Nakita M. Pope

We have all had to change things up in one way or other over the past few years. But if you’re like this week’s return guest, Nakita M. Pope, there’s power in pivoting! (You might remember her from my recent talk with Jordan Taylor, or from our 2016 interview.)

Our conversation started with catching up on what’s happened over the past few years, and Nakita spoke about some of her recent projects, including launching a business course and a subscription box turned online community — Bella Boss! We also talked about her work as a design educator, the recent closing of The Creative Circus, being awarded as an AIGA Fellow, and she shared how her passion projects have impacted her career. Nakita’s love for community and giving back really shines, and I think you’ll get really inspired by this interview!

Bella Boss

Branding Chicks

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Nakita M. Pope:
Hi, I’m Nakita Pope. I am a designer, creative director, studio owner, and professor. I’m the chief chick at Branding Chicks, which is a boutique branding agency here in Atlanta, Georgia. And I specialize in brand strategy and brand development for women owned businesses and femme focused brands.

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

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, man, the year has been a little bit of a whirlwind. I was just talking to someone the other day and telling them that during the pandemic, everybody, well, a lot of people kind of slowed down. Everything got a little bit slower. The pace wasn’t as rigorous. For me, everything sped up a little bit. It was super busy. And so I feel like 2022 has been about wrapping up that kind of frenzied level of work and of coming back to center a little bit. So it’s been some ups and downs, but it’s been a good year. I can’t complain. It’s been a great year.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything in particular that you want to try to accomplish this year, before the end of the year?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, man, get some rest. That is my goal by the end of this year. I am wrapping up some things right now, and that’s my goal is to take this last quarter of the year, I don’t know if it’ll be the whole quarter, but I definitely want to take some time at the end of this year to just sort of recenter myself and get some rest.

I’m always doing so many things at once. I kind of like it that way, as a creative, it keeps me from being bored. But I’m starting to realize that it’s been a very long time since I stopped everything. And so I’m looking forward to taking some space to do that.

Maurice Cherry:
Good. Definitely, take that space now before, say, oh, I guess before the winter really starts. But it kind of feels like any time between Thanksgiving and New Years is sort of a down period for everybody. You know what I mean?

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So-

Nakita M. Pope:
That’s true.

Maurice Cherry:
… hopefully, you’ll get a chance to get some of that rest. I think we all probably need that.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, indeed. Indeed, more than we think.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Let’s talk about Branding Chicks. Now, you’ve been in business now for what, over 12 years, now, right?

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, it’s been a while. It went by so fast. That sounds crazy, 12 years.

Maurice Cherry:
How has your business changed since we last talked? That was back in 2016. How has your business changed?

Nakita M. Pope:
It’s changed quite a bit. A lot of it has stayed the same, but so much of it has changed. I think part of what has changed… Well, I’ll start with something that’s stayed the same. So one of the things that stayed the same is I kind of always worked remotely, because I have sort of a niche sort of brand. I feel like I end up working with people all over. And so it’s not specific to Atlanta, necessarily. And so that was always kind of how I worked. But now since the pandemic and all that stuff, I find that it’s expanding even more, because other people are now looking outside of their geographic locations even more.

And understanding that they can do really robust and deep work with people, even if they’re not necessarily in the same place or able to meet face to face. So I feel like that has both stayed the same and also changed. I feel that I’ve also been able to work with some amazing organizations that are doing really great work that I feel really strongly about, personally. I’ve been able to do some deeper dives with some brands, and do some larger projects with some of those brands. And to me that’s growth, to allow me to do more of what I want to be doing, and more of where I feel that I can have the best impact. That’s how I measure success. So in that space, I’m really happy with the direction that things are going in.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you seen a change in the market with respect to the things clients are looking for? Have things shifted or changed during the pandemic?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, yeah. I think some of it, from a brand strategy standpoint, I’m noticing more and more that organizations and companies are starting to understand that even if they were already committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, they are looking to build that and bake that into their brands a bit more. Which I love to see, because that’s something I’m passionate about as well. And I know that in some cases we see companies doing that, and we’re not sure if it’s going to stick.

But from my perspective, when I see companies that come to me for that and they are looking at the foundational parts of their brand and their brand personality and their core values and things like that, if they’re baking it into those things, then I find that they are more deeply passionate about it and more committed to it. So I see a lot of that happening on my end, which, like I said, I’m really happy to see. And it allows me to work in some of those spaces that I work in outside of my business, also, in my business. So it gives me a chance to bring some of that knowledge in, and also, help people build brands that they feel like really represents them in every way. So I see a lot of that shifting.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you first see that shift? I’m curious.

Nakita M. Pope:
I think 2020. I think when George Floyd happened, and so much of the conversation got so much louder. A lot of us have been talking about this for a long time, working in this space for a long time, both at the front lines and behind the scenes trying to make some of these things happen. But I think overarchingly after the nationwide, worldwide conversation got so much louder, I think that some of these companies are realizing that they need to change their ways. And/or if they were already committed to it, then they need to be even more vocal about their commitment. So I feel like that was the catalyst for a lot of it, to be honest.

Maurice Cherry:
What does a typical day look like for you now?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, man, it’s all over the place. Most days I am working on client work. Two days a week, I’m usually teaching as a professor. But other than that, some days I’m also consulting or I might have a public speaking engagement or doing things like this, doing a podcast interview. So it really varies quite a bit from day-to-day. But I kind of like that, it keeps me from being bored, and it gives me a chance to dive deeper into the things that I care about and the spaces that I work in a lot of different ways. It’s all connected. It doesn’t feel disjointed to me. It’s all connected in some way, but it gives me a chance to touch it in different ways.

And they all feed each other. So all the things that I learned with my client engagements brings me into the consulting with other clients. All of those experiences I can bring to my students, and give them a more robust education about how we work with clients and things that I’m working on, and what the industry looks like and all that stuff. And when I’m doing industry stuff, then I learn some other things and then bring it back to some of those other things. So I feel like it’s all connected, but it does allow me to have a different day, every day.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m curious, has the pandemic changed business for you in any way? I know we talked about sort of have you seen a change in the market, but since the pandemic has started, has that shifted how you do business?

Nakita M. Pope:
Not particularly, to be honest. I think just in terms of my processes and my creative process and stuff, that hasn’t changed very much. Like I said, I think more people are willing to work remotely. So that’s changed a little bit of the opportunities that I’ve been getting and people that are reaching out to work with me. I think from a logistical standpoint, I think more people want to be on video these days.

Like I said, I’ve worked with people all over the country for a while now, and most times people were completely fine with just a phone call. But now that everybody’s kind of been forced to work remotely, I think that video calls are now the go-to instead of the phone call. So from a logistical standpoint, that is something that I’ve seen that’s changed. Which I don’t mind most times, but it is definitely interesting to see a shift in that. But then I saw the uptick in it and then I saw the fatigue that came from it.

So now I’ve gone back to giving people a choice, “Listen, you don’t have to be on video if you don’t want to. Let me know what works best for you. I don’t want to make it more uncomfortable for you or make it more of a heavy lift to have this meeting.” So I try to be respectful of that too.

Maurice Cherry:
I say that also when I have meetings, I actually have two separate booking links, one is for phone, one is for Zoom. And I’ll only give the Zoom to people that I like. People that I want to see, I’m like, “You can get the Zoom call.” If you just hit me up out the blue and want something, a phone call is fine. It’s the same information. So I get what you’re saying though about having that option though. Because even I think with the fact that everybody’s getting on video, folks still have not really gotten used to it. We’re-

Nakita M. Pope:
No.

Maurice Cherry:
… what, two something years in and people are still like, “Oh, sorry about the background,” or the lighting is bad or whatever. And I’m not expecting studio quality video here-

Nakita M. Pope:
No, right.

Maurice Cherry:
… even though we are very much in the future. I’m not expecting that. But I don’t know, sometimes it’s different. Plus, there’s all these different video platforms. There’s Zoom, there’s Google Meet, there’s WebEx. What else do I have installed? I have BlueJeans. I have Teams. I’m like, Just pick up the phone.

Nakita M. Pope:
It’s too much.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, just pick up the phone. It’s the same information. It’s the same information.

Nakita M. Pope:
I’m going to have to steal that one. I might have two separate links too, now. Because mine was already set up, just the default was phone. And then I realized that all the instructions said, “I will give you a call at that time,” after they book. But I still get emails, “I didn’t ever see a link to a video call.” And I’m like, “That’s because it wasn’t really supposed to be one.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, they’ll say, “I didn’t see a link.” Or sometimes what’ll happen with people is they’ll say, “Oh, well I’m in the car going somewhere and I’m not going to be…” Just call me. Just call me.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, it’s fine.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s fine.

Nakita M. Pope:
It really is.

Maurice Cherry:
The phone still works. It did not go away in the pandemic. It still works. I see that one thing that you’re offering now is a course. You’re offering a course called Building a Business Brand. Talk to me about that.

Nakita M. Pope:
That was something that I did in collaboration with Small Business Invoicing Company. And they were looking to just build a library of resources for their small business audience. And so I was able to do that with them and it was really great. It was a series. I think there were three modules. But we just talked about the benefits and the value of being able to build a brand for your business. Whether you’re creative or not, regardless of what type of business you have, I think most of us start a business because we’re really passionate about what it is that we do. We’re passionate about whatever that skill set is, whatever product or service that we are putting out there in the world. And so that tends to be for most people where your area of expertise is.

But that doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily an expert at being able to brand yourself or market yourself. Even creatives that are in these spaces every day struggle with that, because it’s hard to figure out what your personal brand is or your business brand is. Sometimes it takes having some help from outside. But we just talked about the fundamentals of that, and how much of a difference it can make to distinguish you in your category.

I hear all the time where some people are getting ready to start new businesses or they come to me and they’re like, “I’m starting a business that’s this, fill in the blank. And people are telling me that I shouldn’t start a business in this, because it’s oversaturated and there’s already so many people doing that thing.” And I was like, “Well, that’s really where branding comes in. The fact that you can establish a personality or some value-add or some way of talking about your product or service that’s different from everybody else is what’s going to stand out.” So it was really kind of built around that and it was super fun.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you thought about expanding into doing other courses?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, for sure. I’ve done lots of workshops here and there before, both under the umbrella of other organizations, and some independent ones on my own. And I don’t know when I’m going to tackle this, because like I said, I’m trying to take a little bit of a break, but I’m looking at, one of the things that I see is that, for me, I really care so much about what it is that I do. And teaching is something that’s really close to my heart.

So I’m always looking like, what do people need? What is it that people are struggling with? Or where can I have the most impact? And one of the things I see, especially for designers is that, and not just designers, actually people that are in marketing, for instance, some people who have design backgrounds or even people that are in coming from sales, often I hear people, “I want to talk about brand strategy. I want to get into that, but I have no idea how to make that transition.”

And for designers, especially going from strictly the visual identity and the creative side of things to talking heavily about strategy sometimes is a challenge. And it’s not because they’re not already doing it. Because that was my situation, in retrospect, I realized that I was always a strategic designer. That was always a big part of my process. But I didn’t necessarily put it out there. I didn’t explain all of my process to my clients necessarily. I didn’t build it into my proposals. It just wasn’t at the forefront. But it was there underneath all the time. Before I designed anything, I did all the research. I looked at their competitors, I did all these things. But I realized that for most designers, it’s hard to make that transition, because they don’t know how to reposition themselves in the market in that way.

And they don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t know what they need to know to be able to take those parts that they may already be doing, and be able to go deeper with that and really make it a big part of their practice. And because that’s part of the process that I really love, I’ve always been looking at how can I do more of this? And then of course at some point I had that fork in the road, where I had to decide, am I going to position myself in this way? Or am I just going to make this a bigger part of my design process?

And so when I started Branding Chicks, that was the pivot for me to decide that I was going to make brand strategies the thing that I led with. And I still do a lot of design for my clients, but I also am now in a place where, probably, about half of my clients, I’m only doing strategy for, I’m not necessarily creating any deliverables on the design side. So it’s kind of the best of both worlds.

Maurice Cherry:
And I feel like we’ve started to see designers probably over the past maybe four or five years, start to lean more into that strategy. Because it’s been pushed a lot to say-

Nakita M. Pope:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
… “Yes, you can know how to do design, you can know the programs and the tools and the methods, but until you’re able to apply that in a business sense, then that’s when you’ll become truly effective.” Douglas Davis, who we both know, has a whole book about it. So it’s something that we’re starting to see a lot of designers try to go into. The thing with the courses, though, I’m really interested about, because I feel like courses are something that, and I’m dating myself here, I’m thinking way back to 2010, probably, even a little bit earlier than that, but do you remember CreativeLive? Does that sound familiar to you?

Nakita M. Pope:
Yes, I do.

Maurice Cherry:
CreativeLive used to do these multi-day courses with entrepreneurs would come in and they would teach. And I mean for the time it was pretty novel. I actually don’t even know what CreativeLive is doing now. But I know that something that is pushed on a lot of entrepreneurs, it’s like, “Oh, take the knowledge that put it into a course, and then sell the course.” Which is always an option, but are your clients going to be the same people that you want to sell your course to? It feels like it opens up a separate revenue stream, potentially. But then unless you’re just not a great salesman, that’s skills you have to tap into.

I tried to do courses when I had my studio, and even though I’ve taught before, I was like, “I don’t want to sell the course.” It didn’t feel right for me to sell the course. And I know that people do, this was actually a little bit before Skillshare, but people would do Skillshare and things like that. I taught at Mediabistro and I sort of did my courses that way. And it was easy because it was just like you had a PowerPoint, you had a microphone, you spoke all through the lessons and stuff like that.
And it works, but it did add on, for me at least, it just added on this extra dimension of sales that I have to do. And I’m like, “It’s not worth it. For the money that I’m getting from it, it’s not worth it for me trying to hustle on these courses. I’ll just get some more clients.”

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, I totally get that. And I agree with you. I don’t think that any of the courses that I’ve done previously or the one that I’m going to be doing about brand strategy isn’t really targeted towards clients. It’s much more targeted to other creative professionals more than anything else. So I look at it as a form of professional development, I mean, because I did the one that you’re talking about in partnership with someone else, that was meant to be an evergreen course, so it was fully recorded and all that kind of stuff. And so they’ll have it for a while and their audiences can access it whenever.

The way that I’m approaching my brand strategy course is I’m looking at it as sort of a masterclass. I want it to be hands-on and I want it to be small and I want it to be in real time, because I enjoy that part of teaching. And I feel like there’s so much so to learn, there’s so much to share, and there’s so many questions that people always have that this is born out of my day-to-day, and people that ask me these questions or they send me emails and those kind of things. So I’m looking at how can I help them in real time? I want to answer your question, not a general question like yours. I want to answer your question.

So I feel like, for me, I’m looking at sort of a masterclass kind of thing more than an evergreen, pre-recorded course. I think there’s a lot of value in those as well, but I don’t know if that’s what I really want to do. I just like the hands-on so much more, so that’s the way that I’m looking at it. Yeah,

Maurice Cherry:
I gotcha. So while we’re talking about teaching, I have to ask you about The Creative Circus. The Creative Circus is where you’ve taught for, how long have you been teaching there?

Nakita M. Pope:
I think this is my 13th year.

Maurice Cherry:
13 years. It’s closing its doors. Jordan Taylor, who I had on a couple of episodes ago, we talked about that. How do you feel about it?

Nakita M. Pope:
It’s a set of mixed in motions. It really is. Other than some workshops here and there and some guest lectures and things like that, this has been my most continuous experience with teaching and it’s something that I truly love. So it’s always going to be something I truly love. I’ve seen so many talented people come through those doors, and it’s such an amazing alumni network. And so many people, I’m still connected to both that are still in the building, people that are graduates, former instructors, and things like that. So it’s a mixed set of emotions.

I’m excited about what my next chapter looks like. I know that frees up some mental and emotional space, and also some time to do some other things. So in some ways I’m excited about that, but I’m going to miss that place. I’m going to miss my students. So it’s definitely been some emotional times, up and down, over the last six months or so.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at that time, because you not only were there as a teacher, but you were advising, especially along DEI and stuff like that, what feelings in particular come to mind? Are there any sort of memories that you have specifically about your time there?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, so many. I think the things that stand out most to me is, as a teacher, the thing that you want the most is to watch someone’s light bulb go off. And they’re like, “Oh, man, I get it now.” And I’ve seen that happen over the years in multiple ways. Sometimes it’s about a course that I’m teaching, sometimes it’s about the DEI training that I might be doing, or it might just be those life conversations that I have with my students. I just love connecting with the students more than anything else.

So many of those moments are the ones that I hold close where they trusted me to tell me something about their lives or to ask for advice. I was able to help them with something that really made a difference for them in their professional careers or their academic careers. Those are the things that I’m going to keep close to my heart, because those are the things that let me know that I was having impact and made it all worth it.

Maurice Cherry:
When you step back and just look at, I guess, Atlanta as, I don’t know, I guess you could say a design education city, I feel like over, I’d say maybe the past 20 or so years, I mean, we had Atlanta College of Art, and then that went away. Now, there’s The Creative Circus that’s going away. I’ve heard there’s been some changes at The Portfolio center, which I think it’s now just called Miami Ad School, I believe.

Nakita M. Pope:
Mm-hmm. It is.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you feel about just the state of design education in the city? I mean, I feel like we’ve had these specialized colleges for a while that taught them, and then over the years they’ve sort of changed and went away in some way.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, lots of changes over the years. I think some of it… Well, one of the things, like you said, this is definitely a design education city. When I was on the board with AIGA, I was running the education committee, and we have seven design programs in metro Atlanta. That is unheard of for even most other metropolitan cities. So even the more niche schools that you’re talking about, there’s still, Georgia State has design programs, Georgia Tech has design programs, University of Georgia, which we kind of still count. There’s other schools as well that have designed programs even outside of The Portfolio School, and more specialized schools and things like that.

So it was just such a breadth of education in that space. I think that some of the changes are good. I think some of them are going to have some ripple effects. I think one of the things that has always been a struggle, and I think with the changes in the programs it’s going to add to it, is that even though so many people have been educated in design here in the city or around the city, they tend to not stay in the community for their professional pursuits.

They get their education in this space and then they move to another place. Which nothing is wrong with that, but that has been part of the challenge is trying to retain that talent here. Because I think sometimes, especially for those students who might move into the city specifically to go to school, they don’t necessarily always have time while they’re in school to dive into the creative communities here in a real way. So they only see the little bubble that’s created for them by their programs. So they don’t necessarily get a chance to see all that’s available and what the real Atlanta creative community looks like. So when it’s time for them to look for a job, they don’t always consider staying.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like there’s an ongoing trend in Atlanta about not being able to retain, or I would say appreciate creative talent.

Nakita M. Pope:
Nope.

Maurice Cherry:
Not just in design, I’m thinking specifically about music, but music, art, design, I feel like that’s an ongoing thing, where, and I mean we’re speaking of the city as it’s a person, but I don’t know if the city appreciates what it has and what it cultivates here to the point where people would want to stay here. There’s been several musicians that have blown up elsewhere, but when they were here in Atlanta, nobody would give them a chance. I’ve certainly had folks on the show who were from Atlanta, and they may have gotten their education here, but they had to go elsewhere to find opportunities or to do big things.

I’ve had other Atlanta folks that are, I would say, other educators and other business folks to ask, like, “Why do you think that’s the case? What is it about Atlanta that’s not making these people want to stay? Is it the workforce?” I would imagine there are other factors, just cost of living and traffic and stuff like that. But I even think about when I was in my 20s, I definitely, at one point. Wanted to leave. I was like, “I feel like I’ve hit a ceiling.” This is well before I started Revision Path. But I was like, “I feel like I’ve hit a ceiling in my career. I don’t know where else I can go from here, unless I move away.” Maybe that’s what plays into it. I don’t know. I don’t know.

Nakita M. Pope:
I think there’s a lot of factors. I think some of them, you’ve already tapped into. The other side of it, my experience is a little different from yours. I came here for grad school. I came here to go to Portfolio Center, which is now Miami Ad School. And I was going to finish my two years and I was going to just leave it open. Where do I end up? I don’t know. But everything is wide open for me. And so by the time I graduated, I was actually looking at moving to Seattle, but I graduated in the middle of a recession. So I shot my book all over the country, and people are like, “We love your work, but we’re on a hiring freeze. We’re not hiring anyone.”

So that meant that I ended up staying here. I mean, it took me a little longer to find a job and all those things. So I was like, “Well, I guess I’ll just stay here for a while.” And so I ended up getting my first design job here. And I think, honestly, that’s the best thing that could have happened for me. The other thing I’m aware of is that my situation also isn’t everybody else’s, is that because I’m independent and I’ve been independent for so long, I never really went through the process of trying to move up in a creative agency completely.

I worked in agencies. I worked in in-house. I’ve done a lot of those things, but on the short term, or I did them for a little while. And so I did a lot of that moving around in the beginning. But for the last 12 years, I’ve worked for myself. And so for all of the things that come along with being an independent creative, and there are many, both positive and negative, I think one of the biggest positives, and I can say this in hindsight now, is that there is no ceiling when you’re on your own. When you’re on your own, you create your own path, for better or for worse. You might make some mistakes. Whatever those things look like, you’re on your own. So I feel like, for me, I don’t know if I’d have been able to do all of the things that are available to me now had I stayed in a traditional agency environment for my entire career.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Nakita M. Pope:
And I don’t know if that’s the truth for everyone else. I know other people have taken that path and it’s worked out extremely well for them. I don’t know if it would’ve for me, and it’s hard for me to know, because I don’t have the opportunity to do both. I did some in the beginning, and now I’m here, and I think everybody’s path is their own.

But I do think about that often. What would that have looked like? And would I have gotten to a place where I was like, okay, like you said, I have to move away if I’m going to move up, or I have to go do this if I’m going to move up or whatever those things look like? So I think it’s different for everybody, but the landscape of what it looks like for different people and what your personal commitments are, and what kind of lifestyle you want to live and all those things really play into whether this is a good fit for you or not.

But on the flip side, I do think that Atlanta is a lot of creatives here. And I do feel like it’s a very supportive, creative community. So I don’t know, like you said, if the city itself does everything that it can, but I feel like once you find your people here, I feel like that network is amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
I agree. I agree 100%. Once you get into that niche and you find those folks, you find your tribe, your people, whatever you want to call it, there’s no limit to the things that you can even work on. And to speak to what you said earlier, I did have to leave. I had to leave where I was AT&T, strike out on my own, and then that’s when I started to really… Well, first of all, I could never have pictured staying AT&T. There are people who I used to work with back then in 2008 that are still there. God bless them, because it couldn’t be me, could not be me. I say that to say, though, I mean, everyone has their path, for some folks staying in that very comfortable, crucible of being a production designer, if that’s what they want to do, that’s what they want to do.

I just knew that I could do better than where I was at. And this is not a slight on the people that are still there, but I could do better. And I just didn’t know, when I think about Atlanta in 2008, I mean this is pre SCAD. This is pre a lot of larger tech companies setting up offices in such here.

Nakita M. Pope:
True.

Maurice Cherry:
This is pre Uber and Lyft. I was like, “I don’t have a car. Where am I going to find a good job? I got to catch MARTA somewhere, it’s wild.” So now I think the city is definitely different in that aspect. We do attract a lot of people that want to come here for, I think, just creative art stuff in general, not just for maybe design. But over the past 10 years, we’ve really blown up with television and entertainment.

Nakita M. Pope:
Sure.

Maurice Cherry:
And that opens up a lot of roles in the creative space. So the environment here has just gotten a lot more rich since then.

Nakita M. Pope:
Agree. Agree, wholeheartedly.

Maurice Cherry:
Now speaking of the sort of Atlanta community, you mentioned AIGA. I just want to congratulate you on your recent AIGA Fellow Award.

Nakita M. Pope:
Thank you. Thank you so much.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, talk to me about that.

Nakita M. Pope:
Such a great honor. AIGA, for those of you out there that don’t know, it’s sort of the national body of professional organization for designers. And so we’ve got chapters all over the country. The Atlanta chapter has been active for a really long time. And each chapter has the opportunity to award fellow awards to people in their community that they feel have really moved forward the area of design or made impact on the local, regional, and national level.

And I think our chapter has honored 32 people, possibly. No, 16 people. It’s a very short list, so I was honored for 2021. We just had the celebration a couple months ago, because of the pandemic and everything. But I was given the honor in 2021. So that was a magical moment for me. It gave me an opportunity to really celebrate my community and celebrate all the things that I’ve been able to do and touch, and people that I’ve been able to meet in this community. So it was really a great night.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I’m glad that the community has come around you to recognize all of the great work that you’ve been doing, and to have their support for you. So that’s great.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, it was a great honor. It was a great honor.

Maurice Cherry:
And now speaking of other projects, I see that you have this project called the Bella Boss Box. How did you come up with the idea for doing a subscription box?

Nakita M. Pope:
So we talked about having your people. I feel like, I don’t know about you, but my friends are the ones that always get me into stuff, especially my creative friends. They’re the ones that call you with a bright idea and be like, “So this is what I’m thinking.” So it was kind of similar to that. One of my good friends, Nekeidra Taylor, and actually we met through a client. A client of mine introduced me to her because she was like, “I think you guys should meet.” And so this was years ago. And so we’ve been friends and professional colleagues for a while.

She’s in public relations. And so during the pandemic, we hadn’t done our normal check-ins or have coffee here and there, kind of thing. And so we finally had a check-in call, and we were just catching up and talking. And we just ended up talking about our journeys as entrepreneurs and what the pandemic had been like and our support systems and things like that. And the fact that without those support systems, we wouldn’t have been able to do half of the things that we’ve been able to do.

And so from that conversation, we started thinking about what must it be like for people, especially women, who are starting businesses or running businesses who don’t have that support system. I think that I’ve been lucky, personally, because of my network and people who’ve introduced me to other people or just friends of mine who I’ve been friends with for a long time, but who are now also business owners as well. And even if your friends and your family support you in what you’re doing, and sometimes they won’t, sometimes they just won’t understand.

But even if they do, if they’ve never done it before, they still don’t know what it’s actually like. And so sometimes it helps to have someone that you can pick up the phone and call and ask a question, and feel like it’s a safe space to ask a question. Or to just vent and be like, “Look, I’m about to go work at Popeye’s.” That used to be mine when I was really frustrated with being an entrepreneur. I’m like, “Yep, I’ll just go and work at Popeye’s. I like chicken. It’ll be fine.”

And you need those people that you can call and say that, and they totally get it. You don’t have to explain it, you don’t have to do anything. They’re just like, “Oh, it’s that day, huh? Mm-hmm. So what happened?” And so that’s kind of how it was born. We talked about it and she’s like, “No, I think you should do…” We talked about a subscription box. How could we build a community of women that would be able to connect with each other in that way? So we came up with the idea for a subscription box, and I was like, That would be really cool.” And she’s like, “You should definitely do it.” And I’m like, I should do it. Why, I got to do it?”

And so she’s like, “I don’t have time to do it.” And I was like, “Well, I’m not doing it if you’re not doing it.” And then next thing I know, we’re setting up an actual call to talk about it. And that was October 2020. And so we planned this whole thing and launched the whole thing during the pandemic. We launched in April 2021. We hadn’t seen each other in person until March 2021. So this was all done on Zoom, during the pandemic. Even though she lives here, we were still kind of staying away from everybody and stuff. So it was kind of crazy.

But it’s been awesome. I feel like we’ve connected with some really amazing women all over the country who have a multitude of different types of businesses and things like that. And then just this summer we decided that we were going to pivot a little bit. The subscription box was going really well. As a designer, it was awesome. It gave me an opportunity to create things specifically for that community. We had a zine. I was designing products for the boxes, and I did all the branding for the boxes themselves, and all that stuff. And she’s in PR. She did a lot of the writing and things like that. So we really were a good fit to compliment each other.

But this summer we looked at everything and kind of like we tried to have those moments where we stop everything and start working on the business instead of in it. And okay, where are we? And where do we want to be? And we felt like the community part of it wasn’t getting as much shine as we really wanted. That was why we built this thing in the first place, so we decided to take a break and regroup and relaunch just the community.

So we’re still kind of working on that. We’re taking a break. She’s busy. I’m busy. We both have separate businesses on top of this one. So we’ve decided to just take a break for a little while, really get grounded in what we want, and then relaunch again. Preferably, we want to do an online community so that we have a chance to provide deeper relationships for the women that are our subscribers. So that’s what we really want to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. So you’re pivoting from the subscription box to an online community. So just sort taking that notion and deepening it, I guess.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yes, exactly. Exactly. Because I think what we heard from our subscribers was that they love the items in the box, and they love so much of that stuff and the magazine and all those things, but they really love the idea of being exposed to other women who were doing amazing things and hearing about people’s businesses. And we would do this series called Respect on Our Name. So we would do interviews with black women entrepreneurs on Instagram. So people really responded to those kind of things a little bit more than the items in the box. And so much of the stuff in the box was also about providing resources and information. So we felt like we could wrap that all up and also bring the community to a higher level if we pivoted a little bit. So that’s what we’re looking at doing.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you interviewed me back in 2018 for Design Observer, and during that interview you had asked me how passion projects have impacted my career. Now I want to flip the script and ask you that question. How have your passion projects impacted your career?

Nakita M. Pope:
Lots of different ways. I think Bella Boss is definitely one of those passion projects. I probably would’ve done that even if it wasn’t a business. That’s just something I’m passionate about. I’m passionate about seeing Black women shine and succeed and women in general. And I think running a business has been such an adventure for me in so many ways. And I think that I know what it’s like even when you have support. I can’t imagine what it’s like when you don’t have support. So I always try to be that support or give people resources wherever I can. So I think Bella Boss is definitely something I would consider to be a passion project.

Mentoring is another passion of mine. Almost everything that I’ve done has come from something that holds a special place in my heart. Teaching is just more of mentorship for me. So mentorship and teaching are very much tied together. I’ve done a lot of public speaking, and I used to be terrified of public speaking. But the thing that shifted public speaking for me was looking at it as a bigger classroom. And because I love teaching so much, I’m like, “Well, you just get a chance to share knowledge with more people.”

So I feel like those aspects of my career have come out of the passion of wanting to share with other people. Branding is so much about being creative and solving problems and all those kinds of things. And I think all of those things are core to my personality and core to the things that I care about.

One of the stories that I love the most about when I was a kid is that my mom told me that I used to love puzzles. And so she would buy me all these different puzzles. So because I had so many, I got to a point where I would literally dump all the pieces out in the middle of the floor and solve them all at one time. And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s pretty much what I do every day. Mm-hmm. That’s pretty much the life that I’ve built for myself.” So when I think about things like that, I feel like all the things that I care about or that’s fun for me, or that’s interesting for me has been the foundation of every single thing that I do every day.

Maurice Cherry:
How have you built your confidence over the years as a creative professional? I mean, you’ve been doing this for a very long time. That longevity obviously has to come from somewhere. What fuels you as a creative professional?

Nakita M. Pope:
I try not to stop learning. As a teacher, I feel like you have to learn all the time. But even outside of that, I think I’ve always been naturally curious. And so for me, I want to ask more questions. I want to learn more. I want to talk to all the people that know the things that I don’t know. I want that, that’s what feeds me. And so I feel like confidence for me comes from knowledge and it comes from experience. And sometimes you have one without the other or vice versa, and then sometimes you have both. And I think over the years, I’ve just tried to learn as much as I possibly can on a day-to-day basis. And because of the years behind me, now I have the experience as well. But in the beginning, I didn’t have all the experience. I just had the knowledge and I had the willingness to learn.

And I think, if nothing else, I feel like those are the two things that has allowed me to grow the most and to be willing to take a chance. I can’t stress that enough. So many of the things that I’ve been able to do or that I’ve done that I can look back and be the most proud of are the things that terrified me in the beginning. If it doesn’t make me want to vomit a little bit when I say yes to it, then it is probably not going to make me grow. And so going back to our previous conversation just about being an independent and how that looks so different for me, I think the flexibility to try a bunch of new things and different things and to take on new challenges, I’ve had the flexibility to do that for the last 12 years, and I’ve taken full advantage of that.

If someone comes to me and says, “Hey, I really think you should do this thing.” And I’m like, “I’ve never done that thing before. I don’t know much about that thing. Let me go learn some more about that thing and then decide.” And then if I decide, “Well, it’s going to be a challenge, but I’m going to do it anyway.” I feel like that’s where all the growth comes from. And those are the things that have allowed me to be more confident. Not just because of what I already know, but because of the fact that I’m willing to take a chance and willing to take on the challenge.

I know that I’ve done that before and I didn’t die. And I made some mistakes, but most of the time it went pretty well. I’m like, that just gives me more confidence to do it again to something that’s unknown that I’ve never done before. I was just like, “Okay, I did that. Everything was fine. Okay, let’s try it again.” So I think so much of that is just taking chances too.

Maurice Cherry:
Whose work are you inspired by right now?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, quite a few people. Some of them are visual, of course, and then some of them are just community-based kind of things. I love what Kenny Thacker is doing with a 100 Roses from Concrete in the advertising industry. I think the programming that they’re putting together and the resources that they’re providing for young Black people are just amazing.

Visually, I am a big fan of Bisa Butler and her work, and right now I just can’t get enough of it. My best friend bought me one of her coffee table books for Christmas, and it’s like one of my prize possessions right now. But I get inspiration from so many different places and I’m like discovering new people every day, truly every day. That’s why I tell my students all the time that I use social media as a curation tool.

So I usually don’t care how many people follow me, but on any of my platforms, if you go look at them, I probably follow three times more people than follow me, because I’m just like, “Ooh, I want to see what this person is doing.” “Ooh, what is this person doing?” Ooh, I didn’t know about this artist. Let me follow them.” Or, “Ooh, that agency’s doing that. Let me follow them.” So I’m just like, “I just want all that good stuff coming in my feed when I log it on.” So I find new stuff and new people and new agencies and organizations and artists all the time. And that’s part of what feeds my creative process too.

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

Nakita M. Pope:
I want to travel the world. I do travel. I don’t travel as much as I would like to, but I would like to hit the majority of the countries before I leave this Earth, so that’s one thing. Another is I need to finish my book. I think the last time I was on with you, I might have talked about my book and it has been sitting in a dark closet for a long time. I did the first draft of it, and then I just kind of let it go. In retrospect, I think I might’ve just gotten scared and was like, “Oh, I can’t do this.” But I definitely want to revisit it. I’m going to pick it up again. I still feel like the subject matter is important. I think it’s still relevant and I still want to do it.

It’s a book about branding, and I just feel like there’s not enough resources out there that make it plain what branding really is. And I think especially for entrepreneurs who are trying to build a brand and don’t know what that means, or even for individuals who are trying to build a brand for themselves and don’t know how to do that, I think that there’s a lot of insight, hopefully, that I can provide. So I definitely want to tackle that and get it back up and running. I just hate that I didn’t finish it, so it’s got to get finished.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I think if you go back and take a look at it, especially with all the knowledge you’ve gained now, you’ll probably see some things in there that you can update, that you can maybe add to-

Nakita M. Pope:
For sure.

Maurice Cherry:
… or something. So take your-

Nakita M. Pope:
Definite change.

Maurice Cherry:
… time with it. Take your time with it. I mean, the thing with books, I mean, I’m finding this out myself as I’m working on a book, which I guess is a sort a scoop. I mean by the time this comes out, people will know that I’m working on a book about Revision Path. But-

Nakita M. Pope:
Ooh, I’m excited.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I’ve been working on a book about Revision Path and it has been a journey. Because at first I was like, “Oh, yeah, I’m going to do it about the show or whatever.” And I was talking to my editor and he is like, “No, you have to go deeper.” And I’m like, “There’s not really that much to it. I wanted to do the show, and I did the show.” He’s like, “No, you have to go, go back further. Where did the seed start?” And it’s taken me all the way back to my childhood. It’s like a therapy session-

Nakita M. Pope:
I love it.

Maurice Cherry:
… trying to get through this book. I mean, I don’t know when it’s going to come out because I’m still working on… Well, one, I’m working on the proposal, but then just even all of the thought to go into how I’m going to approach the story and talk about it and everything, it’ll be good when it comes out. It’ll be sort of parts autobiography part about the show, but-

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, man. That sounds awesome.

Maurice Cherry:
… it’s a lot. It’s a lot.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yes, it is.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a lot.

Nakita M. Pope:
It is a lot. And I think it is a major undertaking. So I feel like even when I started it several years ago, I told myself that even being willing to take on a project that big, is a victory, period.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah-

Nakita M. Pope:
Full stop.

Maurice Cherry:
… absolutely. Absolutely.

Nakita M. Pope:
Regardless of what happens after that, that is a victory.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What do you want the next chapter of your legacy to be?

Nakita M. Pope:
To be honest, I’m kind of leaving it up to the universe a little bit. I think part of this break that I’m taking is just about getting some rest and giving myself a chance to take a break and be able to hear my own voice about what I want next. The benefit of all the work and the thing, the people that I’ve been connected to and done stuff with and collaborated with, it’s such a blessing that I have several opportunities to do things next, but I want to make sure that I make the right move. I want to make sure that what I’m doing next is going to be fulfilling, that it’s going to allow me to grow, because that’s always something that I want. I never want to stop growing. So I’m really taking a break just so that I can hear my own voice and decide what’s next.

But also I’m taking my hands off of it a little bit and sort of letting things unfold the way that they should unfold. I think sometimes, and I’ve had to learn this the hard way, because sometimes I just want to plan everything, but so often when we try to make plans, the plans that we make are coming from our perspective. You can’t plan something that you don’t know about to some degree. But I think that sometimes you need to let there be some divine intervention, some universe to step in, because sometimes the things that we think we want next isn’t big enough, because we can’t see it yet.

And so I feel like I don’t know what it is, but in my heart, I feel like that’s where I am. I’m at that kind of space where it’s time for something big, but I don’t know what that thing is, yet. So I’m just going to center myself and take some time and figure out what that is. Branding Chicks, of course, will still be part of the equation, at least for now, but I feel like there’s so much more to do and so many more people to have fun with and create with. So I’m excited about whatever it ends up being, to be honest. I just don’t know all of what it is yet.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I think that’s a good place to be though. To know that you have this possibility or all these possibilities ahead of you and just be excited for what that could be. That’s a great place to be, because a lot of folks are stuck if they don’t know what or whatever they think might be coming next is just more of the same thing. So to have that, I guess, opportunity to dream in that way, that’s priceless. That’s great.

Nakita M. Pope:
You have to believe it first. That’s what believing really is, right? If it was already concrete and set in stone, then you don’t have to believe in it. It’s just there. So sometimes you have to just believe that it’s going to be great and that it’s coming and that it’s yours, and that you’re going to have what you’re supposed to have, period. I believe that. So I don’t know all of what that’s going to look like. I don’t know all the details, but I do believe that I’m going to have what I’m supposed to have and I think it’s going to be good.

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

Nakita M. Pope:
You can check us out at brandingchicks.com. That’s where you can find all of my work there. And Bella Boss is bellabossbox.com. The site is on hiatus right now while we pivot, but you can still find us there. And also on social media, you can check out Branding Chicks, both on Instagram and Facebook, and for Bella Boss Box, also on Instagram, Facebook, and I don’t think we’re on Twitter, no, but Facebook and Instagram.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, Sounds good. Well, Nakita Pope, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I feel like every time that I see you, and I know that you and I haven’t seen each other in a while, because of-

Nakita M. Pope:
I know.

Maurice Cherry:
… the pandemic, but every time I see you, you are such a just bright light of just like energy and positivity. And I know that the Atlanta community, of course, knows this, that’s why you have that AIGA Fellow Award. But when I think of somebody that is always such a positive, just, influence in the design community locally and otherwise, I think of you. So I’m just-

Nakita M. Pope:
Thank you very much.

Maurice Cherry:
… so glad that you’re still doing your thing. I’m excited to see what you come up with next. And thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Nakita M. Pope:
Absolutely. Thank you. Thank you so much for that. And thank you for always supporting me. And I love these conversations, whether they happen on the podcast or not, where we’re just catching up. So thank you so much. I appreciate it.

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Rebecca Brooker

We’re closing out Pride Month with the second part of my conversation with Rebecca Brooker! (If you missed the first part, check it out here.)

We talked about Rebecca’s relocation to Argentina (after a stint back in Trinidad), and how she’s adjusted and found community in Buenos Aires. Rebecca also went in depth about Queer Design Club, the Queer Design Count, and the upcoming Queer Design Summit taking place on July 7.

Rebecca is proof that building community and staying true to yourself is a surefire way for personal and professional success!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
Now for this week’s interview. This is part two of my conversation with designer, art director and community builder, Rebecca Brooker. Let’s start the show.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. That’s a lot. I mean, from –

Rebecca Brooker:
It’s a long story.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it’s a long story, but I mean, there’s goodness. I mean, having to leave the country like that that quickly because the employer forgot to notify you and now you have to move back home, but then now you might be moving to another country, to Argentina. Oh my God. I guess I’m curious. Once you got to Argentina, what was that like?

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah, I mean, I’d never been to South America at all before, so this was a completely new experience for me. I had studied a little bit of Spanish in Trinidad, but never used it in practicality. And so I was nervous. I ended up meeting two of my bosses, my would be bosses from that team in New York and they were telling me, “Eh, it’s a cool place. It’s beautiful. It doesn’t snow. You have so much fun. It’s a great nightlife, very young culture. The agency is growing.” So I was like, “All right, this is a totally new opportunity. What else am I going to do with my life?” I felt so beat down having to return to Trinidad and not know should I think about opening my own agency here? Should I think about getting a job at somewhere here?

Rebecca Brooker:
And then this job kind of just fell into my lap and I was like, “All right, we’re going to go on another adventure. We’re going to see what’s in store.” When I moved to Argentina, I was just in shock. I was like in a good way too, in a good way. I was in shock in a way that I was so open to every new experience, Maurice. I really had to put myself in a mindset that I’m moving to this place. I just lost a whole life behind me in the states. All my friends back there, my partners back there, all my coworkers, everybody. But I have to look ahead and I have to be open to whatever comes next, and I think that’s just the mindset that I had to keep going with.

Rebecca Brooker:
And for the first time in my life, it was like I was living in a studio alone. I would go out to eat at a restaurant and I’d sit alone. And I spent just so much time in the beginning of my move by myself, just having not made any friends yet outside of the people that I work with in this office. I think that was a turning point in my life where it was the first time I really had to do that in an environment where, it was different when I moved to St. John’s because I moved into the dorms and I was immediately put into a group of people that I could be friends with. And now I’m 20… God. How old was I? 24, moving to Argentina, by myself, don’t have anybody there. You go to a restaurant, you order for one, you take a book, you read something. And if I heard people speak in English, I would literally turn around and be like, “Did you just speak English?” Like “Where are you from?”

Rebecca Brooker:
And that was really how I started to make my friends. I would just be this like curious, observant person. If I heard people speak in English, I’d be like, “Tell me about you. What are you doing here?” And that was how I started to find my community. I ended up finding an English speaking gym. It’s run by an English guy and he wanted to create a community for English speakers to come together and train. And so I met these people and that put me into a new circle of English speaking people in Buenos Aires that led me to my own network now. In addition to this, the agency I was working at, I had a… I wouldn’t say I had problems at the beginning, but I had anxiety because I was one of the only native English speakers, right.

Rebecca Brooker:
Everybody at the agency could speak English, but we were usually trained to speak English for professional use. So in a meeting example, like we would send our clients communications in English, but everybody in the office would talk to each other in Spanish. So, they would say something and someone would be raising an issue and everyone’s talking in Spanish meetings in Spanish and I was just lost. I could not pick up anything that they would say. And especially also because Argentine Spanish, it has a little different of a dialect than Mexican Spanish or Spain Spanish. So I couldn’t even make out what they were singing. And so many times in my first year, I wouldn’t get the joke. People would be laughing. I’d be like, “I didn’t get it.” And it just made me feel othered. But when I started to learn Spanish and my coworkers, bless them, they made a concerted effort to keep me looped in.

Rebecca Brooker:
We would have a meeting in Spanish and then I had a coworker who would come over and say, “Okay, I’ll stay with you and explain everything we just said in English.” And I’m like, “Thank you, thank you so much.” And it was just a lot of awkward moments like that until I got better and I learned, and now I’d say I’m not fluid, but I could understand a lot. I can respond. So it was definitely a moment of growth in my life, I think. A moment of solitude, a moment of acceptance that sometimes things happen and you just have to go with it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Wow. I mean, I can’t help, but think now, also in the midst of all of this happening, you also co-founded Queer Design Club, which is also about helping to bring together a community while you were also, like in your own life, trying to find community. Talk to me about Queer Design Club.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. I think Queer Design Club on introspection is a manifestation of me looking for a lot of things in my life. And you just named it where I felt motivated on one hand to make this community because I was in a real moment of my life of solitude, where I had my online friends. I had people that I could reach out to from New York, but I spent the majority of my nights, I’d go to the office and I’d come home and I’d be by myself. And I was just like, “There must be something I could be doing with my time right now, right. There must be something I could be doing.” And at the same time I was looking to connect with other queer African designers, right. Because I think the other side of my life, not to go back too far to the Trinidad thing, but not having that community in Trinidad, not necessarily having that community at St. John’s either, it kind of left me wondering, where are my queer friends?

Rebecca Brooker:
I don’t have enough queer friends. And I actually want to meet queer friends that I have something in common with. So maybe queer designers. And I started to Google and I started to look for spaces online for queer designers. Was there a community? Was there a place? And there was nothing I could find. I found Out In Tech, I found Lesbians Who Tech, but when I joined those communities, they felt huge, right. They felt like there were tens of thousands of people in there. And I don’t know who would be my friend. So that was really what drove me to have this initial idea of like, “Why don’t I start a queer community online?” And I’d started putting together some ideas, just very loosely. And one day I went on Twitter and I saw a different person had created a handle for LGBTQ People in Design, or something. And I was like, “What? That’s my idea.”

Rebecca Brooker:
I wasn’t really like that. I was like, “This is cool. Someone else is also thinking about this. I’m going to message them and let them know that I have the same idea.” And that’s how I met John, John Voss. And we began chatting. I shared my deck of ideas with him. He shared his idea with me and we came together to form QDC. And at the time John and I were not friends, we were just two strangers that met on Twitter. We began co-working. He’s in San Francisco, I’m in VA and working towards let’s make a Slack, let’s make a directory. And let’s see if other queer people will join. And we didn’t know who would join.

Rebecca Brooker:
I had a handful of friends that I knew were LGBTQ. He had a handful of friends. We knew some people on Twitter, but everybody felt really disparate and disconnected. So when we formed the community, it was really just a place for us to have a clubhouse to hang out in and talk about the experience of like, “Oh, I’m the only queer person on my team and I don’t know how to bring my partner to the work event,” or “I don’t identify as CIS and my boss keeps misgendering me.” We saw people having these experiences and we wanted to bring them together to talk about them some more. So that’s kind of how we founded QDC. And I think over the years, one of the things that I’ve really ,really noticed about the community is just that, this was not something that just John and I were looking for.

Rebecca Brooker:
This is something that many, many people needed maybe much more than I did. And the growth that we’ve had over the years, the constant commitment from our members to keeping the space fresh, giving each other advice, helping each other, just general resource sharing and like this communal online living, I think has really just changed my perception of what QDC is or what it should be. What started as just a side hobby for John and I has turned into a lifeline for some people. And I think that was when it was a turning point for me that I was like, “Oh shit, we did something. We got to do right by our people. Now that we’ve gathered them all here in this community, there’s thousands of them. They’re looking at us and I’m like, what are we going to do?”

Rebecca Brooker:
So I think that was the real question that we had is like, “Okay, now that we formed this community, what value are we going to bring to their lives?” And one of the early questions, well, we were like, “Okay, there’s all these people in our Slack.” We actually don’t know anything about them because when we let people join the Slack, we just ask them their name and their email. We don’t know anything about where they are, who they are, what titles do they have, how much money do they make? Who is our community, really? We know the people exist. We know that. We have proof of concept, but who are they in their identity? Right. And if we’re going to position ourselves to serve a community of people, we have to first find out who these people are and what are their needs. So that was the things that John and I were mulling over and so we decided to formulate the Queer Design Count.

Rebecca Brooker:
So the Queer Design Count is the only survey in the design industry that is specifically for LGBTQ people in design. And the reason we did that was because when we were looking for data about our own people, we couldn’t find any. There was no data out there about the community. The AIGA Design Census asked one question and it’s, “Are you LGBTQ?” And from that data, you can make a few inferences with the percentages, but there just wasn’t anything deeper than that one question, that one check box. So we decided to formulate our own survey. And in the first year at 2019, which was also our first year as a community, we ended up with close to 1,500 responses. And John and his loving partner, Lori, who is a data analyst, thank God, lovingly went through these thousands of responses and wrote the first iteration of the Queer Design Count, where we made a lot of interesting insights about the community.

Rebecca Brooker:
I think one of the things, the differences about our survey was while… It was both qualitative and quantitative. We got some hard facts, we got some data, but we also had opportunities for people to write in their own responses about why they felt certain things or why they chose a certain answer. And some of the written testimonials are just so powerful. I think that that was one of the things that really showed us the need for this space within the community and how we had a lot of work to do if we were going to plan to change anything in the design industry, it was not a singular problem. It was not any one person’s problem. It was a structural problem that LGBTQ persons were making less than non-LGBTQ people. They were leaving the industry much faster and much younger. So they were not making it to seniority levels.

Rebecca Brooker:
And they were experiencing more bias on a daily basis than other groups out there, especially when it comes to having an intersectional identity, right? So Black queer trans people were most likely to be discriminated against, left out and having to point out design decisions that went against their existence. A really great example of this is like when you are a product designer and your team may be designing some forms and they put options on a form for male female, there’s no inclusive lens. There’s no inclusive perspective to this that would include a trans person. Now a queer person working on that team has to point out and say, “Hey, this is not inclusive towards people who identify as LGBTQ. We need to change this form.” And I think there are a lot of instances of that nature that happen prevalently on a daily basis throughout the design industry, where people get misgendered, people get mislabeled and we can preach about it as much as we want.

Rebecca Brooker:
It all ladders back up to like, we need more diverse teams to bring lived experiences and unique perspectives to the work. And that is part of why we believe LGBTQ designers have a great opportunity to become champions in the workplace and they’re not currently given that opportunity.

Maurice Cherry:
That is fantastic. I mean, I think even just the fact that this Design Count that you’re doing is, in one way building, I don’t want to say it’s building on research that others have done, but it’s like you saw what AIGA was doing in terms of their sense of saying, you’re like, “Yeah, this isn’t enough. We need to do something that’s more for our community that we’re building here.” And so you did this Queer Design Count, and I guess what are some of the lessons you learned while building this?I mean, I know you mentioned that this community came about because you discovered that other folks wanted this community too. But even in building the Count and looking at the results from it, what are some of the findings or some of the things that you just learned throughout this process?

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean, I think that one of the major things that I learned is that even within the queer community there’s discrimination. White gay men still make more money than people who identify as lesbian, right? So even within the queer community, we still have hierarchies of the patriarchy and gender wage gap and things that are prevalent outside of the LGBTQ community. They’re also happening within the LGBTQ community. So that was something that was a little bit surprising to us. But probably shouldn’t be because it exists on all levels, regardless of your identity. I think one of the other things that we found was just that people were so eager to participate in this Count because there was no other place that they could share this information. So I think this was especially true in 2021 when we did the second iteration of the Count in a pandemic world when we released it and we actually added a special section of the Count that year for COVID because we wanted to understand what the pandemic has changed about our data, right.

Rebecca Brooker:
So a great example of this is, we found that in 2021, 41% of transgender designers lost employment due to COVID-19, in comparison to 29% of CIS designers. So this is a huge gap, right? 41 versus 29. And on first glance, we didn’t know what that stat is really telling us, right. On one hand, is it telling us that trans designers got fired more than CIS designers because that could be one way to read it. The other way to read it could be, did trans designers due to the pandemic gain more autonomy in being able to work for themselves? Did they participate in quote unquote “the great resignation” and walk into this power of being able to work for themselves and make their own decisions? Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. But this was where now we would look at some of the responses and testimonials that we got as an answer to that question to try to make a better analysis, right.

Rebecca Brooker:
And one of the things that we found is that when we look at these testimonials, people are pouring their heart out to us. It was the first time that people wrote paragraphs of what they were going through. And I think for a lot of queer people, this survey was relieving and like an outlet, almost like therapy, because they didn’t have another place to talk about getting fired from their job. They didn’t have another place to talk about losing all of their clients and having to move back in with their homophobic parents. This was kind of a space. And I think this is important and why we do this work is because we want to create a space for queer people to feel seen and heard and understood. And we want to be able to take those findings and use that as a benchmark in the industry to say, “Hey, every single year you all corporate companies are talking about supporting LGBTQ people, right?

Rebecca Brooker:
You put up all these Pride parades, you put up all these Pride flags, rainbow your logos and when we survey the people that you say you’re impacting, the stats aren’t changing, LGBTQ designers are still making less than non-LGBTQ designers. We want to be able to use this survey as a biannual post check on the industry to really understand if we’re meeting our goals of improving and bettering ourselves as a space. And like I said, I don’t think it’s anybody’s one problem to fix. But as a design industry, we have to come together to hold hands, not just with Queer Design Club, but with all these different communities and movements that are advocating for their own rights, right? Where are the Black designers, [inaudible 00:24:19] design.

Rebecca Brooker:
All of these different, if you want to call them, affinity groups, are all going after the same thing. And it’s changing the industry to be better for those who have been constantly seen as other. And we want to flip that narrative together, not just for LGBTQ people, but for people who really live at these intersections because our data and our research has showed us that people who have multiple marginalized identities are the most likely to be left out and left behind. So how can we gather together and all do this work together of changing the design industry for something that is substantial and not feel like we all have to target it in our silos. So that’s something that we recognize we need to do. We’re here to research and champion LGBTQ rights, but that is one part of someone’s identity, not everything. So we have to find ways to be intersectional. We have to find ways to continue to work together and elevate people who don’t have that voice right now, or are given that space to use their voice.

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean, I think it’s also worth just putting this in a greater context, like you’re also pulling this information together at a time where at least here in the United States, the rights of LGBTQ people are being stripped away through legislation, et cetera. So to really have this quantitative information, that’s not just… Because I think sometimes what can happen, and this certainly is the case, I think, with what I’ve done with Revision Path and talk with Black designers is that, a lot of the anecdotal evidence just gets swept under the rug as like individual experiences. And it can be hard to really put, I don’t know, I guess confirmation to what’s happening without numbers, without some concrete statistics to say, “This is happening. Here’s the study that shows that.”

Rebecca Brooker:
Exactly, exactly. And I mean, one of our goals, I think now in 2023, we’ll be going into our third year of the Queer Design Count, one of our goals is to make this an industry benchmark, like I said, biannually. So we want to do exactly what you said is align ourselves as the knowledge resource of that information and for people to know that we are here to understand research and advocate for the rights of LGBTQ people in design, because like you said, our rights are under attack federally on a high level, but also it trickles down into your every day, right? When you can’t be yourself outside in the world, how can you be yourself at work? How can you bring your best self to your job every day when your life is under attack? That’s not even just a queer thing.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s true. That’s true. And now this year, actually next month, since this’ll be airing in June, you’re going to be continuing this with hosting the Inaugural Queer Design Summit. This is happening on July 7th.

Rebecca Brooker:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Talk to me about that.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. Well, like I said, so this is our second year doing the Count and the first year we had a great response. The second year we wanted to go a little bit bigger. So we were really thinking about, how can we get this information on a larger stage? How can we have this information reach the people who may have the ability to change it? And in my opinion, that’s recruiters, corporations, people who do the hiring, people who do the firing, all of the people who have the power to be able to change the experiences that queer people have in design. Even queer people, because you’ll be surprised that when you’re dealing with your own shit, when you’re an executive leader and you’re not out, and you’re struggling to come to terms with your own identity, that trickles down to the rest of the queer people in your company who don’t feel like they have a safe working environment.

Rebecca Brooker:
It’s all of these things that we want to be able to reach. And we decided to do the summit as a way to bring this data to a bigger stage. And we wanted to, for the first time, really hear from other LGBTQ voices, other LGBTQ designers, and have them discuss some of the statistics that we found in the report and shed their own experiences on that. So we’re going to have a few panels that are based on sections from the report. So one of the panels that we’re going to have is about trans perspective in design. We basically found that trans respondents were consistently overrepresented in facing discrimination in the workplace. So we want to be able to talk through what are some solutions we can put forward to change this in the future? So the goal of all the panels is to really talk about some of the statistics, but also just share your experience as an LGBTQ person and have that feel, seen and heard.

Rebecca Brooker:
So we’re really excited about the speakers. I’m not going to drop some names yet, although they’re probably going to be out by the time this is confirmed this goes live, but I’m super excited. And I think it’s really the first time that we’re putting on an event for the community where they can see all of themselves reflected because all of our community participated in the survey and even people that were outside of the Queer Design Club community, people who aren’t members, per se. So we’re excited to bring it to a wider audience. We’re excited to bring it to a wider stage. And part of my secondary goal of the summit is to really align the organization as a research focused and mission based organization that is doing this work, not just today, not just tomorrow, but we’re going to be doing this work for our people for a while.

Rebecca Brooker:
And we want to be able to find a like-minded organization that will help us do that work. So we’re not professional researchers. I do this because I’m passionate about our community. I’m passionate about finding out who they are. I’m passionate about making sure that we have these data points to leverage when people talk about improving conditions for LGBTQ people, but I’m not a researcher. So maybe there’s a better way we could be doing this. Maybe there is a smarter way we could be doing this. So I think as we grow the study, we want to be able to align ourselves with a research based organization that can also help us and guide us to making this study even more sound than it is right now. And I think that would be our ultimate goal is to have this study be something that’s continued, something that is super serious and ask the right questions, a lot of questions, and helps people really understand the problems that we have in the industry.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I know that we have a lot of companies and a lot of people that work at big companies that listen to this. So my hope is that once this interview comes out, people get a chance to hear it, that you’ll start to get some interest around that because I think what you’re doing is super important from a research perspective, but also just from a general community and society perspective, not just even the design community, LGBT community as well, to be able to not only put the statistics behind the incidents and things that are happening, but to really quantify it and then keep the work going to sustain the work. So people know that this is something that is like an industry benchmark to understand what the queer experience and design is and how, I guess people in general can bring more visibility and representation is super important. So I’m excited for the summit. I’m excited to see where Queer Design Club goes in the future. I feel like you’ve really tapped into something here.

Rebecca Brooker:
Thank you. Thank you, Maurice. I just want to say thank you to you. I know you’ve been a sounding board for us over the past couple years as well, just like in running a community and this being my first time being a community leader. It takes a village, it really takes a village.

Maurice Cherry:
It really does. Yeah. Now, even aside from all this, you’re working at Ghost Note, you’re doing the Queer Design Club with the Queen Design Count, with the Queer Design Summit. You also have your own freelance practice called Planthouse Studio. Tell me about that.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. As if I wasn’t already doing too much. No. I think one of my goals for myself just personally has always been to run my own design studio and I just feel like there’s a level of freedom that I get to have when people want to work with me. I am my own boss. I love to take the projects that I want to work on. Say ‘no’ to the projects that I don’t want to work on. And just generally be able to design things with no constraints of, what do other people think? So I was always a freelancer on the side of any full-time job. It started really after college because I was working at BAM and it was a nonprofit. So I was making some money, but I thought, “Okay, I could make a couple logos on the side and make a couple hundred bucks more.”

Rebecca Brooker:
And it started just doing that for some extra cash. And over the past five years, it’s really grown into just a consistent stream of people mentioning me, sharing my name, sharing my portfolio and getting people wanting to work with me. So it wasn’t until about three or four years ago now that my partner, LG and I had come together and decided we kind of wanted to formalize this business. And my partner at the time, LG was figuring out how they would plug into the business. I was doing all the design and they were handling all of the client management and it’s just grown over the years. So at the beginning of the pandemic, we saw an uptick in people wanting to work with us. And we had a really janky website at the time and nothing was super professional, but we saw this uptake in work.

Rebecca Brooker:
A friend of mine, who I was working at the agency was leaving at the time. And he said, “If you want a freelancer I’ll work with your studio.” And I said, “All right, sure.” So now we have another person working with us and I was able to give him some direction and do less more creative direct and he was producing the work. LG was managing the clients. So we started there and then more requests came and another friend of mine was like, “I’m looking for a job.” I was like, “Do you want to freelance with our studio?” She was like, “Yeah.” So then we had two designers working with us and now it’s become a full-time gig for everybody, right? So LG’s running it full-time. Our two designers are still working with us full-time and my goal has shifted to learning how to run a business and then wanting to do it for Planthouse on my own.

Rebecca Brooker:
So my short term goal is, like I said in the beginning, this is a hustle year for me, where I’m working at Ghost Note, one, to work on some of the awesome projects and the clients that they have. But two is to really also understand how to run a business. And that’s one of the things that I feel really grateful to Ghost Note for is like from the time I joined, I was very upfront about like, “Listen in five years, I’m going to be running my own agency. So I’m here to learn the business facts of what you all are doing. I admire your work. You all are about six years ahead of where I feel like I am. How can I absorb my time at this agency to really learn how to run an agency?” And at the same time, LG and our other two designers are working on client stuff in the background and I’m moonlighting and taking the knowledge I learn at Ghost Note, bringing it home and saying, “We have this process that we implemented at work. I think we should try it in the studio. It could really help.”

Rebecca Brooker:
So, I felt like I had to put in the time and learning how to run a business before jumping into running a business for the first time, right, because like, and I think that’s a thing that at times it’s tiring, at times it’s rough. But I feel like if I stay on track, hopefully in 2023, I can leave my full-time job and just pursue Planthouse if the clients keep coming and going the way they’ve been. We feel very grateful and lucky that people want to work with us. And I feel really grateful and lucky that people want to keep giving us great opportunities to grow. I think we’ve had a few contracts this year where they were bigger shoes than we were prepared to fill, but we stepped into them and I think we’ve grown into them a lot.

Rebecca Brooker:
So it’s given me a lot of confidence to say, “Okay, I’m doing Planthouse part-time right now and it’s doing really well. If I do this full-time we could be doing excellently. I just need to harness the knowledge of how to run this business full-time, because it’s not just full time by myself, right? It’s full-time with three other people as well that we’re sustaining. So I’m in my hustle year. I’m doing three jobs. However, I do feel like it’s really important right now for me to be a sponge and really learn how to do it right so that when I step into it, I can make, hopefully, a little bit less of the mistakes and go into it with some kind of knowledge.

Rebecca Brooker:
So that’s part of one of the things I love about Ghost Note is they’re very supportive of my own hustle. They’re very open and transparent about the workings of the company and how to write an extra W, how to make sure things stay on track. And I feel like I’m really learning the business angle of it alongside the art director part of it and making the fun stuff. I’m doing both things. So I’m excited for that.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good. I mean, I think it’s good that Ghost Note is transparent in that way to let you all know this is how the business is. This is how it works. So it’s not just of course showing up and doing your job, but also you’re kind of gaining this almost secondary education in a way.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. And that’s something that I think doesn’t really exist in our design industry right now is like, there’s no course to go learn how to run your own studio. There’s no course to say, how to found your own agency. It’s all about you got to fumble your way into figuring it out. And that’s what Ghost Note told me as well. They were like, “We’ve been doing this for eight years and we’re just now figuring it out.” And I’m like, “Okay, so what can I learn that you can impart that knowledge on me and I can maybe not take years to figure it out?” And I really love that about just a community culture is that resource sharing is so important because I would love to help any other person who’s thinking about founding their own business, their own agency. We don’t have the resources out there. So we need to be in community with each other more and figure that out.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now it takes a village to do all this, as you said. Who’s your village? Who have been the mentors and the peers who have really helped you get to where you are now?

Rebecca Brooker:
I have a list of them. One, I would say is one of the first people that I met in the design industry was a designer working at [inaudible 00:39:35] at the time. Their name is Kyle Richardson and they are an incredible designer and a friend of mine still and just someone who brought their authentic self to work. And me being a young, bright eyed, bushy-tailed intern, I was like, “Oh, you’re my role model. I like what you’re doing. All of your work is fire. Your personality is so dope. I want to be like you.” And it was really the first person who showed me that I could show up to work and be myself, be a little crazy, be a little funky, be funny with your coworkers. And Kyle always just gave me a sense of ease and the ability to just be you.

Rebecca Brooker:
Another one of my mentors, I would say is someone that has always helped me open doors. And this is a person named Liz, Liz Oh who used to be the head of design at Compass is now the head of design of Grammarly and Liz has always been someone who will give me an opportunity that I can grow into. And I think it’s really people like that who are in positions of power, who can see potential in you and open a door that will change your life. And Liz has done that for me a few different times. And I think that’s important to acknowledge people who are willing to take a chance on you.

Rebecca Brooker:
Another one of mine, a close friend of mine, Amélie Lamont. I love Amélie. She’s someone that has helped me navigate just the space of being a community leader and running a community and like navigating the world out there. And with someone who I really met online and we connected in real life for the first time at XO XO conference, where they invited me to be part of the POC House and I was just honored to be included in a space that like, there were so many amazing creatives and thinkers and people who were just so themselves. And I think that’s something that I’m really drawn to. I’m really drawn to people who can be unapologetically themselves, recognize that, and use that as their superpower and use that as the thing that can open doors for other people. So those are my three mentors.

Rebecca Brooker:
I can probably name a million more, but I can’t remember at the moment. But I guess something that I try to do is I try to learn a little bit from everybody. It may not be in a technical way of like, “This person taught me design,” or “this person taught me this,” but it’s more in a, what is it about you that makes you you? Is it your ability to show up and be yourself? Is it your ability to stand up for what you believe in? Is it your ability to take no shit and let people know that? I try to really learn some of these qualities from all of the people that I think are doing it right. And like I said earlier, I just want to be a sponge and learn about what I should be doing in my future what I think is right. So that’s how I approach the people that I look up to.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. We had probably on the show… Oh, that was a while ago. I think she was episode 148 or 149, something like that. It was in the 140s. I remember that. You mentioned XOXO. Was that in 2018?

Rebecca Brooker:
It must have been 2019, the year before the pandemic. 2019. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Year before. Okay.

Rebecca Brooker:
In 2019.

Maurice Cherry:
I went to XO XO in 2018 and I remember, Amélie and Kat doing the POCs [inaudible 00:43:05].

Rebecca Brooker:
Yes. Also another person that I love and is an icon and a role model for me. Kat’s a person who champions game developers of color and has been running that conference in that community for a long time. Just amazing people, amazing people that are out there, like showing up as themselves and making dope shit.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. She’s great. I love Kat. We kind of just talk over email, I guess maybe about a couple of weeks ago or something, because she’s about to make a big move. I’m sure it’ll probably be announced by the time this interview comes out, but she’s making big moves now because she just left Asana and is about to announce where she’s going next. So I’m excited to see.

Rebecca Brooker:
I could believe that.

Maurice Cherry:
What does success look like for you now?

Rebecca Brooker:
I think success looks like being able to feel confident in the things I want to pursue. I feel like I always have this yearning to be super secure before I make a big move, which is probably why I’m still at Ghost Note and not doing my full-time thing yet. But I think success looks like having the confidence to do that, make those decisions and live the life that I want to live, find balance between my work and my personal life and my free time and feel satisfied and nourished by the work that I am doing at work. So I think that is what success looks like for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? I know you’ve given some sort of benchmarks for where you want Queer Design Club to go and I guess even with where you want Planthouse to go. But if you could forecast five years from now, it’s 2027, what’s Rebecca Brooker doing?

Rebecca Brooker:
Well, hopefully Rebecca Brooker is no longer the only person running Queer Design Club because then that wouldn’t be nice. But I think Rebecca Brooker will still be a fierce advocate and speaker or someone who is called upon to help champion LGBTQ rights. I want to be known for helping people show up as themselves, even helping myself show up as myself and I want to still be in the creative seat making amazing things that have impacts and that have the ability to change lives and change perceptions and make the world a tiny bit of a better place. So I hope in five years from now I’m doing that.

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

Rebecca Brooker:
So you can find me at rebeccabrooker.com. You can also find me on Twitter @Becky Brooker or on Instagram @Becca Brooker. And you can find Queer Design Club at Queer Design Club on all channels. And I’m an open book. So anybody who ever wants to reach out, feel free to email me. I would be happy to connect with anyone who wants to talk.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Rebecca Brooker, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I had a feeling that we were going to have a really deep, wide ranging conversation. I’m so glad that we were able to touch on. I mean, just so many different things, talking about representation, entrepreneurship, building community. I feel like you’ve done so much already. You’ve already had this very prolific career and I just want to see where you go from here. I hope that people are listening really support the work that you’re doing and really can help put some real velocity behind the plans that you have, because I feel like we’re going to be talking about the work that you’re doing years and years from now. And I’m just so glad to have had you on the show to really just explain like this is who I am. This is where I came from and this is the work that I’m trying to do. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Rebecca Brooker:
Thank you for having me, Maurice. It’s been an amazing conversation. It’s been an amazing time. Thank you for creating this space so that we could continue to have these conversations with myself and other people who are doing good work.

Queer Design Summit - July 7, 2022, 10am PST

The Queer Design Club is hosting their inaugural #QDCSummit on July 7! 🌈✨ Join the queer design community online to discuss two years of rich data. The goal of the Summit is to bring the community together and use it as a breakthrough for the industry as to why events like the Summit and groups like Queer Design Club are important. Be a part of it!

Tickets are available at QueerDesign.club/Summit

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Rebecca Brooker

Sometimes, the conversation is so good and so wide-ranging that I can’t contain it in just one episode. For the first time in over five years, we have a two-part episode on Revision Path, and it’s with the one and only Rebecca Brooker. She is perhaps most well known as the co-founder of Queer Design Club, but Rebecca is also an art director at Ghost Note Agency and founder of her own freelance practice Planthouse Studio.

In the first part of this interview, Rebecca talked about her “year of hustle”, including her work at Ghost Note Agency and the rewards and challenges that come with that. She also talked about growing up in Trinidad, LGBT representation in the Caribbean, and moving to NYC to attend college and study design.

Tune in next week for Part 2 of our conversation!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Rebecca Brooker:
Hi, Maurice, I’m Rebecca. I am a queer graphic designer and art director from Trinidad and Tobago, and I’m currently living in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Maurice Cherry:
I have been trying to get someone in South America on the show for years. You are the first Black designer in South America that I’ve had on the show, so I’m really excited about that.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. Thank you. I’m excited. It’s actually kind of funny, because I feel like you don’t see that many Black designers in South America, in Argentina, at least. Maybe in some of the more Northern territories, maybe, but in Argentina, I feel like you rarely get to meet other Black designers. I’m not even from here, so even doubly so.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2022 been going for you so far?

Rebecca Brooker:
It’s been going well for me. It’s definitely been a year of hustle. I have been grinding, working towards a few dreams, and really, just trying to figure out where I want to set myself up for the next couple years. I have a few really good gigs going on and trying to figure out, is this a hustle year and heads down and just do some work, and then next year can be a relaxing year? But 2022 has been very positive so far.

Maurice Cherry:
Are you seeing any big changes this year from last year?

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. I think one of the biggest changes is just my personal confidence and value, really. I feel like for the past few years and throughout the pandemic, I was really trying to figure out where I wanted to spend my time, spend my energy. Is it in my organization? Is it in my job? Is it in something else? So, I would say that the biggest shift has just been in that decision-making of what I want to do and how I’m going to move forward with the things on my plate.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I definitely want to talk about Queer Design Club, which I think most people that are listening to this know you from, but before that, I want to ask you about your current gig. Right now, you’re the art director at Ghost Note Agency. Can you tell me about that?

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. So, Ghost Note is a Black-owned agency based in Washington, DC. I met them about a year ago because their creative director, Veronica Corzo-Duchardt, is actually in Queer Design Club. So, at the time I was working at a different agency, and Veronica had posted in our job postings channel and had said, “Oh, this amazing, Black-owned agency that I’m running the creative team at is looking for a senior designer to join the team.” I thought to myself, “Oh damn, that sounds like a cool opportunity.” I looked at their work and I was like, Oh, this is sick.” And so, I messaged Veronica being like, “Hey.” Veronica and I had probably had a digital coffee once before and we were acquaintances, but I messaged them just being like, “Hey, would love to learn more about Ghost Note,” and they were like, “Let’s hop in on informational with some of the team.” When I went into that first interview with them, it was just amazing, the energy in the room, the vibe, just it felt different to any of the other agencies I was working at.

Rebecca Brooker:
I had been, at the time, working at Media.Monks, which is a huge agency that was just a very different culture. So, it wasn’t until I had that first interview at Ghost Note that the potential of going to a different agency entered my mind, and I was like, “Oh wow. This is a really different vibe, it’s a lot cozier. They seem to be growing rapidly. For the first time, it’s a place that I feel like, really, you could bring your culture to.” The reason I said what I said in the beginning about Black designers being in Argentina is because when I moved to Argentina, I felt like the work environment that I was in was very homogenous. The majority of people in Argentina are white, and I wasn’t working with other… Probably just a handful of other people of color in an agency of 100s. So, I was finding it really hard to find diversity and find any semblance of culture, and along comes Ghost Note, which was just the complete opposite. They were all about the culture, which I thought was great.

Rebecca Brooker:
I did an in an initial interview with them for that role, the senior designer. Veronica said to me privately after, they said, “I think you were great, but you should be applying for an art director role. We’re going to open one up, if you’re interested.” I said, “What? I didn’t even start working and y’all going to give me a raise? Damn, okay.” So, I had a second interview and I met more of the team, I met the partners, I met the people who working there at the time, and everyone was just very chill. The day after the interview, Veronica phoned me and said, “I just want to let you know you got the job.” I was just like… This happened over three days, Maurice, it was so fast.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Rebecca Brooker:
My jaw was on the floor, because I wasn’t even really thinking about leaving my job, but now I was really thinking about it, because I was like, “Oh, the opportunity is in front of me. Okay, okay.” So, that was how Ghost Note came around, and I’ve been there for the past year. They’ve gone through incredible growth themselves. The partners are three Black friends that they have been friends since childhood, they have baby pictures together.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Rebecca Brooker:
So, they grew up together in DC and all went on to three different life paths, and then later in life reunited to start this agency. They’ve been around for almost 10 years now doing this work. So, it feels really great for the agency to be in a spot where they can really see their growth, we’re getting a lot of bigger clients. Most recently, they actually announced a strategic partnership with Godfrey Dadich Partners, which is… I don’t know if you know that agency, but they have aligned with that and entered the kyu Collective of companies, which I think really turned a new chapter for the agency, as well, just in the potential that we have to create outstanding work. So, it’s been really great to work with people that are like me and people that… Our entire creative team is queer-led, which I think is amazing, we’re majority people of color on staff. It’s just been a total 180 of what I was used to, so I’ve been really enjoying my experience there.

Maurice Cherry:
I like that you refer to it as cozy. You often don’t hear that word when people talk about their work experience.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. I always stray away from using the term like, “Oh my coworkers are my family,” because I don’t like to think that way, but this is one of the first jobs that I would say where I feel really close and a real bond of friendship, more than any other place that I’ve worked, with the team that we have now. I think it’s because we all are striving towards this goal of… We want to work at Ghost Note because we believe we have a unique voice and a voice that not a lot of agencies get to have. So, I feel like we all are bonding by this experience of like, “What is the Ghost Note lens? What is the Ghost Note angle?” They’re hiring Ghost Note because we have a different perspective and we can talk about topics and things that other people can’t.

Rebecca Brooker:
I think that just brings a level of genuineness and authenticity to the people that work there. I feel like we’re trying to build a culture that’s really rooted in our humanity and not necessarily just in, can we make cool stuff? Can we get the biggest clients? We want to do that stuff, too, but it’s really more about bringing our humanness to the work.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s a superpower, really, to be able to bring that perspective to the work.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. I definitely see it. I think that we’re smart in the way that they don’t necessarily bill themselves as a social justice agency. It’s not about that at all, but it’s really about using our collective voice and this unique voice that we’ve crafted to be able to create impactful work that benefits other people. For example, one of the recent projects, actually, my first project at Ghost Note, was actually rebranding the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, DC. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there, but ACM is actually the United States’ first community museum. It was the first one that was ever established, and it’s one of the only museums I think, if not the only, to be founded in a historically Black neighborhood of Anacostia, Washington, DC.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Rebecca Brooker:
So, when I was first put on this project, I had never heard of ACM. You hear about all the other museums in the Smithsonian’s collection, but never ACM. It was a really unique challenge, because it’s not in Washington, DC itself. It’s not on Capitol Hill on the museum route with the rest of the Smithsonian museums. It’s out of the way, and it’s a different type of work that they’re showing, they’re always showing community-based work. So, a lot of the pieces that we got to interact with were actual historical documents from the community of Anacostia. So, the first baseball that was thrown on their community pitch, photos from families that lived there. ACM has been around and was founded by John Kinard, who had a very unique vision for the town of Anacostia. It was just such a unique project to be able to really meld all of that history and all of that deeply rooted culture of Black history, too, and work on that with a Black team.

Rebecca Brooker:
The strategist that I worked with, Georgie Arimah, who also works at Ghost Note, both of us really had to put heads down and say, “How can we really bring the story and the history and all of these years of deep-rooted community value into the work? How do we turn that into brand equity for ACM?” That felt like a really unique project that I don’t know if I would be able to do with everybody, so I really appreciated just having people who understood. Georgie, actually, at the same time, was moving to Anacostia, so it felt really personal for her. I think that it was just that Ghost Note gets unique opportunities like that because we have that unique skill, superpower, as you put it, to create impact where not every agency could.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. I think it’s also about the fact that the culture really makes the work personal to the people that are working on it in a way that it probably wouldn’t with any other type of agency, so that’s amazing. I did hear about the investment recently from Godfrey Dadich, I’ve heard about them. So, I have a, I guess it’s a funny story, I don’t know. I ran across them… How many years ago was this? This was back when I was working at Glitch, so this was back in 2019. Yeah, this was 2019. We were looking at studios because we were building this lifestyle vertical website or whatever, and I remember I had reached out to them. I reached out to a few places, like them, Pentagram, Ali, a couple of others, just to get quotes and just see what might be available. I remember they had hit me back because they were like, “Oh my God, Jabari’s chair, we’ve heard of you from Revision Path.”

Maurice Cherry:
I was like, “Okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s great.” But I’m really interested in like this quote, and they mentioned that they had recently done, I think, creative work for Abstract, which is the series on Netflix where they do-

Rebecca Brooker:
Design.

Maurice Cherry:
… it’s documentary episodes of designers. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was so funny, because this was before the second season came out, and the person there was like, “We’re about to have the second season come out,” and she was like, “And you’ll be surprised about this, we’re featuring two Black designers this season.” I’m like-

Rebecca Brooker:
Oh wow.

Maurice Cherry:
… “Wow. That’s amazing.” Telling me? I don’t know, I thought that was a weird thing to relate to me, like I would be impressed by that. But I’m like, “Wow. You talked to two Black designers, really? That’s great.”

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. So, I also hadn’t really known a ton about Godfrey Dadich before the investment. I had heard their name in passing, maybe seen a few things that they produced here or there. I think Abstract is one of the more notable things that they are produced for. But that’s such a wild thing to say, I can’t believe that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So, with the agency joining the kyu Collective, has that impacted your day-to-day work in any sort of way?

Rebecca Brooker:
Not yet, I think that it’s still… So, they only made the announcement of the investment and the joining a couple months ago, I think in April, early April. So, it hasn’t affected my day-to-day yet. We actually are still, I think, figuring out how best we integrate. But Q recently, actually this week, held this internal collective conference that brought all of their agencies together, so I attended a couple sessions and got to meet a couple people from other agencies, SYPartners, ATÖLYE. It was an interesting experience. In one of the main sessions that I went to, they had over 300 people joining, so it was definitely a big work group. I think we’re still new to the Collective and trying to figure out what are some of the best ways that we could work collaboratively or side-by-side, or really partner with some of the other minds in the kyu Collective. I think that there’s a lot of great companies and probably a lot of really smart people working at those companies. So, I’m excited to see what happens, it’s definitely an unknown path right now, I would say.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So, what does a regular day look like for you when work comes in? You come in on projects as the art director? Talk to me about that.

Rebecca Brooker:
I feel like this is really beneficial information because before I started as an art director, I thought I knew what an art director did, but I feel like we don’t have enough resources out there to tell people exactly what the job is about, so I think this is a great convo. But basically, my day-to-day really looks like, I’m probably on about two to three projects at the same time, it depends on how heavy those projects are. My role right now is half executional and half managerial, so I’m usually talking to clients, making decisions, but also working with the designers, our senior designers and our mid-level designers, to produce work for our campaigns. So, for example, we are, right now, working on a couple campaigns for Nike Chicago, and I am leading the art direction, so I will put together the look, the feel, talk with the client and understand, from the brief, what they’re trying to convey, what assets do we have to work with? Is it a new design system that we need to make? Is it something that we’re picking up from?

Rebecca Brooker:
I, basically, get the work to a place where it is ready and executional for some of the other designers to take it into production. So, a really great example of this is on this Nike project that we’re working on, we’re going to be producing some reels and stuff for the Nike social handle on Instagram. Part of what I’m proposing to Nike is that we’re going to create a GIPHY sticker pack on Instagram, so people can go search Nike Chicago, and they get the stickers on GIPHY and they put them on their stories or whatever. I will probably put together a deck, along with some of my other ideas, pull some references of what those stickers will look like. My job is to really sell that idea to the client before it gets produced, so that the client buys into it. I prep it for the team, we’ll probably have a kickoff and say, “Okay. The client loves this idea of the stickers. Let’s put these into production.”

Rebecca Brooker:
Maybe our senior designer, who is also an amazing illustrator, he’ll help us draw out some shapes, he’ll help us draw out some stuff, maybe we pass it to a different designer who’s going to add some typography to it. It really depends on the project, but my role is usually a little bit higher level, a hybrid of client management and coming up with the overall look and feel of the work before handing it off to some of our other team members to bring it to life.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say is probably the most challenging part about what you do?

Rebecca Brooker:
That’s a great question. I think one of the most challenging parts is really finding new inspiration all the time. I feel like sometimes when I’m working on multiple projects at the same time, sometimes my ideas tend to blend together, so all three of those projects may end up looking similar. So, I feel like finding inspiration and ways to keep things really distinct and unique in their look and feel of each campaign or each identity is a challenge, because you constantly have to be looking at inspiration, not just on the internet, but, really, all around you and in your world, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Rebecca Brooker:
I’m constantly thinking about how can I take some of the things I see in my everyday, whether it’s some graffiti on the street, whether it’s an old street sign, how can I take things that I see in real life and bring them into my project, so I’m not just lost in this world of Pinterest and Arena and Behance and looking at what’s already out there. I think trying to keep your work original when you’re working at speed and scale is really difficult, sometimes. It’s easy to lean on the internet to just see what else is out there, but I feel sometimes, it could make the work all feel really homogenous.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Rebecca Brooker:
So, staying inspired, it’s always a challenge.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s so interesting you mentioned that, I was just talking about that a little bit with… At where I work now, we have a creative director, and one of the projects that we have worked on for the past few months is creating a print magazine. So, we’re creating a print magazine from scratch for the company, coming up with the name, the brand, talking to printers. I joked, “I feel like Khadijah James in the first season of Living Single trying to put flavor together,” wrangling contributors and stuff like that. It’s a quarterly magazine, so we have a little bit of breathing room in terms of going from issue to issue. But right now, our first issue came out a couple of months ago, we’re currently in design on the second issue, and we’re starting planning on the third issue.

Rebecca Brooker:
Third issue, that’s great.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve already mapped out themes for the next six issues. So, up until issue 6, I’ve mapped out themes for that. Even looking at that, we’re looking at these covers and thinking, “Well, do we want this to tell a story?” Because even as we look at the themes itself, so far, the themes are usually around propulsion. The first cover has a jet on it, the second cover, when people see it, it has a city rising up through the clouds. So, everything that we’re doing here is not only about propulsion in some way, but also could tie into a theme of discovery or exploration, which ties into the theme of what we’re trying to do with the tool. Even as we look at that, because the company is named Orbit, so there’s a lot of space imagery and terminology and things that we can pull from, this next issue that we’re doing is all about Web3, which is a bit of a departure, just in terms of it’s a very new topic. Well, I’d say it’s a very buzzy topic.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know if it’s necessarily super new, but it’s a pretty buzzy topic, because it’s all wrapped up in the metaverse and Dows and cryptocurrency and blockchain and all that stuff. It can be confusing to just think, “Well, how do we depict something like that?” It’s funny you say looking at inspiration, because we just did a working session recently and we’re looking at creative inspiration and we’re like, “We see this octahedron symbol everywhere, and I want to use that in some kind of way.” I’m like, “Eh, I don’t know. I don’t think we should use that because it’s used everywhere.” It turns out that it’s actually the logo for Ethereum, which is why it’s used so many places, because the person who came up with Web3 is also the founder of Ethereum, so it’s a branding thing, for them, at least.

Maurice Cherry:
But the theme that I think we’re going to settle on, we may change this by the time it actually goes to print, is actually going to be a retrospective from the 1920s to the 2020s in the theme of the movie Metropolis. It’s going to be about the… I forget what the name of the Android is in Metropolis, it’s the Metalnmensch or something like that.

Rebecca Brooker:
Oh, I don’t know.

Maurice Cherry:
So, it’s going to be like a human, but we’re going to have… Well, we’re taking inspiration from that and we’re also taking inspiration from RoboCop, so-

Rebecca Brooker:
Wow. Very different.

Maurice Cherry:
… so it’s going to have a helmet that’s a Oculus helmet, it’s going to have a shoulder plate that’s blockchain, it’s going to have another shoulder plate that’s… So, we’re thinking the person is whomever is on the internet, because Web3 is also very user-centered, and so we’re thinking of all these different aspects of what make up Web3 coming onto a person as an Android thing. It’s interesting, because when we were trying to think of inspiration, a lot of what we saw just all looked the same like, “Oh everything’s purple and blue and there’s the Ethereum logo.” We want to do something different from that, that stands out a bit. Trying to find an inspiration is tough.

Rebecca Brooker:
It’s tough. The thing I’ve been struggling with lately is when you work at an agency sometimes, and this is maybe what I miss about working in-house sometimes, but when you work at an agency, I feel like the speed at which you have to produce ideas, sometimes it’s exhausting. Every month is a different campaign, maybe two campaigns, and you’re constantly churning out ideas. And then what happens when you can’t be creative on demand? What happens in that moment when everyone’s like, “This is your sixth campaign this year, and sorry, but this idea sucks”? You’re like, “Yeah, I’m tired and burnt out.” So, I think that’s something that we’re also just trying to, as an agency, as a world, I guess, I don’t know if this is in other agencies, as well, but I think we’re just trying to find balance sometimes, where we have some downtime to rest and recuperate and generate some new creative ideas. And then other times, we’re working really hard and producing at volume. I think it’s a balance of both things, and part of why I feel like we’re in this moment of the Great Burnout where every…

Rebecca Brooker:
Burnout is a buzzword, and everyone is burning out, everyone is over Zoom, over being on the computer eight hours a day. I think people are right now just looking for some sense of balance in their life, and I think for designers, that can be draining when you have to wake up and produce a new idea every day. So, that’s something I’ve been noodling on for the past couple of months, is just how do we continue to have jobs that require us to exert creative energy, while still being able to find a refill and recuperation for that same creative energy? Is there answer, is there a solution? I don’t know. I feel like we’re all equal [inaudible 00:28:37] capitalism.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Look, it’s hard to pour from an empty cup, especially with everything else that’s going on in the world, political issues, we’ve had an ongoing global health crisis for the past two, almost three years. So many things have taken a toll just on people’s psyche that it’s tough to always try to come up with stuff, whether you’re in a highly creative role, I think, or not. But certainly with what you’re saying, as an art director, it probably is super tough to always have to pour from the well of imagination when the well is running dry.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah, yeah. I think that’s not just art directors. I feel like, even as a creative strategist yourself, you probably could relate to that at some level, where just idea generators, I guess, have to constantly be figuring out a way to continue generating ideas or having thoughts about these things. I think it touches everyone on some level. I don’t think it makes my job any different from a creative director’s job or a creative strategist’s job. But I think, generally, it’s a tough world out there to be creative right now, in the midst of everything.

Maurice Cherry:
Absolutely. Well, let’s switch gears here a little bit and talk more about your origin story. I know you were born in Trinidad and Tobago, tell me what it was like growing up there.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. So, I was born in Trinidad, in San Fernando, to be exact. I lived in Trinidad until I was about 18, before I went to college at St. John’s University in New York. I love Trinidad, I love my home. It’s my people, I will always care for them and always support my people. But I think really early on, when I began exploring my sexuality and just my awakening reality that maybe I’m not like my friends, maybe I’m not straight and I don’t know what that means. I think something that still hurts me to this day is just that there is not a lot of LGBTQ representation in the Caribbean. There’s a culture of homophobia, and there’s a culture of very religious-based homophobia, as well, that I think really scarred me. I came out when I was 16 to my parents, and my parents sent me to talk with a nun.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Rebecca Brooker:
At the time, I didn’t have the words to describe that. I guess, in 2022, we would probably describe that as conversion therapy, to some extent. But I remember having this conversation with this nun and going for a couple sessions. One of the things this nun said to me was, “You are feeling this way,” this way being gay, “Because you’re a child of divorce.” That stuck with me all my life, and it always made me feel like as much as you are Trini, this place is maybe not for you. So, it wasn’t until I left Trinidad and went to New York that I felt this ability to own that part of my identity, really, in a culture and a way that didn’t feel harmful, it didn’t feel unsafe. So, growing up in Trinidad as a queer teen was tough for me. I felt like I had to fit in a lot. I felt like I had to wear dresses and wear heels and flat iron my hair and do my nails and my makeup. It all felt like I was just doing this to be friends with my friends.

Rebecca Brooker:
I think now, years later, I don’t feel like any relationship to that part of my identity anymore, this part of myself that needs to present in a more feminine way or be more ladylike to be loved by my people. I think it’s taken me living outside of Trinidad for 10 years to really come to terms with that acceptance that this is a place that made me feel a little bit small in who I could be. So, that is always something that has stuck with me. I would love to return home one day and really find a way or find resources to change that mentality. I have a lot of friends in Trinidad who are doing work to create a space for LGBTQ people, and I want to be able to contribute to that work in the future, because I do think it’s important for people to feel safe when they’re growing up and feel like they can explore who they are and be themselves and not feel like, whether they’re religious or not, that they’re going to get judged. So, that was one of the major reasons that I wanted to leave home.

Maurice Cherry:
I think it’s really important, this point you mentioned about you had to leave in order to see the rest of the world and experience who you are outside of the confines of being in, not just, I would say, a small town, but also just a very closed-minded environment, overall.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. It’s not just a Trinidad problem either, it’s really a Caribbean culture problem, I would say. I know other Caribbean countries also have large percentage of homophobia, Jamaica is rampant with homophobia. You hear it in dance hall, you hear it in the music, you hear it in all different places. It’s almost casual to be homophobic, people joke about it, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Rebecca Brooker:
So, I think that it’s a huge culture shift that we have to make as a society and as a people to be more accepting. It’s funny, because there are a lot of cultural ties to Trinidad that are inherently queer, it’s so funny how we’re selective in the way that we see it. I feel like there are just a lot of different spaces where it’s more okay, then it’s not okay, and then it’s okay in the way that we want you to be. So, it just feels like a culture that is accepting when it’s entertainment, but not when it’s your real life. You could go up on that stage and you could cross dress, you could sing about, you could do what you want, we’ll laugh, we’ll dance. Okay, great. You’re a great performer. But if you went on that stage and actually brought your partner, no.

Rebecca Brooker:
So, I feel like it’s very much a culture of where you have to present a certain way, you have to act a certain way, you keep your business private. That’s how you survive, and that’s tough. I don’t think any LGBTQ identifying people, anybody who feels like they can’t be who they are, should not have to live that way.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. So much of that, as you mentioned, just reminds me of… I grew up in a small town, I grew up in Selma, Alabama. To that point that you mentioned about how queer people are celebrated when there’s a certain presentational aspect to it, in a way. I remember, in high school, we had gay men in high school and one of them was our head majorette, ironically. One was, he was, I think, in the class above me, he and his sister… Well, sorry, me and his sister were in the same class and he was a class above me, but he also wore a lot of women’s clothes to school. I can’t presume to know what their individual experiences might have been like outside of school, but I know when they were at school, they were always celebrated because of that. It almost in a way felt mocking, I don’t know, but-

Rebecca Brooker:
Mm-hmm. Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
For example, the guy who was the head majorette had his own suit made and everything that was just like the suit that the girls had. At least from what I could tell, nobody said anything, but then I wasn’t close to that person, so I don’t know what other sorts of discrimination or things they might have received. But to be in that small town and to try to express yourself in that way, I can’t imagine how just stifling and confining that can be, and you have to break out, eventually

Rebecca Brooker:
You have to, you have to. I think that was one of, like I said, one of the things that I’m so grateful for is the opportunity to break out. I have so many friends in Trinidad who do identify as LGBTQ, but don’t have, one, the privilege or, two, the resources to get out of that situation, too. I think that’s an important thing to acknowledge here, is that I feel like I got to embrace and explore that part of my identity because I was given this opportunity to leave the country, and travel the world, and find myself, and not feel unsafe with presenting the way I want to present. But there’s so many people in Trinidad who don’t have that same opportunity. I have a really dear friend of mine who I grew up with, know their family, they are super religious. For years, this person has been telling me, secretly, “I’m queer, I’m actually trans, and I want to identify this way, but I live at home and I can’t do that. I can’t dress the way I want to. When my parents go out, I try on different clothes.”

Rebecca Brooker:
It just reinforces this culture that not everybody has that opportunity, so that is part of why I feel really moved to find ways that I can contribute or ways that I can change the narrative about what queer Caribbean culture is, because it’s important that we redefine the context of what queer Caribbean culture is. It’s always been so tied to God and like, “You’re going down the wrong path and God doesn’t like that. Why do you want to change your body when God gave you this beautiful hair and this beautiful, feminine body? Why do you want to identify as a man?” It’s never come from a perspective of this is not a choice that I’m making. My identity is not a choice. I’m not choosing to wake up today and say, “I’ve decided I like girls,” or, “I’ve decided I like boys.” It’s something that you come to that discovery, it really is. It’s there all along, whether you choose to acknowledge it or not, it’s who we are, it’s something that we’re born with.

Rebecca Brooker:
So, I feel that in the Caribbean, there’s always been a sense of homophobia is equivalent with the devil is equivalent with breaking the law of God. It’s never been looked at from a perspective of this is a biological thing that is present in all living beings, to some extent.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Rebecca Brooker:
So, I feel like it’s just a huge culture shift that we still have to make. Like I said, I think that’s something that we have to accept and work on as a community, not just the queer people, but we need allies and we need people coming together to be able to advocate for those rights.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about St. John’s University. You mentioned moving away from Trinidad, going to St. John’s in New York City, and you studied graphic design there. Tell me what your time was like there, because I would imagine from the environment that you just described, going to New York City was a complete culture shock.

Rebecca Brooker:
Exactly. Yeah, it was. So, context. People are probably like, “If she’s so against religion, why did she go to a Catholic university?” Well, I can tell you a couple things about that. So, I went to Catholic school all my life, actually, from primary school to secondary school. When I was applying to universities, I had actually, coincidentally, visited St. John’s a couple years before at a conference that I was attending in the States. This wasn’t my first time in New York, either, my grandmother at the time was living in New York, so I was always traveling between Trinidad and New York to visit and was fairly familiar with the city. But when I was applying to universities, I applied to St. John’s just because it was one of the only US college campuses that I’d ever visited. I was like, “All right. I kind of know that place, let me just apply and see what happens.”

Rebecca Brooker:
The other schools I applied to were SCAD and other design schools, because I was like, “I need to go study design and I want to go do it at SCAD. I don’t know what St John’s program is about. They have a graphic design program, but whatever, that’s a throwaway option.” St John’s, coincidentally, came back with almost a full tuition scholarship. On top of that, they were like, “Oh, you’re a Catholic? We’re going to give you an extra scholarship for being Catholic.” I was like, “Damn. For the first time, it came in handy,” I was like, “Okay.” So, that was how I ended up making the decision, because while I did get into SCAD, it was four times the price, my parents were paying this out of pocket. Just the opportunity to go to St. John’s almost for free versus pay money that we definitely didn’t have to go to SCAD and possibly take out loans, it didn’t make sense in that way. So, reluctantly, I chose St. John’s, not knowing.

Rebecca Brooker:
I was like, “Okay, I’m going to have to put my best foot forward, because I don’t know what type of design program they have.” I’ve never heard anybody say, “I got a graphic design degree at St. John’s.” They’re known for law, they’re known for all different other things. So, I was a little bit skeptical, but like I said, it was a new opportunity. In Trinidad, we didn’t have a ton of tertiary education to pursue design. We had a field of art that you could study, but there wasn’t a huge design industry, and there still isn’t a huge design industry in Trinidad to have made it worth staying there. So, I knew that if I wanted to study design, I had to leave. This is sexuality aside, I was just thinking about career-wise, how was I going to pursue design? I had really even gotten into design in high school because I had a cracked version of Photoshop on my computer, and just started making posters. In high school, they asked me, “Oh, do you want to make our school yearbook?” I was like, “Yeah.” Maurice, I designed an entire yearbook in Photoshop.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Rebecca Brooker:
They sent it to the printer and the printer was like, “We cannot print this file. You need to use InDesign,” and I was like, “I don’t know what that is. I’m a graphic designer, I use Photoshop.” The school ended up having to pay the printer to redesign the thing I had designed in a principle way. But I was so convinced, I was like, “This is amazing, I’m a designer. I’m going to do this for the rest of my life.” That was really where my inspiration started, just playing on Photoshop making posters, doing design tutorials from the internet, and teaching myself how to design. So, fast forward, I get into St John’s, start there. I’m honestly really surprised by the design program, I had no expectations. It was a small program, there was no more than 20 of us in my classes, but some of the professors changed just what I thought I knew about graphic design. I knew nothing about graphic design.

Rebecca Brooker:
Here I was, making my yearbook in Photoshop, and you get into your first graphic design class, and I realized, I was like, “Oh wow, I am starting from scratch. I know nothing.” That was an amazing feeling, to be able to go to school and have just the time and the ability to just play and do what you want and learn so much, different techniques, learned from other people in class who were making cool stuff. It was just an eye-opening experience for me. I feel like that was when I really fell in love with design, was when I started really learning it and learning the concepts, learning how to not just make something, but how to really bring an idea to life. To think about a concept and to then bring that to life through design blew my mind, it blew my mind in 2015 when I started school. That was my experience, St John’s was four years, and I came out of it with a ton of connections.

Rebecca Brooker:
My professors were working in the design industry in New York. We were always going to visit different studios and museums and galleries in the city. So, I felt like being in New York really helped me to make the industry connections and the network that I didn’t know I was going to have.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. You were there at the right time. In college, not just being a fish out of water coming from another country to the States, but then also relearning what you knew about design, what you thought you knew about design in this program. College is always touted as a time where it’s really transformative, but for you, it really sounds like it was a good starting point for you to build the career that you have now.

Rebecca Brooker:
Definitely, definitely. I think that was part of… Something that always drove me in college, was I think I knew that I didn’t have another option. My backup plan was going back to Trinidad and really figuring out how would I be a designer in Trinidad when I don’t know anything about design, I don’t have any industry contacts, I don’t even know where to begin to do my own design thing, even as a freelancer? So, I feel like it was really a transformational moment for me, where I had to push myself to be some level of successful so that I could stand on my own two feet and I could make this career that I doubted myself, I didn’t even know if I could do. I think that determination, that drive, really, is what gave me the confidence, Maurice, to just ask people anything.

Rebecca Brooker:
I feel like it comes across as outgoing, but I was always just so curious to, “Why did you do that? Why did you make that decision? How did you meet that person? How can I meet that person? What do they do? How do you know them? Is there an idea here?” So, I was just constantly hungry, and I think that hunger is really what led me to getting my first job at BAM as an intern.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I see that after you graduated, you worked as a curatorial assistant at a couple of art galleries and such.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. So, at the time, I had an on campus job at St. John’s in the student art gallery. I took that job because it was a unique opportunity, not just to learn about the art, but one of the early assignments that I would do was design some of the vinyl and design some of the material for an exhibition. So, that was a lot of like, “Okay, we’re going to do an exhibition, let me design the wall text, let me design the logo, let me put together the postcards, the flyers, put these around the campus.” So, I took that job because I wanted some hands-on practice of making stuff that wasn’t just for my classes. I started at the art gallery at St. John’s and I met a contact there, someone who came in once, and this guy was a friend of the curator at the time. He said, “Oh, I have an art gallery in Bushwick,” and I said, “Wow, do you need an intern?” He said, “Yeah, why not?” So, I got this internship at Outlet Gallery in Bushwick and, really, I became the curatorial assistant.

Rebecca Brooker:
It started just like, “Watch the gallery, talk about the work if someone comes in. We have a new show coming up, can you design the poster? Can you design the catalog?” So, I was getting a little bit of design experience, but I was also really, at this time, really into the art, and just learning a lot about art. I felt like there was a lot of similarities between the art world and the design world, just in the way that you present ideas on a page. So, I spent a lot of time in my senior year of college really going to a lot of galleries and really immersing myself and learning a lot about the art world. At one point, had another doubting moment where I was like, “Damn, do I want to become a curator? I don’t know,” and thought about that for a little bit. But art has always had a special place in my heart. I get a lot of inspiration looking at art and finding ways to translate that into design.

Rebecca Brooker:
I think that the two have a lot of overlap and it was something that I just really enjoyed looking at, generally. So, I did the curatorial assistant gig for a couple years, both at the St John’s gallery and the internship in Bushwick, and then I got this internship at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which was the perfect melting of the two worlds. Now, I was working at BAM and I was actually designing the programming for some of the opera shows, some of the festivals, and the programming that they would have at their venues. That was definitely the first job that I was working on a team with, and I was starting to learn the dynamic of being a designer in the design world, and working with a creative director, working with other designers on the team. I was the intern and just learning even the process of working in a studio, they’re like, “Oh, we have all these softwares, and I’m going to assign you a ticket, and we’re going to change the status.”

Rebecca Brooker:
For the first time, I was like, “Oh my God, you don’t just want to email me the file that you need? Damn, okay.” So, that was really my first experience, as well, with formalized design in a professional sense, outside of the classroom. That was an incredible learning experience for me, just being able to work with some of the best creatives. I think BAM was a great exercise in finding ways to be creative in a design system. They have a very tight design system that they use, and it was the first time I had to learn a design system, it was the first time I had to understand how to be creative within these constraints of the same logo, the same type base, the same everything. I felt like that just unlocked a whole new world for me. So, I worked there. Unfortunately, at this time, I was starting to think about my post-student visa status, and I had to get a job that would sponsor me a work visa.

Rebecca Brooker:
So, after talking to my boss at BAM, he said, “We’re a nonprofit, I don’t think we’re going to be able to sponsor your work visa. I have a friend who runs a team at this company called Compass, and they’re hiring a lot of designers. They’re growing really fast. Why don’t I send your portfolio?” So, I said, “Sounds good, do it,” and he sent it over. The guy from Compass called me and he said, “I’d love to bring you in for an interview.” I met with them, the recruiter that I met there was actually Trini, and she was like, “Oh no, this is a great place to work.” I was like, “Okay, okay, okay. I’m going to work there.” Surprisingly, they gave me an offer. So, I worked at Compass and things were going really well. That was a huge switch, because I was at a nonprofit where budgets were tight, and then I went into this new startup tech company, beautiful building on 5th Avenue, overlooking the city. It was just a different world. I was, again, a fish out of water.

Rebecca Brooker:
I was just not sure what to do and going along with it, but it was a great paying job, it was a bunch of new contacts, and the design work was pretty cool. So, I worked at Compass for a year and they agreed to do my work visa, we got that in place and started moving. In about July of 2018, I hadn’t heard back about my work visa status. A friend of mine at Compass, actually, who we applied at the same time, she had come over to my desk and was like, “Oh, I got my acceptance of my H-1B, did you get yours?” I was like, “No, didn’t get mine at all yet.” She said, “Oh, I’m sure it’s going to come. I’m sure it’s going to come.” So, I emailed my manager, I emailed the lawyers that are handling the case, and I don’t hear back for about two weeks. They come back and they say, “Unfortunately, your application wasn’t picked in the H-1B lottery, and you have three weeks to leave the country.”

Maurice Cherry:
Whoa.

Rebecca Brooker:
I said, “Wait a minute, but usually when you get the denial, you have 60 days to leave the country. Why is it three weeks?” They said, “Oh, I’m sorry. We forgot to inform you earlier-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh God.

Rebecca Brooker:
… that your application had been denied.” So, there was all this time that was just lost between the time of the notice and the time I was notified that I could have been preparing to leave the country. By the time I got the news, they were like, “You basically have three weeks left. You have to leave by the end of August.”

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Rebecca Brooker:
I was like, “Oh my God.” That was my whole life turned upside down, Maurice. The next day, Compass was like, “You’re no longer employed here because now that we found out your H-1B is denied, you have to stop working.”

Maurice Cherry:
Damn.

Rebecca Brooker:
I had just signed a new lease a couple months ago with my partner and another roommate, so I was like, “I’m on the hook for at least another eight months on this lease,” just a lot of big life changes. I was like, “Okay. So, I have to go back to Trinidad. What am I going to do? I have $4,000, $5,000 saved in total. I don’t know what that’s going to get me in this next life, but we’re going to find out.” So, I left the States, I went back home to Trinidad. My parents at the time were actually on vacation in Europe. It must have been two or three weeks, maybe a month after I got back to Trinidad, my old boss at Compass called me and he said, “Hey, I want to let you know, we’re about to sign a deal with this agency in Buenos Aires. They need a designer who knows our brand to go down there and help them build a team of 15 production designers.” I was like, “Okay. So, you’re saying I should go do the job?”

Rebecca Brooker:
They were like, “Yeah. We put your name in to go do that, and they’re going to call you.” I was like, “All right.” [inaudible 00:55:14] are done, just a really lucky break and a real opportunity, where my boss from Compass, shout out Jeff Lai, he threw my name in the hat. I was still just one year working there, there were people working at the company years who could have probably done that job, but he took a chance on me, proposing me for that gig, and I ended up getting the job. So, that was the thing that moved me to Argentina at the end of 2018, was this new opportunity with Media.Monks to help them build a team of designers for Compass in Buenos Aires, and help lead that team to understand the brand.

Queer Design Summit 2022

Queer Design Summit - July 7, 2022, 10am PST

The Queer Design Club is hosting their inaugural #QDCSummit on July 7! 🌈✨ Join the queer design community online to discuss two years of rich data. The goal of the Summit is to bring the community together and use it as a breakthrough for the industry as to why events like the Summit and groups like Queer Design Club are important. Be a part of it!

Tickets are available at QueerDesign.club/Summit

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Alexandria Batchelor

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

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

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

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I too am from Alabama.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Really?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Oh my goodness. I.

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

Alexandria Batchelor:
Oh, really?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexandria Batchelor:
I remember that blog.

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

Alexandria Batchelor:
Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Full circle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexandria Batchelor:
So good. Glad you agree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Work. Nice.

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

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Look at that.

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, chiaroscuro. Something like that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dr. Kenya Oduor

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

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

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
And what about that appeal to you?

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

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

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
Wow, so it’s time.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s time.

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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