Reggie Black

Reggie Black is a true Renaissance man. He’s combined his talents as a multimedia artist, designer, speaker, and mental health advocate into an experimental playground he calls all things progressive. Whether it’s a hand-lettered design project for a client or a public art installation, Reggie is navigating through this time and letting his passions light the way.

Reggie and I really had more of a general conversation than an interview, and we touched on a number of issues: staying productive in the midst of uncertainty, the role of the Black designer during this current time, and making space for creativity to flow. It’s a little something different for our 8th anniversary, but I think you’ll enjoy it all the same.

Thank you all for keeping Revision Path alive and thriving!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Reggie Black:
My name is Reggie Black. I’m a multimedia artist and designer, Principal of All Things Progressive. I work primarily in hand type, which is this very distinctive style of hand, a hand type fonts that I’ve created and worked on through repetition for years to carve out as my distinctive language. And I use that to share and articulate thought provoking messaging through all mediums, whether it’s print, installation, all sorts of medias to just really raise questions and bring about thought to the public and our questions and just really highlighting the vulnerability and transparency of everyday life.

Maurice Cherry:
How have you been doing so far this year?

Reggie Black:
This year good. Man, I think we had an interesting ride in January. It feels like every Wednesday was like a different year, with being here based in D.C. and seeing what transpired on the Capitol and then the following week, getting a new president and then the following week. So this year not bad, but in general, Maurice, all things considered, I feel like with everything going on in the world, I feel like health is a luxury. And if you have that and family and employment, you can get up every day and just be grateful for that. I’ve been trying to focus more on that than the larger questions for now, if that makes any sense.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes a lot of sense. As you sort of, I guess, approach this year, did you have any resolutions or goals that you wanted to accomplish?

Reggie Black:
I’ve been dancing around this question and I think it’s clearly a result of what we’ve experienced in the pandemic, just living life without really, I won’t say without really questioning things, but I’ve been thinking about what is enough and that’s not the resolution, but I think it is a gateway to patience and intention for me. And I don’t really know what resolutions they have become, but I know I’d definitely as 2020 has told us all how very temporary everything can be. And then also quite how very transparent the world can be. I’ve been really thinking about, what’s the intention behind my life and what I want to do and being very specific about the work I want to share with the world. And then also, who am I as a person? Because to be perfectly frank, I feel like during the pandemic a lot was lost, a lot of business slowed down.

Reggie Black:
And so I didn’t realize that a lot of my life was connected with the work. So I had to go on this path of relearning myself and being with myself and spending more time with myself because it was normally, I guess, pre-normal times it was travel, travel, travel. So you didn’t really get that much time to have a lot of introspection. Been dancing around with those few things.

Maurice Cherry:
What are your days look like now?

Reggie Black:
Still, early rising. I’m an early riser. I get that from my grandma. And for me, I’m up, there’s meditation, there’s journal writing, which is very essential to my day, gratitude writing. I bought a WaterRower last year during the pandemic, when I realized that I was probably going to stay out the gym. So I’m doing that. Still, in work every day, still working on design projects. What I am learning is that it doesn’t have to be as aggressive as I used to think it was. And so, there’s breakfast, these conversations with my wife, conversations with my son. Breakfast coffee, I’m starting to buy more coffee table books and design books just to have time and reference material around the house to browse at and look. And so I’m doing a more of that.

Reggie Black:
It’s more research, more deconstruction to reconstruct a lot of things, just tons of notebooks all around the house I’m just jotting random thoughts and really, trying to document this process to be able to look back on it and think about where my mind was during the times and in between watching comedy on Netflix and stuff like that. So yeah, just trying to stay human in it all, still working, but realizing that we don’t have to be the machines that we once thought we did in order to get things done.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I feel like this past year has been a very interesting sort of, I don’t want to call it an experiment, a tree of this, I guess, on how our relationship to work is because I think one thing it’s amazing how quickly we’ve seen the disappearance of the American office space because of the pandemic. There were so many things about being in one spot and collaborating in person. And now all of that is largely been replaced or at least supplanted by Zoom calls and Google Meet calls and just conference calls and things like that. And sort of re-examining what it means to work collaboratively, what it means to work asynchronously, what it means to work across great distances, is something that I think a lot of people have had to contend with.

Maurice Cherry:
And to your point now with us depending on where you live in the country, being in one place that now is not just your home, it’s your gym and your kids’ school and it’s date night and it’s like, all these things rolled into one. That will cause… I hope it causes people to think and re-evaluate about, what is important? But yeah, this past year has been something for real.

Reggie Black:
That’s very true. Did you have a studio that you traveled to throughout the day? Or you’re doing everything in home or… That’s a very interesting point. And I think it takes a lot of… I think screen fatigue is becoming more real than anything and this idea of what home is, is being redefined. So just curious, are you in and out of a few different spaces, separating work from home? Or…

Maurice Cherry:
Before the pandemic, sure. So I’ve been doing this remote work thing since 2009. So by the time, I hate to say it, but when the pandemic first happened, I was like, “Oh, I can do this standing on my head.” I was like, “I got this, this ain’t nothing.” But what’s different is how other people now have to acclimate and adapt to this time, which is what I didn’t necessarily consider when it all first started. I don’t have a space. I have a corner in my bedroom where I work and I’m able to mentally… Well, I’m now able to mentally separate work from home largely through… I think I mentioned this on the show before, but I have smart lights in my apartment, so I have different lighting modes that will signal to me. Okay. This is the work lighting mode where all the lights are on and I’m working, but then this is relaxation mode where the lights are dimmer.

Maurice Cherry:
And I know this is for watching TV or something like that. And so the lights will come on and off at certain times and stuff and that just lets me know like, Oh, I need to switch gears into doing something else or I need to switch to another mode.

Reggie Black:
I love that. Yeah. That’s perfect. I love that. Figure out where you got those smart lights from. I love that. That’s a beautiful way to transform the home, right. Because it has become all one thing and I love what the pandemic has done for creativity to get people to think about collaboration. And that was really spot on when you talked about the American office and what that will look like in the future, because although I do think that office is where a beautiful place for meeting and collaboration. I wonder if the office was also this cage, that suffocated people’s imagination, right? Because you can contribute to your company from home in a way that activated certain creative senses that you probably couldn’t do in the corporate headquarters because of the culture that was embedded in there.

Reggie Black:
So it’d be interesting to hear or see or study or something, what type of new results are being generated from people being at home versus going into an office every day. Is there a difference in the modality and the thinking behind problem solving at work? I would love to just see how that could transform the workplace and the office in company culture in general.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think we’ll start seeing profiles like that certainly like within a few months. Because I feel like that’s when companies at least last year started saying, “Okay, well now you’re going to be working from home for the foreseeable future.” And some companies they were just kicking the can down the road, they were like, “Oh, well we’ll be back in the office by the fall. Oh we’ll be back here by the winter.” And it’s like, no, you still will be at home. The last company that I worked for and it’s funny, we’re talking about the American workplace, they really prided themselves on having a great office space. I know about this because I wrote about how great their office space was, about how it had these different modes inside the office for working. And we’ve got this terrorist and we’ve got this.

Maurice Cherry:
And at the time that I was working there, we were about to expand up to a higher floor that was going to give us more space, more desks, a sunlit reading room and all that stuff. And then the pandemic happened and shut all of that shit down. They just halted construction and then I think it was about two months after that they laid off my entire department. I was like, Oh, well. Fast forward to now, and this is only [inaudible 00:14:09] I know just from people that still work there, they’ve actually sublet the office now, there’re no plans to go back anytime soon. It was something that the company really prided itself on, almost as much as the product itself, they prided themselves on having this really great workspace and now they don’t have that.

Reggie Black:
That’s true. Wow. That’s interesting. Yeah. We’ll see, a lot of things aren’t coming back, the reality of this all, and I wonder where the home office not the home office. I’m sorry. Yeah. I wonder where the home office lands and then I’ll also wonder where the corporate headquarters, where do they begin or what’s the new future for them? We’ll see, we will see. I think that the longer we’re in this situation, the harder it’s going to be to get people to return back to work. I do feel that way.

Maurice Cherry:
It will be. I know that from experience, it will definitely be hard to go back into an office because… So back when I had my studio in full swing, I would spend days sometimes inside of a company’s workspace or I’d work out of a Starbucks or something. I had the freedom to move between different spaces to work. But I did largely work at home and it wasn’t until I wound my studio down at the end of 2017 and got a job. And even that was a remote first job because the company was headquartered in New York and I’m in Atlanta. So it was still a remote first job.

Maurice Cherry:
But there would be times where we would have to go to the office, whether it was onboarding a new employee or we had our onsite for the year or something like that. And it was so stifling for all of us that were remote workers, it was just so stifling being in that building, list like going to meetings and stuff. It’s just the chairs aren’t like our chairs at home and the snacks aren’t the right snacks, it’s why’s it so cold in here? It’s all these different sorts of things. It was certainly difficult, but…

Reggie Black:
Which all play… That’s so interesting that you mentioned that because I feel like all of those small things that we overlook are what contribute to our productivity and where we can teleport ourselves to produce work. Right? Like if you don’t have the right chair or the right environment, a large percentage of the day is all about getting comfortable to be able to perform. And so it’s interesting. I think that it’s all interesting and we’ll really see new definitions of what commercial spaces and home offices, how they overlap and one supersedes the other.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And to answer your earlier question. So I don’t have a separate studio space.

Reggie Black:
Got it.

Maurice Cherry:
But I want one now.

Reggie Black:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Hands down, I want one now. So I’ve started already looking even just at places in my neighborhood. I don’t need a lot of space, I just want a separate discrete space for work that’s not my home.

Reggie Black:
I’ve transported and teleported into the guest bedroom. So my wife was like, “Listen, I don’t think we’re going to have any guests. So let me just go ahead and and take this over.” So it has to become the nook that I’m able to get a lot of things done and to your point to have something completely separate just to come in and make this the work studio and the office. And it’s cozy for me, it feels really good to be here. I’ve got accustomed to getting up every day and making breakfast and then coming to work. It’s weird, all these things that I have to mentally do to get prepared, like get up and get fully dressed. I can’t sit around the house in lounge wear and sweatpants. I’m up fully dressed every day as if I was going outside.

Reggie Black:
And even if nothing really, really happens that day, if I just get on the keyboard and peck away at a few emails, I feel like I’ve done enough to keep myself motivated for the next day because of what I have noticed is that for me, it’s all or nothing. I’m either super inspired or I’ve watched too much news and I’m just depressed for a week. You know what I mean? There is no [inaudible 00:18:38] in-between. So in my head, the thoughts are, well, how can I keep myself inspired to focus on the things that are in the pipeline and the things that I am working on? Instead of creating this home retreat, where I can bounce back and forth between the news and calling a friend.

Reggie Black:
I still have office time where I like do not disturb hours. And just to try to have some structure and regimen in place that allow support to constantly exercise mentally to make sure that I’m in a space to produce something. And if I show up that day and I end up with nothing, then that’s what it is. But at least I like to carve out that landscape to be able to do so. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s super important now, because you have to impose those structures when you’re working from home, because your home is the place where you really don’t have that structure. Home is where you’re supposed to after work, you let your guard down, you have a glass of wine, you relax, you chill. It’s hard to really shift between work mode and relaxation mode in the same place. So you have to put… I time shift a lot of my emails. I have a booking link, if somebody needs to reach me, it’s not like, “Oh, can I pick your brain?” No, you can pick an appointment and we can get to something maybe later on in the week or something. I have to really segment and regiment my time pretty strictly now during this pandemic that I really didn’t have to do before, but it is important to do that.

Reggie Black:
It is. And I think because we will find ourselves doing things, the busy stuff. It’s like, Oh, well, I can watch a movie and cook a nice lunch or do laundry or clean up or straighten up. But like you said, home is comfortable. And so the things that we do at home, aren’t typically figuring out a way to stay productive and work. And so the moment escape and slide off to even just go to the kitchen to get a glass of water or something, right. It’s like you think of something else that could be done while you’re at home, when really it’s supposed to be the working hours. And so I think you’re spot with having those regimens in place to keep supporting and listen, the reality is, because I don’t want to sound like I’m super buttoned up but there are some days I just don’t have it.

Reggie Black:
And it’s like, all right, I’m sitting right here and I’m going to binge watch a few things all day for the next couple. You know what I mean? And that’s just the ebb and flow of where we are right now. It’s okay to not be productive. It’s okay to not want to create, all of 220, a large percentage of it, I couldn’t muster up to produce work. I just couldn’t because the social tension, black brothers that look like you and I were being killed pretty much every day, it felt like in this country. And so the things that my creativity was fighting for, it didn’t feel important. It wasn’t important. It’s not important because it’s like, if we’re not doing anything to contribute to shifting the climate of racial tension in this country or whatever your cause is, climate change or food deserts in the country or economic disparity, whatever it is, if none of that is really happening and you’re not contributing to that, it’s like, all right, well, what I’m doing is invalid at the moment.

Reggie Black:
And so I don’t want it to appear to be like this time is a priority productivity training camp, when you have to be as productive as you can. No, if you gain a couple pounds, no out this thing, everything is okay because we’re all dealing with this differently. And it is something that none of us have experienced before. I spent a lot of time talking to my mom on Facebook not Facebook, FaceTime. And I’m starting to enjoy those conversations more because she’s like, “Listen, I’m 72. I have no idea how people are dealing with this. We’ve never seen anything like this before.” So it’s interesting to talk to an older person to hear what they think about where we are at the moment. And it’s like, this is the most mental exhausting time periods because life was open, it was everybody could be and do.

Reggie Black:
And so however people are dealing with this thing is perfectly fine. I just feel like for me, I’m trying my best because I spent a lot of years in depression, I’m a recovering alcoholic. I’m almost what, somewhere in between six and seven years sober. So I’ve struggled with anxiety, I struggle with mood disorders, all sorts of things. My ability to stay strong in this moment is really predicated on a lot of, I like to call them tricks that I have to impose on myself, to keep me moving and keeping me motivated.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’m the same way with having those tricks. I’ve basically had to give myself a routine. I wake up every morning 7:00 a.m., from seven to 8:30 it’s me getting ready for work. I’ll water the plants, make some tea, all these stuff. And then for me, I’m completely in work mode from 8:30 to 4:30. I don’t answer any other emails or anything, everything is focused just on work. Because for me, I know that I’ve got stuff to do usually right after work. I end work at 4:30 and then I’ll start doing interviews at five o’clock, or I have other calls or something else that I have to do after work. So there’s my eight to 4:30 time, which is work. And then there’s my five to maybe 11:30 or midnight where I’m working on other stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
I try to put that split in there, so I know this is when I need to shut this off and then turn this on. Even like I was telling you about the lights, the lights help me, those are tricks too. 11:30 all the lights in my apartment are off and whatever I’m working on, it’s like, “Okay, I should probably go to bed now.”

Reggie Black:
Yep. That’s the thing too. And I love how you’ve underscored the home. Right? We don’t want it to become like, because it’s so comfortable, we can go throughout the day and not really identify the things that need to happen. And so you find yourself at being midnight and you’re still working. You’re like, “Wait, but I’m supposed to be in bed too.” So it’s tricky, the home can transform and become whatever you want it to be during this time period. If you engulf yourself in work, you’re going to feel so comfortable that you don’t realize that you’re working that much. Or if it’s become an oasis of relaxation, you’re going to find yourself struggling to find a spark that gets some things done. And that’s why I said just having some system or a few things to keep you in line of break that, like you said to have that break in the day. Because we’re not active as we used to be.

Reggie Black:
We’re not commuting, we’re not moving our bodies, which I try to do a lot. But I have several free friends who just do walking meetings only. They refuse to sit Zooms and they refuse to sit on Skypes. So they take all of their meetings on the phone. It’s straight, I’ll get your Zoom call in number or you can call me on my cell phone and they walk the neighborhood while they’re having a meeting and take notes on their phone. You know what I mean? To find balance, to stay active, because like you said, if we’re just sitting in front of screens every day, you got to think about what that’s doing to our physical health as well. So that’s something I’m going to try to incorporate this year as well too, just moving more and getting back to it because yes, I row at home, but I still think that there’s something about getting up and getting out and physically moving your body and walking. I don’t know if [inaudible 00:26:17] or YouTube workout.

Reggie Black:
So I have a Peloton subscription, I don’t have the bike. I have the classes that you can take online, but you’re still in front of a screen, following the trainer. And so it’s much different than walking to the local grocery store to get groceries and physically moving your body. Something that happens there that just we’re missing with being dormant for this period of time.

Maurice Cherry:
The walking meetings, that’s a good idea. I’ve watched something on the news recently that I think scientists were saying that the biggest byproducts of the pandemic is going to be just how much people’s mental health is being affected, whether it’s like you said, depression, anxiety, et cetera. I was out of work for half of 2020, and during that whole job search and everything, it was a lot to deal with. Especially when you’re also seeing with other things happening in the world at the time, like you said, the social unrest, the former administration and how they’re handling all of this, it’s just like, there would be days I would just get high and just play video games all day. And that’s the day, that’s all I’m doing.

Reggie Black:
I think what I’m trying to say is that all of those days are just as important as having super productive work. Because I don’t think we’re in this space to judge what day is superior than others, because I feel like now more than ever, we’re seeing the value of life and just how important it is. And so whatever you do with that day, it’s a success, because you could not be here. You know what I mean? You just couldn’t be here. And so to have that, we got to somehow undo this badge of honor that America has imposed on us, this busy badge of honor. And I’m on that same quest too, there has to be a balance of being a human fucking being, and also being able to produce and do work. You shouldn’t be consumed by work all the time.

Reggie Black:
And the walking meetings is actually from a good friend of mine, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. She’s a good friend of mine, we met during Ted years and we’ve just become really cool and some of the best closest homeys ever. And when I heard her tell me that I was like, “Wait, you don’t do what?” And she’s like, “Nah, I got to move my body.” And so I’m constantly grabbing things from people that inspire me and makes sure that I can keep finding new ways to just to stay in this fight. You’re right. It’s a mental fight that we’re more in term with than anything.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about work. Tell me about the studio. When did you decide to start All Things Progressive?

Reggie Black:
Man, All Things Progressive. It’s a love child of mine that I’ve had in my head for a few years. And I’ll tell you why a few things contributed to the thought, working as a solo artist, I feel like when there’s not a studio or some formal structure, business structure is what I’m talking about now. When there’s not some business structure formed, what happens oftentimes I feel like when you’re pitching for larger work or larger clients, it’s weird. And this is a trick that I’ve kind of… Not even a trick. It’s like a professional hack that I believe is really stupid, but also very important. It’s a legitimacy thing. Most large companies won’t choose to work with you if you’re just a solo artist. And so it’s like, Oh, well either they don’t take you serious or they don’t think you’ll have your terms and conditions in place.

Reggie Black:
Or a lot of times they want you to be the artist when you’re saying no, I have a multitude of services that I could provide. And so, yes, there’s Reggie Black that’s the hand type artist. That’s the multimedia designer that can do a lot of the beautiful things with my hand and with type and with abstracts and all the things, but then there’s also a part of me that can do the very beautifully graphic design products or package design or identity systems, right? I have two sides of my brain that allows me to do both. And so what I realized was that in order for me to be able to empty the tool bag and access all of the things that I’ve been able to accumulate throughout the years, through beautiful mentorships and just countless hours of trying to figure this thing out, I said, well, what if I put a business structure in place that allows me to separate, if someone wants to hire Reggie Black for the bold and visceral hand type that he produces, that’s one thing.

Reggie Black:
But if there’s a graphic design job or book cover job or anything that separates it and takes me away from Reggie Black, it’s almost like a personality. And then it evolved into just having a few collaborators that I could work with and I can hire them for various projects and almost became like a think tank. And so 2018 is when I officially formed it. I had the name for a while, I didn’t really know what to do with the name, but really it’s just about trying to create value and spark things that move forward and work with clients that want to have a bowl perspective on where they’re going and what they would like to do. And so with All Things Progressive, it’s really just an experimental playground for companies and businesses and clients that want to figure out how to redefine their perspectives in where they’re going and what they want to do.

Reggie Black:
And we assess each project as such and I like to look at everything that’s going on in the market place, within that particular genre of industry that I’m being hired for and go the complete opposite, because I think that there’s a clutter that’s happening in every industry where people are just copying and regurgitating what is successful in the industry. And then when that trend ends up dying, you see all the businesses that have led themselves down that path die with it. So I’m always about how can we go the opposite direction? And that’s what All Things Progressive that every project we can assess, it’s like, all right, well, if there’s a book cover design, the author speaking on self-help well, let’s look at every self-help book cover and go the complete opposite direction.

Reggie Black:
Because it’s very easy to follow the herd and end up in the clutter. But I think it’s brave to say, well, sure, yes, I am a smoothie company that I’m thinking rebranding [inaudible 00:32:41] like, well, do we have to use green? Do we have to use the colors of vegetables? I’m always about how can we push something in the opposite direction of where people think it should be? What if we do the impossible? What if we do the unimaginable in every case and see where that experimental plate side of our human instincts take us.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you been finding that clients have been more experimental during these times?

Reggie Black:
Yes. Because what I think, Maurice is happening is that everybody is realizing that everything… And I think you and I talked about this previously, everything needs to be redesigned. And right now, while the world is figuring out or trying to figure out where to go, I think this is a beautiful time for everybody to shake things up. I don’t know if we were living in like no one’s under scrutiny right now. Right? You can do something that’s completely left field and it’s completely okay because we’re all trying to figure out a way to move our businesses forward. Because what we thought worked, we saw something as large as COVID come and hit us and realize that, Oh, I might need to figure out how to not be so comfortable. And so experiment and play as becoming a part of almost the culture of companies now, because what they’re realizing is that one, you have to fight for attention now because everybody’s home.

Reggie Black:
Everybody has four to five screens at home, whether it’s the TV, the iMac, the iPad, the phone. So attention is at an all time high and everybody’s willing to consume information. And so what are you going to do to separate yourself to at least just to garnish a little bit of that attention, or take a little bit of that in the marketing department or a product that you’re building or campaign that you’re about to launch? What’s going to make your messaging stand out a bit more just to hold the attention of somebody that’s scrolling on Instagram for 10 more seconds, that it would, if you were doing things differently? And so I was just talking to one of my design friends. We talking about how you see a lot of the large, I guess old guard companies doing identity system re-brands, GM just did it, Kia just did.

Reggie Black:
There is another one that I thought was important as well. Even the CIA just rebranded. Right? And so you’re watching so many old guards realizing that if we don’t do something differently, there’s a possibility that we’ll become Blockbuster. You know what I mean? When they was completely avoiding what Netflix was trying to say or Blackberry, when they had the largest market share in mobile devices and they thought that we were all going to love Qwerty keyboards forever, then we got the iPhone. And so no one is at liberty to rest and relax in this moment of uncertainty. I think if things are in certain, let’s push on certain ideas. If things are unorthodox, let’s push unorthodox ideas. And that’s what I’m really excited about. What’s going to land when the smoke clears from where we are? And if it does land, will you be able to tell a story that was innovative and different in the midst of all of the smoke that’s happening?

Maurice Cherry:
That it’s good that companies, I think now are starting to be open to this, they almost have to. I think at this point they have to.

Reggie Black:
I think they realize that either two things happen, the brand story expires, or they realize that they aren’t the only players in the industry that they thought they were. And so they have to and they have to innovate in a way that respects the customer and respects their consumer base, but also figuring out a way to tap into new consumer basis too. Right? That’s what we’re seeing happening and everybody’s scrambling and trying to figure it out. And to add another layer on it, everybody also now realizes something they should have realized or been able to… Excuse me, identify years ago is that they had to have a social responsibility. And now we’re seeing a scramble where everybody’s trying to figure that out on the fly.

Reggie Black:
And it’s like, Nope. If that was built into the culture beforehand, you wouldn’t have to hit the panic button, when you see something like George Floyd happen. When you see something like our sister Breonna Taylor happen, when you see something like the former administration wants to put the wall and immigration and family division on the borders. If there was one company that I sincerely love is Patagonia because they’ve been that way for a while, that the CEO and the ethos of that company has clearly stated that, this is what we’re going to speak on and we’re going to speak on it regardless of what the social times are. And I think that the commercial structure has existed in a space of reactionary approaches. And I think now we have to figure out a way how to be more proactive, like Ben & Jerry’s is doing a good job, but Patagonia has clearly put their foot down in so many instances saying like, this is where we are and we’re not going to waiver about it.

Reggie Black:
And then what ultimately happens is that you see something transpire socially and they’re the first ones to respond. Nike has always done a good job, Wieden and Kennedy and their marketing teams over there, everything about their campaigns are beautiful because they’re always thinking about how can we make sure that we’re on top of what’s happening socially? Because our product typically lives in urban cities where black people and people of color are affected. And so we have to make sure that if we are speaking to the Colin Kaepernick situation, if we’re speaking to social or racial injustice in this country, we have to make sure that we’re ready to be able to articulate that at any moment.

Maurice Cherry:
No. I was just thinking, I think it was right around the time this year started. I’m like, I wonder how companies are going to react to not just Black History Month this year, but also Juneteenth. Because I think a lot of folks will say non-black folks, I think a lot of folks just discovered what Juneteenth was last year. And for many people, this is going to be a free paid holiday for them. I’m like, how are people going to jump out the window, trying to show how woke they are this year? I wonder. We’re recording this at the start a Black History Month, so that remains to be seen. But yeah.

Reggie Black:
Yeah. I agree with you. I think and that goes back to the point that I was just trying to make, in addition to support what you just said, I feel like they weren’t considering it to begin with. And so they are in panic mode because what today’s we’re recording this on February 1st, as you just said. And so they got four, five months to rally up to figuring out how to structure things. And then you’re seeing companies in Black History Month trying to rollout these large beautiful campaigns that they probably thought about two weeks ago or yesterday. So I don’t know, man. I think what it really boils down to is equality and diversity in the workplace and in the companies, when you look at a lot of the companies, VC funded companies, tech companies, everywhere across the board, people that look like you and I aren’t represented at large numbers.

Reggie Black:
And so you have a specific voice that’s speaking for the entire company, that’s offering a product to the world that it’s as diverse as America is, which we know that that doesn’t land well. And as a result of that, you end up seeing messaging that’s off and messaging that’s tone deaf. And that’s why they always have to hit the panic button because they’ve overlooked that women need to speak and be in positions of power. Black men need to speak and being in positions of power. So that there’s a diverse language and it’s not just coming from a white millennial, who started a company with X amount of dollars in C funding and they’re just doing it to be cool. We have to figure out a way ensure that people have a social impact model built in before they even get started.

Reggie Black:
Sure, we want beautiful products. Listen, I’m a student of Japanese culture and beautifully designed through and through and Herman Miller and Scandinavian design. I love all the things, I love all of that, but what I love most importantly is being able to… I love Nina Simone’s quote, “Art must reflect the times.” And I think that now companies have to identify that and figure out a way to catch up to speed, but then also realize that it’s not black people’s responsibility to solve the overlooking of what white people have dragged along in this country. It’s not our job to fix that. That’s the work they have to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. No, that’s very true. Very, very true. So I know we’ve just spoken at length about a number of things. I want to jump into some of the projects that you’ve done. You just recently… in this conversation, you mentioned being in Southeast Asia for a while. Let’s start there. What brought you to Southeast Asia?

Reggie Black:
The entire family and it’s a trio of us. There’s the wife Shante who I love dearly, we’ve been together for forever and there’s my son, [inaudible 00:41:59], we were looking for a life change. And 2014, there was an opportunity for my wife to take a job in [inaudible 00:42:07] with their company. And we wanted our son to go to international school and then to be quite frank, I think I was hitting a wall here in America. At that time… We talked off the record a little bit, at that time that’s when Sticky Inspiration was deplaning and there wasn’t a lot of momentum happening there anymore. And we’ll talk about Sticky Inspiration later to draw back and connect the dots. But I was just out of a lot of opportunities and things weren’t really looking as promising as I thought they would.

Reggie Black:
And I felt like let’s just go away and start over, at least for me, my wife’s career was successful. My son was entering high school. So everybody was engulfed in this new chapter and we left, 2014 we moved and moved to Bangkok. And what I did know is that it was an opportunity for me to set myself apart, but it was also an opportunity for me to go and to discover something. At that time, what it was, I had no idea. I had no idea that Asia and Southeast Asia in general would birth largely the design sensibility and the style and the projects that would give me the platform to be able to come back to America. So when we got there, it was like, Hey, well, this is the new terrain that you have to summit if you will.

Reggie Black:
And so I didn’t have any relationships there, I didn’t know anybody there, but I knew I wanted to start to get my work out internationally. So it was just a matter of me just doing the groundwork and meeting people. And clearly, for the record, I didn’t speak Thai. I didn’t speak Japanese. And a lot of the places that we went and a lot of the pitches that I was submitting for, there was a lot of rejection. Recently as of last year, I just got an artist manager, which is my friend, Alison Beshai. Who’s now my artist manager, but for my entire career, I think the last 15 years it’s just been my wife and not just managing this thing and figuring it out. So everything that we were submitting for and trying to make happen, we weren’t getting any responses.

Reggie Black:
And so you and I had a conversation about starting where you are. And so I was the only thing that I knew was that one, I love coffee. And so there was a community there that was creative. And then also there was the coffee culture there in Bangkok that I loved. And I just started going to the same coffee shops every day, every day, that was my routine. I would go there. I would do a couple of hours in illustrator. I would write a little bit, I would read a little bit because this was this new path that I was trying to figure out. And funny enough, what happened is that I realized that one of the coffee shops also had this multimedia function where it served as an art gallery. And so I literally, after so many months and just going to the coffee shop every day, I was like, Oh, I would love to have an exhibition here one day.

Reggie Black:
And the owner [inaudible 00:44:59] at Ink & Lion, shout out to them because they were really gracious here you are, you have a black man coming to Bangkok in a Thai owned coffee shop and multimedia space, they took a chance and was like, well, let’s do it. And this was 2015, so we got there in 2014, it took me about a year to really go outside. As vibrant as the world sees Bangkok, to be quite honest, I was somewhat afraid of it, Because there’s 20 million people there at capacity when the city swells up on a midday Tuesday afternoon from the commuters. And it’s a huge city, we’re talking New York City, maybe times two, there’s 20 million people that swell up in that city every day.

Reggie Black:
So I just think the hustle and bustle of it and the foreigner mentality that we had to experience being black, which is whole another podcast we could record for, all of those elements frightened me a bit. And so I took this route of familiarity and I guess, did the things that I knew. And when that one opportunity for an exhibition started, there was some local press that picked it up, the numbers are few BK Magazine who did a really good job with doing a story on me there. And we’re all talking Thai publications. There is no English and documenting English culture or foreigners that come there. I started to land placement and notoriety in the Thai creative community. And so one thing led to another, one exhibition happened at a coffee shop and another exhibition happened during Bangkok Design Week.

Reggie Black:
And then another exhibition happened at another space and it all just kind of snowball. So it ended up being three exhibitions in Bangkok, one in Tokyo, which was a combination of our… When we were there, we were traveling a lot. So we would just go to different places for family vacations. And I was like, Oh, I want to show here. I want to show there. And it was just tons of groundwork, tons of rejection, the ecstasy of a gallery that I showed out in Japan, Diginner Gallery, they took a chance on me as well. So I think there was a lot of people along that way and along that journey, that was gracious enough to see the potential of my work. Because it wasn’t always like what it is now. There was a lot of discovery of me trying to find a voice.

Reggie Black:
So the work that I showed in 2015 looks completely different than the work that I produce now. And so going on that journey and having that rejection and being this kind of an ambassador for myself, it was basically like, alright, you’re here by yourself. You have to figure out a way to believe in your art and the things that you’re making because no one else will. And so three exhibitions in Bangkok, one in Tokyo, and then it landed to meeting some really cool guys Marble Print & Clay in Hong Kong. And so within that four years, it was a matter of what five exhibitions internationally, which started to garner a lot of attention back in the U.S. because I was sharing everything on social when people were seeing the momentum happen, but it wasn’t the case before I left.

Reggie Black:
So I was like, well, maybe it’s time to go back. And then the family now we decided to come back four years later, here’s where we are to the modern day. Yeah. It was a journey. It was a real journey. And I’m grateful for all of it because I think that it was something that I personally needed to go through to really just trust myself, that thing for a long time. I didn’t want to call myself an artist nor did I ever really want to own the role as an artist, because I always thought it was like, you have to have all paintings and a cool studio and large canvases to work, but I’ve always worked in language and I’ve always used messaging as the art form. And I didn’t know anybody that ever did that before. I didn’t learn about the Barbara Kruger’s and Jenny Holzer’s, and Hank Willis Thomas and the beautiful art that they produce on a public scale.

Reggie Black:
I just knew that there was street art. And then there was art that you experienced in the galleries. I didn’t know that there was a hybrid of the two, Paula Scher who works a lot in graphic design. So it was just also of discovery that I knew I had to like go on to carve out the space. If it didn’t exist, it was a testament of being able to trust myself enough to create it.

Maurice Cherry:
Before we were recording, I asked you, was there a point that you feel like your work pushed you to that next level of awareness? And it sounds like this is when it happened, this time when you were in Southeast Asia.

Reggie Black:
Yeah. I think you’re right, Maurice like 300%. And at the moment I didn’t realize it because it was just so much groundwork and we never… As creative as we never come up for air to assess the things. But what did start to happen there throughout our travels, we would go to Japan. I would pick up Sumi brushes and Sumi ink. And it was almost like the art started to be influenced by the cultural tones that we started to experience. So if you’re in Korea, and you see this beautiful art being produced in a certain way. All the tools that I use are pretty much Asian inspired. And I’m pretty sure that I use all of them wrong. I’m sure that I don’t use the Sumi brush properly. I know I don’t use a lot of the Sumi inks the way that they’re supposed to be properly used in traditional Japanese and Chinese calligraphy.

Reggie Black:
I don’t use them properly. And what I did lean into was that, I knew that my family and I, we were very fortunate to be a black family and have the opportunity to experience and travel throughout Asia. And pretty much all of that side of the world. We we went to Australia, we went to New Zealand, we traveled a lot. And to my wife’s credit, she was like, well, if we’re here, we might as well make it happen because this is a long trip. And we need to experience and see this. And so the travel started to really inform the work that I was making. And all of what you see now is a testament to having that. I like to call that an artist residency to go away and figure out because most people don’t get that time.

Reggie Black:
And so I’m very fortunate, you get into college and then as an adult, it’s like, all right, go out into the world and pay your dues to society, be an adult and pay your bills and go to work. And so what I realized is that my ability to have that four years to incubate and produce and create at that point, I had to figure out a way to make sure that, that time spent there would be able to produce a lifetime of projects and opportunities that I could make it feel like it was all worth it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So I’m curious, there’s a lot of things I want to ask you about now that you’ve really been going deep into a lot of this stuff. I was looking at your latest installation called No Records. Can you talk a little bit about where the idea came from for that?

Reggie Black:
No Records. Man. I think so many things happened last year, but I think that, that’s Alison and I that’s our highlight of the year, our pride and joy that we were really excited about. And Alison has been a great friend of mine for over 10 years. And it transpired from a good friend of mine, Amanda always like to do names when [inaudible 00:52:18] opportunities happen. So it’s like you’re giving people the credit and shouting people out along the way, because there’s this weird thing where people feel like artists are just making it alone and it’s bullshit. Nobody is making it alone. Somebody always reaches out to you, giving you a nudge or an opportunity comes from the great vine, which is essentially a person, being like there’s no, Oh, I’m just out here doing it by myself.

Reggie Black:
And so a good friend of mine, Amanda, that I also had met from the TED Residency! during that time, she reached out and said, Oh, the Dyckman Farmhouse in New York, saw your work and they’re looking to highlight this story of slaves living in New York. Because a lot of times when we think about slavery, we only equate it to the South. And we don’t think about the amount of slavery that transpired in New York City. And so when they presented that opportunity, Alison and I, we looked at the project and said, if we can’t say anything bold, we don’t want to be a part of it. And when the Dyckman house, they sent us over a lot of their archival documentation, a lot of the things that they had kept on record, but to be perfectly honest Maurice, there wasn’t any records. There wasn’t anything on file. They tried to have a lot of information that they thought was valuable to document the lives of the six slaves that lived in upper Manhattan and they didn’t have it.

Reggie Black:
And so hence the title, No Records. Because we said, listen, we can’t pretend to tell a story that is false, if the institution has pretty much given us the goal and letting us know that they didn’t even have any records. And so slaves lived here, what we were learning is that people were living in Inwood community, which is where the Dyckman house is like 207 and forgot the cross street Broadway actually. And people live there in that community every day. And they just thought that Dyckman house was like a farmhouse as an artifact or something. It’s like, no, this is where slaves lived. And we wanted to highlight that and really put that on display. And so that’s why I said, the language and the messaging has to be clear to allow people to really get what has happened here.

Reggie Black:
We don’t have to sugar coat it. We don’t need to dress it up. We don’t need to make it appear to be anything than what it is is that slaves lived here. And Alison and I we talked about it a lot and we were really thinking about the messaging. And then when we learned that there’s also a very Spanish speaking population in Inwood community, she said, well, let’s do it in Spanish too, because I feel like we have to start making art accessible and to translate the communication so everybody can be a part of the conversation and at which was my first time doing that. And I thought that it was probably my favorite part of the deliverable of the project because it invited everybody into the conversation. So at the installation, the night of the installation, there were beautiful conversation with people from all walks of life because the art was accessible and people walked by whether they saw it in English or Spanish, they was able to get it immediately and have a conversation about it.

Reggie Black:
Not being able to really know that this was something that had happened and they lived in the community. They didn’t even know that this existed. And so for me, it was about accessibility and being able to make a clean statement that this is what happens and let’s not overlook this. And throughout learning that I learned a lot of the names and places in New York City are named after slaves owners, because that’s what it was. So I lived in [inaudible 00:55:58], but I didn’t know [inaudible 00:55:59] and was a notorious slave owner. I just loved it because I lived there and the culture’s there. You know what I mean? Home of Biggie Smalls and home of Jay Z. And I lived in Brooklyn for three years and it’s another huge part of the story that gave me the skin that I needed to keep pushing forward.

Reggie Black:
And, but I didn’t know that [inaudible 00:56:20] was in the history was rooted in slave trade. And so we overlook a lot of the things by default, I think, because we tend to focus on what we deem is cool, but we don’t really utilize the resources that we have to outline a whole story. And so for that project, for me, it was like, listen, I want to make sure that I don’t leave anything uncovered here. So let’s talk about it. But most importantly, let’s make sure that it’s extremely plain, so everybody can understand it.

Maurice Cherry:
And you did that right near the tail end of 2020, is that right?

Reggie Black:
Yep. Yep. That was the end of December, December 7th, I think was the installation night. We were going to postpone it. We were going away to 2021. There was a lot of back and forth with the logistics. And I said, I think that this is an important conversation that needs to happen now. And mind you, where right off the tails of such a devastating year for black men, women, black trans, everything was transpiring in this country where police brutality and just the unjustice in this country. And I said, if we’re not going to do this now, what better time? Because I think for some odd reason, let’s just say, non-black folks feel like that this is a temperamental temporary issue. When the reality is this isn’t going away. There is no special time to talk about these things.

Reggie Black:
And it’s something that you and I have to experience every day. There is no vacation for being black. You don’t get to wake up and turn it on and off when you want to, this is the life that we live. And so if this is the life that we live, let me make sure that I’m doing what I can to highlight the things that we go through. And was it always this way Maurice? Possibly, possibly not. I don’t feel like I did my due diligence to make sure that I was highlighting the things of importance. And so when I was looking at a lot of the projects that we had on the table last year, and it was assessing things, I noticed the change in me too. I was like, you turn on the news and you see this thing happening nine minutes and 17 seconds or whatever that the exact time was when the gentlemen stood on George Floyd’s neck for, Breonna Taylor was shot in her sleep.

Reggie Black:
You look, and you see these things. And then I will have to show up to the iMac the next morning and try to design something that was beautiful to sell a product. I started to feel disconnected. Yeah, I’m a black man, but am I really using my voice to highlight the things that define the black plight in this country? And the answer was I wasn’t doing my best. And so now I’m trying to make sure that I need to make a conscious effort. My messaging sends a symbolism and it’s inspiring and it’s thought provoking. And I do a lot of work in mental health in Outland articulating that messaging and outlining that conversation. Right. But that’s a very colorless thing.

Reggie Black:
We can all experience that because human emotion is colorless, but when it comes to specific black issues, am I doing enough? My wife has, which is why she’s my wife. She’s like, listen, we all have more work to do. And when she said that to me, that was like another pivotal moment in my life. All right, you got to do more to make sure that your voice and your platform is being used and executed in the right way.

Maurice Cherry:
So something I definitely get from really from this conversation and really just from how you talk about your work is that you’re a very deep thinker. It’s not just about doing the work, but you’re really set on finding the intent and the drive behind it. How do you see the role of the black designer in this current climate? And I’m asking this for two reasons. One, I think certainly now with this increased awareness that people have about black creatives. And I would say just the struggles of black people in general, I hate that we had to get to this point this far along in human history. But one there’s this increased awareness, but two, just here on the show, one question I asked every guest last year was how are you using your skills to create a more equitable future? So I’m posing this question to you, and I’d love to get your answer to it. How do you see the role of the black designer in this current time right now?

Reggie Black:
There’s two folds to that. I think that forever, I feel like we’ve been overlooked. Like you just say, right. And I think we’ve been overlooked, but then also we’ve been undervalued. And I think we’re only called upon when it’s time to clean up something or when it’s time to make something look cool. Like when you look at the makeup of the black community and the black culture, we run the world, we run shit, we validate what’s cool. We make it cool. And then the world grabs it, right? Hip hop is the fastest growing genre in the world. And it’s only like 35, almost 40 years old. It’s a very young genre, but it’s [inaudible 01:01:19] the world. Right. And so we look at our ability to have cool, but then we look at like, we don’t own things and we’re not in positions of power.

Reggie Black:
And so for the black designer right now, I think what’s important is for us to say, okay, here’s my place in the world. Here’s my position, here’s a corporation at wants me to work or collaborate with “them”. Right. And if that’s the case, we have to make sure that we’re saying the things that are important to amplify, the topics and issues that are affecting our communities. And I think that’s the role. It’s okay. Because that’s another thing that it’s a lot is that we feel like artists aren’t supposed to be compensated properly. We need to be properly compensated for the things that we contribute and the value that we contribute to messaging. And then also we need to be able to say the things that feel good and speak to our people.

Reggie Black:
And I think that we can’t be used as pawns in the system to tell a story that isn’t accurate to how we believe. We have to reflect the times, which what I was just talking about my work, I was realizing that I was speaking to one thing when in fact the world was on fire and I’m a black man and in any given moment, I could have been shot as well. And I’m not saying that you have to abandon your bread and butter and what you’re known for. Both things can exist, but I feel like somehow they want us to exclude a specific messaging for a specific messaging. And I’m saying no, that they both need to exist right now. So it’s our obligation as the black designer to make sure that when we speak on these things, we’re making sure that we amplify a point that needs to be said that can’t be said by a non-black person.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you make space for these days?

Reggie Black:
I’m trying to get better at self care. I know it’s a hot button topic and everybody’s trying to explore it and define it for themselves. But for me I’ve always been a very inquisitive child. I’ve always been like you said, and thank you for that compliment, man. I’ve always been a deep thinker. I get it from my mom who isn’t as I guess won’t say talkative, but she’s a woman of few words, but the few words that she says are super impactful. And so I picked that up as a child from my mom who was just very intentional about what she says and why she says it. And so as a result of that, I’m trying to be intentional about how I treat myself and how I care for myself.

Reggie Black:
And I’m spending a lot of time and introspection asking larger questions as I get “older” what do I want this life to really look like for myself? And how can I give myself enough love that’s detached from the results? And just really thinking about where I want to go and how I want to impact the world. But before I get there, how do I impact and change myself? Because I think we go out with the Superman cape on every day to stand up and design and raise questions and fight for causes, which are all beautiful. But I think sometimes we go out half empty. We’re not completely together ourselves.

Reggie Black:
And as I’m going on this journey, I don’t believe that you could be of complete service to a cause, a company, a client, if you’re not really at whole yourself or have a beautiful sensibility to be able to compartmentalize that, to show up and do that work and then go home and figure out a way, how to sort your own personal stuff up. So I’m really just trying to figure out one, who am I outside of work? And then how can I bring that guy to the work to be able to impact it more?

Maurice Cherry:
What do you think you would have been if you’d never became an artist and a designer?

Reggie Black:
Funny enough, man, I’ve always wanted to be a business banker.

Maurice Cherry:
A business banker.

Reggie Black:
Yeah. A business banker venture capitalist. Like one of those guys Goldman Sachs with the suit on. And don’t… I won’t say don’t ask me why, ask me why. Yes. But then there’s two points to it. I wanted to be it because growing up, I felt like that was the only way, which I do feel like it’s still important, but economics is the way to freedom. And so growing up, I was like, well, let me pursue a career money, one, because that’s what a lot of my teachers told me. And that’s what was like, Oh, you need to go… And growing up without it. It’s like, well, that’s what I want. And then two, I feel like there’s not a lot of space for creative venture capitalists.

Reggie Black:
I know that the full premise of it is to fund companies to have a return, to build more companies. But I think we’re doing a huge disservice to excluding the currency of creative intellect. And somehow one thing that drives everything, but it’s the last thing to be compensated for. So it’s like we can bill big companies to connect us as fast as we need to be and share our most valuable moments. But we overlooked the importance of the everyday creative that’s trying to get an idea off the ground. And so I would love to in a perfect world start a creative venture capitalist fund where there’re these micro grants that small entrepreneurs and innovators and thinkers can apply for and receive. And I know it exists in the world.

Reggie Black:
There’re so many beautiful people doing that work Backstage Capital, who I love, she’s doing an amazing job, Arlan Hamilton. There’s so many companies that are doing that work, man. But yeah, I think that’s what I would have been, man. It’s the impossible for a lot of us. And I’m always looking to explore the edges and go on to extremes or a DJ.

Maurice Cherry:
Or a DJ.

Reggie Black:
Yeah. Or a DJ. Because I love music. And I’m still got to execute fun in your life. So on a business side, super serious side venture capitalist. But outside of that, I think that a DJ of some sort.

Maurice Cherry:
I think it’s interesting that certainly other countries do a lot to sponsor artists or to fund the arts. And I feel like we used to have that here prior to the last administration. Hopefully that will come back. Or we start to at least see some more investment from, I think the government towards artists. But yeah, I would think even celebrities or other businesses or things like that, you probably see this too. There’s so many big names that expect free creative work.

Reggie Black:
Sure. And that’s the part that has to be dismantled because art and creativity is the one thing that communicates every element of our lives, but it’s still one thing that’s always negotiated. Right? Everything we interact with is designed by somebody, the homes we live in, the cars we drive, the clothing we wear, there’s a designer, there’s some creative intellect that’s going on behind that. But for whatever reason, like you said, we’re always the ones that are like, Oh, well just do this for exposure. One of the person that I do have to highlight and give the credit for, somebody that I would like to, if in a big sky dream Pharrell Williams, I think that he does a beautiful job and he just launched the new, Black Ambition incubator to do this very thing.

Reggie Black:
And that’s give the black and Latino X, co-founders an opportunity to launch businesses and stuff. He’s clearly doing something that I would love to do, but in a large wish upon the sky, he’s the one person that I would love to meet and work with to some capacity. Just because his ability to see, listen, I’m a kid from Virginia Beach, Virginia. And I connect with that story. I’m a kid from Northwest, D.C. growing up in 80s pre-gentrified D.C. when it was very rough to like and see yourself to transcend this place outside of what society deemed for you to be. And so there’s a connection there as well.

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

Reggie Black:
That’s a loaded one, man. I don’t know; no one knows. Right? But I think because I don’t want to perceive to have all the answers. I don’t know what I will be doing, but what I would hope is that my work will land in places that could inspire people to use their voice. If All Things Progressive could work with clients that could inspire a new generation of business, I feel like that’s what I will be doing. So maybe it’s in the aspiring business and that’s not a business, but maybe I just need to be in a position to ignite new ideas and birth new generations of ideas, maybe it’s this venture capital thing. I know Reggie Black the artist will always be able to produce beautiful, innovative things that I love and believe in.

Reggie Black:
But I think in the next five years, somehow focusing on impact and that could be with the black artists fund that Alison and I were working on to carve out and creating a platform. I think me personally will probably I won’t say, take a back seat, but I’ll be thinking about more how I could use my platform to amplify the voices of others. To some regard I don’t know what it looks like.

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

Reggie Black:
iamreggieblack on Instagram. iamreggieblack on Twitter. And my website is, Iamreggieblack.com. So out of those few places you can find me. It’s where I’ll be man. And then before we get off, I just want to thank you for the work that you continue to do with your platform Maurice because it’s super important. And I want to thank Ashley for recommending me to be here because I think that iron sharpens iron, and I think that the work that you do connect so many people to give them the hope to see. And that’s a point that I want to make as well before we go off, the ability to see what you’re doing is a huge void that I missed in my life because I didn’t meet my first black designer until I was 25.

Reggie Black:
I didn’t know that this was a real thing. I didn’t meet anybody that could work Photoshop or Illustrator till I was 25. So your sessions and your interviews that you consistently put out to the world is hope for somebody that’s listening to this, like the little Reggie that could have been listening to this 10, 15 years ago to see that this is possible. I think that the translation and the gaps that happen here, are all exposure, people don’t think that design of some black kids, or people of color. They don’t think that this is possible because we don’t see anybody that could do this. So thank you brother. I really appreciate you, man.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, thank you. And thank you for coming on the show, for not just sharing your story, but also really going deep into the thought that you put into the work and also the messages that you want to put out there in the world. I really feel like we’re going to be seeing a lot more of Reggie Black in the future. I think certainly just based off what you’ve been doing so far, I can’t wait to see what you come up with next. So thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Reggie Black:
Thank you, man. As long as I’ve been doing this, I feel like I’m just getting started. So thank you so much for acknowledging that. And I’m looking forward to just staying a student and stay open. And if there’s any way I can support further banger, you know where to reach me, man.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & WitBrevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world.
We accomplish this through graphic design, presentations and workshops around I-D-E-A: inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.
If you’re curious to learn how to combine a passion for I-D-E-A with design, check us out at brevityandwit.com.
Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Markus Robinson

We’re ending February on Revision Path with a little bit of Black web history! Markus Robinson is currently the VP of innovation and creative at Interactive One, but before that, he co-founded one of the Internet’s most popular news sources on Black tech — Black Web 2.0. Who would have thought that it would get him to where he is today?

Markus started off talking about the web properties he oversees — Bossip and BlackPlanet, just to name a couple — and talked about how his work with Interactive One opened his eyes to the world of product. He also spoke on growing up in Florida, shared the origin story of Black Web 2.0, and we both had a good discussion about Black media, trusted sources, and the importance of offering a platform for others. It’s truly been astonishing watching Markus level up over the years, and I’m glad we were able to catch up and take you all with us as we look at the early days of the Black Web!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Markus Robinson:
My name is Markus Robinson. I am head of product for Interactive One. Interactive One is the interactive division of Urban One used to be called Radio One. They’re two television stations, so that’s Cleo TV and TVOne. And we also own about 50 radio stations across 15 different markets. And so I lead all interactive, technology, design for all of those brands. And so we have websites like Bossip.com, HelloBeautiful. We have a bunch of notable sites that some of your audience members may be familiar with.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. I didn’t know that, I knew about the radio and the television portion. I didn’t think about the web portion. That’s a lot.

Markus Robinson:
We actually, yeah, we have sort of national side alone. We have NewsOne, we have the Black America Web. We have BossUp, HelloBeautiful. There’s a lot of just national sites. And so in addition to that, we have a bunch of local radio station websites that we maintain as well. And we also own BlackPlanet, which was, yeah, I’m sure you’re very familiar with the original social network before Facebook, before any of those other ones, that was BlackPlanet.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. So, I’m trying to think that’s a lot to oversee. How many people are you overseeing?

Markus Robinson:
Yeah, so underneath me, I have about four direct reports, and then they have about a total of about 15 direct reports underneath them. So it’s a decent size group, all in all the interactive divisions about a hundred people.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. What is an average day like for you?

Markus Robinson:
Yeah. So, I mean, I wear a lot of different hats. Typically, I do my one-on-ones with my direct reports every Monday, but a normal day would be the first thing I do as I jump into the data. So I want to see how well business has done the day before. Obviously I’ll look at that over some trends. And then typically from there, it’s either launching some new initiative or working with the developers to make sure that we’re hitting all of our goals when it comes to any features that we’re launching. Also just kind of making sure that we are collecting as much data as we possibly can, so we can be actionable and predictive in some of the work that we’re doing. So it’s a lot of different hats, but a typical day usually starts with me diving into data. Then it’s moving on to meetings and then it’s just having a couple of different stand-ups to make sure that the stuff is getting done.

Maurice Cherry:
And, I guess, with the pandemic that sort of has changed maybe the frequency or the method in which you’re checking up with people, but has that been a big effect on your work so far?

Markus Robinson:
The best part about having daily or weekly stand-ups is nothing really has changed except for the medium. And so instead of meeting in my office every day, we’re meeting over Slack. So for the most part, it’s been fairly simple. I definitely miss FaceTime with my team. I definitely miss being able to, for them to just be able to pop into the office and me pop over into their area and just say hi, from the work perspective everything seems to be kind of business as usual.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. And you’ve been there now for like almost 10 years, right?

Markus Robinson:
Yeah. And technology it’s like 40. And so, yes, it’s been 10 years and I’ve jumped from position to position kind of worked my way up to where I am now.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. How has this position changed your life?

Markus Robinson:
A couple of different ways. So one, I think it expanded my understanding of all facets of technology. Like for instance, I used to just be a developer and that’s a developer kind of saw things just by way of the code. Now I find myself seeing everything differently. So instead of just interacting with code, I’m interacting with people, but from the perspective of software. And so, one of the things I think it has helped me develop is empathy. When people ask me, what is the most important skill set or what is the superpower of a great product worker? A product person has to have empathy. And so I think what this job and my work has helped me to develop is my ability to be empathetic for the people in which we serve. But also I could see that trickling, it’s kind of my personal life as well. I think I’m a lot more empathetic just dealing with what I have to deal with at work every single day. I think that’s probably the biggest thing I’m taking away from my job every day.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, one thing that you mentioned to me this was prior to recording is, just how much this position has really kind of opened your eyes to product. Can you talk about that?

Markus Robinson:
So I was a computer science major. And so prior to that, I thought I was destined to be just a great developer and I’d never heard of product. Product was foreign to me. I knew design, I knew the difference between UI and UX, but I had no clue what a product person did. And so, after working for Interactive One as a developer, it kind of exposed me to this kind of intersection between data, design, technology and just the development side. And so I found myself like not being a good developer, a good designer, but I found that my best came out when all of these things were kind of touching one another. And so, yeah, definitely opened my eyes to one web product was, but two the skill set that was necessary to be successful in this role.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say is the hardest part about what you do?

Markus Robinson:
I think the hardest part is when your business objective is not in exact alignment with the development side or the audience is better way of saying it, the audience side of the equation. So for instance, we are in the business of making money. She’s just completely transparent. We are a publicly traded company and we have a responsibility to our shareholders. So at the same time, we have to balance creating an experience that is in support of our users that does not overwhelm our users with this other side of the equation of making money.

Markus Robinson:
And so sometimes they dive perfectly, I would say most times they dive perfectly, but there are some times where you have to make some tough decisions over, are we okay to forego some revenue if it means a bad user experience to our users? And so having to make those decisions and having to make sure that all of these key stakeholders have buy-in into the decision can sometimes be challenging.

Maurice Cherry:
And I would imagine, with so many different properties that you’re also working across making sure that those are all, I don’t know, maybe I guess, talking in a similar tone and voice, I would imagine. I mean, anything from, HelloBeautiful, the BlackPlanet, to BossUp to radio, to television, let’s multiple touch points for the brand.

Markus Robinson:
Absolutely. And you bring up another point. Yes. So the other thing that I would say is a little difficult about a position is like knowing that one, we’re managing a lot of different assets and one thing that you’ll learn, well, one thing that I’ve learned is, obviously you cannot speak to everybody in the same way, the tone and the field and everything else per site is different and unique to that site. But there’s just to let you know, we have… It’d be a little shocky. We have one theme, one WordPress theme that powers 70 different sites. And so that is-

Maurice Cherry:
Wait, wait, wait, wait, hold on, hold on, hold up, one WordPress theme is powering. Is it like a multi-user setup? Or what does that look like?

Markus Robinson:
Yes. So it’s a WordPress multi-user environment, but they all have one theme. And this one theme we built it so that you could change the look, the feel, the layout. You can drag and drop widgets. So because a new site is completely different than an entertainment site, but it’s all powered by one theme. Then you could just customize it based on the needs of that specific brand. So here’s the good news that makes it really easy to maintain. If I push one bit of code, it will go across all 70 of our properties. So I don’t have to maintain, is it here? Is it here? Is it here is one place, one code, but it is challenging because everything you build, you have to say, “Okay, what is the effect for this widget on HelloBeautiful?” How does this look on BossUp. And so it’s challenging, but it also makes it very easy on our developers to roll out new features that will be across all of our sites.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. That’s something, I mean, I think of other media companies that I’ve worked with or interview people from there and they use, usually something custom built, I guess maybe the needs of what they have may have outgrown something that’s more. I don’t know if you would call WordPress on the shelf, but it kind of is a simple thing anyone can download and use for free. It’s amazing that you’ve been able to extend it out so far and it’s still a viable tool to use in that way. That’s something.

Markus Robinson:
Yeah, absolutely. It’s WordPress, it’s open source. So it’s just a ton of people who are contributing to it. And there’s always a great plugin or a great feature, a great this and that. So that’s what makes it easy. But also that developer community, WordPress developer community is so tight knit. The tight knit, they work together so well that like even scale, we do 30 million UVs or something like that. And to do that on a simple WordPress theme, I think it just the Testament to like a great developer community, because it’s easy to grab somebody who is a WordPress expert because WordPress is probably the largest CMS platform in the world. So scaling is pretty simple.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Like I think WordPress, maybe as of us recording this powers, I think at least a third of the web, I remember when it was only powering a quarter of the web.

Markus Robinson:
Yes. It has grown-

Maurice Cherry:
That’s huge.

Markus Robinson:
I mean, I think that’s open source at its best. WordPress and Linux are the champions of open source, but I think it’s a Testament to what happens when community works together to achieve something.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And so speaking of that, I kind of want to shift here a little bit, because you and I go way back and we’ll get into that, but I know that you grew up in Florida, is that right?

Markus Robinson:
That’s correct. I was born and raised in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and went to Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, an HBCU there in Tallahassee.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. We’ll get to FAMU, but tell me what it was like for you growing up. Were you exposed to a lot of like technology as a kid?

Markus Robinson:
Yeah. I have the same story as most of us. I got introduced to technology through video games. I have a brother who’s an entrepreneur, who is 12 years older than me, which was awesome because he was in college while I was in basically grade school. And he brought home a Commodore 64 for school. And at that point it changed my life forever. He happened to go to a technical college as well. So he used to come home with all these new video games and those new video games made it attractive for me to understand, okay, how do I make my own video games? And then I learned how to code.

Markus Robinson:
I learned how to code in basic and learn how to do some things from the DOS prompt, which I don’t even know if DOS is around, I’m a Mac user now, but learned a lot of that stuff because I just happened to have my older brother who was a technology guy. And it opened my eyes to a world of possibilities, especially when I jumped online and got into those BBS, it was a game changer for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. People sleep on, I think they sleep on basic and just how easily accessible it was even if you weren’t a P program in which I think about that now, well then I should say compared to now how easy it is to sort of get into coding, like you and I are roughly right around the same age. And so whenI was, I don’t know, maybe about six or seven, probably a little bit younger than that. My brother was about four years older than me, he had a VTech Laser 50 computer. This thing was about the size of maybe a 60% mechanical keyboard. And it had your full corny keys, but it had a one line dot matrix screen. And that’s what you used to all of your data entry. But when you got the computer, it didn’t come with anything. It didn’t come with games. It came with a manual to teach you how to program in basic.

Markus Robinson:
Even in loader game, I don’t know and I still remember the command to loader game, but it wasn’t as simple as you put the disc in a disc drive and double click the icon and the thing starts working-

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. No.

Markus Robinson:
You had to almost know how to program just to get your application to start.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, even then I mean, we were using those five and a quarter floppy disc, and I remember having to put those in the Apple Tool at school and type in run or typing catalog. If there’s other stuff on the disc, besides the program that you want to run and you had to have a little bit of programming knowledge to kind of even run the program. It wasn’t just as simple as tapping an icon. You know what I mean??. Like it’s so much simpler now, but just thinking of like the education of teaching yourself how to program like that was the thing. There were no real games that sort of taught you this stuff. They just gave you the book, here’s basic start learning. This is a subroutine, either you touch to the print, hello world command and all that sort of stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
And you kind of expand it out from there. Like they gave you the basics and you kind of went from there, which is, I think a lot different than how it is now. I think if you’re learning how to code now, there’s so many boot camps and schools and they try to teach you with games. And it’s not just as simple as sitting you down in front of a computer. I wouldn’t even call it the manual, but like sitting you down with whatever the languages that you need to learn. And that’s how you teach yourself, essentially.

Markus Robinson:
That’s exactly right. And in addition to that, there’s most computers back then we didn’t have internet. So it wasn’t as simple as a Google search away or there wasn’t a Google and there was no YouTube videos that can walk you step by step through how to do certain things. It was literally exactly what you just articulate. It was a book and you went through that book and you tried and it worked. Sometimes it didn’t work and he would be up all night just trying to figure it out. It definitely gives you, I don’t know a sense of, it definitely makes you kind of tough. It makes you kind of figure out how to problem solve, I would say.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, it definitely teaches how to problem solve because you have to sort of go through those motions to figure out what it is that you have to do. Like even to extend it a little bit further into the future from the ’80s. I’ll say like, when HTML really came about and there was the web and the internet, there were no courses teaching you how to build a website. You had to reverse engineer by looking at the source code and figuring it out in notepad and then running that in the browser and seeing if that worked. And if it didn’t work, try to figure out why it didn’t work, because it didn’t give you an error command. It didn’t spit anything out in the console to let you say, Oh, this is what you did wrong. There’s just a lot of trial and error and you having to really figure it out. You just had to figure it out.

Markus Robinson:
Absolutely. So I was even thinking, you’ve mentioned notepad, like even the IDEs and the text editors nowadays are so much more advanced than we had back. I was using notepad. So even if you had an errand, you didn’t close your div tag, you just had to figure it out. You didn’t have a way of collapsing the code to figure out exactly what’s missing. You just had to go line by line. It was painful. But it was almost you came out stronger, you know what I mean??. You come out a lot stronger than I probably did them. We had to be at that point.

Maurice Cherry:
Look, I’ll completely date myself here. So I was using notepad all the way up until probably freshman year of college. So like 1999, because what else was there? I think it was Macromedia Dreamweaver, but even that, I think for a high school-

Markus Robinson:
Dreamweaver.

Maurice Cherry:
LikeI was in high school, there was really no way to access that unless we had it at school, which we didn’t. You could get on Cozaar, LimeWire and download it or something. But I was using that up until I got some more house. And then I discovered something from a computer science student called Metapad, which is like note pad-

Markus Robinson:
Oh, yeah. [crosstalk 00:20:53].

Maurice Cherry:
But they added some programming features like line numbers. That changed the game for me when I saw that this had line numbers and I could actually sort of debug what was going on. It gave you something, don’t pay I gave you nothing. It gave you a blank screen and a cursor, that’s it?

Markus Robinson:
It may have color.

Maurice Cherry:
It did have color. And Metapad was kind of purple and they put a little bit of design to it and I was like, okay, this is something that I can use that’s different from notepad. Because I could actually, did some kind of, not necessarily like code coloring, but it would do indentations. You could put tabs in and stuff like that. It was just a lot easier than notepad because notepad was basically a pad to take notes on. Metapad was something you could actually use for development. And if you didn’t have something more robust, I mean IDE like Dreamweaver or what else was big back then go live or…

Markus Robinson:
Front page.

Maurice Cherry:
Or front page.

Markus Robinson:
Front page was interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So when did you know that like tech, was it for you? You kind of mentioned learning basic and stuff like that, but when did you know this was what you really wanted to do?

Markus Robinson:
It’s so interesting. So when I went to shool, actually when I went to college, I actually majored in physical therapy. So I ended up quitting because I thought physical therapy meant that I was going to work with athletes. And then you find out you don’t work with athletes, you work in the geriatric ward or something like that. So I mean, and no disrespect, it just wasn’t what I thought it was. And so, yeah. And I’ve always just been a tinkerer, you know me, I’ve always been just the type of person that would take a calculator apart and want to understand the different intricate circuits in it. And so it was actually in school when I called my mom one day and I was just like, “Mom, I don’t think this physical therapy thing is my fit.”

Markus Robinson:
I don’t know if it’s right for me. I know I wanted to be doing something in medicine, but I don’t know if it’s physical therapy. She just said to me, she said, “You’ve always just been so into computers. Why don’t you consider computer?” And I was like, “Yeah, it makes perfect sense.” I mean, it’s just a light bulb went off in my head and she was like, do what you love to do. And the money will come, don’t worry about medicine. Don’t worry about physical therapy. Just do what you want to do. And so I think the next day I went into my advisor’s office changed my major and I’ve just been there ever since.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. I remember when I started out at Morehouse, I wanted to make websites. Because I had started making websites in high school and I started in computer science, computer engineering because I kind of that and wanting to be like Dwayne Wayne. I was like, okay, this is kind of where I need to go in order to sort of make this happen. And after that first semester, my advisor was really like, if you want to make websites, you should change your major because that’s not what we do here. Like the internet is just a fade. Nobody’s going to be online, that’s not a thing. Again, this is 1999 when the internet really was kind of at its very basic stages.

Maurice Cherry:
And he was just, like yeah, if you want to make websites, like you’re not going to be able to do that as a computer science major so I switched. It’s amazing now how the internet is everywhere compared to back then-

Markus Robinson:
Is everywhere.

Maurice Cherry:
But yeah, though it’s interesting that you started out in one thing and then you just kind of went back to your roots in a way, like you were always doing this tinkering and playing around with technology in some sort of way. And then that’s where you ended up going.

Markus Robinson:
Yes, that’s exactly right. Yeah, it was like following, it’s kind of cliche to follow your passions, but yeah, I was just super passionate about it and my mom could say it and then my mom from the country. So everything is computers there, you know what I mean??, do computers, you know how to fix computers, you don’t know anything about the difference between types of goods, any of that stuff. She just knew I had this thing and this love for this technology. And I’m so glad I made that decision is the best decision I’ve ever made.

Maurice Cherry:
So what was the program like if I may?

Markus Robinson:
I don’t know if it’s still the same, but we had two options. It was computer information systems. They had the business and science options. And so I happened to be a business option major, which means not only did you have to take the computer programming C++, Java, you had to do advanced database. So you had to learn SQL and there wasn’t any pretty gooey interfaces, that you had to code pure SQL. And so you learn SQL, but in addition to all of those courses as well, you had to do your business. So you had to take accounting, economics and all of those as well. And looking back on it, had a great bunch of teachers. I still talk to Dr. Edwards, who was the chair of the CIS program, just like they’re such diagnosed folks. Not only did they have PhDs, but a lot of them had just had a whole lot of like really strong working knowledge. And so they kind of schooled not only to here’s how you code, here’s the basics of coding. I think they prepared us on what it meant to actually be successful in a workforce.

Markus Robinson:
One of the most important classes, I think every person in the computer science department takes is professional development, which is kind of silly, but looking back it’s so important, but it’s just everything on how to present yourself in an interview to how to conduct yourself in a boardroom meeting. What I would say is the program at FAMU was a well-rounded program. It definitely was technical enough for you to hang with the best of them, but they also did not forget about some of those other skills that you would need to be successful in Corporate America.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. And the reason that I ask that is, as you know in your kind of stature right now, interacting with them, but just also because of the state of the industry. Companies are looking at HBCU’s a lot to try to find people that are going to diversify their workforce. And one sort of, I wouldn’t say a criticism, but certainly one kind of reality is that the curriculum that are at HBCU’s for certain majors, whether it’s design, whether it’s tech are not the same as say their PWI counterparts, but it sounds like for you, it really sort of helped out in terms of giving you a more well-rounded education.

Markus Robinson:
Absolutely. Yeah. I was reading this article about the Google, some folks at Google getting let go or yeah, getting let go, and having some really strong things to say about what Google’s corporate said about the HBCU education. And here’s my experience. I happened to go to FAMU and there’s a PWI literally right across the railroad tracks, Florida State University. And I happened to work at my job during college was at the computer help desk. And the coolest part about that job was I was the only person who was from FAMU that worked at the Florida State University. I worked at FSU’s computer help desk. And so I was the only person from FAMU and the large majority of those folks there were computer science majors at Florida State. And so we had the opportunity to always kind of talk and compare notes.

Markus Robinson:
And there were times where some students will walk into the help desk and I would help them. These are computer science students walk into our help desk and I would help them with their computer science work. And so I would say that we were absolutely on par and as strong as, if not stronger, then some of the PWI that some students on the PWI that I had the opportunity to work with. Now, some of these guys have gone on to work for Google and gone on to work for some notable tech startup companies. But our education was on par with the same work that they were doing.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, that’s pretty cool. So when you graduated from FAMU and you’re working at Florida State, take me back to that time. What were you thinking? Were you like this is what I want to do or did you have aspirations of doing bigger things back then?

Markus Robinson:
When I worked for Florida state, my biggest thought was like, I was thinking that I wanted a free education and I wanted a master’s degree. That was my thought, like I wanted to get an MBA. And if I worked for Florida State at the time, I’m not sure if the same way, but if I worked for them I would get free education. They would pay for my education if I was a full-time employee. So that was kind of my thought process in taking the position there. As I started working there, I found that one, I learned a lot. I happened to have to get hooked up with some really great mentors people that I would say helped mold me and shape me into the person I am today.

Markus Robinson:
So I happened to be working alongside of some amazing mentors, but in additional to the entrepreneurial bug kind of hit me. And so that’s kind of, I don’t know if you want to go there now with the Black Web 2.0 days. All that kind of stuff happened while I was working at Florida State. But the biggest thing for me was I came out of Florida State not thinking that this was going to be my forever place, but it was more of a place that was one, going to give me a free education. But two also just happen to connect me to two mentors who really helped mold me to the person I am today.

Maurice Cherry:
Actually. Yeah. Let’s talk about that. I mean, I don’t know if a lot of people know this or remember this, but you were one of the co-founders of a pretty influential Black Tech website called Black Web 2.0, it was you and Angela Benton, which people I’m sure have heard her name because of the NewME Accelerator. She’s currently CEO at Streamlytics, I think is her new company. How did you two end up meeting each other and starting the site?

Markus Robinson:
It’s so funny. It was through, I don’t know if you remember Lynne d Johnson. It was through Lynne.

Maurice Cherry:
Yes. I remember Lynne. Yes, Yes, Yes. I haven’t seen Lynne in so, God that’s last time I saw Lynne. I’m trying to remember when the last time I saw Lynne it’s been a minute, but no, yeah, yeah, yeah. Go ahead. Sorry.

Markus Robinson:
Yeah. Absolutely. So Lynne, back in those days and probably still is to this day, she was a great tech connector, you know what I mean??? And so, back in those days it was all about the RSS feed. You know what I mean??? So I happened to be subscribed to all of these wonderful blogs, Lynne had hers and there was just so many different black tech entrepreneurs, but folks who just talked about interesting technology ideals. And so I happened to be connected through Lynn’s blog and I was reading on Lynne’s blog and then Angela and I just happened to be up in commenting on the same post. And I thought she just had some really interesting ideas. So I asked Lynne, I believe to introduce me to Angela. And we started talking, she happened to be working on Black Web 2.0 already. So she was already working on Black Web 2.0, her background was more designed at the time, I was more technical at the time.

Markus Robinson:
And so I was like, yoh, can we just do this together? You know what I mean??? As opposed to me doing my own thing, how about I leverage my technical background and your creative background, our understanding of how technology works and what we want to see in the black tech space. And we just said, let’s do Black Web 2.0 and next thing you know, Black Web 2.0 started to grow certainly we were just getting folks who were just searching, subscribing to our newsletter. We kept growing and growing and growing. And all we did was talk about what we saw and what we wanted to see. That was literally it. We wanted to see this world where black entrepreneurship would grow and black tech startups were growing fast.

Markus Robinson:
And then obviously TechCrunch was starting around that time. And we saw all these wonderful black tech companies starting and nobody was talking about them. They just never got recognition. And so once we really started being focused on highlighting what we thought were the best and the brightest black tech entrepreneurs, that’s when things really started lifting off for us.

Maurice Cherry:
For people that are listening. I have to really set the scene here because I mean, it’s hard to underestimate just how explosive a time that was, where all that was going on. This is about the years between, I would say 2004 to 2006, something like that. And I remember one of the big catalyst behind, I think this resurgence or I wouldn’t even say resurgence, but this emergence of a lot of kind of black tech verticals was South by Southwest-

Markus Robinson:
Yes, that’s right.

Maurice Cherry:
And South by Southwest had this interactive, well, it still has this interactive portion where people come and get panels and stuff like that. And I remember there was a panel, I think it was in ‘O5 called blogging while Black. And it was Lynne d Johnson. It was a couple of other folks. I think Jason Tony might’ve been on that panel. I think Tiffany Brown was on that panel. I don’t remember who else, but a bunch of black web luminaries that people probably don’t even really know now, but a lot of the conversation in and around that particular panel that they did sort of started to have people throughout the internet talking about, “Well, yeah. Where are the black tech people?”

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean, you had verticals like Locker Noam and others that were talking about tech, but it wasn’t ever from any sort of a racial perspective, but then you also had these provocateurs, like Loren Feldman. And this actually came about, I think it was during or right around the time of that 2005 South by Southwest panel. But he had this company, I don’t know if he still has it, but it was called 1938 media. And he was doing a bunch of little short videos. This is pre YouTube for folks that are listening. But they’re like, there were all these little short videos that he was doing was also right around the time that Jay smooth was doing a lot of short videos with ILL doctrine and stuff like that.

Maurice Cherry:
And he had come out with this, Oh God, I guess I could laugh at it now. But he came out with this video, you probably remember this call TechNigga. He was like and Loren’s a white dude. And he’s like, yeah, I’m blah, blah, blah, a technigga.com. And I made this app to keep track of all my holes and all… But it was, I mean, super cringe-worthy of course now in 2021, but even back then, it was like, what the fuck are you doing? I think that lit a fire under so many black folks in tech and I would say in design too, but mostly in tech, I get lit a fire under so many people to counter that.

Maurice Cherry:
And I remember that also being around the time that Black Web 2.0 was really taking off, not in spite of that, but certainly in that same kind of environment, because you have things like South by Southwest, you had Technorati stuff like that. And it was just an Arctic tundra, when you talk about the racial makeup of tech back then, like it really was not a lot of black people visibly seen anywhere. And this really was like a spark, unfortunately that caused all of this to happen, really caused all this to really proliferate.

Markus Robinson:
Yeah, absolutely. I think looking back on it was absolutely somewhat of a blessing. It was obviously not great blessing, but it’s a blessing because it introduce these groups who were just saying, you know what enough is enough. One we are here, but you’re ignoring us. But two, it was just like this group came together and said no more of this. And then it was through that and a lot of folks found Black Web 2.0, and I still have people that I keep up with still to this day because of those relationships from Black Web 2.0. It was the catalyst of us, or even being talked about more around mainstream media and it was a place where we all were able to just huddle up and say, we’re not standing for this anymore. We’re going to show you that we’re here.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, absolutely. When you really look back at that poll time, like what do you remember the most?

Markus Robinson:
I just remember the internet and these groups being almost like family for lack of a better term. You know what I mean??? Like still that, like when I said Lynne d Johnson and boom, you instantly, it was like, Oh, Auntie Lynne, you know what I’m saying? You almost went that far or Jay Smooth or Baratunde and Jack and Jill politics, I think was the name of their blog. Baratunde and Cheryl and even you brought up Jason Toney, and I can go on for days just naming people who like they welcomed you almost like you were headed to the black family, really. Like you were just going to the black family reunion and you would comment on their blog and they would respond and then they would connect with you and bridge gaps and say, okay, I need to introduce you to this other person.

Markus Robinson:
They were connected. They were creators as well. And so just like, what I remember about those days was just how open and honest and friendly and family oriented that black tech community was. And almost kind of envy that, you know what I mean??? I feel like we’ve all kind of grown apart and grown in different areas and we’re doing different things, but it was just like to see what Lynne was doing on her blog. And then for her to introduce me to Angela, I just hope that there’s places and people and the same things can kind of happen through those communities. You know what I mean???

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And I’ll tell you what’s, this’ll make you feel old. Like it’s interesting because these people that were like Jason and Lynne, et cetera, were older than us. They were probably in their ’30s and we were in our ’20s, like just trying to figure this out. And it was like this, yeah. This family feeling is helping hand to people from the generation before you, that wanted to see things through because they kind of helped pave the way. So they want to make it easier for you now we’re the Lynn’s and the Jason’s like we’re in that position now-

Markus Robinson:
Yeah, that’s sure.

Maurice Cherry:
And I’ll be honest, like even with all the people that I’ve interviewed for the show and stuff like that, that feeling isn’t really there anymore. I mean, there’s some people that I certainly will talk to and help out with, if someone contacts me through the show and there’s times where that happens, but that feeling is certainly not the same that it was back then. I know exactly what you mean.

Markus Robinson:
Some of that is like, there wasn’t Facebook, not the way it is today, there wasn’t Twitter. And so the only community we had was through our blogs. And now that we’re just connected with all these disparate, I have all these big connections through these larger social networks. It just feels like there’s probably conversations happening. We’re not as together as we used to be. And I do miss that old feeling, like I said people are still talk to, to this day. But I reached out to Jason not too long ago because when I took over the data team, he was already running BI over at, I think CBS or somewhere. And I just reached out to him and was like, Hey, take it over the data team. Would love to pick your brain. I’m talking and he hit me right back at Maurice and was like, Hey, let’s do it on a call and I’ll talk you through everything you need. So still those relationships that I developed in my Black Web 2.0 days are still one that I leveraged to this day.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What did Black Web 2.0, the platform itself and working on it and everything. What did that teach you?

Markus Robinson:
So I think it probably first gave me the largest glimpse into what it really means to run a business because after a while, Black Web 2.0, became more than a blog, you know what I mean??? It became a business. And through that we acquired a couple of sites. We have big sponsorships from Microsoft and HP at the time. And so it started to really blow up, but it taught me a lot about what it really meant to be an entrepreneur. And also it taught me how, I think when I think about empathy and I mentioned that early in our conversation it really talked to me about being empathetic because you have this balance of the business responsibilities and trying to make money because we have folks on payroll, but also you had a responsibility to the people that you served.

Markus Robinson:
And so Black Web 2.0, became a trusted source to thousands and thousands and thousands of people. And so I really did teach me how to, that you can be both successful at presenting what you need for the folks that you serve and maintain a good business relationship and grow a decent sized business as well. So that was a huge learning for me. It also taught me how to be really collaborative with Angela was the first business partner I’ve ever had. And so, it really taught us how be collaborative and how to leverage each other’s strengths as well.

Maurice Cherry:
And now speaking of Angela, I know you all Black Web 2.0 ended up kind of, I think rebranding into, I think it was B20 or I don’t know if that was what it was called-

Markus Robinson:
Yeah B20.

Maurice Cherry:
So B20, okay. So kind of evolving into that. And then both of you kind of like went your separate ways. Like I know she started the NewME Accelerator, which I don’t think about it because I think it turns 10 this year-

Markus Robinson:
That’s right.

Maurice Cherry:
Like that whole time when she was doing that and it was featured on CNN with the whole Silicon Valley and stuff. Yeah. That was 10 years ago. We are Oh, wow-

Markus Robinson:
Yes, wow. I know that phrase.

Maurice Cherry:
But like she went off to do that. You went to Interactive One, what caused that decision for you all to kind of both sort of veer away from Black Web 2.0?

Markus Robinson:
Yeah. It was a mix of a couple of different things. One, so we started the NewMe conference at the time. And we were working on just basically putting together a conference. And then between that time I ended up having a son. Well, my wife had a son, but I did end up having a little boy. So it was like, almost the NewMe conference was really taken off. And then it started morphing into the accelerator. I had to get focused on some personal stuff with my new son. And then after a while, the blog is one of those things. If you don’t maintain it constantly, especially if you’ve got folks on payroll, it just could go down quickly.

Markus Robinson:
And so we did the best we could to maintain it. But NewMe ended up being a huge initiative in and of itself. I ended up getting a position at Interactive One, we try our best to maintain it as we’re working on these two big initiatives, it was just too much. And so we ended up kind of letting it dissolve, like you mentioned, we did try to rebrand and we tried some other things. We ended up just letting it dissolve. And then Angela went on to really be laser focused on the accelerator. And I ended up kind of growing in my position that I wanted.

Maurice Cherry:
And I think there’s something to be said from knowing when you have to walk away so many times with projects, I think particularly if you’re black and you make projects and stuff like this, if you don’t build in some kind of, I don’t know, like escape hatch or something you can be trapped into, I don’t want to say trapped, but you can end up sort of doing what you’re doing until it just kind of runs out of steam. As you know because you worked on it with me for a while I did the black weblog awards from 2000, like five to 2011. And there had to be a time where you just say, you know what? This is not, and not in a bad way. I mean, because you look back at all that you’ve accomplished. You’re happy with that.

Maurice Cherry:
But you also have to, its sort of like that. What’s the song, The Gambler by Kenny Rogers, you have to know when to hold them and know when to fold them, know when to walk away. You got to know when to walk away. Like it gets to a point where you’re like, you know what, I can’t sustain this anymore. And you have to kind of let it, I want to say, let it die, but you kind of have to let it die. I ended up selling the black web blog awards and it went on for several years after me, but I remember even in the, like I was doing my studio and people knew me from the black web blog awards, they kept asking like, well, what happened to it?

Maurice Cherry:
And I’m like, I sold it. Like I did it for a while and then it became a bit untenable and I let it go. Like, you have to know when to let it go. I guess, how did you feel? Like, what were your feelings around that? Like, I know the reality of the situation, but how did it make you feel knowing that you have to walk away from it?

Markus Robinson:
At the time it was really disappointed. It was a community, it felt like it was just one of those things. It was our baby, you know what I mean??? It was something that we wanted to see, grow and develop. So it was definitely a rough time. But I also think at the end of the day Angela and I both kind of stayed true to the mission. Ultimately we wanted to be a place where black entrepreneurship, black media, black tech was recognized, was accomplished. We just want it to be a place where folks could talk about it. And I think Angela stayed true to that vision when she created NewMe and I somewhat stayed true to that vision as I went over to work at Interactive One as well.

Markus Robinson:
So I think it was sad times. But to your point, I think there’s got to be a time where you feel something has run in scores. It has to be okay to just kind to let it go. And I felt like we had both got to the point where it was just time to move on.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And also, you also have to know that with the work that you’ve done, it has been the direct inspiration of other platforms now. Like if no one else has said it I’ll say it, there would be no Blavity without Black Web 2.0. I don’t think so. I see a direct line between Black Web 2.0 and Blavity just in terms of the scope and the audience and how it’s taken off. So you all are trailblazers in that way. You helped to kind of set the trend.

Markus Robinson:
Yeah. And I would say, there is no Black Web 2.0 without Baratunde and Jack and Jill politics, Lynne d Johnson, there’s just so many people who played a part in Black Web 2.0, there’s no doubt that we wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for them. So I definitely think it’s got to be each of us kind of reaching up and helping each other and inspiring each other. It’s awesome that we could have just helped out in a little bit.

Maurice Cherry:
What is tech like for you now at this stage in your career?

Markus Robinson:
To be honest, it’s one of the most exciting, it’s just crazy exciting, more exciting than I think it’s ever been. These new technologies, if we were to talk in 2007 about artificial intelligence, that would have never been a topic of conversation. And so how easy it is to touch it, how easy it to get started on it. We talked about how in the beginning, when you had to put in a lot of work just to get your program to start now to be able to tap into some of these artificial intelligence libraries makes things so much easier. I think this is some of the most excited, I’ve been around technology and man, just to be in college around this time would be amazing because you have a bunch of time on your hands, some of your best ideas.

Markus Robinson:
And now the technology is you could reach it now and it doesn’t cost you a billion dollars to host a server nowadays. So I’m pretty excited. I’m really bullish on technology. And I just think its not only a great field to be in, but it’s one of those things that it’s always changing and there’s never a dull moment.

Maurice Cherry:
If you could like go back and talk to like young Markus, like fresh out of high school. I also, I wouldn’t say a freshman high school, let’s say fresh out of FAMU, if you’d go back and talk to Markus from back then, what advice would you give him?

Markus Robinson:
I think the biggest advice I would give is that you’re not too young to start anything. You know what I mean??? Like back in those days, my thought was, Oh, I can’t start a business. You have to be older and you have to be more experienced. You have to had worked in Corporate America first. And so like my mentality was like the only way I’ll be able to be a great entrepreneur or great business owner is if I learn how to do it from somewhere else. I have to learn how to do it in Corporate America and I take what I’ve learned in Corporate America to create my own company. I would have told myself like, no, that is not the case. That is not true.

Markus Robinson:
Little did we know that a kid who walk into a boardroom with flip flops in a hoodie create something as big as Facebook. You do not have to walk the corporate walk to be a great entrepreneur. And I would tell the young me to do it, be focused on it and that you don’t need any validation or any co-sign and do it. You can do it on your own.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of the people that influence you now?

Markus Robinson:
I still find influence from some of my previous mentors. They are different fields, law enforcement is one mentor. Another one is in education. I still get a lot of inspiration to see like, they’re the original puffies to me. They can’t stop, won’t stop. You know what I mean??, Still to this day, like they are just still grinding and still being entrepreneurs and still creating. And they are older is what I would say. I would never call them anything other than older. So they’re definitely inspirations, but I’m also just inspired by I’m a huge fan of Jeff Bezos. And just like that kind of mentality around, the ability to create nothing from something. I mean something from nothing, but also like to do it your own way.

Markus Robinson:
So definitely inspired by that and still just inspired by any tech entrepreneurs. And let me also just quickly shout out, my brother is huge inspiration. My brother has a created his own startup and sold it. He’s just a great inspiration and great entrepreneur and a great mentor that I can actually pick up the phone and call on any given day and get some really strong advice from somebody who’s been around the block a few times.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you think your life would have gone, if you didn’t get into tech?

Markus Robinson:
It’ll probably be in one of two places, either in education or ministry. Those are the two places that instantly hit me. When you asked me that question. I come from a long line of educators. My mom was a teacher, my dad works for the school system. My grandmother started a school like these. So I’ve definitely would have and I even taught a little bit in college, so I didn’t get bit by the technology bug. I might be a teacher or like I said, ministry, I was a church kid, loved the church. And so I could definitely see myself being a minister as well.

Maurice Cherry:
And now you’ve got two kids now, right?

Markus Robinson:
No three, actually.

Maurice Cherry:
Three. Oh my God. See, I remember when you had the first one, I didn’t know you had three. Do your kids want to follow in your footsteps?

Markus Robinson:
I actually just had the conversation with my oldest son about it. The technology was so new and such an amazing thing at the time that you can’t help but be bit by it. But now they’re surrounded by Nintendo Switch’s and all of this other stuff. So, yeah. So when we talk about technology, he’s interested, but it’s so second nature to them. They don’t see it necessarily as opportunity yet. So right now, if you ask him he’ll probably tell you he wants to be a fireman, but I can see it. I can see that curiosity around technology. And I got to fill in just like me. He’s going to get bit too.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting how much kids now, or I wouldn’t even call them really digital natives. Like that even feels like an archaic term to say it, like they are a product of this time. Like they know about TikTok and they know about all these other apps and things like this. It’s such an intrinsic part of what they do, probably exacerbated now by the pandemic. But even prior to that technology is such a part of everything that they have to do and everything that they work on that. And it’s probably difficult for them to even think, I would even say think of a time before technology because they’re kids, but I mean, I type my papers in high school,on a typewriter.

Maurice Cherry:
Like I didn’t have, I didn’t really have access to, I mean, unless I went to school, like I’d type on the computer, but at home it was like I was pulling out the brother and typing these papers up. And it’s wild with such scenarios. Like we can think of a time prior to this big proliferation of tech and everything. So I think we’re like the last generation that really has that perspective because everyone after us they’re steeped in it, they’re steeped in tech.

Markus Robinson:
Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s so true. I remember, well, my daughter she’s the youngest got a hold of my laptop. She couldn’t get it to work because she was so busy trying, she was swiping the screen keyboard before this key, what is this keyboard thing? So it just goes to, so it’s just innate in these young kids and it’s going to be interesting to see what their generation is going to do with all technology.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Especially now with kind of stuff you mentioned before with machine learning and AI and all this sort of stuff. Like it’s going to be amazing to see what this current generation really comes up with in the next like 20, 30 years.

Markus Robinson:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you want your legacy to be?

Markus Robinson:
I definitely want my legacy to be, one. Obviously I want to be outstanding father to my kids. So, that’s very important. Think it’s important to pass down some of the traditions and things that I’ve learned from my parents and from my grandparents to my kids. So I think I have a responsibility to be a great father, but I also believe I’ve had so many great mentors. I’ve had so many great folks who have helped me in my personal development, but also in my career development. And I feel like I have a responsibility to do the same for others as well. So I would love for my legacy to be that there was never a person that Markus did not help.

Markus Robinson:
He taught me what it meant to be successful, not only as a person, but also as a business owner and also as a maybe in Corporate America as well. So, if I can leave that legacy that he was helpful. He was a great mentor and somebody who helped guide me through this world of mine, I would take that in a heartbeat.

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

Markus Robinson:
Even though I’m leading product, there has never been a day that I have not tinkered with something. I still code for fun every single day. No lie. When my kids are asleep, I am on my computer coding some ideas, some websites, some new program, or even just tinkering around with some new Amazon, AWS technology, just so I can understand it. So I’m always tinkering. I got to fill in the next five years. I think I’ll probably have my own company or my own startup in some way, shape, form, or fashion. I am an entrepreneur at heart, even though I have been working here for 10 years, I felt my guts telling me I’m probably going to be doing something entrepreneurial soon.

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

Markus Robinson:
Yeah. You can find me on markusrobinson.com. I try my best to do a little bit of blogging there. Social media, it’s always Markus Robinson. That’s M-A-R-K-U-S-R-O-B-I-N-S-O-N. And if they want to see any of the cool things that I’m working on at work, just check out interactiveone.com. You can see our portfolio of sites there. And let me also drop this to your users as well. We’re in the process of bringing BlackPlanet back. So I’m leading that team as well. So BlackPlanet will be launching very soon and would love for your audience to be a part of that as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Look, if you are looking at this on podcast, holla at me, let me know-

Markus Robinson:
I will holla at you.

Maurice Cherry:
Markus Robinson, I cannot tell you how long overdue this conversation has been. It has been so good to catch up with you, to see how you have grown as a leader over the past, what 10 plus years that we’ve known each other is truly a blessing. Thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your story, dropping all these, sounds like we’re in a clubhouse room, dropping jams and stuff, but no seriously, man, thank you so much for coming on the show. I really do appreciate.

Markus Robinson:
No problem. It was truly my pleasure. Anytime.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & WitBrevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world.
We accomplish this through graphic design, presentations and workshops around I-D-E-A: inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.
If you’re curious to learn how to combine a passion for I-D-E-A with design, check us out at brevityandwit.com.
Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.
Lafiya Watson Ramirez

It’s still pretty early in 2021, so if the year hasn’t quite gotten off to a good start, then let this week’s conversation with Lafiya Watson Ramirez be the permission you need to turn things around! Lafiya dabbles in several media — web, photography, augmented reality, mixed reality — and creates new projects for herself and for her clients through her company, Bad Chick Studios.

We talked about how she started her studio, and from there she shared the resources and programs she used to teach herself AR and XR. (Spoiler alert: a lot of these tools are free!) Lafiya also spoke on how her love for photography led her to web design and learning Flash, and how embracing becoming a generalist has changed her work and how she perceives herself as a creative.

Get a bit of inspiration from Lafiya and learn what you can!

Danny Shaw

We’re keeping the design educator streak going this week with an interview with Danny Shaw. Along with teaching at NYC College of Technology, Danny is also the director of digital design and branding at Brandshare. He brings a wealth of real world, working knowledge into the classroom, and helps empower the next generation of designers to take over the industry.

Danny talked about growing up in New York City, and spoke on how that made an impact on him as he moved throughout his career. He also spoke about his time working at Essence Magazine and offered up some great advice on resources for up and coming designers.

Danny, thank you for giving back to the community through education!

Resources

David Jon Walker

Let’s start off Black History Month with some education, shall we?

Meet David Jon Walker, owner of the graphic design studio Rhealistic, and a design professor at Austin Peay State University in Nashville, TN.

Our conversation started off with a brief look back at 2020, and from there, David spoke on adapting to teaching design during this socially distant time. He also talked about growing up in Nashville, discovering design during college at Tennessee State University, and shared some of the goals he wants to accomplish this year. I’m really glad there are educators like David out there to help guide the next generation of designers!