Kevin Hawkins

The good thing about design is that if you have access to the right opportunities, your talent can really take you places. Take this week’s guest, Kevin Hawkins, for example. While he cut his teeth in the Washington DC design scene, for the past few years he’s been working in Europe, including his current role as global UX director for Glovo in Barcelona, Spain.

Our conversation started off with learning more about Glovo, and Kevin shared some of the rewarding bits and some of the challenges of his work. He also spoke about how his parents inspired him to be an entrepreneur, designing in DC and San Francisco, and how a trip to The Netherlands influenced his decision to work in Europe. Kevin’s story is a great example that when you take a chance on yourself, you will never lose!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Kevin Hawkins:
Hello, I am Kevin Hawkins. I am the global UX director at Glovo in Barcelona, Spain. I manage a team of designers, researchers, operation specialists, content writers, and it’s about a 90-person team working on global food, grocery and everything delivery, in about 25 countries.

Maurice Cherry:
And I should also mention that you also live in Spain. You’re not just working remotely because of the pandemic.

Kevin Hawkins:
Correct, yes. I’ve lived in Barcelona now for just over six months. I moved for this job, and it’s been going really well.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. How’s Barcelona?

Kevin Hawkins:
Super hot. The heat wave has been roasting Barcelona, but it’s also the time of year where they have neighborhood festivals. So it’s been super nice to get to know the city and see it come alive, but also see all the tourists sweat in the sun.

Maurice Cherry:
So aside from this move, how’s the year been going in general?

Kevin Hawkins:
The year’s been going really well. A lot of unexpected changes. I was previously living in Amsterdam, so it’s been a lot of big changes; another move for me, a new job, a new house, a new language. So it’s been a year of change.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about the work that you’re doing at Glovo, where you mentioned you’re their global UX director. Talk to me about Glovo.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, so Glovo, if people don’t know, it’s really big in Europe, Northern Africa and Western Asia. We don’t have a presence in North America, but we used to have a presence in South America. It is essentially if you were to combine DoorDash plus Uber Eats plus a little bit of FedEx. We are a delivery logistics company that started out doing food. We do groceries, we do appliances. We’ve started doing COVID tests. Essentially if you want anything in the city, we deliver it, we schedule it, we get it to your door. And we operate in 25 countries and just recently merged with a big group. So now we have about, let’s say, total, a couple billion orders a year that we handle as part of Delivery Hero.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. How has business been going during the pandemic? I’d imagine probably pretty well.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah. This is one of the kind of outlier industries that did really, really well. As everyone started ordering from home, we ramped up. We were one of the first in Europe to start scheduling at-home COVID tests, because we could deliver you the test, but we can also deliver you the test with a nurse or someone to actually administer the test. So it was a really good time for us to launch new features. I only joined in February, so I came in on the high wave of all this growth, really trying to use that extra momentum and the profit margin that came with it to really invest in big things to keep that momentum going as people go back into the world and things open back up.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me more about the team that you’re overseeing.

Kevin Hawkins:
The team is my favorite part of this job and favorite part about the entire company, honestly. So Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, which if you know anything about Spain, the different groups and factions, they fought for a while. There’s distinct cultures, so it’s different than Madrid, it’s different than Valencia or other areas of Spain. Very humble, very sweet, very down to earth people. The founders are both from this region, and it’s very much seen in the culture of the company. And so I really love the people. The roles that end up reporting into me are typically design and research, but also design ops, research ops, localization and internationalization teams that handle our translations and cultural differences, as well as the content writers and little bit of program management.

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

Kevin Hawkins:
There is no typical day, I will tell you. So I am the highest ranked design person at Glovo. I report directly in to the chief product officer. So my typical day is a mixture of diversity and inclusion and hiring practices, meetings, making sure that research plans are adapted to different countries, dialects and languages. I have one-on-ones with five different heads of UX. Generally, I’m talking to a software account manager about renewals or new feature development, planning a research trip, or as part of my work with an employee resource group, we are planning an event or sharing new guidelines or new fact sheets to inspire the company to be more inclusive.

Maurice Cherry:
I was just about to ask you about that. You head up this ERG called Colours at Glovo. Tell me about that.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, Colours of Glovo is a really fun part of the work I do. So the employee resource group is dedicated to diversity and inclusion as well as cultural differences related to ethnicity, race, and a lot of the nuances that happens within countries or within cultures. So generally speaking, we have ERGs dedicated to Pride and women’s inclusion and disabilities, but our ERG tackles all of the gray areas, the really specific things regarding operating as a company that has a bunch of gig workers. How do you handle the issues felt by the couriers, who are often immigrants? How to be adapt the product to be mindful of cultural differences and sensitivities in Western Asia and the Middle East and Northern Africa and Islamic countries? How do we modify for language, a number of things, delivery to women in homes where a man can’t enter the home? The number of things that comes through the ERG is super fascinating, and we help the company navigate these kind of differences and choices.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you think Glovo will take off in the US? Is that a plan, to expand into this market?

Kevin Hawkins:
As someone who was born in America, I definitely think about this a lot. I don’t think we will. We have a really successful strategy, which is based on being number one or number two in all the markets we operate in. Given the intense competition of Uber and DoorDash and everyone in the US, I think it would take a very dedicated expensive effort to come in and be number one or number two very quickly. So I don’t see it happening in the near future. But now that we are part of Delivery Hero group, we are in the top three delivery companies globally.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I would imagine if Glovo were to expand into the US, you’d have to contend with Amazon. And they’re just everywhere, I mean, ubiquitous. I’m surprised, I know they used to do food delivery. It’s funny, they used to have Amazon restaurants or something, but I guess they just decided to give that up. And now they just do, of course, package deliveries, they do grocery deliveries, et cetera. But for what you’re mentioning with Glovo, it sounds like this FedEx, Door Dash, Uber Eats kind of hybrid sort of probably covers some gaps that maybe something like an Amazon wouldn’t cover.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, we have a couple of things people don’t expect. There’s a really famous feature from the very beginning of the history of Glovo called Anything Picture, or in Spanish, [Spanish 00:09:21], which is you actually describe what you want to receive and the courier will go out and get it. And that means you could say, “Hey, I need two pillow cases and a pillow from Zara home.” Zara Home isn’t a partner of Glovo, but this courier has a credit card and can go into the store, buy it, expense it to you and bring it to your house within 25 minutes.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow, that’s pretty good. That’s pretty good. That reminds me of … Oh my God, I’m trying to think of … Do you remember Webvan?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh my god, it reminds me a little bit of Webvan, from back in the day. I don’t know if they were that exacting, but I like that feature. That sounds really cool.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, there were a couple concierge apps that came out back around then. It was like Cleveroad, and there’s some older ones that are no longer existent, because the margins were terrible. And trying to accommodate random requests at random times always became very challenging. But it’s cool because we still have that part of the app, because it’s the oldest feature, people love it. And when it works really well, I mean, it’s a moment of absolute customer delight.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. We have a place here in Atlanta called Zifty. And Zifty has been around probably since, oh my God, maybe 2003 or something like that. They’re like the pre-Uber Eats or pre-DoorDash or something. If you wanted to get something from a local restaurant, depending on where your zip code was, they could get it for you. But also, they had a little grocery store. So if you needed to get toiletries or aspirin or whatever, you could get that along with your food, and they’d sort of bring it all together. I think they might have taken a bit of a stumble during the pandemic.
Well, one, services Uber Eats and such came about, so now you didn’t have to use Zifty. You could use any of these other services, which were cheaper. But the thing with Zifty is they were really good about trying to make sure that all the drivers were paid a livable wage, all that sort of stuff. They weren’t trying to undercut your own tips or anything like that, as maybe a similar type service might do; not naming any names, but you know what I mean. They might not try to undercut them on that sort of stuff. I don’t know how well they’re faring during the pandemic, because they stopped doing the grocery stuff, because I think just the possibility of transmission of COVID. And so now it’s just restaurants. But they’ve expanded into a mobile app.
I’m curious to see how they weather it through, because they’ll be coming up on 20 years next year. And it’s amazing how they’ve managed to weather the storm as society has changed. Because I think in the beginning people were like, “Wait a minute, the only thing I really would order delivery would be pizza or maybe Chinese food.” And now you can get pho, you can get sushi, you can get pillows, like you mentioned. You can get anything now via delivery.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yes, exactly. The thing that we saw really spike during COVID was what we call quick commerce. So it was these brands like Gorillas or Getir, in some cases even grocery stores, directly offering what was 10-minute delivery for things. And this is what led to the same rat race that Amazon triggered when they launched one-day delivery. All the retailers have tried to scramble to get three day, two day, one day, same day, few hour delivery, sparked by this kind of, “Oh, that’s possible.” So then people find use cases they didn’t normally have.
In our space, it was quite literally the grocery store companies and these quick commerce companies pushing food, because food was always, “We get it to you.” You have companies that have couriers like us, and then you have some restaurants that have their own drivers, like notoriously Domino’s. And we merged them together.
But then you had products that were committing to $10 or a 10-minute guarantee and you get your money back, which is significant pressure on the logistics company, because you don’t have staff. People are volunteering. They get online when they want to get online. It can rain. You might be in a hilly city like San Francisco. The number of variables were endless, let alone things being out of stock. So we had to contend with this really, really heated race. Getir raised a billion dollars almost in funding, which is an unheard of number for a company that just started. So it was a really fun time for the industry.

Maurice Cherry:
It also sounds like, I think you mentioned this earlier, but you are also delivering COVID tests too. I don’t know of any other services really doing that.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, I think it took a long time, but I think Uber eventually decided to start letting you schedule COVID tests with CVS, and then perfectly scheduling to pick up and drop off. But that was the closest I’ve seen on the large scale. We were actually delivering tests and then also delivering practitioners who could administer the tests, because it was just a perfect remedy. We started doing supply-based delivery. So if you were ordering an appliance, we’d have an installer; you’re buying a TV, we have an installer. Imagine everything from Best Buy, they have that service called Geek Squad where they come and install things. It’s just timing and scheduling of a person to arrive with goods. So we were like, “We sell goods, we deliver them on time, why couldn’t we deliver a person with them?”

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. So it’s sort of also like a TaskRabbit in there too.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, a little bit, as long as we could estimate the cost before, because TaskRabbit, there could be overage. We didn’t really get into that. We have a single transaction, single promise, single sale. It was applicable to many, many things.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now you mentioned the team being the best part about what you do. What would you say is the most difficult part?

Kevin Hawkins:
I mean, it’s also the size, the scale. The differences within the markets that we operate in is probably the difficult part. Whenever you come up with what you think is a simple solution or that makes sense, it is never going to apply equally in Portugal as it will in Kurdistan. It never really makes sense the same in rural Nigeria or rural Kenya as it does in downtown Barcelona or in a very dense three-city country like Poland. When you have urban sprawl, when you have a six-language barrier, when the couriers or the partners speak completely different languages than the average customer, these complications, these nuances, these details makes the work for the team really complicated and also makes funding and prioritizing research … I would say fun, some would say complex.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, you’ve served at a number of different companies. You’ve even worked internationally before, which we’ll get into a little bit later. I want to take things back to the beginning and sort of talk about your origin story. Tell me about where you grew up.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, I don’t get to talk about this too much, but I’m originally from the Washington, D.C area. So my first home was in the city, and then we moved back and forth between Rockville, Maryland, Silver Spring, Maryland, and back into the capital. And I spent pretty much all my time in D.C., with a lot of travel with my dad, who is from the military, and then my mom’s family, which is African, from Liberia. So we spent time flying back between the two continents, but also just around the US at different military basis.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. First generation. I like that.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you have a lot of exposure to art and design and stuff growing up?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, so my mom was a nurse and then broke away from the family expectations going into medical because she wasn’t happy, and became a fashion designer. And that was a big inspiration for my ability to problem-solve and really understanding when people say they want certain things but what they really want is something else, which is of course a big skill for designers. And then my dad was in the military but then left and became a labor rights attorney, and was really working with a lot of politics and advisory, and also had his own business. And so I was always surrounded by creative thinking, problem solving, a lot of politics, a lot of public relations. And it always made me think about, what if I did something similar to this? And I ended up helping them build their websites and their marketing collateral. And that’s really how I got started.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you of know that this was something you really wanted to study and go into, as a kid?

Kevin Hawkins:
So, that happened really early. I think it was probably as early as 10. So when I was super young, this is like seven or eight, if you went to school in the States especially, you know had to get a book cover and you had to get a binder cover sometimes, because you had even and odd days in middle school. And all your textbooks were either rented or they were really expensive, so you wanted to cover them to protect them, maybe sell them back later on in the year.
And my mom and I came up with the scheme of making the coolest covers. And so we had a little business called Cover Me Cool. And I essentially would be the model at school, and people would ask questions, and then you would sell them. And that got really big, and we ended up going to a trade show. We talked to me to Mead and Five Star, we got a patent attorney involved. It was my first [inaudible 00:18:29] really getting involved in business. So by 10, I had sold a company and had understood a bit of the politics of trademark law and copyright law, and decided I wanted to be more on the creative side of business. But definitely my teeth wet, and was really excited to do more independent design work.

Maurice Cherry:
So you had your own business and sold it by the time you were 10?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, I would say sold is a nicer version of this. Ultimately, we couldn’t afford to scale and license NFL prints and everything. And someone [inaudible 00:19:06] buy from us. And we said, “Obviously, that sounds great.” So we sold. Sometimes I think about what would happen if I hadn’t, but I think ultimately, it was a great learning lesson.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, look, an exit is an exit. And the fact that you were able to sell off the business and still keep going, that’s a great thing. I say this of course as you are a child, but that’s great that you are able to have that experience really early on that way. So given that, did that sort of put in your mind, this is something that you really wanted to do as a business, was design?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yes. I still wasn’t sure what discipline within design, so this is when I started looking at school differently. I used to be very anti-school. I was very good at primary school. I really hated tests, so I didn’t really the process of going to college. But then I was like, “Maybe I can be excited by the idea of web design,” and what they were calling new media back then, because I was like, “Oh, this is not traditional. This is not just marketing collateral. This could be service design. This is marketing automation. This is branding.” It always had a bit more to do with the business than just the service provided. And I liked that, and that’s how I got started.

Maurice Cherry:
And now speaking of school, you did end up going to the Art Institutes for a while. You studied web design and interactive media. What was that time like?

Kevin Hawkins:
It was really intense. So my family, I’m the child of divorced parents, and so money wasn’t always consistent. So me having these jobs where I was doing websites and making templates on WordPress and stuff like ThemeForest and all this was a great revenue source for my mom and our household. And so when I went to school, I had a job already, and I was still working full-time doing marketing and creative service stuff for nonprofits in Washington, D.C. And I was like, “Oh, okay. So I really like my job, but I should go get certified and get a degree and get some kind of accreditation for it.” Ultimately, I ended up learning more from my job than I did from school, and that’s ultimately why I ended up leaving school.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like that’s a lot of the case when it comes to design, I think particularly design … And I’m just sort trying to place this in terms of timeframe. If you did this anywhere in the early 2000s, I feel like that was totally okay, because a lot of schools didn’t really have curriculum that spoke to web design, visual design. Maybe they had advertising or communication design, or you went to a for-profit school like the Art Institutes and you learned stuff there. But a lot of what you learned, because of how the industry was moving, was just being hands-on. You learned through working.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, certainly. I learned a lot more always from learning from people I looked up to, people who wrote books or spoke or were generous with their time, or just people at the workplace who were willing to teach me or delegated work they didn’t want to do. Whatever way it came to me, I was able to take these opportunities and find a way to make myself passionate about it.

Maurice Cherry:
And now after you left the Art Institutes, you worked at a lot of different places. And I won’t go into all of them, but I’ll list off just a few of the more prominent places where you’ve worked, which is Chase. You’ve worked at Capital One, Gap, the Brookings Institution, PwC, EY, many others. When you sort look back at that time, because you were sort of contracting from place to place, talk to me about who that Kevin Hawkins was. Who was he? What was he thinking? What was he trying to accomplish back then?

Kevin Hawkins:
I never intended to go to any of these companies and leave. I think that’s one of the things that millennials get blamed for, the whole job hopping fad. I ultimately always wanted to stay, but I just had a lot of, let’s say, self worth from my mom and the way she raised me. And whenever I dealt with workplace discrimination, ageism, racism, any of these things in the workplace, I always said it would be better for myself and my career for me to be happy at work than to … I never saw going through discrimination and oppression as earning my dues. So I found new places or I worked on startups or I made enough money making websites for people to give me a month or two to find a new job.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a powerful statement there, and I think it’s something that … I don’t know, it’s interesting, when you think about people in their early careers, is that whole pay your dues sort of bit. I get that. Look, I got a Black mama too. And she certainly was like, “Sometimes there’s things that you have to do that you don’t want to do to get where you have to be.” And I understand that to a fault. I get that there may be some things where you just have to learn it, this is how you learn it. But if it’s like you’ve said what you’re putting up with these pervasive isms at work, racism, sexism, et cetera, why stay? You’re not winning any awards by staying, you know what I mean?

Kevin Hawkins:
No, exactly. And that wasn’t always the reason why I left. Sometimes new opportunities come, sometimes you start to stagnate or you stop learning. I always say either you’re there to learn or to earn, and sometimes there’s other motivations like a passion or a mission that aligns with you. But when you’re not learning, when you realize the industry is getting bigger, it’s getting very profitable, the work is extremely valuable, it’s being tied to massive growth and revenue, you also want to start earning more. And because I came in without a degree, I was originally second-guessing myself. So my whole tactic was I’m always more valuable in the interview phase than I am two years into a company. So if I want to make up for the money than I’m not earning by not having that degree, it makes more sense for me to take opportunities when people present them to me, than to trudge through the interview process and promotion panels, with the people I’ve been working with for two and a half, three years.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, you just raised something interesting there I want to touch on. So you did go to the Art Institute, you got an associate’s degree, right?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So even though you had that degree from an institution that someone could look at and say, “Oh, you must be a designer,” did that still not help you throughout your career to have that as sort of a … I almost want to say a status symbol of sorts?

Kevin Hawkins:
No, honestly it wasn’t looked at the same way. The Art Institute doesn’t have the prestige of a Corcoran or a SCAD or a RISD. In addition, I got into web design and I was doing a lot of user experience, information architecture, HCI work. So they didn’t see it as directly relevant. I got a two-year degree but I didn’t take the final exam and do the official ceremony. So I always had to send in transcripts versus the official diploma letter that comes from the university office. And I didn’t really care. I was really happy that I made that choice to leave, and the work spoke for itself, more often than not. But then there would be companies, especially as I got higher up in D.C. or in New York that just would look at nothing else. And California and Europe started getting more and more attractive.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. I’m just curious about that, because for example, I don’t have a design degree. I did go to college, got a degree in math, and then started out as a designer, even though I just picked up design in my spare time. And even now at this stage in my career, I’m at least 20 years out from my first design position, me not having a design degree I think is still looked at some places as like, “Oh, well, you’re not really a designer,” despite the fact that I’ve run my own studio, have all this design experience in other companies. They’re like, “Yeah, but you don’t have the degree.” And I feel like companies sometimes still place way too much emphasis on that.

Kevin Hawkins:
Certainly. I mean, I can tell you the number of jobs where I actually got to the final round … I even have jobs where I was given the offer, and then it was rescinded because they hadn’t checked which degree I had.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, man.

Kevin Hawkins:
And I thought that was insane. Some of these companies had public stances on articles and in Forbes, “We don’t look at degrees anymore. Degrees are not a requirement for most of our jobs.” But the second design started getting a seat at the table, design was informing P&L, it was informing business strategy partnerships, they started really looking at designers, especially when you go into UX, as part of the business organization. Sometimes you reported in to COOs or CMOs. And they ultimately saw it as flywheel effect, that you invest in UX, you get customers happy, they buy more, you have more customers, which is great. But at the same time, we’re still always interviewed based on portfolios, you’re based on references, you’re based on the work you’ve done in your past. So why is the degree so important, when you spend 80% of the interview looking at work done?

Maurice Cherry:
Right. No, that’s true. That’s very true. I remember vividly when I got … it wasn’t my first design job, but I was working at AT&T as a senior designer. And it was one of the campuses here in Atlanta. And pretty much everyone else on the design team not only had a design degree from the Art Institutes, but they kind of all went to the same classes and stuff together. It was very much a pipeline from this school to this company, which I think may be why some companies look at that, and think, “Oh, well, if you’ve come from this school and you have this degree, then you can automatically meet maybe this baseline level of work.”
But when I tell you I was designing circles around those jokers at AT&T … and a lot of them paid me dust because I didn’t have a design degree … and these would be other Black designers too, wouldn’t even talk to me. And so when it was time for me to leave, I was like, “I’m out, I’m out. I’m gone. Peace.”

Kevin Hawkins:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
And so I 100% understand the want to get at a company and you want to be there, and it just doesn’t work out. And it’s not anything that has to do with you. It’s company culture stuff, it’s all kind of other stuff. And it’s like if you don’t feel happy here, why stay?

Kevin Hawkins:
Exactly, exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
And what I noticed from just doing research, you also had your own things that you were doing throughout this time. So you weren’t relying just on working at these companies to, I guess, fulfill this creative want that you had. You founded other companies, Pipevine, QReview, BravoScore. Talk to me about those. It sounds like you were pretty busy.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, I’ve always had this, and I think it’s probably from watching my parents be in jobs they weren’t super happy about and then watching them start their businesses parallel to their work, so I always thought, “Oh, that’s a thing you can do.” It isn’t like you have some contract where you are enslaved to one employer and you need to tell the employer you’re going to leave before you do work for a new employer. I always saw that small businesses are often started alongside full-time jobs.
And I said, “I do like what I do for a living, and ultimately, I see myself advising business. I see myself advising product directors and program managers. And this is what they use to determine budgets and this is what they use to determine expansions and launch strategy. I can do that. Why shouldn’t I launch something as a UX designer with the background that has worked also in research? I can validate a problem. I can talk about size of the market. I can talk about who is addressable within the first version of the product that we release. I could do a pitch. I can definitely do this.”
And I started looking of course more and more at San Francisco and startup companies and how they got their start. And you’re like, “Cool.” Designers, I personally think … this is even before Brian Chesky and Airbnb … because designers, I think, are better startup CEOs. They pitch things, and you want to listen; they’re beautiful, if they do their job with communications design very well.
And I said, “Let’s start some companies.” And I had no idea where to look. And I ultimately looked to people who were already that passionate founder visionary type, and they didn’t know how to build great user experience. They didn’t know how to collect email and newsletters and do a landing page and build up momentum before it launched. And I partnered with them as their technical co-founder because I knew enough code, enough front end, enough design to be dangerous. And they were the business, finance people.

Maurice Cherry:
So you really got your own business education in a way, too, by running these businesses and working with them.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, certainly.

Maurice Cherry:
I like that. I definitely can empathize with that. I’ve always had my own thing on the side, wherever it is I was working. And I’ll tell you what’s interesting, some of these new startups, and I know this just from working in startups in the past five years … And I don’t know if a lot of them have them, but the ones that I worked in always had a clause that you had to disclose anything else that you were doing outside of work that might … I don’t know if it might conflict or whatever, but they just wanted to know that, “Well, what else are you working on that’s not the 9:00 to 5:00 job?”
And sometimes I would answer and sometimes I wouldn’t, because it’s really none of their business, because none of the places I worked for had any sort of relation to what I was doing, which was this podcast. But I find it interesting now that companies are like, “Yeah, what else are you doing to try to, I guess, I don’t know, capitalize on your time?” I know there’s this whole thing now about quiet quitting. And I hate that term so bad because it’s really just about setting boundaries at work. It’s not, whatever, I don’t know, 19th century Industrial Revolution thing you might be thinking about with quiet quitting. I just hear that just, I hate that term.

Kevin Hawkins:
It does hurt me, honestly. It’s like, okay, either it’s disengagement or it’s just the phase before someone gets fed up. But it’s not disingenuous to be tired of bad conditions or being undervalued or underpaid or outgrowing opportunity. If you feel like life is taking you a different direction than your current employer, there is always going to be the phase before you quit. And that isn’t called quiet quitting, in my opinion. That’s just called really assessing your worth, your value, and your future.

Maurice Cherry:
I might get in trouble by saying this. Part of me feels like that the media is a little bit complicit in this, because I really am only hearing this from Business Insider, Wall Street Journal, stuff like that, that are talking about quiet quitting. But I feel like it’s also retaliation to a lot of workers, at least here in the States, now realizing the power that they have with unionizing. And so they’re cutting down on this whole quiet quitting thing, because I mean, at least in some of the places I worked, that quiet quitting, I’m using air quotes here, were the seeds to start unionizing. That was the fertile ground for people to start thinking about, how can we campaign for having better work conditions, et cetera? And they talked to a union rep, and now we got a union. Like I worked at Glitch, and we unionized, shortly before they laid most of us off, but we did at least have that happen. And I want to say that the fertile ground for that was a lot of people just being sort of fed up with how certain conditions were.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah. And honestly, businesses will always have, let’s say, a fiduciary interest in not wanting people to unionize, because it’s easier to manipulate and get what you want as a business, for your shareholders, or even for yourself, when you are dealing with individuals. It’s also why the whole idea of people knowing what everyone makes is dangerous to businesses, because then you know if you’re getting paid less, and you know if they value that same work at a higher value. Some of these things are solved in some places in Europe, and it’s still the same battle. I have to deal with lots of cultural differences, and this is one of them. A lot of the teams and companies I work with and some of my peers in Spain and Portugal deal with this, which is, I think it’s quite positive, but it is tricky, that our employees talk to each other about how much they make. If we do a market adjustment and someone was adjusted more than someone else, it definitely comes up much quicker than you think it will.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So you were running these businesses, you were working at these different places. It sounds like you were doing a lot here in the States, between all of that stuff. But eventually you ended up moving, you moved to Amsterdam. What was behind the decision to do that?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah. So I moved to San Francisco for four and a half years, and I was really happy out there, but I really couldn’t see myself building life in terms of buying a house, starting a family, with just the cost, the income disparity, the homelessness crisis, and really just it’s quite out of touch, if you stay in certain bubbles. And I always had a really good balance. My family is quite mixed, African, Filipino, American. I see different classes within America and other countries on a regular basis. And so to juxtapose the comments and things you would hear in Silicon Valley with the reality of most of the world became a bit frustrating. And I said, “Am I really doing myself a service, spending all of my money, all of my energy just trying to survive in this city, or maybe I go back to D.C., or maybe I finally go and try out Europe?”

Maurice Cherry:
And Europe ended up winning.

Kevin Hawkins:
Europe ended up winning; winning at a very interesting time, who got elected-

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s true. That’s true. Yeah.

Kevin Hawkins:
… safety of Black people in America. I mean, a number of things, right? And so I was really happy to be able to go and visit. And then once I was able to secure a job that was able to sponsor me and keep me there, it was a big sigh of relief that I exhaled, because it was just such a significant upgrade on my quality of life.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So you ended up working in Amsterdam, you were working at booking.com. And then now you’re here in Barcelona working at Glovo. I’m just curious, I mean, this is from the dumb American perspective, so forgive me here, but is it easy moving between countries like that in Europe?

Kevin Hawkins:
No.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Kevin Hawkins:
No. I really wish it was simpler. Honestly, the visas don’t transfer between countries. So we were just talking about the whole degree thing. And I won’t talk too badly about my new home country, but I had a high qualified migrant visa in the Netherlands because I worked in tech, and they wanted more tech workers. And I made good money and I brought lots of job opportunities and revenue by having a high-funded, well-run company be headquartered in your country. But that same visa wouldn’t transfer to Spain, so I had to requalify, do background checks in America and in the Netherlands, do fingerprinting, do a degree certificate, all these things all over again, as if I hadn’t just lived four years in Netherlands and bought a house. I considered myself European at that point, but that’s not how it works.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. And you’ve been now in Barcelona you said for about six months?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yep, about six months.

Maurice Cherry:
What is the design scene like there? Have you sought it out or have you found it there?

Kevin Hawkins:
So there are probably around like 2,500 startups. Glovo isn’t definitely in that top group of the biggest. We’re a unicorn. But the design scene isn’t as large, of course, as a London, which is massive, or as an Amsterdam, which is definitely a tech hub, but it’s very warm, I would say. The UX community in Barcelona has big players like HP and Amazon who are directly our neighbors. As Glovo, we’re in a neighborhood called Poblenou, which is the tech hub. But then you also just have to factor in the culture.
There’s a lot of illustration and animation in the UX and design community within Barcelona, just because of the culture is so rich in architecture and detail and craft. The community is very warm because the city is very warm, and people are generally happier, in my opinion. And they have beach meetups, and there’s a thriving tech scene that’s definitely growing. And it’s really fun to be there at the moment where it’s blossoming. It’s definitely going to surpass, in my opinion, some of the bigger cities. The only key difference is that pay in the south is lower than in northern Europe, which models very similarly to pay in the South of the US versus New York, for example.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. How would you compare the design community to, say, the one in Amsterdam or in D.C.? Was that something that you thought about as you went to these different places?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, certainly. I think that I always think about diversity of groups and communities. And D.C.’s definitely a melting pot. Amsterdam’s a melting pot. Barcelona is one of the largest cities in a region of Spain, and therefore it’s not Madrid, it’s not the capital. The tech that’s there isn’t one industry, like the military or government or FinTech. And so it’s a lot of people from completely different backgrounds, a lot of immigrants from other Spanish-speaking countries or from Latin America or Hispanic America, like Brazil and Argentina. And so, there is this really interesting new kind of perspective that you get. A lot of the competition or comps we talk about at work like Roppy and companies that don’t even operate on the continent, because of the backgrounds people have and the different kind of work they’ve been doing. And it’s really cool. I still do all of my work in English. And I’m still able to navigate the community, and the community’s very open and friendly to expats. They often speak three languages. And it’s a very vibrant, different community, but I really enjoy it.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good to hear that they’re friendly to expats. I had always been curious about that sort of thing. I mean, I’ve been considering … at this stage where I’m at right now, as we’re recording this, I am currently, we’ll say, between opportunities at the moment. And look, I’ve been in the US for a long time. I’m from here, whatever. But I also know that the skills that I have, I’ll look for the types of positions that I do, and most of them are in Europe. None of them are in the US. And I’ve thought about possibly maybe doing it, like, oh, just visiting or something. Part of me is like, maybe I’m a little too old to do that. Also, I’m close to my family that’s close to where I live here, and I don’t want to put an ocean between us. But it really sort of sounds like you’ve found a way for yourself throughout your entire career. You didn’t have one set path that you really were trying to follow. You just of went where your passions led you.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, I think the only thing that’s been consistent has been I wanted to be a C-suite executive. I think that’s something that my family makes fun of me for, from being a kid. I used to be called the governor. I probably am still called the governor [inaudible 00:42:23] family because I always projected these long-term visions, five-year plans, “We’re going to do this.” I was always rallying people towards a mission or a goal. And so I’ve always known I wanted to be in a leadership position, but as I got into design, I didn’t really see one. So I was always trying to navigate my way into learning new skills, because I wasn’t in the business area, I wasn’t in operations, I wasn’t in marketing, I wasn’t in the area that had C-suite positions.
And I said to myself, “If I’m ever going to get there, it has to be the story of the receptionist who learns all the skills by being around all the people in the business and eventually become COO and then CEO.” So I told myself, “I’m in design, there’s no direct ladder to that role, so I’m going to have to get close to the marketers and close to the engineers and close to sales and close to legal, and really understand the in and out of every business I worked for.”

Maurice Cherry:
And now you’re in the C-suite now. Would you say that’s sort where you’re at now with Glovo?

Kevin Hawkins:
Almost, yeah. I mean, no one else above me does design work. I report to the chief product officer, but I am solely responsible for all the budget for design research, content. It’s about a 90-person team and growing. And so it does feel like I’m almost there. I think the one thing that would get me there would be a VP of experience position or, very few companies have these, but a chief design officer.

Maurice Cherry:
How have you worked to stay your authentic self throughout your career?

Kevin Hawkins:
It actually is easier to answer than I thought it would be. It has been teaching. So I never did it with the intention of keeping myself grounded, but I always felt and was making time to mentor people into the industry. I have some close friends now who came from program manager jobs at NASA or were teachers or bankers, and now they’re in UX or in different areas of tech. And I always found it really, I don’t know, just thrilling to show them how transferable their skills were or show them that you have a passion to make apps, and yes, app companies and companies in general fail at the 90% mark, but these are the skills you need to be able to validate your assumptions and listen to customer feedback and iterate quickly and fail fast, and get them into positions where they either were launching their own companies or working in UX or in different tech roles. And that is what led me to eventually teach a class on data visualization at Georgetown University and then start teaching in general UX courses, design thinking courses, sort of about six years of me teaching now.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. So you’re teaching. Is that something you’re also doing now in Barcelona, or are you’re just working at Glovo?

Kevin Hawkins:
I am just working at Glovo. I was working with a bootcamp in Amsterdam called Growth Tribe, but now that I’m in Barcelona, I’m looking for new opportunities, mostly by partnering with the department with local universities, Ironhack in Barcelona, building an apprenticeship program, which I feel like is really missing in the industry; when we talk about not enough junior positions, at the very least, people should be teaching and bringing in people who are early career programs and apprenticeship programs to build that pipeline for juniors.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I find a lot of companies now don’t really want to talk to people. When it comes to positions and stuff, they’ll make sure that the, I don’t know, applicant tracking system does all the work. They don’t really want to talk to you or interview or get to know you unless you pass through those hurdles and stuff. But that apprenticeship part certainly is something that’s missing. I feel like that’s something that has been identified throughout the years, and a lot of companies just haven’t tried to make that a part of what they do. I mean, they still have take-home tests within interview processes, so I feel like having an apprenticeship, it might be a little bit too much for them to handle at the moment, but I would like to see more of that kind of stuff too.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, I think there’s always a scapegoat, whether it be time or team maturity. But having an intern, having an apprentice, having a really early junior requires that same level of consistency with how the department or organization is run, with also there being clear career paths. But then in addition, having someone actually be responsible and given credit for molding the mind and techniques of a new person in the industry. And I think because of the number of operational admin and HR-related aspects of this that are not in place at most companies or are always in some state of shift, they always want to say, “Oh, we just won’t do it,” but then at the same time will complain about why it’s so expensive to only hire seniors or why the [inaudible 00:47:06] maturity isn’t great when none of your team has any experience mentoring people.

Maurice Cherry:
I know I certainly hear it from … I’ve heard of that, companies I’ve worked for, where they’re like, “Oh, we can’t find any good candidates,” or they’ll put out a listing and get 300 resumes and then not look at any of them. I don’t know. Hiring in itself is broken. And I may be speaking from a bit of a jaded place at the moment, because I’m looking for work. But that’s something I’ve noticed though throughout my career at places I’ve worked, where designers, it really is that thing about you have to know someone. It’s really hard to just come in right off the ground floor to get into some companies. But that’s pretty sad.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, I would agree. Design is becoming like real estate. Everyone has to get some comfortable shoes and go door-knocking and cold-,calling and there’s tons of doors being slammed and phone calls being hung up on. And especially with any kind of recession, it gets really tricky. The majority of my career, I would say, post- the engineering marketing design stuff I was doing, was in 2008, 2009. And obviously, it was the worst time. But I came in super humble, obviously didn’t need a ton of money. In terms of what people were expecting for the top of the band for certain positions, I was undercutting them, because I was there to learn. At the same time, I also was keeping all of my expenses super, super low. That is impossible anymore. The market is insane. The cost of inflation has gone up just for living in places. And we’ve all talked about this ad nauseum at this point, about whether people should be paid living wages or not, which is an obvious answer.
And design has, and tech in general has been such a savior for some people because it has been rapidly growing in income, and people are making great salaries and new positions are being formed in leadership, and there’s career paths. But then when it doesn’t have respect at companies, you can look at Fannie Mae for example, you see whole divisions being cut or companies no longer investing in UX. And it really shows you that we have to, not just because we find it interesting, you have to develop these other skills, you have to develop these networks. And that awkward phone call or email or walking up to a random person at a conference feels like a luxury we can ignore for a lot of the time. But when it comes down to it, those are the people and the connections that have saved me most at times when I didn’t have a job or went to a new country or got laid off or in one instance got fired.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s the best piece of advice that you’d give to someone that they’re hearing your story and they want to follow in your footsteps? What would you tell them?

Kevin Hawkins:
I would say, and this is going to be a quote, because I love quotes … I want to get this quote correct. “So it is literally true that you can succeed best and quickest by helping others to succeed,” which is a quote by Napoleon Hill. And it’s just me being generous with my time. It’s me taking random phone calls for Brazilian graphic design students at 12:00 PM when it’s their 5:00 PM, so that they can ask questions, how to go from graphic design into UX. It’s me going to a Lesbians Who Tech drink in D.C. randomly to see if anybody’s there because they’re looking for a technical co-founder or they don’t know how to do something. It’s just me volunteering at design critiques or UX speed dating, where you’re giving people advice quickly or you’re answering questions in a Q&A.
I think these things are the things that we can always make time for. Ultimately in the moments when I didn’t have a job, I did more of them, because they build connections and there is a bit of a bias or an interest for me to make connections. At the same time, it’s what keeps me motivated and inspired and keeps my spirits high in the lowest moments, is the people who I’ve helped or the people who use me as a reference or call me when something has shattered their world. But for me, it’s something I’ve done 10, 15, 20 times, and can easily walk them through how to navigate it.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel satisfied creatively?

Kevin Hawkins:
In my current role, yes. I think I haven’t been for a little bit of time. I’ve been a director now for three years. I was a director at a small company and then I was in management but not a director at Booking. And at Booking, I was extremely, extremely happy. And then the recession hit, and that was ultimately why everything fell apart and I left. And I was looking for about a year and a half, almost two years for another place where I could see myself being home. And Glovo definitely is that. But the director role is less about designing mock-ups. It’s more about designing career paths, designing a culture, designing product marketing and employer brand.
I’m building the team I wish I was on, I’m building the kind of company culture, onboarding practices, promotion processes that I wish I had in my career. And then I’m also building myself up to hopefully be an inspiring speaker and leader and even better teacher. And I look up to people like Bozoma Saint John, who was the former CMO of Netflix, and in that kind of realm, always looking to share more knowledge, invite more people into the room at a seat at the table, and just constantly question the norms we see.

Maurice Cherry:
I would say you’d make a great public speaker. Have you been looking into doing some more of that?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yes, every chance I can get.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Where do you see yourself in the next, let’s say, five years or so? What do you want the next chapter of the Kevin Hawkins story to look like?

Kevin Hawkins:
This has gotten trickier ever since I moved to Europe, because I think the answer used to always be some version of fame or being CXO, chief experience officer, at a thing or a really notable household name globally. But now it really has to do with about being … like I’d rather be really, really important at a small company for people who really need our services than to be just another person in a role at a very large company with customers who don’t really feel any passion towards our product.

Maurice Cherry:
And just to sort 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?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, so I’m most active for work things on Twitter, which is @KevinHawkinsDC. And then on Instagram, @KevinHawkinsDesign. Same thing on LinkedIn, Kevin Hawkins Design. I’m often posting about work we’re doing, public events. I do quite a bit of public speaking both in the US and in Europe, so I have several talks coming up this fall, but I’m mostly sharing work-related things, things tied to my business, and how I’m developing myself and my team on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, sounds good. Well, Kevin Hawkins, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Sort of like I alluded to earlier in the interview, I can really tell that you’re someone that has continually throughout your career, throughout your life probably, really taken a chance on yourself. You know the skills that you’re able to bring to the table, you know what you’re able to do. And instead of waiting for an opportunity to come to you, whether it’s starting your own business or moving to another country, you are taking the chance on yourself to further your own career and further where you are in life. And I think that’s something that’s super inspiring for anyone right now to really hear. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Kevin Hawkins:
I really appreciate the time. I really love the show. Big fan. I think that everyone should reach out to whoever they want to talk to and learn from. And like you said, take a chance on yourself. And you’d be surprised, the odds are in your favor.

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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

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Kevin Carroll

Can you believe we’re almost a quarter of the way through 2022 already? I think now might be a perfect time for a creative tune-up, and this week’s guest is a true instigator of inspiration — Kevin Carroll. As a founder, author, and public speaker, Kevin’s words and his work have influenced hundreds of thousands of people all over the world to tap into their creativity and accomplish epic tasks.

Our conversation touches on a number of topics, including success, longevity, curiosity, and perseverance. Kevin talked about growing up in Philly, being a linguistics expert in the Air Force, his time at Nike, and talks about how you can find your own “red rubber ball.” Kevin’s words were just what I needed to hear right now, and I hope they will encourage you as well. Trust me, you’ll want to listen to this episode multiple times!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Kevin Carroll:
Kevin Carroll, author, speaker, instigator of inspiration. I get an opportunity to spend time with co-conspirators and storytelling, creativity, innovation, human performance, and advancing the human condition in a good and positive way. So I get a chance to do that on a regular.

Maurice Cherry:
That sounds like a dream job.

Kevin Carroll:
I don’t know if it’s necessarily, you know, it’s so funny, one of the things that I tell folks is I don’t really have a job per se. I’m kind of like Tommy from Martin Lawrence’s show. So my friends always say, what do you do, what do you do? Because like you’re always here and there and there. And so, I think I just have discovered that folks see a talent or a gift or skill that I might have that would lend itself to a project or an idea or something that they’re trying to advance.

Kevin Carroll:
I don’t really see myself as having a job in a traditional sense, a J-O-B. I really do think that I have this career portfolio, I actually was reading an article about that, why you should build a career portfolio, not a career path. And so I think I have a series of experiences. So I have more of a portfolio than a career path.

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

Kevin Carroll:
Surprise and delight and expect the unexpected, that’s what’s been happening so far this year already. I’ve been really blessed and count my blessings. We’ve stayed healthy this entire time. I think that’s allowed me to double down on optimism and positivity and to put out in the world some good energy. And that good energy is being reciprocated and reflected back. It’s been really wonderful some of the different projects that I’ve been invited to be a part of, find opportunities, to do a little bit of travel already.

Kevin Carroll:
So, some really fun locations. I was at the University of Oklahoma recently where I did some work with students on campus, but also student athletes on the campus there, and also in the community of Norman, Oklahoma. So that was really exciting. And then I literally just got back from an event where I spoke to 5,000 people, a live event, and that’s the first time a large group like that has been together was in DC.

Kevin Carroll:
And I was telling a friend that I got a chance to see the African American Museum, the National African American Museum of Art. I had not seen it like sitting on the, as you drive by it. Most of the buildings, if you’ve ever been in DC, Maurice, I don’t know if you spent much time there, most of the buildings are white. And here’s this building that’s this beautiful bronze brown, and it just stands out, and it feels so warm and inviting. And so, I got to see that yesterday, actually, I got there on Sunday and we were driving through and it was a sunny and it just stood out, and I was so inspired to see that.

Kevin Carroll:
That event with 5,000 people was actually in DC. So, I think that was a great sign for me to realize that wonderful things are coming this year and that’s a great source of inspiration to see a building like that and to think about all the voices and actions and impact that black and brown folks have been making, and I want to join forces with that. So that’s my goal, is to keep advancing that kind of intention that you would find in a building like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. It’s definitely great to come across that sort of realization like that, especially during Black History Month.

Kevin Carroll:
Yeah. Right? It fell right on the last two days of Black History Month, so it was great timing to see that building. It wasn’t something that I was unaware of, I was paying attention to that. I also talked about the importance of being where your feet are and being present. I think that’s what a lot of folks don’t do a great job of is being present, so that’s something that’s really been helpful for me is being present.

Maurice Cherry:
I guess given that, what do you want to achieve this year? Did that kind of put like an idea in your head about what you want to do?

Kevin Carroll:
I don’t ever really have like a I want to grow my business X percent or I want to, I don’t have those kinds of metric measurable per se. My whole thing is just at the end of the year, can I reflect back and see that I advanced the human condition in a positive way, and I had in some way that really will reverberate. That’s a thing that I always look at is like, what were some of the moments, what were some of the things? And so, I just want to continue to do that.

Kevin Carroll:
A big thing for me is I’m chasing significance, not success. That’s what I’m chasing> success is attainable and you can have a measure of success at any age, quite frankly, but significance takes time, and that’s the long game, and that’s the collective measure of all the impact that you’ve had. And so, that’s what I’m pursuing. This year is just another part of that mosaic, of that journey and chase to significance.

Maurice Cherry:
You’re doing so many things, as you mentioned, at the top of the show. You’re an author, you’re a speaker, you’re an instigator of inspiration. And I’m curious, what does an average day look like for you?

Kevin Carroll:
Probably not an average day. It can vary. There’s always some structure to what I’m trying to accomplish each day, and I do like to make sure that I feel inspired at some point. I’m always looking for opportunities to connect with folks. I have a very curious spirit about me. I think a typical or average day can be captured in this quote by Albert Einstein, “I have no special talents, I’m only passionately curious.” So I like to be passionately curious each day.

Kevin Carroll:
And so, whatever that unfolds or brings my way, that’s what I’m about. So it could be doing three virtual keynotes because we can do that now. [inaudible 00:08:20] necessarily got to get on a plane, to working on a collaboration with a sports program or sports team or university, or doing some reverse mentoring with my godson, where he actually teaches me art or Legos or something, and I’m learning from him, and he’s nine years old and he’s brilliant. I enjoy doing that. I just think that every day that’s my end goal is, was I passionately curious today or not?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I definitely think that the way that these past few years have been, in many ways, it’s opened up a lot of different avenues for people to try different things, to just pursue different types of work and stuff like that. I like that idea of just being curious and kind of seeing where things go. For me, at least I can’t say it for the listener maybe, but for myself, that feels super aspirational to be able to have that kind of freedom to do that. You’ve been doing it since 2004. What’s been the key to your longevity with this?

Kevin Carroll:
I think it’s relationship building. And my attitude is, if you shine, I shine, and I don’t want to be transactional with you, I want to be transformational with you. And so, that means we’re building something, we’re building something. And you’re in the business of seeing what you can get from me and you want to be transactional. We probably won’t build together. But if you’re about building a relationship and connecting on a deeper level that I can help you shine and in turn, it’s going to reflect back and maybe not right away, it could be five, 10 years from then. But that’s all good, and that’s all love, and that’s the way that I’ve looked at it.

Kevin Carroll:
So relationships have been really, really key and critical, because what I’ve discovered, and I think it’s one of those really wonderful, unexpected things, is I’ve been meeting people. When you think about all the public speaking that I’ve done, I’ve done public speaking since early 90s, I’ve been doing that. “Formally,” I’ve been doing it since 2002, but I’ve been meeting young people, meeting individuals where they are for decades.

Kevin Carroll:
Those individuals have grown up and guess who they remember put them on back in the day? Me. So now they’re in positions of influence and decision makers, and I get these notes on LinkedIn, Twitter, DMs on Instagram, hey, you might not remember me, KC, but you spoke at my school. My mom got you to sign this book. I happened to be at this conference. And now I’m with this company, this business, I’m doing this, I’ve started mine. And I thought of you when this idea came up, when this project came up, when this conference came up, and I immediately put your name for it. That’s what’s been happening for 18 years.

Kevin Carroll:
And it’s been gaining more momentum, which has been really magical when you think about it. But I didn’t plan it that way. It’s just been organic the way it’s all played out. My wife always points out, she said, “You put all those seeds out there not knowing that they would grow into oaks.”

Maurice Cherry:
Just to kind of, I guess, peel the curtain back a little bit, you asked me before we started recording, what’s your end game with this, this of course being Revision Path and this podcast. And the way that you just expressed that I think maybe ties into what I guess I could see the end goal of Revision Path being, in that there’s all these stories about black designers and developers and creatives and such that people can learn about. And to me, my hope is that this helps inform as many people as possible, we’re out here, we’re a creative force, we’re doing this work, in terms of planting those seeds as you mentioned.

Kevin Carroll:
You know what else, you’re creating a time capsule, you’re creating a time capsule that’s going to be a way finder for the next generation. So you need to realize that. I know we talked about you creating some kind of other creative effort off of this. You know exactly what I just said, I know you wrote it down.

Maurice Cherry:
I did.

Kevin Carroll:
I know you did, because look, we did our little prep call, convo before this, our warmup, and this just came to me. This is a time capsule. And imagine if you’re a young person trying to find your way and we can only envision ourselves in a position if we see ourselves there, well, they get to hear ourselves, they get to hear these voices. So you’re creating this audio time capsule. Come on, man. That’s fire. That’s fire. I’m telling you, first one’s free, Maurice, first one’s free right there. There you go. Receive that bro. Receive that.

Maurice Cherry:
Before striking out on your own and doing your own thing, I think people probably know you well from your work that you’ve done at Nike because it sounds like it was a very, very unique experience for you. Talk to me about that.

Kevin Carroll:
Yeah, you had a couple other guests on here that are Nike alums, Jeff Henderson and Kevin Bethune, those are two of my partners in crime and positivity. So they’re good brothers and we’ve done some fun projects together. My time at Nike, I always reference it in this way that Nike let me fly my freak flag. Nike let me really stretch my wings creatively and to discover things about myself that I didn’t know or that were lying dormant because of other experiences, and I didn’t get encouraged to express it. And Nike gave me permission.

Kevin Carroll:
And in doing so, unlocked a lot of my creative energy and my creative confidence. And so, I think that’s been something I’ll always be grateful for at Nike. I think I reciprocated with creating a more sense of belonging and connection there at Nike and Nike at large, at the other locations around world. And so yeah, I got an opportunity to do lots of different projects and work in lots of different areas from footwear design to special projects with Tinker Hatfield and his group to being a director of internal communications, working there.

Kevin Carroll:
So Nike really gave me an opportunity to tap into a lot of my gifts and talents, and they saw value in allowing someone to have all these experiences. And remember I said, I don’t think I have a career path, I have a career portfolio. Nike was a place that let me put more arrows in my quiver of that portfolio, if you will, of that career experiences. And so, yeah, I’ve always felt that Nike was this amazing living lab for me that I got a chance to do and try lots of different things and discover a lot of things about myself.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember listening to an interview where you were talking about how Phil Knight, who is the, I think he still is or maybe he was, the CEO of Nike, but he kind of referred to you as the mayor of Nike.

Kevin Carroll:
Yeah. Yeah. He’s retired now but he was the co-founder, CEO and chairman at the time when I was there, 97 to 2004. He caught wind of some of the creative capers I was doing on campus and the impact I was having. And so, he asked me to have a regular meeting with him monthly and to discuss with me the people and the culture and how things were going there. He kind of coined that term for me, said, I might be CEO and chairman here, but you’re the mayor here and you know this place.

Kevin Carroll:
So, I would give him information and share how people were feeling, what was going on, and being that bridge for him, being an executive, you’re not necessarily privy to that. So I was giving him that insight and visibility to how the people were feeling, what was going on, and opportunities for him to continue to further advance the culture in a positive way.

Maurice Cherry:
I want to switch gears here a little bit. As I mentioned to you before I listened to some interviews and things, you really talk a lot about how like your personal story can be a catalyst for someone else to kind of chase their dreams. So I want to dive a little bit into your personal story. Tell me about what it was like growing up in Philly.

Kevin Carroll:
Listen, Philly’s grimy. I love Philly that way. And we take a lot of pride in that with our city and everything. My childhood was challenging because of circumstances that we were navigating as kids, me and my two brothers. And so, addiction and abandonment, upheaval and uncertainty, dysfunction and disappointment were the norm because my parents were addicts and my grandparents rescued us.

Kevin Carroll:
The thing that I think my grandparents, maybe not necessarily realizing it but because of their age, we had a lot of freedom as kids to make a lot of decisions that probably shouldn’t be making when you’re a kid, but we out of necessity and just they couldn’t keep up with us that way. So, we had a lot of freedom. And so, I discovered a playground in my neighborhood first that was kind of the epicenter of our neighborhood, but it was this place where I felt I belonged first.

Kevin Carroll:
And so sports was a big thing in our neighborhood and I realized that very quickly. And so I dove head long into sports and played every sport you could imagine, whatever the season I was playing it. But it was never for trophies or first place or medals, it was always for belonging. I loved being part of a team and connecting and being a part of that.

Kevin Carroll:
That was I think an unlock for me was being part of a team and finding a place to belong. And it was a positive way for me to channel a lot of the questions I was having as a kid because of the decisions my parents made. And so, sports really was a great outlet and a great coping tool for me to manage that. And then public library was another great place, I loved learning and reading. So I went to the public library a lot.

Kevin Carroll:
And then my best friend’s mom became my mom in many ways, Ms. Lane. And so she poured into me as much wisdom as possible every day. I had a key to their house since I was nine, still have that key to their house. Ms. Lane was the cheat code, if you will, for me. She gave me all of the different ways to unlock possibilities and potential. I always say it was just two words that she would speak to me, why not. And she would always answer any of my, like Ms. Lane, Ms. Lane, I got this idea. She’d always say, well, why not? But then she’d always follow up with, don’t talk about it, be about it. Lots of talkers and very few doers, which one are you? So I learned about action And accountability from her.

Kevin Carroll:
But also someone who was unconditional in their love and just hoped for me to be successful. And Ms. Lane was the person who poured that significance idea into me, that you are going to be successful because you’ve got intellect and smarts, but I want you to chase something bigger and grander, I want you to chase significance. So that’s where that all stems from.

Kevin Carroll:
So that childhood started off difficult, but I found a way to rise above it and didn’t do it alone. I think that was one of the key things for me was when I talk about relationships earlier, that’s where I learned relationships and the importance of them. And it served me well all the way through me being on my own now for 18 years. Relationships stem all the way back to my childhood.

Maurice Cherry:
It takes a village. Like you said, you were staying with your grandparents and then you had Ms. Lane, you had your sports teams that you were a part of. So you had all of these different influences as you were growing up.

Kevin Carroll:
And these crazy people at the playground, because playgrounds, they got some colorful folks that are up there. I tell people, I’m a mosaic of many people, drug dealers, abusers, and war veterans, and ain’t quite right folks in the head folks. Just all kinds of people were there, other kids’ parents, food service workers, custodians, they all poured into me. And my brothers. I know that I’m a mosaic of many people.

Maurice Cherry:
So, after you graduated high school, you went on to college, and then after college you went into the military, you went into the air force. What was behind that decision?

Kevin Carroll:
I became a young dad. So, I didn’t even finish college, I was in my junior year, became a young father, I was 20 years old. And I came home and my grandfather said, “So what are you going to do about this?” He said, “You need to do the right thing.” And he said, “You need to not repeat history and be an absent father.” And so that was a loud message from my grandfather. And so these are his sensibilities.

Kevin Carroll:
So I made a decision to join the air force, not go back to college. I figured I could finish it while I’m in the air force, but I wanted to provide for my family. So I went in the military, my uncle was in the air force, so that’s why I chose the air force. I told people, they said, why’d you pick the air force? I said, my uncle always was smiling, so I figured he must be enjoying it. So, that’s why I picked the air force over any other branch. And joined the air force.

Kevin Carroll:
That was first time I ever been on an airplane was going to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. And landed in Texas and had no idea that I would end up really enjoying the air force and learning so much about myself and discovering I had other gifts and talents that had not been discovered yet. I had a language ability in the military discovered that and ended up becoming a language translator in the military and working with a top seeker clearance and doing all this clandestine work, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, kind of crazy stuff. So I speak a bunch of languages, and did that in the military.

Kevin Carroll:
And once again, more relationships, I’m still connected to a lot of people that I met when I was in the air force from 1980 to 1990. So 10 years I was in there, I’m still connected to a lot of those people too. So, we go back to that, what’s that through line for me is relationships and the importance of it and not being transactional with people being transformational.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t want to gloss over the language part because I think that’s something which is super interesting because when you were in school, you had started to learn Spanish, but you dropped out, is that right?

Kevin Carroll:
Yeah, I dropped Spanish actually. It was five minutes. It was an amazing five minutes, Maurice. I thought it was a silly class, so I walked out of class, but the funny thing is I never forgot that five minutes. [Spanish 00:23:32], literally that stuck. I was a bit of a knucklehead and young, and I didn’t realize I had a gift then. And the military, they test you and it’s smart, they test you in everything just in case you have a talent that hasn’t been discovered. And lo and behold, I passed this language test in the military in basic training. And that’s how I got uncovered.

Kevin Carroll:
And so, I end up learning Serbian and Croatian Czech and German and become fluent in those and do that work in the military. But yeah, that’s how it ended up happening. But I can always reflect back to the fact that I actually always had it in me, I was just a bit of a hard head back in the day. So yeah, had I hung in there, I’d have Spanish in my repertoire. I’m sure if I put some time to it, I can learn that too.

Maurice Cherry:
I think if you know German, German’s a romantic language. I think Spanish might be not a total one to one, but I feel like you probably could pick up Spanish pretty well if you know German.

Kevin Carroll:
They’re in that family. Germanic is a little harsher than Spanish. Germans, you wouldn’t necessarily equate that like romance language, it’s a little harsh, a little strong. What I’ve discovered is once you learn a language, you are what I say language curious, if you will. So you’re just open to hearing what people are saying and how they’re using their words and what does that word mean. I use Google Translate all the time. I really am fascinated with what was that language and what was that I heard.

Kevin Carroll:
I think that’s the thing that really helps you. And a lot of folks that are American aren’t learning other languages. And I think that’s a big misstep here in the US, because you go to other countries and people are fluent in other languages because they’re just open to that, and they’re also raised that way. So I just think it’s so important. You’re not going to learn a language only taking the class twice a week for 50 minutes though. It’s not going to happen. That ain’t working.

Kevin Carroll:
Oh yeah, I took Spanish in high school. Yeah, how often did you yeah, oh, twice a week for 50 minutes, I said, how much do you remember nothing? Nothing. Yeah, because you got to be immersed in it. So I think that’s the other thing too is you have to be curious about it and want to keep learning.

Maurice Cherry:
French was my language. My mom had, French is her first language. But she also studied French and stuff in school and everything. And so I remember being a kid, she’s a retired biologist, but she had all her college level French books at home. So, I started learning French in second grade, and then basically learned it from second grade all the way up until I graduated college.

Kevin Carroll:
You were around it all the time.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That’s true.

Kevin Carroll:
Practice it. See that’s the problem is that if you don’t have a way of actually exercising and using the muscle and using the words to gain confidence, that’s why people fall off from their language learning. So you had a built in tutor, you had something there, you were immersed in it, you probably had either magazines or periodicals or different things you could read in French, all that stuff that immerses you, that’s what happened in language school in the military, it’s like you are fully immersed. I can sing Roll out the Barrels in Czech and all these other things.

Kevin Carroll:
We’d get dressed in cultural clothing and different things, so you really understood what it was you were learning. So full immersion is the key. That definitely had the right kind of environment to get really fluent in that language.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s so interesting when you kind of say it that way, especially about the Spanish part, because when I got to middle school, seventh grade, I wanted to take Spanish so bad. It was the first language elective that had filled up super quickly, because I was like, I didn’t want to take French because I already knew French, and I felt it wouldn’t have been fair for me to take French when I already knew it. Everyone else was learning it and I would be like, yeah, yeah, yeah, [French 00:27:51], whatever. I would already know it. I was doing good in French, I ended up taking French, but I did want to take Spanish.

Maurice Cherry:
I can kind of understand a bit of Spanish now, but I mean, even with French, I can listen to French music, I can read French books. I can understand it. It does, like you say, knowing another language does kind of make you language curious and opens you up to just more culture I think.

Kevin Carroll:
More culture, which is never a bad thing. The world is flat now, we have access to everything from everywhere. You do yourself at a disservice if you’re not curious around these opportunities and things to broaden your viewpoint and outlook on everything. I’m so glad that you have languages in your life. Maybe that’ll be the takeaway from our conversation is get some language in your life. Foreign language, not just English language, foreign language.

Maurice Cherry:
You had 10 years in the air force. After you left there, what was your next step? What were you thinking about doing?

Kevin Carroll:
I got my degree while I was in the service. Got a certification as an athletic trainer, I was actually working some NFL summer training camps when I was in the military, did armed forces sports program. I was actually the only certified athletic trainer in any branch of the service, so I got a chance to travel in support of armed forces of sports program around the world while I was still in the service. So I decided I was going to do athletic training when I got out of the service.

Kevin Carroll:
So I left after 10 years, moved back to Philadelphia, actually was a single dad then, so raising my boys. And started working in high school as an athletic trainer and a health teacher. Then I got a job at college level as an athletic trainer. And then I ended up in the NBA as only the first black trainer in the history of the NBA for the Philadelphia 76ers, and the third in the history of the NBA. In 1995. And did that for two years.

Kevin Carroll:
That was the springboard. And my languages were the springboard to me actually getting noticed by Nike. So when I was with the 76ers, I actually got encouraged to use Serbian in the middle of a game to insult a player from the former Yugoslavia, [inaudible 00:30:19]. My coach told me to start saying something about his family when he’d run by because he wouldn’t expect it from our bench and distract him a little bit to save a time out. Literally that’s what my coach asked me to do.

Kevin Carroll:
So I start cussing at this dude every time he runs by and he’s seven feet tall. So I’m mumbling, whispering stuff every time he goes by our bench, and he can’t figure out where it’s coming from. So when he turns in the middle of the game and says, who’s insulting my family in Serbian over here, and the coach points at me goes that little guy right there. And Vlad is like, there’s no way. And I [Serbian 00:30:54], and he’s like what? And after the game, he came and approached me, and you’re going to love this because you’re based in Atlanta, he asked me to join the Yugoslavian National Basketball team for the 96 Olympic games in Atlanta.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Kevin Carroll:
And so, I joined them as the sports medicine liaison and their translator.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Kevin Carroll:
Black dude from Philly working with the Yugoslavian national basketball team. I got this crazy old school Polaroid picture of all of us. I’m the only raisin in the milk, I’m the only raisin in the milk. So it’s this really great candid picture of all us from a Polaroid from that moment when we were doing the pre-Olympic tour. That’s how folks at Nike actually found out about me.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Languages really did unlock something for you. I mean, of course you kind of had the interest in sports, so, being an athletic trainer I’m sure it kind of was almost like a fulfillment of a wish that you kind of had as a kid, I would imagine.

Kevin Carroll:
Well, it’s so funny, I thought I was going to be in the NBA as all kids play sports, I’m going to be in the league one day, as a player I’m thinking. I didn’t think that my intellect and my ability to learn and then the understanding of games and then learning the science behind injuries and all that would actually propel me to that position.

Kevin Carroll:
So when I actually got to the NBA, I paused and really thought about like, whoa, I never thought it would be like this, but I made it to the league. How about that? And then of course, them haters from back in the day that told me it wasn’t going to happen, as soon as I got that gig, guess who was calling for tickets, Maurice? Yo Kev, hook us up with some tickets. Nah, remember that thing you said back in the day. I remember. I kept the receipts. No tickets for you, no tickets for you, no tickets for you. So yes. But I ended up getting to the NBA, which was a roundabout crazy way, unexpected way, but yeah, made it to the league.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow, man. Then like you said, that sort of opened you up to end up doing work for Nike and you started your own business. You’ve lived like four lives. With all these different careers and the way that they’ve all intersected, that’s fascinating.

Kevin Carroll:
It doesn’t make sense now when I say that it’s not a path, it’s a portfolio.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you decide to start writing?

Kevin Carroll:
So, Ms. Lane, my best friend’s mom who’s like my mom, she was the one who kept bugging me. When I got to Nike, she kept saying, when are you going to write a book? When are you going to write a book? And I would always push back, Ms. Lane, [inaudible 00:33:37] for? And she was persistent. I want to say for at least five years, she kept bugging me, bugging me, bugging me about it.

Kevin Carroll:
And then finally I said, “Ms. Lane, who’s going to read it?” And she said, “Well, there’s another you out there that needs to know it’s possible. That’s who you should write it for.” Bet. That was the moment I went, okay, bet, I’ll do it. But then I went, I don’t want it to be like a regular book so I’m going to use all this creative energy I’ve learned at Nike and all these things, I’m going to create this proposal that’s going to be so amazing that they’re just going to clamor for this book.

Kevin Carroll:
And I put together this proposal that was unique and different, crickets. Nobody wanted do it. Rejection. In fact, one publisher said it was over-designed and too creative. And actually told me to dumb down my idea, and maybe they’ll consider doing my book. And then I made a decision I’m going to self-publish it.

Kevin Carroll:
So I started the process of self-publishing it in 2003. We got it done by 2004. And it took off, we sold 11,000 copies in nine months. I didn’t realize that was determined to be a successful book because in the industry, if you sell more than 8,000, which is basically getting beyond your friends and family, that’s a successful book. We had done that with just word of mouth, no back table sales. I wasn’t pitching it on stage or anything.

Kevin Carroll:
And someone at ESPN happened to get a copy of my book and they were starting a books division. And I got a call out of the blue from ESPN, they wanted to sign me to a book deal. And I was still at Nike when all that happened. And so, I signed a book deal with ESPN and Disney while I’m at Nike, and that really starts this great opportunity to write more books and everything.

Kevin Carroll:
But Ms. Lane was the person behind the decision to write a book, well, the indecision, but lovingly shoved me towards my destiny kind of moment and stuff. But I’d always loved books. The public library was always a really special place for me as a kid, so I’d always loved books. And I’m always surrounded by books. But I never envisioned myself being an author. That was never anything I imagined or thought of even in my quiet time. Now that I’ve done four books, I’m quite proud of them.

Maurice Cherry:
I love that you self-published first, and then the success from that is what sort of ended up having publishers kind of coming to you for are doing more books. I love that part.

Kevin Carroll:
Yeah. And I think that sometimes you have to know what you’re writing it for, what’s the end game, let’s go back to that, right? What’s the end game. And when she basically said, well, there’s another you out there that needs to know it’s possible, oh, okay, bet, I’m going to do it then.

Kevin Carroll:
So until you kind of have that in mind who you are doing it for, and then we just talked about this time capsule, I know for you you can see someone opening up this time capsule, if you will, figuratively and literally, with all of these gifts and they’re unearthing these voices and these stories. That’s the spark for you then, that’s catalytic. And so, she was that catalyst for me to share a story. Then I made kind of that like, well, I’m not going to do a regular book. Having that attitude.

Kevin Carroll:
That decision actually was so interesting with the book it won over 23 design awards, my book did. Working with a great design team and then working with a great print team that did the self-published piece, and ESPN didn’t change anything in the design when they signed me to the book deal, they just put their logo on it and that was it. And so, that book’s been in print with them since 2005 and still in print, and I think there’s over 400,000 in print now.

Maurice Cherry:
Katalytic with a K.

Kevin Carroll:
Yes. Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Now the metaphor of the red rubber ball comes up a lot in your books. Of course people can sort of check out the books and know what that’s about because you literally have one book called what is your red rubber ball. How would you suggest that listeners out there find their own red rubber ball?

Kevin Carroll:
So, it’s a metaphor, the red rubber ball, it’s literal for me because of sports and play, and the playground being the first place that I felt a sense of belonging and connection. But for most people, it’s more about the metaphor. What are you chasing? What gets you out of bed in the morning? What inspires you to go after it? And so, I think that’s a fundamental question. You need to know what inspires you to get out of bed every single morning. You have to have something.

Kevin Carroll:
And that became even more evident during this pandemic, because this global traumatic event broke a lot of people who didn’t have that clarity of purpose and passion and intention, and they felt lost. It derailed a lot of people. It broke a lot of people. And then there were some people who had this discovery moment, and they doubled down on the thing that they cared about, and they learned more during this pause.

Kevin Carroll:
And so I just think that the red rubber ball is about what are you chasing. What inspires you to get out of bed in the morning and that you want to chase it every single day? And then if you can be blessed and fortunate enough to find a way to blur your passion and your play, that’s great. Maybe you don’t necessarily, your work isn’t your play, but you can always know that this is something I’m chasing, this is something that inspires me and I want to keep that close. That’s the red rubber ball.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at your career and all of your life experiences that you’ve had, is this how you imagined yourself as a kid?

Kevin Carroll:
Never, never. I never imagined myself like this, honestly. When I first went to college, after high school, when I went to college, here was my job career idea. I was going to be in public relations in a bank. How random is that, dude? How random is that? But Maurice, this is how this got in my head. So, when I would ride the trolley, the trains in Philly and out on the main line, I would always see these men just dress sharp with briefcase. And so, I envisioned in my head, oh, they must work in a bank because I always see people dressed nice going in the bank. So, maybe they’re in there doing, I don’t know, public relations. I don’t know where I got that idea of public relations. So I said, I want to do that.

Kevin Carroll:
So when I went to college and people would ask me, so, what do you hope to accomplish? Oh, I want to work in public relations in a bank. I would spit that so fast, public relations in a bank. And people would always look at me curiously like, well, that’s very clear what you want to do. I was about them fits. I loved how cool they looked and clean and [inaudible 00:41:04], briefcase. And I obviously was interested in stories, public relations. But I didn’t have the word storytelling. And so, that’s what I thought I was going to do.

Kevin Carroll:
There’s no way in my wildest, wildest, wildest dreams, could I have ever imagined doing what I’m doing right now. Zero chance. The NBA thing was probably the only thing I might have spoke out and got laughed, basically just laughed at. And that squashed when I was a kid and my attitude was I’ll show you, you watch, I’ll show you. And then I end up in the NBA. That might be the only thing that I had an inkling of an idea. But of course, no one believed that would happen. But other than that, there’s zero chance I imagined what I’m doing right now, zero chance.

Kevin Carroll:
I just knew that I needed to be around a ball, so sports and play. Books, around education and enlightenment and just raising your game and elevating your game to learn more of the curiosity piece. And betterment. So people bettered me, and so, how can I better others? And so, those are my three Bs that I look that, the ball, books and betterment. And that’s kind of how I’ve always been about. I recently got that clarity, but those are three things that have been consistently in my life and a constant for me.

Maurice Cherry:
What gives you the purpose now to keep doing the work that you do?

Kevin Carroll:
There’s another one out there that needs to know it’s possible. Ms. Lane. So I made a promise to her before she passed away, it’s been eight years now, and I told her, I’m going to be the next you, Ms. Lane. I’m going to be that encourager for the next generation. I’m going to use technology and all these things, I’m going to have greater reach and impact, but I’m going to be the next you, and I’m going to remember what you said, there’s another you out there that needs to know what’s possible.

Kevin Carroll:
So that’s what gives me the passion to do this each and every day, that there’s someone that needs to hear from me, see a project I’m working on, maybe collide with somebody that I’ve already impacted, something like that. But I know there’s another one out there. So that’s what I do the work for on behalf of them.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you talked earlier about significance versus success. I’m curious, what does success look like for you now?

Kevin Carroll:
It’s happening. I’m doing it and I’m proof that you can find success. Your circumstances don’t have to dictate your destiny, you can rise above that. Got to have that passion, purpose, and intention, and that clarity around what it is that you want to chase. So, that’s success, I have that. Significance is what I’m chasing. So I can point to, like you said, I’ve had four or five different lives, they’ve all been successful. Easy to point to that.

Kevin Carroll:
But significance, I haven’t reached that yet. I haven’t gotten to that point where I’ve got this really amazing platform that I’m impacting lots of people on a regular basis. I’m doing it kind of in piecemeal now. I’m hoping, I mean, speak it into existence, I want to have a TV show. I want it to be a Saturday morning show, where I’m inspiring young people, and they’re seeing themselves in me. But not to be the host or anything, but seeing all these journeys and all these experiences that I’ve had, and know that it’s possible for them.

Kevin Carroll:
And so, how can I introduce them to all these different careers and show them this wonderful multicultural expertise that’s out there so that they can see themselves in these roles that maybe they quietly imagine themselves doing, but not speaking them into existing or letting anybody know that they really want to do that, because they’ve not seen themselves in that role. So how can I be that unlock? How can I be that way finder? How can I be the plug for folks? How can I be a cheat code? That’s what I want to do.

Kevin Carroll:
So, that would be the end game for me, is this programming of some sort, traditional, Saturday morning or on a digital platform, but have the reach an impact so that I can be that Ms. Lane for the next generation, that CEO, that chief encouragement officer.

Maurice Cherry:
I can see a Netflix series in your near future. I totally can see it.

Kevin Carroll:
That’s what’s up. See. That’s what’s up. Right? Your lips God’s ears. Let’s go. Let’s go. Let’s do this, Maurice. You’d be one of the people on the show, I’d be talking about you. We’re now interviewing Maurice Cherry and how he created a time capsule of black and brown voices to encourage people to go after it. See, there it is, it’s already happening. Episode five, limited series. Or it might be like season nine.

Maurice Cherry:
You dropped already so many pearls of wisdom in this conversation. It almost feels a bit selfish to ask this, but what advice would you give somebody that wants to sort of chart the same kind of I guess path, to call it that, how can someone follow in your footsteps? How can someone be like you?

Kevin Carroll:
Do you. Be the best you think is the advice that I’d love to give folks. I’ll go back to the original thing I brought up. I have no special talents, I’m only passionately curious. And I think curiosity for the win, FTW. Curiosity, that’s going to unlock, that’s going to help you stay in beta as a human being, always updating, always improving. I say this all the time, we’re so quick to update those apps on our devices and our computers, but what about ourselves?

Kevin Carroll:
We’re the greatest app ever created, Maurice. There is no app greater than us. We’re so quick to update those apps on the devices, update yourself. That starts with curiosity, that starts with wanting to raise your game. And that’s going to unlock all kinds of possibilities and potential because you stay in beta, you’re always in this mindset of improving, of getting better, of leveling up. And that’s the key. And so, that would be my advice, that would be the thing that I think would really make a difference for someone, to chart their own path to significance, and to have a career portfolio of lots of amazing experiences. And to go beyond just a path.

Kevin Carroll:
We go into a super highway, that’s what we want, super highway of experiences. I think it’s available for everyone and it doesn’t, I’m proof, circumstances don’t have to dictate your destiny. I’ve seen it all over the world, I’ve seen people do a lot with very little, we’re resourceful and resilient well beyond our circumstances, but we got to surround ourselves with the right other mindset and people who believe in the same things. Haters are your motivators, they’re going to be out there and they’re real.

Kevin Carroll:
But find people who are like-minded and about the same things and keep them close. Keep those people close because they’re going to be the ones that help you when you’re really struggling. It’s not a clean, straight path. It twists and turns and challenges you. I always say this too, Maurice, doubt is success testing you. When doubt appears, when doubt comes into your mind, that self-talk that you’re not good enough, this isn’t going to be available, this is never going to happen for you, are you ready to dance with doubt? Are you ready to fight the good fight on behalf of that hope, that dream, that aspiration that you have? Then you ready to battle, then you ready to dance.

Kevin Carroll:
And that’s the key. Are you willing to fight for this when it’s not going to be easy, when there are challenging times? That’s the key, because that’s going to unlock things that you never thought were going to be possible.

Kevin Carroll:
One of the things that’s clear, my journey, expect the unexpected, because there’s a lot of unexpected stuff that’s happened. It continues to happen in my life, and just expect that, and respect it.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to kind of wrap things up here, Kevin, I mean, again, you’ve given so much in this interview, my God, where can people find out more about you and about your work and everything online?

Kevin Carroll:
Just @ me, @ me, @KCkatalyst with a K, that’s easy. K-A-T-A-L-Y-S-T. Yep. So KCkatalyst. @ me. You’ll find you can find me on all my socials, is that, and it’s easy to find me linked in that way. You can find out more about me that way. And if I can be of service to the next gen especially or the young at heart, and folks that are just trying to advance something, I’m happy to do it.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Man, Kevin Carroll, thank you so, so much for coming on the show. I had an idea I think how the conversation went, because as I mentioned to you before, I’ve been listening to your interviews all day prepping for this, but I mean, the unexpected twists and turns that are just a part of your stor, I think what anyone will take away from this is that you are someone that embodies curiosity and really just a passion for learning that is definitely taking you to where you are now. The fact that you’re also still paying it forward to so many people is astonishing.

Maurice Cherry:
I see that Netflix series in your future. It may not be Netflix, maybe it’s Hulu. I mean, there’s like a dozen streaming services or something now. But I see it happening because this kind if message, it’s an important message, but I think especially right now, it’s so important because of what’s happened over the past few years. I think a lot of people have just kind of felt stuck, and this period of time has caused them to think about, well, what’s the next thing going to be. They need that catalyst, they need the KC Katalyst, that’s what they need.

Kevin Carroll:
My buddy would call me the hope peddler, he said, you out there peddling that hope. I’m like, that’s right, I got what you want, I got what you need. Come on. Let’s go. Hope will not be canceled, my man, hope will not be canceled as long as I’m out here.

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

Kevin Carroll:
My honor and pleasure, man. Time capsule, I’m just going to leave you with that, Maurice Cherry. Time capsule. This is what your program is going to become, there you go.

Joe Blau

It’s our anniversary! For this special episode, I dug way back in the archives and talked to one of our early guests, Joe Blau. He was a software engineer then, but seven years have passed, and now he’s an angel investor and the founder and CEO of his own company — Atomize.

We started chatting about the past seven years, and Joe talked about his time working for Uber and how that experience got him involved in crypto. We also talked about smart contracts, Web3, the metaverse, and a lot more. Stay tuned for the story I give near the end!

Thank you all so much for allowing me to bring these amazing interviews to you since 2013!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Joe Blau:
Hi, everybody. Also, thank you for having me back on, Maurice. My name is Joe Blau, and I am the founder of a no-code smart contract platform called Atomize, and I’m also an angel investor based in San Francisco, California.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. How has this year been going for you so far?

Joe Blau:
This year has actually been pretty amazing for us. I know last time we spoke, I was mentioning that I would go to Amazon and back and chat with my girlfriend. She’s now my wife. We have two young boys, and I would say that this year is probably shaping up to be one of the most amazingly in a good way years of my career. So I’m super excited about what’s been going on and what’s been kind of opened up in terms of opportunity for myself, and then also for a couple of friends and the company that we’re founding and we’re building.

Maurice Cherry:
How has it been just kind of working over these past few years with the pandemic and everything?

Joe Blau:
I would say that the pandemic has really introduced a lot of new dynamics into the workplace. I have a lot of friends that have gone from remote work to back in the office and back and forth. There are lots of conversations about what’s the right way. What’s the wrong way? Can we even go back in? Do we need to go back in? I’ve noticed that a lot of my friends are really unhappy with this disconnect between being out of the office and still trying to have this tight-knit relationship with your colleagues.

Joe Blau:
It’s been interesting to see that transpire in certain companies. And then other spaces, I’ve seen actually increased productivity where the teams already have this bond. They kind of already know what they’re doing, and it makes it so that people can really live their lives and have more of a work/life balance. For me personally, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to live in this new world where I can actually have that balance.

Joe Blau:
I can work from my desk in my house, have this balance of being able to be creative and be productive and not have to go into an office. So I’ve actually been trying to take advantage of it. My co-founder and I were trying to become more proponents of that lifestyle, but it has been tough because you do have people that really thrive and live off of this in-person engagement. I would say I’m one of those, too. I love meeting people in-person.

Joe Blau:
I love going to events. I love going to parties. I love meeting people. But I think that there’s this really interesting push and pull in the community right now and in all office spaces between should we be in the office or should we not be in the office and then the trade-offs of doing that hybrid.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Balance, I think, is something that so many folks now, especially so many working folks, are really trying to figure out. Companies are trying to figure it out because they’ve sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into real estate that is largely sitting empty because people are working from home. So some companies are like, “Well, maybe we’ll do hybrid. Maybe we’ll try to figure out some way to still keep our brick-and-mortar location, but then also be able to work remotely.”

Maurice Cherry:
I know just for the show, we have folks that are in the advertising industry. I found it’s been really rough for the them because they’re really used to that in-office collaboration that you just really can’t replicate over Zoom. You can try. I think we’re starting to get better at it and such, but it’s still something we’re all trying to balance.

Joe Blau:
Yeah. I’m a big fan of Star Trek. So I liken this to the whole world was basically traveling at warp speed and, all of a sudden, the pandemic hit and just dropped us out of warp. Now, we’re all looking around saying, “What are we doing? Was what we were doing before actually productive or is it counterproductive?” We’re asking a lot of questions that we just were never asking before because we were all just going with the flow because everybody else was doing it.

Joe Blau:
So I think these questions that are coming up are really important questions to ask about the future of work, and every company has their own take on how they’re trying to address it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think also with this balance of trying to figure it out, I feel like that’s where a lot of these talks about the metaverse, and work metaverse spaces have started to come up. We’ll get into metaverse stuff later. But I think one thing is how technology has sort of risen to fill the gaps in some way. I mean Zoom had always been around, but it really blew up in 2020 because of all of this.

Maurice Cherry:
And then you’ve got other platforms that have just started to come up because of that, because now more people are video conferencing. So there’s browser-based video conferencing solutions. There’s ways that people are trying to still replicate that experience. So technology, interestingly, has started to fill the void, but it’s still a process.

Joe Blau:
Yeah. I would say right when the pandemic started, I attended a lot of Zoom weddings. I attended a lot of Zoom everything. Nothing really, up until this point, has really been a substitute for just physically being there with people in meet space, in atom space. So Zoom does kind of fill that gap, and it definitely makes it a lot easier.

Joe Blau:
If you’re fundraising and you don’t have to go walk downtown and go to a bunch of different coffee shops, if you can just have four meetings in a row on Zoom in two hours, that’s a lot easier than having to go spend half of your day walking around talking to investors, but there’s trade-offs to that as well.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean I can tell the story now because I don’t work there anymore. But one of the companies I used to work for, they were trying to raise funds right during the start of the pandemic, like March, April, May, and it was just impossible. They would try to have these Zoom meetings, and people were either Zoomed out already, they just didn’t want to do anymore meetings, or they found it difficult to replicate at that same kind of in-person shaking hands, talking over drinks kind of thing.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s just not the same over Zoom, especially when we were really trying to get a hold on what all of this was and how we were going to possibly come out of it. I mean the company is still around. It’s a shell of its former self, but it has impacted business in a big way.

Joe Blau:
One of the things that we are trying to do as, my co-founder and I, we’ve been thinking about this is we really want to see if there’s a way that we can embrace this new lifestyle because there are clearly people that really believe I should be able to work remote. I should be able to work anywhere. I want to be able to have a flexible lifestyle. So I’m looking at it more from the perspective of how do we embrace this, and what are the tools that are available for us to really take advantage of this new lifestyle and see if we can actually push this forward?

Joe Blau:
Because while there are trade-offs, I love going into the office. After I left Amazon, I pivoted to working at Uber. It was an in-office relationship, and I loved the time that I spent there. It was probably one of the best experiences in my career But right now, I feel like I’m at a point where I can step away and look back and healthily say I would rather be in a position where I can have a little bit more flexibility and have a little bit more of that balance and have a little bit more control over my time.

Maurice Cherry:
Actually, let’s dive into that a bit. When you first came on the show, which was back in 2015, you were working at Amazon as a software engineer and you had a startup that you had created called Canopsis that was working in the Internet of Things space. Now, I know you’re not at Amazon anymore, of course. You just mentioned you’re CEO of your own company now. Are you still building Canopsis? Is it still kind of in the wings?

Joe Blau:
We’re working on that for a little while, but I actually ended up sun-setting the company when I moved out work in Pittsburgh at Uber. So I’ll go through and I’ll kind of do a little bit of a historical what happened between our last interview and now, catching you up to speed since the last episode. I was at Amazon for a little bit over a year and a half working on the mobile point-of-sale application. I had a blast doing it, met a bunch of amazing colleagues and a bunch of amazing friends.

Joe Blau:
I ended up being tapped by a product manager at Uber who was actually the one that led scouting for the Uber ATG team, which is the self-driving car team at Uber. He reached out to me in mid-2015, said, “Hey, we’re building up a new iOS team out here. We need somebody to help us build the user interface for the self-driving cars. You’re going to be the second person on the team, and you’re going to help scale this team up.”

Joe Blau:
So I ended up saying, “Why would I pass this opportunity up?” I’m very big into sensors. I’m very big into sensor fusion. The self-driving car, to me, is the culmination of almost every sensor you can put into something. So in January of 2016, I ended up moving out to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I lived there for about three and a half years, and I was working on Uber self-driving car. So we were able to launch V-1 of the self-driving car and then V-2 of the self-driving car.

Joe Blau:
The software that I built and helped contribute to, we were able to conduct about 50,000 trips with actual passengers in our car in Pittsburgh, also down in Arizona, and a few trips in San Francisco. So it was a really great experience because I got a chance to work with some of the brightest minds in the software industry and in the automotive industry, amazing industrial designers, amazing software engineers, amazing infrastructure engineers, amazing LIDAR designers.

Joe Blau:
The people that invented Google Maps were working there. I mean we had the best of the best talent on the team. So I really enjoyed my time and my stint there. And then about three and a half years in, I started to want to work on a few other projects. I started to see kind of the light at the end of the tunnel. I had a feeling that Uber was eventually going to sell the self-driving car division due to the change in leadership. So I moved back to San Francisco, joined Uber AI, where I worked on a bunch of also really cool stuff.

Joe Blau:
The team was amazing, another group of extremely bright individuals. And then right after the pandemic started actually, we were fortunate enough to be able to capture some equity from being employees of Uber, and we were fortunate enough to be able to invest that into some cryptocurrencies. That basically gave us enough runway to kind of set ourselves free.

Joe Blau:
So I was able to leave Uber in early 2020, soon after the pandemic started, and took a year to kind of explore what I wanted to do, and then eventually linked up with one of my friends that I actually met at Uber ATG, who was an industrial designer. We were able to start building our company.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. That is quite a story. There’s a lot of points in there I want to touch on. I want to go back just briefly to Uber. I mean during that time that you were there with the whole self-driving car thing, there was a lot of stuff that went down just with the company, in general. Just a few of the things were around Travis Kalanick stepping down as CEO. There was a huge data breach. There was talk about employees tracking customers with this God mode.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you ever feel any of the fallout from those events, just working there? Was it a palpable thing that you were working for a company where this sort of stuff was going on?

Joe Blau:
Yeah. I mean I still have friends and I still have family members that are in the real world. They’re watching the news, and they see all of the stuff that’s happening. There were definitely lots of questions that I got about it. I had lots of friends that, when I would go visit them, they would say, “We’re going to take a Lyft. We’re not taking Uber,” even though I worked at Uber. As an Uber employee, you get free credits to ride in the cars. So for the most part, I never even paid for Ubers while I was there because you get $400 of free credits every month, or you used to.

Joe Blau:
So it was really tough, from that perspective. I think that whole season, I remember when that first started. It was in January of 2017. It was the Susan Fowler incident. Then there was the gray ball thing that you were talking about, where they were tracking people, reporters. There was Travis Kalanick yelling at the Uber driver. Then there was the guy in the-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, I forgot about that. Yeah.

Joe Blau:
Yeah. Then there was the guy in India who was doing something nefarious over there. There was all these. Then there was the Anthony Levandowski taking data from Google. Then there was Travis Kalanick’s parents or his mom died in the boating accident. So there was this really compact six-month window where it was just drama every single month. We had a lot of colleagues leave. A lot of people left.

Joe Blau:
There’s a pretty fluid transfer of engineering between a lot of the Silicon Valley companies, so a lot of people that I knew that I was friends with all left and went to Facebook or Twitter or Amazon or whatever. So it was pretty tough. There was one saving grace for us, which is that because ATG was a bit insulated from the rest of the company, we were effectively our own company. We were our own separate LLC.

Joe Blau:
Because we were insulated from the rest of the company, we didn’t really feel a lot of those effects, I would say, as strongly as people that were in the rest of the world, the rest of the offices did. But it definitely had a negative impact on sentiment at the company and sentiment as a team because, in our mind, we’re building this service that’s supposed to basically make it so that you can always get a ride. The original saying with Uber was. “Push a button, get a ride.”

Joe Blau:
When you looked at the thing that drew me to Uber was actually a bunch of negative experiences that I had with taxis in a bunch of different cities where I would try to flag a taxi and the taxi would drive by. I remember being in LA and actually my co-founder at Canopsis, we were in LA and he’d lived in LA. There were a bunch of taxis on Hollywood Boulevard. We had just come out of a club. We went to go flag a taxi, and they were like, “No, no, no.” And then this other Caucasian couple comes up and they get right in and they go.

Joe Blau:
I’ve had a bunch of experiences like that in the United States. So for me, when I pick an Uber, the Uber always shows up. So for me, I wasn’t just like, “Oh, I like Uber because,” for whatever reason, because it’s cheaper or whatever. I like Uber because it actually allows me to get a cab and get from point A to point B and not need a car. I had a deeper rationale for why I would choose Uber over a cab. Now, Uber over Lyft, that’s a toss-up at that point.

Joe Blau:
But yeah, it was really tough during those years to be an employee of the company because we lost a lot of talent. People were not looking to work at Uber. Our leader had kind of lost a lot of his power to be able to be actionable and, at that point, he was replaced with Dara.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I remember those times when people were really actively boycotting Uber from the user side because all these things were happening. It’s interesting because I don’t know. Do you think Uber’s turned their reputation around because of the pandemic?

Joe Blau:
It’s a tough company right now. I think the reason that their reputation has kind of turned around is just because a lot of the things that they were doing that were interesting and kind of counterculture have just fallen by the wayside. All of their assets that they’ve owned in other countries have been sold off. So Uber in Russia got sold to Yandex. Uber in China got sold to Didi. Uber in the Middle East got sold to Careem. They’ve really offloaded a lot. Uber in Southeast Asia got sold to Grab.

Joe Blau:
So they’ve offloaded a lot of the risk of a lot of these controversial pieces that they were operating, and really it’s just become … Right now, Uber is effectively a food delivery service. It competes with DoorDash. It does have ride-sharing, but that’s not a big part of the business right now because nobody’s really traveling. So it’s a tough business to be in. And then also, you’re in extreme regulatory environment.

Joe Blau:
Either you’re driving people around, which has a lot of regulation around it, or you’re driving food around, and food has a lot more regulation around it. So it’s a very tough business to be in, and the margins are super low. They’re razor thin. It’s just a lot of optimization. When Uber was not really following the regulations, that was kind of what brought it to prominence. Now that Uber’s just behaving, nobody really cares anymore.

Maurice Cherry:
I was thinking about that as I was researching for this interview. I’ve been an Uber customer for over a decade. It’s amazing. The thing that drew me to Uber was similar to what you were talking about with cabs. I would fly out places, and then I couldn’t even get a cab to come home when I came to the airport in Atlanta. The cabs were like, “No, I’m not going to that neighborhood.” They’ll take me to downtown, which is past where I have to go.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I could hop on the train, and most of the time I would do that. But it’s like sometimes you’re just tired and you’re like, “I just want to go home.” Uber could actually take me to my apartment, where a cab wouldn’t do that. So I think it was that initial convenience, like you mentioned, that really brought people in. But yeah. Now I was wondering that just because of the pandemic.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean yeah, Uber delivers food, which their competitors really don’t do, at least in the ride-share space. Lyft hasn’t went out and done that yet. But no, I was wondering if it sort of turned things around because now so many people are using it almost as a utility because of that.

Joe Blau:
Yeah. I mean I think it’s just gotten to the point where you’re either taking an Uber or a cab. What it also did was elevate the service of cabs. So cabs have to be more nimble. They need an app. They need to basically increase their service. So that increased competition helped make cabs a little bit better. But for me, I think I’m still in the same boat where it’s easier for me to just call an Uber or call a Lyft.

Joe Blau:
Right now I don’t work there. So I just basically do what everybody else does. I open the app, figure out which one is cheapest. And then I just pick that one, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Joe Blau:
So that’s where I am right now. But they’re in a position where they are trying to do a lot of partnerships and work with a lot of teams. That’s kind of the new direction is, instead of trying to just dominate the whole scene, they just want to partner and work with other people. That’s a great position to be in because you make a lot of friends that way. So it’s a good strategy.

Maurice Cherry:
So let’s talk about your current venture, Atomize. I’m looking at the Atomize website right now. It says, “Atomize let’s you deploy and interact with crypto smart contracts on chain without having to write code.” Now, before-

Joe Blau:
That’s a mouthful.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a mouthful. Before we get into more about Atomize, tell me how you got into crypto. I mean I think you kind of alluded to it a little bit earlier with flipping that equity from Uber.

Joe Blau:
Yeah. So the journey actually started with me back in 2013. At the time, I was doing a bunch of contract work. There was a tech crunch reporter named John Biggs, and he wrote this article. It’s actually from April 8, 2013, and it’s called How to Mine Bitcoins. So I read the article. I followed all the instructions. I installed this miner basically on my computer, and I let it run all night. My fan went crazy. I ended up mining half of a bitcoin or something in this mining pool called Slush Pool, which is actually still around today.

Joe Blau:
And then after that, I just didn’t think about it because electricity in San Francisco is super expensive. I was just like, “I’m not going to waste my money on this thing,” that I think at the time it was maybe $20 or $18. I’m like, “I’m not mining this thing and I’m paying 40, $50 in electricity to get $20 of coin.” So I just left it alone. And then fast forward, in 2014, I met this individual in my building, and he was super excited about crypto.

Joe Blau:
He was like, “Oh, you got to check out this new thing. It’s called Ethereum. You got to check this out. It’s Ethereum. You’re going to love this thing. It’s like bitcoin, but it’s a decentralized computer. You can run anything on it. You can run any type of program you want. It’s like bitcoin, but with programming on top.” I remember telling him. I was like, “I’m not interested in that. All I’m focused on right now is mobile application development and sensors.” This is probably maybe six months before we first spoke.

Joe Blau:
This guy told me about Ethereum. I just totally blew him off. I was like, “I’m not interested in that. I’m only interested in mobile sensors and machine learning and stuff like that.” He was like, “All right, fine.” I nicknamed this guy, Oracle Zero now. But he introduced me to Ethereum, and I just totally passed it over. And then in mid-2016, I started hearing a little bit of rumblings, and I went and created a Coinbase account.

Joe Blau:
I was like, “Let me go see what this Ethereum thing is doing.” It had gone from the 50 cents that he had invested in at the ICO or the 25 cents that he had invested in at the ICO per Ethereum to $12 or something. I was like, “Man, that seems like a pretty good investment.” 40, 50, and whatnot. It was 50 extra money, something like that. So I was like, “Okay.” Maybe a little bit higher, 60, 70 extra money. So I was like, “Okay, this seems like a pretty interesting concept.”

Joe Blau:
So I ended up borrowing money from two of my really good friends and then taking some of my money and buying a whole tranche of Ethereum in mid-2016. I basically gave them this crazy term sheet. I was like, “I will pay you back 150% of your money in 2017 with this investment.” I told them. I was like, “Where else are you going to get a guaranteed investment of 50% return on investment in six months? Nobody’s going to give you that.”

Joe Blau:
You go to Allied Bank and they’re giving you 0.5% interest on your money. So I basically offered them this crazy deal, and they gave me money. They both wrote me checks. I deposited the money. I put it into the Coinbase. I bought crypto with it. And then I ended up paying them back in early 2017, which was actually, looking back, probably a bit of a financial mistake, but it did help introduce them to crypto because they saw the gains happen as I saw the gains happen.

Joe Blau:
And then 2017 was just that whirlwind. Ethereum went from $12 a coin to $1,500 a coin by the next year. So you have this thousands of percent run-up of this token. That was my first taste of like, “Oh, wow. This crypto investment thing is actually pretty interesting.” I was trading that whole time, but it wasn’t really fruitful because if you were trading in crypto and it was going up, everybody was making money. So everybody looked like a genius.

Joe Blau:
And then in December of 2017, that was when bitcoin hit its top. 28 days later, Ethereum hit its top. And then everything kind of came crashing down. I don’t know if this is just something innate in me, but I was already scared. So I had actually sold everything near January of 2018. So I was fully out. I had no more crypto. But what I was doing was I started paying attention to a lot of the technology that was being built. I was like, “Oh, what’s going on with these smart contracts?”

Joe Blau:
I actually wrote one of my first decentralized applications or it’s called a dApp, which it was a dog-renting website where you would go in and you could rent a dog and then put it back and stuff like that. It would all happen on the blockchain. So I built one of those, and I started playing around with it, started listening to a lot of other podcasts that are in the crypto ecosystem and really just started to pay attention to it casually.

Joe Blau:
Because really, to me, all I saw was people are making these coins. These coins are going up in value, but they don’t really have any intrinsic utility outside of the original utility of bitcoin, which is a way to send something from one person to another without counterparty risk and without being censored. So I kept playing around. We’re talking 2018. I was still working at Uber. I’m still working on self-driving cars. We’re shipping, I’m going to Arizona. I’m going to San Francisco. We’re deploying our cars in production. So I didn’t really have a lot of time to really actively manage it.

Joe Blau:
So what I would do is I would just take part of my paycheck and just start to buy slowly back in. After the price came way down, I was like, “Well, I don’t think this is going away.” So I started to slowly buy back in. And then in 2019, Uber had its IPO. So the deal that I had received from joining Uber was pretty lucrative. Actually, it was a seven-figure return from the IPO. But after taxes, you pay 50% in taxes. So it ended up being a six-figure return, which was still very good.

Joe Blau:
We decided to take that and invest it into crypto. So we just YOLO’ed all in, I would say. That ended up working out very well in terms of timing just because this last bull run kind of exceeded the intensity of the original bull run, if you were looking at the right types of products. So because I had been paying attention, I had been in the community, I’d been watching and listening to a lot of creators and influencers, people that are developers, people that are commentators, podcasters, I kind of knew where to look for this next bull run.

Joe Blau:
So I was able to just kind of get lucky and then also, paying attention, get into this crypto wave. And then what ended up happening is what I realized is that myself and a lot of my friends from this original wave all got to a certain level of wealth where we started to realize we’ve got a lot of time on our hands. That led us to start to think really more about life and about life decisions. I think it really kind of broke my brain in a good way to have me open up my thought process and think about what do I really want to accomplish?

Joe Blau:
What are some big goals, kind of Elon Musk level? He wants to basically have a colony on Mars that can be fully self-sustaining without Earth. That’s probably not going to happen in his lifetime, but that’s one of those big long-term goals. So I started to think about that a lot. But that’s where my crypto journey kind of came from back in 2013. And then it led me to where I am today. And then what ended up happening is my co-founder, I actually met him at Uber. He was an industrial designer on the same team that I was a software engineer on, and so we decided to pair up.

Joe Blau:
We’ve always been friends. We used to hang out in Pittsburgh and grab drinks together or go to each other’s homes. So him and I got together. We floated a bunch of ideas back and forth. We tinkered around with a bunch of stuff. And then we decided that since we’re both doing financially well and we’re in crypto and we’re both excited about this field, we want to make it very accessible for somebody who doesn’t know anything about crypto, somebody who doesn’t know anything about smart contracts, to be able to build one of these things and put it on the blockchain and retain ownership. That’s kind of what we’re focused on right now.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean it sounds like you really learned about this in a really smart way, which is you had been in the game really kind of learning and studying for a long time, since 2013. You didn’t just jump right into it after, I don’t know, buying stocks after Reddit recommendations or something, but you’ve been in there for a while and was able to kind of see the ebb and flow and see how things go and then find the right time to really get in. With that, you’ve started this business to help other folks get in.

Joe Blau:
Yeah. I think for us, what we’re really focused on is I think there’s a key thing about crypto, which it’s a lot of things to a lot of people. There’s NFTs. There’s tokens. There’s metaverse. There’s DAOs. There’s all these words that can get floated around. But I think fundamentally what crypto provides is a contrast to the existing system that we’ve kind of been grown up and raised in if you’ve been around the internet from basically after the 2000 dot-com crash until now, which is there will be a website, fill in the name of big website dot com.

Joe Blau:
They will create a database, and they will entice you to get on that database somehow, some way. What happens is you have these network effects, which the more people that are on that website in their database, the more people want to go to that website and get in their database. So you’ve got Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Google, Apple. They all have the same kind of network effects. So what happens is these services get to a certain level of scale where you start to realize that if you’re a consumer, the one individual consumer doesn’t really matter as much because you don’t own the data.

Joe Blau:
I actually saw this in 2011. The first company that I worked for when I went to Silicon Valley, we were a startup and we used to collect Twitter data as well as other social media network data. And then we would filter the data. Then we would sell insights to companies that were our partners. We had Bentley was one of our partners and a bunch of high-level … Apple was one of our partners. So we would sell them information about what’s happening on Twitter.

Joe Blau:
Well, once Twitter realizes, hey, there’s a business here, twitter wants to roll that into their business. So they just cut off the pipeline. Twitter had this service called a Firehose. They just stopped the Firehose. And then they just run the Firehose internally. They build this business internally. They sell ads internally. And then they use that as a revenue generator internally.

Joe Blau:
So there’s this kind of push and pull between this open source ecosystem of people that are developers and that are creative and that are actually contributing to the platform and the internal team that is trying to make money any way, shape, or form to return the fund for the investors. You started to see this more and more often on the developer side from 2010 until it’s still actually going on now, where with Facebook, there was the whole App.net controversy where somebody wanted to build an app store for Facebook using Facebook’s API.

Joe Blau:
Facebook said, “No, we’re building that ourselves, and that violates our terms of service.” So they had to make something else. They made a different social network. There are tons of examples of this where somebody builds a platform. They build these APIs to allow you to integrate. But as soon as they find that somebody else is building something that has value, they cut that integration off, and then they just build it internally. The reason they’re allowed to do that is because of the network effects. They own all the data.

Joe Blau:
The contrast to what crypto does is crypto tries to take that same database, but instead of the database being inside Facebook or Google or Twitter or Amazon, the database is on everybody’s computer. So everybody has access to the data. And then it becomes a game of, or not a game, it becomes a challenge of how do you build the experience that solves the person’s problem? It’s kind of the Y Combinator’s slogan of make something people want. How do you make the thing that people want?

Joe Blau:
If you make this product or service that performs the job better than the competitor’s product or service, where you both have access to the same data, that makes it a more equitable playing field. So the thing that I like about crypto, and this is just all in theory. This could all be invalidated tomorrow for all I know. But right now, there’s an equal playing field where everybody has access to the same view into the data. Really, you as a creator or you as an engineer or you as a developer, you are just kind of like a deejay where you get to curate the songs.

Joe Blau:
You’re like, “Today, we’re playing house music,” or, “Today, our site plays house music, or our site plays hip hop, or our site plays jazz, or our site plays classical.” You get to curate that data and build your community around that curated experience. So we want to help people build products that can be put online. And then we think that as we start helping people get their things online, their software, their products, their smart contracts, it will allow them to then have other services that other people build that we don’t control, make their experience even more customized and even better just for their community or whatever they want to build.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, where does the smart contract come into play? Why is it important to have that?

Joe Blau:
If we go back to the beginning of bitcoin, bitcoin is a way for me to send you some value, basically like a token, the bitcoin, a way for me to send it from myself to you without having somebody else be able to stop the transaction. The challenge is it’s just a value. Think of it like a dollar. I’m just sending you a dollar or sending a dollar back. What people learned early on is that a lot of times value is attached to some sort of condition.

Joe Blau:
I want you to have this money after you rake my yard, or I want to give you this money after the stock price goes to $50, or I want to release this money after these six things are accomplished at this speed or whatever. So the smart contract piece is just adding logic to the value transfer. So this is what’s created this crazy ecosystem in crypto because people are trying to add all types of crazy logic to value.

Joe Blau:
Economics is the study of value of how goods and services are transported and how they generate value. When you look at crypto, crypto kind of gives you a playground to actually test out these theories. So I could write something that says, “Okay, Maurice, I’m going to give you 100 JOE tokens today. And then tomorrow, I’m going to give you another 100. And then the day after that, I’m going to give you another 100. And then the day after that, I’m going to give you another 100.”

Joe Blau:
I’m just going to keep doing that forever. As long as you have access to your wallet, my program will keep giving you 100 JOE tokens. You can deploy that onto a blockchain and see what happens. Will that eventually reach some value? Would you eventually say, “Oh, I have a billion of these, let me give these to somebody else?” Now two people have these tokens, but you’re still the only one getting paid those tokens. Does that eventually form a market or a marketplace?

Joe Blau:
Do people eventually start to say, “Oh, there’s actually value, I can actually use these things as a way to barter back and forth for some other asset or for some other thing that’s in the real world?” So you basically end up with the social consensus, which looks a lot like money, but it’s written in a way that the rules are written in code and they effectively can’t be changed.

Maurice Cherry:
Like you said, it’s all on the blockchain. So it’s decentralized, but it’s a way where … Well, I don’t know. I guess I’m still trying to wrap my head around smart contracts and NFTs and everything like that. I want to get more people on the show this year that can really explain it because I see it now, all of this being really the next generation of where the web is going to go. I’m saying last month because we’re recording in January.

Maurice Cherry:
But back in December, I attended a conference about the metaverse in the metaverse. They had people talking about all the different considerations, like interoperability and scalability and commerce. There were so many considerations and things to think about with this upcoming metaverse, which I think had already started to be a part of people’s minds once Facebook Connect happened back in I think it was October of last year, 2021, when they said, “We’re changing our name to Meta. We’re investing in the metaverse.”

Maurice Cherry:
And then all of a sudden, everyone was like, “What is the metaverse?” I think anybody that probably watched anime in the ’90s had probably already heard of metaverse. I don’t know. I think it was probably on VR Troopers or Sailor Moon or something probably. But they’ve heard of that concept, but not necessarily what it meant in the real world. So it was something that I think was part of people’s general mindset saying, “Well, I don’t want to be part of the metaverse.”

Maurice Cherry:
But after I attended that conference, what stuck out to me was that this is the next step. I could see this being potentially the next digital divide because people are putting a ton of money and resources and time into really building whatever this next massive infrastructure is. There’s so many people that are just like, “I don’t want any part of it.” But it feels like the velocity at which we are approaching this is rapidly increasing. So I want to try to learn more about it to try to see where I can fit in with all this stuff.

Joe Blau:
Yeah. I guess for me, I kind of separate metaverse and crypto into two separate buckets. For me, the metaverse is the next evolution of AR/VR. AR/VR is a technology that was invented in I think the late ’80s, and they’ve slowly been incrementally trying to push it and make it a reality. This is very similar to self-driving. One of the reasons why I worked at Uber and I went to Pittsburgh is because Carnegie Mellon, they had a self-driving car in 1989 called ALVINN that was able to kind of do some basic navigation. They were one of the pioneers of helping make self-driving a reality.

Joe Blau:
So I got to learn from some of the best of the best that invented a lot of the processes for self-driving. So you’ve got this technology vertical, self-driving cars. We don’t have the human-level self-driving car yet, but we’re on our way towards that progress, and that’s something that started in the ’80s. VR/AR is the same thing. It started in the ’80s. We’re trying to get to that point where we have compute and screens and comfort and battery power that can make this experience good or good enough that you will feel comfortable immersed in this environment, so that your neck doesn’t hurt, so that you don’t get dizzy, so that it feels as realistic as possible.

Joe Blau:
That’s another vertical that’s kind of being developed in what I would say is the newest incarnation, which is the metaverse. And then you’ve got crypto. Crypto is really about censorship resistance and reducing counterparty risk. Earlier, you were asking about what is a smart contract. If you just think about a regular contract in real life, you go rent a car at Avis. They give you a piece of paper, and you sign your name on it. When you sign your name on it, you’re agreeing to all of the words that are in that paper.

Joe Blau:
If I crash it, I’m going to have my insurance pay for it or whatever. It doesn’t have any of these dents or these dings. That’s what you’re agreeing to. Now, that contract is adjudicated by some legal entity, probably a judge. So if you violate that contract, there’s going to be somebody that’s going to say, “Oh, Maurice, he borrowed this car. It didn’t have any scratches. I don’t know what happened. But all of a sudden, there’s a big scratch on the driver’s side door.” You have to pay whatever the contract stipulates in the contract.

Joe Blau:
So if you just take all that logic that we just said, if car gets scratched, you have to pay X amount of dollars, if this thing doesn’t do this, then you have to do this. You write that in code, just like I would say, “If this happens, then do this.” You would write that in code. And then you can deploy that code into a database that everybody in the world has access to read and see. That’s pretty much what the smart contract is.

Joe Blau:
So the NFT, or a non-fungible token, is a contract that specifies that there is effectively only one of these. Fungibility is this concept in economics that means that if I have something, the one thing that I have is no different than the one thing you have. So the best way to explain it is if I have 10 $1 bills and you have 10 $1 bills and somebody picks up all of them and then they redistribute them and they give you 10 new ones and they give me 10 new ones, you’re not going to say, “I want the one with serial number that ends in 05 because that was mine,” because dollar are fungible, which means I can exchange my dollar for your dollar or your dollar for my dollar and it doesn’t matter. They’re exchangeable equally.

Joe Blau:
Non-fungible means if I have a dollar, my dollar is special and your dollar is not. So that’s when you get into things like trading cards or Beanie Babies or pet rocks, things that have a unique value. If I have a special anime card or special Magic: The Gathering card and you don’t have that Magic: The Gathering card, that’s non-fungible. I can’t just give you mine and you’ll give me any other one back. So these non-fungible tokens are representations of unique items.

Joe Blau:
The way that they’re defined is in what’s called a smart contract. This item only exists and is only owned by this one person, for example.

Maurice Cherry:
Gotcha. Gotcha. Okay, I get it. I understand. Okay. Thank you so much for that explanation.

Joe Blau:
There’s a lot of economic theory. There are a lot of disciplines that all merge in together to form crypto. You really have to be multidisciplinary, which I was not before I started learning about all this stuff. You really have to learn a lot to try to fit your into what is actually going on in crypto.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, where do you see, I guess, Web3 with all of this? I keep hearing Web3 being called the technological evolution of the internet.

Joe Blau:
Yeah. So Web3, it’s funny because, as a software engineer, I’m always thinking like, “Okay, what is the most basic thing?” Web3 is a library that was created that literally all it does is let you interact with this blockchain. So this database that is this ever-growing database that everybody has access to, Web3 is just a library that lets you read and write from that database. Now, what’s happened is that term has been co-opted to be everything involving crypto.

Joe Blau:
So Web3 means smart contracts. It means dApps. It means Solana. It means means everything. It means bitcoin. Everything kind of falls into this Web3 umbrella. The mantra behind Web 3.0 is that we’re going to create a new internet that is not owned by Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, but it’s owned by the people. That is the charge. The way that the people can own the internet is because of what I mentioned earlier. When you create the smart contract and you deploy the smart contract on the blockchain, you own the contract.

Joe Blau:
There’s nobody else that can go in and take custody of the contract. That design is the genius invention that bitcoin created, but it just created it for money basically, for value. When you own your bitcoin, nobody can just come take it from you. You have to basically give it to somebody else. There’s no way for somebody to take your bitcoin. You have to voluntarily give it to somebody. Now, a judge can say, “Hey, you violated this law and you owe us XYZ dollars in bitcoins. If you don’t pay this fine, then you’ll go to jail or whatever.” And then you can hand it over.

Joe Blau:
But there’s no way that they can just go into your account and pull the bitcoin out. You have to hand it over. This Web3 concept just takes that version of you have to give over your bitcoin to you have to give over anything you create in Web3. So I mean you can obviously get tricked out of it. There’s a lot of people that are getting scammed and hacked because a lot of the tooling is not amazing. But effectively, you have to give something away. Nobody can take anything from you.

Joe Blau:
That’s the whole concept behind this Web3 movement. We’re building a version of the internet where Facebook doesn’t get to block your account or Twitter doesn’t get to revoke your developer access or YouTube doesn’t get to take down your video because they thought that this looks very similar to another video even though you did all the work and recreated and remastered and built everything yourself. We’re building a version of the internet where you own your stuff.

Joe Blau:
And then you have to go through the regular legal process. If in the real world, something happens that violates a law, there’s a legal process that you go through. It’s the same thing in crypto. Mt. Gox lost a bunch of people’s money. They did a bunch of shady stuff. They went through a legal process. They got their bitcoin confiscated, and they went through the regular process that anybody who did anything shady would go through.

Joe Blau:
So it kind of just slows down this network effect process of aggregating data, aggregating user information, and then being able to use that to rent, seek, and kind of take over and start to build this vertically-integrated, monopoly-style business.

Maurice Cherry:
So for people that are listening to this now and, hopefully, folks are listening to this and they’ve been able to wrap their head around these concepts. How can folks start getting involved with smart contracts and Web3? Because it sounds like these are, as you’ve described them, they’re kind of different entry points, but still somewhat related.

Joe Blau:
Yeah. I mean there are a lot of resources. It’s very difficult for me to point to good resources because lots of people have lots of takes on it. I would liken this to the internet in 1997, ’98, where everything looks like a great idea. Pets.com looks like a great idea. Webvan looks like a great idea. All these things look like great Ideas. Maybe when you fast forward 20 years, while Pets.com failed, Amazon now has a pet store as a sub domain of their website, and it’s effectively what pets.com’s vision was. It’s just 20 years later.

Joe Blau:
So these ideas may be working, but it’s very hard to really find great information. Maybe I should build some sort of resource. I mean there’s a gentleman by the name of Jameson Lopp who really organizes a lot of great information around bitcoin. He has a great website, if you just search for Jameson L-O-P-P. I think it’s lopp.net or something like that. He has a great resource that kind of encapsulates a lot of information about bitcoin.

Joe Blau:
I think bitcoin is a good place to start learning because it’s a very confined space in terms of what bitcoin can actually do. Because once you start getting out of this bitcoin space, everything gets very crazy and very wild very quickly. It’s just the stuff that people are doing, no financial economics book would have ever predicted this, ever. It’s like the wild, wild west of finance right now.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m glad you made that analogy to the early days of the web because that’s really how I see a lot of the activity right now going on with the metaverse. Calling back to this conference that I had went to, there was one session. I’ve told this story on the podcast before, but there was this one session I went in where this guy was showing off digital land in a metaverse that he was a part of. He had on this NFT suit.

Maurice Cherry:
He’s like, “I can walk into this NFT, and look at how it changes.” He’s saying like, “You all should really see this.” We’re like, “Okay, fine, whatever.” It was just like walking around in VR space or whatever. He’s like, “All these plots of digital land are available. If it anybody’s interested, we can go ahead and start the bidding.” Someone bought a plot of land inside of this virtual world. It was a 300 square meter plot for $10,000, just bought it right on the spot.

Maurice Cherry:
In my mind, I’m like, “What are you going to use that for?” I guess you could build something on it, I guess, in this particular metaverse world that you can have people come to. But it had me thinking about The Million Dollar Homepage and how people were buying up little pixels just to be on this one page to stake their claim and say, “Ha, I was a part of the internet at this time when it happened.” It is very much like the wild, wild west, all of this, because it’s not regulated.

Maurice Cherry:
People are doing all kinds of just wild … I mean we’re using these adjectives wild, and crazy, but it’s really kind of mind-boggling just how much is going on with a lot of this stuff. It feels like history is being written every day when it comes to these things. It’s unprecedented. Yeah. Like you said with the analogy about the economics book, no one could have seen any of this stuff really actually, possibly happening, and now it is happening.

Joe Blau:
Yeah. I think about the whole NFT space because a lot of people have a bunch of different takes on it. Some people are like, “Why would anybody buy a JPEG online that you could just copy and download?” I’m not very big into art collecting or lots of mechanical stuff. I used to really be into mechanical watches, but right now I just wear an Apple Watch. It tells the time perfectly. Mechanical watches have drift. They’re effectively, to me, just jewelry right now.

Joe Blau:
But there are people that they buy things because of the story. Human beings are creatures of story. I’m sure, as you’ve been going through the podcast and having these conversations, really what people get captivated by are the story. If you just see a CryptoPunk and you’re like, “Oh, this is just an eight-bit image that’s not really that nice,” that’s one story you can tell yourself.

Joe Blau:
But there’s another story, which is this CryptoPunk was one of the first ones that got minted. I got it gifted to me. And then it was sold to this other person who was a prolific artist who then sold it to Gary Vee, and now this is Gary Vee’s CryptoPunk. Now there’s a story. There’s this narrative that flows from what this thing represents. People love to buy stories. When you watch football or you watch anything, it’s all about the story.

Joe Blau:
Formula 1 was boring to a ton of people until Netflix made that Formula 1 show with all the story about what’s actually going on behind the scenes, who’s got problems with whom, who’s getting fired, who’s getting hired. It’s just a story. I think a lot of what NFTs are about right now and what’s really captivating is a lot of these stories. Somebody just stole $20 million worth of NFTs. That’s a classic heist story that people love to read.

Joe Blau:
This kid who was 12 years old is now a multi-millionaire because he created this little NFT collection, and he became a multi-millionaire off of it. That’s the rags to richest story. People love to hear those stories. So a lot of what I see in NFTs is really just a reflection of what happens in the real world. It’s just that it’s being accelerated because we’ve got the internet. We’ve got this technology that really allows us to push this narrative a lot faster.

Joe Blau:
A bunch of bloggers and a bunch of YouTubers can come up and tell the story super quickly instead of having to syndicate it through a newspaper network that takes a day to turn over and whatever. So I think that the story is really what is driving a lot of what’s going on in the crypto space and especially in the NFT space. From that perspective, I get it because I love stories. I love watching movies. I got into the Formula 1 thing just like a lot of my friends did after watching the story behind all the people.

Joe Blau:
Now I know everybody’s name. I know who’s got problems with whom, who started off at what racing firm and went over here and got downgraded to here or got demoted to this team and whatever. So what people are building with these NFTs are really just stories, and people will pay unlimited amounts of money for a great story.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. That’s a great way to put it. Now that I think about it, especially a lot of the talk I’ve seen around NFTs, people just starting to sort of get into them and are making astronomical amounts of money. But then even ones, like people that are buying these NFT art pieces and such, which I watched the video, I think it was the other day, that was like, “Why is most of the NFT art so ugly?” That had me thinking about, well, is this an opportunity for some designers to try to find a way to make their way into the NFT space?

Maurice Cherry:
I know a few Black NFT artists that I’m really trying to get to come on here to really talk about how this is working for them. But yeah, I totally, totally understand what you mean about people buying the story. That makes a ton of sense to me.

Joe Blau:
Yeah. I have a few friends. This is also to this whole story thing. Back in mid-2017, the CryptoPunks people reached out to them and they said, “Hey, we’re going to give you 26 CryptoPunks.” Because of the influx of growth in crypto in 2017 where everything looked like a scam, and there was 100 coins coming out a day, these guys were like, “Nah.” They just ignored it. And then a few months ago, they went back to look through their emails just to see if anything had come from Larva Labs.

Joe Blau:
They saw that they had an opportunity to have 26 CryptoPunks. What’s the floor on CryptoPunks right now, $250,000 or something like that, some crazy number? So they would have been done. But this is also part of the story, right, the opportunity that I missed. All of these little things are all parts of you can watch any movie or any Disney show or whatever. They’re all parts of these stories where people love to just kind of tell these stories. That’s really what I think a lot of what’s going on is about.

Joe Blau:
It’s really about these stories, the legality. Do you really own this or not? The rags to riches, the heist, the clones, the fakes, there’s all these like, “Oh, I took this NFT and I turned everybody that was facing to the right, I made them face to the left,” and then the controversy around that. So there’s all these things that are really just that narrative. I think that’s really what’s selling with a lot of NFTs. We’ve had this since the dawn of time. We’ve been making stories about stuff and selling stories forever.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah. Good point. Really good point. What does success look like for you at this point in your career?

Joe Blau:
I feel like I’m in an interesting and very privileged space right now just because last time we spoke you asked me, “Are you at the top of your game?” I was like, “No, not even close.” I didn’t even hesitate to say, “Not even close.” I think by working at Amazon with the amazing people that I was able to work with, by working at Uber with the amazing people that I was able to work with, by getting access to a lot of really high-quality individuals in Silicon Valley through angel investor networks and through just socializing, I feel like I’ve gotten to a point where I would still not say I’m at the top of my game, but I feel like I know what I’m shooting for right now. I know where my stride is.

Joe Blau:
One of the things that happened actually right before the pandemic, so late 2019, really soon after I sold all my Uber stock and bought all this crypto, my brother and I actually went back to West Africa, which is where my mom’s from, in Sierra Leone. We get to West Africa. We land. And then my mom wanted to take us to the village and the house that she grew up in. So we ended up getting a car. It takes forever. It’s not that far if you were in the United States and you were driving on a highway. But in Africa, it’s a five-hour trip that should be an hour.

Joe Blau:
So we finally get to this village. On our way there, we saw a bunch of these signs. It’s hilarious because they have all these cities there called … They have a New York there. They have a New London. Yeah, it’s funny. There’s all these little town names. You would never even think about this. A joke that my brother and I, as we were leaving the town where my mom was born and raised and grew up, my brother and I were like, “We should start our own city called New Atlanta, and start it in Africa and build the city.”

Joe Blau:
If we were going to design a city that we wanted to be successful and build it somewhere in West Africa, what would we build? Where would we build it? It was just a joke at the time. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently in terms of the type of … I know there are lots of other famous people. I think Akon is building a city, and I think Kanye West is building a city. A couple of really famous people are building cities.

Joe Blau:
But one of the things that I’m really excited about is science, engineering, the STEM fields or STEAM fields, science, technology, engineering, art, and math. One of the things that I’ve noticed about crypto is in, some of the communities that I’m in, I’m seeing what happens when you unshackle a person from needing to have money. It really opens up a lot of opportunity and a lot of thought and a lot of creativity to people that have skills, but they can’t necessarily create in the way that they want to create because they’re kind of restricted by being an employee at a company and whatever the OKRs or whatever the goals are, or the profitability of the company, or you have some sort of fixed time that you have to be in and be out of work or whatever the constraints are.

Joe Blau:
So I’ve really been thinking about this idea. I don’t really have anything formalized yet, but just thinking about what would it look like to build a modern city. I guess the goal for me would be … Elon Musk has this program where he wants to have rockets fly from city to city within 30 minutes. What would it be like to have a city where you could host that in West Africa? What does that look like? What does that city look like? What does that design look like? I don’t have anything working towards it. I have no plans. I have no drafts. I have nothing.

Joe Blau:
It’s just an idea in my head, but that’s something that I would love to see come to fruition. I think that through the companies that I’m investing in, the projects that I’m building, I think that I can start to kind of chip away at that goal and that vision. It’s going to take, obviously, a lot more trips back to West Africa. It’s going to take a lot more conversations.

Joe Blau:
But I think that’s something that, for me, if I can get towards the goal, just any way, shape, or form towards the goal of building that city and New Atlanta’s just a name because my brother and I were like, “Atlanta is awesome. The Black population and culture there is amazing. So we’ll just build a new one.” If I could get to anything towards that, I think that’s going to be something that I would be really excited about leaving as part of a legacy on planet Earth.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, aside from all of this tech that we just talked about, we didn’t even really touch on you being an angel investor. How did you wander into that?

Joe Blau:
That’s a funny story. So when I was at Uber, I met … My manager, actually the person who hired me, he told me. I asked him the same question. I was like, “Hey, how do you become an angel investor?” He’s like, “Just start writing checks and start losing a lot of money.” So that’s effectively what I did. I just started finding companies. I think the first key thing about being an angel is you have to come up with some sort of thesis. Why are you investing? Are you investing to make money? Are you investing to have a social impact? Are you investing for whatever your thesis is?

Joe Blau:
And then you need to know what your constraints on your investments are. I’m a developer, so I called my investment firm Deploy Capital because it’s just like deploy code or deploy whatever. I said Deploy Capital. And then the idea is that I want to invest in people that are working at a company. They’ve got some great idea, but they can’t execute on their idea or their vision because management is saying like, “This is not a priority right now.”

Joe Blau:
I’ve seen this time and time and time again in companies where there’s an idea, there’s a team, there’s a group of people that have some idea. They can’t build their idea. They go out, become successful. They build their idea. But then they get reacquired back into some other company who’s like, “Oh, this is actually working.” So I really want to help the people that are dreamers, that have ideas, that want to build something, but they’re constrained from a financial aspect. I want to help them grow, and I want to help them build whatever their vision is.

Joe Blau:
Building a company is not easy. There’s lots of little steps, but there are lots of tools out right now that make it a lot easier to build a company than it’s ever been. So if I can just help in any way, shape, or form, give you some help on tooling, give you some intros to investors, help you find talent, those are the types of things that I want to be able to provide and just be a sounding board. What do you think about this?

Joe Blau:
So I got into it because I had some extra money, and I thought lots of people that I know are writing money into these companies. One of the things I realized is that investing is how a lot of the wealth in America is created. You put your money into some company, and then the people that are at the company are doing all of the work. You’re just sitting there, and the value of your thing is going up because other people think that thing is going to go up.

Joe Blau:
So I kind of got into it because I wanted to make more money. But now I have more of a thesis around it when it comes to the types of investments that I’ll do.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you want to accomplish this year? I mean it sounds like you’ve got your hands on a lot of different things. I mean you’ve got your business. You’re investing. You’re doing all these other things. What do you want to come out of 2022 having done?

Joe Blau:
I would say that, from my company perspective, I would want to come out of this year with a team that is the size of about 25 people. We have an exciting, growing business. I think we’re on trajectory to do that. We obviously want more partners that we’re working with, the best and the brightest in the software engineering space, whether they’re smart contract developers or React Web3 developers. We’re looking for those people. So I would want to have that be successful.

Joe Blau:
From a family perspective, I want to make sure that as my children are getting ready for life … They’re still young and they’re going into kindergarten. I want to make sure that they’re getting the best experience they can. When I went to school, I’m pretty sure most people went to school like this where it’s you just go wherever is closest to your house. You’re just in the room with whomever is there, and the teachers are who the teachers are. You don’t really have any optionality.

Joe Blau:
We’re fortunate enough to be in a position where we have optionality, and I want to make sure that the experiences that they get are better than the experiences that I got as a child. Just overall in life, I want to make sure that I go through 2022 enjoying it because this year has started off so awesome. I’m really having a great time. I’ve met a lot of new people. I’ve met a lot of great friends. I’m in this perpetual learning loop. I just want to meet more people, spend more time with people. I want COVID to be over so I can go back and hang out with people in the real world.

Joe Blau:
I just want to be able to really enjoy life the way I was enjoying it before, but with a little bit more freedom and a little bit more optionality to celebrate and do things that I want to engage in. And then just meet more people, make more friends, build a business with my friends. People that are looking for help, I want to help them build their businesses and build their dreams as well.

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

Joe Blau:
Yeah, for sure. The company that I’m founding is called Atomize, and we are atomize.xyz. If you have any questions for me specifically, you can send me a message at joe@atomize.xyz, and that’ll come to me. Last time I spoke, I had @joeblau everywhere except for Twitter. I have a funny story. I was actually able to get @joeblau on Twitter, no underscore.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Joe Blau:
I traded it with another person named Joseph Blau as well. The trade was that I had to buy him a HomePod and some AirPods, I think AirPods Pro. He sold me the Twitter handle for that. So it’s pretty funny because if you look at the shipping, it’s from Joe Blau in wherever, I think I was in Pittsburgh at the time, to Joe Blau where he lives. So it looks like somebody buying themselves something. And then we just got on a call, and we did the trade.

Joe Blau:
So if you’re looking for me online, at J-O-E-B-L-A-U is pretty much the same address everywhere, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, GitHub, Dribbble, everywhere. And then for my angel investing, that is at deploy.capital. So if you have any great ideas and you have some insight that your leadership is overlooking and you think there’s going to be a great opportunity to build a business, I would love to chat with you about it.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Joe Blau, I cannot thank you enough for coming back on the show. This show is our ninth anniversary episode. It’s really special to me, I told you this a little bit before recording, because when I first had you on the show back in 2015, your interview came out. I think it was in February 2015, and I was ready to throw in the towel on Revision Path. I was getting so much flack from the design community and from just random folks out there.

Maurice Cherry:
I was like, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” Your dad wrote me a letter after the interview. I’m going to read the letter to you because I don’t know if he ever shared it with you, but he wrote me this letter. I have it printed out above my desk to look at on those days where I’m like, “I’m tired of Revision Path. I want to give this up.” So I’m going to read the letter to you.

Maurice Cherry:
It says, “Maurice, please accept this email as kudos for your really excellent interview of Joseph Blau. I am not an impartial listener, but rather Joseph’s dad, Robert Blau. You may even remember his having mentioned me a few times for exposing him to computers at a young age and taking him around the world as a child of a career foreign service officer. In any case, I was so very proud of Joseph’s performance, both for the content and for his poise and eloquence.

Maurice Cherry:
“This is also a tribute to you for asking him the kinds of questions that would get him to make the many intelligent comments that he made over the course of the interview. I was especially pleased with the discussion that success is not usually an accident or God given, but rather the product of hard, painstaking work. His time at Virginia Tech brought out those qualities in him, and life has continued to teach him this lesson over and over.

Maurice Cherry:
“As you noticed and pointed out, he is already successful, but has his sights set on even greater levels of success. So thanks for doing a great job as interviewer and maybe, in the process, giving Joseph the kind of exposure that will help build his corporate brand.”

Joe Blau:
That’s amazing. I love my dad because he has a lot of heart. I always notice that when I hang around with him. He has been a pioneer and really a great inspiration to me just in all the things that he’s done, whether it’s work ethic or just integrity, character. I really appreciate him sharing that with you and I also appreciate hearing it because him and I, we’re very close. So I think that it’s an amazing letter. I’m glad that it’s an inspiration that kind of keeps you going.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It came at a time, I mean I was really set to give this up. And then that very next month, I was at South by Southwest and I presented this talk I did called Where are the Black Designers? And then that just completely skyrocketed my career. It skyrocketed this podcast. I don’t know if I would have done that if I hadn’t have gotten that push from your dad writing to say, “You’re doing a great job. Keep it up.”

Maurice Cherry:
So thanks to you. Thanks to your dad. You’re killing it, man. I can’t wait to see what you got coming up in the future. But thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Joe Blau:
Awesome, yeah. I appreciate you having me. Thanks. I would love to come back and follow up maybe later next year or something. We don’t have to wait seven years between shows next time.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Sponsored by The State of Black Design Conference

The State of Black Design

Texas State University’s Communication Design Program is excited to announce The State of Black Design Conference, a three day virtual event March 4-6, 2022.

This year’s theme is “family reunion”, and there will be over 50 amazing speakers, including author and educator Jelani Cobb, and world-renowned poet, activist, and educator Nikki Giovanni.

This year debuts the State of Black Design’s Resume Book initiative, so if you’re a Black design student, or you’re a Black designer looking for your next role, then listen up!

You will be able to submit your resume and your portfolio to the Resume Book, along with your institution of study and major if you’re a student, and recruiters and employers will have access to it before the event. If you’re interested and you want to be included in the Resume Book, send your info to blackdesign@txstate.edu with the subject line “Resume Book”. You have until March 3, 2022 to submit.

The State of Black Design Conference is brought to you with the support of the University of Texas at Austin, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, Microsoft, General Motors, Design for America, Civilla, IDSA, AIGA, and Revision Path.

Visit The State of Black Design Conference website for tickets. Hope to see you there!