Chip Gross

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

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

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chip Gross:
Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
No, no, no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chip Gross:
Good reason for that. Yeah.

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

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

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

Chip Gross:
Absolutely.

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

Chip Gross:
Show how old I am.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
What do you want your legacy to be

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Nothing about the cars?

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

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

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

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Zariah Cameron

September means it’s time for back to school, so what better way to kick off the month here on Revision Path than by talking with a design student? Meet Zariah Cameron, a soon-to-be graduate of North Carolina A&T and an up-and-coming voice in the design industry.

We talked about going through her senior year and working as an intern during this pandemic, and we also spoke about the AEI Design Program, an initiative she started to foster and establish relationships with partner companies to create a pipeline for Black college students. Zariah also shared some of her future goals, current obsessions, and what she’s learned from her internships throughout college. Keep an eye out for this young designer — she’s definitely going places!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Zariah Cameron:
Hi everyone. My name is Zariah Cameron. I am a senior graphic design student at North Carolina A&T State University. Within the past two years, I’ve been independently studying UX design, which is now the space that I’m in. And I’m now evolving into a UX equity strategist. It’s now my evolving role.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. How has the summer been going for you?

Zariah Cameron:
This particular summer is definitely been an unexpected turn of events in the best of ways I could say. Of course, just the opportunities of being able to speak and be in spaces where I definitely feel supported by my black community, specifically Black Designers has been great, but it has been hectic. I’ve been working my internship as a UX designer and then preparing for my last semester of school and just with my program and all the things we’re gearing up for. So it’s been a very busy summer. I’m trying to find ways to prevent burnout and exhaustion, especially again in the middle of pandemic. I’m currently home. I haven’t really gone anywhere in a year and a half, so I think that mental exhaustion is hitting me a little bit.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. This whole year, I mean, especially I think this summer in particular, it is probably harder than last summer, well for two reasons. One, we have a vaccine. And two, people aren’t taking it. COVID rates are going back up. And so, I really feel for, I mean, not just parents right now that have unvaccinated children, but also students right now. This is such a pivotal time in your development right now, from 18 to 21, 22-ish, you don’t really get this time back. And for it to be take in place during such a very stressful time in the world right now is really tough. But I mean, given all of that, what are you kind of doing for self care? How are you maintaining yourself while taking on all these responsibilities?

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah, I feel like I always tell people sometimes it’s not enough time in the day, but I’ve been trying to force myself to implement that time and schedule that time because for a lot of people that do know me, I am a scheduler. If it’s not on my calendar, it pretty much doesn’t happen. So I’ve been trying to schedule in that time, whether it be through writing, whether it be through even binge watching. Just to have some mindless TV to just get my mind away from all the other responsibilities that I have. Going outside for a walk. I love hiking and going in nature whenever I can. And also, just journaling has been another way of me kind of releasing and relaxing from everything.

Maurice Cherry:
How would you say you’ve changed over the past year?

Zariah Cameron:
Gosh, I’ve changed a lot, but I really didn’t think that I’d change within a year being in the same exact place that I have been since March of 2020. But it’s surprising what a year will do. And within a year, I feel like I’ve gained so much confidence within myself and been able to really vocalize a lot of the things that I was maybe apprehensive or scared or anxious to express, whether it was me as an individual designer, as a person, as a community leader now. Those types of roles, I never really saw myself being a part of a year ago. And now, I’m leading the community. I’m advocating for other black design students. I’m being able to speak on that work through various different speaking engagements, which, one, I never at all saw myself as being that person to kind of go up and speak. But now I’ve just definitely seen myself evolved with being more authentically myself and being able to be comfortable doing that even if other people may have their own negative opinions towards that, and also being okay with that as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, speaking of opportunities, you spoke at this year at Where are the Black Designers Conference that they had back in June. I mean, that was a pretty stacked panel that you were on. The panel was called Navigating Different Design Professions and Levels as a Black Designer. And you’re on there with people that have been on Revision Path before; Kevin Bethune, Timothy Bardlavens, Gabrielle Smith, Raja Schaar, who I think is a professor at… I think she’s at either at Temple or Drexel.

Zariah Cameron:
Drexel.

Maurice Cherry:
One of the two. I get the-

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah, at Drexel.

Maurice Cherry:
At Drexel. I get the E in Temple and Drexel mixed up, but yeah, she’s at Drexel. And then moderated by Omari Souza, who someone else has been on the show. I mean, you held your own in that panel. Those were some really heavy hitters. I mean, to be able to really speak about the work that you’re doing and you’re still a college student is great. I mean, I think that’s wonderful.

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah. One, they’re all amazing people. Raja, I’m very close with. And so, to just be on the panel with her was just amazing, and just having that community. And I tell people being able to speak at the Where are the Black Designers Conference was really a full circle for me because I was an audience member just last year watching that. And so to be able to have that opportunity to speak on that panel and speak about my experiences was definitely an honor.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you mentioned this internship that you were doing, or you just finished up. That was at Ally Bank. How was that experience?

Zariah Cameron:
It’s definitely a surprising experience. I did not know what to expect. I mean, I had gotten accustomed to… Well, I got a feel for the culture of the company with a few of events that I had been able to participate through my university and just Ally being a connected company. But I really didn’t know how that experience was going to be virtually. And from my past experiences, I kind of mixed the idea of interning or working at another financial institution. And so, I really wasn’t sure what this experience would be like.

Zariah Cameron:
I had expressed to my recruiter before I even accepted the offer and even when I accepted the offer that I really want to focus on inclusion work, equity work within the design space. Honestly, I really wasn’t sure how I was going to do that in a bank and what that would even look like, but I definitely had a really good experience and just being able to not only connect with other interns that look like me, that went to other HBCUs and even non-HBCU students and just the closest we had together in that virtual space, but also having like, I realized how important it is to have a manager that really supports you in your growth and your goals. And so I was very grateful to have a manager that did that. He kind of helped me to maneuver through that summer. And through that, I was able to get connected to this inclusive design team that was actually just starting up within our design organization.

Zariah Cameron:
And so, being able to be a part of that and lead a lot of discussions that I believe needed to happen, it allowed me to kind of realize or see what role I fit best within design, and also to see the importance of how design fits into helping marginalized communities reach that economic mobility and financial freedom. And so, it was definitely a great moment for me, and also just to have people that were supportive with me during that process too.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting how financial institutions are starting to become sort of the vanguard of that kind of equity center design. We’ve had several people on the show before from Capital One. That’s such a huge part of their design ethos, is making sure that as you’re saying about underrepresented or marginalized communities have that financial freedom, but just the level of care that they put into all of their interactions to make sure that equity is part of the goal from conversation design, to even how they sort of lay out the physical layout of their banks and everything. It’s really interesting how that sector has been sort of a forefront when it comes to that.

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah, I definitely agree. I think I was able to see that from a financial lens and being able to have those conversations of like, “Hey, we really need to focus on the culture of our customers and focusing on working with our communities” and being able to provide this assistance, or, “Who are we actually excluding in these conversations?” and uncovering what our biases are or our assumptions are of our customers, or even people who could be potential customers of our bank and being able to create that organic relationship because we are an online bank. And so we have to be able to foster some type of connection to them, especially if we’re not going to be face-to-face.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). I mean, look, my money is at Ally. So I trust that they’re doing the right thing. They’re doing something right. Let’s talk about the AEI Design Program. I first heard of this actually at the Where are the Black Designers Conference this year when you were speaking about it. But tell me more about the project. I mean, you started this while you were still a student. I mean, you’re still a student now, but you started this while you were at North Carolina A&T, right?

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah, I did. I started this right after actually Where are the Black Designers last year, and I was just very empowered and inspired by [inaudible 00:13:45]. I was able to connect with so many different black designers and have that support in that community. But unfortunately, I realized that a lot of what I was seeing, they were professionals. And I wanted something where there was a space just for us as students. Looking at my own journey, I realized that there were so many gaps that I was missing, and not just within my own education, but just the support whether it be mentorship, sponsorship, things like that, that were hindering me from really fully being successful or having access to certain resources or just knowledge in general that would help me get myself in that door of even just landing my first internship.

Zariah Cameron:
I realized there was a lot of other students, whether they went to a PWI or an HBCU, were experiencing those same challenges and they really didn’t have any type of community. No matter where they were, they didn’t feel any sense of belonging. And I wanted to bring that element to this space. And of course, there are tons of design student communities that were out there, but I wanted there to be a community just for us. And so we’ve evolved. I’ve evolved ever since then. I think AEI has definitely helped me to evolve into a leader that I never expected. I’ve always wanted to be some form of a leader, I just didn’t know what. And being able to have this program outside of just school has allowed me to flourish and have my own space and create a freedom to put all of these things out here with our programs, our events, all those different things. And also to be able to reach a larger audience than just the students that are within my school.

Zariah Cameron:
And so I was leading a team of three other students. And now we’re growing. We just added a few more team members to our group. And so I’m really excited of what we’ll be able to accomplish this upcoming school year too.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, as far as when you’re doing all this organizing and you’re getting students and stuff together, are events kind of part of this as well? Are you staging any sort of virtual events?

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah. All of our events are virtual because I realized, again, there was that access component, and I want students to be able to access us even beyond this pandemic if we get out of it, and just being able to have access to those resources whether you’re in our state, whether you go to our school or you’re not. And that’s what I want to be, provide through this program. Actually, within the next few weeks, we’ll be actually launching our Fall Design Bootcamp where students will be able to work with our company partners and create a design solution based on their stated problem. And so I’m really excited for this because it not only gives an opportunity for students to connect with each other, with other black students, but also for them to connect with companies and for them to see firsthand on a more personal level of how these companies operate, what their processes are like, and to ask those hard questions and for the companies to just see that talent that’s there. So I’m really excited for this, in particular for this year.

Maurice Cherry:
How would you like to see AEI continue to grow? I mean, it sounds like you’re already on a good path right now.

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah, I’m really excited. I mean, of course, I’m hoping to have more company partnerships of course. But I mean just this year, this year in January, three or four of my students got landed their very first design internships. I think two of them are at Facebook right now. One of them’s at Spotify, and one of them landed a full time gig at Allscripts. I basically help them to transition through their interview process. And so, to see them land those interviews and land that offer was so thrilling for me. That’s one of my goals that I want to do this school year, as well as to continue to allow students to receive those offers and find a place where they feel comfortable and safe.

Zariah Cameron:
I also want within this next year to transition into our mental health initiative. A lot of students, especially during this pandemic, have definitely had burnout, have had several different experiences where their mental health has been at risk. Especially as a creative, I feel like we sometimes burn ourselves out even more because we’re exhausting so much creative energy. And so, I think one of my goals is to really start implementing different sessions or conversations around the importance of mental health and just finding that joy in our lives as black people and helping to separate ourselves from all the trauma that we have to endure and see and experience. And then I think my final thing is I’m in the process of making us an official nonprofit. So our main goal is the bootcamp, this mental health initiative, and leading into our nonprofit status.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s amazing. I mean, I’d take my hat off to you for being able to accomplish all of that even while you’re in school and doing these internships. I mean, that’s really admirable. I mean, I have to say you’re getting your career off to such a fantastic start right now, like you said, just helping out with community, it’s one thing to be able… Of course, you’re doing internships and being able to speak and stuff like that, but then to also give back to that community at the same time is, I mean, that’s really admirable.

Zariah Cameron:
Thank you. I definitely appreciate it. I think the reason why I wanted to start this out while I was in school is because I can see it from the lens of the student and I understand what those struggles are and what I’ve experienced. And I’m able to really advocate for what is a need. And not that people who are outside of school or far moved from school can’t advocate for those things, but I think within my current generation and just being within in the know of what really is going on and the realities of these educational institutions, I’m able to really speak on those gaps, those issues, and what solutions need to be implemented to move forward.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes sense. Students know what students need, you know? I mean, I couldn’t possibly guess what students now would want. I’m 20 something years removed from that so I couldn’t tell you. I mean, to be able to do it from that perspective is also a really added benefit.

Maurice Cherry:
Just to kind of switch gears a little bit here, because I’m curious where that spirit of volunteerism and everything sort of comes from. Tell me about where you grew up.

Zariah Cameron:
I grew up about… I always say I’m from Atlanta, Georgia, because a lot of people, when you say somewhere else, they’re like, “What? Where are you from?” So I’m about 30 minutes on the south side out from the city of Atlanta.

Zariah Cameron:
Design was never really a thought in my mind, that I would ever major in design. I’ve always seen myself as creative with writing, being an outlet, whether it be poetry, things like that, or even just expressing myself in a lot of different ways, but never really saw myself going into design. Because I was such a strong writer, I actually had in my mind all the way until my senior year that I was going to be a journalism major. That’s what I wanted to do. Everyone was always telling me that I was a strong writer and that was the direction that I was going to take.

Zariah Cameron:
But I was very fortunate enough to have the opportunity, for those that don’t know me, I went to a year-round school. That allowed me to have breaks in between the year when other students were in school. During that time, I was able to be around my dad who works in the College of Computing at Georgia Tech. And I was submerged in technology. I was just completely at awe by computer science and how tech was able to just change and impact lives. And through that, just being around there, I was able to work with Black Girls CODE and work with students and teach them and volunteer in those different ways. I think through that, it was like, “Wow, I’ve really liked doing this type of work.” I don’t know how I’m going to do it or what I’m going to do, but I really do like the space. And I also really love working with children and teaching them in some capacity because I love just when their eyes light up when they’ve learned something new, especially when it relates to technology.

Zariah Cameron:
And so at the time, design really wasn’t this great big… Especially UX design, it was not this great big buzz word or exciting space to be in that people were talking about, especially within academia. And so everyone was like, “Okay, if you want to be in technology, go into computer science. That’s the only way. That’s the only possible way you’re going to be in technology if you want to impact tech.” And so I was like, “Okay, well I guess this is the path that I want to go into.” And I always tell this part of the story because I think it’s important for students and anybody else to know and understand the path is not going to be perfect. It’s definitely not going to be linear. And just because you get one rejection doesn’t mean that is end of your journey.

Zariah Cameron:
And so, I applied to our Computer Science Program at my school, and I got rejected. I thought it was the end of the world and that I was not going to be able to make the impact that I wanted. But I’m very glad that I did get that rejection because I don’t think I would be where I am right now in my journey. My school has a Graphic Design department which explores elements of game design and obviously the foundational elements of graphic design. We learn a little bit of CAD and modeling and all these different areas. I decided to kind of go into that space because I’m like, “Okay, well I can go into design, and maybe still somewhat have an impact in technology.” Through that, I was able to transition into UX design very easily through just like me researching, doing things on my own.

Zariah Cameron:
UX design isn’t offered a part of our curriculum. But through that foundation that I did have through my school and just the support of my teachers, specifically my black teachers, they were able to kind of help me and guide me into this new space that I am now in, which is UX design. Like I said, this path was definitely not linear. It took me a long time to figure out what exactly I wanted to do. But I think with UX design, it allows me to get the best of both worlds of working in tech if I want to and being able to still be in that design space while also just being able to understand people and implement their stories and understand who they are to implement within the experience. I think that’s probably one of my favorite parts about UX is, it’s really is all about people. And I think being a writer, I’m a natural storyteller. And so I think it always resonates with me when I’m able to connect someone’s story to the experience that we’re creating within design and tech.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a really great way to sort of tie those two concepts together. For a while, Revision Path had a kind of this writing initiative, we called it Recognize, where it was sort of like an essay submission sort of thing. People would submit essays around a certain theme, but they would have to be designed focused. For last year for example, the theme was Fresh. And so you would write design essays that sort of in some way encompass the theme of Fresh. My goal with it is actually kind of the goal of what you were sort of alluding to. It’s about using writing and using texts and using storytelling as a way to kind of also put forth these certain design concepts or things like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Unfortunately, Recognize was not super successful. We have to kind of shut it down this year. I hope to bring it back at some point in the future. But I like how you’re able to kind of tie into what writing does for you as a designer and how that storytelling ties into what you do with UX design. I think that’s a really powerful connection to make.

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah. Like I said, I think I finally found my space. Just because I think even within computer science, there is that level of strategy and critical thinking that I had the knack for. And now to be able to kind of have that skill set or mindset and implement that ideology within design has been just really great for me. I think now I’ve definitely seen myself evolve from just an individual contributor, like an individual design contributor, to this person that is really being able to lead conversations about how we think about design, in again as I mentioned before, that inclusion equity space.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me more about the program at A&T. I think when folks look at HBCU and then they think about design, I’m not sure of North Carolina A&T is a school that they may readily think about. But can you just tell us like a little bit about the program and sort of what you’re going to remember the most from being at A&T? Because you’re about to graduate this semester.

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah. I wish that our program was a little bit more marketable. I wish they marketed us a little bit better, because I think a lot of students would benefit from just having black teachers that really want you to succeed and do well. And I think also, I wish that our particular department sat in a different space because I think sometimes we can get overlooked. So we sit within the College of Science and Technology. And so when a lot of people think of science and technology, you think of biology, chemistry, mathematics sits within that space too. And then you’ve got IT, informational systems, all those things like that. So you’ve got all these other majors, and then we have graphic design. And so, a lot of people whenever they think about the College of Science and Technology, they don’t think about that graphic design technology space being an option for them to major in especially because North Carolina A&T is especially known for agriculture, in the name, Engineering especially is one of the largest areas that we’re known for.

Zariah Cameron:
So again, design is really second priority. But I wish that it wasn’t, because again, like I said, I’ve had really great professors that have really helped me grow as a designer. Some definite tough love that’s been given to me and brief anecdote. I had a professor. I failed his class in my first year. I really just didn’t do well and had to retake it. And the second time, I got a B+. He had written and I told him, I was like, “Thank you. Thank you for helping me to get to this point.” And he was like, “I already knew you could do it. You just have to really prove to people that you can do it and you have the capability because I know it’s already in there.” And just him really believing in me and giving me that tough love that I needed, just helped me to appreciate not only him more but the space that I’m in, and really been able to push myself that much harder and see what I can achieve.

Zariah Cameron:
I think having those people in your corner that are looking out for you in that way is one of the best experiences. Now, reflecting and looking back, now that I’m getting ready to graduate, it’s something that I definitely love and will miss. Yeah, I have some more thoughts, but I’ll stop talking [inaudible 00:31:10].

Maurice Cherry:
No, I have to say that’s one thing about HBCUs that… I don’t know. You just don’t get that at other schools. The professors really do care. And that’s not to say that at PWIs and at other schools, other professors don’t care. But I mean I can only speak from my experience also going to an HBCU. I went to Morehouse. I mean, there’s just a certain different level of care. They’re really looking out for you in ways that you may not even really be considering. I mean, don’t get me wrong. There’s some professors that are like, “You’re just another student, just another number, et cetera.” But I think once you get into your degree program, you’d be surprised just how much the professors are really rooting for you and wanting to make sure that you succeed, because it looks good on them if they have graduates that come out of the program. So it makes sense that at HBCUs that they would just be more open to that.

Maurice Cherry:
And then of course, it’s just as black people helping black people. I’ve had several other folks on the show that when they talk about their time at other design institutions that I won’t name, but they’re not HBCU, but at other design institutions, it’s rough. Their educational experience is rough. There’s no mercy. And certainly not anywhere their having black professors or even really able to design towards their culture in the work that they do. I mean, you have all these different inherent benefits that come with being able to study at an HBCU. And just from what you’re sharing about the program, sounds like it’s a really great program. I mean, NC A&T overall is a great school. I think it’s one of the biggest research institutions in North Carolina. I’m guessing probably second to UNC.

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah, [inaudible 00:32:59]. I mean, of course, every school has it’s… I really had to advocate for myself and try to reach out to certain people and do certain things that I was like, “Hey.” That I actually saw everything that these companies had to offer, the realities of what things were, and being able to kind of bring that back to the students within my program and show that like, “Hey, there actually is great black designer talent that needs to be sought after.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Duke is the other school that I was thinking about.

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Folks that went to Duke don’t kill me, I was like… But I know that North Carolina A&T though, is one of the big research institutions in the state. So that’s good to know. And also while you were at A&T, you worked at a number of internships. I mean, you mentioned Ally. But you worked at what? Like two or three other companies while you were there, right?

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah, I did. I worked for Wells Fargo last summer. It’s kind of weird because all my internships that I’ve had have all been virtual so I have no idea what this corporate world will look like once we go back in person. That’s going to be a whole another, I guess, hill or road we’ll have to cross to get there. But yeah, I interned at Wells Fargo. I wasn’t a designer, but it gave me the perspective of just how things work, how systems work, how corporate space work, how financial institutions are run, and in some ways being that fly on the wall of seeing the realities of what things were. But it gave me perspective of not just… Even though I wasn’t a designer for that particular role, I was a QA, I was a quality assurance analyst. And so that role taught me how to really pay attention to the details, the importance of how things work and how things function within a platform, a tool, and pointing out those shortcomings of how we can really better improve those products for the user.

Zariah Cameron:
And so, that really helped me to analyze a lot things better when it came to actually designing. And then recently what this is, I worked for a startup. It was really small. That was really catered to black women’s hair and finding the right hair regimen for them. And that was a really great experience to kind of work on it from the ground up and being able to work with other black women that had natural hair and just pouring my own experience, my own stories, and other people’s research and hair journeys into that. So that was a really fun experience. It’s also challenging in that quick, fast paced type of environment.

Zariah Cameron:
And then recently, before Ally I worked at PepsiCo as sort of a UX, UI designer, which I focus more on UI. And so, I realized I’m a better UX designer than a UI designer. I think people definitely should understand the difference because I think sometimes we group it together, but they definitely are separate things and have their own responsibilities. And I think people are stronger or, I guess, weaker in certain spaces. I definitely saw myself as more of a UX designer. But through that experience, I learned so much. I learned about the responsibilities and the job of a UI designer and how much work it takes in the input and all the different intricacies that you have to think about when developing certain things.

Zariah Cameron:
So that was a really good experience as well. And then I think just as I’ve grown, I’ve evolved and figured out what’s the best space for me to be in through all these different internship opportunities that I’ve had, and just where do I not only feel the most supported but also safe because I’ve definitely thought a lot about myself as a black designer. I’m not just a designer working at a company. But really just caring about the impact that I make. And does that company actually, or the people really care about my wellbeing and not just my individual contribution to the product?

Maurice Cherry:
And you say all these internships that you’ve done have been virtual. What is that like? What is a virtual internship like? Just kind of give a brief example of what that’s like.

Zariah Cameron:
I’m not going to just say, oh my gosh, it sucks, but it is a lot harder. Because, one, with PepsiCo for example, I was working or having to interact with working on a project with a physical product. And so it was a lot harder because it was like, “Okay. I’m designing for a physical product that I can not see, feel, touch anything. I can’t interact with to see how it functions to better make improvements on it.” And so it was more or less like, “Okay, well I have to watch videos. And I have to figure out, watch customer reviews on this product to see what are their pain points without me actually being able to physically interact with it myself, which was definitely harder.

Zariah Cameron:
I think if I was in the office, I could just go to that room, look at the product, be like, “Okay, this is what’s wrong.” And I think it’s even more crucial for black people because you do want to make sure that this is a safe and healthy space for you. I heard a lot of people have very toxic experiences from companies. I think that’s the one big fear because you can easily hide behind a screen and you don’t really know what that culture is like, and they could be portraying something that may not even be realistic. And then you get in the office and it’s something completely different.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s interesting. The conversation in tech over the past, I don’t know, maybe like six or seven years has been around, of course, making sure that these tech companies and design focused companies are safe spaces for black people and people of color to work in. And now with the pandemic and it’s driving people to have to work from home, how do you make sure that that same feeling is also existing in the virtual space? I mean, I just know from the past few places where I’ve worked at that have been sort of a hybrid of remote and even in the office, and then of course with the pandemic driving it to be fully remote, it’s amazing how different sort of microaggressions can kind of pop up or just different sort of ways that you can feel left out in a way.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I think that’s something that companies are still going to have to deal with and try to figure out as it looks like this is not abating anytime soon. We’re still going to be on this kind of hybrid/fully remote sort of workforce thing. But how do you make sure that those digital spaces are also going to be safe and accommodating for your workers that are people of color? That’s the best way to put it.

Zariah Cameron:
I definitely agree. I think working with Ally is probably one of the best [inaudible 00:40:36] so far, just because, like I said, I’ve never been able to connect with other interns in this way. I think that was a big thing. The way that they’re recruiting was… I don’t even know how they did it, but they just chose a really good intern class that reflected the culture of the company that they were really trying to promote. Of course, again like I said, every company has its shortcomings and things like that, but I believe like from the top down, everyone was welcoming and really wanting to promote that culture where you can email an executive and they would reach out to you and they would meet with you and answer your questions or talk to you and have a brief conversation.

Zariah Cameron:
I think that openness is something that you don’t always get a chance to have and get exposure to. And so, I think not only having a intern class but also having your recruiters really just help you have that personal experience as best as you can in this virtual space. Again, like I said, it was hard not being able to be in the office and collaborate. Especially as designer, it’s so hard. You’ve got to find all these alternative ways to collaborate together to design, to communicate virtually, that it can make things a little bit more difficult. But I mean, if the people are good, I think the collaboration will kind of fall in line with that energy and that team chemistry.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Right now is your… I mean, again, you’re at this very pivotal point in your educational career as well as just your professional career, about to get out there in the working world. Do you feel supported as a black designer?

Zariah Cameron:
There’s many different ways we can take that. I want to say yes, but I feel like yes is such a short answer. I think depending on what area of my life that I am a black designer, it could go yes, or maybe, or even no. I think with my Black Designers community, I’ve been able to find amazing mentors/friends who have really supported me and been like, “Hey, if you want to take a break, it’s okay if you want to take a break. We’re still going to be here when you come back and we’re going to be holding down the fort till you get back while you’re gone.” And being able to be comfortable and also vulnerable with these people has been such a privilege because I know a lot of people don’t get a chance to do that or don’t feel comfortable enough to.

Zariah Cameron:
So I think in that way, this community like Where are the Black Designers, my Black Ignite community, those people have really allowed me to be comfortable being my authentic self and also being vulnerable enough to express certain concerns or issues that I may have that’s going on in my life, whether it be personal or within my career. So I think in that way, I feel supported. I think in a corporate setting, I’m still navigating through that. I would say yes from certain people, but of course, I’m still getting a feel for what that is and what people’s intentions are. I think for the most part, I would say yes.

Zariah Cameron:
But then again, it’s just been something I’ve been thinking about. Even looking at Simone Biles and her deciding to leave the Olympics because of her mental health. And people just giving so much backlash to her making that decision because she was prioritizing her mental health and just the exhaustion energy that she was giving out and probably just how tired she was. And just seeing how people only appreciate your skill and the value you bring over your actual health and you as a person. I think that’s the biggest thing that I’m concerned about is like, “Are you really caring about me and my self as a human being? Or is it just the value that I bring to this company? The value that I bring to this community? The value I bring to this school?” or whatever it may look like. That’s where I’m trying to find what that balance is, and who are those people that I should have in my corner, and who are those people that will have access to those versions or sides of me. So that’s kind of where I am.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s really tricky now. I mean, I say that as someone that’s been in the industry for a while. I mean, certainly within the past 10 to 12 years or so, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in really just black spaces at design. There’s podcasts like this, but there’s conferences, there’s meetups, there’s initiatives like what you’re doing with AEI Design Program. A lot of that stuff really didn’t exist 10 years ago. It was hard to find. And so it can be interesting now, especially if you exist among different identities. Like, if you’re just like a cis black man, and there may be one thing. But what if you’re a woman? What if you’re a member of the LGBT community? What if you identify a different part of the gender spectrum? The level of support that you would get as a black designer can even vary within all of those spaces and so. It’s still evolving like you said, I think. It’s a big question with a not so simple answer. So I feel you there.

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah. That’s kind of where I’m at with all of this. It’s like in certain places I could say, yes, that I do feel supported. In other spaces, it’s like you’re on the fence and you’re not really completely sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Zariah Cameron:
You still have to only give one element of you. I guess that’s where code switching comes in. But even then, it’s like code switching is this element of losing a sense of your identity. That’s a whole another thing that I’m trying to navigate through.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What are you obsessed with right now?

Zariah Cameron:
In terms of personal life?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I was going to say you can answer that any way you like. Personal, professional, whatever.

Zariah Cameron:
I would say… What am I obsessed right now? I think right now it’s maybe a weird answer, but I’m honestly obsessed with the friendships that I’ve gotten to have over this past year. It’s very overwhelming. I’ve never had friend group of black designers or even designers that have really been so overwhelmingly loving to me, not only my career but just me as a person, and really being that support system that I needed. I think for so long…

Zariah Cameron:
I mean, even the people that are like, “Oh, well you go to HBCU. Of course, you have support.” And I’m like, “Yes, but even within that HBCU, there are groups.” There are groups. And so, sometimes you don’t always fit into those groups. Or even within those groups that you may be a part of, you still don’t completely feel a sense of belonging. And so to be able to go in a space, be around people that care about me and love me for just who I am and whether I change or evolve or whatever phase of my life that I’m growing into, that they’re there to support me and guide me through those different shifts, those different transitions.

Zariah Cameron:
And I know, like I said, weird answer in terms of being obsessed. But I think, like I have my own podcast with Heatherlee who’s the founder of Black Ignite, and just how our lives cross within a year, I would have never imagined for our friendship to be where it is, going from professional relationship to this very personal friendship that I value very deeply and to be able to work on this podcast with her and hear her story and how much our stories literally are parallel to each other. And so being able to have people like her and other people like Mitzi, like my Design to Divest Community as well. Having them in my corner is something I’m truly become obsessed with and want to continue to be around and want to just have that energy around me, that healthy energy. Because sometimes being around your own people still isn’t healthy, so having those people in those relationships has been really great for me within this past year.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Aside from those friendships, have you had any mentors or anyone that have really kind of helped you out either over this past year or just along the way in your journey as a designer?

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah. I’ve had a lot of different people, some that I’m very, very fortunate and very grateful to have in my life. And they’re all for different reasons. At first, at the start of my career or even school experience, I thought that I could really only have one said mentor, and that’s what it is. But as I’m evolving, I realized I need different mentors for different things, different spaces in my life. And so, I’ve had mentors that have taught me about just how to run my program, guiding me answering those questions as we’re moving into becoming a nonprofit, understanding elements of brand strategy for our program. Then I have mentors that who I now can call friends as well, who have helped me, guide me as a person and just where I need to go on my life.

Zariah Cameron:
And then of course, I have two of my really close professors. One in particular that has become a very good mentor to me, that actually was the one who got me into UX design that just I go for not only personal advice, but of course career advice as well. So I think over this past year, I’ve definitely had some great champions and mentors in my corner that are designated to different areas of my life to help me to flourish.

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

Zariah Cameron:
Getting my PhD.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Zariah Cameron:
I mean, yes, that is a goal of mine. I’ve expressed I will not… a lot of people have told me like, “Oh, why don’t you just go ahead and get your PhD now?” I’m like, “I’m exhausted. I’m tired. I do not want to go through school again at the moment.” But I think eventually, right now I currently see myself leading a community, wherever that may be in, whether that be in the corporate space, I definitely see myself leading those conversations surrounding equity within the design space and growing in that, because that is a space that I want to continue to be in, in various different areas, whether it’s like I said, in the corporate space, leading my community, or even teaching. I think eventually I want to get my PhD within this element of design and psychology in understanding people. And to be able to eventually [inaudible 00:53:17] down the line teach to students, teach to that next generation college students that are coming in.

Zariah Cameron:
I think by then I already have that experience of being in the corporate world myself, and I can be able to instill that wisdom and have those connections to people through my community to be able to give back to those students that I’m teaching. That’s eventually where I want to evolve myself into.

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

Zariah Cameron:
Yeah, one, they can find me on Medium, in terms of my writing. By the way, an article will be coming out, not through my Medium, but through the Ally Tech Blog on inclusive design being more than a buzz word. So definitely look out for that. And then you can find me on LinkedIn. I’m very active on there, and it’s of course just my name. And then you can find me at Instagram. It’s just my name, zariah.cameron. And then of course our program, our program’s Instagram, aeidesign_. You can find me active on all of those. Definitely feel free to follow me and stay connected, especially those who want to get plugged into my community, my program, and even companies wanting to work with us, and just people just wanting to connect and definitely open to that.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Zariah Cameron, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show, for taking time to come out on the show. Like I said, it’s been a while since we’ve had a design student on the show, particularly one from an HBCU. But when I first heard about you at Where are the Black Designers and heard you speak and everything, I was like, “I got to get her on the show just to have her talk about what she’s doing.” I mean, just the fact that you’re accomplishing this much as a student, I think bodes so well for your future career. I’m really excited to see what you’re able to accomplish once you graduated and really got out there in the design world, and are able to make an even bigger impact. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Zariah Cameron:
No, thank you. It’s been such an honor, and thank you for asking such great questions. I love being able to share my story with you and the audience.

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

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Joseph Carter-Brown

Joseph Carter-Brown is a man of many titles. He’s a UX strategist. He’s a human-centered designer. And by day, he’s the global UX manager at Stanley Black & Decker, a Fortune 500 company that’s over 175 years old! Joseph’s versatility as a design leader extends far beyond titles, as you’ll definitely discover in this week’s interview.

We start off with a look at his work and his team, and he shares an anecdote from last year that put him on his current path to success. Joseph also talked to me about how he worked his way into a position at Apple thanks to Steve Jobs, his shift to UX after studying at Full Sail University, and speaks on his time with AIGA Baltimore and about how he wants to bridge the digital divide in Baltimore. Joseph is a prime example of someone who is using his skills to help build a more equitable future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I’m Joseph Carter-Brown. I am a user experience, service design and design strategy specialist. I’ve been in design for over 20 years. Started as a kid. I am currently the global UX manager for Stanley Black & Decker, and I’m leading a team of user experience designers, strategists, and researchers helping to bring user experience in the user-centered design focus toward our digital brand and overall design culture.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. We definitely will talk more about your work at Stanley Black & Decker just a little bit later. But right now, how has 2021 been treating you so far?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
2021 has actually treated me really well. I just bought a house about a few, well, two weeks ago now. So that was coming from a kid who had to be rather scrappy throughout childhood and growing up and get into an opportunity to say I can make that happen for myself was such an honor for me really. So far it’s been treating me really well.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Over this past year or so, have you picked up on any like new habits or behaviors about yourself?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I had this latent introversion that I’ve regained. It’s really funny because a lot of my work as we’ve talked about previously about with AIG Baltimore, and working in this often front facing space where I had to be in front of people, I got used to being an extrovert, and over the pandemic, it reminded me that I actually kind of just like small understated experiences, hiking, getting away from people, not being around a whole lot of people. It’s been a way of rekindling my love for maybe just myself in those small interactions.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I feel like everyone has gotten closer to their true self in some aspects because of this time, because we just had to spend so much time quarantined or isolated from other people.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. I think it’s one of those things where I know when the pandemic starting I had, or especially when it really hit, my daughter’s birthday, my daughter’s 10th birthday was March 13th, 2020 and I had-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. I had this whole amazing surprise trip for her. We were going to go somewhere we had never been. I designed a website for it. I did all of these things and then I had to cancel that over just the day before we were supposed to leave and it was supposed to happen. I had this new job opportunity lined up that got washed away. My girlfriend is a nurse and so I was nervous about her going into work. My ex-wife got sick with COVID actually. So I’m concerned about, is she going to be sick? I kind of had to take a step back and just sit and do a lot of reading and look at myself and say, “No matter what happens, who are you?” I had to ask myself that question and really go inside for a while and understand my values and myself as a person. So I think that was an important moment. Fortunately, everybody’s okay. Everybody’s so safe and healthy in all of that. But it was definitely a moment of reflection for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. I bet. That’s a lot. Wow.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah, just more gray hairs on my head is it seems to [inaudible 00:08:55].

Maurice Cherry:
So let’s talk about your work at Stanley Black & Decker, which, I mean, in case people don’t know, that is a huge, huge business. Of course, you can probably infer from the name of the company. There’s two brands, Stanley Black & Decker. There’s like a dozen or so brands of consumer goods and manufacturing goods and stuff. The business has been around for over 150 years. You serve as their global UX manager. Tell me a bit about what you do.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah, so it’s probably as daunting as it sounds. I am there to really help bring a structure to how they approach digital brand engagements. I have a team of about six or seven designers, strategists and researchers, and we’re currently working on really working to reshape the way user experience is done throughout the global brand. One of the things I find interesting is with this old, long in the tooth organization, a lot of their understanding of the digital space is also growing. So there’s a lot of teaching that we have to do, a lot of mindset shift that we have to do. So it’s a lot of work in helping teams internally understand how to collaborate because so much of it for so long has been about working to… People build their silos and people working in these very tight knit groups.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I’m kind of the kick in the door type of person like, “No, we bring everything together. We show our work. We show our dirt. We show our ugly and we just go and we work together and we build this together.” Sometimes that’s a little bit uncomfortable for people and especially for teams that are used to having this very tight-knit, close-fisted environment. So it’s a lot about really organizational transformation, as much as it’s about digital transformation within the organization. It feels like we’re kind of tackling both right now.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m glad that you mentioned that about kind of the work that you’re doing, focus on the global brand, because I was even thinking, as I was doing research for this interview, like where does UX come into a company like Stanley Black & Decker? I would imagine maybe for the actual websites or something, I’m not sure. I mean, when you say the global brand, can you talk about just what some of those touch points are?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. So one of the really tricky things that we’re dealing with is we’re a global brand. So we have to think about not just how say Black & Decker site is presented to someone in the US. We have to think about how it presents in Latin America, Germany, Asia, Australia, all of these places. So it really about understanding, dealing with cultural difference, cultural expectation, cultural norms. It has a lot to do with understanding just communication and setting proper expectations. It’s also about not just control, but flexibility and letting go, like where do you compromise and where do you let go of the reins and understand that you can’t do everything. So some of it’s about just creating guides and helping people move in the direction that you like them to be.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
But yeah, so a lot of our work is particularly around the website and the digital experience to start. But when I look at user experience, I like to call user experience the customer service of branding. It’s the thing that you have to do where you have to think about how every step of the way is managed, and especially now, I mean, the key touch points that we have are digital, right? All of us have probably been in our houses, at home and doing everything virtually. So the experience that you create in the digital space is so much more important now, but it’s been going that way for so long. So I think that it has a big role to play on the external end, and then on the internal end, I think that there’s the aspect of user experience or maybe an offshoot of it, which is called service design, which is an area where I tend to specialize, which is really about coordinating teams and internal components to make sure that what you’re creating is actually feasible for those externally.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So one of my favorite examples or illustrations of that is I used to always work with people, especially when I was in an agency, and everybody would come and say, there was a time where everybody would come and say, “We want a blog.” These companies are like, “We need to engage with people. We’re going to have a blog and then everybody’s going to come to our blog.” But then you start to dig in into it and you say, “Well, how are you going to support this blog?” It’s like, “Well, we’ll do a couple of posts a week.” “Well, who’s writing those posts?” “I’ll do it.” “Okay. Do you have the time to do that?” “Not really. I’ll make my assistant do it.” “Okay. Does your assistant know how to write?” “No, not really.”

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Service design is really about making sure that ensuring really, I would say an equitable user experience by making sure that you’re serving the internal components in a way that’s feasible, because it’s like if you’re going to start a process that you can actually support, or you’re not willing to put the resources up to support, then what’s going to happen is you’re going to put something out there that won’t support the people that you intend it for and you’re just going to fall short. So either divert your plan or put your money where your mouth is. I think that’s another of, important part that user experience plays with the service design discipline and something that I think we play as a role within Stanley Black & Decker is understanding feasibility and not just let’s create something and throw it out there and hope that users want to interact with it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I would say also just because of the types of deliverables, goods, et cetera that you make, because it works in so many different types of fields, in different parts of the country, different parts of the world, et cetera, there’s almost a expectation of that reliability anyway.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Oh, for sure. I think that really important part of it is that experience extends from the product that you make that’s tangible to just, again, those intangible interactions that you have. That’s why, like I said, I think it’s the customer service of branding. If I need to reach out to customer service, if I need to register a product, if I need to do any of these things, if you hinder my process any way throughout it, I’m going to get annoyed. I’m someone who’s a stickler for poor customer service. I mean, I’ve grown up in a service environment. My family was service-oriented. I worked for Apple and that was all about customer service. So I’ve just grown up about service. So when I have bad customer service, when I see bad, just things that aren’t thoughtful, I tend to get a little bit frustrated. So I try to put that into the work that I do as well.

Maurice Cherry:
What does an average day look like for you? I mean, you mentioned you have this team of researchers and strategists, but how many people are reporting to you? Do you have a lot of meetings? How does an average day work?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. We tend to have a whole lot of meetings and that can be a little bit daunting at times. You got to kind of block out your calendar to make sure that you make some time for yourself. On an average day, so I have six reports, four direct reports, and then two other members on my team who also kind of filter up to me. So in total, my entire team, including myself, is seven people with two of them being in the strategist research realm and the rest really being more on design, development, or even engineering side of things. On a given day, it might be batting a number of meetings and working on strategies for some particular projects that are working on being launched. Sometimes it’s just kind of creating communications because so much of what we do, and I have to often remind my team that there’s a part of what we do, which is selling. It’s not just about creating the deliverable and it’s not just about getting it done, but it’s about selling to other executives within the company why the work we’re doing is valuable.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So one of the main things here is that it’s been… My team, in fact, I started in September of 2020, and my team really started maybe a month or two before me and then I came in to lead the team. So it’s still relatively new, but a lot of my day to day is really just working on testing plans, research plans, deliverable plans for visual designs and website launch projects that we’re working on, kind of looking at what’s on the horizon and trying to see what a little bit past the horizon to set a plan, making sure… It’s kind of like being a coach in a lot of ways, making sure all of the pieces are in the right place so that right in front of your face it can be handled, but also having the other pieces in place looking down the line to see what might be coming and then making a plan for that. So sometimes I like to call it building the plane while you’re flying it, but that’s a lot of what my days are like.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. I mean, I can imagine that’s a lot to sort of juggle even with not that many reports. I mean, it sort of trickles down because of how large your organization is.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. I mean, and there’s so many different stakeholders that you have to take into account. So a lot of times, I’ll try to make sure I’m having temperature checks, even today we had our team meeting and I had just a temperatures are like, “How’s everybody feeling? Where are you frustrated? Where do you need help? Where can I be providing…” Sometimes it’s kind of like the player-coach idea even. Sometimes it’s like, all right, I need to stop looking so high level, jump down in the weeds with the rest of the team and just knock some things out. Sometimes it’s like, okay, let me take a step back, see what’s on the horizon, help set up a plan, put pieces together. Sometimes it’s working with other leaders throughout the organization, just kind of understand where their concerns are, where their focus is, and then help set a plan for, okay, this is how we’re going to kind of help support you. There’s definitely a lot to juggle.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you’ve said you’ve only been there since September. So you started fairly recently. I bring that up because there was an incident last year that happened that sort of brought you into this new role. Can you talk about what happened?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah, so it was a really interesting thing that happened. I was working for a publishing company, and when the pandemic hit, like I mentioned, there was another job opportunity that kind of got nuked because of the pandemic. At the time, I’d grown a little bit leery of some of the practices, just the way the organization was treating people. As I kind of set and watched again, really had to do that introspection of who am, I would do I believe in, I started noticing that… We were publishing a site, it was a financial publishing firm, and we had a new site that if you imagine who your common financial investor type might be who has a lot of money and is trying to figure out ways to make more money, you can probably imagine they’re a little more conservative, a little more right leaning. I’m someone who believes that, hey, people can have their voice as long as you’re not challenging anyone or my humanity, then you get to have your views.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
We had a site that I’d kind of build a strategy around that was geared a little bit more to write conservative views. I noticed that over the time it was getting a little bit more… The editors were getting a little bit more sensationalist, which was something that I told them ethically I didn’t agree with early on. As I kind of watched the pandemic unfold and I started watching the conversations around it, and there was this long thread in April into may about the adverse and disproportionate effects of the pandemic on black people, brown people and underrepresented groups in general, I started noticing that this news site never mentioned any of that. So I went, “Well, this is kind of strange.” There’s been a lot of conversation around this. Why wouldn’t you mention this?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I just kind of kept my eye on it and in some of our team meetings, I was planning to bring it up, but I didn’t get the opportunity because I had to miss one and some different things happened. But in missing one of those and having to skip a couple, around the time just before our next ones, the Arbery killing had happened.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, yeah.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I said, “Well, let me go check in and see how they’re talking about it,” and there was no mention of it. I go, “Well, this guy’s name doesn’t show up. Why wouldn’t this be… This is news. Why aren’t you talking about this?” Then around the same time, there was the first mention of the disproportionate effects of the pandemic was labeled as people are getting worse effected in blue states than red states. I go, “Well, that’s a really disgusting way to talk about people, talk about humans and kind of not talk about the… I’m going to talk about the race disparity and the systematic racism that provides the reason for some of this, but you can talk about blue versus red as a way to dehumanize.” So Ahmaud Arbery happened. Then there was the, what was it, Amy Cooper situation that happened with the woman calling-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, in Central Park, yeah.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Cooper situation that happened with those [crosstalk 00:23:02].

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah. In Central Park? Yeah.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Right. So that happened. We had Brianna Taylor started to get brought up and no words about any of these and I’m going, “There’s so many reasons to talk about this.” Then, of course, there was George Floyd and at this point, steam is coming out of my ears and I’m going, “There’s no way you missed this one, right? No way.” They never talked about it until that Friday after when there were some riots and protests got a little more violent. The first mention of it was, was the headline that said “Black man’s death while in police custody sparks riots arson and looting.”

Joseph Carter-Brown:
That was when I just banged on the desk and said, “Come on, guys. This can’t be the way you’re doing it. You’re leaving me no option here.” So, in one of our next team meetings, the next week, I asked them and I just brought it up, straight up and explained it the way I just explained it to you and said, “Well, what’s wrong here?” First, got a lot of mealy-mouth responses of like, “Oh, well we just didn’t know how to explain it and so many of our readers are racist and we don’t want our advertisers to think that.”

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. Yeah. So at that point, my heels were dug in and I’m a pretty stubborn person when I want to be, so I was just like, “We’re having this conversation.” Our organization was rather small. I was one of only two Black people and the other Black person in the organization, she spoke up and said, “Yeah, I’ve actually noticed this too and I’m uncomfortable with it.” There was a lot of dismissing of the ideas, going, “Oh, you just don’t get it. You don’t understand. Oh, well, who cares? This isn’t a big deal. You’re just angry. You’re just this, that and the other.” Never was there a moment where somebody said, “Hey, how about you help us here? How can we fill these blind spots?” I’m going, “You’re clearly just not valuing the voices.” So, like I said, that was of that moment where I really had to look at myself and I said, “Well, I make these websites. I’m the catalyst that makes this whole thing go.”

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I said, “One more minute of time to this organization is supporting this kind of White supremacist culture and racist, if you’re not overtly racist, you’re aiding and abetting racists within your readership and you’re making a comfortable space for them. So I said, “I can’t do that.” So the next day I just said, “I’m out. I can’t do it anymore. Effective immediately, I’m gone,” and this was beginning of June. So, unfortunately, like I said, there were some things that happened from a just personal/moral standing that made me a little bit questionable about them. So, unfortunately, I was saving as much money as I could and I had enough in the nest to cushion myself for a little while, but yeah, it was definitely a crazy moment.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, props to you for not only standing up in that situation, but also being able to walk away from it, especially, during such a unpredictable time. You definitely upgraded, so that’s a good thing.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Thank you. Again, it was a scary moment, but the thing is it really also brought to mind for me was it made me really sad because this was an organization that even though I was part of one of the smaller divisions, it was a actually, rather big organization, about 1600 employees in the Baltimore area. They have multiple divisions and a lot of different things that are happening and it just made me sad for the people who didn’t have that choice, who didn’t have the cushion or the opportunity, the privilege, to say, “I can step back on my laurels,” and they kind of had the grinning bear it.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I thought about all of the Black and Brown, LGBTQ people and all of these different things, women who just have to deal with many of the sexist views that are getting put out there, because you got to survive and it’s like, I can’t blame you, but it just really made me kind of sad that people, we still have to deal with that type of thing. I hate to say, we still have to, because I feel like that’s such a cliche thing to say, but yeah, it just made me really sad that that was a thing that I had to fight over and then leave a job over. It couldn’t have been a situation where they say, “Huh, you know what? Let us at least reflect. Let us be honest about it. Let us be open about it.” It was more of like, “Eh, too bad, so sad.” I was even told, “We work for the mob, get over it.”

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Well, I guess, in a way, that is sort of honest. They’re not covering it up with a black square on Instagram or anything. They’re just letting you know right out, flat out. Wow. Let’s turn the page from that. Now, I know you grew up here in Atlanta, so tell me, what it was like for you growing up here and being exposed to art and design and everything?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I moved from Baltimore when I was about nine or 10 and came to Atlanta. Atlanta was a culture shock for me. Baltimore has this reputation or this nickname of Smalltimore. You have a lot of small little communities and you can interact with a lot of different cultures and a lot of different environments and I really loved a lot of that with within Baltimore. Even though Baltimore has kind of a racist history with a number of things that happened and I think I had rather diverse group of friends I remember as a kid and classmates and different things like that. Coming into Atlanta, it was one of those things where you really saw the way things were separated. We moved just before the Olympics came, so it was ’91, ’92 and there was still the conversation of like the Techwood community in Atlanta getting, basically, a really heavy conversation around gentrification where they moved a whole group of people to make way for the Olympic village. They wanted to, basically, get rid of the undesirables and my family was in community activism.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
My dad was a musician, but also a very active in Black rights and just speaking up for people. If you are familiar with Hosea Williams, Hosea Williams was like my grandfather. I really look at him in that light. We always were doing Hosea’s Feed the Hungry, Feed the Homeless. We were always doing different things around that and spent a lot of time around him and with him my dad worked with Curtis Mayfield, so I spent some time [crosstalk 00:29:46] with him. So it was an interesting thing to come in and be in this environment where I didn’t talk like the other other Black kids. I didn’t have the same type of accent. I didn’t have all of those types of beings. So it was also interesting because I also had to deal a lot with identity in terms of how people perceived me. A lot of Black kids going, “Oh, why don’t you talk so White?’ I was just like, “”No, this is how I talk. This is just me. I’m not trying to be anything. I have zero interest in being anything other than myself, but this is just how I talk.”

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Having to go to a school in Sandy Springs, in fact, and deal with overtly racist, attitudes and being called the N-word in class and the kid basically getting sent to the principal for a little bit and coming right back with no extra conversation about it. When my dad had asked the principal why there was no further conversation, he just says, “Ah, Black kids, you got to punish. White kids, you just give them a look and they’re good.” So there were so many little things and even just the idea of not getting that opportunity to be recognized for my abilities, having a teacher who I felt like I clashed a lot with, I didn’t respond to really. Yeah, I really didn’t have any response to the point where I was missing work and doing all those things, to having a new teacher come in, a substitute, for a little while who really said, “Oh, actually you’re pretty good at math. Why are you doing this math class? Why are you doing the remedial math when you should actually be doing advanced math?”

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Then going, “Oh, he actually does know something,” and just those feelings of being ostracized in so many spaces which really led me to being homeschooled. While that was a challenge, it was difficult adjusting to that. I was, what, 10, 11, going, “Oh, I don’t have to go to school today? I guess I can just hang out and watch cartoons now, right?” To having to learn, “Oh, wait, I got to go and get it on my own. I got to figure this out,” and that was actually how I got into design. I was a tinkerer. I like to call myself a hacker, in that sense, in the sense of being a tinkerer. I like to take apart electronics and try and put them back together to see if I can get them working again. I like to just mess with things and see what I could figure out about it, see what the underpinnings of things were.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I get an old computer from a thrift store and take it apart and see if I can get it working again. But I was also really interested in journalism. Probably when I was about 14 or 15, I was super into sports in general, but I was really heavily into it then and especially basketball. I wrote these five or six, maybe more, articles of just original content for myself and I designed it in Microsoft Publisher at the time, just on my family’s a old computer and was really proud of it, printed it out as this newsletter. My dad wanted to share it with everybody and I wanted to print out a new copy of it after he had given all of them away. When I went to open it, the file corrupted and I lost all of my work.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah, and again, being very service-oriented, the first thing I said to myself was, “Never, again. I’m going to figure out how to not have this happen ever again.” So it really just sent me down this rabbit hole of everything I could learn about computers at that point. I started reading every little thing I could about the inner workings of computers and then it just kind of bubbled up. At that point it was the early stages of the web, really, and I was getting online and I think there was an opportunity. GeoCities was a thing and it was like, “Well, you can create your own website.” So I said, “All right, I’ll do that,” and started messing around with it, but the little Wizywig system and it wasn’t really anything to me and it was very limited. So I said, “Well, what’s this Advance tab?” And it just gave me a blank screen.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I went, “Well, this is cool. This is kind of what I’m looking at. This It’s an opportunity.” So I started learning HTML and code and just absorbing everything I could, picking up every book. My dad always taught me, “If you can read it, you can learn it.” So I was just like, “Well, let me go and learn everything I can about web design now and coding, HTML and CSS and Java and JavaScript, XML, and all of these different things and what does this do?” I ended up building some websites and I was like, “Well, this should probably look good. This is not enough, just HTML and at the time, CSS was barely a speck. So I was like, “Well, let me learn everything. Let me figure out how to make it look good.” My mom was really a catalyst for me. She worked at Kinko’s and this is Kinko’s still had a computer services department, so I would get in really good with the computer services guys. A lot of them were nerds. They loved computers, so they loved that I liked tinkering with stuff.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So they would show me little tricks and ways of working in the command line and then the more design-oriented guys were like, “Let me show you this program. We call it Photoshop.” I started learning how to make things in Photoshop. They had CDs on Illustrator and Photoshop training. So I would just sit and absorb everything I could from that and really just taught myself Photoshop and Illustrator. It went from there. I learned everything I could about everything computers and I thought learning Photoshop, maybe a designer, I’d learn it the hard way. That was not the case.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
When I realized I didn’t know what DPI or PPI was and I was trying to print something and it kept coming out really small and I’m like, “But on my screen, it’s so big. It was like, “Well, that’s because the resolution is off.” But that really pushed me down this line. I was also a huge lover of Apple and that was really where I found my love of branding. It was seeing something that connected with me where it wasn’t just this rote memory. It was about a connection and it was about something that made me feel like I had value. I had somebody talking to me and when they were talking to the weird ones and I really got into learning everything I could about Apple, again, immersing myself in that. We talked a little bit about the Art Institute of Atlanta and there was a center right across from that in Northside where there’s this office building and it had an Apple logo on it.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
It had this Apple Market Center and they did free seminars and so I just started going to those. I’m 15, 16 years old. I’d go to the Art Institute with my sister. She’s seven years older than me and so I’d go to the school with her and I walk over to the Apple Market Center and hang out with these business owners and learn as much as I could about new software and new products and I started learning all of that. Then I’d go over to the school and I’d get in really good with the tech guys and help them rebuild the networks and they’d let me use the computers. I’d sit in classes and nobody knew I wasn’t a student, so that was my way of stealing my education for a little bit. So it was this really unorthodox path that I took and I can keep going on and on, but I’ve told you more than you need to know.

Maurice Cherry:
But back in the day, that’s how you had to learn it. There weren’t really university programs or things like that. You kind of picked up a little bit from a book or you reverse engineered something by viewing source or you picked things up here and there and that cobbled together into how you learned how to use the web and build the web back then. I remember those times very vividly.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
It definitely was a lot about, again, that hacker mentality, like taking it apart and deconstructing it and trying to rebuild it, seeing if you took this one piece and put it over here, what would happen and what’s the response you’d get? I think that was what I really loved about a lot of the design and what I still love about design as part of that, some of the user experience stuff is, I like to call it ‘the science of art,’ in a lot of ways. It’s like that you take a hypothesis and you iterate off of it, you test it, see what happens and you adjust your test and see what reaction you get from that and I just love those types of things.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm, nice. Now you attended Full Sail University, but before that, you mentioned this Apple training center, but you actually got your first job at Apple. Is that right?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. Yeah. My first job was at Apple. I was 18. I opened the Apple store at Lenox Square Mall, in fact. I probably borderline, stalker energy in that time, but I was so infatuated with Steve Jobs. He was someone who, when you saw the way he talked with so much passion and I just saw the vision that he brought to things and, again, that experience. It was something that just resonated with me and then I just read so much about his story and his struggles. He was someone that I saw as maybe a person that I could emulate, in some ways, or even just someone that I could have. I felt like if he could do it, I could do it. Obviously, it wasn’t like he was like super poor, but he also went through a lot of hardship in life.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
He had to go through a lot to get to where he was. He got kicked out of Apple early on and had to go through this whole journey and he had this triumph that came back to Apple, because I was always just inspired by him as a person in his story. I read so much on, again, the growth and birth of Silicon Valley, which also included him in those stories. I remember where I mentioned the bordering stalker energy was like, “I want to reach out to him. I want to make contact with him. I got to send him an email.” So I searched everywhere to see if I could find his email. What was it? Think I was going to the Apple Market Center. I met a few Apple employees and someone had given me their card and I realized the naming convention for their email addresses. So I was like, “Well, if this is how your email is patterned, maybe his email is patterned the same way.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I sent an email to Sjobs@apple. I think the first time just emailed and said, “Hey, is this a person?’ I got no response and then I sent another email and I said, “Hey, look, if this is actually Steve Jobs, I just want to thank you because I’m a homeschool kid and the work and creative in education has really inspired me. It’s helped me find what I want to do in life. I didn’t know where I was going and now I feel like I have had this path. So I’m really appreciative of what you’ve done with the company and the focus you brought, because it’s really helped give me a direction.” So, and I was, like I said, 15 or 16 at the time and he responded. He said, “Thanks,” and that was all he said.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah, for me, it was like a ping. It was like [crosstalk 00:41:24] So I said, “Well, there’s someone there.” So then I just went off and then this was when they were working on the Mac OS X.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh my gosh.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I was following all of the development of Mac OS X and I emailed him and I’m like, “Hey Steve, this would be a great feature to include in Mac OS X.

Maurice Cherry:
This was a wild story. I’m sorry, I just have to interject. Keep going, Keep going, though, keep going.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I would send him little emails and I’d be like, “Hey, what about this feature? What if you added spring loaded folders to this thing?” I just started giving them all these ideas. He would never respond, but every now and then I would see one of those ideas pop up in a build and I’d like to take credit for it, but it was when they had announced that they were opening Apple stores and I was super excited for it. I was about 17 and I said, “Well, there’s surely going to be a store announced for Atlanta. Why wouldn’t there be?” When they announced the first 10, 11 stores, they had all of these stores, LA, Washington, DC, so on and so forth, but none on the roadmap for Atlanta. So I sent him this really angry email and I said, “Hey, I’m really disappointed that Apple does not have a plan for a store in Atlanta. If you’re saying that your goal for Apple is to double your market share, because at the time Apple was what, two-and-a-half percent market share and you want to double it from two-and-a-half to 5%?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
The fact that you don’t have Atlanta on your list of stores means that you’re not that serious about this idea because Atlanta has a huge creative community. It’s got one of the busiest airports in the country, in the world, if anything, a huge tourist community, a huge creative community, all of the markets and verticals that are within Apple’s range of market. So for you not to have a store on the pipeline here means that you must not be that serious and especially as someone who really loves these computers, I just want to have some access to them. So I hope that you all change your course and you decide to open a store in Atlanta. So a few hours go by and I get an email from a recruiter and she says, Dear Joseph, Mr. Jobs forwarded your email over to me. Please send your resume and cover letter at your earliest convenience. Again, I’m a 17-year-old kid and I’m like, “A who? A resume and a what?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I went and had to develop that really quickly and sent an email. At this time they actually didn’t even have a store on the pipeline. Again, that stalker energy, one of the ways you would know where Apple’s roadmap was, is you would look at their jobs page and they would put out, “We’re looking for employees in this place,” and people would go, “Oh, that must be a store.” So there was no openings in Atlanta for anything like that. Then, probably about six months later there was a thing where they had openings for a store or they had employee calls in Atlanta I was reaching out to the recruiter and she reached out and she was like, “Hey, it’s going to be slow, but we got your information.” I think she was just kind of being like, “Cool out, kid,” but yeah.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So next thing I know I was getting a call and interviewing with the recruiter at 17 and just about to turn 18. The next thing I know in April of 2002, I was going into the training as the one of only two full-time Mac specialists to open the Apple store at Lenox Square Mall in come I think May, or I think it was about May was when we opened the store and it was all thanks to sending an email to Steve jobs. I was actually kind of sad when he died, just for obvious reasons, but a week prior, I had thought about him. I looked at where I had gone from that point and I said, “I should email him and say, ‘Hey, you probably didn’t think anything of sending this email over. You probably thought you were just getting me out of your hair, but you really kind of changed a lot for me.'” So, but yeah, that’s the Apple story.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
And that was from your first job? Wow.

Maurice Cherry:
Actually, outside of working as a dishwasher in a [crosstalk 00:45:42] restaurant as under the table [crosstalk 00:45:46] my dad, I was 14, but yes, my first legitimate job.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
That is quite a story. Wow. The fact that he even responded back and was forwarding your emails and everything, it just goes to show you, you have to be persistent. Nowadays, I guess that would be a bit stalkery, but-

Maurice Cherry:
… days, I guess that kind of would be a bit stalkery, but back then I don’t know how many people were really using email in that way, like they are now. But wow. That’s something.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. Again, it goes back to the idea of what I like to call a stealing shots. And sometimes you just got to find that sliver of opportunity and shoot and you might make it, you might miss it, but you got to shoot.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So while you were at Apple, is that when you started going to full sale or was it after?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
No, it was actually, well after that.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I branded myself as an anti-traditionalist for a long time. I think it was the homeschool [inaudible 00:46:43] and at the time of being homeschooled… This was before homeschooling got, I guess you could say popular. At the time people didn’t think… I would tell them I was homeschooled and they just were like, “Oh, so you’re just dumb,” or whatever. And so there was a lot of stigma around it and I was always like, okay, I’m going to buck the trend. I tend to try and buck trends. And so I started working at Apple and I was like, well, I’ve learned all of this stuff. I used to read business books, I used to do this, that and the other. I was like, “Well, I could figure it out. I’ll do it on my own.”

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I just kind of kept trying to do it, I guess you could say the hard way, but it was also cool. You know what I mean? I had an opportunity just from the knowledge and the, I guess the value that I’d shown even at Apple and things like that. I taught at The Creative Circus in Atlanta, taught some design classes and so forth. I didn’t even have a degree really. So I just kind of did my own thing for a really long time. And it wasn’t until 2012 that I attended full sail. And it was really era in which after the great recession, I worked at a newspaper prior. And at the time I started up a small clothing company with some friends, and we ran that for about seven years, from 2007 to 2014.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
But in around 2008, 2009, I had gotten laid off from a job at a newspaper in the ad department because it was a newspaper. So I lost that job. And it was also again around the economic downturn. And so I was this guy who felt confident in my abilities. I felt like, hey, I can figure anything out. You can put anything in front of me and I will tackle it and I will figure it out. But I was now this guy without a degree in environment where there were people who had 10 years experience and a degree, and they had all of this stuff behind them and they were also in the market.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
And so I just kind of found it where I was really struggling to get a lot of opportunities or get a lot of second looks. And I’d also had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder or a complex even about again. Then you hear a lot of the way people, again, talk bad about being homeschooled. I didn’t have formal training. I didn’t have all this. So part of me was like, well, can I do it? Can I figure it out? If I’m tested, how will I respond? And do I have the foundation?

Maurice Cherry:
You kind of felt like you had something to prove in a way to yourself.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I needed to prove it to myself more than anything that I could just follow through with something and finish it. And so, yeah, I entered into full sales, online graphic design program and had done that from 2012 and then graduated in 2015.

Maurice Cherry:
How was the program? I know that as a, I think as a for-profit school full sale kind of tends to get left out of conversations when people talk about design slash art schools to go to, to really sort of get into the industry. But I mean full sale places a lot of people in the creative fields.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. Full sale was interesting for me. And I think that you do see some of that for-profit mentality come in where there is a bit of a what some people might call a degree factory mindset that is there in the sense that, hey, if you are willing to give them your money, they will take it. But if you are willing to hold them accountable for taking your money, you will also get a lot of value out of that. And for me, it was one of those things where again, I was doing the online program and I think that I succeeded because I’d already had this scrappy mentality. I was already used to figuring things out and going and finding my way. And so when I went to school, it was also, I was always kind of like against the idea of student loans and all of that, especially where I had seen people who had been saddled with all this debt and didn’t know what they were doing in life, or didn’t know, had felt like they wasted their time.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I was like, I’m not wasting my time. If I’m paying for this, I’m getting my money’s worth. And so I kind of went in with this attitude that like, I’m paying you are going to give me the same treatment you give your students in person. And I think for people who have gone there in person, they got a great experience. I saw a lot of people who went there online and they didn’t have that mentality, or they didn’t know how to go out and just dig and be scrappy for what they want it. And they kind of just fell through. Some of them fell off. Some of them were ending their school in some ways graduating and I’m looking at it going, oh, that work is not that great.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
But like I said, that was the degree factory of it. But like I said, I went in and I had a goal. I knew what I wanted out of it and I said, “I’m going to kind of make you teach me and do what I need you to do because I’m paying you this money.” And actually I had some great interactions with teachers. I learned a lot, I got a lot out of it, but I think it’s really all about what you make it. And I think it was, but I think that’s with any school, right. It’s what you make it. And I think they were good for what I wanted to get out of it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s interesting how… I think school in general can be like that, but particularly those for-profit schools so for graduate school, I went to a for-profit university and then later also taught at the for-profit university. I went to Keller Graduate School of Management and taught at the [inaudible 00:52:23]. And it’s interesting I think one sort of the perception of course, that people have about for-profit universities and what that means about the value of the education, but then to be on the other side of it and being an instructor there, I definitely get what you mean about the online students and you needing to really have that scrappy mentality to get it done because the online instructors do not care. They are, most of them are literally following a script to go through the course.

Maurice Cherry:
They’re teaching in a very abstract way in that most of these classes will have some type of a discussion forum. And so you may have to have a participation requirement where you speak to students three times a week, five times a week, et cetera. It’s not really the same as giving a lecture because the lecture is often times have already been made for the course. You’re just the instructor. You’re not really teaching it. I guess I might be giving away some secrets here, but like, you’re not really teaching it. You don’t even get a chance to make the tests or change the tests. When I taught design at the [inaudible 00:53:29] I was teaching design to business students. It was like a BIS course. And this was maybe 2011, 2012, something like that, I think.

Maurice Cherry:
And I was surprised that they were still teaching students how to make webpages using tables. And I had to take it all the way up to the dean to say, you are setting students up for failure. If they take this course and they think they’re going to make webpages out of tables and get a job out in the market. And the dean was sort of like, oh, they’re business students. It doesn’t matter. I’m like it does matter. It matters that they’re paying for this and we’re deliberately teaching them old information. I really had to lobby to make it happen. And then once they said, no, I just changed it myself and started teaching more CSS and things like that. And I don’t know necessarily if the students appreciated it. I ended up getting fired. So it wasn’t necessarily probably the best thing on my end, but like at least I wanted to make sure that students were getting what they paid for in terms of proper information.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. And I think you rather get caught trying.

Maurice Cherry:
Exactly.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. And so I think [inaudible 00:54:38] good on you on that. And again, I think that was how I approached it in terms of being a student, which was I had the teacher’s email address. I had some kind of messenger option. I might’ve had, sometimes I had a phone number. So if I didn’t have the information I needed, I would have… I was always about building community. So I even built out a online, a Facebook community for some of the… Especially the students that I saw who kind of gave a damn. I said, “Hey, you seem like you’re going to be someone that I want to be connected to. Let’s have this group where we help each other.” But I saw other people who were like, oh, I can’t get this. I don’t know what to do. And I’m like, well, go ask the teacher like, “Oh, I can’t talk to the teacher. I can’t find them.” Well, okay, well try something.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
[inaudible 00:55:25] figure it out. I would call the teacher. I would email them. I would message them. I would call my student advisor and say, “Hey, I need to talk to this teacher.” I would be a pain in their butt until they reached out to me because I was like this is… If I were in campus, I would be able to walk up to you and talk to you. But since I can’t do it, this is what we have to do now. So either take me seriously or I will make you take me seriously.

Maurice Cherry:
For me, I would have loved if you would have been that kind of student because I can tell you, we get all the instructor in you never hear from the students, ever, unless it’s them trying to weasel their way out of some excuse or if they got caught, I would catch so many students plagiarizing stuff, which you would think would not be that common in a course about web design, but like they would take tests and some of the tests would have essay questions. And it’s like, you can tell they just copied and pasted this from some companies about page because the response makes no sense in relation to the question.

Maurice Cherry:
And it’s like I don’t even have to run this through Turnitin to know that you didn’t write this. Where are you getting this from? So the fact that you were that proactive as a student, I hope that your professors and instructors appreciated that because I can tell you from the other side, I would have loved that. It would kill me to see students not do well. And I could tell them come see me during office hours. Let me know if you have any questions and I’m blue in the face and they do nothing and then fail the course. And then they want to get mad at me and leave me a two-star review. [crosstalk 00:56:58]. It’s wild. So yeah.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I think that one of the things that I learned there probably more than anything was it was one of those things where I look back at it and so I was valedictorian of my class and things like that. And I kind of looked at that with a little bit of like, eh, who cares? It’s about the work, as a designer is about the work. And I remember when I first started maybe my first couple quarters, I was doing the work that I knew would get me a passing grade. I’m a competitive person. I want to do the best, I want to be the best, I don’t like losing, those types of things. And so there was this moment when I first started, again, I knew Photoshop illustrated all those tools, like the back of my hand.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So we would get projects. I understood the coursework. So I would do it well enough to get an A, but I didn’t necessarily come out of it learning anything. And I remember toward the end of maybe my second quarter or so, I had to kind of look at myself and I said, you’re about to pay a lot of money to basically learn the same things you already know, is that really worth it? So I said, okay, so now my new model went because again that competitive aspect of me was like I want to be valedictorian. And they also had this, forget what the award was, but it was like you had the best quality of work. And I was like, I wanted both of those. And so I was like really trying to aim for that. And I was like, but you know what really, I want to learn as much as I can out of this.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I adopted this mentality where [inaudible 00:58:34] I’m going to try and fail. I was like, I’m going to do things that are so far out of my comfort zone. I’m going to go way off of what I know and what I know how to do well. And if I get a good grade awesome. But if I fail, I at least learn. And I kind of went at it with that approach. I ended up getting even better grades and coming out with more fulfilling work and ended up getting both the awards that I was kind of put on… That I was trying to cheat my way to in a way but also kind of gave me that idea of… I think prior to that, I was doing a lot of things in a safe manner. And I was trying to just, in some ways in a survival mode. I had been in such a survival mode all my life, where I just wanted to do enough to make sure I could go to sleep somewhere and wake up somewhere and eat something.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
If that’s what I got, that was good. And when I went into and embraced this idea of you know what, I have another slogan, which I don’t… Profanity, I’m not going to use it, but F S U [inaudible 00:59:36] F up is the term I like to use where it’s like, if I don’t know what I’m doing, instead of freezing, I’m just going to go in and go out in a blaze of glory. And if I fail, okay, but you’re at least going to be like, man, he did it in a way that nobody can look away from. And I found that that’s kind of paid off more than it has hurt me.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s something that I’ve brought up here on the show before about how black designers kind of really need to have that space to fail. Especially if you’re approaching the design industry through a more, I guess you could say traditional routes, like if you went to a design school and then from there you started working at a product design company or a tech company or advertising agency or a branding agency or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:
The constraints are so narrow that there’s not really any space for you to fail. I wouldn’t even necessarily say fail, we’re talking about that certainly in the guise of experimentation, but like everything you do has to work, everything has to succeed. And I think while it’s great to have that track record, sort of like you were saying, you were kind of just getting by. It wasn’t until you really were able to break out of that space that you were able to do your best work and it’s rough that the industry unfortunately doesn’t really allow for those sorts of spaces. I would say mostly for black designers, but I think of designers probably across the board.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. I definitely think it’s glaring for black designers, but I think that you see that in a lot of spaces in general. Again, I’m a sports fan. I’ve noticed where black quarterbacks tend to get criticized more harshly where it’s a guy who is an average quarterback, average black quarterback will get less chances than an average white quarterback.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
And I’ve seen that. And I’ve noticed that even in professional spaces where, yeah, both as a design leader and as a, I guess for lack of a better way of putting it, a design follower where I was looking for guidance and I was looking for how to be a professional, where I was looking for mentorship and I didn’t always get it. And I’ve noticed that even in some of my peers who… There’s two sides of it. I think as a young black boy, my dad, my mom, everybody really, you tell me if you had the same experience where you kind of told like, hey, you’re black, you got one shot. They are waiting for you to mess up, don’t screw up because they’re just waiting for it because you will be the stereotype who fits the profile. Don’t fit the profile.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Absolutely.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I had that complex, but then if we think about studies that are around how teachers, for instance, police black bodies and they enforce punishment on black children more harshly than white children. Even to my I think, my story about growing up in school and kind of being told the same thing. You see it at all these walks of life and I experienced it as, again, as a professional who wanted to do a lot of things. And I was even in one of my old companies, I was being put out there. I was the person who was really able to speak to business owners because I understood business and I could translate what design was to a business person. And I could translate what design was to a developer. And I could speak all of these languages.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
And I was one of the only people in this organization, in fact, maybe the only person who could do that in a way that was effective, but I was still getting paid like a junior designer. I was still getting… But when they would take me into these meetings they would say, here’s our senior designer, Joseph Carter-Brown, but then I was getting paid as a, as a junior designer. And when I said, hey, look, I’m barely making ends meet. And I was helping to transform how the organization approached design. They didn’t understand user experience. They weren’t thinking about design and measuring design. They were just developing and hoping design fell in afterward. And I’m saying, hey, let’s build up design [inaudible 01:03:40] helping the company win awards and doing all these things. But I’m still getting paid as a junior designer.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
And it was one of the lower paid designers there. And when I spoke up and said, “Hey, I would like some, I would like you to give me a challenge to be who I believe I can be.” It was like, “Oh, well, remember this one moment where you slipped up. Yeah. That’s why we’re not going to help you out here.” Yeah or be like, hey, we need you to jump this hurdle. And then I’m the type of person where you tell me something once and I’m going to do it and you don’t have to tell me again. So I was like, you gave me a hurdle. I’m going to jump in there. I’m going to clear it every time. But then when I say, hey, I cleared that hurdle. They go, oh, but you didn’t clear that hurdle. And I’m like, well, you never told me that was a hurdle.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
And it was like the moving of the goalpost and all of these little bangs. So I felt that. And then when I went into a design leadership space and I had a black woman who was reporting to me and I had people coming and going, oh, well, she’s not doing what she needs to do. And she’s screwing up here, she messed this up and she messed that up and I’m going… And I’m having conversations with her saying, hey, I’m hearing these things and she’s going, nobody told me about this. I didn’t know I messed that up. I thought everything was okay. And I’m going, oh, well, who’s providing you mentorship. And it’s no one. And I’m going to them like, well, you guys can’t expect her to be doing things perfectly if you’re not showing her how to be there.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I’m trying to work with these people and I’ve seen it where I’ve seen other black reports under me coming in and having this fear of pushing themselves or pushing forward and they’re asking, well… Before they move, they’re going, am I getting it right? And then it’s just like, no, just go. You just need to go and run and if you slip, cool, just get back up and keep moving. But it’s so heightened and there’s such a magnification of like, do not screw up that it feels like you can’t even… It’s like that in every creative space. We’re all creatives, I think.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
But I definitely think for black people is you have this… You’re dealing with this history of if you screw up, everybody’s going to say, yeah, that’s what we expected. And if you screw up… It’s kind of like the saying, where’s what working twice as hard to get half as far. I like to say that we have twice the expectation in half the time. And I think that’s one of the key things that I see is like we expect like black designers, black creatives to be twice as good in half the time or else it’s a negative mark on your character in your professionalism.

Maurice Cherry:
You spoke a word there. Wow. Knowing all of this, this is probably an obvious question, but what do you do to make sure that that’s fostered that feeling of experimentation and such, or I would say even the space to make mistakes in that way is fostered on your teams.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I try to speak to it. I’m someone that… I like to say that I have a bit of black privilege and I used to joke to a buddy of mine. I’d be like you don’t realize how many spaces you’ll get access to when you’re a black person who who speaks proper. I’ve met so many racist white who think that they can speak to me in certain ways or they can say things they think that I agree with them because of the way I taught. But it also gives you this ability to kind of, to speak truth to power in a way that you don’t always see room for. So I just tend to speak to it. And I think one of the great things about Stanley Black and Decker actually is when I joined there… Because of my experience with my last company, I asked them about how they talk about equity and inclusion and to their credit for a hundred plus year old organization, they have a lot of conversations about this.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
They encourage these hard conversations. So one of the first things I did with my team was I got us all together. And my team is made up of black, white, queer, men, women, so forth. And I brought them all. And I had even the person that I report to in this meeting. And I said, let’s talk about what your identity means to you. What pain points, what do you bring? What baggage do you bring with you? How do you perceive yourself in this space? And I try to have those hard conversations. I talk to different people and I would say, hey, again, I speak straight to it. As a black man sometimes I freak out. If I have a mishap, I give myself a hard time and it scares me because this is the baggage I’m bringing with me.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
And so I say, hey, I need you to make some room and I need you to let me know where failure is on your scale and what room I have for failure. And I relay that over to my team and I say, hey, fail, fail fast, get up, make a plan and keep moving. And I try to encourage that and I even take one of the [inaudible 01:08:26] on my team, who’s a black man. And I’ve had this direct conversation with him. And I said, look man, I deal with this in a different way than you do. But we know what this experience is like. And in any way I can provide that psychological security, I want to at least provide that so that you can grow to be your best self and not trying to be who you think everybody else wants you to be.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Wow. I noticed kind of from just what you’re talking about here, we skipped the little bits because I want to focus on this shift because we talked about your time at full sale. Of course, we’ve talked about the work…

Maurice Cherry:
… shift, because we talked about your time at Full Sail. Of course, we’ve talked about the work you’re doing at Stanley Black & Decker. There was some time there in the middle that you were in Atlanta and then eventually, you moved back to the DMV area and you were doing a lot of graphic design work, web design work, et cetera, and you took this shift in 2016 to doing more UX. What prompted that shift?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
It was actually going to Full Sail. Like I said, I started Full Sail in 2012. At the time I was also doing a lot of freelance work. Again, I had been laid off from a company. I was also running a small clothing company by the name of Rogue Squirrel. Me and three partners were doing screen printing, and going to shows, and selling merchandise, and we were doing branding and things like that. I was the web designer, as well as the business person and all the things, like the Jamaicans in In Living Color. I was doing all [crosstalk 01:09:57].

Joseph Carter-Brown:
When I went to school, I had to reduce a lot of things. I stopped doing freelance for a while to focus on school. I worked part-time at a few different places. I always approached everything like everything was design. In fact, the talk I did at the AIGA Design Conference was called, It’s Just Fricking Design. It was about how design in all of these areas are basically the same. But when I was at Full Sail, like I said, I stopped doing a lot of web work and freelance work to focus on school. Around the time I was getting close to graduating, I started to get back into the flow of things and doing web work and so forth. It was around that time that there was a whole lot of conversation, a lot of, you saw the word or the term UX being put around.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I said, “Well, I guess I need to go learn UX coding now. I guess I got to go learn how to code in UX.” I didn’t know what people were talking about. I started reading about it and it was like, oh, you think about the user and you do blah, blah, blah. And I went, “That’s what I already do. That’s how I already approach design. I don’t think about this for myself. I think about it for other people. I look at why they need this thing and I try to advocate for them.” I do X, Y, Z. And so I was like, “This is basically what I’ve already done. This is already what I’m doing.” So I just kept going in that direction. It made logical sense to me that that was just the route that you went in design, because it’s like, if you’re not thinking about who you’re making it for, then what are you doing?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
If you’re not talking to the business to understand what are their goals or even if it’s not a business, it’s a community organization, it’s a hospital, whatever it is, you’re not thinking about what it is, what problem they need to solve, it’s like, well, what are you doing? To me, it was just the natural thing. And as someone who was, again, a techie, a business person, a web developer, a graphic designer, I really loved the process and the logical and the puzzle of it, like detective work. Figuring out where that thread is that other people don’t see. And figuring out how to pull that out. So to me, it was like user experience, and especially some of the service design stuff, was a natural conclusion of the work I had been doing since I was a kid, really, because it blended all of the things that I was passionate about without having to… I never viewed myself as a traditional graphic designer.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I’m not the greatest drawer. Sometimes it takes me a minute to find the idea. But if you immerse me in having empathy for the person and thinking about how I make the best thing for someone, I wouldn’t put too many people’s ideas ahead of mine. To me, that was just the natural thing. So when I had an opportunity, I was working as a developer/web designer, I said, “Well, I’m just going to make this what I want it to be.” Again, I just started advocating, saying, “Well, we got to think about how this measure. We got to think about the user. We got to do this.” And I just kept pushing in that direction.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. As I’m listening to your story and as you’re saying all this, of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that you’ve also done a lot of work with AIGA, specifically the Baltimore Chapter. Talk to me about how you got started with them.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I got involved in AIGA after I graduated, or around the time I graduated at Full Sail. I had always heard about AIGA as an organization. It was always like, hey, you network. You got to get out there. Again, as someone who was now about to graduate with student debt, I’m like, “I need to make some money. I need to get a job.” Really, to start, it was like going into AIGA, it was like I wanted to find a job. I wanted to make some connections in the design community, because I was doing so much freelance stuff. I was living a little further out outside of Baltimore at the time. I didn’t have a lot of connections and so forth. It was just a way to get connected to the community. But when I got in there, I think, again, I’m a service person. I love helping people. I love figuring out ways to build things and create systems and so forth. It was just natural that I started getting close to the board.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
If I would show up to an event early, I’m like, “All right, well, I’ll help y’all up the tables.” And it’s like, “Okay, I’m going to be hanging out later. I’m going to help you break down tables.” That was just how I started. It evolved into me really needing to find my identity as well as a designer. Because again, I didn’t know where I fit. Again, I wasn’t a graphic designer. I wasn’t fully a web developer. I wasn’t always the business person. I had all of these, but I had areas that I could fill in. I just wanted to find how I fit and who I was as a designer. That gave me a space to really hone my leadership skill. I’ve actually talked with people within AIGA about this a lot, that I think that sometimes they do a disservice to themselves by not embracing themselves, the organization, as a leadership incubator. Because it, more than anything, it seemed like that type of space for me, where it was like I got a chance to take all of these things and learn how to lead with the skills that I had gathered.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
It had given me a bit of, again, a bit of that experimentation space. It gave me a safe space to try things and to test things out. I got involved with the AIGA Baltimore Chapter. It was at the time, like I said, it was about an hour outside of Baltimore. It was an excuse to come back home, to be near water. I love being near water. So it was like, “Hey, I’m going to go to the Harbor. I’m going to go visit my grandmother. I’m going to do this and I’ll go to an event.” I just kept going deeper and deeper. I started as the Programming Chair, developing events, workshops and different ways of reaching out to the community. I moved into Programming Director and then eventually Vice-President. And then President of the chapter. And really, my time there was just again, doing the thing that design did for me, which was gave me access.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I just used it as a space to provide access, because Baltimore has a huge digital divide. I was like, well, how can I provide the platform that we had to lift the voice of the people in the community and use the resources we have? Whether it was Adobe partnerships or IBM partnerships, to bring those into the community and inform people who wouldn’t normally have access to it.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a really good way to think about AIGA, as a leadership incubator. That’s a good way to think about it. Different chapters in different cities are always different. Folks that have listened to this show for any length, know how I feel about the Atlanta Chapter. I always will tell people that AIGA is only as strong as its weakest chapter. Certainly there are some that do really great work in terms of outreach to the community and other types of programs and things of that nature. I think the organization, even now, it’s what? It’s over a hundred year old organization. Even now in this time where we’re so distanced in terms of being able to meet up and things like that, the organization is, I feel it’s still trying to find its way.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s, of course, having missteps along the way, as I think any organization is. But I still root for AIGA. I’m not a member, as folks know. I still root for them. I want them to succeed. I want them to do well, because I do see the impact that it has in the community. And the impact that it can have on designers if they really fall into the right space.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I agree one hundred percent. I’m the same way. As much maligned as it has been over the past few years, and some people who are close to me who have had some public falling outs and so forth with it and it hurt me and saddened me to see those things happen. At the same time, I don’t know that I would be where I am without the opportunity in AIGA. I still have people within the organization and around the organization, close to the organization that I consider very good and close friends and great collaborators. It was a great space. I definitely don’t want to see it go anywhere. But I want to see it grow and really build its voice. I think that with AIGA Baltimore, the motto that I left the organization with, the chapter with was, we’re not AIGA Baltimore, we’re Baltimore’s AIGA.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
That was the way we really approached it, is like we went out into the community and we asked people what they wanted. We said, “Hey, how do we bring you what you need? How do we provide something for the city? How do we support other organizations?” And it was like we were the cheerleaders, is the way I really started to think of it. We’re this big organization. We will get the windfall of things. We don’t need to go out there trying to grub for money. People are going to come to us anyway. We will help other people, who are smaller, build their voice. We will be the platform that they build their voice on. We’ll do this. I think that idea of AIGA as this incubator space, I think it’s so stuck in like… I think there are a lot of people who want to say, “Hey, we need traditional graphic design and this to be the thing that we are.” But it’s like, we’re moving into such an era now, where it’s so much about the experience. It’s so much about the connections that you make.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
If you can be a connector, that is more of a benefit than being an artifact maker. I think AIGA, hopefully, will embrace that and figure that out and push itself as a place that has now the cachet to provide that access. Like I said, they have all of these tools and resources. Get involved in communities. Somebody once said to me at an event, and it really made me think critically about it and thus, about that access point, they were like, “It’s expensive to be a designer.” Yeah, it is! I was like, well, how can I make it a little cheaper for somebody? Because again, I had to steal every shot I had early on. I had to fricking steal zip disks sometimes and fonts and all of those things. It was all in an effort to just be something that I felt like I could be.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
There are so many kids who don’t get that opportunity. They’d never even know what the edges of the universe might be. They never explore that. And that’s going back to the idea of that experimentation space and then providing that access. If AIGA could provide that, I think how much change could they make for equity in the design community that we know we don’t have?

Maurice Cherry:
What do you want to accomplish this year? Of course, you’re at this new position that you’re working with. Now, you’re probably not as involved with AIGA Baltimore, because there’s a new president there now. But what do you want to do for this year? Is there anything on your to-do list?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. On my to-do list this year, I took a break from doing a lot of speaking engagements. I was actually really thankful that AIGA, speaking of them, reached out to me to speak at the Design Conference at the end of the year. For me, it’s about getting back out there as a bit of a thought leader, sharing my experiences and doing more workshops and helping to build more strategy, growing, just continuing to grow my skillset. But also just continue to expand the conversation around what design is and how we use it as a tool for good. The place I always go back to is, how can I use my opportunity to make opportunity for someone else? Whether it’s getting more involved in community organizations. I’m really interested in something that’s been again, stewing in my mind recently, as I get a little more time, hopefully, is to get involved in supporting opportunities to help bridge that digital divide that’s in the city.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I think that’s something that’s glaring so heavily, because of what’s out there with COVID and how it changed things. I’m thinking about a lot of those things. But ultimately, I’m just working on getting my feet fully implanted or cemented in this space, helping to really do a lot of organizational transformation within Stanley Black & Decker and then continue to really broaden myself in and put myself a little more out there in that space so that I can use that to propel other voices.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, as we think even more into the future, where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
In the next five years I really want to get into helping communities build equitable spaces for themselves. I’d love to do more in the civic design space, helping to bridge communication gaps between communities and cities or states, local municipalities and businesses to help provide systems that are again, sustainable and feasible for the people and again, equitable for the people within those communities. Ultimately, that’s the thing I want to start doing. Another area for me is really diving into the mental health space, is something that I think that there’s been so much stigma around. I’m happy that I’ve pulled, I won’t say pulled back on it, but I’ve seen that there’s been a lot more conversations. So it’s made me a little more hardened that it’s not as big a thing to have to tackle completely. But I definitely have a real passion for the conversation around mental health, especially in Black and Brown communities.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I actually started a small event series within AIGA Baltimore called, Well Aware, where we started having these open and more vulnerable conversations. In fact, before COVID, that was part of my trajectory, is I was going to come back to the board and help foster that type of conversation again. I think I have a lot of different things, as you can probably tell. But I think that those two areas, helping communities build spaces that allow them to take advantage and take ownership of their own mental health and the systems that are there for them, so that they’re more equitable and in alignment with what is needed is an area that I think will be really important.

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

Joseph Carter-Brown:
You can find me, I’m mostly on social media more than anything lately, at abrowncreates on Instagram, as well as on Twitter. On LinkedIn, Joseph Carter-Brown. I’m always happy to connect with people. And then on my website, anthonybrowncreates.com. So those are the key places that you can find me.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, sounds good. Well, Joseph Carter-Brown, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. The stories that you’ve told about how you have really progressed in this industry and really put your own stamp on it, being in the game for over 20 years and all the things that you talked about, it’s so clear to me that you have a real passion for this community. Not just for design, but for the community around design. And to be able to help people to see that this can be a space that you can really grow and thrive in, I think is something that is super important and something that you definitely have been able to show through your actions, through your words and through your deeds. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Well, thank you. It’s been an honor and I really appreciate you having me on here.

Sponsored by State of Black Design Conference

State of Black Design Conference

Texas State University’s Communication Design Program and the Common Experience are excited to announce the State of Black Design Conference, presented by IBM, April 9-10.

The theme of the conference is “Black Design: Past. Present. Future,” and the event will bring together aspiring designers with academic and industry professionals for networking opportunities, career development workshops, and important panel discussions with leaders in the field.

If you are a company looking to diversify your workforce, or a designer of color looking for your next role, be sure to attend the State of Black Design Conference. Recruiters have until April 5 to register.

Get your ticket today at https://txstate.edu/blackdesign, and follow the event online on Instagram or Twitter.

The State of Black Design Conference is presented by IBM, with additional sponsorship from Adobe, Civilla, AIGA, Texas State’s College of Fine Arts and Communication, and the School of Art and Design.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Nici Kelly

Tech can be a lucrative career, but how many of us think of it as a way to close the wealth gap in the Black community? Nici Kelly does, and I love that her mission is to show people the different pathways into tech and tech entrepreneurship as a way to build a legacy.

We started off talking about Nici’s company, Care Covr, and her inspiration behind starting it in the midst of a global health pandemic. Our conversation continued when Nici talked about building Black wealth, her early introductions to technology, working in and with the Atlanta tech community, and what motivates her to keep going while also giving back to others.

Remember the name Nici Kelly, because I definitely think you’ll hear more about her for years to come!

Britt Lyle II

Britt Lyle II is more than just a designer — he contains multitudes. Currently, he works as a graphics assistant at AMB Sports + Entertainment, where he helps out on visuals used by the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United. But outside of work? That’s when you see the different facets of what makes Britt unique.

We started our conversation discussing Britt’s work, which led to him talking about growing up in Orlando and attending Florida A&M University and studying through their esteemed design program. He also shared his story about moving to Atlanta and attending SCAD for graduate school, falling in love with motion graphics, and shared some of his other talents, including glitch art and cosplay!

Being a designer doesn’t mean having just one skill, and Britt is living proof of that!