Chip Gross

Atlanta is a city known for many things: the food, the music, the culture. The traffic! But I don’t know if Atlanta’s really ever been seen as a design city like one would see New York or Chicago. That reputation is rapidly changing though, and that’s thanks to Chip Gross. Chip is the managing director for Work & Co’s newest office in Atlanta, and with over 20 years of experience under his belt, he’s helping the city be recognized as a destination for design talent.

We started off talking about his new position, including how it differs from his past roles, as well as the challenges of setting up a new office during a pandemic. Chip also spoke about growing up throughout New England and attending UPenn, starting his career in Chicago, and then moving to Atlanta for grad school. We also talked about Chip’s experiences at IBM, iXL, Brighthouse, and AKQA, and how those prepared him for what he’s doing now. Chip has put in the work and now it’s time for him to take center stage!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Chip Gross:
I’m Chip Gross. I’m the Atlanta Managing Director for Work & Co.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, how has 2022 been going for you so far? I know you started off this year … Mentioning Work & Co, you started off with some pretty big news.

Chip Gross:
Right. Yeah. No, it’s been a really dynamic time and really exciting at the same perspective. I mean, starting off in January, I guess I decided to make a bit of a change and join Work & Co as we were making a decision to come into Atlanta and establish a space and a studio here. And from there, the excitement has been palpable. The response has been really positive. I think Atlanta in many ways has been awaiting more opportunities to have a company that focuses on digital product design. So it’s been nothing but good news and hopefully more good news as we roll through more of the year. But it’s been a lot of fun so far.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I was curious when I heard about Work & Co opening an office down here, I mean, I was excited first of all, but then also curious. Why set up a presence here in Atlanta? Because as people may or may not know, it’s headquartered in Brooklyn, but you’ve got offices all over the world. What about Atlanta was significant enough for Work & Co to say we want an office here?

Chip Gross:
Well, I think there’s a few different reasons for us to look at Atlanta as a place that we wanted to put a space or a studio. One of them is … You’ll see from the different places that we’re located, because we’ve got eight offices globally. That includes, like you mentioned, Brooklyn.We’ve got Portland. We announced LA at the same time we announced Atlanta. And then we also have Copenhagen, Belgrade, and we also have Rio and San Paulo. So one of the things that I think is a unifying factor around the places that we put our studios, our offices is we want to be a place where we can find really great talent. And Atlanta’s a place that I think has been underrepresented for a long time in terms of the experienced digital talent that exists here. And having previously been involved in establishing a studio in Atlanta have no doubt that there’s a lot of really great designers and technologists and product managers that have been looking for an opportunity to work for a company like ours.

Chip Gross:
And then in addition, I think one of the other aspects of where we put offices is also in many ways not looking at where we can build collections of clients, but actually where we can also build an amplified culture. So whether it’s Copenhagen or Brooklyn or Portland or LA, in many ways these are centers of culture. And Atlanta is very much in that same perspective. I mean, we literally have a sitcom named after us that’s been getting a lot of people really excited about what Atlanta’s about. I mean, we’re the cradle of the civil rights movement. All the social activism around that. We’ve got this outsized impact on music and media. And all those things we feel like are a really rich kind of collection of advantages that I think are really uniquely Atlanta. And yeah, we have, being in Atlanta, this saying about Atlanta influencing everything, and we really do take that to heart. And we think Atlanta is a perfect place for us to position a studio and have a presence.

Maurice Cherry:
How has it been so far adjusting to this new role, especially with not just coming into the company, but also establishing an office here during a pandemic?

Chip Gross:
It’s been different from other times when we’ve … Or at least when I’ve been involved in doing this type of a new studio implementation. I think in many ways we’ve seen this as an opportunity to think about what does it really mean to create a post pandemic studio. And think about creating an environment in a place where people don’t necessarily have to be, but they want to be. And creating an environment where people are excited to come and collaborate. Because you can kind of see as I’m talking I really struggle with even calling it an office. And I really think about this more in terms of creating a space for all of our different team members to be able to collaborate together. And I really lean more heavily in calling it a studio because it’s a place of creation.

Chip Gross:
So whether you’re creating a design or you’re creating a collection of code, we want to create a place where people feel that they can come and be part of something bigger and also do it in a way that also creates impact, not just for the companies that we’re working with, but also the communities that we’re established within. And also being in Atlanta, I think we want to make sure that we’re building a studio that also looks and feels like Atlanta, that really does amplify and build off of all the rich culture and diversity and capability that’s here. And I think that’s a really powerful thing for us to be able to tap and one of the things that gets me really excited when I think about the possibilities here.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, let’s dig into that a little bit more. Talk to me more about your work at Work & Co as managing director. What does an average day look like for you, with your team, with your direct reports, et cetera?

Chip Gross:
Yeah. Well, it’s still early days for us and we’re still in the process of building more of the team. But I guess if there is an average day, because so much of it is defined by what’s happening in the course of a particular set of projects that we may be involved in. Because we’re establishing ourselves with … I mean, we’ve been in the Atlanta market for the last two years so we’ve had people that have been here, but now starting to figure out where we physically want be located within the city. We’re in the process of finding that right place for us to have a physical location. Right now we’re pretty close to some space in the west Midtown area. And we have been looking at that area because it’s a very dynamic and vibrant part of the city.

Chip Gross:
It’s in close proximity to all of these great academic institutions, whether it be Georgia Tech, Georgia State, it’s not too far from Emory. We also have close proximity to the Atlanta University Center. So as we want to become part of the broader Atlanta community, it really gives us a really nice foothold there. So on any day, we’re in the process of vetting and looking at possible locations to build out the studio. In many cases, we’re doing interviews and trying to find more great team members to bring on to the Atlanta team. There’s been a lot of really great interest and excitement from the business community here to learn more about Work & Co and the work that we do and the types of digital product capability that we can bring. So a day for me could be sitting down with a candidate and talking to them about all the potential that we have and the things that we’re trying to bring into the market. It could be sitting down and talking with potential clients. Also ensuring that our team also has a chance to get together and build some of that culture and community that we really think is going to be critical.

Chip Gross:
So I guess for lack of a better way to describe it, in some ways it’s unpredictable, but in many ways it’s helping to help us drive this objective of having a really strong presence and even more visibility within the Atlanta community.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. So the Atlanta office is hiring. Okay. That’s-

Chip Gross:
It definitely is hiring. We have been hiring. So if there are folks that are interested in getting involved in a company that very singularly is focused on digital product design and development, Work & Co is a great place to look at.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. And of course, for folks who are probably regular listeners of the show, they know that Work & Co also has posted many positions on our job board. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to expand that to include the Atlanta office as well. I know this isn’t your first time leading a studio. You were a studio lead at AKQA. Before Work & Co you were managing director at BrightHouse.

Chip Gross:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at those two and then look at what you’re doing now, what makes Work & Co a different experience?

Chip Gross:
Well, in many ways, what excited me about Work & Co is the fact that we’re very singularly focused on digital product design and development. I mean, when you think about even our name, Work & Co, the intent behind the name is focusing on the work that you do and the company you keep. So when we talk about the work, it really is focused on a company that doesn’t do or try to do everything across the spectrum of digital advertising and other dimensions of the digital ecosystem. We really are focused on designing and building and shipping products that we think will transform companies and by extension the world. The founding of Work & Co is very much built on this premise of stripping away things that we felt were not necessarily critical in the aim of doing this work of designing and building digital products.

Chip Gross:
So the co side of it, in terms of the company, was really intentionally developed so that we could ensure that we have the right tools and the right abilities to help create the right environment for creativity to flourish. And you’ll see that even … If you come in and you work with Work & Co you’ll see that we’ve really tried to ensure that we don’t have people focused on things that take them away from the time it takes to really do the type of level of digital product work that we do. We don’t do, for example, time sheets. We’ve been doing this long enough for nine years now, where we’ve got a really definite and definitive methodology for how we do the work. So we’re able to have teams that are dedicated to a particular project and don’t spread ourselves across three or four things at once where we’re not able to have everybody really focused on what’s most critical to developing this particular product for this particular client.

Chip Gross:
And I think a lot of the work that we’ve been able to produce really speaks for itself, whether it’s building an omnichannel experience for Ikea and helping them figure out what their first eCommerce app should look like, whether it’s working with Apple and thinking about what’s the in-store experience. And when you think about what today at Apple is, a lot of that was conceptualized by Work & Co. And then we’ve also obviously spent time working with a wide range of clients in helping them to develop products that we think are game changers and able to help transform the ways that they deliver their services to their users.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you mentioned some pretty big names there. I’m curious, how do you approach a new project? Like say a client, they go to Work & Co’s website, they email you. What does that process look like to get started with a project?

Chip Gross:
One of the things that I would definitely say is having been at a number of different digital shops, one of the things I’ve been really impressed with the process at Work & Co is it really does begin with understanding is this work that we think is going to be shippable. Because as you saw when we talked about kind of the importance of the work side of things, not only want to design and think about how we can create beautiful and dynamic and amazing digital products, but we also want to make sure that they’re ones that actually come and live in the world. So when we talk about shipping, over the nine years that we’ve been in existence, we’ve shipped over 300 different products. So the beginning of our process is really trying to understand, is this going to be meaningful work? Are our teams going to be excited about engaging on this work?

Chip Gross:
Is it going to be work that’s meaningful and is going to have impact? And it doesn’t always necessarily mean it’s going to be the most lucrative work for Work & Co every time. We’ve done work with Planned Parenthood. We did a chat bot that was ranked as one of the hundred top innovations the year that we developed it with Planned Parenthood. We’ve done work with … We just released breastcancer.org. We’ve thought about what are the things that are important for us to be able to invest our team’s time in? And candidly, in the business development process, we generally have a pretty solid stream of work that’s coming in. Whether it’s just through, like you mentioned, the email channels or we have past clients that refer us for work that they think might be worthwhile for us to take a look at.

Chip Gross:
In some cases, it’s a friend of a friend of a friend that knows the type of work that we do. But many cases, we have a lot more work to vet than we end up actually doing, because we really want to be thoughtful and purposeful about the work that we decide to actually proceed with. So once we get to that point, we want to make sure that we shepherd the work through the company and the same level of care, ensuring that whether it’s something that’s going to be starting with strategy and working itself into design and then potentially into development. We get all the different stakeholders involved, looking at the work, making sure that we’re asking the right questions and then building out a scope with product management leading it so that the people that are actually delivering the work are the people that are actually scoping the work, which in other agencies that I’ve worked in hasn’t always been the case and in some cases it’s really led to some problematic projects as a result.

Chip Gross:
So again, because we’re so singularly focused in developing digital product and shipping it, we’re able to be really, really thoughtful and intentional about how we actually move the work into the company. And we build the right team that’s going to really be passionate and excited about the work. And then we also make sure that we’re working collaboratively with the client as we do the work. So we have a saying within Work & Co that we do prototypes and not presentations. And the ways that we actually create and concept the work is through the process of creation and iteration. So we’re not going away thinking about what this could be, and then coming back to the client and showing them something that’s in process. They’re actually working with us in some cases in the Figma files. Seeing it evolve and become this conceptual product and then eventually a detailed design product. And then eventually a product that goes out and lives in the world and helps them be transformative and engaging with their users as a result.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I feel like even with all of that that you mentioned, it’s super important to have something like that here in Atlanta. And we’ll get more into your background, but I know just from starting out here as a designer and working my way in different companies and stuff, I don’t know, the Atlanta design scene has been different from what you may see in New York or Silicon Valley in terms of that level of focus, not necessarily I would say on product, but certainly not in the ways that you’ve just described it with Work & Co. It almost seems to be a bit more, I don’t want to say transactional. Actually the word that I’m looking for is behind. It feels a little like Atlanta sometimes … And I’m making a gross generalization here from my vantage point, but sometimes it has felt a little behind. And I’ve heard this even from other Atlanta design professionals I’ve had on the show, from friends of mine and colleagues are just like, Atlanta is not there yet in terms of it being a design city like where you would have that sort of variety, maybe with, like I said, Silicon Valley or New York City or something.

Chip Gross:
I would actually disagree with that hypothesis because I think in many ways Atlanta has been very much … And I’m talking into the context of digital product design and development. Yeah. We’ve had a number of agencies here and in some cases, what I think gets overshadowed is there’s a lot of great campaign work and there’s a number of more traditional advertising agencies that have been above the radar. But for as long as I’ve been in Atlanta and in this space, I think there’s been a lot of really great work that gets developed or designed in Atlanta, but maybe it’s out of an agency that is primarily based in another geography. So a lot of the talent in Atlanta, candidly, doesn’t get the same shine that it might get in another city like Chicago or New York or Silicon Valley, just because the work is kind of used coming out of those places, when in many cases, some of the design or the development work is actually happening in Atlanta.

Chip Gross:
So that’s another reason why for us having a actual studio space here will really allow us to showcase and amplify the Work & Co level work that can be done and produced out of Atlanta and also contribute to the work that we’re doing across all of our different geographies. I mean, again, one of the reasons that we’re here is because we think and we’ve seen so much talent that doesn’t necessarily get a chance to engage on work that happens in Copenhagen, for example, or work that may also take flight initially in Rio de Janeiro or San Paulo. So in many ways, we really do believe that making this connection between the level of work that Work & Co does with the level of talent that we know exists in Atlanta, we think is very much a marriage made in heaven.

Maurice Cherry:
Atlanta talent does not necessarily get the same shine. I totally agree with that. Again, I’m basing it off of my viewpoint of, again, like I said, you’ve been here and you’ve certainly seen much more in the creative community, but I definitely have felt it. I’m not disagreeing with you from what you’re saying, because I do know that there are several people that may have started out here as design students or started out as designers and then they just felt the opportunity wasn’t here so they had to go somewhere else. Or they go somewhere else and do well and then now Atlanta wants to claim that in some kind of way. It’s an interesting kind of thing, but I hope that with Work & Co being here, they’ll help to really bolster what you said earlier about the creative community here.

Chip Gross:
I think so. And I think the secret is definitely getting out. I mean, you hear about a new company every week that’s decided to build a presence in Atlanta. Whether it’s Nike or Airbnb, BlackRock or Visa. I mean, all these companies are now coming to the realization that Atlanta really does have something attractive and unique and diverse and something that they can’t necessarily find as easily in other parts of the country or albeit the world.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Speaking of which, let’s talk about where you grew up, which was not Atlanta. You’re originally from Delaware. Talk to me about growing up there.

Chip Gross:
Yeah. It’s not a place that a lot of people necessarily claim to be from. Shout out Joe Biden and Aubrey Plaza as two other Delawareans. But yeah, I mean, I was originally born in Delaware and grew up in Delaware for about the first nine years of my life. My dad actually worked for a insurance company. So as a result, we moved around a good bit. But Delaware was really interesting just because during the time that I was there, Delaware was going through a bit of a awakening itself. And one of the most, I guess, formative experiences that I had was when I was in elementary school and Carter had gone through the process of the busing between suburban and urban areas. And I actually … My family had moved from the downtown area of Delaware into the suburbs. And then I actually had the unique experience of being one of the few black students who actually was living in more of a suburban area, but was being bused into an urban area to help bring better sense of diversity to the in town schools.

Chip Gross:
And it was a really amazing experience and I think it really helped underscore and gave me some perspective on just some of the disparities that exist between both sides of it. Whether folks that were living in the urban communities or even the folks that were living in suburban areas that just didn’t have the same level of awareness of what it meant to be different. And also the importance of being able to have an appreciation for navigating different types of environments. Whether you were a black student in a white environment or a white student in a black environment, it was a tremendously eyeopening experience and I think something that also gave me a lot of desire to always try and find common ground as I grew up and lived in different places over time. So after the nine years in Delaware, I moved from Delaware to New Jersey, a fairly rural area of New Jersey. Spent a few years there.

Chip Gross:
Then my parents actually moved from New Jersey to Baltimore, and I had a different experience there when I lived in the suburbs of Baltimore. Then we actually moved from Baltimore to New York City. That was the beginning of high school for me. New York in the mid ’80s was a pretty interesting place to spend time. I think that was another just opportunity for me just to see the importance of diversity and living among a community that was comprised of everything from white Catholics to Dominicans, to Puerto Ricans, to Haitians, Jamaicans. It really gave me a love of that type of environment. And then ironically, my parents moved from New York City to the western suburbs of Chicago. And if anyone out there knows what Naperville and Lyle are like as part of DuPage County, I think it’s probably … At the time when I moved there, it was like 95 or 97% white.

Chip Gross:
So I almost went into culture shock going from Stuyvesant Town, lower east side of Manhattan to the suburbs of Chicago in an environment where I was literally … I think I was maybe one of two African Americans in my senior class. I don’t think there were any black females in my senior class. That was definitely a very interesting period of time. And I think I learned how to deal with a good bit of solitude, but also learned to stand up for myself. I think it helped me develop a certain level and awareness of self that I wouldn’t have otherwise had if I had remained in one place my entire life.

Maurice Cherry:
So your family kind of did the whole New England tour. Would have thrown in Connecticut, you’d had the tri-state area pretty much.

Chip Gross:
Just about, yeah. And then of course, after high school I actually went to Philly. So I think I decided that Chicago was great, but it was nice to get back on the east coast.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Talk to me about your time in Philadelphia. You were at the University of Pennsylvania.

Chip Gross:
Yeah. Yeah. That was another formative experience for me, because if you remember … And I guess I’m dating myself. Yeah. I was there in the late ’80s going into the early ’90s so there was this whole kind of black African American awakening. We were dealing with everything from the Rodney King incidents with the LAPD and we had some protests related to that. While I was there, some of my classmates and I actually started a African American newspaper. So I had a chance to get involved in the creation of media and helping to create a voice for the black community at Penn. One of the first times I think we got a chance as an African American organization to celebrate Kwanza. And it was just a chance for us to really kind of say we’re here and we’re a vibrant part of the community.

Chip Gross:
I remember going to dances and listening to Public Enemy and all of the great beginnings of hip hop music and rap that in many ways were a signifier for just the importance of culture during that period of time. Yeah. I think also being at Penn, it also gave me a lot more confidence knowing that I could definitely hold my own with the best and the brightest, so to speak within the university and also had a chance to just develop some really great friendships that I have to this day. So it was a really great experience and opportunity for me.

Maurice Cherry:
I bet it was fun too, wasn’t it?

Chip Gross:
It was a blast. I mean, I probably don’t want to incriminate myself on this-

Maurice Cherry:
No, no, no.

Chip Gross:
Podcast. But we had a phenomenal time and I don’t think I would’ve changed anything about that time at Penn. It was a really great time.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, after you graduated from Penn, you were working at Hewett as a consultant, which eventually is what brought you down here to Atlanta, right?

Chip Gross:
Exactly. Yeah. And I mean, to give the listeners context, coming out in the early ’90s, there was no worldwide web. So at the time when I went to work for Hewett, I actually kind of stumbled into the technology side of things because Hewett was basically a consultancy that helped companies set up and establish benefits and managed 401k plans. And they had actually had a solution that was mainframe based and they were migrating it to a client server environment. And in the process of getting involved in that, I really became that much more enamored and interested in technology. That’s what kind of peaked my interest in wanting to … Even though I had focused in economics at Penn, I always had kind of a love of technology. I mean, when I was younger, I played around with Atari game systems and Commodore 64s and all of that just started to become not much more interesting to me. So there was an opportunity to actually go from Chicago where I was working to Atlanta, because that’s where they were migrating this new technology system. And never been to the south, had always heard good things about Atlanta and decided that’s where I wanted to go ahead and try to see what Atlanta was like. And ironically, I came down here and just never left.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, you came down here in culturally what I think just had to be such a rich time. I mean, you mentioned everything that was going on in Philly, but then you come down here to Atlanta and I’m not just talking about Freaknik, although Freaknik is I guess part of the cultural ambiance of the ’90s in Atlanta. But even to just step back and look at where black America was during that time. I mean, we mentioned music. New Jack swing, hiphop, et cetera. But then also the LA riots. And this is a time, as you mentioned, before the internet. How did you feel as a black man navigating through the world at that time?

Chip Gross:
I mean, as a black man in Atlanta, it was just such a welcoming environment to be quite honest. I mean, I don’t know if everybody has the same feeling. But whenever you’re somewhere else and you fly into Atlanta, the minute you get off the plane and you walk into the terminal, you can just feel the embrace of blackness throughout the airport. And I think that just extends to the city. As an African American, Atlanta really is in many ways that proverbial Mecca, because the city is … Depending on where you draw the boundaries, whether it’s the city proper or the metro Atlanta area, it’s majority black or just about majority black. Just the amount of culture and just the sense of belonging is really something that you just don’t get in other cities to the same dimension that you get in Atlanta.

Chip Gross:
So being able to come down here … And again, the context of Atlanta, this was right as the Olympics were happening. So the world was really focused on Atlanta. There had been an amazing amount of investment in building up the city, preparing for all of these people descending on it from all across the world. You mentioned all of the different cultural aspects of Atlanta were also at play. For me again, it was just another validation of the importance of being in an environment and a community that’s supportive and really embraces you. That’s one of the reasons why I think I’ve stayed so long and that I’ve grown a family here is it really helps to give you a sense of a support system. And it just gives you a sense of love and inclusion that I just don’t think you necessarily find as much in other places, especially as a person of color.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s very true. I mean, back pre pandemic when I would travel for the show or I would travel for work, nothing to me was more comforting than flying back into Atlanta, coming into the airport. And then you’re taking the elevator up to baggage claim and you see the black girl with her arms stretched out in a hug. I hear they put her back. I know they took it down for a while because they put up this digital screen, but I heard that they put her back up there. But it’s just like this embrace like welcome home. And so many people I have talked to that don’t live here do not understand. They’re like, Atlanta’s this, Atlanta’s that, Atlanta’s a party city, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I’m like, I feel so at home and comfortable in myself and in my culture in Atlanta than anywhere else. I mean, granted, I’ve been here for a long time, but there’s a comfort here that lets you know this is where you can always come home.

Chip Gross:
Yeah. It’s palpable. I mean you really do feel it as you move throughout the city. And I think that’s one of the reasons why there is so many transplants to Atlanta because when people come down and they get a feel for that aspect of Southern hospitality, but also that sense of you can be from a lot of other places but still feel at home in Atlanta. And I think it’s something that a lot of people really connect to.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now it’s 1995. You’re in Atlanta. You’re about to get your MBA from Emory. Tell me about that time.

Chip Gross:
For me, one of the things I realized as I was working with Hewett was that in order for me to, I think reach my fuller potential, whether I was going to focus on business or technology, was to go and invest and get the MBA. Because I really think it gave me a better and deeper appreciation of what it means to not only build and run businesses, but also all the skills that you need to become a really good leader and be able to help work across different types of teens and groups. I mean, MBA classes are generally case based. So you’re always getting an appreciation of what it means to work as a team. And I think that’s actually experience that has really helped me as I’ve worked through different agencies and when I’ve been on the client side. It’s that ability to kind of cross over and build strong relationships as well as be able to think about not only what’s a great product experience, but also what’s the broader ecosystem that these products need to live within and having an appreciation for how something’s going to generate revenue, how something’s actually going to functionally work and operate. Understanding what it means to, if you’re working on a FinTech project, understand all the different dimensions of managing assets and dealing with financial systems and cash management, all those underlying processes.

Chip Gross:
So for me, I think the value of the MBA was really just being able to understand how businesses work, how you build the best teams, how you develop the greatest ways of people being able to build really great products as a result. Because they’re inspired and they’re also investing in the importance of culture and collaboration. So that took me over to Emory to go and go through the MBA program. It’s something, again, was another formative experience for me and I think it gave me some of the resilience I needed to have as we were starting to reach the beginning of the 2000s and the world was starting to get a better appreciation for what the web and digital actually meant.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That’s a really peak time when the worldwide web was starting to really kind of become something that is more and more commonplace. I mean, I remember I was in high school going into college right around that time. Actually in 2000 I was in college. But I was in college during that time in undergrad and I remember I was studying at Morehouse. I was studying computer science. And I was telling my advisor that I wanted to be a web designer because I had been reverse engineering websites since I was in high school, trying to teach myself HTML and figure it out. And I really wanted to pursue that. And at the time, I mean, again, this is 2000, I didn’t know that there was a difference between web design and studying computer science. I thought, well, it’s all on the computer.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s all on the computer. It’s the same thing, right? And I remember him telling me vividly that, “The internet is just a fad. If this is what you want to do, we don’t do that here. We study programming for mainframes.” And all this sort of stuff. And I ended up switching my major to math after that. But it’s really hard I think now, especially in 2022, to realize that 20 something years ago, the internet was such a completely different place than what it is now. I mean, the way that technology has grown and changed and evolved the world. But back then, it really was something that not a lot of people really knew about and were doing. But at this time you were working with an interactive agency, right? You were working at iXL.

Chip Gross:
And actually even before then. I mean, when I came out of business school, I actually went to IBM. I went into the management consulting side of it. But very quickly thereafter, we kind of evolved into this whole question of what is e-business and what does the web mean in the context of helping companies engage digitally? And it was a fun time because IBM was willing to invest in an internal agency that they call the Arts Cafe for those who remember that time in IBM. And it was kind of this place where we had these quirky designers. And I think at one point we had a three legged dog that was in the studio and we worked on things like the Masters and the Grammys. It was a really great time of exploration, beginning to think about what it meant to create websites and presence on the web.

Chip Gross:
And then starting to think about, well, not only doing brochureware and marketing on the web, but how do you actually create wholesale businesses where you then start to get into eCommerce and all the different ways that digital evolved out of that? So for me, being at IBM was a great entry into this whole area of digital e-business and it also gave me an appreciation for what it means to actually build product at scale and build things that have global implications. And you have to think about language and you have to think about the impact of launching products and different geographies with different rules and regulations. And it was the thing that really got me excited and passionate about digital.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Brochureware. I have not heard that term in forever. Wow.

Chip Gross:
Good reason for that. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. No, but to your point, I mean eCommerce and so many things now that we completely take for granted over the web were just such new things. Like companies trying to figure out how can I conduct business on the internet? Because before … I don’t know. Maybe before the 2000s, the internet was essentially a library for the most part. It was basically for research. You would find different university websites or you just find encyclopedias or things like that. It did not have a lot of entertainment value. I know that there were brands that were starting to figure it out because then also you’ve got technology like Shockwave and Real Player that we’re starting to bring media into this space. It’s funny. When I do presentations, I have this slide and it shows, I think it’s like a Pepsi world from 1999. And it shows the full matrixy experience but then it has something on the bottom that’s like to take the slow lane. If you have less than a 56.6 kilobit modem or something like that, take the slow lane. And people were like, “What does that mean?” Because everything now is like the fast lane with broadband and stuff. But the internet was just such a interesting place. And companies were really trying to figure out how can I be a part of it in some sort of way?

Chip Gross:
Oh, for sure. And I think that’s where you started to see the birth of different digital companies. A lot of them were really driven by who was actually footing the bill. Because you’d have the very technical consultancies that would engage with the CIO or the CTO. And then you’d have the traditional advertising agencies that might be engaging with the CMO. And as a result, you started to see your usual suspects start to move into digital advertising and experience at the very minimal level. And then you also had kind of the C-suite. The CEO and the chief strategy officer who might be engaging with a consultancy like a McKenzie or a BCG or a Bain and then starting to come into digital, trying to determine, okay, well strategically where’s the value that digital can bring. And I think that’s where you started to see this morphing of companies into this patchwork of different types of digital entities that were all trying to figure out what’s the right way to come at digital at that time. It was a really, really dynamic time to be watching it all emerge and unfold.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Because things just changed so quickly. And to your point, like you said, there were a lot of people really just trying to figure it out. This is something completely new in a very nascent field. Nobody is “an expert” on it yet. Everyone’s just trying to figure it out.

Chip Gross:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
So you’ve had such a storied career here in Atlanta. I’m not going to go through all of the experiences, but I will list them out so people can get a sense of … I’m going to unfurl the scroll so people can see what your pedigree is.

Chip Gross:
Show how old I am.

Maurice Cherry:
No, no, no, no. You’ve mentioned IBM. We talked about iXL. But you were at Interland, you were at UPS, Razorfish, SapientNitro, Hearst Autos, and then of course earlier we mentioned a AKQA and BrightHouse. When you look back at all of those past experiences, what would you say are the most valuable things that you learned about yourself?

Chip Gross:
All of them had their learnings and takeaways. I think if you go back to iXL, which in some ways you could argue is one of the first digital agencies that really just kind of staked its claim around digital. I think in some ways it became a little bit indicative of just all of the excitement around what digital could be, but also the crashing reality of going at digital and not understanding the underlying business realities of what it means to run an agency as well as what it means to understand what the marketplace was able to bear. I mean, I think iXL in particular was an interesting experience because there was so much potential and it grew so quickly into so many different areas of focus that it almost just collapsed under the weight of trying to do too many things at once.

Chip Gross:
And it was humbling for me because it was one of the first times I actually went through a layoff. That was right around the 2000 with the Y2K and the implosion of dotcoms. And I just never forget the time where I’d gone through the layoff and I had to go home and tell my wife who was pregnant at the time that I had just been laid off. And I think that experience for me, one, you always remember a situation like that, but also having gotten through it helped me realize the importance of resiliency and that nothing’s promised and that you’re going to take risks in this world and in some cases the risks aren’t going to necessarily work out the way you expect, but you learn from them. And it wasn’t the last layoff I went through. As a result, I think it made me stronger having gone through it. But it also didn’t dim my passion and desire to be part of the digital landscape.

Chip Gross:
So like you mentioned, from there, I went to Interland, which actually went through its own acquisition and ups and downs and dealt with my second layoff there. But then I got to UPS and it was a really great time for UPS where they were trying to take digital and embed it in all the different processes that they use in delivering packages. So I got to work on integrating UPS technology and Yahoo and eBay. Got a chance to work on what they called their enterprise release process where you’re doing digital implementations and new feature and product improvements across the entire UPS enterprise. So that also gave me an understanding of the importance of having everybody across the enterprise involved in digital transformation. You were making decisions that could literally lead to billions of dollars in revenue if things didn’t come together the right way.

Chip Gross:
So I think that was maybe another example of where I learned a lot from going through that experience. And then AKQA I think was another really formative one just because I got a chance to start up a studio from the ground up. I was the first employee in Atlanta for AKQA and at the time that I left, we were 33 or 34 people. We had some really great products to look back and point to. And it was a really great way, again, for me to have this confidence of being able to build a team, build a studio, create an environment where we could really do some phenomenal digital product work and also feel like you really were able to show what you could do when there was just, again, that high level of uncertainty of what the future might bring. So I really look back and cherish that experience. And I think that’s what also gave me that much more confidence now coming to Work & Co of being able to know how to create something and build it and also do it in a way that really builds a great environment for creativity.

Maurice Cherry:
So your career has really grown and blossomed in the same kind of trajectory as I think Atlanta has grown, not just as a tech hub and a well known startup city, but also as a design city. And you’re bringing that here with this new Work & Co office and then building off of all the work that you’ve done. If there’s somebody that’s out there listening that wants to follow in your footsteps, what advice would you give them?

Chip Gross:
I think what I would say is one, obviously the earlier points around resilience and once you find that there’s something that you’re passionate about, not letting short term setbacks change your desire to be able to pursue them. And I think one of the other things that I think has been really valuable for me is to also have great examples that I can look to of people that have been down that road before and have in some ways inspired me to continue on doing the work that I’m doing. I think for someone that wants to break into the digital product space, I think there’s also a good point to be made in terms of all the different ways that you can be part of this company without necessarily being a designer. For Work & Co in particular, in many ways it proverbially takes a village to build really great products and to be able to ship them.

Chip Gross:
So that includes having great strategists, great product managers, great technologists. You had Reese on earlier. You have great writers. And then you also need all that infrastructure, whether it be HR or recruiters, marketers, PR. So even though we’re very much focused on digital product design and development, we have to have all those different skills and capabilities in order to be successful. So one of the things I think that’s really important is for people to have exposure and visibility to this area and this type of work. And I think one of the most unfortunate things for a lot of African Americans is they don’t even know that this exists as a career. That you can be a managing director or you can be a great designer or you can be a great technologist and work in this environment. I think it’s just kind of a shame that there aren’t more venues like this podcast and like some of the other things that are out there to just give high schoolers and middle schoolers who are coming up an understanding and appreciation for what digital product design is all about.

Chip Gross:
So that may be a little bit of a tangential answer to your question, but I think more than anything else, you’ve got to work your network. Usually there’s a friend of a friend who knows somebody at a company that you want to get involved in. And I think you’ve got to be able to have the confidence and courage to be able to work your network, as well as recognize that you may have to take a somewhat … You’ve got to come in sometimes through the side door versus the front door and find a way that … If you’ve been working in customer service, there might be a way that you could use that to get into the operations side of an agency. And then by doing that, get exposed to other areas that you might want to actually grow into and be able to take courses and develop skills from that standpoint. I’ve worked with some great designers that actually started off being developers and that they really saw that integration and the intersection between technology and creativity and were able to grow into more senior roles over time. So I’d say those are some of the points of advice that I would probably give to someone thinking about this particular industry.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I feel like I know what the answer to this is going to be, but I’ll ask it. But what are you the most excited about at the moment?

Chip Gross:
There’s a couple things that I’m really excited about. I mean one … And yeah, maybe it’s the silver lining of the pandemic, but now that we’ve been through two years of basically self isolation, the level of digitization of every different aspect of our lives. Something that we couldn’t have even imagined a couple years ago. The fact that we can do almost every aspect of whether it’s healthcare or managing finances or running a business or engaging with colleagues via Zoom and things like that. We’ve basically gone through arguably five to 10 years of digital evolution in the span of two. So one of the things that excites me, and one of the reasons why I think it’s such a great time for Work & Co is the fact that if you really look at all the different developments that have come to play in the last two years, there’s a digital product designer and a digital product technologist and a product manager behind almost everything that you can think of that’s emerged over the last two years.

Chip Gross:
So it’s a really great time to be able to work in this industry and to help create what the next wave of digital innovations and advancements are going to be. So that’s one of the really, I think, important things that really gets me excited about where we are right now. And I mean, literally society is remaking itself before our eyes and it’s remaking itself with this veneer and this kind of core of digital from every different aspect of it. And I think so many of the folks that are coming into the space now, their wildest dreams are probably underestimating exactly what’s going to play out in the next 10 years.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of the folks that have influenced you over the years? I mean, going from Philly to Atlanta, and again, the long career that you’ve had here, who are some of the people that have really helped you out as mentors or as peers?

Chip Gross:
How I would answer that is a few different positions. I mean, one, I think from an inspiration standpoint, I mean my mother and father are at the core of it. I mean, my dad, he was raised kind of the later years of his elementary and high school life by an aunt. He grew up in Delaware. And if you know anything about Delaware in the ’50s and the ’60s, I mean, it was a pretty segregated place. My mom actually used to get up in the morning and look across the street at a school that she couldn’t go to because of the color of her skin. So for them to be able to create the opportunity for me to be where I am, I think is something that I always just take as a point of inspiration that no matter where you are currently, with the right support and the right inspiration, you can really go anywhere.

Chip Gross:
So start with that in terms of those who inspired me. And I think we maybe didn’t talk about it too much, but we really underestimate the importance of representation. Just how important it can be to see somebody in a role that you never envisioned yourself in. And the example I’ll give you is when I was at IBM, I was in the media and technology group within IBM at the time. And we were at this conference in IBM. They generally had these big sales conferences where they get together people from all over the country. And I think we were at Disney at the time. We were in this big conference room. They were having different presentations, but then they had this one section of the conference where they had an executive come out and the executive was actually John Thompson, who is currently … I think he’s lead director at Microsoft.

Chip Gross:
And I remember being in the audience and seeing John Thompson walk out on stage. And if you know anything about John Thompson, I mean, really inspirational. He’s almost the same demeanor as like a Barack Obama in terms of how he talks and just how engaging he can be. And I remember just being transfixed by him walking out on stage, being who he was and being just so moved by the fact that there was this guy who looked like me, in some cases kind of talked a little bit like how I talk, and he was running a major part of IBM’s business. And then he went on to become CEO of Symantec. And I think people don’t always realize just how important a incident like that can be. I mean, I never got a chance to really talk to John Thompson. I only saw him for a very short period of time, but that experience for me was something that told me that, yeah, I can be a managing director. I can start a studio.

Chip Gross:
I can do all the things that I see everybody else doing because he’s already done it. He’s been there and he’s been able to achieve in an environment that probably wasn’t very favorable to him being successful. So that’s how I would probably answer the question about mentors. And then wherever I’ve been, whether it’s at BCG, I had Jim Lowry and Justin Dean who were great role models for me as a managing director. When I was at UPS, I had Joycelyn Pearson, who was my boss, a dynamic and phenomenal leader. Those are the things that I think helped me get through those tough times and it helped show me the importance of seeing and knowing from seeing that you can be that person and be successful in any type of environment.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, where do you think your life would’ve gone if you hadn’t started working in the creative field?

Chip Gross:
For me, it goes back to that point around exposure. Because I’ve always had an interest in creativity and design. Had I been exposed earlier to architecture as a field, I think candidly, I might have actually gone into that as a career. But growing up, you just didn’t have that level of exposure to the wide range of fields that are available that tap on the creative side of the brain. I remember when I was at Razorfish and we started to look at some of the other parts of the business and the media side of the business. And you walk into these media agencies and you would see kind of a sea of white faces and in many cases a sea of white female faces. And some of it was a result of people being exposed to things and recognizing that these are places that actually existed that you could have careers. And I think for a lot of African Americans and people of color, they don’t necessarily have exposure to some of these different fields and areas of possible careers. And as a result, we don’t necessarily get a chance to develop as big of a body of leaders and representatives in those companies and in those industries.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you want your legacy to be

Chip Gross:
For me, I think it actually goes back to this question of purpose. And when I was at BCG, I was in a part of BCG called BrightHouse and we spent a lot of time with organizations talking about purpose. And I think when you first come out of school, a lot of your focus is on what do I need to do to show that I can be successful and how can I achieve and show my achievements? And I think now where I am in my life, it’s actually less about let me do things to prove what I can do versus actually what can I do to actually help drive and leave a legacy behind. So when I was at BrightHouse, we talked a lot about personal purpose. We went through some exercises and I ended up with my personal purpose being to live into lead with optimism. When it comes to legacy, I think if I can be an example that other people look to and see that it’s possible to be a managing director or to be successful in being kind of a quasi entrepreneur and to bring new things into being, that I think gets to my answer around legacy. Being able to help empower others to understand and be optimistic about what they can become and not feel like they’re limited by where they may be at a certain point in time.

Maurice Cherry:
Just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you, about your work, about Work & Co? Where can they find that online?

Chip Gross:
Well, they can definitely find out more about Work & Co at work.co, which is our website. And I think it’s a great way to see the wide range of work that we do, the different types of careers that we have, as well as the capabilities that we have in house. And if people want to learn more about me, obviously there’s LinkedIn, which is a great way to connect and get a better understanding of some of the different things that I’ve been involved in, both on the professional side as well as I’ve been involved in some non-for-profit organizations too. Like there’s one that I’m involved with now called Redefine Ed. And it’s actually a non-for-profit focused on improving educational outcomes for Atlanta public school students. So that’s another passion of mine and a place that you can learn more about me and how I’m involved in the community.

Maurice Cherry:
Nothing about the cars?

Chip Gross:
Well, I am a car enthusiast, so you’ve done your research. And I do like to tinker with automobiles. I haven’t had as much time most recently, but I’ve spent some time working on everything from a Pontiac Fiero to a Porsche 944. I mean, right now I’m playing around with a BMW. So yes, I do like to get my hands dirty and kind of take my mind off the day to day by just figuring out how things work and making them work better.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Sounds good. Chip Gross, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. One, just for sharing the passion that you have behind building this new studio, this new branch of Work & Co here in Atlanta, but also to show just how much perseverance you’ve had throughout your entire career, how much you’ve brought to the Atlanta creative community. I’m really excited to see where a Work & Co really comes from here. But then of course, I’m really just … As you talked before about visibility and representation, it’s good for someone like me to see someone like you doing what you’re doing. And I hope for people that are listening that they are proud to see that as well. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Chip Gross:
Oh, it’s been my pleasure and I really enjoyed it and hopefully gave some people some inspiration to come and be part of this whole world of digital product design and development.

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Alexandria Batchelor

The thrilling part about entrepreneurship is following your dreams while pursuing your passions. That’s definitely the case for illustrator and creative director Alexandria Batchelor. As the head of her own company, Foxee Design, Alexandria uses her skills in graphic design, branding and illustration to not only provide killer work for her clients, but to also redefine standards in the industry within art and design that represents minorities (primarily Black women). Now that’s change worth supporting!

We kicked off our conversation talking about plans for the summer, and Alexandria talked about how she named her company, some of her notable clientele and collaborators, and the best kinds of clients for her to work with on projects. She also spoke about an upcoming book she worked on with noted authors Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes, and shared some secrets and advice on creativity and self-motivation.

If you’re looking to get a dose of inspiration, then this episode is the one for you. Enjoy!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Alexandria Batchelor:
Hi, everyone. My name is Alexandria Batchelor, AKA Foxee Design. I am currently the CEO and creative director of Foxee Design. Completely self employed right now, and I am a designer, but I specialize in branding illustration and comic production specifically. That’s me in a nutshell.

Maurice Cherry:
How is the year going for you so far?

Alexandria Batchelor:
It’s going really well actually. Lots of good projects are coming in. I’ve actually started subcontracting. That’s where I’ve started leveling up where I have acknowledged that I can’t do it all by myself. One of my mentors taught me that he kind of taught or ingrained this mentality of looking out for your community and your network and taking on all the talented people that you know and spreading the wealth, because I am tired. This year I am focusing on self care and that’s why I bring it in like, oh, you have some time? All right, I’ve got two projects for you here, and I’ve got this much money and I’ve got this for you and this for you. That’s kind of how I started managing my business this year. It’s already working quite well, so good start so far.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a great start so far. I’m telling you, and for people that are out there listening that might be running one person shops, the minute that you get into subcontracting, you will feel like you have unlocked the cheat code. Wait a minute. I can do this self employment thing. Once you build that network or that collective, you’re like, oh, I got this.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I know. That’s not sustainable. Not if you want to be happy and be a real person, because I like reality. Let’s stay rooted in it.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, and also with subcontracting, it can also help you to even just expand your services. If there’s something that a client may want that you know someone in your network has the capacity to handle, it just kind of makes you appear more well rounded, so good for you. That’s good.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Right. Thank you. I can’t wait to continue to build. I just actually recruited one of my old design confidants from college as well as one of my old interns who are both my friends still to be my right and my left hand for my company, so that was a big move where I’m like, I told one of them, I’m like, you’re my successor. The other one is just stepping up to the plate, so it’s just really nice to have people I really trust my business with and I could only be thrilled to imagine how they would run my company one day when I have to go expand to new horizons. Still come back to Foxee because that’s where my heart is.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s amazing. I guess with that, do you have any plans for the summer?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yes. I’m going on vacation. I don’t vacation often, so yes. Actually summer, well starting off with my birthday, my birthday’s next month. May babies, Tauruses. Any Tauruses in the house? I’m going to Alabama because you were talking about the south, but my family’s from Alabama and I’m visiting my grandma for my birthday. We’re going to hang out in Atlanta for a bit, so that’s going to be really fun. Then in June, I’m spending the month in California because I’m also going to be speaking at VidCon, which is exciting, but most of it I’m going to be relaxing, but yes. I’ll have my first major speaking engagement in person. I don’t think I’ve nervous yet, but as we get closer, I’m going to be a ball of nerves.

Maurice Cherry:
You’ll be fine. VidCon is one of those conferences that everyone’s going to have a camera, of course. It’s a video conference, VidCon, but you’ll be fine. I think there’s enough energy at that kind of event where everyone wants to see you do well.

Alexandria Batchelor:
That’s true. It’ll be good vibes. As long as there are good vibes, I’ll thrive.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I’m curious, where in Alabama will you be visiting?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Nobody knows where this is, so I’ll be surprised if you know. It’s called Elba. Elba, Alabama in Coffee County.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I too am from Alabama.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Really?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Oh my goodness. I.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m from Selma in Dallas County. I’ve heard of Elba though.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Oh, really?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Oh my gosh. You’re the first person who’s ever heard of where my family’s from. That’s amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
People will come to me and name random cities in Alabama, like Utah or Boaz or something. I was like, yeah. I’ve heard of that. Really? I’m like, yeah. I grew up in Selma, from Alabama, south central Alabama. Yeah. Nice. Alabama in the summer is hot.

Alexandria Batchelor:
It’s going to be brutal, yeah. Well, May, so that’s not too bad.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s not too bad. Yeah.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yeah. My grandma wants us back later in the summer in August, so I think I might die. I don’t know if I could do that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. August is Alabama is brutal, but the thing about visiting small towns in Alabama like that is it just strips everything away, like technology, wifi, cable. Selma is not a big city. Even when I go back home to visit my mom, she’s got cable and she has internet, but like it’s not the cable and internet I have at home. In terms of the entire environment, it just kind of strips everything away and forces you to be still for a while.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Nice. Yeah. That’s exactly what I’m looking for to unplug, kind of reconvene with nature. My grandma’s got this cute little vegetable garden that I want to see and just kind of learn about the land, because we own land too. It’s low key our inheritance eventually, so I just want to get back to my roots and what better time to do it than for my birthday? I’m really excited.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Let’s talk about Foxee Design. I know you’ve been freelancing for a long time now, but tell the people more about Foxee Design.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Foxee Design, I wanted to figure out a nice alias that really represented me, and we started branding ourselves in college, but everybody was kind of doing… no shade to people who just use their name. That’s a very legitimate brand because your name actually holds a lot of meaning. I’m big into name etymology, so I love learning the meaning behind everything, but I just wanted something more than just like A and B.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I just realized my hair became a really big signifier and symbol in my life because I used to have chemically straightened hair up until I was like 18. Right when I was in college, I did a big chop and I went natural and that was the first time I had had natural hair in my life. That’s why the hair kind of became a big thing. I have a beauty mark, like the Marilyn Monroe beauty mark and the lips and I’m like, you know what? Maybe this is the visual I want to represent my brand.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Then Foxee, the name, kind of came about because… actually, it’s from Foxy Brown, the Pam Grier movie from the 70s, but I learned about that from Quentin Tarantino’s iteration of it, Jackie Brown and Pam Grier again. I was like, oh, I’m in love with this movie. It was my favorite Quentin Tarantino movie. It just really resonated with me, so I was like, well, this character is so cool because she’s re-contextualizing black female sexuality and she’s kind of making the black woman a very powerful force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. I’m like, I want to do that in the design industry. This was before where are the black designers, which we were just talking about too, where I’m just like, I just want to be myself and be this very strong black woman without any consequence and have it resonate with my work. It doesn’t always need to be about my work, but it’s always rooted in it because it’s a part of me.

Alexandria Batchelor:
That’s why it kind of was a little sexy. At times I would ask my friends like, should I have done something a little more palatable, but I just kind of leaned into it and I really want to embody this persona where… if you see me, I’m very naturalista, like Tom boy, but I can have those moments where I step out. It feels like an alter ego to an extent as well, but I like stepping into this alter ego because I’m this authority in the brand space and the design space and the illustration space and I get to know what I’m talking about and feel really empowered behind the knowledge that I’ve accrued over time. That’s kind of how Foxee came about and the meaning behind my whole business.

Maurice Cherry:
I love that. I love that there’s so much intention behind it.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yes. Always have intention behind the work I do.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you specialize in, you mentioned, graphic design, you mentioned illustration or comics and branding. What specifically drew you to branding? I’ve been finding, I’d say probably on the show within the past year or so, a lot more designers getting into branding, but what draws you to it?

Alexandria Batchelor:
I look at branding as storytelling. I realize illustration, comics and branding are all storytelling mediums for me that are my favorite mediums. I also write a little bit and my mom is a writer, so I have that in my blood. There’s something about branding that I feel like can be missed where you just think it’s a logo, but it’s much more than that. You’re telling someone’s story. I think it’s more of the owner. You go back to the owner, you find out even more about the business, and that actually influences a lot of decisions, like what colors. Is this based on your favorite colors? Is this just tied to how that color represents the specialty that we’re trying to brand? What is this interest, this hobby? Did you like skiing? Is that why you wanted to make something related to skiing?

Alexandria Batchelor:
I think brands always go back to the first person who came with that idea, and I love learning about people and understanding the attention behind all of the things that we are drawn to. That’s why I really like branding, because it’s kind of like decoding and getting to know someone. It’s kind of personal, because I know recent years people are trying to separate the personal brand and the business brand. I actually think it can be both. It’s one logo. One brand can, I believe, represent both personal and business. That’s how I do it. I don’t have a separate page. It’s all at one.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I am a person, I am my business, but I can also be just the person that can just be the business. I can be like, okay, I’m taking a mental health day and I go to the spa. I feel like when you try to split, it’s hard to navigate, so I love creating this space where you can feel like your work isn’t necessarily your life, but it is an important part of your life and it can still be a representation of you, your will, your passion. That’s why I love branding.

Maurice Cherry:
I love that. That’s a great way to put it. I see now branding and storytelling and it’s something I’ve definitely seen with a lot of small companies are trying to get into it, or I think they’re trying to get into branding because they’re starting to see it now as more than just a logo. They’ll come to a designer, I need a logo, but the logo should hopefully tell the story of your business or why you’re doing your business or something. It’s not just something generic that you just slap together and say, this is what my business is. It’s this logo.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Right. It’s Papyrus type. No, I’m just kidding. I’m literally always walking around like, I don’t like that, I love that. My dad’s like, stop working. I’m like, I can’t help it, dad. The whole world is design. Oh, man.

Maurice Cherry:
Talk to me about how you approach a new project that comes into Foxee Design.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I’m a big process person, like process junkie over here. I love how you got from point A to point B. I learned that a lot of clients and even designers are only about the final product. When I was getting introduced to this culture of design, I would notice that designers would hoard their designs until they were ready to share it and it would be more finalized and clients would just be like, I don’t get what this concept is. Just give me the final product. This was in college I reached this theory. I was like, I think there’s a gap in understanding, because actually my college major, it’s not graphic design. It’s communication design, so I quite literally can design communication, and I realized there was a gap in communication between the designer and the client.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I made my process very transparent. I start with a sketch. I’ll give a couple rounds of sketches and I’ll share it with the client. I’m like, what do you think? This isn’t obviously what it’s going to look like in the final stage, but these are just some ideas to get from point A to point B. Do you like this? What do you like about that? What do you like about this? We can combine those ideas and see if they work. I can tell you why they might not work. Let’s try this instead. When you bring the client in and involve them, you just get a much more successful design.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I’ve definitely had projects that have fallen through, obviously. No one’s perfect, but when the projects really go to the finish line, I’ve always had very high success rates. People are like, I didn’t even know this is what I wanted. I’m like, exactly, because the client always wants to be like, hey, I trust you. Just do whatever you want. I’m like, no. This is your business. You have to do work too, so I give them homework. I’m like, fill out this brand brief, answer all these questions. Some people are like, I never thought to answer all these questions about my business. I’m like, well, you’ve got to think about some extra stuff before maybe we even start your logo, because I always start with the logo if we’re doing a big brand project, because it’s an easy starting point but there’s way more to that. Especially if you want to be a musician or if you want to be on YouTube.

Alexandria Batchelor:
There’s a lot of other deliverables that go around the logo. I’ll give you colors and type bases to work with, even if that’s what you lead me with, but there’s always more than just a logo. Yes. I make my clients work just as hard as me, and that’s why I think I work really well with people and now they appreciate the process. They’ll always walk away like, I learned something about design today, and I’m like, that’s amazing. I’ve got teaching in my blood.

Maurice Cherry:
I think that’s a good way to approach it. Back when I started my studio, which was… what year is this? 2022. Back when I started in my studio in the olden days of the inter… no, I’m kidding, but back in the late 2000s or so, there was this really big push and maybe it’s still this way now, I don’t know, but there was almost this dichotomy that was set up between designer/entrepreneurs and clients where the designer is always right and the client is always wrong and there was this whole thing about clients from hell. Clients from hell.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I remember that blog.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Not to say that they don’t exist. They do exist. But also I think it’s up to the designer to vet the people that are coming in.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
I think if you’re doing a good job of that and they know that you’re educating them along with doing the work that you don’t run into many clients from hell after a while. They know to kind of stay away, but that education portion is super important. I think clients want to know sort of what they’re paying for, of course. They’re not just paying for hopefully a set of hands. They want someone that can illustrate, especially if it’s for their business and its brand. I would hope that they would want to be involved in it.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Me too. Yeah. Someone, I can’t remember who, but there was four types of clients. You have the smart involved client, you have the smart, lazy client, you have the… sorry to say dumb, but the dumb involved client and the dumb and lazy client. I think the worst one they said was the dumb involved one because they want to be all up in your business but aren’t listening or anything. It’s interesting that there are types of clients out there, but you have to know how to deal with them. If someone is more the uneducated one who wants to be involved, that’s great. You shouldn’t see that as a loss. You should be like, no, this is a learning moment. You want to be involved, but you’re not listening to me and I’m the authority. You paid for this.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Also, sometimes that’s where I take an L. If you don’t want to listen to me, then we’ll go with what you want. It might not be the right decision, but because you don’t want to listen to the specialists that you hired, then we’ll just go and do what you want to do. I think as I got older I started to be less precious with my work because yes, I’m here to guide you. I’m here to be like a salesperson. I’m here to persuade you, but sometimes if they just don’t want to listen, then that’s fine. I paid you to do what you want me to do and that’s that. I think a lot of younger designers get really hellbent on like, well, they’re not doing this. They’re not do it. I’m like yeah, I know that stinks, but put all that energy in your own work then.

Maurice Cherry:
Design, at the end of the day, for what it’s worth, especially as an entrepreneur, it’s a service industry, so you are serving the client in that way. Honestly, just because you did the work doesn’t mean you have to put it on your portfolio. There is a lot of work that I’ve done for horrible clients that will never see the light of day for me.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Right. I get you there, or I’ll put the one that they should have picked in my portfolio. I’m like, this is the nice version that we just left from ground zero, and it’s a dream, but this is the reality it should have been, so I get that.

Maurice Cherry:
You mentioned earlier about subcontracting and having people as you’re left and right hand. What does a typical day look like for you?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Oh my goodness. I’m in a decompression mode right now, so it’s a little different. Sometimes I’ll be gaming all day while also working, so I balance it out, which is kind of hilarious, but other days… I’m a Switch girl, so I’m playing the new Kirby game. Nobody’s paying me to promote this, but it’s really good. It’s beautiful. That’s been nice to feel restorative, especially if I have a stacked day, but I go through my emails. Also, email anxiety is so real. Some days I just put them off, but I try to have admin days where I can focus and respond as I go so they don’t build up, because if I’m away from my email for at least a week, I will have at least 200 emails and that is not fun to go through. Yes. That’s real. Email, admin stuff, I’ll go through any contracts that I have and get them signed and sent over, because I always collect deposits or I have regular income where I’ll have to give bills and stuff. So I’ll send in my invoices then. That’s the business side of things.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Then some days I like to blog in the mornings, especially if I worked too much the past day. I’ll just be writing my memoir, which is a little passion project I have going on, so I’ll spend time either doing that. This morning I spent embroidering, so I’ve been trying to get back to traditional art because I want to spend less time on my computer. Yes. I’ve been wanting to paint more, so in the coming days I’ll get back to painting. I like to play as much as I work with even my art because it’s my passion and my job, but traditional is where I’m steering, so I like being able to balance that throughout the day. Then I’ll work on a project here or there. I’ve usually got several going on.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Some days I’m like, I’m not working on this project or I’ll have to prioritize which one, like they need this one urgently or this deadline or this sub-task deadline is due this day, so that’s how I organize my tasks. Then I try to not work into the evening. Then I unwind with some anime and food. That’s what a day looks like for me.

Maurice Cherry:
I love that you said I like to play as much as I work and that you kind of weave that into your work day. That’s pretty cool. I like that. I think it’s a good way, one, to just get through the day, but then as an entrepreneur, I think it can be so easy to fall into that trap of just work, work, work, work, work, because everything has to depend on you. Incorporating those moments of play like that into the work is a good strategy.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yes. This is very new too, because I was work, work, work, work, work, and then I crash, crash, crash, crash, crash. Now I’m like, okay. I have to make sure I am relaxing. I want to bring back yoga and meditation into my routine, because I also was doing that because self-care is just so important. That’s what I’m trying to stress as much as I’m trying to make money. I’m good. I think that’s also important to have financial literacy when you’re in these spaces and to be able to save and not worry about going check to check. That’s where I’m like, you know what? I’ve worked hard enough to be like, I can relax. It’s going to be okay.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a good place to be.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yeah. It takes time. I think everyone can get there, but even if you are living check to check, still put a few bucks aside to get a facial from Walgreens. One of those things to just do the mini. I love doing like those really home care days. I’ll put my feet in like some Epsom salt or whatever and soak, so you can do it in a very affordable way too. I suggest that as well.

Maurice Cherry:
I like that. I first heard about you about a year or so ago from YouTube. I think I told you this before we started recording. I was randomly watching videos. I was letting the YouTube algorithm guide what I watch next and I ended up on this… I guess the best way to describe it would be maybe an anime discussion channel. Not necessarily review, but more like discussion. This anime discussion channel called Beyond The Bot. Can you talk about how you became a part of that?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Sure. Actually it goes back to my history at Frederator. We actually got laid off during the pandemic too. It happened to a bunch of different companies. I have no disclaimer. There’s no shade. I wouldn’t be the designer I am today without that company. I have much respect for Frederator, but we just couldn’t afford to keep all of us on after the pandemic hit. If it didn’t hit, we probably would still be there, to be honest with you. That crew wanted to keep a channel that we started at Frederator called, Get in the Robot. That had to pause production because we had lost our jobs, so we evolved it.

Maurice Cherry:
I watched Get in the Robot. I didn’t know that was the succession. Look at that.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Right. Here we go. Full circle.

Maurice Cherry:
Full circle.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I knew we’d get there. Yes. We just evolved it to the next stage with Beyond the Bot. We did it completely independent. We were crowd funded. We had a lot of really great opportunities to us. Then they were like, all right. Come on board, because we literally took the whole old team from Frederator and just started this because we just needed extra work and the fans were helping us pay and keep it alive. We got a couple hundred bucks a month working on it and we just kept the joy alive because that channel meant a lot to us, like Get in the Robot, and then Beyond the Bot was a new baby that helped us be able to do even more than we wanted to do without corporate constraints.

Maurice Cherry:
For people that want to check it out, you should really go to YouTube, search for it. If you’re into anime, I wouldn’t even say just modern anime, like My Hero Academia or whatever because you all have talked about stuff with Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z and stuff. If you’re an anime fan of any stripe, definitely check it out.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yes. We do deep cuts. I think we did a Neon Evangelion Genesis video. We’ve done a Cardcaptor Sakura video, so even the ones you’ve never heard of, we were talking about that stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. What are the best types of clients for you to work with? I know you’ve worked with, you mentioned Frederator is a place that you’ve worked at before, and we’ll go through the rest of your work history, but you’ve worked for some publications and other publishing studios. What are the best types of clients for Foxee Design though?

Alexandria Batchelor:
I love working with YouTubers. YouTubers are where it’s at because everybody is getting on that. I’m even trying to get on YouTube. I would love to be able to be like, come follow me at Foxee. Content will come this year, I promise, but yes. I love the YouTube space. That’s kind of what Frederator did too. We were kind of cornering the mark. They were kind of the first people really doing what they’re doing on YouTube. A lot of these clients that have reached out to me are like, I’m inspired by Get in the Robot. I’m inspired by this. We’ve kind of set a domino effect of these new big YouTubers who focus on anime or cartoon industries or video games. Well, there were other people like [inaudible 00:30:17].

Alexandria Batchelor:
All those different names, but YouTube is the place to be. There’s kind of a lot of not so great branding on there, so I would like to save YouTubers. That’s also why VidCon is a great space for me to speak at. I can’t wait to connect with a lot of people who might need a new brand. Either a brand refresh, a whole rebrand, or just a brand in general, but I think YouTube is a great spot because there’s a lot of authentic personalities that… the algorithm serves up authenticities. They love when you are just yourself and you have a good niche and you have a good hook. If people have those good ideas and just need a good brand, then they’re a great fit for me because I can help visualize that and help build their brand on YouTube.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Those are my ideal clients, but I’ve worked with musicians. Back when I was living in Buffalo, my first set of clients were local rappers who would charge $50 album covers. I’m like, the come up is real. I’ve worked with musicians, but I don’t charge $50 for album covers anymore. I’m all about indie. I listen to indie music. I love like indie films, so anything independent and not discovered by the world, it just feels more special. You were one of the first few fans to get access. When you see someone blow up, you’re like, I was following them when Spotify didn’t even exist. It just feels like an achievement to be able to be in those spaces. I think it’s high honor, especially if you’re a designer in those spaces to work with those kind of artists who are doing their thing, because it’s solely based on passion. Of course they want to be famous and they want money, but they are 100% driven by passion, and passionate clients. Ideal clients are just anybody with a dream and a lot of passion, and money too.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. There’s a guy I design… not design. Sorry. I had him on the show… was it last year? I’ve been doing this for so long I really have to think, like when did I interview this person? It was last year. This guy, Chris Burnett, he started out doing some designs for Odd Future. He loved the music and lucked into becoming their creative director for a while, did work with Tyler and with Frank and them. I’m like, wow. To be able to come in at that level, whether it’s a musician or even with what you’re talking about with a YouTube channel or something like that, to get in on the ground floor of working with another passionate creative is amazing. That’s the best. It’s the best. It’s so good, because that energy is there. They’re doing their thing. You’re doing your thing. It’s so good. It’s so good.

Alexandria Batchelor:
So good. Glad you agree.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s switch gears here a little bit. I know we’ve talked a lot about your work, but let’s talk more about you. Where did you grow up?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Me, I grew up in the Hudson Valley in New York. A little town. I don’t know if you all know Fishkill. More like the Poughkeepsie area. I’m just throwing out general terms because this is so specific. It’s like the greater New York City area. I know some people are going to be like, what? Then other people are like, what the heck is that? It’s near Beacon. Beacon’s also really nice. I don’t know. Good. It’s the upstate New York area kind of, but not really. It’s very white, which is fine. That experience made me very comfortable being in predominantly white spaces, which actually helped me out in corporate and college, although my college program, our class, there was a lot of diversity there, which was surprising because it was Buffalo, but anyway. Yeah. I grew up in a predominantly white area in the suburbs and I lived there my… that’s not true. I was a baby in Mount Kisco, so I barely re remember that, but remembering the growing up experience, I grew up in that other area that I ranted about that half of the people listening will probably not know.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you know that creating art was something you wanted to do for a living?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Probably when I was five. I was always drawing, especially when we hung out with the family. I was always curled up on the couch just doodling. I still have my doodles. I have a great archive. I’m excited to go through it, like through recent revelations and deeper understanding of my work, but I have stuff from when I was really young still in my possession, but I always knew. Yeah. I’m an archivist, which is a fancy term for hoarder, but it’s still worth it. I think having your old work is really important because it says a lot about the interest that shaped you as an artist. I always knew, and I actually wanted to get into architecture briefly because I do love architecture, but I’m not good at math, or maybe I am but I just didn’t have good teachers. The pressure it is to be an architect, uh-uh (negative). I was like, I’m not going to build a house that could fall down and me get sued. I don’t think so. Then I found graphic design and that was a wrap.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you mentioned studying communication design. You started out at Dutchess Community College and then you attended University of Buffalo. What were those experiences like? Did they really prepare you once you got out there in the world as a working designer?

Alexandria Batchelor:
I would say yes and no. Dutchess, the community college, it was a great school for saving money. I just wanted to save. Maybe I was a little not like ready to run, like jump the nest. That’s my mom’s theory, even though I’m like, no mom. It’s probably not that, but she’s usually right with her suspicions, so maybe. I went for free because I graduated in like the top 3% of my high school, but it felt like the 13th grade and me and one of my friends were really bored and we were just like, we have to get out of here. We got to do really fun programs. I got to learn fencing while I was there and did a dance program. I want to get back into fencing. Fencing was super fun and you look really cool. I love swords, and video games, I am always the person with a sword. That’s my ideal weapon choice.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Just in case you guys were wondering, but I didn’t get to take really graphic design classes there. I took a 2D and 3D design class and a photography class, which is indirectly graphic design, but I had to wait the next year to take a graphic design course, but I was already onto the University at Buffalo. Those courses, they were okay. I thought the teacher I had was kind of pretentious. He was kind of a jerk and told me I couldn’t get into other schools, even though out of high school, I got into like RIT and I’m like, okay, well I’m here just to save money for my family so you’re wrong, but thanks.

Alexandria Batchelor:
That was a crappy experience with that guy where I’m like, maybe you’re just mad you’re teaching and you want to be out in the field. I don’t know. It was not really about me, but it was a crappy experience to still have. University of Buffalo was way better. I actually met two of my mentors that I’m still friends with today, John Jennings and Stacy Robinson. They together work as Black Kirby and they are leading the Afro-futurist… they’re just big names in the Afro-futurist space, especially in the comic book industry. They just kind of took me under their wing immediately when I met them, and that was the best thing I got out of UB especially. Then also all my friends. I still keep in contact with a lot of my classmates. We just kind of all stuck together. I had a friend reach out to me recently like, hey, we’ve always been fans of your work and we always thought your stuff was next level. I’m like, me? Fans from school? Oh my gosh. Thanks guys. That was so sweet.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. I had John on the show a couple years ago. I want to say 2017, 2018. Yeah. John is great. John, you mentioned his name.nd I think any Afro-futurist circle people are going to be like, oh yeah, Kindred. We know John. Yeah.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yep. I’ve worked on most of those projects he’s worked on, so I actually helped color Kindred too.

Maurice Cherry:
Work. Nice.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I just think those things [inaudible 00:39:39]… because I’m a very humble person. I don’t go out reciting my resume, but I’m like yeah, I worked on that too.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yeah. He’s dope. He’s very cool to work with. He was the one I mentioned earlier who taught me, don’t leave your network behind and bring them up with you. He is trying to master the subcontract and that’s who I got that from.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I like that a lot. I like that. What was your early career like once you graduated? Is that when you started freelancing right alongside working?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yes, because my first job out of college was at The Cheesecake Factory. I was a server. I couldn’t get a job for the life of me because I was in Buffalo and the industry there is very small. It’s a very blue collar town. No shade to Buffalo, but design was not flourishing there. I’m not really sure how it is. I don’t think it’s flourishing now. You’d have to work at like a doctor’s office or some kind of establishment to really be a designer there. I wanted to work at an agency or some kind of innovative company, but I just couldn’t get in. I was behind on internships because I didn’t take internships in school because I was kind of a lazy student. I’m going to be honest with you. I slept during class all the time, since high school. I was a sleeper. I don’t know. That was my bad.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Instead, I decided to go into the restaurant industry and I made really great tips. Then that also encouraged me to freelance. If I never served, then I would’ve never really focused on freelance work and Foxee Design may not be what it is today, because I didn’t want a gap in my resume. I was like, well, I’m going to have to really operate as a freelancer so I have this experience for when I’m ready to get into design. I did end up getting in two offers at internships. One at like a car dealership place, which I’m like, I’m not a big car person, so I’m like, it’s not a great fit. Then the other was at a newspaper, which is really cool. It was called the Buffalo News. It’s one of the biggest newspapers in the Western New York area. They had a medley of different clients that they would work with, so I thought that was a better fit than a car dealership. No shade.

Alexandria Batchelor:
It was a great offer that she… it was the first time someone took me out and wined and dined me to be like, are you going to choose our internship? I’m like, for an internship for real? No, but thank you. I mean, not wine. She took me out to coffee and got me a snack or whatever, but either way it was [inaudible 00:42:21] that she really wanted me to work there, but I chose the newspaper instead. I worked in their digital ad department because they were still focusing on penny savers, but my department was the smallest and newest and youngest. We worked on Facebook ads, like back in the day when you were only in the backend, working on Facebook. This was back when it was so new that you could actually discriminate through it because you could choose to serve your ads to specific races. It was very interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah. I remember when Facebook had that. I think it was some sort of housing. I forget what it was, how someone found out. I think it was because they were making ads that would discriminate against people for housing or something like that, but I remember when could do that with the ad manager.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yes, and I witnessed that happen. The sales rep didn’t allow it, but the woman was on speaker phone asking and I was just like, oh my goodness. I can’t believe she just asked if she could only serve this housing ad to white people. It was just the most baffling experience. I was like, wow, people really be doing that nowadays. Still to this day. That was a very interesting experience because it was very old school. I had to dress up for work. I had a retirement fund. I was like, what in the world? I had a retirement fund. That’s how old school this place was. That was my early career. It was very interesting. Very interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, what was it like at Frederator? What did you learn from there? I know you said it kind of helped you now in terms of, I guess, process and such, but what was that experience like, because Frederator, and we talked about this a bit before recording, but it feels like it serves a very specific type of demographic that I don’t know if it encompasses black women, black people in general, but probably specifically not black women. What was your experience there like? What did you learn from there?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Well, it’s funny enough. I was one of the first three black people employed there. It was two black guys and me and one of them, he’s still there and just got promoted to president, so now he running the place, which is amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Look at that.

Alexandria Batchelor:
The first day he started, he said, I’m going to run this place. I said, okay. That was me meeting him. I was like, sure. Then he did. I’m like, of course he did. Of course he did. It’s being run by a black person now, but it was a wild ride because it was definitely predominantly white for decades, which, it makes sense. The higher ups were all white. That’s usually what happens, but that’s why I was really grateful to my boss who gave me a chance because I needed to get out of Buffalo. Through friend or something, I was able to connect and she’s like, I love your work. Then I got the job and I got to New York City lickity-split because I was ready to go. It was just amazing to have an opportunity to be in that space, because it’s so hard for us to get into design spaces for whatever reason. Well, the reason is because it’s systematically designed like that, but that’s a whole other conversation. We’re partially going to talk about it.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yes, it was kind of hard being there, as any predominantly white space, but for whatever reason, there was more and more minorities that kept flooding in. At one point, there was half minorities and half white people and then there were less white people. I’m like, oh, they’re getting scared. They’re getting scared. I’m just kidding. It was so funny though. We would joke about it, but I think I was able to navigate the space where I let people feel comfortable talking about feeling uncomfortable. I would be able to talk to the one half Hispanic, half indigenous guy and the one Asian guy about in high school when they used to give us really racist names.

Alexandria Batchelor:
This was water cooler talk, and I don’t think anybody would ever have been able to have a safe water cooler space talk like that if it was only white people around. I didn’t really have an influence on company culture because I was the only designer there too, so I was so tired and busy, but the moments I had were really nice where I could just bond with people and we could talk straight with each other. I even talked to some of the white people about it because I’ve always had white friends who just let me talk. I’m like, if you just listen, I’m cool with you. You cool. You know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Just let hear my voice. I’ve had really real talks with some white folk and those are the ones to stick with; the ones who aren’t going to tell you how you are supposed to feel or about your experience. I had a lot of those moments with some people there, which was nice, but design wise, it was YouTube. I got to figure out how to brand YouTube. I made extensive style guides. I’ll make you a 50 page brand guide that you will use and share with the video editors, because we had a huge freelance network too, some of whom I still keep in contact and using my own network now. Yeah. The people I met there were worth it. The skills I gained there working on YouTube was worth it. Yeah.

Alexandria Batchelor:
As a black woman, it wasn’t always great. I didn’t always feel like my voice was heard. I feel like I had a lot of good ideas and they would always be overshadowed, and then every time the white guy said exactly what I said two weeks ago, I’m like, of course. Of course now it’s a brilliant idea. I don’t want to think it’s always intentional, but you always feel a type of way where it’s like, is anybody listening to me, but still a good experience. Still a good experience. Again, it made me strong. I had interns be like, because we went through a lot, I was able to handle a really crazy work situation being only in a small team, and I’m like, I’m glad, because it hardens you when you are responsible for a lot. It was too much. I definitely needed like another designer, but I run my own business now.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That’s interesting. It hardens you. That’s an interesting way to look at it.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yeah. It’s not 100% great terminology, but that’s the strong black woman though. Unfortunately, that’s the trope that we do have to play often.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, this kind of leads into my next question, which is kind of about representation. I mentioned to you before and I’ve talked about this on the show too when I have black illustrators or fine artists, do you feel a need to quote unquote represent with the work that you do?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Not necessarily. Obviously I’m going to go for the black female representation or even just a lot of women I’ve always drawn, because I’m always going to go to the self first. It’s an easy subject. It’s like Frida Kahlo. She says, I know myself the best. That’s why my best subject. She’s one of my favorite artists. That’s why I quote her. That was not a direct quote, but anyway, and then also, because I’m bisexual, I also love how women look and it’s so easy to draw women. I always have to be like, oh crap. I haven’t drawn a man in months. I should probably do that. Men are cool too, but dang, I don’t know. [foreign language 00:50:26].

Alexandria Batchelor:
Anyway, I think it’s important specifically to represent the black women in my work because I pull a lot from my feelings, so I make a lot of sense of what I’m feeling and what I’m going through through my illustration work, and because black women have to be hardened by society, I think being vulnerable in that way helps be like hey, I’m still a person and I’m really sad or I’m really frustrated, or I feel like I’m falling apart, which is why I do a lot of disembodied, disconnected body parts. That’s kind of a style I’ve developed. I’ve always been doing that for I think maybe for 10 years.

Alexandria Batchelor:
That’s kind of been the art style where it’s like just the head or the bust or a hand or an arm. It just shows this disconnect and just feeling really outside of your body, because there’s so much going on, you don’t really know the feelings that are kind of taking over you and you feel like you’re just kind of fractured. I’m constantly breaking apart and putting myself back together to make sense of myself, to reassemble myself, like a stained glass mirror or a stained glass window. Sorry. That’s why I think when I try to represent the black woman it means more because we aren’t allowed to feel feelings like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, you do a lot of work with like Afro-futuristic [inaudible 00:52:02]. You mentioned John Jennings and you mentioned Kindred. You’ve got a new project that’s coming out in September with Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes. Can you talk to us a little bit about that?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Sure. We’re now allowed to talk about it. I was doing hold up because I was the colorist on the project, so I colored that whole bad boy. I had some help with my assistants. They were great, but yes. It’s funny because I’ve been coloring with John since I was in college and I’ve been getting promotions with him. This was the first time I was the lead colorist. Oftentimes I’m an assistant colorist, like on Kindred I was an assistant, but this time I got to be the senior level colorist and I got to see the inks that Marco Finnegan did. He’s incredible. He loves film noir. That’s why the shadows are really heavy. I always forget this name, the really intense contrast. It’s the [inaudible 00:53:01].

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, chiaroscuro. Something like that.

Alexandria Batchelor:
There you go, chiaroscuro. Yes. I never get that right, but one day I will, so thank you for the assist, but it has that really beautiful effect. It made my job easier because I was like, great. I got to do less shadows because he made this so exaggerated, but it was beautiful. His inks were just so strong on their own. Then I got to just take a look at them, understand the scene. I had to plot out the script to see how many days this story went over. It took a place over seven days. It’s about this little girl, she’s eight, which, fun fact, was based on Marco’s daughter, which is really cute. I love when, again, you’re using your reality as your subject and that’s what makes it realer, because the expressions, I’m just like, this feels heartfelt. I’m like, well, if it’s based on your daughter, I get it.

Alexandria Batchelor:
This little girl, she goes through a lot of death and she is kind of on her own after a while because her caretaker dies and then a monster is summoned to take care of her, called the keeper, but there has to be a sacrifice to keep it alive because it needs life to keep it alive. It’s a beautiful, horrific story. It was funny because I was listening to a talk with Tananarive Due and she was talking a lot of black history or black stories. They are horror. They’re horrific, so it’s technically a horror graphic novel. I think the demo is like around… it’s supposed to be young adult, but I think it can skew higher because it reads really well. I highly recommend, not just because I worked on it. It’s good. We nailed it.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. We’ll put a link to it in the show notes so people can pre-order it, because this will be out before this comes out. Side note, and only because I’m a nerd, you talked about [inaudible 00:55:06], and as soon as you said that, I was like, there’s a song by a British jazz singer named ZR McFarland called chiaroscuro, so if anybody’s listening and they want to check that out, it’s a pretty good song. She’s a good singer, but that’s a pretty good song.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Nice. I’m going to be jamming to that after this podcast.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. How do you get back your creativity when you’re feeling uninspired? Do you have any methods that you go through or anything like that?

Alexandria Batchelor:
I wish my brain could shut off that I could really be uninspired, but I understand it’s not necessarily not being inspired, but the creative blocks, I guess, where it’s like I know I want to do this, but sometimes I don’t know how. Sometimes I guess going back to traditional media, just doodling mindlessly helps, me going back to nature. I was just going on a walk with my mom and she was so annoyed because I literally was stopping and picking the flowers because I mentioned wild flowers in a blog post, so just taking root of my surroundings, even if it’s a fire hydrant and the colors on that because I’m a comic book. I work in comic books, so the background art, you think the things that you just pass by every day, we love. We put that in the background so we’re always studying the environment.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I think that’s been a really good way to, I guess, push through creative blocks where I’m just like, let me just go outside and collect some research and also get in the fresh air and I just want to hike more. I want to get back to nature because I think as we get back to nature and respect it more and I want to raise more plants, I want that to help revitalize me when I’m feeling like down with my creativity.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s funny. As you said that about creativity and even as you mentioned this about horror before. Have you been to Elba before? Is this going to be your first time visiting this summer?

Alexandria Batchelor:
No, I used to go when I was a kid, but it’s been a while. It’s maybe been over five years, so it’s been a while.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. One thing I remember about Elba is that it’s flooded a few times. At least in my lifetime, it’s with the river there, the town is flooded. I don’t know. As you started talking about that I was thinking, what if there’s some interesting southern gothic horror story of this town that’s been repeatedly flooded with people that can breathe underwater or something. I don’t know. My mind is wandering a little bit.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I would love that. No, please, because it’s funny. We have another piece of property and on it there’s this little mini house and they call it the doll house, and it’s near a lake, so I’m like, oh, you might be onto something. Okay. We might have to talk. Okay. We’ve got to talk about this little story over here. That sounds awesome.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you have a dream project or anything that you would love to do that you haven’t done yet?

Alexandria Batchelor:
I am literally working on a dream graphic novel, so yes. It’s pretty much I have very vivid dreams because I’m very stressed out a lot, I guess. Yeah. People would call them stress dreams, but I’ve started getting them again. They’ve been hilarious. One dream someone said that… like I was an X-man and someone was like, your sister’s a normie, and I pimp slapped them because I was like, she’s amazing. Don’t you ever talk about my sister like that. These are the kind of weird dreams I have. I’ve recorded at least 70 plus of these. I’ve started organizing into a story because there has been a lot of through lines between all of these dreams where it’s like, there’s this underlying plot or there’s this love interest, so it’s been very interesting mapping out all these symbols because I also love dream symbolism and dream interpretation.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I’ve used that as a resource for this story because it’s literally writing itself. I literally just have to go to bed and dream and that’s part of the writing and now it’s tightening it up, but then I’m paralleling it with my actual life to be like, what is going on to instigate these dreams? It’s biographical as well as a dream memoir, so I’m pulling from my journal entries at the same point in time and I’m creating this beautiful story that weaves in and out from reality and dream world and creating a narrative. This is going to be a hybrid piece where it’s graphic novel, but there’s going to be written pros and there’s going to be dream dictionary-esque aspects of it. This is a passion project. I’ve already finished the beginning and figured out the beginning and end. I’ve just been working on it diligently and hopefully I am going to get this published maybe next year or the following year, given how much time I’m able to work on it with everything else going on.

Maurice Cherry:
That sounds amazing. I’d love to read that once you have it. Once it’s out there and ready, I’d love to read that.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Absolutely. I will send you a link personally.

Maurice Cherry:
What is the best advice that you’ve ever been given regarding your craft?

Alexandria Batchelor:
I guess reserving my passion for my own projects, but I don’t think that’s actually the best advice because I’m so passionate about everything. I think just focusing more on myself though is important because I’ve always been worried about everyone else. Not that I’m going to drop the execution that I spend on projects, but I just need to be a little selfish nowadays and there’s nothing wrong with that because it’s a balance between selflessness and selfishness, but with my work, I want that dream to come true. I also want to have an exhibit. If I want all these dreams to come true, I’ve got to think about me, so I think that’s probably the best advice. Balance, letting myself get a little bored, re-centering myself and just letting go a little bit. That’s, I think, what I need to continue to grow and not stagnate or burn myself out or give up on this because I feel like I’m onto something.

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

Alexandria Batchelor:
I want to do more environmental design. I want to figure out how to help the environment more. I’m not really sure. I’m still very new about sustainability. I do it in different ways. I don’t have a car, so I don’t add to the carbon footprint. I take the public transportation. I recycle plastic bags and use them as garbage bags. There are little ways I do it, but I want to know how to build that into my business more. I also want to build interactive spaces for people to be able to enjoy separate… hopefully including sustainability. I want to get more into the museum exhibition space and just create a new world that you walk into whenever you go to a show or some kind of piece. I want to get out of the 2D space because I’m ready to graduate to 3D.

Maurice Cherry:
I like that. That’s good. Well, just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you, about your work and everything? Where can they find that online?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Sure. Well, I’m actually not as active as I need to be, but I will be more active on Instagram. That’s where I prefer to post work. I’m also on Twitter. It’s all Foxee Design, F-O-X-E-E Design. Then I’ll be on YouTube this year too, so those are my main platforms, and then you can find other links through there, but that’s all I’ll share for now.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Alexandria Batchelor, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I was familiar with your work, like I said, through YouTube and watching the videos and being like, this is so really well done. Who is behind this? Then of course now being able to talk to you and really get the passion and the fun and the energy and the vitality that you have behind your work. I’m excited to see what comes next, because it sounds like you are working across a lot of different spaces, doing a lot of just really cool stuff. I’m excited to see what your design future is going to hold, so thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Of course. Thank you so much for having me. I had a blast.

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Dr. Kenya Oduor

I was introduced last year to Dr. Kenya Oduor through a Tech Circus panel we both participated in, and I’m really glad to have her on the show now so she can share her brilliance with you all! She is a human-centered designer, researcher, and strategist, and also runs her own consulting and staffing firm Lean Geeks. Very impressive!

We dove right in and talked about her increased focus at this stage of her career, and from there we discussed how Lean Geeks works and what she want to accomplish with the firm this year. She also spoke about growing up in Queens, studying to become a physical therapist, and then pivoting into human factors and user experience design. According to Kenya, getting comfortable with being uncomfortable is how you grow, and her path to where she is now certainly proves that!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
Hi, Maurice. I am Dr. Kenya Oduor and I am a human-centered strategist researcher and designer.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s on your mind? How’s 2022 been treating you?

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
What’s on my mind. So, I think there’s a lot going on right now in terms of coming out on the other end of COVID and understanding what that means to the work that my team and I do with our clients. And how much of this remote model will change to a more hybrid or in-person model, again. I think in looking at some of the work that we do for our clients, I think there’s a huge opportunity for those conversations to shift to what new expectations do users, customers, clients have around their products and services. So, I’m really curious, not only to see what that means in terms of work opportunities, but also what insights do we gain from the work that we do in that regard.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
I’m also finding that my career is gravitating towards more focused on me being a Black woman. And 10 years, 15 years ago, I would’ve never imagined that my identity would matter so much to the trajectory of opportunities and the voice that I present out to the world and that thing.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting. Can you talk about that a little bit more?

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
Sure. So, I never forgot who I was, just because in the industry that I’m in, I might be the only or have been the only woman in the room, the only Black person in the room or both. And so, it’s always been a constant reminder for me because at certain points in my career, I didn’t necessarily feel like I was an integral part of the organization, in terms of feeling like I’m a fit within the culture because of my differences, or I didn’t feel like I was necessarily heard as much as some of my peers were. But what I’m finding now is that all of that experience and all of that maybe insecurity, imposter syndrome or angst that I was feeling throughout my career, I feel like that’s all coming to a place where I’m now using it to tell my story.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
And it’s becoming what I never realized would be a story that a lot of people, Black, white, or otherwise, want to hear in terms of just, we all have our unique differences. And knowing that and embracing those differences and using that to your advantage in terms of, especially in the design room, using that to your advantage in terms of bringing a different perspective.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m curious if that change has happened since the summer of 2020 because I feel like for a lot of Black folks who I’ve had on the show… well, all the Black folks. I’ve only had Black folks on the show. Let me be clear about that. But I think every person I’ve had on has said since that summer, there’s been a shift.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
Absolutely. I am more comfortable in the skin that I’m in and I am unapologetic about. And I’ve heard that in a lot of circles that I’m in, being unapologetically Black. And just recognizing that if you are uncomfortable with my identity and who I am, then that’s not my problem, that’s yours. I don’t have to work to make you feel more comfortable. I have to be me and recognize that. And especially, as a business owner, I recognize that clients that want to do business with me and my company have to be comfortable with who I am and that sort of thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking of your business, let’s talk about Lean Geeks. This is your design agency. Where did that name come from?

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
So, the name came from, as a researcher by training and coming from the academic world and having a PhD in human subject research and that sort of thing, I recognize that throughout my career, a lot of times I would get the poo-poo to ideas of “let’s go and validate stuff.” I would get a lot of resistance where the immediate response that people would go to is, “It’s going to take too long. It’s going to be too complex. We don’t have time for that. We didn’t bank in that, that time to do those things.” So, I recognize that being able to position research around being lean research and scrappy where necessary is really, really important in terms of getting buy-in.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
And the geek part comes from just as human factors professionals. I’m not the only one that subscribes to this, but what I found is a lot of my colleagues, we always have swapped stories about whenever we take on a project, we have to go really deep in understanding a new domain or a new type of industry and user within that industry. And so, we almost geek out in the things that we learn about medicine or what we learn about different industries that might be very different than what we would play in otherwise, banking and that kind of thing. So, it’s always interesting to think about all of those different industries and how you have to go deep in order to be effective in creating solutions or redesigns for services in those different fields.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, your agency offers both consulting and staffing services to clients and you have what you call a human-centered approach. Tell me about your process.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
Absolutely. So, the ideal, let me tell you about the ideal because this is what really excites me. When we have a client come to us and they’re in this phase of discovery where they have certain assumptions or certain hypotheses around what they could do or what their product could do differently. And so, having the opportunity to help define and execute on some research that validates their ideas, we usually provide them with more clarity on essentially what are the requirements for their solution.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
And so, having the opportunity to do that and informing the experience design and having data to support our design approach is really, really, to me really exciting. Because it’s not one of those things where you or I on the team are going off of what we think is the right experience or approach. We’re using some of our experience to understand what is the best design, but we’re more so using data to validate the person’s ability to get something done. Okay? And in those types of projects, we help our client get to the point of sprint zero or basically giving them the different assets that are necessary to feed development and the engineering effort.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
And the really ideal experience is when they then allow us to partner with them from a contractor perspective and having maybe an interaction designer or a strategist join their team as a contractor. So then, there’s continuity from the work that we did. So, it’s not as if we’re just throwing research and wire frames over the fence, we’re actually continuing on with their team. And that allows those individuals that did the research to stay connected to the project and help to still continue and inform the direction that things go in. And for me, if every project started and continued in that fashion, my life would be golden at that point. If that was the model that we could always follow.

Maurice Cherry:
To that end, it sounds like the best types of clients then for you to have are ones that possibly would have you all on retainer, because it sounds like the work that you’re doing continues along a timeline. You’re not just going in doing one thing and then that’s the end of the project.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
I wish that we were on retainer. Typically, it’s the upfront research and the deliverables around requirements, priority, wire frames. All of that stuff is usually time boxed and it’s a fixed cost effort. Over my career, I think, being in a practitioner role and in a leadership role, I’ve gotten really good at being able to estimate how long an effort should take. So, those are usually time-boxed. And then when you talk about the contractors, those are typically your standard contractor on your team. Somebody that’s there six months and then they’re converted to a full timer or they’re on the project for two years as a contractor. So, those are typically, someone who has a badge and a computer from your company and they submit timesheets to our company. And we pay payroll and that sort of thing, benefits and all that sort of thing.

Maurice Cherry:
That sounds that’s where the lean part kicks in, at least in terms of being able to estimate the time pretty, pretty accurately.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
Absolutely. The one thing that I’ve not necessarily learned, but has become really clear over the last few years, is that in any project recruitment is the longest [inaudible 00:12:55]. That’s going to be the hardest part of a project. And it’s going to take the longest is to recruit panelists to use for interviews, qualitative interviews, or to observe, or to have them do usability testing and that sort of thing. Recruitment is probably the hardest part of what we do.

Maurice Cherry:
What does an average day look for you with Lean Geeks?

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
It typically, like most other people, getting up and checking your emails and “What do I need to do today?” It’s engaging with, I don’t want to say, prospects, because I don’t look at engagement with potential clients. I don’t look at them as prospects. I want to get the opportunity to talk to them. “Let me hear about what’s going on in your organization. What are your biggest struggles? What keeps you up at night?” So, having or scheduling conversations with different people is a lot of what I do.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
I am focused on business development and closing the sale. So, I’m not so much doing the research work anymore or the design work as per se, but I try to bring in those projects. And I stay involved from the extent of knowing what’s going on, so that might also be a part of my day is checking in with the team to see how are things progressing. “Show me where you are. Maybe I have ideas or questions that help you to expand what you’re thinking is around a particular problem.” So, I also spend a portion of my day doing that.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
And I’ve had to get comfortable over the last year or more comfortable with marketing. So, just thinking about strategically, what is my brand and what is my voice and what do I want to put out there? And this goes back to my identity, becoming so much more of what I present to the world where historically that wasn’t necessarily something that I put as much importance in or on.

Maurice Cherry:
Now for those out there who may not have heard of human-centered design. Again, we talked about how you have this human-centered approach. Can you talk about what it is and why it’s important?

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
Absolutely. So, human-centered design is essentially, I don’t want to say putting the human first, it’s informing your approach to a solution with information around your user and their motivation, their needs, what are their goals in terms of interacting with your product or service. And most importantly, the most important part is context. And I teach a human computer interaction class and my students are software engineering students. And whenever they ask questions, I always get them to unpack their understanding of the context.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
Because context really, really impacts our ability to assume what is someone thinking in a particular moment. What are the environmental factors that are outside of their control that they have to consider in using your product? When you think about your product, what features or capabilities need to be in the forefront because of that context? So, that to me is what human-centered design is all about is allowing someone or giving someone the tools that they need to get something done and to consider their motivation and their context in that.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you to really accomplish with your business this year?

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
I really want to get to a place where obviously closing more business. Any business owner wants to continue to grow, so I always want to continue to grow in my business. I want to get connected to more designers and researchers that are in a freelance situation because I’m always looking for talent. And as you know right now, the market is really hot. So, either we’ve lost team members or we’re constantly looking for new ones and I think I do a pretty good job of spotting talent, but in most cases they’re already either fully committed or not available or whatever it might be at that particular time. So, that’s a huge goal of mine in 2022 is to build up our network in that regard and across the country, ideally. I have some little pet projects that I’m working on with colleagues and I would love to see some of those pet projects shape up a little bit more and for us to move from idea to concept.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Let’s switch gears here a little bit, because I want to get more into your background and learn more about really how you came about all of this. So, let’s start from the beginning here. Talk to me about where you grew up.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and I was really young before I started school, we moved to Queens, New York. So, I grew up in Queens. Very different from Pittsburgh and it was very different going back and forth during the summers and holidays. And so, I grew up around a lot of people who might have been first generation Americans. And it was to me, I think that is what shapes my belief that culture and context have so much to do as inputs to any solution because I just remember being around people that were so different, but had similar goals.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
Everybody wanted the best for their children. Everybody wanted to work hard and earn a living and that kind of thing. So, I knew that there was a common thread amongst the culture of the people that I was around. But I knew that, when I went into different people’s homes, the way they did things and the languages and all those sorts of things were different. So, I look back and when I talk to some of my friends growing up, we always talk about how unique our situation was. And we didn’t realize it until now that we’re adults living in different parts of the country.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s so interesting that hindsight, looking back and you don’t think about it at that time when you’re a kid, probably not even when you’re a teenager or a young adult. But I find the older I get, when I look back at how I grew up and how I first got into tech and everything like that. It’s abnormal for the time I think, but I didn’t even think about it because essentially at the time when I was doing this stuff, it just all felt like play. It just felt toys that I was working with, not actual computers. Teaching myself a language, that kind of thing.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
Yeah. And I think that’s the beauty of, I’m the parent that, “Oh, I want them to do the things they enjoy and double down on the ones that they’re passionate about.” But I always have to tell myself that you have to also remind yourself and your kids that exposure to as many different things as possible really open your eyes to things you didn’t even know existed. And like you were talking about, the things that you did with computers early on, you would’ve never thought about the impact they would have on your career now is just we, as people, have to always look beyond what we’re comfortable with. Look at the beauty of art and how that translates into the beauty of what you can create. And just being able to translate some of what we see and experience into the work that we do.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Did you have a lot of exposure to design or tech as you were growing up?

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
Yeah. So, my parents coming from a small or from small towns in and around Pittsburgh, their intention in moving to New York was to be around culture and that kind of thing. So, my parents used to drag me to the theater when I was younger and I was always, “Ugh, we have to get dressed up and go to the theater.” And I used to go to the Museum of Modern Art or Guggenheim Museum. And I used to always look at it like such a chore, because it was maybe different than what my friends were doing or my friends didn’t go with me.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
But as an adult now, I’m like, “Oh, my goodness.” I thank them all the time because all of those different experiences and that exposure had so much to do with, my mother used to do art projects and she would get wood and carve it and then do stamping on fabric. And I look at all those experiences and say that creativity and just seeing different types of creativity, they remind you that there’s so much out there that can apply to what we see, what we do, what we experience.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, when it was time for you to go to college, you went to the university of Maryland. Tell me about what your time was like there.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
Too much fun. That’s why I was on a five-year plan. I knew when I was in high school that I wanted to go away to college. I didn’t want to stay in New York, surprisingly. As much as New York is a wonderful place, it’s exhausting. And I was talking to somebody else from New York the other day and we were saying how until you leave New York, you don’t realize how much life there is outside of New York because it takes so much out of you to do everything.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
So, I went to Maryland and I struggled with figuring out what do I want to do or what do I want to be? I started out as an engineering major. Then I got interested in psychology and people. And then I thought I wanted to be a physical therapist. So, I ended up having to do an extra year because I thought I was going to be a physical therapist and I had to do additional classes. But my time at Maryland was my awakening to experience Black culture more than when I was just going to see my family. Coming from Queens and then going to Maryland, I felt like my identity as a Black woman, I was able to see other people like myself, that I was actually around all the time and not just family that I’m going to see during a holiday.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
So, that for me was really interesting and exciting. And I just knew at that point that I wanted… I used to get the itch to say that one day I was going to start a business. What that was going to be, who knows. But I used to say to myself that I wanted to create something one day. So, I enjoyed Maryland, but obviously not enough to stay there because I’m in North Carolina now. But yeah, I enjoyed my time at Maryland.

Maurice Cherry:
One thing that I remember really, again, another hindsight thing that I remember is just how many different types of Black people I met at college. I’m from the country-country. Everybody is they’re Southern. You really don’t see other types of people unless it’s maybe on television or something like that. And I remember being at Morehouse here in Atlanta and meeting Caribbean people for the first time that wasn’t via Caribbean rhythms on BET. Actually meeting people from the Caribbean. Meeting people from other parts of the country and stuff. And realizing how much that really shaped my Black experience, but just the diversity of what is considered the Black experience.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
It’s true. And so the difference, I think… I have a cousin, actually, a cousin by marriage, who’s from Atlanta, born and raised. And I just found out recently that he did not see non-Black people until he went to college. And that blows my mind because for me, you see Atlanta obviously as a metropolis or a metropolitan area. And I think about the fact that to me, that’s so fascinating in the sense that you had exposure, you had the means and the capability to go to college and in your lived experience, you never saw people that were not Black. That tells me that the upbringing and the community had was one that helped you to get to where you needed to be in order to get to that next level, which I love.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
And then I think about the flip side of it with my experience in growing up in Queens, I used to almost feel, I was one of the few people that were not white, whose family had several generations that went back in terms of being in the US. So, I almost felt like, I felt like the outsider because I was the one whose family had been slaves. And to have that connection to this country, but to have no one else around you that has that connection to this country, I felt like the outsider.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
Yeah, yeah. And I think going to Maryland is where I experienced more of my people who were like me, descendants of slaves. And so, I could relate to them in a different way than I could my people in Queens.

Maurice Cherry:
So, you were enjoying your time at University of Maryland, soaking in that good Black experience. What was your early career like after you graduated? What was next for you?

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
Oh, my gosh. Yeah. So, like I mentioned, I thought I was going to be a physical therapist, so I got a job even before I finished school. I got a job at a nonprofit that worked with special needs children as a physical therapy aide. And the place that I worked was in the hood, in Southeast DC. And I’ll never forget that that was probably my first immersive experience into seeing and experiencing, I’m not going to say we all, but I have the experience of growing up and having family that lives in public housing or we had to eat government cheese and all that stuff.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
I had had that experience, but this was my first time really experiencing true poverty and seeing children who were probably in a situation that when they left school, they did not get food. They didn’t get their diapers changed. They came to school the next day with the same diaper on. So, that experience really opened my eyes to just the divide that existed in this country and the unfortunate result of real poverty that I’d never experienced, even if I was poor or with poor members. So it really, really became an emotional, not only was it hard to do therapy with special needs children, who born with fetal alcohol syndrome or vitamin K deficiency. Things that you would think are preventable.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
But it was just the emotional part of just seeing that even when they went home, there was no joy necessarily for some of them. That was hard. That was hard. So, it made me revisit only wanting to be there, but also, did I want to consider a different career?

Maurice Cherry:
Is that when you decided to go back to school after that?

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
Yes. So, I would come home from work in the evenings and it’s just, so when I went to college, the email just came out the last semester before I graduated. So, me working on a computer was word processing and that kind of thing. And so, the internet was just starting to become popular when I would come home, for me, at least. It might have been for other people, but not for me. So, I would come home from work and get on the internet and start to do my search and look at different fields. And then I found Human Factor Psychology that way.

Maurice Cherry:
And what about that appeal to you?

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
Because I don’t know if you remember me mentioning that I started out undergrad as an engineering major, so I was very interested in engineering. I was interested in designing things and creating things that would impact people and their lives. And I loved interacting with people. So, Human Factor Psychology was the intersection of those things.

Maurice Cherry:
And so, you attended North Carolina state studying this. This is where you got your master’s and then eventually, your PhD in Human Factors, Ergonomics/Experimental Psychology.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember from that time, whenever anyone talked about ergonomics or at least maybe in the context that I heard. It always was about office furniture like an ergonomic mouse, an ergonomic chair, an ergonomic desk. But of course, ergonomics is more than just that. Correct?

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
It is. And it’s funny because when I first came to North Carolina State, I thought that was going to be more of my major and that my minor would involve psychology. But when I got here, I got to know more about the psychology program and I flipped it. And I was like, “No, I really. I enjoy more of the experimental and cognitive psychology and the physical is also a part of your context in your environment.” So, that was to a lesser extent, my areas of interest.

Maurice Cherry:
And now prior to founding Lean Geeks, I know that you worked for a long time at two companies, but you also alluded that you’ve worked for other places as well. But you worked at IBM for seven years, which people know for big tech and you worked at LexisNexis for eight years, which I know is a service that a lot of lawyers use, I believe, for background checks and things like that. But with both of these work experiences, you were focusing on user experience.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m not asking you to necessarily give the years, but I’m curious on during that time, how did you notice user experience in the design community? Was it something that a lot of people were latching onto or how did you see it at that time?

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
So, IBM was my first foray in the whole user experience. True user experience realm in terms of, so I shouldn’t say that. I take that back because the definition of user experience for so many people is something different than what some of us know or understand it to be. When I started out, it was human-centered design and this was in consulting and then IBM. And it started with discovery of who’s your user, what is their context and what is their need or motivation. And so, at that time, I think IBM was one of the companies that was in the forefront in terms of doing the work to constantly iterate and validate on ideas or concepts.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
And as time went on, what I saw was more of an evolution towards design, more of UX than being termed design or focusing on design less about the validation or the discovery aspect of things. Probably midway in my career is when I started to see people who would talk about stumbling into a career in UX, or they might have been painters or people who did visual arts or, industrial design and that their interests. And of course there were people earlier than that time, but in terms of my experiences in the software world, that’s when I started to see more people coming from the more design community. More of the design community that were playing in the software space. But my early experiences were primarily people who were coming out of the human center design space.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. How are those IBM and LexisNexis experiences, how were they from each other?

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
I was just talking to someone earlier today, a student that is considering a transition into UX and I was explaining to her that one environment was very structured and the other was very unstructured. And so, when you talk about structured versus unstructured environments, it’s what rigor do they have in place and how mature are they from a user experience perspective? Do they have the right people in the organization and do they have a design system and that kind of thing, a process? Do they have validation baked into their framework sorts of things?

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
So, one was very different than the other in that regard. And some people thrive better in one versus the other. But I realized in my career, I made an intentional decision to shift from one to the other because I wanted to see and to build up my own toolkit of navigating two different environments. And I think that’s helped me in the consulting world, because I’m able to spot where an organization’s mature is and how to interact with the people in the companies that we work with.

Maurice Cherry:
And so, what was the impetus behind you starting your own company? You’ve put in now 15 years in this industry, working as a user experience professional with human-centered design research. What made you say I’m going to start my own thing now?

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
So, it had been probably more than 15 years at that point that I was saying to myself, I was getting that itch of wanting to spread my wings and go somewhere new. And I explained it or I likened it one day to someone that every day I walked into the office, I felt like I was a caged bird that had to get in the cage. And then every day at the end of the day, I felt like I was stepping out of the cage. And so, I felt like I was being constrained by the four walls of industry. And I didn’t feel like part of that came from presenting ideas that didn’t necessarily align in terms of “it’s not your job” kind of thing or “we’re not there yet,” that kind of thing.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
So, it got frustrating and I said to myself, “Okay, I’m either going to move on to a new company and take on a similar type of role. My highest level of evangelism and hiring and all that stuff and firing.” And I said, “Well, do I want to do that? And do I want to go through that same climbing the ladder.” And honestly, I didn’t want to and I felt that it had almost been 20 years at that point that I was doing this work. And so, I was like, “You know what? It’s time for me to spread my wings and try something new and take the show on the road.” And I’ve built a pretty good network over those years, so why not tap into that network and see what happens?

Maurice Cherry:
You stepped out on faith and here you are.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
I stepped out on faith and I have to tell you that statement right there is the only thing that has kept me going is stepping out every day. When you talk about my day-to-day, every day is stepping out on faith and it’s a faith walk and it’s constantly reminding yourself that just because you don’t know something today or it’s an unknown or it’s uncomfortable, you got to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. And always know that you have to do the work to figure stuff out, even if you don’t know it today.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Who are some of the mentors that have helped you to get to this place now in your career?

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
I always had formal mentors when I was at places like IBM. I had people who I leaned on, who were able to help guide me in that way. But as I got further into my career, I found that I didn’t have as many mentors or the people that I sought out as mentors weren’t necessarily either in my discipline or they just didn’t have the bandwidth to take on additional mentors. I started to do a lot in terms of coaching and finding other resources.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. I would imagine and I’ve talked about this with other like PhD level people that I’ve had on the show is like it’s lonely at the top. Once you get to that level of education and you get to that point in your career, you look around and it’s just you in a way.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
Yeah, yeah. And it’s interesting because I would see people and I would see people who were in a position of running their own company or who were in a certain type of leadership role. And I would look at them and say to myself, “I aspire to be there.” And what I found in a lot of cases was that, they were and it was no slight on their part in any way. They would just say, “I don’t have the bandwidth to take on the responsibility of being a mentor.”

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
So, I would get whatever opportunity I could to connect with them and then figure out who do I want to be when I grow up and what does that look like. And, and I think the part that’s most important for anyone that’s exploring that thing is to always, always, always connect with people and ask questions and invest in yourself. That’s something that I’ve recognized I have to do a lot of.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you appreciate the most about your life right now?

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
When you meet people and they’re like, “Oh, I hate my job” or “Oh, I’m so unhappy,” or “My kids are stressing me out,” just have life stressors. What I’m really happy about my life is that I’m fortunate to be in a situation where life is hard. I work really hard, but the joy that my family and my career and my company, the joy that I get from those things mean so much to me. And I feel like I’m so fortunate. Even if things are hard, I’m so fortunate to have the ability to do these things at this point in my life.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
And to not have the grumbling. Whenever I work with colleagues or whenever I talk to colleagues or I work with a client, it’s so refreshing to know that whatever drama I get pulled into for work projects. As soon as I hang up the phone, leave the meeting or whatever it is, I don’t take any of it home like I used to when I worked in-house.

Maurice Cherry:
What haven’t you done yet that you want to do? It could be in life. It can be through your business. What’s the dream project?

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
So, I definitely want to travel more now, especially after COVID. I want to travel more, but more importantly, I have colleagues that I’m working on side projects with and we’ve been talking about them. And some of them were things are starting to get off the ground, but I would really love to see some of those things come to pass in terms of us being able to realize and to see things happen.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
I always, I’m very much a visionary. So, I put out there if you have a vision board or they say do visualization of what you want to do or where you want to be. And I see myself creating something that is impactful. So, just doing project work or engaging clients around project work is one facet of my interest. I also have ideas that I feel like I need to bring to life.

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking of, this traveling now, you and I have both spoken on a couple of panels now. Are you starting to see a return to in-person events? Are you getting invited to speak out at any conferences?

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
Yes. I have a speaking engagement next month in the Baltimore area. I have a few, I want to say late summer or early fall. So, I do realize that things are starting to open up. I actually spoke on a panel recently. So, I’m excited to see and to interact with people in-person, because I feel like the connections. And I had a conversation with someone that I met in-person after meeting them over or talking to them over Zoom a number of times. You really don’t get the value of connecting with someone the way that you do when you meet that individual in-person first and then transition to virtual versus the other way around. Because it’s like you make that connection with people face-to-face that you can’t make over a screen. So, I’m looking forward to that again.

Maurice Cherry:
I just got my first in-person conference invite in a while. I just got it a couple of days ago. So, I’m leaking it early by saying it on the podcast, but I’ll be at Design Thinkers in Toronto in October, which is cool. Because I’ve always wanted to visit Toronto and to now go and do my first in-person conference thing really since… gosh, I think the last time I did one was in maybe 2019, I think, probably 2019. Wow.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
Wow, so it’s time.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s time.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
[inaudible 00:41:49].

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve done a ton of virtual things, so it’s time to get back on a stage. So, I’m excited about that.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
I think it’s time, yes. Well, I can tell you that since COVID my whole dress and shoe game is different, so all about-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, really?

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
I’m all about comfort now. So, I’m like, “If you say I was going to put on heels and all that, forget about it.”

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you give to anyone that’s been listening to all of this and they want to follow in your footsteps? What would you tell them?

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
So, I would tell them that don’t ever look at any experience that you have as a waste of your time or that it’s in vain. From the time I first moved, when I first moved to North Carolina and I was an administrative assistant in an engineering firm to the jobs that I’ve had that have nothing to do with what I’m doing today, each one of those experiences gave me a perspective on interacting with people. Gave me a perspective on myself, what I’m good at, what I’m not good at, where my strengths are.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
So, every experience that you have in life and know that they all build upon one another, even if they’re not in the same field. And always walk away from bad experiences with the ability to say, “What did I learn from it?” Especially when you work with people that get on your nerves or you can’t stand, figure out what it is you can learn from that. And getting comfortable with being uncomfortable is another thing.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
The only way we grow is by going through some change and I found that I can procrastinate on the things I don’t want to be bothered with or do. But when I look back, sometimes I delay the things that really were in my mind overwhelming, but once I got into them, they weren’t. So, don’t put off for tomorrow what you can do today. And know that you don’t know if you can do something unless you try. That’s the way I see it.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s the legacy that you want to leave behind? Where do you see yourself say in the next five years or so? What work do you want to be doing?

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
So, in the next five years or so, I realize in my whole marketing effort that honing in on my brand, my personal brand is something that before I used to, I was always the little young, skinny one in the crew throughout my life. So, I was always quiet and in the background and the observer. So, I never really thought that my brand or who I am or what I have to say was necessarily that impactful or important. But as I get older and I have platforms to do that, I realize, “Wow, I do have things to say that people are listening to.”

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
And so, I think in the next five years, continuing to sharpen my brand and my voice are a big part of my focus and that I want to be able to use my skills around being an idea generator, being a connector, helping people to progress ideas. I like to see others, I thrive by seeing others thrive. So, being able to utilize that capability and everything that I do would be just the most awesome thing ever for me.

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

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
That’s a good question. So, definitely connect on LinkedIn, Kenya Oduor, PhD. Last name is O-D-U-O-R. I wish I would have kept my maiden name if I knew my last name was going to be so hard. Check out the web company website leangeeks.net, L-E-A-N-G-E-E-K-S dot-net. And I think LinkedIn is the best place to start because from there, you can get to YouTube video thing. You can get my contact information.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
And I just like to connect with people and like I said, I’m trying to build up my network of folks, especially like us designers and creators and researchers that look like us are important for me to connect with at this point in my career. Especially those that I don’t know now or yet. Yeah. Keep in touch.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Dr. Kenya Oduor, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. One, of course, I think just thank you for telling us about your story. But also about putting forth, this really powerful message about look at your experiences and see what you can gain out of them.

Maurice Cherry:
My mom used to tell me when I was younger, especially early on in my career before I started becoming a designer, sometimes you have to do the things that you don’t want to do, so you can do the things that you want to do or something like that. I might be screwing up that whole thing.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
Amen. No, but that to me, I get it.

Maurice Cherry:
But it’s true. Sometimes you have to put the time in, you have to see what you can gain from those experiences, and then use those to become a better person. And certainly, I think from what you’ve shown in this interview and then even with what you’re doing through Lean Geeks, you’re definitely making that happen. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
Thank you so much for having me, Maurice. And continued success to you as well.

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Anthony D. Mays

It’s no secret that the tech industry has weathered the last few years better than a lot of others, and many people are trying to ditch their current jobs and start their careers in tech for big opportunities (and even bigger salaries). But working for companies like Google and Microsoft take more than just talent — it takes the helpful hands and heart of this week’s guest, Anthony D. Mays. As the founder of tech career coaching firm Morgan Latimer Consulting, Anthony uses his 20 years of experience as a software engineer and developer to help his clients to ace tech interviews and get real results.

We start our conversation with a quick check-in, and he talks about starting his firm and finding a good work life balance. He spoke about growing up in Compton and learning BASIC on a VTech PreComputer 1000, studying computer science at UC Irvine, and shared how looking for growth opportunities, and his faith in God, helped him succeed throughout his career. So if you’re looking to work in tech, then Anthony is just the person to make that happen!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Anthony D. Mays:
Sure. I’m Anthony D. Mays. I’m a former software engineer at Google, and I am presently founder and career coach at Morgan Latimer Consulting.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2022 been going so far?

Anthony D. Mays:
It’s been an adventure for sure. I left Google on February 1st of this year and I have dived head first into full-time entrepreneurship. Whatever I thought it was going to be, it seems like it’s just a bit different than that, but it’s been for the good and for the best.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow. Congratulations on making the leap.

Anthony D. Mays:
Yeah, thanks. It’s been quite a ride. And I thought that my time at Google was an adventure and a ride, and it just seems like entrepreneurship has made that escalate. It has escalated that ride even faster. I feel like I don’t have guardrails either, so I’m really holding on to my seat, my family and I.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about your firm. Again, it’s called Morgan Latimer Consulting. For folks who might be interested, that comes from Garrett A. Morgan and Lewis Latimer. Right?

Anthony D. Mays:
Yes. Yup. Garrett A. Morgan, Lewis Latimer, two of my favorite inventors from Black history. They were innovators during a time when it was neither expected for them to be innovators. They weren’t encouraged to be innovators. No one was willing to carve out room. There was no DEI program. There was only racism, discrimination, slavery, things of that nature. But they weathered all of that in order to innovate in this space. And because of the innovations and their contributions to society, we live in the world that we live in today and benefit from the privileges and technology that we enjoy.

Anthony D. Mays:
And so, with my firm, my aim is to renew, I think, an understanding or to introduce an understanding that Black people being innovators in the tech space isn’t anything new. We’ve been doing it. And similarly, other underrepresented groups, the same can be said for them as well. And I want to help connect that next generation of talent, wherever they come from, no matter who they are, whether you’re underrepresented or well-represented, connect that generation of talent to the companies and organizations that are interested in leveraging and harnessing that talent.

Anthony D. Mays:
So I work directly with candidates, but I also consult for companies and help them to understand their hiring processes, their practices, through the lens of someone who’s come from a different background and provide just that insight and wisdom.

Maurice Cherry:
What inspired you to start your own firm like that?

Anthony D. Mays:
I’ve always been attuned to this idea that entrepreneurship is important, especially in America. And when I was in middle school, I attended a very special charter school that was funded by none other than the National Football League. And as part of that middle school experience, I was exposed to entrepreneurship and this idea that I could go and start a business and begin an enterprise and take the risk and dive in. And so, I felt like that sowed the seeds for me to be thinking about entrepreneurship and independence and just making my own moves.

Anthony D. Mays:
I only kind of realize this now, but my career journey has always been set up for this. I think one of the reasons why I wanted to work at a variety of places, spend time doing professional consulting, and then ultimately get to Google is just to establish the credentials and build a network that would allow me to strike out on my own one day and try to carve a different path towards the success that I was looking for.

Anthony D. Mays:
Yeah. So hindsight 2020, I can see where everything all fit together, but it wasn’t immediately clear even when I got into business, when I got into the working world, that my path might take me to entrepreneurship 20 years later. But I’m glad to be here.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s having that kind of social proof, I guess, as you might think about it with working for these other places and then striking out on your own. I think it helps with clients certainly to know that, “Oh, well, you know what you’re talking about in terms of the work that you’re doing.” And there’s some level of vetting in place because you’ve managed to have these other experiences first before starting your own thing.

Anthony D. Mays:
Yeah. That’s absolutely right.

Maurice Cherry:
So one thing that you do with your clients, you sort of help them gain the confidence to work in tech, and these are people that either have an interest in tech or maybe might be early career or mid-career, I’m assuming, and you do a lot of prep with them for coding interviews. Tell me about that process, because I’ve heard that Google specifically, their coding interviews can be pretty unusual.

Anthony D. Mays:
Yeah, absolutely. And I think it’s important to really call out that word, confidence, because I think that my job as a coach or my unique contribution is really helping someone to see themselves in the role based upon their experience and their willingness to put in the work.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

Anthony D. Mays:
And a lot of people can study on their own. There’s tons of resources out there. There’s academies and boot camps and free courses and all that stuff. But there’s this recognition that taking all that stuff in alone may not be enough for some people. And not only that, but there’s these additional challenges and burdens that you may have, especially if you’re from an underrepresented background, where you may not have a network of people who can help you to connect your own life and experience and your own journey to the tech space.

Anthony D. Mays:
And so, what I aim to do is to talk about that and to help people understand how to have the right framework and preparation so that you can begin building that confidence and know that you’re the right person for the job. And that takes a little more effort. That takes me really getting to know my clients. It takes exercising them, paying attention to their problem-solving, making them think through their own problem-solving, arming them with the right frameworks of thinking, so that as you’re tackling different kinds of interviews, you know what you need to do and when you need to do it. And I talk to my clients a lot about building something called muscle memory. It’s the same kind of thing that athletes rely on in professional sports.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

Anthony D. Mays:
People see them playing the game, but they don’t see them spending the hours of doing repetitive motions and different kinds of exercises to get prepared. They’re able to have confidence at game-time playing at the highest level in front of millions of people because they have that muscle memory. And so, part of what I seek to teach to my candidates and help them develop is that muscle memory so that they can go into an interview knowing that they have a great chance and not hindered by doubt and fear and uncertainty and those kinds of things that often stop very talented people from being successful.

Maurice Cherry:
So you’re kind of like part consultant, part psychiatrist in a way, because you’re kind of helping them to build that internal confidence so, like you said, they see themselves in the role, and I think that is super important. I mean, I’ve worked at a couple of tech startups and I’ve been in the position to hire, and one thing that has been a big thing over the past few years has been inclusive language for job listings.

Maurice Cherry:
And it’s now even a thing to put in job listings, particularly for tech and design positions, to say like, “Even if you don’t have all of these requirements, you should apply anyway,” or “If you only have 50%, apply anyway,” which I think is a way to kind of help people to see themselves in the role because, oftentimes, you may look at the job listing and look at all those different bullet points, and instead of seeing where you’re strong, you see where you’re weak, like, “Well, I don’t have this. Well, I don’t have this many years experience,” and then you end up not applying when, in actuality, what you need to have is the confidence to say, “Well, I’m strong in these things, so I’m going to apply just to kind of see what happens.”

Anthony D. Mays:
Right. And I also want to help you look at that same job description and maybe realize that it’s not for you, that this isn’t going to help you achieve your goals. There’s a lot of people who come to me because they want to crack those top tech companies, those FAANG companies, the Googles, the Amazons, the Microsoft, et cetera, et cetera.

Anthony D. Mays:
And sometimes, I’ve got to look at them and say, “Based upon the goals that you just shared with me, you don’t really need to crack a FAANG company. What you actually need is to consider this startup or maybe think about something mid-tier. Maybe not even a tech company. Maybe you just need to get your foot in the door, and instead of looking at a tech company, you need to look at a non-tech company that has an IT department but also has the framework and infrastructure to help you grow and develop the skills.”

Anthony D. Mays:
So depending upon where you are, you may not understand how to correctly map your specific goals to the opportunities that are out there. If you come away from a conversation with me realizing, “I wanted to do this thing, but I realized that that’s actually not the best fit. Maybe I need to think about entrepreneurship,” then I’m like, “All right. Great. Fantastic. I’ve saved you some time. I’ve saved you some trouble.”

Anthony D. Mays:
And I think that, especially as an entrepreneur now, I realize that my own path was about making it to a place like Google and operating at that level. That’s not everybody’s path. Some people don’t need to pursue that journey. That was my journey. That may not be your journey. And there has to be that conversation. There has to be somebody asking those questions, because I think right now, especially in the tech interviewing, tech prep career coaching space, everybody wants to get you to a FAANG company. They’re pointing you in that direction. They’re talking about those salaries and all that stuff. But you’re not really serving candidates well because you’re selling them this dream and this bill of goods that isn’t going to be helpful for them.

Anthony D. Mays:
I care about my clients and the people that I work with because I think that there’s tons of transformative opportunity out there and available, but you need somebody to come alongside with you to educate you on how to best put a plan in place, helps you get to where you’re trying to go.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve started seeing companies, even the big ones like the Microsofts and stuff, they’re doing outreach on TikTok. I probably spend too much time on TikTok. But there’s a lot of people on TikTok that are really like, “I want to find the high-paying, six-figure tech jobs. How do you find those jobs?” Because there will be people that have those jobs that are on TikTok, and they’re saying, “These are the perks that I get. I get free lunch here. This is my ride to the office.” And they sort of paint this very idealistic picture of what it means to be in tech through these kinds of perks.

Maurice Cherry:
And I’ll never forget… I interviewed Kristy Tillman. She’s been on the show twice, but Kristy now works at Netflix, and I’ll never forget how she told me to look at perks at companies as filters that just because something may look good in that way, it could also be something that’s used to filter people out. So I do see a lot of… I guess you could almost call it propaganda where people are really painting this very idealistic picture of what it looks like to work in tech in these fancy offices, and you get a free MacBook Pro and all this, but not really showing them what it means, not just to work in tech from day to day, but even the process, like you said, to interview to be a part of a company like that, because it might not even be that they need to be there. They probably just need to start out somewhere smaller maybe.

Anthony D. Mays:
Yeah. No, absolutely. And here’s the deal: You want success and you want the paycheck and all that stuff. You get that by being good at what you do. You get that by being excellent at your craft. And that has more to do with you and how you move and how you develop than it does on the place that you work. And certainly, when you’re working at a company, there’s an expectation that they’re going to play some part in your development, in your growth, and in your assessment, and provide useful feedback, and all those things.

Anthony D. Mays:
But ultimately, you’ve got to take your career and your craft and your responsibility and put in the time and work to be effective and to really be thoughtful about how to make the right plan to get you to where you’re trying to go. And so, I think that a lot of people are looking for shortcuts and they’re trying to circumvent the process, and it’s important that I remind people that there aren’t shortcuts to this. It’s just the same hard work. It’s the same hard work that my ancestors poured into being who they were and accomplishing the things that they accomplished, not letting excuses or things of that nature get in the way. And because of that, they were able to do what they were able to do. And they faced a lot of unfairness. They faced a ton of unfairness.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Anthony D. Mays:
And just like we face, to certain degrees, unfairness in today’s processes, some of that just comes from natural imperfection. We’re not perfect at what we do as companies or as individuals and applicants. So there’s that, but then there’s also these other biases and even discrimination or racism, to some lesser extent, that we’ve got to combat. And I sometimes struggle with the approaches that I take because I’m very focused on the individual regardless of the surrounding circumstances.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

Anthony D. Mays:
But the circumstances, those could use some changing as well, and it’s important. And that’s why I want to tackle this from both sides of the bridge. I want to help clients and candidates to understand what they need to do, but I also want to talk to companies and say, “There are some things that you need to change because the talent is ready. It’s not a pipeline issue. It’s a you issue. You need to change what you’re doing and the pipeline will come. The people will come. You just haven’t built a room for them.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That’s a really good point, to let the companies know that sometimes, there’s things that they’re doing wrong or things that they may be doing, even just in the language in job listings, the way they’ve talked about perks, et cetera, that might set them up in a bad light. It’s funny, speaking about startups and things like this, startups can be a really good place to cut your teeth on working in tech. But they have their own issues too, particularly depending on the scale of where the company is at, and even with diversity and inclusion.

Maurice Cherry:
At least I’ve started to see, on the startup level, it’s becoming less and less of a factor than it has been at larger companies. I don’t know if that’s just because of time or DEI fatigue or whatever. But I remember in the early 2010s when those reports started coming out about Google and Facebook and such about their single-digit workforce numbers for Black employees and what does that mean, and stuff like that.

Anthony D. Mays:
Right. Right.

Maurice Cherry:
And I feel like those companies have started over the years to improve that, certainly. Startups are under no obligation to do that. I just know from working at a couple of them. They do not care.

Anthony D. Mays:
It really depends because… I agree with you that when it comes to the larger companies, there’s an interest to change, but in many respects, it’s almost too little, too late to make the kind of change that you need to make as quickly as you want to. Right?

Anthony D. Mays:
So for some of these larger companies that have been around for 20 years, 40 years, 50 years, whatever that may be, you’re talking about a deeply ingrained culture. There’s a lot of rot that you have to get rid of first before you can even start talking about doing the right things, very carefully guarding that small little flame, that little spark that turns into a fire that then leads to change. So there’s a lot of momentum that you’ve got to slow down if you’re a big company so that you can begin shifting gears.

Anthony D. Mays:
But when you’re a startup, you are in a better position because you’re new, because you have the opportunity to learn from those mistakes and, from the very beginning, think about the right things to do. My latest client right now, I just signed with Karat as a tech advisor for their Brilliant Black Minds program. And what I love about Karat is that from the beginning, they’ve made this very early commitment to increasing the number of Black engineers in the business and really thinking through how they can play a role in that. You can go visit their website and read the statement and the thinking and the resource that they’ve done.

Anthony D. Mays:
I love that they’re small enough and nimble enough to really tackle this problem at a speed that other companies can’t do. And I think that there are similar startups that have that opportunity. And to your earlier point, there are some startups that really did get this wrong in a big way. Most notably, I remember learning about the mess at Uber, and I know that they went through some strides to turn over a new leaf. And from what I understand, things are better, much better than they were back in those days.

Anthony D. Mays:
But you could see that where… When some of today’s startups started making those mistakes, they got called out on it a whole lot faster. It’s a lot harder for those companies to grow and develop without having that scrutiny, whereas 10 years ago, nobody really cared. 15 years ago, 20 years ago, nobody cared. You could do whatever you wanted.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Anthony D. Mays:
So I think that for those in the audience or for job seekers or candidates who are looking for companies who may have stronger commitments, who may be making better progress, looking at those smaller firms, those startups, those growth phase companies, that might be the better play if that’s something that you care deeply about.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I agree. I agree and I disagree. I mean, I’m disagreeing from my own personal experiences, but I do agree that there are some startups out there that are doing it, particularly because you’re starting to see a lot of POC-owned, Black-owned startups. So of course, they have diversity and inclusion in mind because they started it. So that’s something that’s important to them. So I get where you’re coming from. Absolutely. What is a typical day like for you? I know you just said you kind of struck out on your own, but have you started to achieve a work-life balance with the firm?

Anthony D. Mays:
No, I wish. Every day is different, and that’s been great and it’s been challenging at the same time. I woke up today and I was like, “What am I going to do? I know I got to do a podcast, but other than that, what else am I going to do? Should I go put some meetings on the calendar? Should I work on a thing?” And so, I would like to say that I’m a lot more intentional and wise in terms of how I’m planning my time. But each day has been a little bit different, and I find myself in infrastructure-building mode a lot.

Anthony D. Mays:
So I think as I work through some of these beginning things as a new entrepreneur, I’ll get more of the consistency and the regularity out of my routine. But right now, I’m still, I think, figuring it out. I’m trying to be patient with that as well. I don’t want to rush into completely filling up my schedule with things. I want to make sure that everything that I’m committing to is intentional and thought out and is going to serve, in some way, the mission that I’m pursuing.

Anthony D. Mays:
Yeah. From that perspective, it’s been fun. And the other part of this too is that my wife is the co-owner of Morgan Latimer Consulting. So I’m working here at home and my wife is a key partner with me in this effort, largely working behind the scenes. But I’m also getting the kids involved too and having conversations out loud and in the open as they’re doing school.

Anthony D. Mays:
And so, it’s been interesting to expose the whole family to entrepreneurship and to this lifestyle and to be open and honest with my kids about the challenges and opportunities. And so, I think what happens more than that is, I’ll find a learning opportunity in the middle of the day and put everything on pause and talk to my wife or talk to my kids about what I’m thinking and where things can go and even getting their advice and input, and that’s been a lot of fun.

Maurice Cherry:
A true family business. I like that.

Anthony D. Mays:
Yeah. Absolutely. The only other challenge that I’m contending with right now is just needing to travel a little bit more as things thaw out with regards to the pandemic and travel resumes. Now I’m needing to be in more places crossing the country. And so, I try to look for opportunities to bring my family with me so that they can experience that part of it as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Speaking about family, let’s switch gears here a little bit. You grew up in Compton. I know that because it’s on the hat that you have in all your photos.

Anthony D. Mays:
Well, I could be faking it. I could be-

Maurice Cherry:
No, I don’t think you’re faking it. I don’t know anyone that would fake and… Well, let me not tell that lie. I do know people that would fake and say they’re from the hood. Let me not say that.

Anthony D. Mays:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
But you’re from L.A. You live in L.A. Tell me, growing up in Compton, was tech a part of your childhood?

Anthony D. Mays:
Yeah, it was, amazingly enough. And that may come across as unexpected for some of your listeners. But growing up in a poor place, in a place like Compton that was renowned for things like gang violence, drugs, poverty, all that stuff, now, well, it turns out that having rich people in the area means that we receive some investment and support from very notable people. And I think it was Magic Johnson who, in the early ’90s, donated a non-trivial sum of money to my elementary school. As a result, we got a basketball court, but also a computer lab.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm.

Anthony D. Mays:
And it was in that computer lab when I was in the second grade that I had the opportunity to use a computer for the first time. And it profoundly changed my life because that’s when I realized that computers were cool and this might be something that I want to keep doing, whether I get paid for it or not. And so, I remember asking my parents for a computer and they said no, and I didn’t understand at the time that computers were $5,000 or more to get something decent. But my foster parents, as well as my birth mom, they both bought me toy computers, which were super cool. And when I was about eight years old, I used one of those toy computers to teach myself how to code.

Maurice Cherry:
Mmm.

Anthony D. Mays:
And I remember, at the time, I was being bullied for a variety of reasons. And so, I became somewhat of an introvert out of necessity and would pour focus and time and attention into computers and programming. And I just remember feeling this sense of empowerment and agency and control using computers that I didn’t have in other aspects of my life. I failed to mention this, and it’s pretty much common knowledge now, but I grew up as a foster kid after my first grade teacher or kindergarten teacher had found signs of physical abuse.

Anthony D. Mays:
And so, losing your whole family and being moved out of your home is a very transformative and traumatic experience for someone who’s four years old. And I found that interacting with technology allowed me to reclaim control and power and just to have a space to be me and to be a creative thinker and an innovative thinker. I wasn’t building apps and all this stuff, but it was enough to whet my appetite and get me engaged, and I would just continue to pursue computers throughout middle school and throughout high school where I was fortunate in both cases to meet mentors who saw that early love and decided to invest time into developing my knowledge around technology and the internet.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm. Something you mentioned there, I think, we have in common in terms of growing up in… I don’t want to say small towns. I don’t know how large Compton is, but certainly growing up in towns with dubious reputations.

Anthony D. Mays:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m from Selma, as most people-

Anthony D. Mays:
Hey.

Maurice Cherry:
… know from the show, from Selma, Alabama. Kind of like the first generation out from Bloody Sunday. And so, now Selma is like a pit stop on every politician’s tour throughout the country. They stop in, they go to Brown Chapel AME, they walk across the bridge, yada yada yada. They do all that stuff. But because of that general perennial attention on the city, you do have people that will come in and there’s like an influx of cash to one of the local schools or… You know what I mean? So we had a computer lab in high school, which is how I learned about the internet. That was my first foray with Netscape Navigator 1.0.

Anthony D. Mays:
Oh, wow. Let’s get it. Yes. Yeah. I’m right there with you, brother. We learned that the same time.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That was in my… I was in, I think, ninth or tenth grade when they installed the computer lab and got to see what the internet was like back then. But even as you mentioned learning and teaching yourself how to code with these toy computers, I’m super curious, what was the computers that you were using?

Anthony D. Mays:
Yeah. So the one that I used specifically to learn coding was called the PreComputer 1000.

Maurice Cherry:
Get out! Oh, I’m sorry. Go ahead.

Anthony D. Mays:
Oh, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
No, no, no. No, keep going. Sorry. Sorry. I had that same computer. I had that same… The blue one with the handle?

Anthony D. Mays:
That’s the blue one with the handle. Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay. Go ahead. Go ahead. Go ahead.

Anthony D. Mays:
So I’ll tell you a funny story real quick. I would talk about that computer when I would go to schools during my time at Google and all this stuff, and I had lost the computer. I didn’t have… I don’t know what happened with it. Things get lost, as they do, over decades. And one day, this Christmas present was sitting on my desk and I opened it up, and it’s a PreComputer 1000. A co-worker had bought me a PreComputer 1000 off of eBay or something because they knew that I had grown up on that computer and they knew-

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Anthony D. Mays:
… how passionate I was about sharing technology with the young people. And so, I would take that computer with me on tours and flip the switch where you’d hear the little (singing). And I would take out the big old fat D batteries on the back and say,-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh man.

Anthony D. Mays:
… “This is it.” That’s what I had. And one of the reasons why I’m passionate about supporting underrepresented people in tech specifically is because out of scarcity comes innovation.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

Anthony D. Mays:
Out of scarcity and challenge and struggle comes some of the best ideas and some of the greatest opportunities to do things that haven’t been done before. And for me, growing up under the scarce conditions of the hood and with the family that I often describe as middle-class poor, that led to me doing things like teaching myself how to code and learning about the internet and all these other kinds of things. For an industry that’s looking for talent that knows how to build technology under those kinds of circumstances, what better place to look than the hoods and ghettos of America?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Anthony D. Mays:
Why spend all of this time going overseas looking for that kind of talent when we have our own neglected neighborhoods in the backyards of America?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Listen, these kids don’t know how good they got it now. When you have to teach-

Anthony D. Mays:
They really don’t.

Maurice Cherry:
… yourself how to code on a one-line dot-matrix screen…

Anthony D. Mays:
That’s right.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, come on. So my older brother had… And this is when I was younger. I probably might have been about seven or eight or something. He had a… It was also a VTech, but it was a Laser 50.

Anthony D. Mays:
Mmm.

Maurice Cherry:
And so, the Laser 50 is about the size of a standard, regular keyboard that you would get now, but it had a one-line dot-matrix screen at the very top and you would use that to code. And I remember… The Laser 50 was particularly interesting because it had all these peripherals you could get for it. You could get a tiny dot-matrix printer. You could get a tiny-

Anthony D. Mays:
Oh, wow.

Maurice Cherry:
… storage thing. And storage back then were cassettes, because you didn’t have flash drives. You didn’t have…

Anthony D. Mays:
Yup.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, you had floppy disks, but you certainly didn’t have… But it was a cassette. And so, I would often be mistakenly putting data, like taping over somebody’s radio mix, because it used this…

Anthony D. Mays:
Oh, no. Not the radio mix.

Maurice Cherry:
Trying to explain to someone that like, “Yeah. We use cassettes for music and for data storage.” They’re like, “What? I don’t get that.” But yeah, I had a PreComputer 1000. I think I was in probably fourth or fifth grade. I remember that spiral-bound flip notebook. I taught myself how to type on that thing.

Anthony D. Mays:
There it is.

Maurice Cherry:
I taught myself music on that thing. I’m sure my mom wanted to launch it into space because I was making all kinds of noise on that thing. Yeah. And it’s funny, you mentioned getting one off of eBay. Someone gifted one to you. I got one off eBay also-

Anthony D. Mays:
Hey, there it is.

Maurice Cherry:
… a few years ago. I got a Laser 50 and I got a PreComputer 1000 just to have them as artifacts of like, “This is how I got into technology.”

Anthony D. Mays:
Yeah. And I wish that I had the opportunity to meet the product managers or project managers who worked on that because it would be so great to just give them a personal thank you for thinking about a product like this. Again, to your earlier point, I’m hard on this generation of technologists that are coming up because, as you said, they don’t realize how good they have it. And I do understand that there’s a challenge. There’s so much information that it can be hard to pick through what’s reliable and useful from that, which isn’t.

Anthony D. Mays:
But I had to go to a library that had books that were five, 10 years old out of date, trying to teach myself coding and programming, just kind of growing in that. That was a tough challenge, and that was… It was enough to make me give up programming until I got out of high school when I would go get my first job as a developer.

Anthony D. Mays:
I remember feeling so frustrated because I would pick up these old books and I would try to apply what I was learning, but I didn’t understand it all the way and I didn’t have someone that I could lean on to explain. I remember this one time in middle school where I typed out this whole program. I must have spent a couple hours just typing out this whole program into Notepad on Windows.

Maurice Cherry:
Whoo! That takes me back.

Anthony D. Mays:
Yeah. And so, I saved… I just saved this text document as an exe thinking, “Well, all I have to do is just save it and then change the extension to exe and I should be able to double-click and run it.” And I spent an hour just trying to get that to work and it wouldn’t work, and I was so frustrated because I didn’t understand that you needed a compiler in between that’ll produce the actual program. And so, I remember those kinds of moments.

Anthony D. Mays:
And then I think about the fact that my son can watch a YouTube video now that tells him exactly what tools to install and how to make it all work and have all the sample code and then he could put that up on GitHub and all this other stuff. And so, I reflect on that and I try to… I have to kind of take a step back and just not yell at people, not get gangsta at them.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Anthony D. Mays:
What do you mean? What are you talking about? You ain’t got no struggle. What are you talking about you can’t do this? What are you talking about you don’t have information?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Anthony D. Mays:
Get over it.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh man. I remember we… Our public library had one book on BASIC. It was like this green and white book. And I mean, I check that thing out every two weeks till the cover came off, taped the cover back on. And because Selma is like a… It’s a small town. It’s like 20,000 people maybe.

Anthony D. Mays:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
No mall or anything. So the nearest bookstore was 50-plus miles away in Montgomery. So if I was like, “Oh, I want to go get a book,” that’s a whole trip. That’s a field trip, pretty much.

Anthony D. Mays:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh God, I think I got my first HTML book, I might have been in high school or something, but I remember getting it at the Montgomery Mall because we were at some trip in Montgomery and I got it. But there’s… Also during that time, I spent a lot of time in the computer lab by myself. My mom worked at a college. And so, I had access to Windows computers. And I just spent so much time looking at source code, writing stuff down, trying to figure out how it all worked, because I could only do it at the computer lab. I would do that and then have to go home and write a paper on a typewriter.

Anthony D. Mays:
Yeah. Right. Right. Right.

Maurice Cherry:
Because I could only use the computer either at high school or I could use it at my mom’s work at the college. I didn’t get my own personal computer until I went off to college in ’99. But yeah, kids, they don’t know how good they got it. I’m saying kids in a general pejorative sense, but just like, people that are learning technology now, there’s so much at your fingertips. It’s astonishing.

Anthony D. Mays:
I mean, and that’s the thing is… One of the things I try to impress on this generation is the importance of making things and building things and being public about that.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

Anthony D. Mays:
So as you’re learning and as you’re growing, assemble that gallery, assemble that portfolio, and make it external and use social media to your advantage. These are things I didn’t learn till later on, but it was partly because of those reasons that I was able to even get the attention of a Google in the first place. And I think that… I ponder what my path in tech might have looked like had I had the tools that I had. And another part of this too, because having a son and daughter, my son is 15, my daughter is 12, I look at them and I realize that they just don’t have the same gumption. They don’t have the same motivation that I did, my drive and my wife’s drive.

Anthony D. Mays:
We came from a place where you had to find a pathway to success. You needed the struggle. You needed to overcome a lot and be intentional about figuring out where you wanted to go to avoid all the little traps that come with growing up in the hood. And so, we were sufficiently motivated to take advantage of every possible resource we could find and get our hands on to succeed. My kids benefit from a great deal of privilege. And without much effort at all, they have access to tons of information and tons of resources, but not necessarily having that drive.

Anthony D. Mays:
And I think that there’s time for them to develop that and to grow on that. There’s a sense in which I want them to just enjoy ingesting knowledge and doing it carefully, but just being slow. They don’t need to build an empire now. But I’ve got to push them a little bit to put in the work to really realize what they have so that they are being producers and not just consumers of technology.

Maurice Cherry:
Mmm. I want to go back to… You mentioned, in high school, you had this aptitude for technology after learning about it so much. And then for college, you went to UC Irvine. Tell me about that time. What was it like there?

Anthony D. Mays:
That was an interesting and difficult time for me personally, and I don’t mean difficult just in terms of challenging. Yeah, it was challenging, as education should be, but there was also this aspect where I think I had to deal with difficulty that maybe other people didn’t have to experience. The first thing is that I didn’t see a lot of people who look like me and who came from where I came from in classes with me learning about computer science.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

Anthony D. Mays:
I looked at the population of students that I was surrounded by in the computer science program versus in other places of the university and would sometimes think to myself, “Am I in the wrong major? Is this really a pathway and a world built for me?”

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

Anthony D. Mays:
And I had to struggle through that. I didn’t have the best study habits. Well, let me put it another way. I was a lazy bum when it came to school. I think part of it was that I didn’t understand how I learned and how I would best ingest information. And so, that was one thing. But the other part of it was that, in school, I had to conserve energy a lot. I wasn’t one of those kinds of people that could just go to school and focus on my studies. I also had to work. I had to earn income to make sure that… And I had scholarships, but I didn’t have a full ride.

Anthony D. Mays:
And so, there was a lot of context switching between being devoted to school, but then also making sure that I’m taking care of bills and other concerns associated with being an adult on your own. And so, I think in the craziest time of college, I would go to school at UC Irvine. I would drive to downtown L.A., which took about an hour and a half, to go work part-time on my job. And then I would sometimes come back to school, which was another hour, finish off classes, and then drive 30 minutes home. And that was a real grind for, ooh, a couple of years throughout my college education.

Anthony D. Mays:
When I talk about providing the perspective of someone who’s underrepresented, there are a lot of people who want to get into tech who have very challenging life circumstances, where they struggle just to either support themselves or their family or whatever that may be, and they’re trying to get their leg up and study and learn all these things, and it’s a challenge. But by God’s grace, even in college, I had a lot of good support and that I had summer internships through the INROADS program. That was fantastic and really helped to root my education.

Anthony D. Mays:
And then during the year, I had the opportunity to work for City National Bank to work as a developer in real life. And so, in addition to what I was getting in the classroom, I was also, in some respects, playing that out in the working world. And so, it was good to have that reinforcement there. And there were a community of folks that I could lean on and talk to. I think there was a good community of Black folks on campus.

Anthony D. Mays:
I did other strategic things. I took gospel choir three times in college. I don’t even know if I got credit for the last time I took it because I think there was a limit, but I would take gospel choir because I grew up in the church and I grew up as a gospel music musician from the time that I was, I don’t know, nine years old, 10 years old, and I’ve been playing every Sunday at church ever since then. So gospel choir in college was a safe space for me, if I can use that phrase, for me to just be around something familiar and around something that really encouraged and gave me hope. So it was great.

Anthony D. Mays:
And ultimately, I left the University of California, Irvine with a 2.87 GPA on the five-year plan. I had gone to a charter school for high school as well and had great education opportunities. I really should have gotten out of college in three years because I came in with college credits. It took me five. And I reflect on how challenging that was and how that experience impacted how I saw myself as a professional after I graduated, because I didn’t have a lot of confidence when I graduated high school, even though I would go on and get a job and all that stuff. I certainly didn’t see myself as big tech material, as Google material. Just walking across the stage with a diploma was a generational accomplishment, if you know what I mean.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Anthony D. Mays:
And so, when you’re coming from the perspective of survival, any success is big success. And so, it didn’t take very much for me to feel satisfied and accomplished after graduating college. And I had no idea the amount of headroom I had to work with in my career. If I would’ve known then what I know today, I think that would’ve drastically changed my career trajectory and path. I didn’t have those examples. I didn’t have that network of people that I could look to and say, “Hey, I want to be like this person.” I see that they kind of have a path like mine’s and they’ve had some struggles and they’re able to do what they’re doing. I might be able to do the same thing. Let me apply myself. Let me work even harder. Let me take advantage of these opportunities that I was too scared to take advantage of.

Anthony D. Mays:
And I think that’s why I’m so public about my own journey, my own trials, and really kind of getting in the face of other folks who might be like me or might have come from where I’ve come from to let them know that I am that living example of what they can accomplish if they’re willing to take the risks and to step out on faith, as it were, and really own their journey, their path, their growth, and their development.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, once you graduated from UC Irvine, what was your early career like?

Anthony D. Mays:
Yeah. So I transitioned from being an intern to a full-time employee at City National Bank. The experience was a little jarring in that when you grow up in a computer science education, you kind of expect that you’re going to see theoretical things playing out in the real world. And for the first several years of my career, I really didn’t see that happen, and it’s because I didn’t understand that a computer science education is really designed to position you well for working at a tech company or working at a tech-focused organization. And at the time, I was working for a bank. Banks aren’t tech companies.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Anthony D. Mays:
They see IT as a cost center. They see IT as a… You want to spend the least amount of money possible to get the bare minimum so that you minimize the cost. And so, they just didn’t care a lot about making things fast or quick or really applying, at that time, good UX principles and stuff like that. And so, it was confusing. I’d say, “Hey, we need to do this and have these kinds of practices,” and it was always seen as a burden and as something that kind of slowed down the process.

Anthony D. Mays:
And so, I was confused by this and eventually began to fit into the more corporate IT way of thinking about software development and all those things. That’s useful. It was useful for where I was moving at the time. I learned how to engage with my craft in that kind of environment and find success, but I became detached from what I was learning in school.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

Anthony D. Mays:
And I didn’t really connect with that again until the Google interview, where I had to dust off the Data Structures and Algorithms book and reacquaint myself with the big O and with some of these other formal concepts that I learned in my computer science education. But the upside of working in the corporate environment that I worked in during those times is that because of what I perceived as chaos and disorganization, I got to learn a crap ton of stuff. It’s kind of like working at a startup that just hasn’t figured it out yet.

Anthony D. Mays:
You do 10,000 things, because there’s nobody else to figure it out. And so, you’re just kind of throwing mud at the wall to see if it sticks. That was kind of my experience early in my career. And so, that made things fun. And I would often say yes to things, even if I didn’t know what it was or how it worked. My boss says, “Okay. Who wants to tackle this thing?” “Yeah, I’ll tackle it. I don’t know what this is, but if you give me time, I’ll figure it out.” And I’ve just began to develop and grow that muscle of figuring things out, going from knowing nothing to knowing something to then being effective. Repeating that process over and over again really helped me to develop good, solid problem-solving skills that I would take later into my career.

Maurice Cherry:
And you were at City National Bank for a long time, like almost nine years.

Anthony D. Mays:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
And even after that, you worked at a couple of other places for a pretty long time. You worked at Slalom Consulting. You worked at Junction eCommerce On Demand. When you look back at these experiences collectively, what do you remember?

Anthony D. Mays:
I definitely remember leaving City National Bank and making that decision. What caused me to leave… For me, money isn’t everything. And what’s more important to me, or at least what was more important to me at the time, was growth opportunity and learning. I felt like I needed to learn and grow or at least get paid really good money to stay in my seat. And at the time, I felt like I wasn’t really growing in the way that I wanted to grow and stepping into opportunities that I wanted to step into.

Anthony D. Mays:
And part of that was because I was working for a bank in 2008 in the middle of something called a financial crisis and a Great Recession. So I was not in the best industry for that kind of stuff anyway. And so, I decided to leave at the time to pursue growth in my development. And so, I remember going from this non-technical company to a tech company in JunctionEOD and all of a sudden connecting with some of these things that I talked about learning in my computer science education.

Anthony D. Mays:
I was like, “Oh, okay. That’s where this really applies.” And so, I got to learn a lot of cool stuff and to do some things that would set me up again for success later on. Got to work with a… I’d worked in a large company with thousands of employees, and then ended up working in this department where there were just five of us. And so, it felt very much like a startup or a startup in growth phase. It was interesting to work with… to have a technical manager and someone who was a manager, who was also an engineer. My previous manager wasn’t an engineer. I have experience coding before, but really didn’t dabble in the technical.

Anthony D. Mays:
So to go from that to someone who is technical and having those discussions, I just found that to be cool. And I really learned a lot from my boss at the time, Mike, who was just a great engineer, double-majored in physics and math, I think it was, or actually had a master’s degree in physics and math. So just really a smart guy. I just remember growing and develop… Honestly, Mike, if you’re listening, sorry, wasn’t necessarily the best manager at the time. And so, I perceived that I needed to get myself into a position where I could find even more growth and learning.

Anthony D. Mays:
But again, a lot of what motivated me to move from one place to the other was the learning and the growth, not necessarily the money. Now, as I move from one company to the next, I found myself getting $15,000 raises each time, so that was nice. But it wasn’t something I was looking for.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

Anthony D. Mays:
I felt like it was just necessary for me to keep growing and keep getting better. And if I didn’t feel like that was happening, then I wanted to move. And so, by the time I got to Slalom Consulting, I had the opportunity to work with consultants in past jobs and past roles, and I really loved looking at consultants and watching them work and seeing the kinds of opportunities they got to dive into. And so, when I had the chance to become a consultant, I really enjoyed that, and working on a variety of customer projects in a variety of different contexts and seeing how the same skills I’ve been using for over a decade at that point could be used in a variety of different contexts. And that was very helpful. Very, very helpful.

Anthony D. Mays:
And again, I love this idea of being hired to be an expert in something that I didn’t know or understand yet, being entrusted to just kind of dive in and start solving problems using brand new tools and processes, and I really enjoyed that. And I enjoy Slalom as a company. I think Slalom continues to be a great company and I hear nothing but good things, still, from folks who have worked there in the past and have gone on to other things. I might still actually be at Slalom today if it hadn’t been for Google knocking on the door.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, let’s talk about Google. I mean, I’m sure that folks that are listening have heard about how tough it is to break into Google, their interview process, et cetera. Tell me about what your Google experience was like.

Anthony D. Mays:
Yeah. So I connected with Google as a young man in college, my first and second year of college actually. So Google Search showed up on the scene, and you probably remember Infoseek and AltaVista and Ask Jeeves and those earlier search engines.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Anthony D. Mays:
And I remember Google Search coming on the scene and just changing the game. All of a sudden, I felt like I had this world of information at my fingertips where I could find exactly what I was looking for with just a few keystrokes. Then I remember Gmail, this free mail service. And people take advantage of, then neglect to appreciate free email. You had Gmail, which is free email service. I could put attachments in and schoolwork there and use it, and it was amazing.

Anthony D. Mays:
And I thought Google as a company name was a weird name. The first thing I said was, “Look at this Yahoo clone. Google. Who do they think they are?”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Anthony D. Mays:
But they were interesting and innovative, and they were dabbling in a bunch of these different spaces even in the early days. And then they went public and made millions of dollars for folks who had joined the company early and been part of that process. I was attracted to Google as a company and to Google technology. And even today, post-Google career, I still love Google products and services. And I forgot to turn off the device, and so there might be something that… The Assistant might chirp in and interrupt me at any time now. I’ve always loved the technologies and things they built and their ambition as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Anthony D. Mays:
And so, even though I love the company, I never saw myself being worthy of being employed there, being considered amongst the ranks of software engineers there. And so, when I encountered a recruiter in college, I think it was my third year of college, they gave me an application, asked me to fill it out for an internship. I walked away some steps and threw the application in the trash, because I knew-

Maurice Cherry:
Whoa.

Anthony D. Mays:
… that they weren’t going to hire a Black dude from the hood. I just knew that. They weren’t going to hire a Black man from the hood who’s a former physical, sexual abuse victim. I’m like, “No.” So that was my early interaction with Google. And then some years later, 11 years into my career, a recruiter reached out to me over LinkedIn and said, “Hey, I think that there’s a place and a role for you at the company. You should consider applying.” And it felt different because the recruiter used my full name. They singled me out on LinkedIn.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Anthony D. Mays:
And I had 11 years of career experience under my belt at that point. And so, I felt emboldened to go through the interview process. Yeah. I didn’t have a friend, cousin, uncle, brother, whatever, that had worked anywhere near a big tech company. And so, I had to do what any self-respecting engineer would do in my position. I googled it. “How do you succeed at this interview process?” And I came across some good information but I also came across some bad information. I didn’t know how to disambiguate the two. And so, I ended up studying brain teasers for two weeks and went into this interview process and not a single brain teaser was asked.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

Anthony D. Mays:
And I fought as hard as I could with the information that I had and worked very hard. It wasn’t an issue of work ethic. It was an issue of information and not being connected to the right network. And ultimately, I was saddened to hear from the recruiter that they weren’t going to move forward. And I remember reflecting on that “no” and thinking that I had let down myself, my family, my community, my church, all Black people everywhere, because when-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Anthony D. Mays:
Yeah. I mean, when I’m coming into the space as an underrepresented person, I know that the people that I’m talking to, I might be one of the very few Black folks that they ever talked to, one of the very few people from Compton. Maybe the only person from Compton that they’ll ever meet, and that they’re forming ideas about who I am and about what I represent. And so, I was aware of that burden and I was deeply impacted by that.

Anthony D. Mays:
So when recruiters would reach out the next year and the year after that, I think three times total, after I had failed the interview, I was very confused. I was like, “Y’all know I’m a Black man, right?” Right? Everybody says they’re going to call you back if a position is available. No one ever does. And these recruiters called me back, I think, three times. And my last recruiter understood that I was very hesitant to reengage with the process.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

Anthony D. Mays:
It kind of babied me, kind of coddled me in the conversation. And I kind of walked away from that thinking, “She thinks I’m a punk.” She’s calling me a… That’s really what’s going on here. She’s calling me a punk. I can’t go out like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

Anthony D. Mays:
And so, after talking to my wife and getting her support, I realized that I wanted to try again. And so, I picked up Cracking the Coding Interview by Gayle Laakmann McDowell, bought a whiteboard and some markers, really committed myself to studying the right information this time. And as a result of a month and a half of studying for, I don’t know, three or four hours a day, except for Sundays because I’m closed on Sundays, I was able to go through the interview process and get the job.

Anthony D. Mays:
And you would think that after that, everything is happily ever after, like, “Yay, you did it. You accomplished this amazing feat. Now you can rest and ride off into the sunset.” Well, as soon as I got to Google, I felt uncomfortable. And it wasn’t because of anything specific that people were doing. It’s that I just… I couldn’t sit in my seat. I was unnerved and restless. I would sit in this cafe surrounded by free food, free snacks, free beverages, by games and pool tables and really smart people, and my attention would be directed to the basketball court on the first floor as I’m watching these dudes duke it out on the basketball court.

Anthony D. Mays:
And I’m like, I understand that part. I understand basketball. I understand that struggle. I understand that life. I don’t understand this. I don’t understand tech, this new privilege. And there’s this culture shock. I’m forced to dress different than I had ever dressed before. I start off my career in a bank, suit and tie, and everybody’s now wearing jeans and a T-shirt. The whole thing is jarring. My bosses… My co-workers are telling me that I’m doing a good job, and I don’t believe them because I know I’m the diversity hire. Right?

Anthony D. Mays:
You ain’t got to lie to kick it. I’m the diversity hire. You hired me because you don’t have that many Black folks and you just want to make sure that your numbers look good. So I knew all those things, even though it wasn’t necessarily true. And it wasn’t until 2014 when Google released their diversity numbers that I realized what I was dealing with. It wasn’t just impostor syndrome. It was this awareness that I’m this underrepresented person put in this culture that wasn’t built for me.

Anthony D. Mays:
And I felt like, at the time when Google released their numbers, if they were making a commitment to bring visibility and light to this problem, I needed to take a role in helping to solve that problem and using every means at my disposal to bring positive change to the industry using my own experience and journey. And so, I started to write about my journey and experience and share interview tips and talk about things that I did well and things I didn’t do well. I tried to be very public about the failure that I had during the first interview and the successes during the second one, and just be open and honest about the struggles and all that. And as I did that, people would reward me with recognition and with support and encouragement.

Anthony D. Mays:
And I thank God that, at Google, I had the opportunity to start off as an engineer, just heads down writing code, but then eventually become this DEI advocate, this speaker, this consultant within the company, and even outside the company, talking about this experience in recruiting and what it means to be an underrepresented person in tech. And so, I really enjoyed the fact that not only did my boss support me in that work, but my boss’s boss and my boss’s boss’s boss, they all said, “Listen, you do your thing. Keep speaking, keep writing, keep supporting, keep providing value to the tech community, and we’ll make sure that your performance reviews reflect those contributions positively.”

Anthony D. Mays:
I felt like it was a unique time, a unique team, and a great time for me to be involved in the work and growing. And I credit the influence and the things that make me who I am today in part to Google and the people that I had the opportunity to work with. So I think because of that, I know that a lot of people are doing the work. I don’t know that many companies are doing it better than Google is at least in some respects.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it sounds like you really found yourself there, not only as a professional but, in a way, almost as a person. You had these early times of impostor syndrome and self-doubt, and you were able to overcome that through your time there.

Anthony D. Mays:
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there was so much self-discovery for me, partly because of all the bags that I brought through in my life and the time that I was a kid. I mean, I really had to confront my whole life in that whole journey when I got to Google. And I don’t know why it was that it took me getting to Google to do that, but I really went through a crisis when I got to Google.

Anthony D. Mays:
There’s this thing called survivor’s guilt where, when you feel like you’ve survived trauma, you feel guilty and ask questions like, “Why is it that I wasn’t shot and killed when I was 19 like some of my early friends had been? Why is it that I wasn’t being funeralized? Why is it that even though I saw other people who were working harder than me and who I thought were smarter than me, why did I make it to this level and they didn’t?” And I really had to grapple with that. And it took me to some very dark places personally.

Anthony D. Mays:
My wife, my family can tell you that I really found it difficult to bear with that stress. And I told my boss, I said, “Listen, have you ever managed someone who’s a physical and sexual abuse survivor to the best of your knowledge?” Said, “No.” I said, “Well, have you ever managed someone who’s a foster kid from the hood?” “No.” I said, “Okay. So we’re both new at this. We’re both going to figure this out. But my commitment to you is that I’m going to work as hard as I possibly can to contribute to this team, to do excellent work, and to pay attention to my craft. That’s my commitment to you, and we’ll figure the rest out.” And I believe that my manager was very great and understanding in coming alongside with me for that journey and just being open and honest. So I appreciate that to this day.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see diversity in tech now, from your perspective?

Anthony D. Mays:
Yeah. It’s still… I feel like it’s still burgeoning. We’re still in the early stages in many respects. I can remember when… Even just a few years ago, we were still struggling to figure out terminology, and that’s one of the frustrating things about working in DEI, is it seems like the glossary’s changing every single year. New words to use, new things to add to the language.

Maurice Cherry:
BIPOC.

Anthony D. Mays:
Yeah, exactly. I think, a month ago, I was like, “What’s that?” And I had to ask somebody, “What’s a URM stand for?” because I forgot what it was. Even when I joined Google, I was just like, “Do I call myself Black or African American?”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Anthony D. Mays:
I was asking myself that. And so, there’s still a lot of newness in this space. And part of… I think there’s also a conflict between the academic understanding of DEI and things like critical race theory and all that stuff, thought leaders who are on that level. But then you have people who are just trying… who are experiencing what it’s like being in the workplace rubbing up against people that you may not understand, who have experiences that you may not be familiar with and just trying to figure it out on an emotional level.

Anthony D. Mays:
I think those two perspectives sometimes come into conflict and companies are trying to figure out what to do in the middle of all of that. A decade ago, maybe even five years ago, you wouldn’t hear about love being talked about in the workplace, unless you’re talking about workplace romances. But there’s this notion that tech companies are trying to figure out how to love their employees, which is really weird even when I say that now. But I’ve had to expose more of my life in big tech in the past several years than I ever had to before, and that’s because tech, I think pre-2013, 2014, was very much color-blind. We don’t see race, we don’t see gender, all those other kinds of things.

Anthony D. Mays:
There was this big emphasis on an extreme side of the spectrum where you just pretended to ignore these differentiations between people of different backgrounds and whatnot, then tried to typecast everybody as this one thing. And that was harmful, I think. I don’t think that was helpful. To a certain extent, you want to make sure that you have a culture where everybody feels like they’re working on the same mission and going in the same direction. I don’t want to negate that, but there’s also disservice when you are pretending to be color-blind.

Anthony D. Mays:
Last time I checked, color blindness is considered a disorder or a disability or whatever the right word is for that. It’s not something helpful. And so, I think we’re starting to open our eyes and see color for the first time and see some of these other things for the first time and are still figuring it out. And like I said, there’s a lot of things that are happening both at the big tech company and at the small tech company level to correct and chart a new path forward. But it’s messy work.

Anthony D. Mays:
And even that, it’s refreshing to be able to admit that nowadays because back in the days, DEI was a bunch of people who look different, holding hands, singing Kumbaya, sitting in the middle of a park, high-fiving each other. That was kind of the ideal some years ago, and I think we’re realizing that that’s not what the work looks like. The work is grimy, it’s messy, it’s hard, it’s difficult. There’s a lot of disagreement. There’s agreeing to disagree.

Anthony D. Mays:
But at the end of the day, the hope is that all of these different perspectives will inform a culture that fosters innovation and creativity and new ways of thinking about old problems. And so, there’s clearly business opportunity here. I think the research bears that out, and I think companies are understanding that there’s a lot of money to be made by having these discussions and thinking through these things. And that’s not bad.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s something that perhaps not many people understand about you? I mean, I feel like you’ve put so much of your life story out there, not just with the work that you do, but also at the places where you’ve worked.

Anthony D. Mays:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s something you think people still don’t get about you?

Anthony D. Mays:
My faith, absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
Mmm.

Anthony D. Mays:
Hands down. It’s the fact that I think about all the things that I think about from the lens of someone who’s a Christian and is saturated in the Christian Bible and in the scriptures. I’ve told people countless times, “If you ever want to figure me out, go read that Bible, then you’ll have me dead to rights.” That’s it. I mean, I do what I do because my hero, my Savior, Christ Jesus, was someone who gave himself up for the world. That style of servant leadership, that sacrificing for other people is very core to what I do.

Anthony D. Mays:
Also, just in terms of my work ethic and how I engage, I want to make sure that I’m a good reflection of Christ. I want to make sure that I’m moving in wisdom. Proverbs, I grew up on the Book of Proverbs when I was growing up and learning about everything from how to manage money wisely, to how to have conversations with people that are going to be positive and good, to how to win friends, and how to avoid the traps of street life.

Anthony D. Mays:
A lot of that I learned from the Bible, from Proverbs, and from looking at these exemplary figures, these historical figures, who have to overcome a variety of different circumstances and challenges and trials with their faith rested on God. And that’s how I move today. So much of what I do is also gospel-focused too. I think one of the things that helps me to be a DEI practitioner, talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion, is my faith. Seeing people as made in the image of God.

Anthony D. Mays:
For me, it’s not about just helping Black people or just helping brown people or just helping women, whatever that is. It’s about helping anybody in the space that wants to be successful. And then there’s this other aspect of like, “I know how evil I am in my own heart because the Bible teaches me that.” And so, I can have a conversation with someone who maybe is an overt racist and talk about their viewpoints and talk about why I might disagree with them and call them to have hope in Christ and to see that their thinking is evil.

Anthony D. Mays:
But I also know that I’m a bad dude. I have done things over my own career and over my own life that I’m certainly not proud of because they were wrong, and that means that I can have compassion towards other people who I disagree with and have those calm conversations. One of the things that I tell people all the time is, “You can ask me about anything with regards to race, gender, my life, whatever. I don’t care. My promise is that I’m not going to get angry with you. You’re going to get nothing from me but love and compassion as we talk through very difficult things,” because that’s the way my Savior moves. That drives so much of what I do and how I think about the things that I think about.

Anthony D. Mays:
I’m glad that I’m able to reflect the goodness of God, reflect the grace of Christ in what I do. And hopefully, people see that. Hopefully, people perceive that. And hopefully, people are curious about what drives me to do the things that I do with the level of excellence that I try to pour into those things.

Maurice Cherry:
What are you excited about at the moment?

Anthony D. Mays:
So I’m very excited about the work that I’m doing with my client, Karat, as the newly signed technical advisor, senior advisor, with the Brilliant Black Minds program. I love the Brilliant Black Minds program because what they’re attempting to do is provide free interview practice to HBCU students. If you know anything about interview prep in these days and times, it can be very expensive. There are some companies and organizations out there that are just charging obscene amounts of money to provide candidates… to kind of prey on the hopes and dreams of candidates who are looking to crack FAANG companies.

Anthony D. Mays:
But Karat wants to provide free interviews to Black HBCU students and to help them level up in their careers. And I love that because I remember how difficult it was for me to connect to good and reliable resources, and I think this is such a wonderful opportunity for our students to finally get feedback and support that they may have been lacking before. And so, I’m really excited about that program. I’m really excited to see it grow and expand.

Anthony D. Mays:
I think that this is one of those things that if we get this right, it will really take off and be a substantive force in the industry. So that’s what I’m excited about, and I’m really excited to continue to partner with them to grow and expand the impact of that program so that, though we may be focused on supporting Black engineers today, that this is something that will be opened up for everybody in the near future. Yeah. That’s what I’m looking forward to.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at your career and you even look now to where you’re at with your firm and with your family and everything, what does success look like for you now?

Anthony D. Mays:
For me, the measure of success has remained constant. It’s how well do I reflect Christ in my life, is really what it comes down to. And I think that being able to continue to support for my family and take care of their needs while also providing transformative impact on the industry in which I’ve grown up and become accustomed and have grown in, that’s key for me. And so, I want to continue to amplify and multiply the impact that I’ve had in tech to help more people get in and succeed.

Anthony D. Mays:
My hope is that, by doing that, I can leave a good example and legacy for the generation that’s following after me, because I’m not just an observer of Black history. I’m a participant in it. And I’m continuing that legacy so that future generations will benefit.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What do you want the next chapter in the Anthony D. Mays story to look like?

Anthony D. Mays:
Yeah. That’s a really tough question. That’s been on my to-do list to answer that one. I haven’t quite gotten around to it in the two months that I’ve been a full-time entrepreneur. But I think just real quickly, I hope that in five years, I’ll be reading a news article about how my efforts has transformationally changed the tech interviewing landscape, that I want to be able to, in five years, read that article, that I want it to be said that, through the work that I did, I was able to help this industry almost leapfrog in terms of how we deal with and grow and develop underrepresented talent in the business. So that hopefully will be my contribution, but we’ll see.

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

Anthony D. Mays:
Yeah, absolutely. So I’ll make it easy for all of your listeners. Anthony D. Mays, D as in diversity. Anthony D. Mays, M-A-Y-S, on all the things, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn. Feel free to connect with me. I’m also at anthonydmays.com and that’s a great place to find articles that I’ve written about tech interviewing, working in tech, being underrepresented.

Anthony D. Mays:
If you want to book me for speaking, I’m also there. Yeah. You can also connect with Morgan Latimer Consulting right through that page. So it’s all there. Just visit anthonydmays.com and connect with me. I’d love to chat with you and figure out how I might be able to help you in your journey and your career.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Anthony D. Mays, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, I had a sense, from doing my research, how the interview would go in terms of your story and what you’ve put out there. But I guess I didn’t realize how similar in a way we were in terms of how we got into technology, growing up in, like I said, these dubious towns and things.

Maurice Cherry:
I hope that people will listen to this interview and not only, I think, seek out your services, but see just where and how far passion can take you. It was very clear to me from listening to your story that you have this passion for technology that would not quit, and to the point where it not only got you to working at one of the top tech companies in the world, but that it also, in a way, started a journey of self-introspection to get you to where you are today to be just a stronger and better person. So thank you so much for coming on the show, man. I really appreciate it.

Anthony D. Mays:
Well, thank you so much, Maurice. This has been quite a pleasure.

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Ayrïd Chandler

We’re off to the Caribbean this week to talk with the incredibly talented Ayrïd Chandler. Ayrïd is the head of her own studio, Ayrïd by Design, where she offers graphic design services with a focus on brand and identity design. She also teaches at the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine, where she’s helping to educate and inspire Trinidad and Tobago’s next generation of designers.

Ayrïd starts off talking about her goals for the year, and from there we get into the differences between being a designer in Trinidad vs. being a designer in America. She also spoke about what draws her to brand and identity design, and talked about entering Savannah College of Art and Design, moving back home, and how she’s making a name for herself there. Ayrïd’s path really shows us that as Black designers, we share a similar sense of community no matter where we are, so you’re never alone. Huge thanks to Rebecca Brooker of Queer Design Club for the introduction!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Ayrïd Chandler:
My name is Ayrïd Chandler. I am technically an officially a graphic designer. I run my own business firm studio, one-woman show called Ayrïd by Design here in Trinidad and Tobago. I primarily work on branding identity projects. Apart from that, I am a part-time lecturer for design at the University of West Indies St. Augustine, which is here in Trinidad. There might be other things I’m [inaudible 00:03:15] that I do, but we can get to that.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. How has the year been treating you so far?

Ayrïd Chandler:
Whew, it’s been interesting. I feel like 2022 has started kind of with a bang in a different way. I mean, things are changing with the pandemic, but then World War III question mark. I feel like a lot of stuff is just happening globally. I don’t know about you, but as a creative, all of those things kind of impacts me a little bit. I feel like because of the weight or the toll that can take on mentally consuming all of the information all the time. It kind of puts it own on things.

Ayrïd Chandler:
But apart from those obvious things, the year started actually with me doing a lot more than I planned on doing. I ended up being a creative director at the local agency here, working on ruling out some digital products. And then that got pause due to pause and investments. There was a lot of shifting happening, where I went from working on external products to focusing more on Ayrïd by Design, instead of juggling the two. Feel like that was a mouthful of your very simple question, but that’s all the year has been going for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s interesting about as you kind of alluded to about World War III and I promise for folks listening, this is not a political podcast, but I’ve been kind of keeping my eye, just I watch the news every now and then just to kind of get a sense of what’s happening. I mean, as we’re recording, this conflict has been going on now for roughly about six or seven weeks.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
It doesn’t show any sign of abatements. It’s tough to kind of see, of course, all the devastation that’s happening and the general pleas from the President Zelensky. Yet, I know people that are actively traveling to that part of the world without a care in the world, and I don’t get it. I don’t get it. I’m like, look, I know you’re a few countries away and maybe that distance means something, but like, I don’t know if my American self wants to be in a war torn part of the world right now, but that’s just me.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah, no, I mean, I have friends and family in Europe and London and Germany and life is normal. Life is like every day, no big deal. Then I have a friend who is actually Russian, but she lives on this part of the world and she’s just like painting a picture for me of what that means and life, I mean, the war is really from what I understand only happening in, I mean, certain parts, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ayrïd Chandler:
It’s not even affecting the country as a whole. It’s like say, and there’s a war in the US, but it’s really just happening in Washington. The rest of the US won’t really be in war. You know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Yeah.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I think it’s a very similar kind of situation where we just think, well, the whole of this thing is being affected when it’s really just a portion. But I think it’s just the fact that we are getting all of the imagery, we’re getting all of the information live. Like it’s not like before in the previous war, there was no social media. There was no, you know what I mean? It took a while to get news update. We’re getting everything instantly. I think that is what’s making this so different, at least for me. I mean, I haven’t existed in a war before, overtime.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ayrïd Chandler:
It’s just new.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s also different to be completely honest that it’s happening to Europeans.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
When this is what’s happening to Syrians and Palestinians, and there were news about these sorts of things happening, there certainly wasn’t this level of focus on it.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Nope.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Geopolitics aside, is there anything in particular that you want to achieve this year?

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yes, I do, actually. I would like to achieve financial independence and stability. That is the main goal for me this year. And what I mean by that is actually having the profit that the business makes then stuck up to a point where the business kind of can run on its own and it’s more sustainable. Right now, I think we’re still very much in those early stages of, I won’t say paycheck to paycheck, but month to month, certain projects will definitely make a difference, that kind of thing. And so, being able to kind of get that stability within a personal business that one might have, they had a day job, I think that’s kind of the goal that I’m aspiring to for this. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk more about your firm Ayrïd by Design, what made you want to start your own firm?

Ayrïd Chandler:
I came back home in 2012 after I graduated from college. I haven’t realized that I’m one of those people that didn’t go the traditional route of started off with a day job and then decided to leave and do my own thing. I kind of always worked on my own. I went straight from college, well, not straight, like mainly from college to freelance to registering my business. Honestly, I was freelancing for six years and I discovered all of the different things of how business worked in Trinidad and basically, my banker was like, “You’re commingling your funds, right?” I was like, what does that mean? She was like, “Well, you’re passing business funds into your personal bank account.” I was like, what do you mean business funds like money that I’m earning? She was like, “Yeah, you’re supposed to have a business account for those things.” I was like, oh, I did not learn this from school. I never heard this before.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I don’t know anything. And so, that kind of took me down a trajectory of the researching things and finding things out and talking to different people and that kind of thing. And also, it came at a point in my life when I really wanted to ground myself a bit and set roots on structure and stability. It was a kind of a natural make sense progression of, okay, no, you need to make things official. You need to go and register your business name. You need to be a legal, registered entity. You open your business banking accounts. I got an accountant. Like I did all of the things correct to make sure that I was set up properly and that led to so many different opportunities, which was great, so yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it’s interesting, you mentioned that about it, not you being taught in school. I know that there are some schools that do have some kind of entrepreneurial program, but even for folks that want to just strike out on their own like, I know so many people have done over the past year or so because of the great resignation, like that kind of information isn’t super, I don’t want to say it’s not super available, but it’s certainly not something that is I think talked about a lot.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, when I started my first business, I had the same issue. I was co-mingling personal funds and business funds before kind of getting my taxes back and getting audited and then realizing, you know what? I should probably separate these funds, which makes more sense. It just makes more sense.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
But that’s a lesson I had to learn the hard way.

Ayrïd Chandler:
For sure. For sure. Also, to your points of like information being readily available, I mean, I’ve a 100% agree from being in the US system, at least for my college and my education, that information is way more readily available for you guys. But in the Caribbean, information is still kind of pretty hard to get in terms of the structures of things. And so, you have to do a way more research. You have to actually speak to another human being. It’s not as easy as go look it up somewhere because our websites are still… We’re very much kind of a little bit behind. I’d say we are a decade behind in terms of that sort of thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, but decade is a lot though, I mean.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah, I mean.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m glad that you mentioned that it is different like that in other countries, because certainly I think what’s shown here in the US is about sort of being a digital nomad and you can work from anywhere if you work remotely and this kind of thing, and I mean there’s limitations.

Ayrïd Chandler:
It was blessing for us…

Maurice Cherry:
What did you say?

Ayrïd Chandler:
… in a weird way. The pandemic was a blessing for us in a weird way because it forced us to get things like online banking, which we did not have before.

Maurice Cherry:
Really?

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah. Things like apps on being able to pay someone who banks somewhere else in Trinidad was a challenge, which set up a challenge usually for business. At least to me as someone who, I mean, I learned banking with like Chase and Wells Fargo when I was in college. I was accustomed, getting paid by the company that I worked on in Atlanta taking out my iPad at the time, scanning it on the app and having the money in my account. Then I came back to Trinidad and someone would pay me with a check and I’d have to go sign in a bank line, deposits that check and then wait four to five business days to access the check. It’s very different realities and that affects business as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Walk me through like a typical day for you.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Sure. I always like to say no day is typical and every day is very different, but to paint a kind of a picture. I would start the day, usually catching up on emails. I have an assistant who I work with and she helps me establish what my to-do list is and what are the priorities in terms of clients, et cetera. I usually would have a meeting or two and these will all be online. It’s usually me chat, checking in with a new client, having a conversation about what their project is like, that kind of thing. Then it’s usually like four hours, especially if I’m working on a new branding project of just computer one on one time with zero disturbances. Well, I try for it to be with zero disturbances, but I have a dog that likes a lot of attention.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I usually just go into this whole work where the world does not exist and I’m in my creation mode. Then after that, it’s kind of, I do whatever I want in terms of relaxation, et cetera, and prep for the next day. The reason why I say it’s like there’s no typical for me is because that might be like a Monday, whereas if you were to ask me about a Wednesday, what tomorrow, it starts with me teaching my students, because I teach on Wednesdays from 9:00 to 12:00. And so, a Wednesday would start with me teaching and then most likely doing, having no other meetings for the day, just to kind of clear my head and focusing on getting tasks off my to-do list kind of knocked off. But I would say like if it was to broaden it a bit and talk about a week and a general week, it would be typically a little bit of teaching, many meetings, lots of discussion with my assistant as well as someone that I recently started working with who was kind of helping me structure systems and processes within my business.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Like set it up for a more sustainable model. A lot of just talking things through, talking steps through, talking like, okay, what is the process from the time I engage with a client to the final stage where they receive the final artwork, like what are the steps? When do they fill out the creative brief form? When do we meet? When do they make their first payments? When do they make their second payments? So stuff like that is kind of, what’s been happening a lot lately. Of course, well, the actual design work within those probable period.

Maurice Cherry:
What are the best types of clients for you to work with? Do you kind of work along clients in the particular industry?

Ayrïd Chandler:
No, I would say I work across multiple industries, both within the creative sector as well as corporate, as well as I think anything in between, best clients would be a paying client.

Maurice Cherry:
Hello?

Ayrïd Chandler:
Those are always great. No, but the ideal client for me is someone who’s a little bit open and clients who trust me, I think is what I am leaning towards noting is so important in the creative process. I work a lot with, I mean, well, as an identity designer, someone who’s there at the beginning kind of creating the logo for your new business, your new baby, your new idea, your new project or whatever. That’s kind of, I would say like 75% of the work that I do. I’m there at the beginning, right? I’m there with this person and they’re like, well, this is this thing that I’ve always wanted to do. And finally, getting started and I want to open a bakery or I want to create a new product. Those are kind of the SME as we call them that come to me and who I work with. And so, those are, I would guess the ideals right now, because they’re fun to work with.

Maurice Cherry:
What is it about identity design in particular that appeals to you?

Ayrïd Chandler:
That’s an excellent question and I’m now like I have my hands down and I’m thinking deeply to answer your question. I think I’m good at it and I know that sounds kind of weird and conceited a little bit. I don’t mean it in that way. It’s just that it feels kind of second nature to me. It feels like the thing that I am meant to be doing and I’m able to do well. Even when I was studying design in college, like that was the thing, that was the part that made my brain tingle.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I guess when we did a different courses, maybe someone more into web, their brain might have tingled when we were doing that. But for me, being able to tell someone’s story visually is really, really appealing to me. And so getting into this, the background of why you’re doing this and how you want your customers to feel and what is the best way to put all of those things together to kind of become the new face or look of your business, your project, your company, whatever. It just it’s really exciting for me. Like I love it, so yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
When a company or an individual contacts you about a new project, like talk to me about that, what does your process look like?

Ayrïd Chandler:
Sure. It’s changed recently, so I now know it officially. Usually, an email comes in and it will go straight to my assistant and she would kind of be their first point of contact. They’d be like, hey, I’m interested in finding out more about blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Most of the times, people want a quote. That’s usually where the first thing they want to know is like, if they can afford you or how much it’s going to cost and that kind of thing, at least here. What I do is we send a form that I’ve created that helps get information from the client to create a creative brief, because the typical client wouldn’t know what a creative brief is outside of certain industries. It’s just not common knowledge.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I created this form that allows them to answer certain questions that ultimately creates a creative brief for me. But it also does things like ask, what’s your budget, et cetera, et cetera. What are the actual deliverables that you’re looking for? It kind of lays all of that out for me. Then from that point, we send a quote and it includes things like the timeline, how long the project will take, and it also lays out the kind of rules of engagement. Like, when you’d get your first invoice, when you’d get your second invoice, who has ownership, who’s rights and credits, all of those things are kind of I include my, what you would call like a contract within the quote process. From there, the client either says yes or no, and usually it’s yes, thankfully.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Sometimes, we need to meet and chat a little bit more about the project, sometimes we don’t. There’s some clients who I literally have never had a meeting with because they’ll just so very clear and they’re answering the form as well in their emails. And they’re like, “yeah, no, I don’t need to meet you, it’s fine.” But most of the times, there are instances where we’ll meet and just talk about a project a little bit so I can get a better sense of what it is that they’re looking for.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Then, I begin and head to phase one, which is usually sending, creating a document to send options for them, whether it’s one option based on their budget is on what they sent, whether it’s two options, whether it’s three options and I go through this process of research based on the industry. The great thing about what I do is that I get to learn about all of these different fields and lives and businesses that I would never have otherwise been exposed to. One day, I’m looking up all of the information about NFTs, the next day, I’m looking up real estate and how that works in Trinidad.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I just go like a deep dive into whatever the industry is so that I can understand it. I can see trends. The great thing about this, that I get to go this deep dive into different industries, what people are doing, and so I research the trends within the industry. I research things like what colors do people use? What are the font styles? I’m really good at observing patterns for some reason. I feel like that’s like little secret thing that I have. And maybe not, maybe that’s what all designers do and I just am giving myself more importance than necessary. I tend to like just pay attention to all the trends, pay attention to all the details and then go back to the original notes that the clients gave me of what they want, what they want to achieve and marry it all together to achieve this perfect for them outcome.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I send that off, then comes the pain taken part of waiting for client feedback, which I think is always like, it’s like the best and worst part of the project for me, at least because it can go either way. It can go, I hate this and you’ve not understood anything that I said, or it can go, oh, I love this, and this is what we want to move forward with. From that point on, it’s just back and forth with the client, whether it’s edits, whether it’s tweaks, changes, colors, fonts, et cetera. Then we get to the end when they finally made their final decision, I package all the wonderful files for them and I hand it off and I say, here’s your child. Goodbye, good luck. That’s kind of how I do it.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, your process sounds pretty thorough from start to finish.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah. I try to get as much information from clients as possible because that ideally is what helps me create. I think I’ve kind of figured out a way to eliminate as much as possible that back and forth period. Whereas in the early, when I first began, the back and forth was long and tedious and I didn’t ask as many question upfront as I do now. I wasn’t really designing for them. I wasn’t solving their problem. I was designing for the thing in general. I was designing for like, say someone wanted a logo for real estate. I was designing a generic real estate something. I wasn’t designing real estate but based off of what they wanted to achieve.

Ayrïd Chandler:
And so, I think when I finally figured out that I needed to be more in tune with the clients as well and asking them the right questions so that they would know, like not necessarily asking them what they want, because that’s not really what I want them to tell me, but more so what are their goals? What do they want to achieve? Why are they doing this? All of those questions help me then make sure that they have what it is that they need. I have noticed in the past couple of projects that I’ve wrapped up, that the back and forth period is way shorter as a result of that because of those questions upfront.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s usually really good to get as many qualifying questions as you can, because one thing it does also like you’ll quickly find out whether or not this is a project you even want to do. If it’s something you want to take on, if this is a client you even want to work with and certainly like, as you do more projects and as you mature in your business, you get a lot quicker at getting to the root of it.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good that you kind of have that thorough process.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
You’re originally from Trinidad and Tobago, tell me about what it was like growing up there?

Ayrïd Chandler:
It’s been amazing. I enjoy being part of the Caribbean and I think growing up here was fun, I guess, would be the word I would choose. I am a carnival baby and what that means is that a huge part of Trinidad’s culture. And I say part of, or not the only thing that is Trinidad, because we have so much more to offer, but a huge part of it is our annual, I guess, street parade is what would be the best way to describe it. But it’s really a season that kind of begins right after Christmas, straight until the February or March, depending on the year, because it usually lines up with whenever Ash Wednesday is. It’s usually Monday and Tuesday before, so similar to Rio, I think also similar to New Orleans, all of our carnivals kind of line up around the same time, but I grew up playing kiddies carnival, which happened before the main Monday on Tuesday parade, trust that ability to express this freedom and creativity and this open way always really, really fascinated me.

Ayrïd Chandler:
And so, when I say I’m a carnival baby it’s because like from the time I was five years old, I was engrossed in this culture and I was playing these things. We say playing carnival, we say playing mask, that’s kind of how we refer to it. It was great. Like I was ready like the first time my mom told me, like the first time she took me, she was like, testing me out to see if it was something I’d be interested in. When I realized that it was only one day, because I thought I was going back like the next day, like how you go back to school every day.

Ayrïd Chandler:
And she was like, no, you have to wait until next day. And I was like, what? No, tomorrow. So yeah, I would say growing up is very unique. I would say, I mean, I don’t know how many foodies there are out there listening, but if you’re a foodie, Trinidad is definitely a place to enjoy all of the flavors. I mean, moving to Atlanta directly from Trinidad for college was an awakening because I didn’t realize how much I loved our food until I left Trinidad, so that’s always really interesting. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
You didn’t run into any good like Trini spots here in Atlanta?

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yes, it took me a while, because I mean this was 2008 to 2012 was when I was there. I didn’t have as much information and that first year was just me getting used to the fact that I am no longer home and dealing with the culture shock, which I didn’t think I would have. Because I was like, well its people where speaking English, there’s no language barrier, but learning, appreciate you or appreciate it, it meant thank you. That was like [inaudible 00:27:43] I guess. I was like, what do you say? Appreciate it, man. I’m like, what? There was a lot of back and forth with that in that first year for sure. And getting used to cafeteria food was also very interesting, lots of tilapia. It was weird time. It was very weird time, but I know I did eventually find some Trini spots there and I also started cooking for everyone and so it worked out, eventually.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh nice.

Ayrïd Chandler:
But yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Atlanta has a pretty big like overall Caribbean population, especially for students. I went to Morehouse. In the whole AUC area, especially when I first got to Morehouse, that was first time encountering anyone from the Caribbean outside of a bad impression that I might have saw in a movie or a television show.

Ayrïd Chandler:
[Inaudible 00:28:34].

Maurice Cherry:
I’m from Alabama originally so it’s just like one state over.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
But I remember getting to Morehouse and meeting Jamaicans and Trinidadians and Saint Lucians and at first thinking like everyone just sounded the same because I could kind of understand it, but I couldn’t understand it. But then also learning just the differences in everyone’s culture and the food, that’s where I introduced to roti and doubles and everything. Yeah, I know what you mean by the culture shock. I think Atlanta, I think for a lot of people when they first come to Atlanta from anywhere, it’s a bit of a culture shock.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah, for sure. Also, I mean, I don’t want to sound like a little bit of an alcoholic or anything, but we drink at 18 in Trinidad, when you guys drink at 21.

Maurice Cherry:
Legally.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Legally, but like going to the club for me and being told that this was before you all changed the law. This was back when like at midnight on Sunday, the bar closed because y’all didn’t serve on [inaudible 00:29:42]…

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ayrïd Chandler:
… on Sundays. That was huge for me. And not realizing that I couldn’t like walk along the street and drink a beer because that’s just a thing that we do here, Savannah was kind of like a safe haven for me because you can kind of do a lot down by the river.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ayrïd Chandler:
And so, I was always kind of running away to Savannah just to get a bit of what I learned for you a little bit just like a little bit of home, but yeah, all of those things that you like you don’t think about that are things until you experience it and you’re like, oh, this is something that I have never experienced before. Interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, now your dad worked in advertising, was that kind of your first introduction to the world of design in a way?

Ayrïd Chandler:
I feel like it could be, possibly. I grew up watching commercials and critiquing them with my dad. That’s just kind of a thing that happened in the household and never did I put the two and two together and be like, oh this is a Korean, this is a thing that I would then be doing in the future. It was never that direct or that straightforward. I would be… And my dad works at [inaudible 00:30:51] in Trinidad for many years and after school, that’s just where I ended up. And we would be the office until eight, nine every night because advertising, at least here, I know globally, it’s intense but here is many late hours and long hours of just making sure that clients are happy. I don’t know that I ever made the connection with this is like a profession or a thing that I can do or wanted to do.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I knew like very early on that I wasn’t never going to work in advertising because of the demand and the hours that it puts on someone. I think everyone was really surprised when I was like, oh yeah, I want to do graphic design because it was not a, well, I’m following in my dad’s footsteps or I’ve been exposed to this thing, to this long and this is what makes sense. After did languages in school afternoon, even do art and well, what we call secondary school that you guys would call high school. It really wasn’t like a very clear cut sort of thing that happened at all.

Ayrïd Chandler:
It kind of became a, well, what do you enjoy doing and what are you doing naturally? I was a person that was like creating event programs in school for our masses. I went to like Catholic girl school and we’d always have weekly masses and I was doing the program for those kind of things. I was there and illustrate [inaudible 00:32:13] in on my dad’s computer, that kind of stuff. It came that way, as opposed to like me watching this person that I’ve lived with my entire life kind of doing this thing and following him, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes sense. I mean like, I mean, I grew up, my mom was a biologist and I never wanted to really go into science I think because I was always around it, and I was not to say that I didn’t have a passion for it or a proclivity for it. It’s just because it’s around, it doesn’t necessarily mean, oh, this is the thing that I want to do. Like, she was like super surprised when she saw that I was really into writing. Then when I went to college that I majored in math. She’s like, what? She didn’t really understand where that was all coming from because she thought I would either do… She thought I would either do biology or like pre-med or something like that, and I had no interest in it whatsoever.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Good.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What was it like SCAD for you? I mean, you mentioned that first year kind of being a bit of a culture shock, but how was it overall?

Ayrïd Chandler:
It was great. I mean, I was finally happy to be doing something that I enjoyed in a school structure because prior to school, like just to be completely transparent here. When I graduated from secondary school, high school, I had a 1.96 GPA.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I got into SCAD with a 1.96 GPA, let’s just put that there.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Ayrïd Chandler:
This system here just didn’t appeal to me at all. Like I was doing it because I had to and not because of… And I wasn’t interested, I wasn’t engaged, it wasn’t anything like that. When I got to SCAD, it was like, oh my gosh. Like all of a sudden, I’m getting to do subjects, I’m choosing. All of a sudden, I’m getting to participate in this thing that I have actively decided like I’m interested in. It was the first time of me enjoying an academic setting at all, and it was great. I think we had some really great professors in the graphic design field. They made a huge difference for sure. Definitely, finding community and bonding with different people in different walks of life, from different parts of the world was really fun as well.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I was also really active in student life. So I was like an RA. I was the youngest RA at the time because usually you’re only allowed to be an RA once you get into your second year. But by the end of my first year, I was an RA and then I became CA and I also was one of the loud ones who probably administration did not like, but I got the food to improve in the cafeteria. Well, what we call the hub in Atlanta and I met with like the manager of the food, situation was like, how can we improve this? And can we change up the menus? Can the recipes can change? Like you’ve been cooking the same thing for the past two years, what’s going on? And so yeah, there was like a huge shift that happened literally my final quarter was when the results started to show. The food that they serve now is amazing in comparison to what we got. I still take small credits every now and then I’m like, you’re welcome guys, you’re welcome.

Maurice Cherry:
You paved the way.

Ayrïd Chandler:
But yeah, no, it was great. It was really, really nice to just be in a setting that foster learning a thing that you already figured out that, that’s what you want to learn. You know what I mean? Like it was fun.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. After you graduated, like tell me about what your early career was like? Because I’m kind of curious about this period right after you graduated and you were in Atlanta before moving back to Trinidad, because you kind of alluded to that a bit earlier.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Sure. [inaudible 00:36:16], well, for graphic design, we used to have this event called Out to Launch and basically it’s a reverse kind of portfolio review session where we set up booths. We, being the students, set up kind of a little booth about ourselves and our work. And then SCAD invites perspective employers and businesses and companies within our field to come and meet us. And so, we kind of sell ourselves at this kind of trade show kind of set up. It’s called Out to Launch and it’s for the graphic designers. It was meant to then introduce us to folks who we would then get jobs with after graduating. It’s in that final quarter and everyone, the pressure was on from that point in terms of, we were very much an interview stage and I was calling everyone and having interviews with folks, et cetera.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I had the option for OPT for a year, which allows non US citizens to stay and work in the US for up to a year after they graduate, legally. I guess the hopes is that a company loves you so much that they would then sponsor you so that you can get a work visa and stay on permanently. I interview with many folks and for some reason did not get through with many opportunities. Eventually, I connected with a company called Atleisure. I don’t think they exist anymore, but at the time, they were an outdoor furniture design company. They were based near Grant Park area, and they were looking for an in-house graphic designer to work with them, for things like instruction manuals and labels for their product. When I say outdoor furniture company, I’m talking things like patio furniture, umbrellas, that sort of thing.

Ayrïd Chandler:
That was my first job. For three months, I was there, it was an internship. I was the in-house graphic designer. They would provide things to like Target and QVC. Those were like where they were selling these things. They had the furniture designers in-house who were creating their designs and then sending it off to China. Then I was like on the phone with China folks to get the instruction manuals and then design it with the established brand that they had. I had to tweak the brand a little bit because the brand was really rough when I joined. I was like, no guys, this is nuts, and I tried to tweak it a little bit, but there was only so much I could do because it was already registered and that kind of thing.

Ayrïd Chandler:
It was a really, really interesting time. I mean, looking back now, I see how that job helps me for a lot of the things that I’ve since done in a lot of the projects that I’ve since worked on. In the moment though, I will admit that I was very sad because in comparison, I had classmates who were interning at Nike and who interning at Apple and who were interning at Coca-Cola. Then there’s me like just interning at this furniture design company. I’m like, what gives guys?

Ayrïd Chandler:
There was definitely that internal sort of am I good enough? What’s going on? What am I doing with my life kind of thing. But I also was that person who even when I left to go to college, knew that I didn’t want to stay and work in the US. I knew I eventually wanted to come back home. I think maybe that’s what folks saw as well in my interviewing process, even though I wouldn’t have said that out right. I think maybe seeing that I was not as dedicated or connected to staying in the US, so work permanently because they would’ve been looking for folks who they could then hone and then have a staff afterwards, so maybe that was a thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I wonder for young designers particularly here in Atlanta and this is something that I have, I’ve discussed it with business folks here with studio owners and things like that. For design graduates that are just coming out of school right now, Atlanta is a tough city to break into for your design career just overall for a number of reasons. One is, I mean, I would say the business culture here particularly, but it’s not like New York. It’s not like Silicon Valley. It’s not a city where you can sort of start out at maybe a more design forward or design focused company in that way. Like even some of the big names, like Twitter or Square or things like that. They may have offices here, but then they don’t really have a design department. They’ve got sales here or engineering or something like that. It can be tough to get in on the start like on the ground floor and then agencies are hard because agencies want you to have agency experience and you can’t get agency experience without working at an agency.

Ayrïd Chandler:
For sure.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s like that kind of rough go of getting in and so I know a lot of folks, particularly at… It depends on the school like I worked at AT&T for two years, this was way back in like 2006, from 2006 to 2008.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
I worked at AT&T and there was a direct pipeline from the Art Institute of Atlanta directly to AT&T like a direct pipeline. People graduated from there, they got referred by someone that they knew and so they start in house at somewhere. Then from there, they would either go on to the CDC or they’d go on to Northrop Grumman and they’d live just kind of this mid tier designer life so to speak, nothing fancy, nothing great, but it’s a paycheck, that kind of thing.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
I think the design community in Atlanta and I’m firing shots here. It’s just not that… I think for a designer just starting out, if they really want to sort of make an impact, it’s really hard to find a company here where you can do exciting work. If you end up at a good studio or something, maybe.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
But it’s tough. And so, I know that a lot of graduates end up leaving, you left, but a lot of graduates end up leaving to go somewhere to a more exciting locale with better prospects.

Ayrïd Chandler:
For sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Better career prospects in general, not just entry level stuff.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah. Most of my class left, I would say.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I would say when they like maybe two or three folks stayed in Atlanta and they got through it like Coca-Cola. For the most part, people yeah, for sure. I think New York and LA was where folks ended up. That’s a huge relation to SCAD and just kind of the grip that they do and making sure that you get an opportunity somewhere…

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Ayrïd Chandler:
… once you’ve graduated.

Maurice Cherry:
Because the school itself is a, I mean, it looks great on the resume anywhere you go, they say, oh, you went to Savannah College of Art and Design. That’s going to at least get you an interview, so that’s great. But here in the city, it’s tough. And I mean, I’ve heard this from art students that went to art school. I’ve heard this particularly from HBCU students. I’ve even heard this from people that have went to Georgia Tech or Emory or Georgia State. It’s just, it’s Atlanta is a tough design city in that aspect. I will argue it until the cows come home. It’s just tough. I mean, I had to start my own business to really further my career in design.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Oh wow.

Maurice Cherry:
I graduated in ’03 with a math degree. Of course, I didn’t want to go into teaching so I did customer service jobs. That …

Ayrïd Chandler:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
… sold tickets at the symphony. I was a telemarketer for Atlanta Opera. Like I did boring stuff. Then I got my first design gig, believe it or not from answering a classified ad in the back of Creative Loafing.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Oh, okay.

Maurice Cherry:
I answered it on a whim. That was my first design gig for the… It was for the state of Georgia. I did that for about a year and a half. Then from there, I went to AT&T, quit AT&T and then started my own studio. The reason I quit AT&T is because I could see my career hitting a glass ceiling already and I had only been a working designer for roughly about three or four years. I’m like, I’m not going to get any further here. I was registered at A Queens and I was like putting my resume out there and no one wanted to even interview me.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m just like, I was going to move. I was trying very hard in like the last, like 2008 or so, I was trying very hard to move to New York. I had friends that were up there that were like, well, we know a broker, we can connect you with because I’m like, I’m not going to further my design career staying in this city.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
It didn’t change until I broke out and started my own thing, which is very similar to what you did. You left, you started your own studio.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah. How does one with a math degree then do design? Walk me through that.

Maurice Cherry:
I tell people that math really teaches you how to think and so what helped me, particularly when I started my studio with being a math major, and this is going to probably sound a bit weird, but you write a lot of proofs in math. Math is all about proving things once you get like past a certain level, like you leave the numbers behind. It’s all letters and symbols moving forward. And so, you’re proving things like why is zero less than one? Why does one plus one equal two? And you would think like, oh, because it does. But then you have to prove it through all these weird theories and all this kind of stuff. Going through all those logical steps taught me how to put together a brief for a client, taught me how to put together a proposal, taught me to look at a problem and find more than one solution.

Maurice Cherry:
Like being able to abstract that out into a way that made sense is how I’ve done that. I would say everything from that has been just honestly just self-taught. I read a lot of books. I watch a lot of courses. Oh my God, when I worked at AT&T, for example, there was a Barnes and Noble that was nearby my apartment and I would go to that Barnes and Noble on a Saturday and get some of those Photoshop’s tips and tricks books. And I have my little point and shoot digital camera and just sit and just take picture.

Maurice Cherry:
Because I’m like, I don’t have $40 to buy this book so I’m just going to take pictures and I’m going to go back home and I’m going to look at the pictures and try to recreate it in my cracked version of Photoshop that I downloaded from some sketchy place that hopefully won’t give my computer a virus and just did a lot of practicing. There was a time where I went through and tried to figure out what every tool in Photoshop did, every single one.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Wow.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m like, I’m going to figure out what each one of these things does. And then that helped me out once I actually got into a production environment, because then I knew these kind of things that Photoshop could do, that other people didn’t because they only knew maybe layers or something like that. And I’m like, oh, well actually you can make an art board and do this, this, this and this. And folks were like, how do you know that? That kind of thing.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
It was a lot. I taught myself a lot about design. I’ve not taken a single formal design course.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I always envy folks who can be self-taught. I’ve tried to like try to learn things on my own and my brain, I don’t know what it is. I’m one of those people that needs to be in this formal setting and someone else is showing me the ropes in order to learn. I hate that about myself, honestly, because I’m so envious of folks who can just have that self discipline to learn a thing. I find it so fascinating and amazing, and I envy you right now, just a little bit.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I’ll tell you, it doesn’t help when you have to go and apply for a job because you can put all that self taught knowledge on there and the first thing they’re going to look at and see is like, oh, you sold tickets at the symphony?

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah. That’s what I did.

Maurice Cherry:
Or they see that A, you don’t have the education and B, you don’t have the work experience. Whether I knew it or not, it didn’t matter once it got into that sort of setting like. Certainly, for my first design job, I really had to prove myself by creating a portfolio overnight for the job that I ended up getting. Then even for AT&T, I remember they gave me a take home test. They were like, we want you to make a three page website and there’s two types of businesses you can choose from, a bridal boutique or a motocross event. I said, you know what? I’m going to take the bridal boutique, the person, the interviewer was a woman. She’s like, what? You don’t want the motocross. I’m like, well, first of all, I’m feeling some sexism here, but I’m going to take the bridal boutique and I’m going to work with that and I made a little bridal boutique shop and they were impressed and I got the job.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I just feel like that’s the easier option as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Like motocross, what do you even do with that?

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know, dirt background.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I’m not [inaudible 00:49:39].

Maurice Cherry:
Right. Tire treads, rough stencil type. I don’t know.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I just feel like bridal boutique is a better way to show off your design skill.

Maurice Cherry:
But I have to do, but yeah, I did a lot of, oh my God, just so much playing around in Photoshop, just trying to figure out what stuff did, but eventually once I had design experience under my belt, when I started my studio, for example.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That was when I said my design career took off because clients don’t care where you went to school.

Ayrïd Chandler:
No.

Maurice Cherry:
They don’t care where you went to school. They just to know if you can do the job that they’re paying you for. And so, I did that for roughly nine years and then I closed my studio down and got back into the working world. But it is what it is.

Ayrïd Chandler:
What made you close? Sorry, I feel like I’m interviewing you now.

Maurice Cherry:
No, no, it’s fine. It’s fine. The market changed. I mean, when I started, I started my studio in like 2009, late 2008, early 2009. And back then, WordPress was really started to take off and so I had gotten good at making WordPress themes.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
That was something that really kind of let my career take off. I had gotten together with someone who was running for mayor for Atlanta. And wait, you were probably here during that time. What years were you in Atlanta?

Ayrïd Chandler:
I was there 2008 to 2012.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Lisa Borders had run for mayor in 2009 and I was on her campaign. I was her director of new media.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
I made her website, her Twitter profile, her MySpace page to…

Ayrïd Chandler:
Oh wow.

Maurice Cherry:
[inaudible 00:51:16] how long ago that was, and she didn’t win. She came in third place. But one, that experience really like connected me to so many other people, influential business people and donors and things like that. By the time the campaign disbanded, I had a Rolodex full of leads that I could then call on and be like, “Yeah, I can do this job. I can do that job. I can do that job.” But I’d say by the time 2017 really rolled around, the market had changed. WordPress was still a big thing but then you started having the rise of a lot of site builders. You had Wix, you had Squarespace, and then for clients, it suddenly didn’t make sense to have a $5,000 bespoke website from WordPress when they could just pay Squarespace $8 a month and throw something together themselves. It became harder and harder of a sell to make that happen.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Eventually I just kind of wound it down and got back into the working world.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Interesting. Interesting. Thank you for entertaining my question.

Maurice Cherry:
No, no problem. I mean, the thing is when you’re working for yourself, you always kind of have to keep an eye on just what’s happening in the environment like.

Ayrïd Chandler:
For sure.

Maurice Cherry:
I picked up different services. I stopped doing different services for a while, I’d say, right around the mid 2010s, I started doing diversity consulting. I had no business doing diversity consulting. What they saw was like a black person in design and this was around, I guess, maybe year two or three of doing Revision Path. And they saw me doing this podcast and companies were like, “Yeah, we’ll write you a check to come and tell us what we need to do to bring in more black people. I got to do work for Netflix and I did work for Vox Media. Now, I would say in hindsight, that was purely situational.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Not to say, I didn’t know what I was doing, but I didn’t know what I was doing. In hindsight, I would say that, because the money is spent now, but in hindsight I was like, “Yeah, you know what you need to do, change that job listing language.” And they’re like, “Yeah, yeah, that’s a good idea.” And I’m like, I don’t know what I’m doing here.

Ayrïd Chandler:
It did. You definitely did, because that sounds like good advice.

Maurice Cherry:
But it helped though. It helped though.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I think it’s obvious for us, but it’s not obvious necessarily. Like if you don’t live it and if that’s not, like if you’re not aware of the mistake you’re making, it’s very easy for us to… It’s your design training, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ayrïd Chandler:
It’s very easy for you to… It’s your math training. You’re seeing what the problem is and you’re calling it out.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Ayrïd Chandler:
It’s very simple.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, there’s one company. I can say the company it’s Vox Media, but I remember I was doing consulting for their product team and they were saying that, well, we don’t know, like we’re trying to get a sense of how many people of color on our team and we just don’t know how to find that out. I was like, “Well, did you do a survey? Did you count?” They were like, “No, we haven’t.” I’m like, “Oh my God, how do you not count?” That’s like the… But they didn’t know that so they put out a survey and they got numbers behind it because this was at a time when a lot of tech companies were starting to first report, like the percentage of black people as part of their creative workforce.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
And so, they’re like, well, we want to try to get behind it and figure out the number and see what we can do to improve it and everything. I was like, “You should do a survey.” That’s a great idea. Here’s $5,000. That’s a great idea. Okay. Look, I’ll take it. If that’s all you need to hear, pay me 5,000 more, I’ll tell you something else. But in hindsight, I would say very situational that it sort of occurred in that way, but in general, yeah. I just wound it down because the market itself was changing. It was harder to do the kind of business that I had did before. And while I was changing, my business was changing with the times, also the podcast was taken off.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
There was a point where the pod… I was bringing in more money with the podcast than I was with the studio and I really had to look and be like, well, what am I doing here? I could just focus on the show.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
And not have to chase down checks from clients.

Ayrïd Chandler:
That’s amazing. Congrats.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, it’s something where every year you kind of just have to like take stock and see what you’re doing, see what you can change and improve.

Ayrïd Chandler:
For sure.

Maurice Cherry:
If you can go where the market goes.

Ayrïd Chandler:
For sure. I feel like, so my thing is like, I’m always, like I have a foot in terms of observation of the market in the US. Then I have the very real reality check of the market in Trinidad, which is completely different. I think this year as well, I’ve been trying to stop comparing the two. I’ve been trying to stop kind of beating myself up a little bit about, well, if you’d stayed in America, maybe you would’ve had this much and blah, blah, blah. And kind of just dealing with the reality of what it is to run a design firm in Trinidad. It’s definitely a challenge for sure, a 100%. No one’s going to pay me 5,000 US to tell them the things that I tell them all the time. That’s just not the reality of our situation here. It’s kind of sad on one end.

Ayrïd Chandler:
It’s kind of like, oh, I wish you people would just get with the program. Then on the other end, it’s like a nice challenge because it’s like, you get to be at this start of hopefully something different, something new, helping make a difference, helping improve a culture of what design could be in Trinidad. I mean, when I graduated from college, when I came back in 2012, at the end of 2012, there were no graphic designer jobs, like people don’t know what graphic design was. That wasn’t a thing. And the fact that now, like when I look through job listings, there’s graphic design of those, there’s graphic design of that, et cetera. To me, like that shows like, okay, in 10 years there’s been change. At least, I can say things are improving. You know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Yeah.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Now, we just need to get them to pay graphic designers what we’re actually worth and stop trying to get a graphic designer, who’s also an animator and a copywriter all in one, which is a huge thing here, locally. No, we want one person to do all the things and pay them a quarter of the price. That’s like the realities and I guess it answers one of your first questions as well of like, how come I would’ve started my own thing is because you could make more money doing your own thing than you could working somewhere, which is wild. That’s wild to me. Like the fact that there’s more stability as a designer, like freelancing and working on your own and trying to figure things out than having that stability of well a paycheck.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, that’s absolutely how it was when I started my studio, I felt like I could make more money, but also, like I said, I had just hit a plateau in my career. I don’t know where I would be now if I would’ve stayed at AT&T and didn’t break out and do my own thing. Because aside from just the freedom of entrepreneurship, it gave me a lot of confidence just in my skills overall, because…

Ayrïd Chandler:
For sure.

Maurice Cherry:
… at AT&T and T I was like part of a team. The way that they had a structure was they really pitted you against your coworkers. Like it was really more of a competition than a team kind of thing.

Ayrïd Chandler:
That’s terrible.

Maurice Cherry:
Once I left, I really felt like I’ve got a couple years of design knowledge under my bill. I know what I’m doing. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I could at least figure it out and come to terms with the kind of work I want to do and the kind of teams I want to be on and stuff like that. Because I was calling the shots myself, it made just a lot easier in terms of me being more confident, because at the end of the day, you know this, you have to hunt what you kill, I guess is how you put it. Like, no one’s going to be responsible for bringing the work in, but you.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Oh, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Unless you happen to have a salesperson, but other than that, you have to be the one that’s the face of the company, especially if your name is part of the company, like you got to be out there…

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
… selling it all the time.

Ayrïd Chandler:
For sure. Definitely. I definitely learned that very quickly. It kind of happened naturally though, similar to how you kind of leap off points would’ve been working with that mayor. Well, going up the mayor person, I guess my equivalent project would’ve been working with our local film festival. That was one of the first design jobs that I got. And back when I moved back home, it was really just an internship, but I got to work alongside an art director, Melanie Atro, who is pretty awesome.

Ayrïd Chandler:
It was a really strong brand that it was already created. Every year, we just kind of roll out all of the different elements for the festival, whether that’s signage, whether it’s the poster, but what that allowed me to do similarly to you was network in a country when networking is not as… It doesn’t happen as organically, or as officially as when I was in Atlanta, I’m going to AIG, AIG buzz events and that sort of thing, like that was what I was accustomed to. I was like, oh, I’m going to go to this networking event and meet these people and talk and blah, blah, blah.

Ayrïd Chandler:
And then I got back to Trinidad and I’m like, where are the networking? And everybody’s looking at me like, what are you talking about? All of a sudden, I’m in this festival with all of these different creatives, doing all of these different things and I’m meeting this sponsor. I’m meeting banks and all of these different folks who are part of this community that I would have been completely removed from for four years while I was in college.

Ayrïd Chandler:
And that definitely led to all of the connections, like some of the friendships that I even have to this day are from that moment and that time. Definitely, would not change it. I don’t know where I would be now, similarly to what you’re saying, I don’t know where I would be now if I was still working on Atleisure, for example, or right after Atleisure, when I came back home, I would say, my equivalent of your AT&T job might have been like this bank take that I took where they advertised it as a desktop publisher.

Ayrïd Chandler:
And this is a time when I have my graphic design degree and I’m not seeing any jobs with graphic design on it. I find this thing, I’m like, what is a desktop publisher? I’ll look it up. It was like, it said something like someone that designs long documents or brochures and annual reports and that side of things. I was like, oh, okay, well, I can do that for a bank.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Day one, I had no computer. Day two, they gave me no… Like I was sitting at the desk, no desktop on it for me to do any desktop publishing. It turns out they just wanted someone to design PowerPoint presentations for their managers to do a transitionary, blah, blah, blah so I didn’t last, I didn’t last a month, I don’t think. I was like, no, this is [inaudible 01:02:31] I didn’t have to open PowerPoint any time in my four years at SCAD. And right after that was when I found out about the festival looking for a graphic design intern, I was like, oh my gosh, someone wants a graphic design or specifically in Trinidad right now on that, and the rest was history. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, aside from your design firm, you’re also a writer, talk to me about that.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I was [inaudible 01:02:59] an aspiring writer. I’m not a writer. I won’t put myself just yet, but what I do is in my downtime or my free time, I go to a lot of writing workshops because like I told you, I’m not a self-taught person. We have this other festival here called Bocas Lit Fest, which is our literary festival. They put on different events and workshops all the time and I’ve been to a couple of them. I mean, I’ve been writing since I was a teenager. I’m like one of those people, I was always writing cheesy poems. I kind of over the years, just put a little bit more energy towards writing every now and then but this year, I put the most energy, I would say towards it, because I entered emerging writer’s thing. I entered Bocas Emerging Writers like competition, scenario, fellowship, sorry is the term.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I was actually shortlisted in [inaudible 01:04:01] and I was like, okay, you really need to start putting a little bit more energy into this writing thing and stop seeing you’re an aspiring writer and just be the writer that you want to be kind of thing. But yeah, really, I use writing as way to get out of my head a little bit. I find as a designer and as someone that works primarily alone and not necessarily on a bigger team, that it’s a lot of thoughts just floating around in there always, like the brain is constantly flowing and writing allows me to take all of those thoughts and kind of put it somewhere, which I really, really enjoy. So yeah, and I write about me or about experiences that I’ve experienced. Yeah, I like it.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you think you’ll ever kind of branch out and write about design?

Ayrïd Chandler:
I would love to. So I have a blog. I do write about design on there, sometimes, but usually it’s in a critiquing manner or it’s in a, this is how, this could have been better. It’s more like me critiquing the design society in Trinidad rather than me writing about design formats or structures kind of thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Ayrïd Chandler:
But I see myself doing both because it’s something I’ve been wanting to do simply because we don’t have it, one. Actually, technically I did write about design. I actually co-wrote a book called How to Get Paid for designers here locally in Trinidad and like talking about what the pricing is like and how to get those things done? Why you should I have a contract, stuff like that, but I guess that’s more business of design than design specifically.

Ayrïd Chandler:
But I also had this feature on my social media page on Instagram called Just A Tip, and I used to give design tips on Tuesdays and I wanted to turn that into something that I do on my blog or maybe a newsletter that continues and it’s a little bit more direct in terms of suggestions and that sort of thing. There’s room for it to answer your question, yes.

Maurice Cherry:
You could be the voice of Trinidad design.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Some people would say that I kind of am and I run away from that a lot. Like that terrifies me the idea of being the person for anything that’s… I feel very badly about speaking on behalf of other people. I just want… Let me, I’m speaking for me, myself, Ayrïd Chandler. I’m not speaking for Trinidad or Trinidad graphic designers or anything like that. That’s a lot of responsibility.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Well, I mean, I think a lot of writers are like that. They have their own quirks and stuff, but I think as long as you’re talking about your work and your process and even just writing about yourself, like you mentioned, that’s a good thing. Writing is one of those things it’s called a practice for a reason. You kind of have to keep doing it.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yep.

Maurice Cherry:
Aside from writing, you also teach, you’re doing a lot.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I do.

Maurice Cherry:
You’re running your business, you’re writing, tell me about your teaching at University of West Indies St. Augustine.

Ayrïd Chandler:
A couple years ago, I was hanging, I was on a rooftop event and met a fellow designer who was one of the folks that I first worked with here and kind of guided me and did local design scene. And he was like, I just started teaching and they’re looking for more lecturers, are you interested? And I was like, I don’t know. I was like, I’ve never given teaching a thought, like I am I qualified? They’re like, “Yeah, you just need to be a practice and designer and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And I was like, “Hey, sure, let me try.” And literally within 15 minutes, he had messaged the person and the person messaged me and I had a meeting the next day to talk about lecturing to university and my mind was blown and they were like, “Oh yes, we were looking at your work and we think that you’d be great for this blah, blah, blah.” I was like, okay.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Before you knew it, I was teaching year two students about design basics and going from practicing design and to applying all of the things that I tried to search up all of my SCAD syllabi to get some kind of inspiration. Then before you knew it, I was putting together my own syllabus and the rest is what it is. And so, I started, this year was my third year teaching this course. I’m a part-time lecturer. It’s only during the first half of the, well, first quarter, third of the year, I guess, for the second semester that starts in January. And yeah, I get to talk about design and teach design and kind of help shape what other folks are doing that process and cut in conjunction with working with interns at my business, kind of inspired me to then start teaching courses as part of my business.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Because I realized one that I actually really liked teaching, which really, really surprised me more than anything else. I was really, really shocked and I’m not sure why I was that shocked. I guess I just never thought of myself as someone who would have the patience to teach, because I feel like it’s very much like a devotion on one of those things where it requires you to remove yourself from yourself a little bit and kind of very much make sure that what you’re seeing is resonating with someone and helping them. Teaching is basically helping another person. And I guess design is also helping another person and they’re both kind of the service industry thing.

Ayrïd Chandler:
And so maybe it does make sense that I enjoyed doing both, but I also noticed, and working with the interns that I worked with, they were coming from another local school and a lot of things were like lacking. They didn’t know some basic design things that I felt like they should know. We also have a huge self sort community in Trinidad. And so I thought, okay, cool, let me put together some design foundation basics, at least, that folks can reference. I’m talking about things like knowing the difference in a JPEG and a PNG and a PDF, like basic. And that also really went really well and so I’m actually preparing now to do the next, which would be my third offering of courses so far, but yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, you’re writing, you’re teaching, you’re running your own business. Like what’s the best thing about all this work that you’re doing?

Ayrïd Chandler:
What do you mean the best thing?

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I mean I could ask what’s the worst thing. I mean, I would imagine that you have some enjoyment out of this, Ayrïd?

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah, yeah. For sure. For sure. Honestly, I am one of those people that likes connecting with other human beings. I never thought I would’ve like, if you asked me this 10 years ago, that would not have been what I said. I very much am one of those people that enjoyed my alone time. I’m an only child. I like doing stuff on my own, solo traveler here, like all of that stuff. But I quickly realized over the past couple of years that I enjoy connections, I enjoy connecting with other human beings. I enjoy that experience. All of the things that I’m doing, I’ve realized that is the one common sort of thing that’s happening. I am able to step out of myself a little bit, step out of my world and connect with someone else in their world. That’s great. Like I enjoy that so much and it kind of makes life a little bit easier to live, at least, for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel creatively satisfied?

Ayrïd Chandler:
For sure. Like right in this very moment in time, I would say I need a little bit more and I think maybe that’s what writing does for me in terms of satisfying that creativity. I think, yes. Sorry, I feel like I am creatively satisfied, especially when I wrap up a branding project and the client is happy with it. I was like, I know I did the right thing and I know I hit the mark on what it is that they were looking for and also, what it is that they needed?

Ayrïd Chandler:
When they say things like, oh my gosh, I wasn’t expecting this, or like I get a lot of those kinds of reactions, which is pretty wild and fun and interesting. I think that does kind of satisfy that creativity, but I am also at that point where I’m at that 10 year mark. Because I moved here 10 years since I graduated from SCAD. I am feeling that itch of like, what now? What more? Where else? What can I do differently? Like what is the next step for me? You know what I mean? Like where do I go now? Do I pivot as we’ve been talking about so much on these past two years? Do I learn a new skill? What’s the next step in terms of that creativity and that flow and what I want?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Where do you see yourself for the next five years? What do you want this next chapter of your life to be?

Ayrïd Chandler:
I definitely want to teach more. I would love to be able to get to a place where I can go from being a part-time lecturer to maybe a full-time lecturer. I think that would be really awesome. I kind of really see myself becoming, I want to step more into that brand identity designer shoe out of that whole graphic designer shoe, where I still kind of float around, meaning I still do anything under the hat of graphic design.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Even though, I focus a lot on branding, I kind of want to like be like, I am a brand identity designer and I am the person that you come to for that specifically and that alone. I kind of I want to eliminate as much options and kind of zone in and be more specific and intentional with what I’m doing. In five years, I’d like to be able to impart that knowledge more, more talking workshop opportunities. Hey, if I can give a TEDx talk in five years, that would be awesome. You know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ayrïd Chandler:
That’s kind of where I see things.

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

Ayrïd Chandler:
Ooh, I make it very, very easy. So I have my website. I technically have two, but for my business Ayrïd by Design, A-Y-R-I-D bydesign.com. That’s my website. I’m also the same thing Ayrïd by Design on Instagram, I have a very kind of unique name. I think I’m the only Ayrïd Chandler of there. So from a time you type that in, I think most of my stuff comes up, but those two places are kind of where you can start. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Ayrïd Chandler, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. Thank you really for just sharing, not just your story, but also I think giving us kind of a behind the scenes of what it’s like to run a business, particularly running it from another country and showing people out there, as you said, kind of right before we started recording, you said you wanted to let folks know that they’re not alone and that there’s a sense of community. And so, I hope that people will listen to this and they’ll sort of get exactly what you’re talking about. Like a lot of the experiences you shared are universal experiences to a lot of designers, to a lot of entrepreneurs. And so, even as you do your work with writing and teaching and everything, you’re not alone out there.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Thank you for having me. I enjoyed this.