going to be where I am now. And that teacher, yeah, it came full circle. Like first year, lit a fires like, “Oh, you got to learn these programs.”

Maxwell VanHook:
And then it was like my last year. I still remember this man. His name’s Chris Garvin. Yeah, just leaned on like… just yelled at me and would not do it to anyone else at all. But I think I saw him maybe like five or six years after that because my brother ended up going to that school and I thanked him, because there’s a level of care. You need a support system of people who are going to hold you accountable, but also people who see you as greater than what you see yourself as. That was important for me. But yeah, that’s when the switch turned. That’s when it turned and I was like, “Oh, I can do this, I can do this. I can see myself as a designer professionally.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And speaking of which right after you graduated, you ended up working at Under Armour and you stayed there for what? Six years pretty much?

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. That’s an interesting story. I want to say I was up late at night once Saturday evening, probably like Sunday morning, around twelve o’clock in the morning. I’m on Craigslist. I’m just applying for anything. I have my busboy job. I’m like, “I got to pay off these loans quick as possible. I’m working as many shifts as I can. I’m not trying to live in my parents’ house forever.” And so I’m like come across this ad that says, “Oh, we have a contract position for a designer working with a sports organization within Baltimore.” I’m like, “Hmm, what could that be?” I was like, “Could it be the Orioles? Probably not. Could it be Baltimore Blasts? I don’t know.” I was like, “It’s not going to be Under Armour. They would just have it posted on their site.”

Maxwell VanHook:
Got a call probably… I’m in church. I got call around nine o’clock. Someone leaves a voicemail. It’s like, “Hey, we want you to come in tomorrow, take a test.” Still don’t know what it is. Go in, fail the test. Yeah, failed the test. There’s an old version of Photoshop that I’ve never used before. Completely different set up. I think around that time it was like CS3. There might be like CS1 or something like that and they still send me in. They send me in. I’m at the door. At this point in time, my parents are telling me like, “No, the only way you get the job, dress up suit and tie, blah, blah, blah.”

Maxwell VanHook:
I have a suitcase on, I have a suitcase, Maurice. I have a suitcase. I pull my portfolio out of a suitcase. This a woman, she comes and she gets me. The first thing that she says to me, she was like, “Don’t worry, you got this.” The person interviewing me, comes like, “You got this.” I don’t know what she saw in me. She was like, “You got this. This is yours.” This is as someone else’s walking out. I know that they’re interviewing other people. But yeah, I ended up getting the job. I walk away from that interview, by the time I catch the boat back across the harbor in order to go home, I get a call and saying, “Hey, they want to bring you in.”

Maxwell VanHook:
What started as a contract position evolved into a six-year career with Under Armour. They were a fledgling team. I worked on the e-commerce team there, really supportive people. It was a blessing because I got a lot of experience that typically contractors don’t get. I was able to work in their custom CMS. I got to see how you grow a business, how you grow a platform. We essentially went from just supporting ua.com to looking at the whole digital consumer journey. It was like ua.com and then now all of a sudden it’s emails, it’s social paid and organic, it’s apps. I’m looking even at designing for touchscreens within retail stores.

Maxwell VanHook:
I was only like 23 years old. And then we go from there and then all of a sudden it’s like, “Hey, we got all these different channels that we need to marketing now. The brand team can’t support all of these. You all need to figure out how to extend these stories.” That’s when the art direction experience comes in. And so now I’m in studio and I’m internalizing these products and figuring out how to craft stories and narratives around them that are compelling, and not only tell the technology story, but then also give that emotional and aspirational lens to the product.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so I’m started off in studio and that was a really good experience, and then now all of a sudden it’s like, “Hey, can you go on location? Can you scout places? Can you work with athletes? Can you put them through training regiments?” I got a lot of crazy experiences from that. I got to meet Steph Curry while I was working at Under Armour. I got to work with him on set. That was key for me. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything because that’s where I learned how to really fly in, like really be a leader. They allow me to pitch ideas. No, they didn’t accept all my ideas, but they allowed me to take chances there. I really appreciated that.

Maxwell VanHook:
No matter how many times things may have not gone perfectly, they always gave me another chance to push my ideas. And that also gave me a lot of confidence. I probably wouldn’t do what I do now if I hadn’t worked there and worked around the people that I worked around. There was a lot of black leadership. When I was there, there was a lot of black leadership at Under Armour. Like Adrienne Lofton, she’s a black CMO, Julian Duncan, he now works with the Jacksonville Jaguars as a CMO, but he was a director, Thomas Harden, Ernie Talbert, he works here at Amazon with me, Tai Foster. These were the people giving me the opportunities. These are all black people. Like that, that matters. Looking back on it, that was a blessing for me. That was really, really key because I would say the majority of designers who enter into professional workplace don’t get that level of support.

Maurice Cherry:
No, absolutely not. I’ve had a number of folks here on the show and like… There are some that will go into agencies and agencies may have some kind of apprenticeship type setup or something like that. But it’s rare to go into a real corporate design space, like I’m sure Under Armour was, and still feel not just that supportive, but then also to have that many black creatives around you supporting you as well.

Maxwell VanHook:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), and opening up the budget for you to fully realize your idea. It wasn’t until I left Under Armour that I realized how special that environment was, kind of like when we were talking about like, “Yeah, I hold that near and dear to my heart,” because I realized that that’s not the case for everyone. I cherish that moment. I still have relationships with those people now.

Maurice Cherry:
I was going to ask what prompted you to move out to the West Coast because you went to school at the university of arts in Philly and it sounds like this opportunity was it, like this was the reason you moved out there?

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. I had always wanted to live on the West Coast. Nothing’s like Baltimore. Baltimore is always… will be my home. I love it like I said earlier. But I feel like when you put yourself in new spaces, that’s when you learn new things about yourself. And so I like being uncomfortable because I firmly believe that it leads to expansion. And so a part of going to the West Coast was about not falling into this sense of like comfort and familiarity with my environment. I just knew I got to a point probably when I was like around 26 where I was like, “This feels amazing. I feel like I know everything. I’m starting to feel like at work. I don’t have to try as hard. I don’t have to exert myself as much.” And that’s when I knew I had to go.

Maxwell VanHook:
I was like, “I made a plan.” I was like, “I have to go. Because if I stay here, there’s the potential that I plateau.” And so I set up a plan for myself. West Coast was the ultimate goal, but I teared it out. It was like, “Getting to California, number one. Number two, we stay at Under Armour and then we go to Amsterdam.” I lined that up. Number three was going to be like even moving to Virginia. Yeah, because I was just like, “I need to have some new experiences.” That’s really what drove it, having new experiences, being in new environments. Living in Philly gave me a little bit of a taste, but also both of my parents are from Pennsylvania. My dad is from North Philly. Then Philly was like a second home to me.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so even though I was away, I wasn’t ever really away. I wanted that experience, I wanted that moment. That’s ultimately like it landed me in the bay with Athleta, which is a part of Gap. But yeah, I didn’t even stay… I loved Athleta. They had a wonderful environment, completely different than Under Armour. They were way more focused on empowering women. And then also it was more so from like a wellness lens, but then I got that opportunity you with Amazon. Once again, it was someone who believed in me so much so that a position that I did not even apply for, they wanted me to come and work with them.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so I got a call from… He’s not my hiring manager anymore, but I got a call from a man named Kay Tran, a Vietnamese man. He’s like, “I know that you exist as a designer right now, but I think that you could be way bigger than that.” It was like a costume theme within the experiences and the interactions that I’m having. He was like, “I think you can be an art director.” He was like, “I think you can lead these projects. I know that you have no experience in tech, but I’ll support you and I’ll work with you.”

Maxwell VanHook:
He held true to that. He held true to that. I owe a lot of my success here to the support that he provided me initially at Amazon. And that also set the foundation for me wanting to create the spaces with Bekah that we’ve created so far. But yeah, and he reached out to me, called me, told me to come up here, gave me the lowdown on how it would be. I remember that one of the first calls that we had, he was like, “I used to live in the Bay.” He’s like, “Seattle is not the Bay at all. So be prepared for that.” I think it’s worked out for me, it’s worked out for me, for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
It certainly sounds like it has. I can tell. When you look back at your career and you’ve dropped a few names throughout this interview, but who are some of the people that have inspired you? Any mentors or colleagues?

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. First and foremost, one of the people that inspires me the most, I’ll go to my first mentor, that Sean Cunningham, the man that I met at my church, a professional graphic designer over 20 years. He worked in agency life and he really, really took me aside. He would spend time with me on Sundays, on the weekends showing me how you craft a portfolio. Because I think a lot of times, kids can think that they’re putting their work together and they have a bunch of pretty pictures, but they don’t have any story behind it. There may not be any depth. And me having access to him, he started to mold me and shape me and pull back the curtain. He was one of the people that really blocked down field for me, because if he wouldn’t have spent that time with me, who knows if I’m in the same space that I’m in? Sean Cunningham would definitely be a really, really big one for me.

Maxwell VanHook:
In terms of other mentors, definitely I have to give… My parents are really, really keen and influential in my life. And so a lot of the principles that I have… I do think that this relates to the design as well. My parents are extremely empathetic. I don’t believe that you can be a good designer if you do not have empathy. If you’re just out here making decisions and building products and doing work solely because you think it looks good or solely because you think you’re making the right decision and you’re not considering the people that you are doing it for, then it’s all for nothing.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so one of the sayings that exists within my church is, “It’s all about relationship or ain’t about nothing.” My parents are the embodiment of that. And so they pass that empathy along to me and that’s how I like to show up. And not just in how I think about my work, but also how I relate to people. Those would probably be my key mentors. Of course, like all the people that I currently fellowship with now, even though back in [inaudible 01:04:11] like relatively like the same age, I think being in contact with her has been a form of mentorship for me. John as well. John has been huge for me, especially in these past couple of months, just in like owning your agency and owning how you want to show up for people and making sure that you do it with a spirit of service. Those would be my mentors, for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
What are you obsessed with right now?

Maxwell VanHook:
Okay, this is a side thing. I’m absolutely obsessed with how the market is changing currently, like how it’s peered into the social conscious of millennials specifically. I’m seeing this stuff that’s going on with AMC and hedge funds and Citadel. And for whatever reason, that really interests me. It’s like this story of fighting against the man and government agencies and little people banding together. Outside of that, I’m really, really, really into vinyls. I’m copying a different vinyl every other week. I’m searching, going in different spaces. That probably consumes a lot of my time. I’m trying to look to see if I can get a new credenza soon. We were just talking about getting rid of furniture. That’s going to be a big purchase for me. I don’t even know if it’s like 350 anymore. We’re probably approaching over 400.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah, I got more [crosstalk 01:06:01].

Maurice Cherry:
You got storage for it and everything?

Maxwell VanHook:
No, man, I don’t even know. Yeah, I had a credenza and I thought it’d be big enough and then I filled it up. So there’s probably about 150 of the vinyls that are either in the crate or they’re on a shelf. I need to create a storage space specifically for it. But even past that, I have to go home and probably grab like another 500 or 600. My dad called me because I think it was a little bit of a test. They allowed me to go into the storage and grab my uncle’s records because that’s really why it’s important to me. It’s kind of twofold. It serves as this design inspiration. You look at these covers and the sleeves and how they put everything together, is like a master’s class in design.

Maxwell VanHook:
You look at some of the type, the color palettes, the photography, and the composition, it boggles my brain. You don’t know all the people who have done these things. Some of these people are hard to find, they’re dead. You can have someone in present day who can say like, “Oh, that was my great grandfather who did this cover for The Spinners.” That’s really interesting to me because you’re actively discovering things with a sense of duality. Not only from this perspective of looking at it as a creative, but then also musically. Not just like discovering new sounds, but like, “I am learning things about my family and my uncle Candy, specifically, in terms of his tastes.” I’ve never met the man, almost like him and I are having a conversation through the music and I can take that to my dad.

Maxwell VanHook:
For me, it’s been really good, especially in contrast to what you get with streaming services because this is way more passive with streaming services. They serve it up to you, they give it to you and you just consume it. I know that you have to be active. You got to look through it, you have to touch it, you got to look at those songs, you got to look at their artists and then you have to put it on the turntable. And then once that side A is done, you got to flip it over to that side B. There’ve been fascinating things that have shown up in that vinyl collection. I’m like, “I got an original test pressing of a snake fundraiser concert.”

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah, it’s wild. I got to figure out how to… Yeah, I got to figure out how to get that into the right hands because I feel like I personally shouldn’t own it. I feel like it should be in a museum somewhere. But yeah, it’s a part of my family history and I want to keep it intact and establish a library around it where I can give it to my kids, God willing.

Maurice Cherry:
Something like that ends up being really like a family heirloom, but it’s something that you keep continually adding to and diversifying and curating and everything. That sounds amazing.

Maxwell VanHook:
It’s been a good discussion starter, or just catalyst for how I talk to different family members because a lot of them have at some point in time come across this collection or have contributed to it in some way, shape or form, like even the snake record that I have, which has a speech from Jesse Lewis on it, and that original test pressing came by way of my aunt’s old boyfriend because he used to help him disseminate those vinyls and sell them for the fundraiser. I can talk to her and then get the background and the story behind that and then also get her other stories. She used to work for the Schomburg Center. She used to be a part of Freedom Rides citizens. And so that’s what these vinyls have done for me, where it was like, “All right, this is a really, really interesting piece. Where did this come from?” And then all of a sudden I’m getting a story around like how it was made and then all the experiences that are connected to it. And now, I’m learning more about my aunt, Roberta.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you want to see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Maxwell VanHook:
I think in the short-term, I’ve leaned more into the visual side of design. There’s a people focused in that, especially working for Amazon. Data is super key. But I want to get more into the product side. Especially with what I’m seeing in a lot of the technology that’s being created, there are inherent biases that exists. And so when you’re designing, you have to design with those problems in mind. If the room of designers that you have are largely white, the same issues that exist within society and exists within the world, probably going to exist within that product.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so I’m like, “Hey, maybe we need to take a step back from visual design and get more into product and user experience. And with that, get a better understanding of how people are interacting with the products and how these systems are set up, how we can decolonize those, in a sense.” I have a lot of different thoughts about how we think about accessibility. All right. Traditionally, accessibility is like people who may be hard of hearing, people who may not be able body. But I also think that race may be a component of accessibility as well. And so I don’t fully understand why we divorce those things. And so I just want to do more of a foray into that space so I can figure out how to set up structures that will be more encompassing of people who look like me.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you and your work and everything online?

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. You can find me on Instagram @maxwellvanhook, and you can also find me on Instagram as well @designingwhileblack. Either of those, feel free to follow me, feel free to reach out to me also. If you are looking to get into design, if you want to politic, or if you just want to share your passion about design and your experience, I’d love to connect with people.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Maxwell VanHook, I want to thank you so much, one, for coming on the show, but two, I think it’s obvious from anyone that’s listening up to this point that you bring such a deep level of passion and introspection to your work. You’re a very thoughtful designer that really takes a lot of considerations into account when it’s not just about the work that you’re doing, but also the impact that it’s going to have on people and on communities and such. I think this was just such a great interview, such a great introduction of you to the Revision Path audience. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Maxwell VanHook:
No, thank you for having me. It was great actually being able to talk with you and, yeah, meeting you. I feel like I’ve listened to you so much over the years. Finally getting down to talking with you has been somewhat surreal. Thank you. Thank you for allowing me to share this space with you.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world.

We accomplish this through graphic design, presentations and workshops around I-D-E-A: inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.

If you’re curious to learn how to combine a passion for I-D-E-A with design, check us out at brevityandwit.com.

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Jeffrey Henderson

Being confident with your creativity will take you far as a designer, and this week’s guest is a perfect example of that. Jeffrey Henderson is the founder of AndThem, an NYC-based creative collective that focuses on building creativity and business within Black and brown communities.

We started off talking about plans for the summer, and then Jeffrey spoke about his innovative agency model and how he uses it to help give back to the next generation of creatives. We also talked about his 15+ year career as a footwear designer for Nike, Yeezy, and Cole Haan, and how he brings that knowledge to his current work with creating his own footwear designs. Thank you Jeffrey for being a shining example of what it means to use your talent to bring the world to your feet — literally!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So I’m Jeffrey Alan Henderson I’m a creative based in Harlem, New York, team of about 10. We take on, everything from product design to content creation.

Maurice Cherry:
How’s the year been going so far?

Jeffrey Henderson:
Oh, the year’s actually been pretty good. And we actually had a nice growth year. Not in terms of state business, business has always been pretty standard even when we went through trials and tribulations of COVID. But I think I brought in some young folks for the first time and made it official kind of last year. And so we had some growing pains in terms of people just learning how to be creatives in sort of corporate settings and non corporate setting. That was very new to a lot of us. And having an agency built like that this year has been a, I think, an extension of that. But now that everything’s opening, the team is definitely more seasoned, so a lot more exciting because of the things I know we can take on. So it’s been pretty good.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m pretty sure people listening can hear the birds in the background. So, it sounds like you’re hit like some idealist spot right now, which is good, which is good. I think after the year. After, after the year, I think all of us have had a little bit of a mother nature’s is gladly welcome at this point. Do you have any plans for the summer with the agency?

Jeffrey Henderson:
Oh, this summer where we’re trying to get back together during, I guess January of this year, we had pretty much all 10 folks in Harlem, essentially, about five of them stayed in, we have a studio here and apartment that we actually rent out as an Airbnb, but when we don’t, it’s actually our studio. So everybody was sort of working together. And that was, I guess, when the world was still kind of closed. And so we’re going to try to do a little bit out of that again, since we can’t really travel to the places we need to travel to get work done, we’re going to just come back to New York, settle down and keep growing.

Maurice Cherry:
Now with And Them and sort of the changes that have happened over the past year. I mean, you said business has been pretty steady, and I know that you do a number of different services. Can you just talk a little bit about what And Them is and how did you come up with the name And Them?

Jeffrey Henderson:
And Them comes from when I was a Nike employee in Japan. I had a lot of free time in the mornings where I would have to work with the team that was in the U S. And so during those phone calls every now and again, I’d have an hour in between and there was a creative by the name of Kevin Carroll who’d just left Nike, he’d written a book, Rules of the Red Rubber Ball. So he became sort of internet famous at that point, hired a team, he had about six people doing everything from PR to creative, strategy. He had been working with them for about three, four months and it just wasn’t clicking. He ended up calling, I think, myself, Jason Mayden who’s now at Fear of God Athletics, D’Wayne Edwards who runs PENSOLE. And he’s like can you like, just sit on these meetings and help me out, but I don’t want to threaten my team. He started introducing us as you know, was just Jeff and him. It was just D’Wayne and him kind of nonchalantly. And so the joke was, we just became an them like this [inaudible 00:06:00].

Jeffrey Henderson:
I just kept it. Kept the name because it also represented the fact that when we work with, whether it’s Yeezy or FC Harlem or local restaurant around the corner, we’re not trying to showcase our brand we’re trying to showcase your brand. We were doing something with Revision Path, it would be Revision Path and them. It’s just us trying to help out folks who sort of need, I think, a boost. I live right down the street from Harlem Hospital so there’s always a siren now and then.

Jeffrey Henderson:
In the last year we definitely picked things up because what really happened was this is probably three years ago now I was working on a project, launching Everlane’s new footwear line that they put out the tread. And while I’m working on it, Michael Price with the CEO, he keep asking me like, how do you do X, Y, Z?

Jeffrey Henderson:
And I’d be like, oh, you just call this person. And it’s like, I just saw him asking questions. And he kept looking at me like you have all these people, why don’t you set up an agency? And I was like, yeah, nah, that’s too much responsibility. Like I did all that. Like at Nike you have a report. Like it was all just too much. But a year later it was like, okay, all these people who, and it sort of came by, honestly, in that people who were working on teams individually, when I got there, they just sort of were like, yo, can I do a project with you , you have anymore? So I just kind of brought them with me. So they kind of became my and them. So I just, if we want to call it, I’d be like, yo, why don’t you sit on this call and won’t you take this and if there’s money left on the table, we’ll split it. So that’s sort of just evolved to the fact that I just had a few really talented young folk who probably weren’t either seasoned in corporate or had already tried corporate and was like some just wasn’t feeling right about it so they were like, I’d rather hang out with you, work on projects. So I became normal. So we’ll be doing a lot of product design and graphic design. And then one of my best friends, creative director, who he taught himself to be sort of art director holding the camera. He was doing, working at a not-for-profit basically counseling kids and got a camera. And we were coaching his basketball team together and he said, you know, my dream is I want to shoot the NBA in the Olympics. And he’s like, that’s my longterm dream. That’s what, that’s what I want to do in life. Three years later, he ended up doing that. Like, it was all sort of like this whirlwind of like, he worked for the Nyx, he shot for FIBA in Brazil, the Olympic basketball games, like, oh, I should’ve made my dream a little bigger than that. And so he sort of come on with his team. So all together, we tackle soup to nuts, anything from product creation, manufacturing to content creation. So that’s kind of where we are and what we do.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like it all kind of came together pretty easily. I mean, since you had already this network of people and you had creatives that were drawn to you because of your work, it sounds like it didn’t take much to kind of build a team.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I think it really goes back to one of the things that happened In my old Nike days, it was very much this thought of you kind of were put on a track or plan to be a design manager or design director. A lot of times people would be put in design manager roles so they could kind of learn the procedures, the processes, the operations part, so that when they became a design director, they at least know what those things were as we started looking at bigger picture in terms of product creation. So I kind of took a big tune to what the operation side was. I was, I think, I learned from some really great people who just knew how to grow and manage people because I needed a lot of that because I was literally making up as I went, I didn’t have a design degree. So anybody who could help me, I was in their office, left and, trying to figure out how I screwed up. I just took those lessons and while I was working on the creative side, building all those other kind of tools and components taught me how to get the most out of people and how to help them get the most out of themselves. When I ended up in random spots, I wasn’t just worried about is the color right, is the engineering proper is the functionality working, is the design modern. It was also how you doing as a person? Are you doing the right thing? And so it really like became, I didn’t realize it was that obvious until this young woman, Lauren Divine who’s great material designers, [inaudible 00:10:18] This is probably the early days we were over in some broken down office building And I was probably in and out of LA for maybe a year and then one day, I guess I didn’t show up for three months cause I was either doing something else I didn’t didn’t need to be there and I got there, she came and gave me a big hug and she’s like, finally, you’re back our manager I was like, your what? I was over here, drawing shoes what do you mean? She’s like, no, no, no, we need like this set up and this meeting organized and this, that and the other, and this is what you do. I was like, okay, honestly, didn’t sign up for that, but the reality was I did sign up for that. I mean, I just became a mentor to a few people who just sort of needed the ins and outs every now and again, it wasn’t like I was their manager manager, but I was, I don’t know, helpful in helping them get things straight when they needed it.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Especially if you weren’t in a traditional corporate environment where people were set to be your manager or mentor. So that sort of turned into an easier way to then run this sort of organization that we just pick projects and started out really me just no one, some people who were like, yo, you want to do this project? Yeah, I got nothing better to do, but I mean, it’s real. Like I ended up falling in love with things that I know nothing about just because it’s different. Like we have a project now with a friend of mine, she’s CEO at this wellness brand, wellness and beauty called ASA there and it’s all about circularity, sustainability and reality is like, I walked to the conversation, going to look, I’m not like a big sustainability dude, that’s not my thing thing. I kind of know about it and I’m more interested in it because I have learned over the last, I think two years, how much it affects black and brown communities first.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And so I have a little bit of interest in it, but I can’t say it’s like, I wake up everyday like, oh, I care about this. But ever since being in this project, like now I’m like forced to like, oh, this is real and I’m going to the grocery store I see tons of plastic and I’m like, oh, how do I fix, how do I help? How do I like live here to these compensations? So it just becomes a, I don’t know, we find ourselves in new conversations that are helpful because I think it’s, it helps us to become creative, but it also lends we have a skillset that we were using somewhere else that now we can apply it to something that we all care about.

Maurice Cherry:
I think that’s, especially when you have a, a collective like that that’s, what’s important is that you’re able to bring your expertise and the mind trust of the people that you’re working with to a project or to a brand it’s not necessarily that you’ve done it before, but the collective knowledge is enough where you can go into the project and still know what needs to be done.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I think that’s very true. I think our, I don’t know, collective unit is hard enough. I don’t know questions, concerns. We’re not people. I think some of the more senior folks on our team, like we’ve heard it before. It’s very enlightening that we have sort of like these 22 year olds who chime in knowing that look, I don’t know everything, but here’s what I’m thinking and it sort of like it brightens up our eyes to go, oh, never would have occurred to the old crowd in the room as to think about things like that because like we’re not digital natives or we’re not focusing in certain places. We don’t go to certain parties. We don’t hang out in certain worlds and I think they ended up bringing something new to the table while absorbing what we offer them so when they get to touch base and go, oh, let’s see what Lowy Frames is like a place that does fine art restoration and gilded frames. That is a new conversation for all of us. But the young folk, they don’t realize it’s new to us they just, everything is new to them. It’s kind of eyeopening to watch them grow.

Maurice Cherry:
And you know, and one thing that is really important to note here for people that are listening too, is that , these are young creatives and you’re giving them the ample space to make these sorts of decisions or determinations or comments or observations. It sounds like in a safe environment, if they say something that may not go over well with the client or something, they’re not immediately asked, I would imagine like it’s sort of a, they have a space to, to fail, which I think as a young creative is probably important to have because there can be so much out sort of like outdo pressure placed on black and brown creatives to kind of be brilliant right out the gate and not make mistakes.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I think it is sort of, I mean, the conversation we were having before we got on here about the, I think understanding of what it means to be black in any corporate environment to be brown in any corporate environment, the idea that this is like a second culture, a second language that you have to bring to the table and learn, I think often the idea of assimilation or the idea of fitting in or not making people uncomfortable. Like it was so ingrained and in the reality is I think I was trying to be part of that in the nineties, I was just, wasn’t really good at it because I was trying to go, okay, I know your music I noticed that. And I really didn’t because I really wasn’t listening to it. But I think there’s this innate need to sort of like, see if you could fit in and our group is like, we don’t really have that as much as like, you need to know this part of the culture in order to do the job. If you don’t, don’t sweat it. I mean, if you make a mistake as you’re going through, because it’s all different and it’s all new, pay attention. And I think that’s the part where I, from all my failures of walking into situations and not knowing my first days, going from Nike to cohort where it was like, I wasn’t making sports shoes and that’s all I knew to oh, now we’re making a small number. Like Nike, the minimum you could do in a shoe with like 30,000 pairs of shoes, I got the cohort and I was like, oh, we did 30,000 pair. They were like, we’ll like, I’ll be celebrating with 30,000 pair it’s just a different mindset. I didn’t know. And I think I kind of have this, I’m happy to open my mouth and sound dumb 10 times out of 10, just because let’s get it out the way cause I don’t want any assumptions of me walking out the room, not really knowing, I think having my team, watching me say stupid things all the time and I do it for almost for their entertainment. I still call it tic-tac, I still talk about things, old guy, just so they know, I’m not afraid to sound stupid in the meeting and you should be okay because as long as you know, which is supposed to know and you do your homework, you’ll be good. And I think that’s, it’s really, uplifting to see these young black and brown folk be able to hold their weight and going to conversations as well as watching whoever the client is kind of go, oh, y’all know what y’all doing. Like yes we do. That’s all good.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I think that’s, I mean, honestly just for me as, a designer, as a self-taught designer, that’s just even great to hear. I mean, I’ve had other studio owners and such that have been on the show and I’ve even talked to like just studio owners through AIGA and other design organizations and it’s true. Sometimes if there is a leading creative at the head, like you would be with, with And Them, there’s almost this need for them to come off as the creative expert. Like they have to be the captain of the ship and you are the captain of your ship, but at least what you’re showing is that you’ve built enough camaraderie with your crew. So you all can come together and work on things and it’s not just you dispatching people to do work. You know what I mean?

Jeffrey Henderson:
No, it’s definitely I think, and you talked about it, getting people to come in and do podcasts I think there’s, on top of being black or brown in the industry, I think the conversation around being a creative also comes with a certain expectation. You may actually be an introvert or you might actually just get put in boxes and the sales team and marketing team be like, oh, well don’t talk to them till you want to have something creative and cool. But then when to drag the cool out of them. And I think to me, that’s what kind of puts folks in a box they’re afraid to talk there’s like a lot of this, that and the third. And I think I was lucky enough to be placed in environments where I like for real in the last two years, that’s when my friends laugh all the time. I don’t want to be on podcasts, I don’t want to talk, I never want to hear myself talk, but it’s just what it is. But I also know that folks are like, I learned something from you can you do that more often? It’s like, all right. It’s just easier if I can’t call everybody on the phone so here’s the podcast and I’m just going to ramble on, I think for hours at a time. But I think the idea that someone can offer you an opportunity to stand up in a meeting and give your options. And I was at Nike and I do believe I should have been like not fired, but somebody should have, could have reprimanded me over and over but they were like, yo, this is, this is how you grow and these are the bullets you take, you just come in and like, say something.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And I think there was quite a few people like who were Nike like, oh, didn’t say it but I kind of felt that like, oh, like Jeff’s getting run cause he’s black. Or he used to go in there. Like I could be completely wrong, but yo, that’s how I felt like thinking that. But I also know some people were like, yo he’s in the room cause he was bringing something different and all y’all had the same skillset so even if it’s not what you think is the right answer, we’re going to let them go and if it doesn’t work cool, but if it does work, it’s going to work in a much different way than you guys. And I think I was given enough room, like the fact that I went in to quit when I was at Nike, because I was feeling like this wasn’t going the right place and they sent me to basically run for [inaudible 00:19:29] in Japan. And I was like, okay, it was wild. But I think that it’s a case where there were the right people in the right rooms who were talking about this a lot, like the difference between mentorship and sponsorship and I’m kind of back in mentor mode, but I think having the idea and notion, I started understanding once I got at a higher clip at Nike that I didn’t have to be somebody who’s mental, I just need to go into rooms and be like, why aren’t you highlighting this person’s work. And basically looking at people like they were wrong, if they didn’t, I didn’t know whether they were doing good work or not I was just asking them and if they feel guilty about it, that should probably tell them something.

Jeffrey Henderson:
But I think that level of sponsorship became important and even though the mentoring was there, but I think having, and I know people who did that for me, it was either told them he asked her or I sort of knew, or I know that I would get no, no, no, no, no, then it get quiet for about a month and then next thing, Hey, we think you should do this opportunity. When somebody says something, clearly somebody says something so that I think is a part that seeing more of that from folks in or outside of corporate work, it’s just kind of important.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, And Them does a lot of different things. It’s hard to, I guess sort of pinpoint exactly what you do. Like if you go to the website for example, and click on FAQ it’s questions that sort of allude to the services that you could provide, like developing products, designing products, shooting actions, shooting commercial, shooting style, making logos, these are all services that we can do as long as you’re asking the question on what is it that we can do for you for your project.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Yo, I love you. You do all your homework. So reality is our main strengths, if we have people who help build Nike product, Yeezy product, Everlane, especially footwear, that’s our main bag. Then I kind of went out of my way, when projects and apparel came out, I was like, I need people who know how to do this. And I just saw that I literally went on LinkedIn and was like black and brown people who do apparel, please check here. The funniest joke about a member of our team, Shauna K is I was in the line at FedEx on 125th, and in walks behind me, Dapper Dan’s assistant Ashley. I look at her, she looks at me and she’s like, what do you want Jeff? I was just looking at her, like I wanted some, I was like, I need a black woman and she was like, I know who you need.

Jeffrey Henderson:
We didn’t discuss exactly what I meant by that. That could have gone a thousand different ways. But I was like, I want a black woman creative who is just starting out because we need to round out this team and we didn’t have that on a team. And she was like, you need to meet Shauna K, just finish FIT, she’s looking for work, getting a bone that was probably on a Friday. Miss Shauna came on a Tuesday, W]we had our first meeting to work on a Friday. That’s how quickly it went. But I think that’s the part where we knew we had product creation folks. I wanted more folks to kind of round that out. Then John Lopez on his side, again, shooting the Olympics, work for the NYX’s he’s dragging me around like, I just rented this $70,000 camera for a day Jeff let’s go out and have some fun, like, okay, I don’t know what that means. So being able to do those big, specific things were important, but we had both worked at meaningful places. Then we brought in Brie La Bossier who is sort of like, keeps us all saying as a kind of design manager, project manager, kind of everything. So what ends up happening people like, can you do this, can you do that and it’s like, well, I remember when I first left Cole high, I was sort of like free to do anything. I was like, I am not designing shoes ever again. That was my thing I wanted to do since high school, I was going to design shoes. So I had a good 15 year ride of doing that. I was like, yo, I’m going to do everything else I’m done to wear shoes, like start my new life.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Like I’m going to do branding, graphics, marketing, whatever it is, I’m not going to do shoes anymore. Two months after that, I was on a plane to go do Yeezy, it was just ingrained in me. But in those two months I started writing more. I started this random e-comm site with a bunch of my friends just to sell t-shirts, basically to ourselves, called Good Things. I was learning how econ works. I was learning a little bit about SEO and digital and all these other pieces that just started to round out. As I started getting deeper into conversations, I was like, oh, once you get through that first layer, you kind of know enough to be dangerous. Then we thought I’d taken on projects. And like our learning path really came with working with kind of nonprofits and small businesses because I didn’t know how to make a website or do anything.

Jeffrey Henderson:
But there was a restaurant that I ate at pretty much, three times a month, 4 times a month. He was like, yo, I need a website. Okay. Let’s build it. Let’s figure out what that looks like. Let’s figure out all the pieces behind it. And so working with people to kind of figure out and small businesses and nonprofits to kind of learn at least the lingo, how it works, sort of brought us to the stage of, oh, now with our knowledge of, anything from Nike to the New York NYX and NBA and Yeezy, oh, okay. We can start taking this to more people in different ways and definitely either being the conversation we were having before, intentionally this is going to be a black and brown group of people working on stuff. And so you can hire us intentionally cause you want black and brown.

Jeffrey Henderson:
You can hire us intentionally because you want a diversity where you’re just hiring us because we are good, we don’t really care. We’re going to come in and it’s going to have like we jokingly laugh, we had to do a photo shoot and we’re like, who knows somebody, wait. Like we can’t just because it was for a brand. It was this wasn’t a, like we’re trying to cross over, it was like, it was literally for a brand that has, I mean, all the founders are white and it’s like, yo, we don’t want them to look like they’re doing black face by, oh, everybody in their ad is black, a brown, like this should be pretty diverse. But in order to be diverse we can through some white folks in there, like we look across the room like who do we know? But it was this funny game of like, we don’t know, no white folks, but.

Maurice Cherry:
I just have to pause there. That is, to me, that is hilarious because the inverse of that probably happens in every creative studio at least once a week. Yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So we are like the exact opposite. And one of the things that’s like amazing is we had a basketball shoot and this happens pretty much with every client, especially in color. And some say it like, and they even say a day one, or they say it, at least when they get to a photo shoot a week or product on the table is that one of the models came out. We had a shoot that was supposed to go from 2:00 PM to 6:00 PM in the park. We had some gears set up or got to shoot when it got dark. We all showed up one time at two o’clock we’re getting shots in and eight o’clock it was pitch dark. This was fall. That was probably like nine o’clock. We’re still out there still shooting good night shots. One of the models, like he was leaving on a bike.

Jeffrey Henderson:
He was like, yo. And I had to record him saying, he’s like, yo, like I’ve been in shoots before. And sometimes it’s your homeboy and it’s cool. We all hang out in the end product is like, okay. Sometimes I’m at like these professional shoots and it’s all good, we all know each other and we’re good but you know, in and I’m out cause work to do. He was like, this was like the party with real work. He was like, y’all onto something. And it’s that vibe that again, we’re doing things like in ways cause we don’t know any better. We’ll do it professionally, we’ll have the call sheets up, we’ll have all the emails and testing codes, all the protocol, new we’ll look up at Brie because she’s worked at like startups and stuff.

Jeffrey Henderson:
You will look up and Brie, because she’s worked at like startups and set up organization, things like, oh, you got to sign your paperwork. They don’t do the insurance. You want to showing up. At the same time, we’ll be out there enjoying each other’s company in a way that’s relaxed and a barbecue sort of atmosphere, which a lot of folks look at, like, I don’t know, but then what ends up happening? Like we laugh, cause it’s like the young crew, they’re like, yo, they go get an internship somewhere else. And they’re like, this is not we doing over here. And I’m like, okay, well we get some more projects and we can tackle some more work for you. So we’re doing something to have a little fun, but it’s definitely, it’s definitely the other side of the coin in terms of it’s just black and brown and it’s kind of what it looks like.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean what it really sort of boils down to, I think is two things. One you’re introducing to these creatives, at sort of the beginning stages of their career, a new possibility for what work can be, which is, or for what creative work can be, which is that it’s infused with play. We’ve had a lot of people on the show that are in the advertising industry and such, and they always talk about the long hours and the shoots and none of it sounds fun. They’re able to be creative, but it doesn’t sound like they’re really enjoying the job, you know? I think the second thing is that you’re inviting in this new tradition of this is what creative work can look like. So you’re saying yes, you can do this and also it can be fun. It doesn’t have to be stuffy or bureaucratic or anything like that. Yes, there are certain protocols that have to get done, but the magic and the environment that you’re able create is how you get your best work.

Jeffrey Henderson:
This was probably midway through dependent. It was maybe three months in and the team was feeling a certain way cause we had just, well, we had set up, I was looking for a full studio for us to work out of. This was probably end of 2019. Because I wasn’t finding exactly the space I wanted I sort of was feeling a little grumpy about it, at the same time I was working with the spot on 118th Milbank Children’s Aid Society. And it’s a afterschool program set up in Harlem basketball courts and swimming pools kind of have everything. When Zion Williamson lost his shoe, he did it on the algebra courts of Milbank, but it also has these classrooms, they actually have a onsite nursing office. So it’s pretty well-developed. And so the classrooms needed a little update. So I went to the folks there I’m like, look, tell you what, instead of me paying for a regular lease, I’m just going to update one of these classrooms.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And we’re going to work here in the mornings until two, when kids show up. Would that work and they, before I could even finish, they’re like done show up whenever. So we put some big screen TVs in, we put some tables, chairs, we were getting prepared, then COVID hit. So we kind of got locked out like everybody else. So the team was still in a certain way cause they had gone to two or three meetings and would just get to know each other and they were liking the vibe, but we shut it down from soon. Brie, our project manager, also runs a community kind of center for creatives. So she was like, we gonna have book club. So Saturday mornings from nine to 11, like one Saturday morning, Saturday mornings, we started meeting and having book clubs. What was happening was there were elements that were going over the young folks head just in terms of here’s things you ought to know whether it was in design or government or sales or e-commerce, whatever things that need to be had, or we need to discuss we’d discuss it.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And so she set up these meetings and buy a book. It was more like here’s an article to read or a the Netflix video to watch. And so we discuss it and three or four in, I was like, we’re taking away from their Saturdays. I was like, maybe we should turn it down a little. So we took a week off. They complained like nobody’s business. And were like, yo, why are we doing book club? Okay. And some of this was because everybody was sort of quarantined. Everybody was locked away. And so I thought, okay, we’ll do this bit because everybody’s locked away. Once we all get to go out and see the world, we’ll slow it down, did not stop. It just became this thing that everybody did together had conversations that were sort of like, this is serious and this is a safe space.

Jeffrey Henderson:
By then, we all got to know each other. So we give each other grief like nonstop, but it’s sort of a safe space for creatives to kind of, we show our work on Wednesday, Wednesday afternoon. That’s when we talked about work, work, work. But on Saturdays, and it’s not mandatory. Some people want a squad, like they’re like, no, I don’t need that. Cool. But the other half they show up religiously and the other place they go, well, let me see what the topic is. And then I’ll drop off. There was definitely this added piece of like, there’s just a conversation that, especially for creatives, especially for black and brown folks, being able to, I think, chop it up in that that sense is special. I mean, you kind of have to make space for that.

Maurice Cherry:
I liked it. There’s a section it’s not on the And Them side. I think it’s on the good thing site. That’s called book club where you sort of have some writings and things. I want to talk about that later. And I know we spent a lot of time talking about And Them, but let’s kind of shift the focus here because really this interview is about you. You’re originally from Ohio. So where you grew up, what was it like there?

Jeffrey Henderson:
That’s funny cause my wife and I laugh about this all the time is that my, wife went to stolen. So it’s a big deal. She’s from Philly. She went to Spelman. So she definitely talks about HBCU and what it meant. And it was never like my sister went to Wilberforce, going to HBCU was never anything that felt like I needed to do because, and I credit, this is like, we’re looking at 30 year anniversary. Or what is it? Yeah, 30. I graduated from high school, 30 years ago and 91. And I graduated with, out of the hundred kids in my class. It was 96, black folk, just black. Like one side of Baden was, is black, black, black, black, black, like just all black. And so, and I would joke with people like, I didn’t know, white people until I got to college, like literally, like I knew white people from the folks that went to our school weren’t that many or I saw them on TV.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So I would joke like white people were kind of imaginary. Like, it wasn’t a real thing. I learned about cultural and all that, it just didn’t really exist. And I never met anybody who was really like that. And so there’s a certain confidence that I had of being… Only having to worry about my culture. And so when I got to college, when I got to Purdue, it was very much like, oh, here’s another culture. I was like, okay, cool. But now I just care about engineering. Like, all I want to do is get into design and Nike and I’m supposed to study this so I’ve never worried about embracing anything of them, I’m just going to focus on school. And so after two years of that, I actually, at the one year I was like, yeah, I’m done would be in the middle of nowhere. Let’s go have some fun.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So I moved to Atlanta, nothing but black folk. And so that became a thing. And I think when I left and went to Nike, it was a strange sort of weird balance of me trying to figure out what was, what, and I honestly try to, and I don’t even know how to put it, I was trying to fit in, but I guess I wasn’t really trying that hard cause like everybody I knew was basketball, sports, marketing, brand Jordan. Like it was just all the black and brown people like it was. And I kind of hung out with whoever, but that’s just where I’ve found myself, other people who, I don’t even know if it was like, I found them as much as they were like, yo, we’re doing these things. You want to come hang out. And they were the normal things, like whatever, if it’s a barbecue or whatever.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And it was like, cool. I don’t know that I went out of my way, but it was this confidence that none of us really settled in until I moved to Harlem like three years ago. And when I got to Harlem, I was like, yo, this feels just like, they know how this feels just like being in Atlanta. And one of the things that kind of brought it up. So we did this project with the Apollo and it was about sneakers. And about education and someone had, was like we have to tell people why we’re doing something at the Apollo around sneakers. And I was like, no, we don’t, we don’t have to tell anybody. Like, if you ask somebody about sneakers and they’re black, the culture kind of says, they’re going to tell you something about it. They will tell you they couldn’t afford something.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And they going to tell you that knew somebody who had it. They going to tell you their own personal story, but we don’t have to have a conversation about why. Cause you’re the Apollo like is blackity black, black, black, black, like it’s just there. And I think that part, going back to Jefferson township, they know high aware, like our Italian immigrant history teacher went out of his way to make sure we understood that Lincoln didn’t free the slaves because he liked black people. He went out of his way to make sure like, nah, like this is what you need to hear. And that was just a school we grew up in. So like when I got to other places, like really that’s what y’all are. Whether they were black schools, white schools, like we learned it a hundred percent the way I think is discussed now. It was never a question for me or any of my friends going up.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I would say it’s a wild ride for me. It was the best place to be from, a little too small for me. Definitely getting out to the rest of the world was meaningful, but I would not replace. Oh, by the way, they know how it has its own sort of history with crime, drugs, sneakers, and everything else to where the most prominent sneaker mall in all of America was the little mall on the west side of Dayton that had the best foot locker sales, period. When I got to Nike, sales people were like, Salem mall. They did a lot of business. If you track east St. Louis, Dayton, Ohio or Memphis, it’s where underground railroad, there were a lot of stops, three major ones. So it’s why Wilberforce the central state are there. It was a lot of black folk who work there. When drug money started coming and drugs started working their way north, those were the same three places that folks stopped. They know how it kind of grew, music and drugs. It was a big thing especially in the late seventies, early eighties.

Maurice Cherry:
We had one other person on the show from Dayton. hannah Beachler she was episode 300 back in 2019. You said that initially you kind of like said it really quickly. I was like, wait a minute, what else do I know I’m going to show has been from Dayton. Cause I remember at least one or two other people. But her specifically, I remember because of that episode, but were your parents really supportive of you going into design? I’m curious, you know, you said before, if you ask any black person about sneakers are kind of, they’re going to kind of already have a cultural connection to it. So I won’t ask you that specifically, but were your parents kind of behind you going this route with your career?

Jeffrey Henderson:
In no way, shape or form based on this. My mother was a teacher and the reality is she didn’t care what I did as long as I tried my best and did my best, she was a person who, no matter what it was, she put that art on the refrigerator because you did it and you worked really hard and she was a middle school teacher. So she kind of had that in her, you can do whatever you want. I believe in you, yada, yada, yada, to the point where you almost didn’t believe whether she meant it or not. Cause she said it like everyday at all times, but you always had someone who was in your corner. So I think my mother wanted it to happen because I wanted it to happen. But you have to realize like this was 1991, sneakers weren’t a real thing.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And it was sort of a side conversation to the point where it wasn’t till I got to Cole Haan where the question is why does Nike own Cole Haan? Because it wasn’t making any money for Nike, the brand. And it was because an ADA still Knight knew that the industry common thought was if you wanted to make money and sneakers, you had to sell brown shoes, sneakers didn’t make money. And so he bought Cole Haan in order to make money. Well, fast forward, he and a few other people made sneakers like the regular topic. So sneakers weren’t a real thing and the reality is my father, who I didn’t have like the best relationship with, he didn’t say anything, he watched because I was getting this engineering degree from some prestigious schools and I had a co-op, I had an internship with AT&T and he was like, oh, Jeff is set.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So he didn’t say a word. He just let me be yada, yada yada. And so I graduated with a degree in engineering with three years of internships with AT&T. And at that time AT&T was one of the biggest design engineering companies in the U.S. And I did not pursue going to AT&T. I took a job doing blueprints in Beaverton, Oregon, and my father didn’t say a word. He didn’t say a word. The only reason I know, I mean, I know he didn’t say a word, but maybe three and a half- four years later, my parents come out to Oregon. I think by that time we had maybe had like a first kid Draymond was like a year old and they’re watching Draymond. So I come home after work and my father had come to, I don’t know if you know anything about that campus, but the Michael Jordan building is, that it’s not center of campus, but it’s middle of campus.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And right next to it is this track under the trees and there’s basketball courts right next door. And so my father ran track for university of Michigan. So I was like, you can go work out and on the track, just pull up the car and tell the guard you’re there. And no one will care. And so I guess he did that. And then when I get home, after that day, my mother’s laughing and I was like, what’s so funny. It’s your father finally gets it. And I was like, what do you mean? He gets it now? He had never said anything to me. He never complained about me working at Nike, nothing. I would sit there and shoot.

Maurice Cherry:
that’s probably why he wasn’t complaining.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I mean, he, I kind of saw it, but again, he was like, my son has an engineering degree, took his first job blueprints at Nike. And then he got a job drawing, kids, shoes at Nike, and now he’s doing basketball shoes in that, he just, it just seemed add up in his mind of what engineering degree and get like a real job in his mind, which was, being from Ohio, you can go work at a car company and do like, what are you doing out here in the Pacific Northwest? And I guess he started talking to other runners who on the track and my father was a runner and I didn’t care anything for that. So he was bonding with the people on the truck. Oh yeah. My son works over in design, like over, like in that building. Now we all know at this point, like designers at Nike are treated like they can walk on water. So when he started saying, my son works over in design, two things happened.

Jeffrey Henderson:
One, I was one of four, I don’t know, black designers in Nike, all men. So they either knew who I was or they were just Ooh, your sons at the time. And so they started talking to him and he started realizing, oh, maybe this is a thing. And so he started asking him what they do. And they were riding up, rattling off things like I just signed a deal for the NBA or I did this and all that, big that he actually understood. And at that point, that’s when he was like, oh, now because my father and I didn’t have the tightest relationships, he never said anything to me for or against. But from that point on, I knew that at least he knew that this wasn’t a mistake that I had made. He knew that like, oh, this was something that was real. So then he wore the shoes with a little more pride. Meanwhile, my brothers are walking around like, oh yeah, that’s yours. My brother designer. It didn’t matter what shoe it was. My brother did that. You know, my brother, my brother, he did everything pretty much. He did that.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me what it was like living in Atlanta when you went to Georgia tech, because you went, you lived in Atlanta during, I think it’s peak Atlanta. It is Freaknik. It’s the Olympics and I think also the burgeoning hip hop scene there with so-so Def and stuff. What was it like being in Atlanta during that time?

Jeffrey Henderson:
So I as the biggest nerd who didn’t care, just [crosstalk 00:42:56] . I’m merely to go, I’m coming down here. I’m going to find a wife. It’s chocolate city. We’re all good hanging out. And I hung out hard for three years. As the biggest nerd, not even cool whatsoever. And it was everything you just named. It was pre Olympics. Everybody was gassed up. It was… What is it? My buddy’s roommate was a bouncer at the gold club and magic city. So we would just go sit at the bar with no money, just try and pretend like we fit in like, knowing we had zero money and we just sit at the bar and order water.

Maurice Cherry:
That can still happen today in Atlanta.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And we go in cause I get bored or whatever, and it’s like nothing but rich folk in here and its like, wow, and we would just leave after like 10 minutes. We were just like, making sure everything was good. But that was the level of everybody was sort of chilling. And yeah, we went back to Atlanta maybe three years after like, yes, not the same, my boys, were still living in like, it’s different now, but it was one of those. We were also in college. There’s nothing that will compare like as an adult to those three years when we were in college with no real responsibilities, other than staying alive and making sure you took some classes. Between going to school in Atlanta and moving to Tokyo was an ex-pat life is good. But those were big time.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel you, man. Last week, actually this past weekend, I was talking to my best friend from college. So I went to Morehouse here. He and I were just talking cause his 40th birthday was last week. And my 40th birthday was a couple of months ago. And we were reminiscing on the past. We were looking at old pictures from back then and stuff. It was wild. So I was in the AUC, right near the turn of the century. I came in 99, 99 going into 2000 and stuff. And I worked for this website. I worked for this website called College Club. That was sort of a precursor to Facebook and I was one of the campus representatives. So what that entailed was that you went around and you basically captured campus life. We had these big Sony Marika, digital cameras that you had to put a three and a quarter inch floppy disc into and take pictures and stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
So we were just looking at old pictures and stuff like that from the past, like, man, it’s such a trip how Atlanta has changed since then, because yeah, when you’re here in college, I mean, and I don’t know if it was like this at Georgia tech, but certainly at Morehouse in the AUC, the clubs would send charter buses to the campus to pick you up, take you to the club, you go and do whatever you want at the club and they’ll bring you right back to campus. So you, ain’t got to worry about trying to catch Marta, trying to catch a cab or trying to bum a ride from, from somebody to get back.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And that’s come down during [inaudible 00:45:49] and they’d be like, oh, this is amazing. And I was like, no, this is terrible. Everybody’s life is traffic jam. And it’s all these people from everywhere, hanging out and it’s like, yo, I can go on a random Tuesday to Fitz Plaza and it’d be bought out like, we’re good. And it’s just the mall, like it’s just the mall.

Maurice Cherry:
So I missed that Atlanta.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I mean, I can’t tell you whether it’s changed. All I know is I’m old now

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, it’s changed. It’s changed ain’t that shame. So, I mean, there, there might still be that same liveness depending on what the event is, and this is probably pre pandemic, but now we’re probably in the gunshots. There’ll probably be some kind of violence that breaks out. So it’s yeah, it’s definitely not the same.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Harlem is tying to trying to figure out where it’s going to be in that level. Which again, when I moved here it was like, oh, I’m not sure. We’ll figure it out. Yada, yada, yada. What I really loved about being in Atlanta and I think it was a combination of the immigrant culture that was there that I didn’t know was going to be there. The Atlanta population that was like, it was Atlanta. And then it was the rest of Georgia. And if you don’t know, if you just moved it, you don’t know the immigrant population, I lived off of Buford highway.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow. Okay. Okay. All right. Yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson:
The food was amazing. And so, that had sort of, like, if you don’t know Atlanta, those things don’t mean anything to you. Harlem is kind of the same way. And so being able to pick up those pieces of going from oh yeah, I miss it. And I didn’t really realize it until I got to Harlem and started walking around. I was like, yo, this feels like swats. I feel like there’s a mall here that’s Greenberg. I feel like there’s something here and I think that goes to the creative conversations that I’m having unapologetically. It’s kind of black folk. And then I encourage what designers, Sarah she’s from Columbia. And I’m like, yo, bring Columbia to the projects that we work on, please just bring them all in there. I want to see that. I want to feel like your home is there because folks kind of want that from a creative vision at this point. And if they don’t, I don’t know what to do with them. Like maybe they’re my clients.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So what I’m hearing is correct me if I’m wrong here, because I’m coming up to a question with this, but you grew up in Dayton, you went to Purdue, which is right across the way in Indiana and you come down to Atlanta and then after that, you’re sort of in Tokyo, what were you searching for during that time

Jeffrey Henderson:
Being in Tokyo or?

Maurice Cherry:
Talking about like the entire journey? Was there a feeling that you were chasing or what was your drive throughout that period of time?

Jeffrey Henderson:
It’s this unadulterated push for something different, something new. There was a Twitter post a while ago with like when somebody go invent some new animals. Cause I want some new meats. I’m tired of eating the same meats and I’m kind of like that guy of growing up. Like I always wanted the new music, but I thought everybody else did. And then as I got older, I still wanted the new music. I wanted the new shoe. And it’s like, this is definitely like a knee of all things. Like I see somebody wearing a pair of shoes that I have. I’m like, yep. I got to put those shoes away. Everybody’s on this Jordan one thing. And I’m like, oh, I just put those away. I can’t walk out the house and it’s not because I’m a sneaker dude is because I just feel a certain way.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So going to Purdue, middle of nowhere, west Lafayette, they had what I thought I wanted, but it was also something different. Tokyo was like, yo, this is the wildest place on earth in terms of the visuals and the culture and the class and the people, language, everything was like, yo, I want to do this. And then I got done doing. I was like, yeah, we’re good. Let’s go to the next place. It just became this constant hunt for something new, which I still kind of have. But I think as I’ve gotten older, the combination of new plus know, I just like home, I like walking out the house, totally feeling like I’m at home and think all those other times it was me going what’s the next thing? When I got to Nike, the first thing I said was, I think this was a conversation with tinker.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And he was like, what do you want to do? And my first words were not basketball. Cause I grew up playing basketball. I knew basketball. It was just a second social life for me. And I was like, I want to do soccer. I want to do something I have no business doing so I can be in a whole nother world to see something totally new and meet new people or sweat up or the kids, the first place they told me the basketball, but even then I was trying to do something that I don’t know. I drove everybody crazy because I was trying to do something different. And I think what’s interesting is that question also pretty much pegs was my creative kind of processes was like. It was interesting cause Nike figured that out before I did. And so to fast-forward through all the headaches of my first five, six years at Nike, before I got to Japan was what they taught me was that if you put me in a functioning business where everything is great design is great and everything’s working, I will jack it up basically.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Cause I asked all the questions, why are we doing this? Why aren’t we doing it? What else could we be doing? Almost getting just to the point of start over. And so they figured out, yo, let’s go to places we know should be big, that need changing. But the people there aren’t ready to change it. So basically I became one of the people that Nike would throw into a situation that needed to be changed, but they didn’t know how to get the people in the business changing. And so I always say my first conversation of solving any problem is why? Why are we here? What are we supposed to be doing? What problem are we trying to solve? If we don’t get to the original why then we’re just putting band-aids on things. Just cover it out and go about, let it go to the next day.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And so I have this underlying question knowing at me like, yo, it could be better. It could be like better, better. It could be really better. So let’s get to the wire matter. And so I think going to new places, whether it was going to Purdue or going to Georgia tech or going to Beaverton or going to Tokyo or coming to New York City, it was always like, yo, I want to get to something new with something different. Then eventually it came to like, I’m ready to chill now. I get me. And so how can I provide opportunities for my young team? And I tell them all the time, I don’t want you here. I want you to go to your Japan. I want you to go to your mind. I want you to go to your, whatever that might be. And then you can come back if this is the right place, but go see the world. Cause it’ll make you stronger and give you new points of view that you won’t get if you just stay home.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s something about footwear or just footwear design that the average consumer doesn’t understand?

Jeffrey Henderson:
It’s funny. We just had a conversation about why I do shoes and it’s always this funny business thing is that I [inaudible 00:52:46] . I will measure people from the ground up. They’d be like, what shoes you got on? And it’s not always the measurement that people think, oh, you have expensive. Like, no, no, I can kind of take you. My stereotype is nothing based on anything else you have other than look, I see what shoes you have on right now and how you’re wearing them. And I’m going to make some calls about you whether I’m right or wrong. And I think that is probably been one of the best articles I always point to for people is Tressie, McMillan, cat, and room for Zuora. I can’t remember the exact title. Cause every time I look it up, I get lost.

Jeffrey Henderson:
It’s the reason poor people can’t afford to dress poor. And it talks about how the world expects you to, if you go into apply for a job that’s like at Walmart that pays nothing. If you’re black, you have to dress better than the job. You have to show up with something that you just have to otherwise, you’re not really right. That’s something that other folks don’t have to worry about. And I think to some degree that’s been sort of ingrained into my thinking, stems from Dayton, Ohio, like, this is kind of what I see. And I think working on shoes, whether it was one of the things we approached it easy with, it was like, it should be like the most democratic shoe that anybody can wear with colors that don’t distract or compliment or fight or cause fear. And then the project like I’m doing now like…

Jeffrey Henderson:
I don’t cause fear. The project I’m doing now, for personal, 99 products, it’s a basic running shoe that is meant for anybody to pull it off. Whether you’re a teacher, either student, or head of the class, in the back of the class, it’s for everybody. I think that sort of thinking goes into product that most people write off or they don’t even think about, they just go, “oh, I’ll just buy whatever shoe and I’ll wear it.” Maybe 15 years ago, you could have said that about most of America with cars; that their car really represented what they were doing or where they would going. They put a lot of effort and energy into the point where people stopped caring about cars so much.

Jeffrey Henderson:
It’d be like, “oh, I’ll just get a used car.” That still says something, it means something that people would put a lot of energy into cars. Today, people still put a lot of energy into the shoes they wear, even when they play them down.”Oh, you know, this is just like throwaway shit.” I laugh because people say, oh, I don’t really care what kind of shoes I wear.” I was like, “okay, then why don’t you wear some bright red clown shoes?” And they go, “well, that’s stupid.” I go, “oh, so you do care.” You do have a uniform. You do have an opinion of what you wear, so it’s not that you don’t care.

Jeffrey Henderson:
It’s just that you don’t care to keep up with the people who you think care too much about Smith. So I think in the design process, it’s sort of identifying what people want for function, want to say about themselves and how it fits into their overall wardrobe. Shoes is something else, that you may wear a different shirt every day in a different pair of pants every day. But you might wear the same shoes every day. That’s going to say something about you, like your haircut. It’s going to say something about you and you choose to be there. When you’re designing for people, you kind of have to want to be on their person, like every day, because that’s what they might use it for.

Maurice Cherry:
So earlier you were talking about how you were working for Nike and you were sending home shoes to your dad, shoes to your brothers, how your brothers were saying, “oh yeah, my brother designed this shoe.” All these different kinds of shoes. Can you name some of the shoes you have designed? Some of the more well-known footwear designs that you’ve done?

Jeffrey Henderson:
The big ones are probably the Yeezy three 50 V2, to go on the Grand Max Plus 2009, those are probably the bigger ones. Then there’s 1,000,000,001 other shoes that made it or didn’t make it. The shoes that I’ve made that sold 10 times more that were like the shoes called the Nike Basketball Air Glide. Not to be confused with the Zoom Glide that came out 15 years later, but the basketball Glide was a $55 white leather basketball shoe that sold for three years more than anybody could count, just because it was at a price point. It’s interesting, I think less about those shoes. People always go, “you’re missing the lead, like talk about those shoes.”

Jeffrey Henderson:
And it’s more like, “nah,” I’m more. And maybe it’s because I’m old, I’m more interested in the people who I’ve helped become designers for them about their path and remembering when they didn’t know any better, just like I didn’t know any better and Ray Butts and Andre Doxy.”You need to work on this, and you need to work on that.” They took me under their wing and made sure I did the right thing. That’s my biggest high, I probably did that for my mother, but it’s more about the folks who I could teach and seeing what they do with it. And also them calling me back, I remember when somebody at Denver was like, “yo, I used to be mad at you when you told me to do things and now I’ve got an intern and I’m like, yo, I’m so sorry.”

Jeffrey Henderson:
It just comes full circle at some point.

Maurice Cherry:
So after Nike, you went to Cole Haan for a couple of years, but you said Nike had bought Cole Haan, correct?

Jeffrey Henderson:
Nike bought Cole Haan in 88 and then they sold Cole Haan in 2013.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Was it a big shift design-wise going from athletic footwear to a wider range of footwear that Cole Haan would offer?

Jeffrey Henderson:
I wanted it to be. It’s crazy because I went from Japan to Nike running, which was probably the biggest leap I made in terms of learning skill set of being in design and design leadership. Then I did sportswear for not even a year before, we just need to get out of Oregon and go to New York city and with Cole Haan. I was so excited to get the Cole Haan and learn more about dress shoes, and how the last word and how you all the technical benefits and leathers. And like that was like, it was a whole thing. I was going through women’s dress shoes. Like this is again me chasing something like new and different, like, so one day and probably a week in Mark Parker shows up and I had just probably no more than like a month before that we had presented like a line that kind of for at least five years changed, like the direction Nike sportswear that was received really well.

Jeffrey Henderson:
We got high fives, lots of praise, yada, yada, yada. And he was in that meeting. It was like, this is really good. So about two weeks of me being at Cole Haan and I was just visiting for like a month, I was like, yo, I’m going to learn all this figure out what’s going on. It’s going to be good. Parker shows up. And he comes into like, I had this makeshift office and I had like all these pictures plastered on the wall of like Tom Ford and Gucci and churches, like wind tips. And I was trying to learn like dress shoes. And he was like, what’s this? And I’m like, yo, I’m trying to learn like dress shoes. This is new to me. Like I’m excited. He was like, yeah, yeah, that’s cool. Why don’t you do what you did in sportswear? And I looked at him like, okay.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And I knew exactly what he meant. He was like, I need you to do something different that like learn dress shoes. And he meant I should learn dress shoes. And he was also like, don’t show up and give me a wing to show up and give me something different. And so immediately we did the lunar ran light in kind of an hour because it was a marketing guy and a engineering guy were like, “yo, what if we did this? And I was like, yeah, we, I did loner for like three years in running and sportswear. Like we can do this in 10 minutes.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And so me learning everything about dress shoes and fashion, in the three years, it was all good, but it was literally like let’s do something to their credit. Everybody was right, because it became the hallmark shoe, it was the coolest shoe for all of three months. And then it just became every IT, lawyer, everybody who wanted to wear a sneaker group had to wear a dress. You wear that shoe to this day. Right. It’s still like, oh no, it’s not the coolest shoe in the world. But it’s definitely something that I don’t know. Every insurance guy has a pair.

Maurice Cherry:
How have you seen footwear design change over your career?

Jeffrey Henderson:
What’s been both. Probably. It’s kind of annoying to like some overhead to solve for where design is. One way, you go to this design school, you learned these rules, you make something and you draw it, you go into the factory and you build it. Now, to me, it’s really encouraging to watch folks who basically just Photoshop some colors together and throw some shoes together. And like it equates to, they may take the Jordan One and flip it in colors. That’s new. And the purist will be like, well, that’s not design it. Just the color. And I’m like, yeah, but at the end of the day, if somebody puts it on and gets value out of it and they feel a certain way, I think that’s valuable. Even if the shoe was already designed and someone added their own touch to it.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So I don’t necessarily think negatively about it. I do know that if you want somebody to make a new shoe, you probably should pay someone who knows how to make new shoes. But also I’ve seen plenty of designers and it was true at Nike people who would draw the most amazing shoe. And then they were colors that were terrible, like completely unwearable. And you’d be like, “yeah, yeah. Just, just send that over to my guy over here, let her do it. Let, let her put some materials on it.” You did your job, you made an amazingly functional, beautiful, physical thing. Now let somebody else add the color and whatever else that makes it wearable. And that’s a whole other job. That’s a whole other skillset that just because you drew a shoe, doesn’t mean you’ve actually had that skillset. So I think seeing that become a more regular part of the industry of people being elevated, I think is very worthwhile.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you’ve done work with Allbirds before and there’s a lot of these kinds of, I thought they came about in the last few years, a lot of these minimalists kind of shoe designs, there’s Allbirds, Greats, Vesey. There’s probably a dozen or so of them. What do you think about those kinds of shoe companies?

Jeffrey Henderson:
I love the energy they bring in, my work with Allbirds is literally, they kind of thought they might want to do something. So they hired me for one small project and I was like, you guys will be big. Can I hang out with you on it? They said “We don’t want that much. We don’t want that bigger relationship.”

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow! Okay.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I don’t need to do that. Well, and it was one of those to their credit. I think they focused on doing something that no one in the industry thought was the right thing to do. If you ask everybody in the industry, “Hey, would you make a wool shoe?” The first thing I got is it gets dirty. It gets like, don’t do that. Dave leaned in heavy and the way they did it through DTC through a community built on starting with Silicon valley and working his way to wall street.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I think they chose a community that traditional sneaker folks didn’t have an idea about. I think to the credit of a lot of those companies, a lot of them have been people who follow in those footsteps, no pun intended to do the same thing as with like, I loved like what great submission was like, just to bring something that was quality and simple. I think they may have lost track of that along the way. I think you do, you try to run with the sneakerheads, like you get lost in like the energy and the same and the cool kid and they stock X and all the other stuff, instead of just like, it’s a business, make a dish that people want. And I think there’s credit in doing that without having to follow.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I think a lot of the brands that are making stuff now, I kind of liked them. They also give people the benefit of they can walk out their house without having the same shoe. If you walk up, do you want me to house with a pair of SES on and no, one’s going to be like, oh, y’all got the same shoe. And if you do, there’s a bonding moment. But if you tried to bond with everybody who had on a pair of air max, you wouldn’t go that far.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I can see that. I think one thing with those sorts of shoes, I don’t know if they are sitting in warehouses or if they’re made to order. But of course, I think with the rise of these are certainly an increased public perception of easy to obtain footwear that wouldn’t necessarily be through Adidas or Nike or something like that.I’ve seen shoes on Instagram that were clearly just, I don’t know if it’s a drop shipping sort of thing, but you’ll see some shoes on Instagram. They clearly are just parts glued onto a sock that they’re selling as a shoe. And you think, “oh, this might be good in these sort of still shots,” but then you actually get the shoes and they smell like industrial strength adhesive and you have to air out your apartment that may have happened to me. I’m not saying it did or didn’t, but [crosstalk 01:05:30] that may or may not have happened. I plead the fifth, it’s my show. But, I think what it does is that at least democratizes the aspect of footwear design, where you have these independent companies designing shoes that are also able to appeal to people that are different from before, the bigger brands that are well-known for designing shoes, like a Nike or Adidas.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And it forces the bigger brands to innovate when they really may not have had the catalyst to do so. I would equate what Allbirds did for sneakers is exactly what Tesla did for electric vehicles. Toilet had been sitting on electric vehicles forever and they weren’t trying to make it the cool kid car. It was just an electric vehicle. We make it so what, and Tesla was like, no, we make the electric vehicle. And I think there’s going to be the evolution of anything else, you’re going to find some companies that make something that’s not all that great. And hey, if you’re going to go out there and try everything, you got to be willing to be like, if you’re the one who’s not going on the open, you’re trying every restaurant. Sometimes you go fast in here, your food, but if you’re the person who wants to be that person, who’s like, yeah. Before anybody else sees it, I’m going to try it. You may stumble upon the next thing. I’m curious, what are you wearing? What is your go-to shoe at this point?

Maurice Cherry:
My oh Jesus, oh boy. It does get personal because I hate shoe shopping. I absolutely hate it. It is up there with going to the dentist. It’s shopping for shoes. I do not like it. [crosstalk 01:07:06] I have sort of wide Flintstone, ish feet. And so as a kid, going with my mom to the store to get shoes was always a hassle because one of my feet is decidedly about a half size, bigger than the other one. And also because my feet are wide, most shoes that come in like a medium are way too small for me. Like I can’t even get my foot in it. So I’d have to get a larger size because that would then kind of widen the width of the shoe a bit. But then now I’ve got all this like floppy toe room at the end. And my mom’s like, just put a sock in it, like just stuff a sock in it.

Maurice Cherry:
So it doesn’t get the crease or whatever. But then that [crosstalk 01:07:50] hurts while you’re walking and you’re trying to run. It’s a, it’s a whole thing. So I’m not a big, [crosstalk 01:07:56] I’m not a, I’m not a big shoe shopping person. It wasn’t until I know that was well into adulthood that I saw a podiatrist and actually got like my feet measured and all this sort of stuff. And I had been wearing the wrong size for well over a decade, wrong size shoe. [crosstalk 01:08:13].

Maurice Cherry:
I wear about a size 10 extra, extra, extra, extra wide, like a 10 40. And usually what I was getting was, and I mean, you know, growing up, of course it would change as my foot change. But like right now I usually rock about an 11 is pretty good. But like if one was an 11 and the other was an 11 and a half, that would be perfect because even on the other foot, which is bigger, it’s still like very constricting and most wide shoes are hideous. You’re a footwear designer. Even talking about this, the desire for like medium shoes. I mean, the sky is the limit. You get to watch shoes and everything looks like orthopedic shoes. Why is that?

Jeffrey Henderson:
So there’s a little bit of like the bell curve. And so quite typically the design goes to, and you’ll notice that most things, when they’re in a smaller size, they can be more cute, more appealing. And so,

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, they’re dope. Like I can, like, you can get them in different colors and they look nice and then you get to the wide shoes. And it’s just like, it’s like what I call the PE teachers, which are the monarchs from Nike. Like that’s all you get. [crosstalk 01:09:27] I know, I know that’s probably,

Jeffrey Henderson:
That’d be the cool kid shoe.

Jeffrey Henderson:
But a lot of it is definitely built on again. If you’re making your money in one area, a lot of brands don’t then spend a lot of time in other areas. And so you get some brands who may find that’s a niche customer. So my guess is you bought more than your fair share of New Balance.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh my God. Yes. How did you know you’re reading my mind? Yes. There was a time in my twenties where I had not a lot of different colorways of New Balance, but the new balance, not the nine nineties, those were ones I ended up getting before. But like the, I forget the number. It’s like new balance five somethings. I had those in probably every color.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And it kind of becomes your uniform and it’s time to, okay. But then when is that? What ends up happening? Two things happen. Everybody who has that same point is wearing the same thing. And then you get lumped in a box.

Maurice Cherry:
Yes.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And then it’s one of those, oh, you have wide feet. So you have to wear new balance and then there’s not enough, let’s do something different. [crosstalk 01:10:37] And so you have to refine the brands that sort of, I don’t know, care, or we’ll show you something different and it’s not easy.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s the new balance Five, seven fours. I had them in so many different color ways. Cause they, I mean, and on 11 they still fit. They still were pretty wide, but I had those for a long time and yeah, there was that association, which is actually why I stopped wearing them. Well, that in my podiatrist was like, you need to stop wearing these. They’re not doing any favors, like stop wear these shoes. Yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So it was funny as it was a podcast or was a clubhouse and my friend Simone runs it and she had the president of Rihanna’s brand owner [crosstalk 01:11:18] and hear her talk about inclusivity and design that what Rihanna wanted. She was like, look, there were two things that quickly and easily made, making intimate wear for a diverse population of women. Important one was really easy. And that was just shades of nude. Like just what colors you chose. She was like, that was really easy. Every brain could flip that switch immediately and go from like two shades of nude to 20 shades of nude because there are different colors of people. And she was like, that was actually, it’s more of like a decision you have to make. And then it’s a supply chain thing and some operational, the blah, blah, blah. It’s pretty easy. The really difficult one is when it comes to physical shape and sizing, because one, you have to have people in the building who can relate and understand.

Jeffrey Henderson:
She was like, not everybody in intimates is the same size 16. Sometimes you’re 16 up top. Sometimes you’re 16 on bottom. Like it’s just different shapes. And if you can’t have a real conversation about it, cause the right diversity is in the room is not in the room. Then you just end up making, like, we just took the same thing and made it bigger. And then you don’t write answers and then you get what she put it. You’ve been with skinny people think that people want, and she was like, it’s not that blunt, but you also get what skinny people think super skinny people want. And she used those words. She was sort of getting like, yo, like it just doesn’t help. And they don’t know. So until you bring people in the room who have wider feet or like our last version of the, and that was one of the things Rihanna said is like, no, when you make the larger sizes, it better be just as beautiful when a person is when you make the medium size.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Like that’s just what it should, what should be done. And so when we were making the next versions of the point, I had a lot of flat, cause I know a few football players who were like a size 15 and I shoe only went up to a 14 and it was like, Jeff, Jeff, Jeff. Yeah. Like what are you doing this next batch? And it costs money. Like we had to make molds, we’ve gone up to a size 17 with these things shoes and we’ll try to go up more, but like it costs money to get there and you need people to actually support like, so I sent you a link, you’ll see it, the jokes, John. But that shoe comes in like four E in terms of width [crosstalk 01:13:34] so there, and you’ll try more and it’ll be different. And whether is your cup of tea or not? The idea is that when you wear them, you’ll notice some wind here and you’ll see like, oh, it doesn’t have to look hideous. It doesn’t have to look [inaudible 01:13:50] And it’s kind of, okay. So I think design can bring that to people, especially in shoes.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, So, so to answer your earlier question about what I’m rocking. So I do have kind of my two that I tend to sort of vary between one is like a, all black, like Reebok walking shoe. I don’t know what the name of it is, but it has like this air bubble in the sole. So like it’s very bouncing. Like I wanted some just like straight up like black minimalists sneakers that I could just throw on with anything. And then I do have a pair of monarchs and I actually had to stop wearing because the cushioning was too much. Like it was like, my foot was in like a spaceship and it’s funny. Cause I remember when I first got those shoes, I would get so many compliments on them and I’m like, thanks. And I didn’t know if it was for real, cause I honestly got them because they came in a wide with my podiatrist’s had recommended it.

Maurice Cherry:
And when I first put it on, I was like, oh, so this is what it feels like to walk without foot pain. Like now the shoe actually like, but I still have that one for every now and then, but I just bought three pairs of shoes recently.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know if this is because I got the vaccine and I feel like I need to go out in the world, but I got three new pairs of shoes recently and they’re different in different ways. So one is a Fila shoe.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s the Oakmont mid and my, my podiatrist, I recommended it cause it had a thick sole and he’s like, you kind of need more of like a, almost like a boot type of shoe as opposed to maybe like a low sneaker type or something. And so I have those and those are great. Those are ass-kicking shoes. Like I love those shoes. And then I got a pair of Hoka, Bondi seven. I just got those a couple of days ago actually. And I might send them back. They’re too bouncy. They feel like I’m wearing moons shoes. Like if I needed to jump and reach high things, I would probably keep them. But like I’m walking and I’m like, whoa, like I’m literally, like I literally have a spring in my step is what it feels like

Jeffrey Henderson:
It’s meant to be. It’s meant to do that. So it’s good in terms of the functionality. It’s not the functionality you’re looking for.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And then I got another like honestly I got a card in the mail from DSW that was like $25 off a shoe. I’m like, let me just get some more like knock around shoes. And I got some Sketchers, like slip ons there, the ultra flex 2.0 Mercon slip on sneaker and they’re okay. But like one of the shoes fits and the other one is too small because it’s not wide enough for the other foot so I can still wear them. But they’re just like, they’re okay. And I mean, after the discount, they were like 25 bucks. So I’m like, yeah, this is, this is just something I can just throw on and like check the mail or something like that.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So we’re going to get you into some Johns. You’re going be to, you know, say nothing but good things. We gonna see you on the gram And then you had to give all praise if you like it. And if you don’t, you never heard of it. So its all good.

Maurice Cherry:
Ill Put a link to this in the show notes so people can see it. Like I’m looking at it now, the Jackson YC, John, they come in like this lemon ice, yellow, like ch like classroom, chalk yellow, which is an interesting color way. I like it.

Jeffrey Henderson:
They also come in gray suede, I think there’s a gray suede

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, I see I’m scrolling down. I see now

Jeffrey Henderson:
Scroll down.

Maurice Cherry:
The yellow was interesting though!

Jeffrey Henderson:
And that was based on, so my brother, his kidneys started failing his feet, started swelling and he needed wider shoes. And so I put them in some Birkenstocks, which he was good with, but he needed like some actual real shoes to get around in. Cause he’s in Ohio and it was winter. And so I was working with his brand in China and they made the shoe for seniors. The name of the brand is Zulee’s and so, and the shoe was like, I don’t know, it’s kind of the way they created. It was very much like old people shoes.` It’s like, it just had this diet to this sort of function first and it just didn’t look cool. And I was like, yo, can we make these in first suede? And then can we make them in like some monotone colors that I don’t know, you think you like, look good?

Jeffrey Henderson:
And they were like, well, that’s not what old people want. I was like, well, how do you know? Like, and they were like, all right. So they blessed us with some pairs just to try out. [crosstalk 01:18:04] And people were like, yo, I can look good. Like, and we kept getting hit with, I don’t want to wear them out. And it was like,

Maurice Cherry:
oh, interesting.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Because they were all suede. And they were like, I don’t want to get them dirty. Cause they look so nice. It was like, like stop wearing the shoes that you hate because you can get them dirty and wear these. And it was interesting because we made our conservative desks that, you know, we’ll make them in gray and we’ll make them in yellow thinking that, you know what? People will want the gray because that’s normal. But you know, we’ll get some daring people to wear the yellow and it kept going back. Like I think we sold out of the yellows in most sizes. So you have your side, it’ll be lucky. But for the most part we have grays left cause people wanted like they wanted to stand out in the way that wasn’t like clown, but also they didn’t want to look like I am the old person I am. And I think that, again, it goes to, wasn’t so much about the design, the design should work, but sometimes it’s color and materials [crosstalk 01:19:00] that kind of plays into how people feel.

Maurice Cherry:
It is an appropriate amount of swag. Like I’m looking at the photos, like there’s this one where this dude is getting into like a rag top convertible and like his, the color of the car and his shoes are pretty much the same. I’m like, that’s kind of dope. And he’s cause he’s wearing a black jacket. It has on yellow shoes. And then you see like the black rag top in the yellow paint, like okay. Bet. All right, cool. Well, we will definitely talk about that after we stop recording. Cause I would definitely be in the market for these look, these look great. And it’s interesting that there’s this personal story behind the design too. What I get, you know, from just talking with you and learning about your history and everything is that eventually you always bring it back to the work, which I think is something that is indicative of people that really have a passion behind what it is that they do.

Maurice Cherry:
Like even with the name of your studio being “And Them” like you’re taking the onus and the focus like off of you, it’s really about how the work is being received in the world and how people are using it. Which I think is super, not just, I think super important, but also super inspirational for people to see, because I think especially for younger designers there.

Maurice Cherry:
can be this, want to kind of do the biggest flashiest stuff all the time. Or like, like that’s the stuff that they want to do that they feel like may point out the thing in their career or like put them on the map or something like that. And really if the work that you’re able to do is like really changing people’s lives and affected them. That’s hopefully just as, as good as a takeaway from the work that you do.

Jeffrey Henderson:
No, I think that’s well said. I think even the work that you’re doing, like you talked about, like it took you a number of podcasts and a number of like folks in the outside, like co-sign for credibility to be there with other people. But the reality is you are going to do it because you thought it needed to be there. And I think that’s very important. So people don’t understand that sometimes people won’t come out to you first show people won’t come out and see like the first game you play in cars may not be great. But if you know why you’re there and you keep working on your craft, you get better.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And that’d be great, but if you know why you’re there and you keep working on your craft and you get better, I think it then pays off, and it doesn’t always have to be, “Did I have the biggest show on the planet?” Sometimes it’s just about, “Did I do really good work and were people happy?”

Jeffrey Henderson:
So, no, it’s definitely whenever we can use our skills to make friends and family happier, and when they bring us new friends and family that we can work with, we’re happy to use our skillset to make other lives better.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I don’t know that we technically announced it. I guess they announced it. We’re working with this Reinvention Lab out of Texas, this group out of Teach for America to kind of… We ran a shoe contest, and they got to actually find organizations within their group to design shoes and they got to work on it.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And what’s interesting is there’s going to be a winner, and we’re actually going to sell some of the shoes that they made. And they were like, “Oh yeah, we don’t care if we won any more.” Just going through the presentation process, how designers look at things, how they have conversations about things… Just the design process was new to them. And that helped them understand what they bring to education and what they bring to laying out curriculum, which I sort of, I don’t know, I hang out with Chris Emdin, whose HipHopEd, and the way he talks about pedagogy. Those are things that I take internally as normal, but they had to go through this class. They had to do this competition to take in and be like, “Oh, design thinking is not just for designers. It helps us.” And so that was really gratifying to see. Or even just our approach and our process could bring, I don’t know, something to other people.

Maurice Cherry:
And speaking of school, I mean, you’re on the advisory board for a school in New York, the Business of Sports School. And most recently you became a board member at Knoll. For you, what’s the importance of sitting on boards like this?

Jeffrey Henderson:
It’s… Another thing that I sort of got dragged into, and some of it’s because I’m old, I hang around old people and they are on boards and they say, “You’d be good at this.” I didn’t really know what a board did or what it meant. Now that I’m on two, I can sort of surmise that it’s definitely one of the, for most businesses, the biggest form of sponsorship you can get. Because as much as mentorship and execution are good, if the people who are sort of guiding the people who are in charge understand the entire, I think, operation and process, the better it is for the people who are doing work and the more diverse of an angle you get. And so at BOSS, this a sports school, it was…

Jeffrey Henderson:
And one of my best friends on the board, we were having this discussion around college visits. And so BOSS is a school in Hell’s Kitchen, most of the kids come from the Bronx and Harlem. In terms of who could attend, they’re changing up a little bit how who gets into the school, but it’s definitely an open enrollment. It’s not based on higher test scores and they don’t pick who they get into the school. It’s just kind of an open free-for-all in terms of kids that get to the school.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So it’s not built on kids who are automatically going to Harvard who have family history and education and college background. And so one of the things that they’ve promoted, I think for good reason, is they want to make sure that kids have an understanding of what college is, and so they go on college tours. And so the college tours were happening around junior year, and I said, “No, it’s too late.”

Jeffrey Henderson:
And my friend Marie, who works for SMY, her son at the same time… I think both of our sons were in college, were in high school and around junior year at the same time. And she chimed in and was like, “No, you have to understand. My son, this is the biggest time of his life. He’s visiting all these colleges. And it’s really important. It’s shaping who they are.” And I was like, “Yeah, but your son has heard about college since he was five years old. Some of these kids, none of their family is going or has gone to college. And so this is a new concept. They’re expecting them to go work. Some of these kids, their family is wondering why they’re finishing high school, literally wondering why they’re finishing high school, when they could go work and put food on the table. It’s a different conversation. So can we please take them freshman year, even just to one college campus? Normalize the idea of college in their brains before they’re taking an ACT, before they’re taking a prep test. Can we do that?”

Jeffrey Henderson:
And what’s funny is she saw that, and she was like, “Oh.” And because this was happening at the board level, this is well before the teachers had to choose where they were spending money or where they were scheduling time, and so offering a more diversity of voice, at a school like that, I think was powerful. But there’s quite a bit of diversity on that board. When I got to Knoll, there wasn’t that much of diversity of thought on the board. And it was interesting, because when it first came up, I was like, “Are you inviting me on the board because I’m Black?” And they were like, “Well, that’s helpful.” And I was like, “Oh [crosstalk 01:26:00].

Jeffrey Henderson:
And I was like, “Well, are you inviting me on the board because I’m creative?” And they were like, “Yeah, it’s a design company, and we don’t have creative people on the board. There’s a misstep there.” And I was like, “Oh.”

Jeffrey Henderson:
And then later on, someone was like, “Yeah, scary enough. You’re also young.” I was like, “Oh, I haven’t been young in a while.” But I was the youngest person on the board. And I think, again, being able to have diverse levels of thought at a board level where it’s really only about sponsorship, it’s really about giving direction to the real leaders and responsible folks who run something, being able to give them a sounding board and holding them to task on, “Are you getting the most out of your people? And by the most, are you just even listening and can you hear their voices?”

Jeffrey Henderson:
And I think when boards start to diversify, I think… And I mean, the same is true in C-suite. I have a whole thing about, “I love all my friends who are D and I experts at every company, but you wouldn’t need them so much if the C-suite was diverse. You’d have other problems to fix because then those folks would make sure that there was a diverse hiring thing.” Maybe not all the time, but there’d be more folks to sort of like, “Let’s get after diversity in bigger ways.” And I think to me, the board level helps usher and push along those movements. So I’m very, very happy that folks sort of tapped me on the shoulder. One, I didn’t look like the average board person. I also went in saying I wasn’t going to act like the normal board person. And I think they were actually quite excited that I wouldn’t be. So I was blessed to end up in conversations that they wanted me there, as opposed to they felt like their hands were tied about having me.

Maurice Cherry:
So I mentioned before we started recording that I had done my research. I read through a lot of articles that you had written up on the GwoodThin.gs blog, and they’re also syndicated on Medium.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I apologize for [crosstalk 01:27:58].

Maurice Cherry:
No, no. I actually want to talk about that. What does writing do for you as a designer?

Jeffrey Henderson:
Writing is probably, and this plays into, I don’t know, the background of introversion of I stumble across my words. If I’m having a conversation, I’m one of those people who goes, “Oh, I wish I would have thought about that when we’re talking” because I can’t think on my feet like that. And so being able to write, a skill that my sister made sure I… She saw that I had a little bit of a talent. My sister’s 13 years older than me. So she saw I had a little talent and made sure my teachers knew and forced me to write more and more when I was in high school. And that just became a way for me to, almost in a journal way, sort of write down what my thoughts were when I knew I couldn’t finish them in other ways, or I really didn’t feel comfortable talking to other people.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And also allowed me to… And when you get old and have kids, you sort of see that, well, your kids aren’t always listening to you. And I, for sure, didn’t always listen to my parents or my elders, but if you write it down and leave it so that when they’re ready to take any of the information, it’s there for them. And so for me to write it down like this… And people bring up some of those Medium posts all the time like, “Oh, I read such and such.” I don’t even remember writing it. It’s from 2016. And I might’ve just copied and pasted it from a Tumblr post from 2012. But it’s more of my journal, this was kind of going on or a thought that popped up in my head that I may have wanted… or someone asked a question that I wanted to answer for that person, but also wanted to answer for multiple people.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So being able to write, to me… And it’s funny because people often talk like, “Oh, you write the same way you talk.” And it’s like, “Well, that should be the same way with everybody, I would think.” And so I don’t use complete sentences, and I’ll stop in the middle of a sentence and just go into the next thing because it’s really just my thought… And my kids hate it. They’ll read and be like, “You have no focus.” Because they took real writing classes and I’m like, [crosstalk 01:29:57]. “You’re smarter than me because I can send you to a school that you can be smarter than me, so leave me alone.”

Jeffrey Henderson:
But for me, it’s sort of this unfiltered way of throwing down whatever is in my head. And I might evolve six months past whatever I wrote, but my journal is sort of me documenting my thoughts so that if it’s helpful to somebody at a time, it’s good. And also there might be hope that there’s some things that I’m sort of fighting against or don’t want that one day it’ll be sort of useless because they’ll be like, “Oh, yeah, we don’t have those problems anymore. We’ve moved onto new problems.” But hopefully that becomes the case.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I have to say I could not stop reading. I think you’re a fantastic writer. I think you should keep it up.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Thank you. No one knows that I’m paying you in shoes to say that, right? Okay. Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
Look, I was going to say that before the shoes. No, I’m kidding. I’m kidding. No seriously, though, I mean, as I read through it, I think it’s important not just as you’re talking about to push your thoughts down, but as you also said, for other people to see, and not just your kids, but for other designers to stumble upon, “This is what it’s like for an agency owner when they’re working on projects,” or, “How do you think about the work that you do in your creative process?” That kind of stuff tends to not really get shared, certainly not from other black designers in that way.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I was listening to, I think one of the interviews you had before, and I think you brought up that you could throw something in a Tweet and how deep does it go, but how long does it actually stick? It kind of gets lost in the universe.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And I think when you actually write a book, there’s a little bit more staying power. And I think those long reads that challenge you to follow a story that imparts information, I think, are very powerful. And I think there’s also just… Some people would rather have the 300-page book about a topic and some people want a TikTok version of the same thing. And I think everything’s not for everyone. So how I communicate may not be for everybody. I apologize that you had to read through all those, but for some people they enjoy reading them and some people are like, “Yeah, I read the first three lines, and I was good. Way to go.” And that’s okay. [crosstalk 01:32:05].

Maurice Cherry:
No, I read through all of them because some of them you’re talking about different projects that you’ve worked on. There was one even about the recent board appointment that you had mentioned. So it was just good to sort of see it, see how you perceive the world through your eyes and your words and how that all… Because for someone like me, I wouldn’t know what that’s like, but to read your words on it, it’s like, “Oh, so that’s what it’s like.” Just to kind of see that perspective is important.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And it’s really powerful when you don’t have enough voices in jobs from people who look like you who might be able to say things and sound like you, not only for you to hear and go, “Oh, okay. This is what it’s like when I get there.” But also I think I wrote one article about of the nicest guys I know on the planet. He posted on his Instagram a photo of the Nike design offsite. It was a picture of all the Nike designers and pretty much all white folk with… You can pick out the three or four people who aren’t white.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Henderson:
And when I saw that, I had anxiety just looking at the picture. Because I remember going to those offsites going like, “This is weird,” and not knowing who to tell or who to say it to except for people who were there.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And we were all kind of looking at each other like, “Yeah. But it is what it is.” Someone just posted the phrase, “It is what it is” on Twitter. And I was sort of like, “That’s a very dark expression for Black folk because it’s almost like you’re giving up, like a loss of hope.” But “it is what it is.” It’s not what I think other people might think it means. It’s definitely like, “We’re done here. There’s nothing we can do. It is what it is.”

Jeffrey Henderson:
And I think changing that at Nike became something so many of us focused on that, I don’t know… I don’t know if we were able to put a dent in it as much as we wanted to, but it definitely some days felt it is what it is.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And that picture brought out all that anxiety. And I told him. I was like, “Yo, are you okay? I’m going to actually use the article. I’m going to write your name and say what a good dude you are but also explain this is the truth.” And it’s funny how many people who reached out to me after, on both sides who were like, “Yo, I thought this and I didn’t know how to feel, and I didn’t know what to say.” Depending on, like, on each side, which is kind of interesting. And there were some people were like, “Yo, you never acted this way when you were there.” And it’s like, “Maybe I did and you didn’t notice.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Or, “Maybe when you knew me, I was going with ‘it is what it is.’ So what’s the point in telling you about it?”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So writing is a way to sort of, I don’t know, let people see what it really was, even if you couldn’t do it in real time.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). I think it can also sort of serve as a mirror back to you, particularly in terms of colloquial language. You have one post on here called Who All Gone Be There, which is so common, I think, for any person of color they’re going somewhere that’s mixed company.

Jeffrey Henderson:
[crosstalk 01:35:12] talking about.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. You’re like, “Who all gone be there? I need to know what I’m stepping into,” or something like that. Or even there’ll be posts that are named after song titles. There’s one called Shook Ones or something like that. Or even one where you’re breaking down the cost of a shoe, you know, or the materials and everything that go into it because people will, I think, certainly with the inflated sneaker economy now, people will look at a shoe and wonder why it costs that much, but not thinking of everything that has to go into it with research and materials and all that sort of stuff.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Right. And what’s funny is, I think… And I watch what’s happened in the last 20 years with journalism is that, I don’t know, maybe 20 years ago there would be, especially sports journalists, I think that’s kind of where it started with like, “Oh, this is the hip hop journalist, and he speaks in a vernacular that connects to the people and uses hip hop slang,” and yada, yada, yada. It’s one of those. Or “Y’all just letting him write and just write what he would write to his friends.” And so for me, I think that connection point of calling it Shook Ones is not… I’m not trying to connect with you. I’m not apologizing. It’s just like, “You know where it’s from. I know where it’s from. So that’s how we communicate. That’s how communication works. I don’t know any Billy Joel songs to impart to you how I’m feeling about it, so I can’t do that. And if I could, then I would connect with… Are there Billy Joel people listening?” No shade to Billy Joel, but that’s sort of… I’m just talking the way I talk in the group chats with folk.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah,

Jeffrey Henderson:
So it’s sort of… And I think that was… And writing helped me… I talk about this a lot. I grew up swearing like nobody’s business, and I don’t know if we cool. We know what you like. I could swear left or right. Writing helps me like, “All right, let’s change some of those words. Sometimes it bes what it bes.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And to your point, it also, you know, even, I think, as it reflected through the makeup of your team, it shows them that being able to express themselves authentically doesn’t make them any less of a professional.

Jeffrey Henderson:
You know what’s wild is… And I talk about this a lot with folks who are of my age group, who are in this weird late forties, early fifties, where we sort of went through a history of trying to code switch. And like I said, I don’t know if I’m necessarily good at it. I think I tried it enough, but I don’t know that anybody bought it. But the idea that young folks don’t care to code switch.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson:
They just show up how they show up and talking to folks who are my age. It’s like, “Yo, don’t get caught out there code switching because the young folks would call you out on it and they ain’t listening. They don’t have time for you to be worrying about what you got a bonnet on at the airport. It’s just not [crosstalk 01:38:08].

Jeffrey Henderson:
It should just be you every day. And it’s difficult because we came from an age group where we were taught when you show up, you’re in their space. You need to respect [crosstalk 01:38:18].

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, respectability politics.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Exactly. And it’s sort of… I was lucky enough to… And I say this all the time. I have amazing credit only because when I got my Discover Card in college, it was like, “Yo, you can either pay this much or you can pay this little bit and all these other numbers about what you pay for the next six months.” And I was like, “I’m too lazy to do that. I’m just going to pay the big number.” So I never had debt because I just paid the big number. So it’s not because I was smart and knew, “Ooh, I want to get good credit.” It was I just don’t want to deal with the headache.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Same is true about… I was just like, “I don’t want to wear a tie to work ever. I don’t want one of those jobs. I’m not going to go work there. I just want to wear sneakers to work.” I just chose that, not knowing it was going to be… I didn’t choose this because it would make me money. I didn’t choose it because it would provide me money to buy a house and not have to assimilate so much. I did it because I just liked sneakers and I liked the culture. And I think young folks are more and more for the technology to exist, they get to do the same. They’re just trying to figure out what it all means because they’re being told by older people, “Oh, it’s adulthood time. So now you have to follow in line and you’ve got to wear your hair a certain way.” And they’re like, “No, thank you. But [crosstalk 01:39:33].” So I think it’s cool that people can be who they’re going to be and old people like me get to help them do that.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Jeffrey Henderson:
Yo, this drives me and everyone else crazy that I want to be able to just walk down the street and not have to go anywhere and everything comes to Harlem because we made it possible. I went from, I don’t know, doing product design a few years back to ad and content creation. And now I’m missing a call right now about NFTs, which I had no idea about, but, “Okay, let’s go learn about NFTs and the process and the drops and all this other stuff.” And it’s one of those… I think the strategy mindset, the creative mindset, and a little bit of, I think, luck along the way of having some wins, folks invite us to parties, whether it’s just me or my entire team. I think people trusting my team as they get better. And the team’s starting to have their own sort of mentees below them to kind of grow the business for all of us.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And even if they go run and create their own agency, it’s all good. I kind of want this fun growth to keep, I think… I used to say making stuff was cool, and now I’m to the point where making stuff has taken a different personality, given my thoughts on sustainability. And sometimes it’s not making stuff is the answer, but figuring out how…

Jeffrey Henderson:
My biggest thing in terms of conversations in the last probably three months has been on housing justice here in New York City. And I think that’s not the standard conversation for maybe a creative, but I think the thought process and the connections and the ideation that myself and my team, the folks I hang out with and bring to the table just, I don’t know, open up the vision on some of those things. And I think that’s what I mean when I say putting things… And I’ve always said this. If you can create, I don’t know, some systemic change in Harlem and Atlanta and Oakland, in places like Detroit, I think if that starts to stick and ownership becomes a big piece of it, I think there’s some conversations that are really going to be had.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And then their less talking about, “Oh, well, I don’t know if we’ll give them a chance, but we’re good. We did this. We’re good.” And I think that’s where I’d want to be. Even if it’s not me, I’m just hanging around people who are doing those things. That’s my five years from now.

Maurice Cherry:
Well just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you and about your work online?

Jeffrey Henderson:
So definitely come hang out… For the most part, if you want to find out about all the fun we’re having, find us at GoodThin.gs, G-O-O-D-T-H-I-N.gs. I’m sure it’ll be in the bio and byline. That’s where we have our fun. That’s where we give back to the community. That’s where we show how we hang out. You want to book us for business? Definitely come to andthem.com. We keep it professional. You can write us checks and we’re all good. Ready to do stuff. And then definitely, I don’t know, we’re making some shoes. We’re doing apparel next. You can see NinetyNineProducts and Jackson YC. my guy [Royce 01:42:42] is doing Silk City. We got a few hustles going on, some fun. So please, you don’t have to read all the reading [inaudible 01:42:49] is doing. Greatly appreciate it, but you can come check out and see some of the creative stuff we’re doing.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s good reading, y’all. Don’t listen to him. It’s good reading. Jeffrey Henderson, thank you so much for coming on the show. I think, you know, from hearing your story, from looking at your work and, again, even from the research that I’ve done, to me, there is a certain deep sense of thoughtfulness that you bring to your work that perhaps I don’t know if you even recognize how thoughtful it is in terms of doing work for the community and making sure that you’re creating this nurturing space for young creatives and everything. I think it’s something that more of us need to see in the industry. We need to see, of course, I think just more Black agency owners, but also more Black agency owners that are kind of bucking the trend or changing the paradigm or showing that it’s okay to be thoughtful and do great work like this and not have to stick to, you know, any sort of archaic or a draconian style of running a business, that you can do great work and have fun and it can be a nurturing space.

Maurice Cherry:
And I definitely see that care and thoughtfulness that you bring to your work, and I’m appreciative of it. I’m sure that folks listening think that way as well. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Thank you so much. I’m glad to be on that list of hundreds of people who you bring in, I think. Visibility too. I love what you’re doing. So however I can be a part of this, I’m happy to help. Thank you.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world.

We accomplish this through graphic design, presentations and workshops around I-D-E-A: inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.

If you’re curious to learn how to combine a passion for I-D-E-A with design, check us out at brevityandwit.com.

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Keisha Okafor

We’re halfway through the year! Summer’s here, and I thought it would be a great time to feature an extraordinary young designer whose work I recently discovered — Keisha Okafor. Her work is brimming with energy and vibrancy and joy — feelings we all could use a bit more of these days.

We start off talking about freelance design, and Keisha told a bit about how she helped make one of the features Google Doodles for Black History Month 2021. Keisha also spoke on her signature design style, talked about one of her dream projects, and gave some great advice on being an illustrator. Keep an eye out for Keisha — I think we’ll definitely see more of her work in the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.

Keisha Okafor:
My name is Keisha Okafor. I’m a freelance illustrator. And I would say that my work I’ve been using depicts joy and celebrates people. I really like to use bright colors and bold patterns.

Maurice Cherry:
How’s the year been going so far?

Keisha Okafor:
It’s been going pretty great. I actually just went freelance full time. So that’s the thing. But before that, I’ve been working full time in design as a production designer, actually for print and also doing project management. Ironically, I was managing all the print projects I was doing. So kind of like a one-woman show. So all of that was very technical and like sending client emails. And then out of work, I was doing illustrations and drawing and working with my freelance clients. So it’s nice to have more time this time, but honestly, it’s been going pretty well. I mean, I know the whole pandemic is still happening. In my mind, it’s not even close to being over, but as a very, very heavy introvert, my day-to-day isn’t really that different, I be inside. So I’m still watching Anime, still playing video games. Yeah. Outside of work is pretty normal to me because I wouldn’t be outside anyway.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Wow. So yeah, you just went freelance. That’s a kind of scary thing to do to make that leap of faith. I mean, did you feel like you were prepared for it when you did it?

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. I definitely did, which is surprising because years ago, would have been terrified, but I did a lot of planning, I watched so many seminars and workshops about going freelance, like what do you need to have in place before you do that? And I also saw enough clients coming in and projects coming in to where I believed like this is going to keep happening. I’m not just a Juneteenth, Martin Luther King Day illustrator. I can do this 365. So once I saw that and all the other planning I’ve been doing for the past several months, I wasn’t as scared as I expected to be.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good. That’s good. I mean, oftentimes, we’ll have the designers that are here on the show that either are freelancing or they’re thinking about going freelance, and making that leap can often be really scary. I mean, you said that you had some preparations in place, which is good. I mean, to know that you can step out there and have at least some sort of a foundation, so you’re not necessarily going at it alone, but you have, it sounds like you had some major things already planned out before you made the jump, like clients.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. I also had savings. That was like my main thing. I didn’t want to jump with like $25 in my account. So with all the freelance money I’ve been getting, luckily because I had the full-time job, I was able to save all of that pretty much by pretending that I didn’t have it. I was tricking my mind, like, don’t spend this, this is for your future. Like, don’t wild out and buy stuff, but I’m also not naturally a big spender. My biggest splurge last year was getting Netflix, the two accounts. Yeah. I mean, I bought video games, but I would’ve done that anyway, but yeah, I got Netflix. So that’s like an idea of something I think about, a purchase that I would think about for a while before doing so. Was able to save all that money to have bought a year’s worth just in case nothing happened, which I don’t believe that was going to happen, but just in case, I had enough money to live off of that.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a very smart move.

Keisha Okafor:
Thanks. I take risks, but it’s very calculated because I get very scared, just the idea of going freelance is so scary. So I just wanted to make sure I have things set in place, I thought it through that I’ll be good.

Maurice Cherry:
What made you decide to go freelance? You said you were working as part-time gig, did something happen or did you just feel like it was just time to go?

Keisha Okafor:
Honestly, just in general, the jobs I’ve had, it was a full-time job too. Boy, was I tired anyway. It was just like, no matter what job I had, it ended up being rinky-dink. And by rinky-dink, I mean, no matter how confident I am, no matter how competent I am at the job, no matter how much work I do, how fast I go, I’m still getting treated like I’m entry-level or like the level of a recent graduate in my pay, in how I’m talked to when I ask questions. And I’m just getting tired of that. And because I saw that doing freelance wasn’t as intimidating as I thought, I was just like, let me better myself and make sure that I’m handling that side for myself, that I get to advocate for myself and also determine what I’m worth.

Maurice Cherry:
That is a big reason why I ended up going freelance back in 2008, the company that I was working for was treating me in that same way, like I felt like I was being undermined or belittled or patronized too, even though I’ve got the skills to be there and I’m cranking out top quality work, you still feel like you’re almost treated like a child.

Keisha Okafor:
Yes. Oh my gosh. Yeah. This past job, the work I was doing, it took four people to do before I got there.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. And they’re not a startup company. They’ve been around for many years over a decade. And even taking on that work, they still saw me as a rookie. And I’m like, “Really after all of this?” So I could see that that wasn’t really going to change anytime soon. They would give me compliments, but I’m like, “But my pay isn’t changing.” And when I say things and give suggestions, it’s just going over the head and out the window. So I’m just like, “All right, I see where this is going. I’m out.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What does a typical day look like for you right now? I know you just started freelancing, but have you started getting into a good rhythm?

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. Generally, I have a Trello account, where I have all my freelance projects that I’m working on right now and just different to-do lists, broken down to all the small steps, just so I can see overall what I need to work on. So if there are any priorities or upcoming deadlines, I’ll then write a list, a to-do list of like at least three things I want to get done during the day, like I want to finish this sketch or I want to finish this piece, send this email to the client, things like that. I usually start my day at around 10 o’clock. I am not a morning person at all. Also, I have a cat who only wants to be pet in the middle of the night. So from like 5:00 AM to 7:00 AM, she’s crawling on my chest, like, “Pet me, pet me.” And I’m like, “Let me sleep.” That’s why I start at 10:00 to get back some of that sleep I lost.

Keisha Okafor:
But yeah, I usually start eating cereal, see if I have any emails. I don’t really get too many emails, but I’m also someone who like, I get through them. So I usually only have like three tops. And then I just start the work I’m doing. And if, and then I just keep reviewing that Trello list with my deadlines and checking things off. And if I’m like at the right pace, because I’m trying to pace myself doing a little each day to make sure I hit the deadlines early, instead of like binge doing it all in one day. So once I hit that pace for the day, if I’m done, then I’ll take a break and rest for the day. Yeah. That’s generally how it’s been going so far.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. The best thing about freelancing is really setting your own schedule and then no one can tell you to change it. It’s completely up to you. So if you want to stay in till 10:00 AM, till noon, you can do that. No problem.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. It still feels like, I feel like a kid beginning summer break, but then I’m like, “Keisha, you’re an adult.” Make sure you get stuff done, which I always do. But waking up at 10 o’clock and being like, “Well, time to get this started.” That still feels wild to me. I’m like, “I get to do this. I planned for this and it’s happening.”

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Now, I first heard about you this year from your work you did for YouTube’s Black History Month campaign. I think they did four different illustrators and artists for each of the four weeks in February. Can you talk about that? How did you become a part of that project?

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah, that still blows my mind. This was like maybe a week before Christmas. I randomly get this email saying, “Hey, Keisha, I work with YouTube. Want to work on this project about Black Creativity for Black History Month?” I immediately thought it was a scam. And then I googled everyone that he mentioned just to make sure kind of just like, who are you? What the heck? His email didn’t say @youtube.com. So I was just like, “Oh, I don’t know about this. Let me just double check.” But I googled everyone and then their LinkedIn pages were like, they’re designer at Google, engineer at Google. I’m like, “Oh, okay. So he was serious.” So I immediately said, “Yeah, I am available to do this. Are you kidding me?”

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. And then probably a week or so later, I met with like a small design team at the YouTube. And they were just telling me about the initiative that they had and they want to work for artists celebrating History Month and wanted to have all the artists make art around black creativity. And that was it. They were like, “You can make that whatever you want it to be, but it just needs to be around black creativity.” And they gave some keywords, like forward-thinking, hopeful, bright, like that. Literally, those were the keywords they gave. So I pretty much just took that and ran with it. But also in the back of my mind, I’m like, “Okay. Okay, Keisha, this is YouTube. You got to show up, you got to show out. So like, do it, do the thing.”

Keisha Okafor:
So initially, I was planning on doing portraits of women who in math and science from the past just to celebrate them. But then they wanted something, when they said forward-thinking, that’s why they gave me the idea of having children in there, like giving like a hopeful idea instead of looking to the past, wanting people to look to the future as well. And I was the one who chose math and science, just because normally when you think of creativity, I usually think of a paintbrush, like dancing and music.

Keisha Okafor:
And they also mentioned that they didn’t want to hit the normal black stereotypes. So like a boombox and people doing break dance. They want it to steer away from that. So I personally like math. I still, even at my big age, I watch PBS Kids shows about math and science. So I figured that would be a fun thing to do, a fun thing to go around. And that’s in that forward thinking idea, it was me having like women in STEM, showing young girls the magic in front of it. So that’s where the idea came based on their feedback. That’s how that idea came to pass.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. And once they approved it, I was just going with it. The main critique was at first, I made everyone dark skin and almost the same tone. And they were like, “Oh, can you give it some variety?” I go, “Oh yeah, no problem.” And then they wanted me to use like, I was being very literal at first. So like the sky is blue, rockets are gray. And they were like, “Can you use like some of the colors that you use? Like the ones that you use.” And I was just like, “Oh, okay. So you actually want me to put my spin on it.” I was putting all these rules, adding all these rules to myself. This has to be very literal. If I’m drawing math, it needs to look like math. But once they said that, then that’s when I went crazy with the colors, like, “This guy could be pink and yellow and purple.” So yeah. Then I added my own spin to that. And that’s pretty much how it turned out.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I have to say it looks amazing. And for people that haven’t seen it, we’ll make sure to put a link to it in the show notes so you can definitely check it out. I mean, I get that kind of forward feeling, that forward-thinking notion from that. It’s interesting enough, I had discovered an organization, I think they either left a comment or I saw it somewhere else on the web, but because your piece was centered around STEM, I had discovered this group called Black Girl MATHgic, like Black Girl Magic, but MATHgic. And I mean, I love math too. My degree is in mathematics. So I saw that, I was like, “That is so cute.” That was the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s like it’s a program, but then they also sell some merch for fundraising and stuff. I was like, “This is really dope teaching young black girls math fundamentals and stuff.” It’s pretty cool.

Keisha Okafor:
Oh, that is so amazing. I just love that so much. And the lack Girl MATHgic, Oh my gosh.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like you working with YouTube on this was like a really kind of collaborative process. Are those sort of the best types of clients for you to work with?

Keisha Okafor:
Yes. I would say that working with YouTube was definitely like ideal client. They were very responsive, followed the schedule, they communicated so well. And they were also really nice, like we’re working with big clients, I just assumed like they were going to be very strict and we need to have it look a certain way. They want to work with people, but they want it to look a certain way, it’s what I expected. But working with them, I really saw that they wanted me to show myself in there and to put my own spin. When they said, put your own spin on a theme of black creativity, they actually meant it. That’s why I mentioned the thing with the colors. That was like very refreshing for me, something I really enjoy, like the great communication, being responsive, when things were delayed, they adjusted the schedule to match the delay. I was like, “You’re amazing.” Yeah. I really enjoyed them as a client. And those are things that seeing that it’s possible, those are things that I start to look for when I’m working with people.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s go back to freelancing just a little bit more. When you have a new client or you’re approaching, let’s say, a new project, what does your creative process look like?

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. So usually, I try to get as much information from the client at the beginning as possible because a lot of people say, “Oh, just do whatever.” But they actually have something in mind. So I try to ask a lot of initial questions, just to get an idea, like, do you have an idea or do you actually want me to give you my ideas? I just want that to be clear from the very beginning before I start doing research. And then I also asked like a lot of technical questions, how much do you want the resolution to be? What size? What’s your timeline? Because if it’s a small timeline, then I won’t try to do this super complex thing. I’ll make it simpler.

Keisha Okafor:
But in terms of like the creative making the thing once that’s settled, I usually do a lot of research on stock websites. I like iStockphoto, just to get an idea of like composition, and if it’s something I’m not familiar with, I can’t just think of 35 math formulas off the top of my head. I just got f of x imprinted in my mind, but I need more. So I like to look at stock websites just to see what kinds of things are default, their body poses, body expressions, what do real people look like? Because I don’t want every person I draw to have the same face, but different bodies and different hairstyles. That feels weird to me, but I like when other people do it.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. So I like to go on stock websites just to see if anything is giving me ideas, is it inspirational? Is it good for reference? And once I get that, I’ll start sketching out different ideas, trying out different compositions, just to see like, does anything look good? Can I draw this thing? What are the hands going to look like? And then usually, that’s when I start going back and forth with the client, seeing what they think of my ideas.

Keisha Okafor:
But if anything’s going in the right way, usually, that’s also the time I’ll ask, “Do you have any other ideas once you see this, a better idea of what you’re looking for kind of thing?” And then once that happens, I’ll either revise it or start going with color, again, make more ideas, send that to them. And then it’s usually just a back and forth, giving them the art and then getting their feedback. But as I’ve been working and seeing like how easily that can turn into a 100 revisions, I put limits like, okay, we’re going to have two rounds of revisions. And if you want more, this is going to cost. So yeah, I say back and forth, but it’s back and forth like twice just to protect my time essentially.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, even with all of this, are you also thinking a lot about, let’s say, colors, like a color story or anything to go along with a new project? Or does that come naturally?

Keisha Okafor:
Sometimes it comes naturally, but I also have a Pinterest board just full of different pictures that are like, it’s either a fashion outfits, stationary, graphic design branding, things like that. But if I don’t have any ideas, I’ll just pick from that, like, oh, let me try this, or since I’m on social media a lot and have a lot of artists I follow, there are just some artists I like the way they use color. There’s an artist, her name is Olivia Fields. And one thing she likes to do is have a very monochromatic color scheme, but she uses value so well it’s still very interesting to look at. So if I’m thinking about that lately, I’ll like, let me try to use a monochromatic scheme just to see what it look like if I do it kind of thing. If it doesn’t work, I’ll just trash it. But yeah, it can either come from other artists, that Pinterest board or I’ll just start off with, I want the main color to be yellow and then I’ll just randomly pick colors and adjust it based on that.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. So I want to switch gears here a little bit based on what we were talking about prior to recording. You mentioned you’re from North Carolina, that’s where you grew up. Tell me what it was like growing up as a creative kid in North Carolina.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. I will say my grew up story isn’t similar to like the ones I hear on interviews. People will be like, “I drew all the time, I love drawing.” I drew some of the time and I was mostly watching cartoons, animated movies, just a lot of TV, playing a lot of video games. It wasn’t until I was 13 that I even decided like, oh, I want to do something art related. It was from seeing the Incredibles. I saw the behind the scenes animation thing. And I was like, “I want to be an animator.” But then once I got closer to picking a college and saw what animation was, very quickly, it was like, no, I don’t want to do that.

Keisha Okafor:
I want to draw because I used to draw like a little bit, when I say every once in a while, I mean like a handful of drawings per year. I wasn’t really, I liked to draw, but I wasn’t sitting around drawing all the time because I was just overthinking it so much, I would draw, one time, I drew the Powerpuff Girls, like just very stiff Powerpuff Girls poses and look like them. But then I took it to school for the next few days and showed everyone. I was like, “Praise me. I’m a good artist. Look at me.” And then didn’t draw for like the next few months.

Keisha Okafor:
That was me as a kid artist, but still very much enjoyed it. I took art classes in middle school and high school. And I would say that’s where my artistic skills and sense and interests started to grow. I wasn’t doing anything like extracurricular. I was just taking it as an elective. So by the time I got to college, I was like, “I don’t have any other interests. I want to be an artist. And I’m hoping college will unlock the key to figure out how people actually get paid to make art.”

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean, you went to North Carolina State University, which we’ve had several alums just here on the show that have went there. While you were there, do you feel like they really prepared you to become a working designer out in the world?

Keisha Okafor:
Now, when I look back at it now, I’m like, “Oh yeah, they actually did.” But at the time, I didn’t think so at all, because it just felt very vague, because I also, I majored in art and design at NC State and I thought that meant I’m going to paint, like be an artist. They attach design to it. But they really mean art, right?

Maurice Cherry:
No.

Keisha Okafor:
It was like the first week they were like, “Hey, I know you guys like to draw and paint, but we’re not teaching you to be artists, we’re teaching you to be designers.” And in my mind, I was just like, “No, what is design? Oh, no.” Looking back on it now, I see they were teaching us how to think like designers and how to problem solve. And that’s something that’s been so helpful. And also, with drawing, making sure you understand the foundations of drawing, that’s something that I’ve been using a lot as well, but really that problem solving thing and also how to think like a designer, I would say that’s been the most helpful in my design career. But in terms of like how to get a job, how to make a good portfolio for a job, nope. I’m just like, “I wish I did something about it.” But now that I am working and have had jobs, those design fundamentals have actually been very helpful.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Now, after college, you ended up for a while moving out to LA, what prompted that?

Keisha Okafor:
It was actually like one of those moments of close family member passed away. So it was just very much like life is short kind of moment, let me try things that I would never do, just you never know you get this chance again. And growing up, watching a lot of TV, California always looked cool. And that was one of my bucket list thing, like I want to see what it’s like to live in California. So once that chance came up, I just went for it, oh, man. So scared. I was sweating on that plane just, Ooh, oh my gosh. I was so scared. But yeah, that’s how I ended up getting there.

Keisha Okafor:
And really, my goal was just to see, like, can I go there and survive? Can I do enough to make sure I don’t have a flight back in three months? And I ended up staying for four and a half years, going on five years. I came back to North Carolina at the end of 2019, months before, I mean, months before COVID happened. So I am so, oh, I don’t have family in California. So that’s why I’m like, I am so glad I moved just in time so I could be near my family and at least know they’re safe in person versus a phone call from like 3000 miles away.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, while you were out there, did you get a chance to really experience the LA design scene?

Keisha Okafor:
I don’t think so. When people say that, I’m just like, “So where’s the scene at? And how do I get there?” My only experience was through the jobs I had. And comparing it to North Carolina, the main difference I noticed was that things were way more fast-paced. Yeah, that was like the biggest difference I noticed. And also like, but this is with anything. Once you see the process behind things, it takes that bale away. Things aren’t as glamorous as I initially thought, like I had a job at a media buying agency, where I was editing album covers for social media posts or resizing banner ads that will be put on YouTube, like watching the YouTube video and seeing of like, oh, this looks so like, well, one it’s annoying, but also seeing like a big artist with an ad, I’m like, “Ooh, fancy.” But hearing the media buyers trying to get the space and make it and asking me to resize things and how crazy that process can be, I’m just like, “Okay. These are just regular people trying to just do their jobs.”

Keisha Okafor:
And I would say a big thing that just in general in the workforce, I’m just like, “Man, people procrastinate so much.” I thought that was like one of those warnings I got in college, like, you’ll never be able to procrastinate when [inaudible 00:27:40], but adults do that all the time.

Maurice Cherry:
All the time.

Keisha Okafor:
Yes. Oh my gosh. And it happens so much. When I was working on those album covers, I was just like, “Come on guys. Just please send me the picture so I can resize it.” But it did help me build up efficiency because there were such fast turnarounds. I was used to working at a fast pace. So coming back to North Carolina, that’s how I ended up, when I mentioned earlier doing the work of four people, because I was used to working so fast. Like when things are slower here, it wasn’t that big of a deal. It felt normal. It helped me in that sense. But yeah, you asked about the design scene. I would also love to know what the scene was like, where was the all people? Where were the people at? What do design people do? I didn’t really get that question answered.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it’s interesting because like, you mentioned earlier like, well, where is the design scene? I think designers carve out their own scene based on who they’re working with or working for, who they have met or inspired by. I’ve been to LA only once, I went in the beginning of 2020 in February. And I found that it was just like real, it was just so spread out. I mean, Atlanta is spread out, but LA is way more spread out. I’m like, it takes forever to get anywhere. Like if you’re going to go somewhere, you better hope it’s on your side of town, you don’t have to cross over and go down. It’s so big. I was there for two weeks and I know I only saw maybe like a 10th of LA. It’s so big. So big. I mean, I guess when I asked about like how the design scene was, I’m curious if it was different from maybe the design scene that you knew back home in North Carolina, like you mentioned, it was more fast-paced, but were there other differences?

Keisha Okafor:
That’s a good question. I will say, like you mentioned, because everything was so separated, it was kind of like, if you weren’t in that neighborhood, we’re not going to meet or we’re not going to meet often. So it ends up being like pockets of communities that I would notice. So I had a lot of animation friends because they lived in Glendale and Burbank and they were interested in working at Cartoon Network or Disney TV.

Keisha Okafor:
So I would meet those people in Burbank and Glendale, but then the people who were interested in more of graphic design or stationary, I talked to those people down near the beach because that’s where a lot of the agencies were. It was like, I could find pockets of people in different areas, but it was so rare for them all to come together just because how long it took to go places like, like literally, Google Maps will say something is maybe 10 miles away and you think, oh, I’ll get there no time. That’s an hour trip one way. I’m just like, “This doesn’t add up.” But then you take the trip and I’m just like, “That took an hour. Oh my gosh.” So it’s just like people aren’t going to make that. Even people who were natives, they weren’t really going to make that trip on a regular basis. So it was just like pockets of communities that I would have in the different places I was at depending on where I lived and worked. That’s how I ended up seeing the people.

Keisha Okafor:
But I feel like in North Carolina, everyone is in Raleigh, you’re in Raleigh, I can get to the edge of Raleigh, the top, it will take like 20 minutes. So to me, compared to being in LA, I’m like, “That’s not a big trip at all.” So I feel like people are taking more initiative to meet up, and I’m sure that’s because of COVID as well, have like a lot of meetups and groups and workshops and stuff. Whereas it would be like a once in a lifetime thing to do, I’ll take this trip one time an hour for this workshop, but don’t count on me to come every week.

Maurice Cherry:
And the web is going to change things too. I mean, there’s events and workshops and things. A lot of stuff has come online just over the past year that before either didn’t exist or it was just inaccessible because of location or something like that.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. Adobe MAX, the first time I attended it was last year because it was virtual. I lived in LA and it happened there every year, but I just was not about to sit there and pay for it not only, but just go there and talk designer talk. Sometimes I feel like there could be a prestige that some people might have, like, hello, I’m art designer. I integrate things together. They use all the design words and I’m not very good at that. I’m just like, “Yeah, make pictures.” So being in that environment isn’t something I would want to pay to do. So it was nice to be able to attend the virtual version because I never would have went otherwise. Yes, there were so many conferences and things I’ve never heard about that I got to hear about because it was virtual and people I got to meet because of that, which is nice to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. As I was going through your work, I saw your illustration work and your portrait work, which is beautiful, but your patterns, the patterns on your website are absolutely gorgeous. I love that you have in your bio, on your website, you mentioned that you’re an artist and designer depicting joy. What does it mean for you to depict joy in your work?

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. So in terms of people, you’ll probably see that I draw a lot of black people. And one thing that makes me happy about black culture and just black people in general is just seeing us love the things that we love, however we love it. It just makes me really happy to see all the different facets and ways that black people just are. I get so excited. And I feel like when I draw that, that’s where I’m trying to convey just how excited I am to see black people as they are, doing whatever they like, looking as cool or as goofy or as happy as they are. I feel like that comes through with the people.

Keisha Okafor:
And in terms of the patterns, I really like music. But when I hear music, I tend to see a lot of different shapes and colors just moving together. That’s how I see the song. Like me drawing those abstract patterns, it’s usually me listening to music and drawing whatever comes to mind. So just kind of like the happiness that comes from listening to music, that energy is something I’m trying to capture in the patterns. And I like for it to fit together kind of like different sounds fit together in a song, that’s how it shows up in the patterns.

Maurice Cherry:
And when you’re even doing these patterns, it also seems like you’re drawing from nature some too. I don’t know maybe if that was just the particular collection that you were doing, but I saw a lot of kind of tropical themes and leaves and stuff like that. It’s just very, very stunning work.

Keisha Okafor:
Thank you. Yeah, the tropical thing is I just love the way tropical scenery looks. I also think it’s nice, like all the different leaves and like patterns that you see within leaves, I think that’s nice as well, but also sometimes, if I draw too many triangles and circles, I’m like, “Let me draw something that people can recognize.” So it ends up just being leaves and flowers for some reason. I’m not even a big flower person, it just ends up coming out, or I’ll just look up pictures of flowers. But yeah, I really love tropical weather and themes and stuff. So I just end up drawing it a lot.

Maurice Cherry:
I have not met a Nigerian that didn’t like bright colors. So you’re definitely onto something there.

Keisha Okafor:
[inaudible 00:35:22]. I love that. You’re right. You’re right.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you get your creativity back if you are feeling uninspired, like say you hit a block in a project somewhere you’re working on something, what do you do to get that spark back?

Keisha Okafor:
So when I am inspired, I have a bunch of hidden Pinterest boards. And then I also have a notebook where when I’m inspired, I just write down ideas of things that I think will be cool to make. So when I am feeling blocked or uninspired, I’ll look through that Pinterest board. One is just called Black, and it’s just black people, just random black people that I can find on Pinterest. It used to be really hard, but I saved so many pictures and looked at it that Pinterest has realized this girl likes to look here black people. So now my homepage has that.

Keisha Okafor:
So I’ll either look at that Pinterest board, just kind of seeing people do stuff or I also have some with just colors or textures or shapes. I’ll just look through the Pinterest board or I’ll look through that list of ideas that I have. I’ll either do that or I’ll just take a break. Turn the thing off, turn the computer off, turn the iPad off, watch TV, play a video game, take a nap and then come back. Yeah. And then if there’s like a time crunch, I’m just like, “Well, honestly, think about the money.” I’m like, “Girl, do you want to get paid?” I’m like, “Yeah.” So I just do it no matter what I’m like, okay. Just loosen up. Then I’ll take a five minute break, loosen up, get some water or something and then come back and just do it.

Keisha Okafor:
Or another thing I’ll do, sometimes I’m not a good singer, but I love to sing. So I’ll just turn on Spotify and then just force myself to sing along out loud as bad as it’s going to come out, just so to get my mind not overthinking it. And then things usually come out better. If I have, like my mind is focused on me singing, even though like, what notes? What notes am I hitting? So that helps me have a bit of more energy and looseness to the art that I’m making.

Maurice Cherry:
One thing that I would do when I was working on projects is I’d always build in at least a week into the sort of like project plan, because I mean, I think the expectation, certainly, I think from clients, but oftentimes, for us as freelances, as designers, the expectation is we’ll get the work and we’ll just be able to knock it out, like we’ll sit down and we’ll know what we do because the client has brought us on for our expertise. So we have to be the expert.

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean, depending on how, if you set up a project rate or hourly rate or a day rate or whatever, sometimes clients will try to nickel and dime you to try to know like, well, how long did it take you to work on X, Y, Z, and blah, blah, blah? And I certainly early on in my freelance career, that was a mistake that I made. And then eventually, I switched things over either to like a project rate or I do like a day rate or something like that. I’d build in like a week of time because there’s no telling.

Maurice Cherry:
And for me, it’s almost like creative insurance, like I may need it in the future if something happens, like what if I get sick? Or what if I just am not feeling it? And I can take that time out of the bank sort of because I’ve built it into the project and then I can, like if I take a day off and then decide to come back later and do it, then that way I’m not impacting the project because I built that time in there. It gives me permission to not have to be a machine when it comes to like creativity because sometimes the ideas flow and sometimes they just don’t.

Maurice Cherry:
And I’ve certainly been at that place where you’re at, where you’re like, you just have to think about the money, like think about what this is going to do. And then you soldier on or you push through it. But yeah, that’s one thing that I would do is I just build in the time because the good thing is if you never use it, then you come out early and the client is happy. And then if you do use it, the client is still happy because you came out on time.

Keisha Okafor:
Right. That’s great. Because I learned in the design world as well, especially when I was at that media buying agency, it was an open office and there were only like eight of us. So sometimes I’ll work on stuff, they just be standing over my shoulder, “How long do you think it’ll take?” I’m like, “Please. Oh, I think it’ll take me a few hours rolling.” It wouldn’t. It would take me shorter than that, but I like to add in that buffer, just like you said, like if something happens, I can still turn it in when I said I could, but also giving myself that insurance, like you said, to make it.

Keisha Okafor:
But in terms of the illustration projects now, those few hours turns into a couple of extra days or maybe an extra week, like you said. Yeah. Especially when people say they have a tight turnaround, things never are as tight as people want it to be, especially with getting revisions and just getting feedback, especially if there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen. So it is way better to add in more time for that kind of stuff in the beginning, like you said.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now when you were in school, when you were back at North Carolina State, let’s say, I think that was maybe probably around 10 years ago at this point, right?

Keisha Okafor:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
Where did you see yourself career-wise by this age where you’re at now?

Keisha Okafor:
Honestly, by the time I graduated, I was just like, “Am I cut out for this?” Honestly, because I thought, again, like when I was 18 entering college, I thought, okay, college is going to give me the roadmap. And by the time I am a senior, I’m going to know exactly what I want to do, how to get there and I’ll be able to get there. But that didn’t happen when I was a senior. I felt kind of similar to how I was as a freshman, like, what? Like, what am I doing? I need to find a job.

Keisha Okafor:
So I mainly, the main goal I had, I was like, Keisha, please have a job, please have a job and an apartment that you can pay for with your job. I had very, very basic goals for myself, have a job that’s something related to design. Yeah, that was pretty much my only goal. I wanted, the idea of freelance sounded good, but then at that time, I had no idea how to do it. So it wasn’t even, it was more like a fantasy more than like me seeing myself there.

Maurice Cherry:
I didn’t go to design school, but it is something that I’ve thought about in terms of like, do I need this in order to have this legitimacy for myself as a designer? Because I’ve been self-taught and I did a little bit of work at companies, like I worked for the State of Georgia for a while, I worked at AT&T for a while. And then like, I really had just felt like, you know what? I got this, I could start my own studio and do this and really do it myself. And I’ve learned so much really just in the time that I had my studio doing things by myself, but they never really teach you entrepreneurship. I mean, again, I didn’t go to design school, but even with the work that I was doing, by the time I started my studio, I had a bachelor’s and a master’s degree and still didn’t know anything about freelancing. I was really either making it up as I went along or I was asking other freelances. I was really gaining this education while I was also trying to run my business.

Keisha Okafor:
Absolutely. Because in design school, in my senior year, we had this class that the description was literally, we’re going to prepare you to get a job. But when we actually took the class, they were like, “You need a website. Do you know what a website is? You can make websites on Squarespace.” I’m like, “Are you kidding me? This is my senior year and you’re teaching us that we need a website. Of course, we do. What are you talking about? How do you get a job? Please tell me what to put on my resume and how to get the people to actually hire me.”

Keisha Okafor:
Even then, like being in design school didn’t make that difference. It’s almost like they’re out of touch with what was happening in the world. Like they got the art skills, but getting a job or even being an entrepreneur, that wasn’t even close to being thought about in any of my classes. I would have had to talk to alumni who are already doing it. And kind of like you said, they were figuring it out on their own or like having outside resources to figure that out. So I definitely don’t think going to design school will or not going to design school, you won’t really be missing out honestly.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, by the time I really started figuring it out, I think I was about, I don’t know, I think maybe I was about two or three years into my studio and from just talking with other freelancers and picking up, because sometimes you just have to get, unfortunately, you just have to get burned a few times in business before you learn that lesson or whatever that particular lesson is. But I think by the time I was like, by the time I hit my fifth year, I had it down pat at that point, I knew about contracts and proposals and getting things done and everything just ran smoothly, but it took some time to get there.

Maurice Cherry:
So yeah. I think now, because freelancing is an option for so many people, whether they do it either independently, like you’re doing, or if they do something like working via like a design marketplace, such as ThemeForest or Envato Elements or Envato Market, whatever the thing is that Envato has with all of the different websites and stuff, Fiverr, even those kinds of things, Upwork, there’s ways that you can use those tools to manage your business better, but it’s still, at the end of the day, it comes down to really knowing what those fundamentals are and knowing what works best for you. I think certainly, when I was doing business, there’s not an all-purpose solution for like being an entrepreneur. I wish there was. But once you learn what works for you in terms of cashflow and payments and client communication and everything, then you’ve cracked it, you’ve cracked the code pretty much.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. A lot of the stuff I’ve learned even about graphic design because NC State does have a graphic design major, but I majored in art and design, a lot of the stuff I learned about graphic design was just learning by doing. It ended up being like the jobs I had, more doing stuff for family and friends was really the stuff that prepared me for the different jobs. And I’m learning that that’s the same thing that’s happening with freelance as well, like the classes that I take, the people, the Instagram artists that I’ll DM or Instagram friends I have, I’ll DM, those things have been really helpful. And also, like you said, being burnt, having bad clients, that helps me set better boundaries for future clients, like knowing what to do. So yeah, that’s definitely something I’m in the process of right now. I’m definitely looking forward to the part where everything runs itself.

Maurice Cherry:
It’ll get there probably I think sooner than you expect. Before you know it, it’ll just flow. It’s sort of like a… I mean, you watch anime, it’s like the Avatar State. Eventually, you’ll be able to just invoke it and you’ll be good.

Keisha Okafor:
Awesome. Avatar is one of my favorite shows. So I love that you said the Avatar State.

Maurice Cherry:
What are you obsessed with at the moment?

Keisha Okafor:
Speaking of anime, so I’m watching this anime called Fruits Basket. It’s a silly premise. When it’s like, if you hug someone of the opposite gender, they will turn into Zodiac animal, so like the Year of the Horse, or a cat, rat, like things like that. But you end up finding out everyone has these crazy backstories and there’s this whole curse and things like that. So I’ve just been binge-watching that show basically, because I’m so curious to see what’s happening. Other than that, I’ve been playing a video game called Mario & Sonic at The Olympic Games for 2020. I’ve just been going through the story mode. There was one, it’s the triple jump and I keep getting disqualified. So I got mad and turned it off, but I still think about it because I’m like, “I’m going to win.” Yeah. I would say those two things.

Keisha Okafor:
Also, I have a cat. I’ve never had a pet before, but I got one a few months ago, honestly, off the strength of seeing other black people on social media have cats and they seem to enjoy it. And I always wanted a cat. So I ended up getting one. So I spend a lot of time peeking over the couch, seeing what she’s doing or looking for her around the house and just smiling really big. She gets annoyed, but I think she’s used to it. I would say I’m pretty obsessed with her.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Do you have like a dream project that you would love to do one day?

Keisha Okafor:
That’s a great question. I would say the only dream project I had, I got to do it last year. So I got to illustrate a deck of playing cards and I pretty much did the art direction for the whole thing. So you mentioned the tropical idea, there was a running idea I had for a long time of joining black people in the tropical space, kind of like an oasis, a place where they could freely celebrate themselves without all the isms in the world that black people carry. So I pretty much made the deck around that and got the job black people being happy or silly in that tropical environment. And that was something I really enjoy doing. If I think of like a future project, it would be a similar thing, but in a different format. I haven’t figured that out yet, but definitely enjoyed doing that deck of cards, but I’m not sure if that’s like a book or like a coffee book or like a storybook, but that’s kind of like something that I’m juggling in my head right now.

Maurice Cherry:
What is the best advice that you’ve ever been given regarding what you do as an illustrator?

Keisha Okafor:
Interestingly enough, I would say the best advice I have is more of like a you as a person. So like, not finding your identity in the work that you do, you’re more than the work that you do. You are enough as you are. Like those kinds of things I’ve seen have made the biggest difference for me. Yeah, a lot of times the artsy-fartsy, mumbo-jumbo, it just slides off of me. I’m just like, this sounds, but when I draw, what does that mean? So hearing things like, I’m more than the art that I make is very freeing for me to be able to just have fun with it and do stuff that I like. And I don’t have to judge myself based on how well I drew today.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I can see how that, I mean, well, one, I see that is good advice just in general, like, make sure that you don’t get too caught up in the work, but also realize that you put your own identity into everything that you do as well.

Keisha Okafor:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next like five years? Like this whole pandemic craziness is over with, it’s 20, what? 2026. What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Keisha Okafor:
Honestly, I haven’t thought that far ahead. I was like, “Will the world still be turning at that time?” I think it would be.

Maurice Cherry:
I hope so.

Keisha Okafor:
You’re right. Me too. Honestly, I hope I’ll be doing bigger projects, projects I’m really excited about. I’m enjoying the projects that I’m doing right now. So more, just like an extension of the kinds of things I’m doing right now getting to illustrate different people, doing things, really hoping to get into the Children’s Book World, be able to illustrate them to children’s books. That’s something I’m looking forward to. And also, I want to get my patterns onto products. So one thing I’m hoping to do also in five years is to have my products on things. Yeah. More of like, just like all the different ways I can get my work out there, either on products or online in different formats. That’s something I’m hoping will happen, just as I grow and do things and get better at art, have it just spread onto different formats as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you and about your work and everything that you’re doing online?

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. So you can find my work on my website, which is keishaokafor.com, O-K-A-F-O-R. You can also find me on social media on Twitter and Instagram, mostly Instagram @keishaoak, oak as in oak tree, O-A-K. The reason why it’s like that is just so you know how to pronounce Okafor. But yeah, that’s pretty much where I’m at, Instagram, Twitter and my website.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Keisha Okafor, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I have to say, I just love how joyful and colorful and vibrant your work is. Like I mentioned, when I discovered you from the work that you did at YouTube, I was just looking at your website, like, this is so fun. And I have to say that it’s rare to see a designer put that sort of joy into their work, but I am really excited to see what sort of work you’ll be doing after this interview, after people get a chance to really see your work, because I feel like this sort of vibrancy and joy in life is what we need right now. We need to be seeing more of this everywhere. And so I’m excited for people to really learn more about you and learn more about your work. And yeah, just thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Keisha Okafor:
Thank you for having me. I am hope, really excited for people to see my work too. And I really appreciate all your kind words. Yeah, I definitely, I’m just like, if I’m going to draw, I’m going to have fun with it and I want everyone else to have fun with it too. So definitely excited to see where it all goes.

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Cherry-Ann Davis

What happens when a Trini woman ends up in the largest city in Switzerland to learn design? You have Cherry-Ann Davis, a graduate design student at Zurich University of the Arts, and a self-proclaimed creator of visuals and words. Quite a combination, right?

Cherry-Ann and I talk about her design thesis, as well as her work at a feminist design publication called The Futuress. Cherry-Ann also spoke on growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, how she switched her career from marketing to design, and spoke on finding community in an entirely new place. According to Cherry-Ann, you should stay open to anything because you’ll never know where it will take you. I can’t argue with that!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
I am Cherry-Ann Davis and I am currently a master’s student at Zurich University of the Arts studying visual communication design.

Maurice Cherry:
And Zurich, that’s Zurich as in Switzerland, correct?

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Yes. Zurich as in Switzerland. I left my good hot island in the Caribbean to Zurich, another part of the world that I’ve not been before. Well, first of all, I never left my country for longer than a week before moving to Switzerland.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. And you’ve been there… I think you told me earlier, you’ve been there since February of last year.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Yes. February 1st, 2020, I moved, I packed my four suitcases. It’s everything that I won and I hold dear in my life, and I brought with me. So many books. And I came by myself into a new world.

Maurice Cherry:
How’s it been adjusting to everything?

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Well, one months after arriving, there was a global lockdown. So that adjustment period was quite hard because I didn’t know anybody. The one person that I knew, he kind of dropped me as soon as I got to Switzerland. So I was in a pandemic by myself, not knowing anyone in a flat with two other people upstairs.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
And the people who were on my floor left, they went back to their countries to spend quarantine with their families, to spend that time. And I was just there by myself. Being new to school, not even having time to meet my classmates and get to know them. It was rough. It was real hard.

Maurice Cherry:
My goodness. I can only imagine. How did you get through that? Well, I mean, I guess you’re kind of still getting through it, right?

Cherry-Ann Davis:
I am still getting through it. Enough prayers. I prayed a lot and I spoke to my therapist a lot, because as much as I was prepared mentally to move to another country, I was not prepared mentally to move to another country and be in so much isolation. Although I lived on my own when I was back in Trinidad, it was something that I could not comprehend.

Maurice Cherry:
As we’re recording this, so for people that know, we’re recording this right before Memorial day, so right near the end of May. What’s the situation like in Zurich or in Switzerland, I guess, as it relates to reopening or anything?

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Right now, next Monday, all of the restaurants will be reopening to have both inside and outside guests. So for the last two weeks, they were just having people, they could dine on the patios or outside of your restaurants. But from this Monday, all the restaurants will be opened for both seating inside and outside. That is mainly because there’s a big drive to get people vaccinated.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
I had my last shots yesterday and I’m scared as fuck because I’m thinking about all of the history with vaccination and being Black, and I’m in a predominantly White country. So my fear is just going off the radar right now. But Zurich is one of the cities that has opened up vaccination for all persons no matter your age group or your risk right now. So with that, they are trying to open more and more. Relaxing measures more and more. Sorry.

Maurice Cherry:
Which vaccine did you get?

Cherry-Ann Davis:
I am not sure. I think it’s Moderna, but it might be AstraZeneca. I can’t remember. I was so nervous when they were telling me, I kind of blanked out.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I mean, but it was one you had to get two shots for?

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. So it was probably Moderna. I think actually those might be the only two shots that are available globally. I don’t know if Pfizer is or not. I’m not sure.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
I think when talking to some of my friends yesterday, Pfizer was available in a different part of Switzerland. So Switzerland is actually… Well, Zurich is actually larger than my country. So at different parts of Zurich, you could get a different vaccine. So I’m just like, wow, that’s weird.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean all these news, and I’ve mentioned this on the show before. So for folks listening, I’m not trying to belabor the point, but I mean, all of the news around this has just been changing week after week, whether it’s availability, or restrictions and things opening up. There’s been such a rush back here in America, in the U.S. for things to reopen that it’s kind of staggering.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it was so interesting because I remember this time last year, there was so much about making sure people wash their hands for 20 seconds and wore a mask. And now that it’s masks off, I mean, everywhere, people are just… It’s going to be a wild summer in the United States because people are ready to get out.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Right now I get scared when I’m on the tram when I see someone not wearing a mask, I’m like, “Yo, so what are you doing? This is Corona.” And for me, it’s kind of baffling because back home in Trinidad, right now there’s a state of emergency. You can’t go anywhere between 9:00 and 6:00. And if you are going anyway outside of those hours, you have to have a good reason as well to be outdoors.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
You can’t exercise outdoors. I feel it for the people back home. And here I am having the opportunity to get a vaccine even because back home, they ran out of vaccines, and I am here with so much privilege and this man not wearing his mask, like what are you doing?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I know some Europeans that came, they flew over here last month to get the vaccine because the country that they were in, it didn’t seem that it was going to be available or they didn’t really have a sense of when the vaccines would be available. So they just flew over here, got it, and that was it.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Well, that’s an ability that very few have, that access to even leave your own country to get a vaccine. People don’t realize that privilege. I have friends in Berlin and they can’t even get the vaccine.

Maurice Cherry:
I think now it appears that vaccines are starting to get out to more countries from the U.S. because right now we’re at this point where supply is greatly outpacing demand. And partly that’s because prior to, I want to say maybe a couple of weeks ago, you really had to go to mass vaccination sites or maybe get them through your doctor or something, but now you can get them at pretty much any pharmacy. You can get it at-

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Really?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. The availability has increased a lot. But even with that, some people, because it’s a… If they do a two shot like Pfizer or Moderna, they’re only getting the first shot and not the second one because people are talking about side effects and everything.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
That was one of the things that was happening in Trinidad. So before I think they ran out of the vaccines, a few people who are in the high-risk area, they were able to get the flu shot, and then they ran out of vaccine. So it was like, what’s going to happen now that they need to get a second shot. Do they know after wait to get the same brand of shots or would they get a second shot from another brand of medication? So it’s questions, just big question marks in Trinidad.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, let’s shift the conversation away from vaccines and all that sort of stuff. Talk to me about what you’re studying. You said you’re at the Zurich Institute for the Arts. Is that what it was?

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Zurich University of the Arts.

Maurice Cherry:
Zurich University of the Arts. Thank you.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Yes. I am doing visual communication design. I came with the intention of doing a project around pattern design on Trinidad and Tobago. Because I had so much time during Corona and I have to have a thesis to go along with my artifacts, I was able to think a little bit deeper into what I want my project to be, because I initially, I was just thinking about the diversity and the culture of Trinidad and Tobago being represented in some type of pattern design for fabric or wallpaper.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
I told my interviewers when I was applying for the school, that will love to see a line of IKEA wallpapers that just shows the brilliance and vibrance of Trinidad and Tobago through pattern design, and he said, “Yes. We have partners in IKEA.” And I said, yes, that’s what I want my project to be.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
And during lockdown, I had way too much time on my hands, and I got to thinking, what does a pattern design actually say? And how does it benefit the design industry? And what would my thesis say? And what am I adding to the conversation? So it changed. It pivoted from being pattern design of Trinidad and Tobago as a thesis on the artifact, to the thesis now looking at how can designers who are not part of the Western world utilize their own culture to create inspiration for designs.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a really rich subject to go into.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Yeah. For me, it’s something that I wanted when I was doing corporate design because I worked at a bank that was throughout the Caribbean. So we were operating in 17 islands at the time, and I was responsible for all of the visuals. So all of the marketing campaigns. I was responsible for creating the ads whether it was digital, or print, or even TV ads, I would be the person who would give approval along with my colleagues in Canada.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
And a lot of times, my colleagues in Canada, I remember this one meeting, it was for a Christmas campaign, and they proposed an idea and I was the one reviewing it and providing the Caribbean context. And they were like, “Well, we’re not sure if you all have hardwood floors and you all use Christmas trees.”

Cherry-Ann Davis:
And I’m like, “What do you mean if we have hardwood floors? Where do you think we live? On the beach and swinging from tree to tree? We have hardwood floors. We have tiled floors. We have [inaudible 00:15:42] just like everybody else.” And I basically had to let them know, hey, as much as you think that your view of things are better and your ideas are wrong, design, or even life, maybe more rich because of your position in Western world, we still have access to all of these things too.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Just do a simple Google search, and you’ll see how rich our countries are. And from that is where a seed was planted. Because so many times us as designers who don’t belong to the Western world, we still have to conform to a lot of the Western canon on how to design, on how we should market our products to people. And we most of the times don’t consider our audience, which is the people that we’re advertising to. They are also rich with diversity that we should reflect in our ads as well. So that was where the idea was based in.

Maurice Cherry:
I think that’s a marvelous idea. And it’s something that at least I know here in the States, there’s been a lot of talk around decolonizing design, which is sort of trying to free people’s mindsets away from honestly, from a Eurocentric vision of design like Swiss design, or German design, or French design, or whatever, by trying to free yourself from that and learn about designers from other cultures or even designers from different races so you can sort of add to your own design, knowledge, and research, and inspiration to create bigger and better things.

Maurice Cherry:
There was a couple of weeks ago we had Kaleena Sales, who teaches at Tennessee State University. And one of the focuses that she has for her work when she’s talking to her students and teaching her students is having them plum their own culture to put it into their work because she teaches at a historically Black college. Her students are Black. She’s Black. So that’s where you should be pulling from for your design, instead of trying to mimic, I don’t know, the Bauhaus or whatever.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Yes. For me, I actually strengthened my idea in the BIPOC Design History course that was run by Polymode. So Silas Monroe and some other lecturers came together and they presented what a canon would look like if African-Americans were included in it. And for me, that opened my eyes to think, so why didn’t I learn about my own design history in school? I remember my design teacher always mentioning to us that good design is very clean and very Scandinavian or Swiss.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
And I’m like, but we have kind of more. We have so much color, and richness, and diversity. Why can’t I include that into my own designs? And for me, my thesis is more about showing designers that it can happen because I’m utilizing my own country, so Trinidad and Tobago, and our rich diversity, and history, and culture, and language in my artifact. So it’s more leaning towards a case study of how you can do it.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
So it’s not just the theory around decolonization and postcoloniality. It is there, but it is centered in, this is what it is. This is how we do it. So many times when people do master’s and PhDs, it’s so academic level that a practitioner can’t understand what’s happening. And I want me, as a 22 year old designer, or aspiring designer to be able to say, I understand what she’s saying. I could do that. Now let me implement it in my own design processes.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a really smart way to think about it. And you’re right. I mean, I know when I think about Trinidad and Tobago, because I went to college here in Atlanta, but we had a ton of Caribbean students, mostly from Trinidad and Tobago. And even just talking with them and hearing them talk about home, and the richness of their culture, and the food, and the music, and everything, why wouldn’t you want to infuse that into your design because that’s what you get inspired by.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Yeah. There was a lecture recently at a workshop that I’m co-curating with the futurist, and Toshika Arno Sutton was there, and she was also part of the BIPAC Design History. And she presented an exercise that she did in her degree program, and it was around the genealogy of design. And she infused in it her musical influences, her literary influences, the designers that made sense to her that time.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
And she mentioned that throughout, she noticed all of her non-design inspirations were of Black culture, but her design inspiration was not of Black culture because there were no Black designers that she was aware of at the time. And that’s when she pivoted her direction. And that’s part of my research so far. I’ve been interviewing my mentor, who is one of the lecturers in Trinidad who teaches almost all of the professional designers.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
And she has been teaching for the last 30 odd years at the [inaudible 00:21:15] Institute. And she has said… Well, in the interview, she said, “Well, yes, we have our culture, but there’s a standards to design, there are rules design.” And I’m like, “Miss, but we have rules, but shouldn’t we be allowed to interpret the rules through our lenses that we live.”

Cherry-Ann Davis:
And she says, “Yes, Cherry, your visual vocabulary and your life experiences should influence how you design, but at the end of the day, it’s still based on what the clients want.” And that kind of broke my heart a little bit because I am there thinking as much as I am following the brief of a client, if my audience is in Trinidad, it should reflect my audience more than the rules of design.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Right now, tethering on should I even think about what decolonizing design should be? Or should I just say they are the rules of design and you could break it, but not too much right now. So it’s a confusing space to me as well.

Maurice Cherry:
I can see. I mean, I don’t know. My advice is to break it, that’s just me, but also I didn’t go to design school. So maybe don’t listen to that. But I mean, I can see where that conundrum exists. You definitely want to pull from what you know, but, wow, that’s so interesting. That’s so interesting to hear. I want to talk about the Futurist since you mentioned it. Can you talk about what it is and sort of what attracted you to it?

Cherry-Ann Davis:
So The Futurist is a para academic organization. So it’s an Institute that provides guidance for writers and that’s how I initially engaged with it. So last year in 2020, there was a workshop called Troublemakers. It’s the second workshop that was held. And it’s basically any format of an online course, as well as a writing workshop for students who want to be a part of a community of let’s say troublemakers, literally.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
So we are the ones who are doing texts on difficult subjects and themes that most universities don’t necessarily want to get involved with or get too deep in because it’s a hard topic to navigate. So for me, a Trinidadian being in a Swiss design school, and one of my professors actually asking me, “So what’s the difference between your work as a Trinidadian and a Jamaican student who was enrolled at the time?”

Cherry-Ann Davis:
I was like, “Well, She’s from Jamaica.” Those simple things that I needed a community to even understand some of the terms that I needed to negotiate, and Futurist was that community. So I started off in futurist as participants in a workshop, and I messaged and I said, hey, I want to be a part of this. If you need an intern, I’m available.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
I have a lots of free time next year because I’m extending my studies and I want to be a part of this. And at the beginning of this year, I was looking for a job and I just came out of an interview to be a nanny for two kids. And I was like, Cherry, you can’t be on nanny for nobody children because you don’t have that level of patience. You have two degrees, and the moment somebody child turn to you and shout a little too loud, your Caribbean instinct might hit in and you might want to discipline the child.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
And this is not Trinidad. People won’t understand this. And at that moment negotiating these thoughts with myself to not say yes to that type of job, I got an email from Nina and she was like, “Cherry, are you still interested in being an intern?” I was like, thank you, Jesus. You know my heart. And at that moment, I was like ,”Yes. Hell yes. I will send on my resume.” And she was so impressed with how I was in the workshop with my texts.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
So at the workshop, you present a text that you want to work on for three months period, and within that period, you help… What was the word I’m looking for? You help other participants by reviewing their texts as well. So it’s a peer review, but under the guidance of added time three persons who were at The Futurist.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
So in that, you give feedback to your partners, but you’re in a group of about six or seven persons and any group, you all just provide feedback on each other’s texts. And throughout, I was always able to provide guidance, or provide suggestions, or there was always a rapport of me helping. And that led to me being open and able to be a part of The Futurist. And this year, I co curated. So I came up with the program along with Nina, which is against the grain. It’s an online course, as well as the writing fellowship.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m looking at it now on the website and it says it’s an online course and fellowship program fostering critical perspectives on the designed past and democratizing access to design history writing in a broad sense. I love that The Futurist’s focus is on design politics and design writing. Is that just sort of born out of what Nina, who is the, I guess she’s what, the founder of Futurist?

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Is that sort of born out of what she wanted to do or did you see this more as a community need?

Cherry-Ann Davis:
It’s both. So the first aspect for all of our online workshops is we create a theme, and from the theme, we invite persons to sign up for the online course. This is the third iteration. And for this iteration, it was a payment for the persons who wanted to participate in the online course, and in your participation to the online course, you will be sponsoring the persons who wanted to take part in the writing course.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
And this worked out really well because we were able to open the online course for more persons, as well as the writing course for 42 persons who are writing critical design theory texts. And this format provides also a community. We operate on slack mainly. So we have a community of over 250 persons. Any slack group for just this one workshop against the grain.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
And last workshop, which was troublemakers, we had 50 persons, and this workshop was mainly focused on writing. But with this new iteration, we were able to do a bit more and open up the community to a larger amount of people. So we have people from seven continents all over.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Seven, even Antarctica?

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Okay. Maybe not seven continents.

Maurice Cherry:
I was going to say, if you all got a research scientist or some penguins or something, that’s pretty dope.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
But we do have one person doing research on the Dodo bird, which is quite interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
I love that the focus is on writing. And I guess the, I don’t know, eventually those pieces will get published on Futurist once they’re through with this workshop.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Yes. So this is a format that has moved from the first workshop, which was The L.i.P. Collective, very focused on feminists writing throughout a period, and then truly troublemakers, a lot of the pieces are still being published. And with against the grain, this would provide texts that will be published on The Futurist.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
So a lot of times when people do master’s research and they put their life into this, they put the two years worst of knowledge into this, it just sits in a drawer somewhere and nobody reads it. As much passion that is imbued in this work, nobody reads it. Nobody gets to see this research and Futurist provides the opportunity for this research to be viewed by as many persons as possible. And I think that’s one of the best things.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
And I could access to this as well because my text, as part of the troublemakers, was published recently. It is called Culture No Context where I was looking at the ethics of ethnographic museums. So I had a lot of beef with ethnographic museums when I came to Switzerland and I went to a couple. I was able to process that through the workshop, and it’s also part of my thesis for my master’s as well.

Maurice Cherry:
What is an ethnographic museum?

Cherry-Ann Davis:
So ethnographic museums are museums that take cultural artifacts and displays in a artistic sense. So if you think of textiles or sculptural pieces from Africa, India, Oceana, South America, all of these things will be just on display in an ethnographic museum. Sometimes it may be a range and gallery style. So it might be curated for a collection, or it might just be in their archives open for people to view, which is another thing that was hard for me to deal with.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. Wow. I want to break a little bit from talking about, of course, your journey and the work that you’re doing in Switzerland just to go back to Trinidad and Tobago for a minute. Talk about what it was like growing up there.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Well, Trinidad and Tobago is the most beautiful place. Everybody will tell you their island nice, but my island real, real nice. But I grew up in [inaudible 00:31:24], which is a place that the news always portrays as one of the worst place in Trinidad and Tobago. That wasn’t really my experience. I experienced community. I experienced people looking out for each other.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Yes, there is violence in our communities, but it’s not as much as the news reports it to be. And I’ve always had this view that, hey, maybe what you read on the news is not always true, because it wasn’t always my lived experience. I went to school in places that people will associate as the worst areas of Port of Spain. So there’s a part of Port of Spain that people call wrongly bridge.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
So there’s Picton, Nelson Street and Bethlehem Girls. These were three primary schools in the area and I went to Bethlehem Girls, and I fell in love with art in the primary schools of Bethlehem Girls in our area where there were people tune in ponds, people making mass costumes. There was always creativity and vibrance in every aspect of my life. Move on love.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
And until is places where the pan came from, which is in national instruments. And carnival really is boosted in these areas that people don’t like the most. And I’ve always had a idea that, and creativity is born in the places where struggle is also overwhelmingly popular.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What it sounds like is that you grew up around a lot of creativity and ingenuity from these so-called rough neighborhoods or these rough places.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Yeah. There was so much ingenuity because you had to find ways to survive. You had to find ways to make money. You had to find ways in order to feed your family. My grandmother used to sell in a markets every weekend, and I used to be there with her. I had my own little stalls selling my own little things, trying to make money for my own self.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
And at that time, I didn’t understand that she was teaching me about business on how to invite people so that you could sell them your products over the person next to you who may have the same products. And many times she would tell me to draw a sign and put the price and everybody else would just have the number $2 for a [inaudible 00:33:51] tomatoes.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
I would take my time and I would draw it and I would put little sunflowers around it. And these little things, I think it may not have helped. But I think to myself that these may have invited people to come to our stall to buy more things. But in different ways, creativity was always around me.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
But sometimes I wasn’t aware of it at the time. And hindsight, it’s not 2020 anymore. Hindsight, is really you think that it makes you realize, hey, the lesson that you didn’t learn then, you’re learning now. We’re not talking about 2020 anymore.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, when you were in Trinidad and Tobago, you started out at the College of Science and Technology and Applied Arts, and later you finished up at the University of Trinidad and Tobago. I’m totally basing this off of your LinkedIn. So please feel free to chime in and correct me if I’m wrong. But you kind of made this switch from marketing to design. Where did that shift come in?

Cherry-Ann Davis:
As a teenager, after my grandmother passed away, I moved in with my uncle and aunt and they really pushed me more towards the business side because I was always two minds about either business or art. I did both in high school. So I had to pay to do art because it wasn’t offered with the subjects that I wanted. So art was always something on the periphery. And they really encouraged me to go more to the business side.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
And I was like, well, if you’re sending me to do business, I’ll do business that I like, which was marketing at that time. I started in 2006, and at that time, the governments of Trinidad actually provided free tertiary education for all citizens. So you could go to college for free. And I went, and I got my associate degree in marketing, but then I decided maybe I could switch to art.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
So I got a diploma and visual communication design. At that time I was like, what do I do next? I decided that I will go finish my degree in business because I am the type of person that once I start something, I like to finish it. So I wanted to get my degree in business. That was the moment I realized I don’t like business, having to do human resource management and organizational principles.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
I’m the person who, as much as I can memorize theory, I like to be able to explain it and I could create a story out of it and not repeat it word for word. So that did not work out too well for me in those exams, but I passed, and I realized my passion really lies within being creative and telling stories.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
And if I could do that visually, I’ll go back and get my degree in visual communication design. So after my business degree, I got my degree in graphic design at the same university. And it was a distance learning program. So it was a university in Sunderland in the UK, but there was a center in Trinidad that you go to and you would get the same qualifications.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. So after you are studying and you make the switch to graphic design, and you’re doing that, what was your early career like after you graduated?

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Well, after I graduated with my marketing associate degree, I got a job in a bank as an office assistant. So all of the other degrees, which is visual communication, and my two bachelor’s, those were done part-time. So I worked during the day and I went to school at night, which I will not recommend to anybody unless you have a lot of heart and determination.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
It was extremely difficult at that time. I was grateful that my job required no brainpower. So as an office assistant, I was basically just filing papers, enter drawers for the entire day. And then three years later, I got a promotion to an administrative assistant where I also had to deal with running the department.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
So making sure all of the office supplies were in order and making sure all of the managers had whatever they need for meetings. That is when I realized I cannot do this office administration thing anymore. Some managers just don’t know how to speak to people, especially when they think that they are in a lower position than them.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
And many times, I wanted to curse out my managers, but I remember that I had a job that paid for my degree and paid for all the things that associated with me in getting that degree. So doing design is never as simple as a business degree. You always have to get art materials. You have to think about printing the projects and all of these things.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
As much as the government was providing free tuition, I still had to think about how do I present a project to look professional. All these printing costs and all of these other things that you don’t necessarily think about before. So I had to keep my job. And I realized that within RBC, there is a internal graphic designer.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
So when I was there as an office assistant, I looked through the company directory and I called the graphic designer at the time. I was like, hi, I want to do graphic design. I want to know what qualifications do you have? How did you get the job? And the person, she was really sweet. And she told me the school that she went to, and it was actually the same school that I was in at the time.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
And she would help me with my assignments and helped me just to get the portfolio that I needed to become a graphic designer. And when she left, she told me, “Cherry, apply for the job.” I did not get a job the first time, but one year later, the person who replaced her left. And at that time, I was able to get work experience in graphic design.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
So within the year of that person holding my spot as a graphic designer of RBC, I was able to teach graphic design with a government program at the time, which was retraining adults who wanted to learn a skill. So after not getting a job and feeling really disappointed, I was able to find something that gave me the experience. So the next time the job came up, I was able to apply again and get the job. So it works out in the end.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. I mean, first of all, shout out to that woman for helping you out and letting you know this was an opportunity that you could take and also kind of motivating you to get to that point.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Yes. She really did, and she’s still a friend till today. She messaged me this week.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say is the best thing about the work that you do now?

Cherry-Ann Davis:
The best thing about the work that I do is that nobody tells me what I could do. So I initiate all my projects myself. It’s something that I never think that I could do because I have a knack for executing other people ideas really, really well. So you give me a vision. You tell me what you want to do. I sit down, I plan with you and we get this done. But when it comes to doing it for myself, there’s so much fear.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
There’s so much apprehension. But over the last year, 2020 has taught me if you are afraid, that just means you’re heading in the right direction, and your better mush the gas under the brakes. So just keep going full steam ahead, and that really helps me to think about how to approach these projects.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
So a lot of the projects that I’m doing right now is around things that I’ve always loved. So I’ve always loved history, I’ve always loved music, I’ve always loved Trinidad. And a lot of my projects revolve around these things.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you found while you’ve been there in Switzerland, and I know places have been locked down, but have you found some, I don’t know, sense of community or some kind of sense of home there yet?

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Yes and no. So for me, it was difficult to make friends because as any person who is moving to German speaking Europe will tell you if you don’t speak German, that’s the first strike against you. And I don’t speak German. And it was difficult for me to even have conversations with persons because most people can’t get past my accent even when I speak in my most standard English, as they would want to put it.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
People just so enamored by, “Oh my God, your accent is so beautiful.” But I’m asking for directions to go to the grocery. I need you to tell me where I’m going. And for me, finding a community actually happened while I was in school. So for us, there was a break in the lockdowns during the summer period, and I was just so happy to get out of my, it was not even a flat, my room and my dorm and the students who were also coming during the summer to do some work.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
So I found a community with my friend, [inaudible 00:43:24]. She was from Israel, my friend, Paulina, and she’s from Poland, Swati, who’s from India, Pahlavi, who’s also from India. And I have two German friends as well. For us, it’s a community of immigrants, but we usually find a lot of common ground that we could all talk about, which is usually food and spices.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
So I was able to form a community in my school during the time when nobody should be in school, which is the summer period. And we were all there just trying to catch up on what we think we would have lost during the lockdown.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s so interesting you mentioned that about food kind of being this sort of connective thing between you and other immigrants there. I just finished watching this documentary series on Netflix called High on the Hog. I think it just came out today, as the day we’re recording it, and I’m not sure if it’s available everywhere on Netflix. It may just be U.S. Netflix, not sure, but look it up.

Maurice Cherry:
So High on the Hog. It’s a four-part documentary series and the host goes from Benin, West Africa to Charleston, South Carolina, to… where else does he go? I know he goes to Texas. I feel like he goes somewhere. Oh, he goes to Philadelphia, and then he goes to Texas. And it’s sort of tracking how so much food, and vegetables, and recipes, and tastes, and spices that were there in Africa made the voyage over and became the basis of soul food here.

Maurice Cherry:
But I think sort of the connective tissue of that documentary and what you’re talking about is one, how food can be this sort of unifying factor, and how it seems like when food is on the table, and this is probably true in any culture, where foods on the table, we’re a lot more similar than we are different.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Very much so. I could attest to that. One of my friends, she’s actually doing her master’s on the intimacy of food. And just in having discussions with her, I understand all of the walls and the barriers that we think are there with food in front of us, it’s not anymore. And you are able to communicate and share experiences a lot easier just by sharing that intimate moments of eating in front of somebody or even eating with them.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I want to say, I don’t mean to embarrass you by putting this out here, but speaking of food, as I was doing my research, I saw that you are doing cooking videos on YouTube, which made me so hungry watching them. But please talk about that.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Oh my God. So during the lockdown, I was craving doubles, which is the quintessential Trinidadian breakfast. Any Trinidadian will tell you that doubles, right doubles will make you feel that you’re a Trinidadian. And you can’t ask a Trinidadian who has the best doubles, because they will always give you a different answer. But for me, doubles has grown up with me.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
I remember when doubles was $1 and then moved to $1.50. When it went up to $1.50, I stopped buying doubles for a month. And then it went up to $2, and I was like, it is only going to go up from here. Doubles is the cheapest thing that you could get for breakfast, but it also satisfies you after that.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
After you party all night and you’re sweaty and you’re still drunk, you will find a doubles vendor to give you that hot [inaudible 00:47:05], and it will remind you of everything that is good in the world. And that was the feeling that I wanted, to relive when I started my cooking journey on YouTube. I am still very shy in doing videos, but I’m getting there, and I am working on it.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
I brought my cookbook with me from Trinidad, which is naparima cookbook. I think it’s the book that all Trinidadians learn to cook from. And I am going through that book as though is it… I think there’s a movie called Marie & Marie, where she’s cooking through… Is it Marie? No. Julie & Julia, where she’s cooking through all of the recipes of a Julia child’s cookbook.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah. Amy Adams and Meryl Streep, I think. I know what you’re talking about.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
And I will definitely be doing that. And I want to bring more recipes to YouTube using Swiss ingredients because I honestly thought I would not find anything that would taste like home in a restaurant, and I haven’t. So this is why I’m cooking online. And for me, it’s also a sense of bridging that gap where people think, especially in Switzerland, that a stranger is somebody who you have to be afraid of.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
But once I share food with you, you can’t be afraid of me anymore. This is me showing you my culture, showing you my side of life. And it involves a lot of flavor and all of… It involves sustainability in ways in which you may not have considered. So we use all of the food. We use all of the vegetable. We use as much parts of it as possible throughout the cooking. And I want to bring that to the university.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That sustainability part, you mentioned, that’s also something in that documentary that I talked about that I thought was really interesting. So there’s this thing, and I think maybe this exists in other countries, but certainly here in the United States because of slavery and such there’s this notion that goes around that slaves were kind of given the bad cuts of meat or the unpalatable cuts of meat. And we learned how to cook it, use those and in varied ways like pig’s feet or pig ear or something like that.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Pig’s tail, chicken feet.

Maurice Cherry:
But this documentary showed that we’ve always been like that’s not necessarily something that came about because of slavery in America. That’s something that Africans have been doing because when they hunt and they get the animal, they use the entire animal.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Yes. And a lot of indigenous cultures have used these things for centuries. And it’s only because this new tomb has been coined sustainability that people are now looking at how could we use as much of the products that we have as possible? Hey, hello, we’ve been doing this. You are new to the game. Let us show you how to do it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I first heard about doubles actually because of this show. Back in 2015, I interviewed, I think she might’ve been the first Trinidadian person I had on the show. Her name was Jeunanne Alkins as she has a animation company and a design company called Everything Slight Pepper.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Oh, yes.

Maurice Cherry:
And she was mentioning the name of it came from that’s her doubles order.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Yes. Every Trini you must have slight pepper. If you don’t have slight pepper, I’m not sure if you have a Trinidadian passport. If you have a little sweet sauce too, you have a Trinidad and Tobago passwords we would say for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
And I have to say your videos on YouTube, the food looks amazing. The stew chicken, the macaroni pie, keep it up.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Thank you so much.

Maurice Cherry:
It looks so good.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
It was all done with my iPhone.

Maurice Cherry:
Look, that’s what a lot of people are using. I mean, come on. I just got a new phone last month or so because I’ve been holding onto my old phone. And this thing has three cameras on the back. These phones are getting so sophisticated. Use the phone. That’s where all the good cameras are

Cherry-Ann Davis:
For me I actually had a DSLR. And when I was leaving Trinidad, I realized this is too much for me to carry. I sold my DSLR and the money that I got from it, I put it towards buying the iPhone 11 because I know in the next two to three years, I’ll be a student and I’m not making any money to buy any new phone.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
So I wanted the letters and I wanted to make sure that if I do anything with regards to recording or videos of photography, at least I have something that could provide me with good quality. And I am honestly excited to share more cooking videos. And those videos were released as part of my first curatorial project.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
It’s called We Cooking and it was part of a performance festival in Zurich called Zurich Moves and which I curated my thing as 12 other Caribbean designers to present work into a publication, but it tends on a mystery of Zurich Moves. Four curators came together and we produced a publication that is going viral. It’s getting lots of buzz in the arts within Zurich. And my mind is blown. This was the first time I’ve ever done anything like this and I want to do so much more of it.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, if you don’t mind, I would love to link to your YouTube channel in the video so the audience can check them out as well. They’re really good.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Definitely. Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel creatively satisfied?

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Right now? Yes, I do. I actually had this conversation a few weeks ago with one of my friends who still works in the bank. And she said to me, Cherry, if you did not leave the bank at the time that you left, I’m not sure you would have been able to survive because, for me, moving to Switzerland was a three-year project in which it involved at least 10 other people.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
So 10 of my friends were there just cheering me on and making sure that I made my savings goals and helping me think about ways in order to make additional money to pay for my bills to move to Switzerland. However, it was called vision 2020 and it was not my goal to move to Switzerland. My goal was to move to Germany to go to design school there. When I got rejected, I had to change plans. I had to pivot really quickly.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
And the friend who dropped me when I came to Switzerland, he actually came to Trinidad and he was like, “Cherry, this is a really nice school. I think you should come.” And he brought me brochures and I was like, “Hey, if Switzerland accept me, I’ll come.” And I applied and they did.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
So that’s how I got here and this is how a lot of my creativity I could see the value in it now because it’s something that I’m doing and I’m doing from my heart and I’m doing the projects that I really feel passionate about. And I really want people to take notice of how passion could collide with purpose and provide inspiration for you to do things and go places that you may not have necessarily thought was within your reach before.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? It’s 2026. You’re out of school by this time. What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Cherry-Ann Davis:
I want to be a writer and a lecturer. So the reason that I did my masters was to become a lecturer at the University of Trinidad and Tobago, which is one of the universities that I attended. But I am thinking now that with Zoom and Skype and the accessibility that we have for online learning, I don’t need to limit myself so geography.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
And I would to continue writing, design politics, and design thinking, and design critique pieces because there’s so many people and it will just react to everything the same things about design. And not looking at the nitty-gritty and the people who are being left out of the design conversations.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
And I want to say, hello, we’re here. Take a look at these with my writing. But I also want to help the next generation of designers see that anything is possible and that they could bring their authentic selves into what they are designing.

Maurice Cherry:
Just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you and about your work online?

Cherry-Ann Davis:
So online I am at sliceofcherrypye. So it’s pie with a Y. So it’s sliceofcherryP-Y-E.site. And I’m also on Instagram with the same names, sliceofcherrypye, Twitter, TikTok as well where I just make fun out of things on TikTok. Those are the places.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Cherry-Ann Davis, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you really for sharing your honest look at how your life has been coming from another country and being in Switzerland during this whole lockdown and everything, but also really I can tell you have a lot of deep thoughts behind the work that you do about just kind of these intersections of culture and design and history.

Maurice Cherry:
And I’m excited to see the work that you produce whether it’s through the Futuress or through your studies. I’m excited to see how you bring your culture and all this work that you’re doing into this world that perhaps in Switzerland is not ready for it, but I have a feeling that you’re going to make them ready for it whether want to be or not. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Cherry-Ann Davis:
Thank you very much, Maurice. I just want to say one thing. My project is called Waiting Self and it’s exploration of what design could look like if culture is infused into it. So if I didn’t mention that before.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world.

We accomplish this through graphic design, presentations and workshops around I-D-E-A: inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.

If you’re curious to learn how to combine a passion for I-D-E-A with design, check us out at brevityandwit.com.

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Adekunle Oduye

One of the benefits of hosting this podcast for the past eight years is that I get to see how guests progress in their career. Such is the case with this week’s guest, Adekunle Oduye! He was one of our first podcast guests way back in 2014, and I recently asked him to come back on the podcast and give everyone an update!

We talked a bit about his current role at Mailchimp, and he went into the importance of design systems in his work. Adekunle also spoke on how his career has shifted over the years, the power of mentorship, and we revisit his 2014 interview to see if his motivations and goals are still on track with where he is now. It’s rare that we get a chance to do this type of self-reflection, but it’s definitely clear that Adekunle has grown and evolved by defining his career on his own terms!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Tell us who you are and what you do.

Adekunle Oduye:
Hello. My name is Adekunle Oduye. I am a UX engineer based out of Brooklyn, New York. Currently right now I am working at MailChimp building design systems.

Maurice Cherry:
Although I heard that MailChimp had expanded out into New York. How long ago you’ve been there?

Adekunle Oduye:
I’ve been there, it’s going to be two years. So they actually have a Brooklyn office. It’s smaller than the one in Atlanta, but it’s a pretty good amount of people.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Did you get a chance to come to the office?

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. I went to Ponce City Market, which I think, I compare it to Chelsea Markets for people that are from New York. But yeah, it’s pretty cool. The people are pretty good. The food is pretty amazing. I, I think every time I left, I felt full and also wanting to come back.

Maurice Cherry:
I love that office space that they have in Ponce City Market, although I think the last I heard, they were about to move out of it because the company’s gotten bigger. So they’re moving to a different space, I think in another part of town.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah, that’s correct. I’m not too familiar, but from what I’ve heard from the people that are down there, it seems like they have to walk down the BeltLine. I don’t know if it’s 10 minutes or whatever, but yeah, they’re going to be moving. I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but it’s probably in the near features.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. How’s your year been going so far?

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. My year has been pretty good. I’ve been taking the easy since last year. I think last year was hectic for everyone. But I think for me, what I was trying to do is stay busy. So I was doing a bunch of stuff, side projects, and doing some freelancing, and reading a lot, and whatnot. So, this year is just like, I’m just taking it easy and establishing some of my hobbies that I haven’t been doing in a while, so it’s been pretty good.

Maurice Cherry:
One thing I remember from our last interview is that you’re a painter. Did you take that up last year?

Adekunle Oduye:
I did one painting, but I did drawing because it’s … I think with me the painting, I feel like I’ve lost a lot of my skills because I feel like a lot of my work recently is mostly on the computer. So I’ve been doing a lot of drawing. In 2019, I did a couple of drawing classes. So I went to the museum and was drawing. Also, we had critique sessions. Yeah, I’m trying to do baby steps where I try to draw something every day and get back into it. But hopefully this summer, I’m going to have dedicated time where I just get lost in that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Nice. What else did you learn about yourself over the past year? I feel like everyone is starting to come out of this with some new personal revelation about themselves.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. I think for me, there was a lot going on last year, and I was like, it was making me very anxious and worrisome. I got into a lot of stoicism. For those who don’t know, stoicism is basically ancient philosophy, and it gives you a way of living. I think one of the most common things they have talked about is that how you want to focus on things you can control. I think that was helpful because I think not only in life, but at work, there’s some stuff that bothers you whatnot, but you have to really focus on, what can you control? If you can’t control it, then you shouldn’t really worry about it, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes a lot of sense. I think it’s a really helpful tactic in general. Certainly it’s actually a piece of advice I’ve given a lot of people this year that have started working remotely is to focus on the stuff that you can control. Because you’re thrust back home and it’s not exactly the work environment and you have to adjust to that, just focus on the things you can control. You can control how you respond to things. You can control your reactions, things of that nature.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah, exactly. I think that actually helped me with a lot of being more proactive rather than reactive because a lot of the stuff is like, if something happens or let’s say someone says something to you, you can’t really control that, but you can control how you response to it or how you’re going to move forward. I think that’s been my response and my mentality since last year. I think it has been very helpful because things always happen, especially with work where sometimes you can go through reorg, and people are not seeing eye to eye, but I think always look back and say, all right, what can I do better? What can I do to help people? I think that’s been very helpful, but also it keeps me grounded.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Speaking of work, what does a regular day look like for you at MailChimp?

Adekunle Oduye:
A lot of it revolves around maintaining current designed system that’s being used in the product. So, some days I could be responding to people that have questions around like the design system, other days I could be building components. Currently right now, I’m mostly focusing on prototyping. So prototyping patterns, and seeing how we can establish these pre-built guidelines and patterns that designers and engineers can use when they’re building out features.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I want to talk a little bit about design systems. I feel like that’s something that personally, I’ve really only heard fairly recently. Can you talk about what a design system is, and how it’s different from say, a style guide or a brand guide or something like that?

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah, for sure. A design system is basically a collection of components, patterns, and guidelines for a product. So, any product you see from Facebook to Google or whatever like that, they have a specific set of design systems. The whole idea is that you create these peed built Lego blocks for UI so that people can take certain pieces and start building the whole user experience or application of natural product. The difference between design system and style guy is that I would say the design system is the umbrella, and it includes the style guy and the style guy would define the more atomic levels of the design systems. So, your type holography, how your buttons are going to look, where are the colors, and whatnot. Basically from those foundation styles you go build to your components, or you build your patterns and whatnot.

Maurice Cherry:
Now is a design system important when it comes to a product like MailChimp?

Adekunle Oduye:
Well, it’s important because as your product grows, there’s supposed to be a lot of tech debt, but also in some cases, there might not be a cohesive UI experience overall. So the whole idea of design system is to making sure that the product is scalable, it’s accessible, and is performing. One case scenario would be like if I am a product engineer and I want to build a feature, rather than building it from scratch, they could use a design system that will help them build the actual user flow much quickly and faster.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. So it’s almost like a, I was going to say like a kit or a tool box or something. It makes the development a lot easier because you’re pulling from all these pre-designed elements that you can slot into place, or use to quickly prototype or make something.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah, pretty much. It’s not only specific to engineers, but it could be useful for designers. There’s even more in the case where they do for contractors. There are many ways you could use the actual design system. I think the best design systems are the ones that are inclusive and are be able to use by many different people.

Maurice Cherry:
Even for content strategists, that would be … I guess I could see that, if there certain tone or certain passages, like error messages or something like that, like microcopy, that kind of thing.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah, pretty much. We actually have one content style guide that we have, and I think it’s super important because I look at it as like, people are not visiting your product because of the UI, they’re visiting because of the content, and whatnot. So, having a consistent way of doing content is super important.

Maurice Cherry:
Gotcha. Gotcha. I was curious about that because at the startup that I’m currently at, they’re focusing pretty heavily on design systems, but we don’t have a brand guide, or a style guide. There are certain types of things that they want to do branching out with content and other media and stuff, but we don’t have that sort of structure in place to make sure that the things we’re creating are cohesive to the rest of the brand or something. I’m glad that you mentioned that, it’s sort of an umbrella for these other things because I know when I’ve tried to explain it, they look at me like I’ve got an arm growing out of my forehead or something. So, I feel like I know I’m on the right track here, is not the same thing, but it’s similar. Okay, gotcha.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. I would also add that, I always compare it to building a house, you don’t want to start making your own screws and all this other stuff. So, usually you have some case where you’re like, all right, we have all these different pieces, and you can put them together to fit or solve any problem that you want to face. It just makes your life easier. You don’t have to focus on two things at once.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I remember when we first talked on Revision Path, which for those listening was seven years ago, Adekunle was episode 21. At that time, you were just about to start at NASDAQ. I think it was maybe the day before your first day or something like that. Do you remember what your time was like there?

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. It was definitely an interesting experience. I would say that was probably my first real corporate job, so I didn’t know what to expect. I can say I definitely learned a lot. I encountered with a lot of great people and different people. I think it’s something that I use to this day because I was part of a large product design team is one of 30 of us. I’ve learned a lot. I learned a lot about front end development. I learned a lot about research. I learned about how to talk to executives. So, it was definitely a good experience there. I think I was there for three and a half years, which is the longest-

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Adekunle Oduye:
… time I spent with one employer. So, it was a fulfilling experience.

Maurice Cherry:
After that, you were at Justworks for a minute. Actually we just had someone on the show, Sabrina Hall, well, she’s at Justworks now. But you were at Justworks for a minute. And then after that you were at Sloan Kettering. When you think back on those two experiences, what do you remember?

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. I think those two experience was probably how I learned what I wanted to do. When I was at Justworks, I was really figuring out what I want to do because it was like, I think a lot of times like, company want to put you in a box. I remember when I was doing an interview, they were like, “Are you more of a designer or developer?” I was like, I wanted to get the job, so I was like, “I’m a designer,” but I was like, “I’m doing both.” I think that’s where I really learned what I wanted to do because I think even when I was there, I was probably one of the more technical product designers. It was hard to do both when you’re working on three different squads, so it was a good learning lesson.

Adekunle Oduye:
I think what I’ve taken away from there was that I want to be in a place where I was able to use both my design and development skills. Another was I really wanted to focus more on design systems. And then at Sloan Kettering, that was probably the second time I was more of a lead for a project. So I was leading the design system efforts there, which I really enjoyed starting from the ground up. I did a lot of user interviews, and was able to work with people and build it from the ground up and creating that foundation. Yeah, it was definitely hard work because people that I’ve worked in design centers tend to know there’s so many things you have to do. There was just me by myself working on it and getting some part-time help from some of the engineers. So I realized when I was there, it was understanding that you have to have a team to build something great because it’s so much work has to go into it.

Adekunle Oduye:
Another was around alignment because I think when I was there, I was working on design systems, but there was other departments that are working on design systems. I think it was harder because I don’t think we were aligned on what the design system should be. So, that was one of the takeaways I learned where it’s like making sure you’re aligned, and making sure that your design system is inclusive, and people can see it, use it, and also provide some feedback was super important. Yeah, I think those experience definitely shaped me and understand what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it.

Maurice Cherry:
It looks like your career focus has really shifted over time. You started out back when you were about to start at NASDAQ, you started out with front-end. From there as you went to other places, you shifted to UX, then to product. Now you’re, at least what it sounds like from the work of doing a MailChimp, back to front-end. Talk to me about that. What caused those shifts as you progressed in your career?

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. I think it’s more a case of what I’m curious on. I think one of the things I promised myself when I was starting out was that I wanted to take any idea from start to finish. So, that means from the design standpoint, I want to be able to do the research and understand who our users are, also understand the business, and what would be beneficial to the business. How do they make money? And then from the UI standpoint, it was to really understand what makes good product UI, and how we can make it cohesive, and whatnot. And then midway through my career, I learned that, all right, you could design the best mock up, but if you can’t build it or if it’s hard to build, then it’s probably not going to look exactly like it would look when you’re designing it. So that’s where I started really understanding the technical side, even how the internet works and how the browser works, and what is possible, and how to make performance applications and websites.

Adekunle Oduye:
I would say it was a curious from the start to the end of building something out. I enjoy it. I think often times, you look at the stuff I’ve done, even you look at the actual job titles I had in the past, which stand from print designer, web designer, front-end developer, product designer, design technologist, UX engineer, front engineer. It’s a lot, but I feel like for me, it’s I’m curious in learning how to build products from start to finish. I think over each of those job titles, I’ve learned so much, and it’s helped me to really understand what I want to do and how I want to do it.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, back also when we did your first interview, I remember you told me a piece of career advice that you give to other designers. You said to always study your craft, do you still stand by that?

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah, for sure. I think it’s something that never ends. I double down to the case where you have to study the basics before you start to do anything that’s more complex. It reminds me of when I was in an art school, where I was like, I want to do a painting. But I think one of my teachers was like, “You have to learn how to draw first because that’s the foundation.” I think it’s the same with design and engineering, whereas with design, you have to really understand typography, color theory, spacing, line, and et cetera. With engineering, it’s more in the case of understanding design patterns, and variables, and functions, and whatnot. If you understand that core, then you pretty much could do anything. It’s similar case of programming. You understand one programming language, you could probably program anything else, you just have to figure out the syntax. I think that’s what I always communicate to people often.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there any other advice that you would add to that just based off your experience over the past seven years?

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah, for sure. I think one thing I mentioned before is, don’t allow people to put you in a box. Oftentimes, I hear people go like, you’re just a designer, so you only should focus on design, or you’re a developer, you only should focus on developer. But I think the people that are going to stand out and be great teammates are the ones that have experience in multiple disciplines. I’ve seen people, like designers that are very good with writing copy, and I think that’s a skill that I wish I had, but it’s something that’s great to have when you’re being part of a team. I think it just helps with overall personal growth and always pushing yourself to do something different because I think oftentimes, you can get very comfortable with, I been doing design for 20 years, I’m just going to keep on doing it.

Adekunle Oduye:
I feel my design career has helped me become a better developer, and I would say vice versa too. Yeah, I would say don’t let people put in a box and always explore different disciplines and whatnot. The second thing I would add would be to making sure that people are very proactive with how they want their career to go because I think oftentimes, people think about, I’m at this job and I’m only doing this, and I’m going to do this. But I think how I envisioned it was, I want to be able to do this and this. This was when I first started out. I wanted to always make sure that my current job or role is pushing me forward to that actual goal I had. I think going in that way, maybe right where the focus on like, all right, what I’m doing today is this helpful. If it’s not pushing you forward, then I had to talk to my manager, or I figure out, what were some ways I could build on those skills and whatnot? So, I would say those are the two additions I had.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I want to go into mentoring. I noticed from looking at your LinkedIn that you’ve been working with this organization called Springboard as a UX mentor. You’ve been doing that for almost three years now. Talk to me about that.

Adekunle Oduye:
Springboard is basically a bootcamp that’s run online where anyone that is interested in becoming a product designer, and I think they expand it to software engineering, but I work on the UX side of things, but anyone can take this course. It’s about say six to eight months long. You basically are learning a lot about the foundations of UX and UI, and you get paired with a mentor. So, each week you talk with your mentor about the stuff you’ve done, and if you have any questions or whatnot. Yeah, I’ve been doing it for three years and I probably had 10 plus mentees. One of my ways of teaching them is always using experiences from my past, which I feel like that’s a better way of telling a story rather than just saying like, you need to do this because X, Y, and Z. Yeah.

Adekunle Oduye:
I would say it helped me to really get good at explaining my process because usually the mentees were always ask like, “Why should I do this over that?” Probably four or five years ago, I’d have been like, “Well, because that’s how I learned it.” But now I’m better at explaining why should you use one technique over the other and what makes good design. Also, I think be able to critique is a skill that I needed to improve on. Yeah, it’s been overall a good experience.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s so interesting hearing you talk about mentoring and then just juxtaposing that with our interview from so long ago on how you were just starting out. It’s great to hear your growth in that area. What do you really gain from being a mentor? What does it give you?

Adekunle Oduye:
I would say that the first thing is just giving back, paying it forward because even what you said is, from when I was seven years ago, I was pretty much into anything, I was more a designer, and I wanted to get into product and whatnot. The reason how I got to this point was like, I had a lot of people that allowed me to ask questions, and allow me to pick their brain in order for me to get better. So my idea would be to paint that forward. So I think that would be the first thing. The second thing as I mentioned is that, it’s more in the case of learning how to communicate and talk about your process. I realized that as you spend more time in this industry, you’re going to work with a lot of designers, technical folks, non-technical folks.

Adekunle Oduye:
I think one of the key things is to be able to communicate your ideas and thoughts to multiple people. I think mentorship is definitely one of them because I definitely had specific cases where people ask me questions about color theory, or design systems, or whatnot, and I always had to make sure that I was able to explain in a way where they could understand. Yeah, I think overall, it’s been pretty good. I feel like it’s something that I’m able to empower people, and hopefully they can accomplish their goals and dreams and whatnot.

Maurice Cherry:
I keep referencing our interview just because I’m struck as you talk just how different things have changed just, even hearing in how you carry yourself has changed. You mentioned back then you really wanted to speak at conferences, which you’ve done since then. What are some of the events that you’ve spoken at?

Adekunle Oduye:
From our conversation, the year after that was my first conference talk, which was CSS Conference, which was probably one of the most terrifying, but best things I’ve done. The reason why I say that is because I did my talk and I re-wrote my talk the night before because I was so nervous and whatnot. But I think, again, that was like, I probably would never do that again, but it’s a learning lesson and whatnot. But yeah, it’s been pretty good. I’ve been able to speak at some of the conference that I always wanted to go to. So, some of them has been clarity. I did an event part, did smashing magazine, and went to a smashing meets and whatnot. I’m around at 30 40, which is wild.

Adekunle Oduye:
I think last year I spoke at the most conferences I’d done ever because I think everything was remote, so it was pretty good stuff. But yeah, it’s something that I’m glad I did because I think, even back then when I was looking at it, I was very fearful of public speaking. I think usually a lot of people are scared of public speaking. For me, I decided to, I got to face this fear head on. So the best way to do was to get up on stage and talk about something. But yeah, it’s been a great experience. I’ve met so many great people along the way that’s helped me become a better speaker, better developer, better designer, overall good person. But yeah, I hope to continue doing that in the future. I don’t know when in-person is going to come back, but it’s going to come back probably next year or something like that. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
It feels like some places are even trying to bring stuff back this year. Maybe they’re waiting until the fall and the winter. I know I’ve gotten some invites to actually San Francisco Design Week. As we’re recording the San Francisco Design Week, I got invited for that. They were like, you can come in-person if you want. I’m like, that’s next month. I don’t think I’m going to be there for that, but I appreciate the invite. They’ll allow it virtually. To your point about so many events going virtual last year, I spoke a ton last year for that same reason. I could just log on here at the house and be on a panel or give a talk or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:
I wonder if that’s going to really continue as we move forward because I went to a lot of new events that honestly just took advantage of the current situation to be able to put an event on, doing it online means you don’t have to worry about a venue, or insurance costs, or things of that nature. You can just set up a series of Zoom calls or whatever. I hope that continues in the future because I think that’s made these types of conferences a lot more accessible for more people.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah, for sure. I think that was one thing I’ve learned when I was attending [inaudible 00:28:51] last year. They had a thing where we were doing networking, speed, dating sort of. I remember I was talking to a bunch of people. Some people were from Russia, they were like, yeah, I was always wanted to go to one, but I can never go because I couldn’t afford it. So, I agree that it … I think hopefully they have some hybrid where they can do both. But I like it. I feel like I spoke to more people in virtual conferences, or network with more people in virtual conferences than real life because-

Maurice Cherry:
Really?

Adekunle Oduye:
… it actually forced me to speak to new people, which is interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting. I don’t know what the first in-person conference is going to be that I attend. If they have it in-person this year, I may go to Black in Design in Boston. Well, actually it’s a Cambridge, but close enough in Boston. I may go to that, if they do it in-person this year. I’ve missed that kind of in-person camaraderie. I don’t know, we are able to network with people after talks. You could talk to people in the hall and stuff like that. I’ve missed those kinds of spontaneous connections because I did a bunch of talks last year, and the one thing was, once my talk was over, that was it. I closed the laptop and I’m like, okay, now what? Wait for the honorarium to come in and print, which is not bad, but that sort of in-person networking thing.

Maurice Cherry:
I think it’s still going to take a while, but I’ve started already seeing some events. Actually funny enough last year, our design live, I think was going to have an event here in Atlanta. They were asking me about, not about speaking, I think they wanted me to help out as a media partner or something. I was like, it is very irresponsible for you to have an in-person conference in Atlanta in the middle of a pandemic. They ended up doing it online. I don’t know if they’re going to come back down here or not, but we’ll see. I just hope that more of these virtual events stick around, and that some of these events that had to go virtual at least offer that up as an option moving forward because I got to go to so many things that I otherwise would not have been able to go to. But because it was online, I could just pay my money, get a ticket, log on, boom, boom, boom. It was pretty easy.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah, I agree. I think speaking wise, I think I was doing, at one point, it was three weeks. In a month, I was having three talks. Most, it was same talk. But I would never have done that if it was after traveling, whatnot. So I think it made it easy for me to do those talks and also improve on them because usually what I do is each time I do the talk, I’ve changed a specific thing and figure out what works and what doesn’t work. I get feedback from the actual conference. Yeah, I think it was pretty good. I would like to do more in the future. I also be about the actual in-person ones because I think some of the best memories is talking with people, and just chatting, and grabbing dinner, and just meeting new people, and whatnot.

Adekunle Oduye:
But yeah, I think hopefully we go back to something that’s more like, you have hybrid model where some conferences are virtual and other conferences are more of hybrid model. So I think hopefully … But yeah, I’m excited for that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. One thing that I usually will ask guests on the show is where they see themselves in five years. I’m curious, when you think back to when we did our interview, when you think back to that, what did you think you were going to be doing in five years?

Adekunle Oduye:
Wow. I think when I was looking back, I think I actually wanted to be some of sort of director, or product design director, or whatnot and just leading a team and whatnot. But yeah, that’s definitely not going to happen. I think things I learned that it was like, I think at one job … Yeah. I think when I was at NASDAQ, I was managing a person, and also doing icy work. I think managing is important role, but it’s probably not right for me because it’s … I like the craft of it. I think you also feel like, not manage, but I like leading. I think there’s a difference between those two. You can be a leader and not be a manager, which I was like, okay, I could do that. Even in the more technical fields, you have some ICS that are more managers, you have ICS that are more of directors and directing projects and what not. So I think it allows for more flexibility and whatnot. You said five years, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Adekunle Oduye:
I mean, I wouldn’t even know because if you told me seven years ago I’ll be where I am today, I’d be like, you’re lying. Yeah, I think my goal is to definitely do more mentorship. I would like to have some mentorship program. It’s for people that would like to get into more of the design engineering, which is both basically a designer engineer, in that roam because I know there’s not a lot of resources around that. You have to be a designer or the engineer. So I’m trying to create this community that’s more of a case of these hybrid thinkers and whatnot. I think doing more teaching, mentorship, and whatnot, I think that would be my goal.

Adekunle Oduye:
But yeah, that’s hard because like I said, back in the day, I had a whole list, and even prior to that, I wanted to be an art director for a magazine publishing company, and things have changed a lot. So, I try not to make too much of a long-term goal, but hopefully I’m doing more teaching and mentorship.

Maurice Cherry:
I like that the idea of doing a design engineer hybrid community because I think we’re starting to see, at least I know, I’m starting to see a lot more of that in tech. The place where I’m at currently, for example, is largely, I think it’s mostly engineers. But a lot of the engineers are operating in a hybrid sort of thing. So they’re an engineer, but they’re also on our growth team, or they’re an engineer and they might also be doing maybe something more like DevOps or infrastructure. That’s not so much front-end type stuff. I think that’s something that you’re starting to see more of this melding of skills, particularly with startups that try to stay small and lean. They usually want to have a bunch of hybrids that can do multiple roles as opposed to a particular specialist that can come in and only does one thing, and that’s it.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. I think you’re right. It’s becoming more of a thing. I think 10 years ago, was the case of we only want you to do one thing, but I think organizations are starting to see the benefits of having these hybrids because they not only could do two things, but they could also collaborate with different people, and also take ideas from concept to completion in a timely fashion. So, it’s definitely going to be more in the future. Again, there’s not many resources dedicated for these individuals because I think how we communicate is like, you have to pick one over the other. I always though, it was like, you don’t have to pick one or the other, you could do both.

Adekunle Oduye:
I’ve been doing it for 10 years. Even if they hire me for one thing, I always end up doing the other thing. So, it’s definitely going to take off and hopefully it becomes a thing where people, not only in career, but also in school are like, I could become a design engineer and whatnot.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you spend time on when you’re not working?

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. I’ve been spending a lot of time, either drawing and picking random hobbies. So actually for some reason, I bought a lock picking set and I enjoy doing that. Again, I’m not going to do it to rob anyone. Yeah, trying to do more stuff that’s doesn’t require a computer. So hopefully in the future, I could do pick up like woodworking and some other things. But yeah, I enjoy more tangible, actual building stuff because I think definitely last year told me where I was like, I need to spend less time on a computer, especially with all the Zoom meetings and whatnot. I used to do when I was younger around art painting and even doing something that was sculptures, but again, I’m trying to do a baby step, so I’m going to start with drawing and then hopefully graduate to the more complex ones.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember seeing something, I think it was a study or something, it was talking about the rise in video conferencing and how it’s increasing carbon emissions overall because of the, I guess the carbon footprint of doing video conferencing versus, say meeting up in-person or something like that, which is honestly something that I didn’t really think about at all. If anything, I was like, well, if we’re not traveling, then yes, carbon emissions would go down because you’re not in planes or trains or automobiles or something like that. But I was reading this study and it was saying that one hour of video conferencing, puts out, I think up to 1,000 grams of carbon dioxide, and it requires up to 12 liters of water. But if you turn your camera off, you reduce that footprint by 90 something percent, which is ridiculous.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. It’s amazing because I think a lot of people think like, I’m not really increasing my footprint because it’s all digital, but you have to understand there’s servers, and those servers require power. So the more you do, the more energy is on use and whatnot. Yeah, I think hopefully you figure out how to decrease that because I think, especially moving forward, there’s going to be cases where a lot of companies and whatnot are going to be more of a hybrid model and it’s going to be more video conferencing and whatnot. So hopefully, we figure out ways to optimize it overall.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s an interesting thing because I know I’ve heard that around like cryptocurrency because I’ve heard folks talk about how Bitcoin is actually really bad for the environment. When I first heard that, I said, well, how is a digital currency bad for the environment? Then I looked into it in terms of the data processing that’s used to mine for Bitcoin uses a lot of electricity, and any production of electricity has a carbon footprint, a water footprint, a land footprint. So, all of that can cause environmental damage overall. And then when you look at, how many gigabytes of data are we using between YouTube, and Zoom, and Facebook, and Instagram, and Twitter, and TikTok. Lord knows how many other platforms and stuff. I don’t know how this veered off into environmentalism, but I just … I don’t know, it’s something that you’ve mentioned that had me think about that particular study. So maybe somebody that’s listening, they can look into that if they want to.

Adekunle Oduye:
No, I think it’s important because I think a lot of people thought, I’m not really doing much because I’m at home and I’m watching videos or doing this, but there’s always straight offs, and there’s always some sort of footprint. Even me, I had to learn about this. I was like, that doesn’t really make sense. But if you think about it, the more technology you use, the more servers we need, and also the more metals we need. So it’s just, there’s a compound effect to all this stuff we do. I think it’s good and more people are aware of it. Hopefully that awareness translates to people creating products that are quicker, faster performance and whatnot.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, hopefully so. The next video meeting I have, I’m going to turn the camera off and tell them I’m saving the environment. See if that works. I think it’ll work. I’m going to try it out.

Adekunle Oduye:
You’re like, I’m trying to save the planet, so I will keep it off.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you wish you would have been told about this industry when you first started?

Adekunle Oduye:
I think the first one had been around burnout because I think earlier in my career, I was like, I’m going to work all the time. I’m going to use every framework, every tool, and whatnot. I would say I probably been burnt out a lot of times because I wanted to learn it all and use it all. So I wish someone told me, was like, don’t focus your time on learning new things, focus your time on building. Let’s say, if I wanted to learn Python, I would say early in my career, I probably would read a book and go through a bunch of video courses on it. But me now, I would be like, all right, what project am I building? Is Python the right tool for it? Somebody [inaudible 00:42:24] it was like, all these technologies and whatever like that, think of them as building tools, so like a screwdriver, a hammer and whatnot.

Adekunle Oduye:
The best way to learn how to use a hammer is that, if you’re feeling like, say building a house, and you always have to ask the question is like, am I using the right tool? Because if I’m building a house, then do I need a flame thrower? Again, a flame thrower is probably not a tool, but it’s one of the tools in your tool sets. You have to figure out which tool is best for the job. I think that would have been super helpful because I definitely burned myself out with learning random things and whatnot.

Adekunle Oduye:
The second thing is that, because I think a lot of times people look at the tech industry as, it must have been so great, and all these companies are perfect. I was like, yeah, none of these companies are perfect. All of them have their problems. They’re basically same as like humans. There’s no perfect human, is the case of has everyone has their own problems and you have to figure out which company is worth your time and effort because I think a lot of times, I see it where I hear people that are coming to school like, my dream company is working at this company. And then there’s always some news that comes out about a company and their bad practices and whatnot. So, I would always say there’s no one great company. Also, don’t put these companies on a pedestal because I think a lot of times, you say like, you work at Google or Facebook. I think a lot of times, people put those people that work there above everyone else.

Adekunle Oduye:
But I wouldn’t say that’s the case because I think there’s a lot of companies that are not as big and are not located in SF or New York that are doing some great work. So I think that’s the thing I’ve learned being in this industry for 10 years.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think that’s the truth, there is no such thing as a perfect tech company. They all are culpable in some way. I think we’ve certainly seen that, Jesus, over the past five years, look at some of the really big tech companies like Facebook and Google and Twitter, and how they’ve managed to now be wrapped up into our everyday politics, and even the democracy of this country, and everything. Aside from the fact that their tools are being used as these platforms for misinformation, then you look at the hiring practices or the management practices, or … It’s so weird.

Maurice Cherry:
I guess I could give this as an example, I’m not under NDA. My last employer, for example, was very woke. It’s what you would call a woke employer. I will not name this employer, you know the name of the employer, Adekunle, the folks who are listening probably know the name of it. I will not mention the name of it, however, this place really prided itself on being very open and transparent and things of that nature. I can tell you, it could not have been further from the truth behind the scenes. I mean, lying, gaslighting, all sorts of stuff, it was a mess. I mean, it’s been reported in the news. I don’t have to name the company, you all know which company I’m talking about, but it’s a mess.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, it’s a like shell of its former self, which is really unfortunate. I want to see the company succeed, but there no perfect tech companies, we’re all humans at the end of the day.

Adekunle Oduye:
I’ve heard so many things that I’ve been part of, especially last year when there was a lot of talk about the black experience in tech and how companies are like, no, we’re inclusive and whatnot. And then there’s individual saying, no, because they’ve done X, Y, and Z and blah, blah, blah. So it’s always making sure that, again, you don’t put these companies in pedestals and understand the fact. I would add this to where it’s safe, making sure that you produce your own content, and have your own side hustle, just in case, because again, I see some messed up things that changed the way I think about working at a company.

Adekunle Oduye:
The one scenario I was going to, I’m going to use, I’m not going to name the company. But I was working at this company and this person was at, she’s worked there for 10 years and whatnot, and I remember going through a rotation, they were like, here, we’re a family. Everyone loves us. We’re here for you. And then one day they basically fired her on … They told her on a Wednesday that her last day would be Friday and she was crying. She was like, “I don’t know what I’m going to do and whatnot.” That was a wake-up call because I was like, I never want to be in that position where a company fires me and I have no game plan after that. Yeah, that would be another advice I’ll give people is, always have some sort of side hustle.

Adekunle Oduye:
I wouldn’t say having a million of them, but like for me, I do the mentorship, I do conquer speaking, write articles and books and whatnot. So, even if I get fired from my day job, I’ll be able to survive.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Always have a plan B, absolutely. At this point in your career, how do you define success?

Adekunle Oduye:
I define success with two things. The first thing would be freedom. The idea of being able to work on what I want to work on, or work the way I want to work and whatnot, and also work with the people I want to work with. The second thing would be around happiness because I think an idea is, you have to be happy. I think there’s been a change with how people think about success because people sometimes think like, I could have all this money, but if you don’t have your health and you have no one to share with, then you’re not going to be happy. So I think I always focus on making sure that I’m free to do whatever I want to do, and I’m happy.

Adekunle Oduye:
I’ll add a third thing where is like, I am pushing myself to best level possible because I always think about, can I be better? Can I do different things and whatnot? The one thing I want to do is I want to have no regrets when I get older because I was scared of whatnot. What I was mentioning before was like, doing speaking engagements, I was terrified. I was like, I’m tired of feeling scared, let me just face this fear head on. So I would say those three things are probably how I define success.

Maurice Cherry:
Given that definition of success, what do you appreciate the most about your life right now?

Adekunle Oduye:
The first thing is I’m healthy. I know we went through a pandemic and current still in one, and I would say health is probably one of the top thing because you’re able to do so many things, if you have some good health. So, that would be the first thing. I think the second thing is understanding what I want to do out of life, or how I want to do it. I think, as I mentioned before, during the time I was between those two jobs, I really figured out what I want to do, how I want to do it. I think that made it easy because now any other opportunity comes my way, I know if it’s right for me or not night for me from the moment I hear about it.

Adekunle Oduye:
There’s a lot of people that are older than me, they’re like, don’t know what they want to do and whatnot. But I think for me, that’s been something that helps me push forward. But also I know when to say no and when to say yes to certain things because it has to fall under those criteria. But yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
What haven’t you done yet that you want to do?

Adekunle Oduye:
The one thing I wanted to do is hopefully do a startup, start my own startup in the future. I know this is probably a cliche answer from someone that’s working in tech, but I think that’s something that I want to just try out and see if I could do it and whatnot, and see if it’s something feasible but for me. But I think that’s the thing I probably want to do within the next 10 years. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t work, it’d be a learning lesson. But I think overall looking back at what I’ve learned in the past 10 years, the idea of taking the idea from concept to completion, I was like, well, I think I’m set up to be a CEO one day, not for a big company, but just do my own thing and providing some sort of product. So, I don’t know if it’s going to be tech related or shoot. It might be something that’s physical, but-

Maurice Cherry:
It could be lock picking.

Adekunle Oduye:
That’s my thing. I’m trying to think of, how can I turn this into a product? But yeah, hopefully something comes along my way that I’m super passionate about, and I can use my skills. Also, there’s a group of people that I can provide a service to. Yeah, hopefully-

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Adekunle Oduye:
That happens.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you and your work and everything and follow you online?

Adekunle Oduye:
You can follow me at adekunleoduye.com. My site is really old, but it’s going to be updated in the next couple of weeks. You’ll find me in any social media, specifically my first name and last name. So, it shouldn’t be that hard. I don’t know if I’m the only Adekunle Oduye, but I’m the only one online, so I’m going to market it. Yeah, just that find me on those channels.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Adekunle Oduye, thank you so much for coming back on Revision Path, and for giving us an update. As I said to you before we started recording, I listened back to our first interview, and the change in just how you are talking about your work, how you’re carrying yourself as a person from that interview to this interview is like night and day. I can really tell that you’ve grown up and matured in this industry. You’ve learned some things, and you’re taking that out into the work that you’re doing, and out into the world by mentoring other people and really paying it forward. So, it’s really been a pleasure for me to see your development over these past few years. I’m glad to see that you’re mentoring and helping out the next generation while still working in this industry and trying to make a difference. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. Thanks again for having me. I am hopeful that anyone that’s listening to this one and also the past interview I did, motivates them, they’re like, you don’t have to be perfect, and anyone can do it. Yeah, I appreciate it. Keep on doing this.

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