Dr. Kenya Oduor

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

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

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
And what about that appeal to you?

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

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

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Kenya Oduor:
Wow, so it’s time.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s time.

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Keisha Okafor

We’re halfway through the year! Summer’s here, and I thought it would be a great time to feature an extraordinary young designer whose work I recently discovered — Keisha Okafor. Her work is brimming with energy and vibrancy and joy — feelings we all could use a bit more of these days.

We start off talking about freelance design, and Keisha told a bit about how she helped make one of the features Google Doodles for Black History Month 2021. Keisha also spoke on her signature design style, talked about one of her dream projects, and gave some great advice on being an illustrator. Keep an eye out for Keisha — I think we’ll definitely see more of her work in the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Keisha Okafor:
My name is Keisha Okafor. I’m a freelance illustrator. And I would say that my work I’ve been using depicts joy and celebrates people. I really like to use bright colors and bold patterns.

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

Keisha Okafor:
It’s been going pretty great. I actually just went freelance full time. So that’s the thing. But before that, I’ve been working full time in design as a production designer, actually for print and also doing project management. Ironically, I was managing all the print projects I was doing. So kind of like a one-woman show. So all of that was very technical and like sending client emails. And then out of work, I was doing illustrations and drawing and working with my freelance clients. So it’s nice to have more time this time, but honestly, it’s been going pretty well. I mean, I know the whole pandemic is still happening. In my mind, it’s not even close to being over, but as a very, very heavy introvert, my day-to-day isn’t really that different, I be inside. So I’m still watching Anime, still playing video games. Yeah. Outside of work is pretty normal to me because I wouldn’t be outside anyway.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Wow. So yeah, you just went freelance. That’s a kind of scary thing to do to make that leap of faith. I mean, did you feel like you were prepared for it when you did it?

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. I definitely did, which is surprising because years ago, would have been terrified, but I did a lot of planning, I watched so many seminars and workshops about going freelance, like what do you need to have in place before you do that? And I also saw enough clients coming in and projects coming in to where I believed like this is going to keep happening. I’m not just a Juneteenth, Martin Luther King Day illustrator. I can do this 365. So once I saw that and all the other planning I’ve been doing for the past several months, I wasn’t as scared as I expected to be.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good. That’s good. I mean, oftentimes, we’ll have the designers that are here on the show that either are freelancing or they’re thinking about going freelance, and making that leap can often be really scary. I mean, you said that you had some preparations in place, which is good. I mean, to know that you can step out there and have at least some sort of a foundation, so you’re not necessarily going at it alone, but you have, it sounds like you had some major things already planned out before you made the jump, like clients.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. I also had savings. That was like my main thing. I didn’t want to jump with like $25 in my account. So with all the freelance money I’ve been getting, luckily because I had the full-time job, I was able to save all of that pretty much by pretending that I didn’t have it. I was tricking my mind, like, don’t spend this, this is for your future. Like, don’t wild out and buy stuff, but I’m also not naturally a big spender. My biggest splurge last year was getting Netflix, the two accounts. Yeah. I mean, I bought video games, but I would’ve done that anyway, but yeah, I got Netflix. So that’s like an idea of something I think about, a purchase that I would think about for a while before doing so. Was able to save all that money to have bought a year’s worth just in case nothing happened, which I don’t believe that was going to happen, but just in case, I had enough money to live off of that.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a very smart move.

Keisha Okafor:
Thanks. I take risks, but it’s very calculated because I get very scared, just the idea of going freelance is so scary. So I just wanted to make sure I have things set in place, I thought it through that I’ll be good.

Maurice Cherry:
What made you decide to go freelance? You said you were working as part-time gig, did something happen or did you just feel like it was just time to go?

Keisha Okafor:
Honestly, just in general, the jobs I’ve had, it was a full-time job too. Boy, was I tired anyway. It was just like, no matter what job I had, it ended up being rinky-dink. And by rinky-dink, I mean, no matter how confident I am, no matter how competent I am at the job, no matter how much work I do, how fast I go, I’m still getting treated like I’m entry-level or like the level of a recent graduate in my pay, in how I’m talked to when I ask questions. And I’m just getting tired of that. And because I saw that doing freelance wasn’t as intimidating as I thought, I was just like, let me better myself and make sure that I’m handling that side for myself, that I get to advocate for myself and also determine what I’m worth.

Maurice Cherry:
That is a big reason why I ended up going freelance back in 2008, the company that I was working for was treating me in that same way, like I felt like I was being undermined or belittled or patronized too, even though I’ve got the skills to be there and I’m cranking out top quality work, you still feel like you’re almost treated like a child.

Keisha Okafor:
Yes. Oh my gosh. Yeah. This past job, the work I was doing, it took four people to do before I got there.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. And they’re not a startup company. They’ve been around for many years over a decade. And even taking on that work, they still saw me as a rookie. And I’m like, “Really after all of this?” So I could see that that wasn’t really going to change anytime soon. They would give me compliments, but I’m like, “But my pay isn’t changing.” And when I say things and give suggestions, it’s just going over the head and out the window. So I’m just like, “All right, I see where this is going. I’m out.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What does a typical day look like for you right now? I know you just started freelancing, but have you started getting into a good rhythm?

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. Generally, I have a Trello account, where I have all my freelance projects that I’m working on right now and just different to-do lists, broken down to all the small steps, just so I can see overall what I need to work on. So if there are any priorities or upcoming deadlines, I’ll then write a list, a to-do list of like at least three things I want to get done during the day, like I want to finish this sketch or I want to finish this piece, send this email to the client, things like that. I usually start my day at around 10 o’clock. I am not a morning person at all. Also, I have a cat who only wants to be pet in the middle of the night. So from like 5:00 AM to 7:00 AM, she’s crawling on my chest, like, “Pet me, pet me.” And I’m like, “Let me sleep.” That’s why I start at 10:00 to get back some of that sleep I lost.

Keisha Okafor:
But yeah, I usually start eating cereal, see if I have any emails. I don’t really get too many emails, but I’m also someone who like, I get through them. So I usually only have like three tops. And then I just start the work I’m doing. And if, and then I just keep reviewing that Trello list with my deadlines and checking things off. And if I’m like at the right pace, because I’m trying to pace myself doing a little each day to make sure I hit the deadlines early, instead of like binge doing it all in one day. So once I hit that pace for the day, if I’m done, then I’ll take a break and rest for the day. Yeah. That’s generally how it’s been going so far.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. The best thing about freelancing is really setting your own schedule and then no one can tell you to change it. It’s completely up to you. So if you want to stay in till 10:00 AM, till noon, you can do that. No problem.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. It still feels like, I feel like a kid beginning summer break, but then I’m like, “Keisha, you’re an adult.” Make sure you get stuff done, which I always do. But waking up at 10 o’clock and being like, “Well, time to get this started.” That still feels wild to me. I’m like, “I get to do this. I planned for this and it’s happening.”

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Now, I first heard about you this year from your work you did for YouTube’s Black History Month campaign. I think they did four different illustrators and artists for each of the four weeks in February. Can you talk about that? How did you become a part of that project?

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah, that still blows my mind. This was like maybe a week before Christmas. I randomly get this email saying, “Hey, Keisha, I work with YouTube. Want to work on this project about Black Creativity for Black History Month?” I immediately thought it was a scam. And then I googled everyone that he mentioned just to make sure kind of just like, who are you? What the heck? His email didn’t say @youtube.com. So I was just like, “Oh, I don’t know about this. Let me just double check.” But I googled everyone and then their LinkedIn pages were like, they’re designer at Google, engineer at Google. I’m like, “Oh, okay. So he was serious.” So I immediately said, “Yeah, I am available to do this. Are you kidding me?”

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. And then probably a week or so later, I met with like a small design team at the YouTube. And they were just telling me about the initiative that they had and they want to work for artists celebrating History Month and wanted to have all the artists make art around black creativity. And that was it. They were like, “You can make that whatever you want it to be, but it just needs to be around black creativity.” And they gave some keywords, like forward-thinking, hopeful, bright, like that. Literally, those were the keywords they gave. So I pretty much just took that and ran with it. But also in the back of my mind, I’m like, “Okay. Okay, Keisha, this is YouTube. You got to show up, you got to show out. So like, do it, do the thing.”

Keisha Okafor:
So initially, I was planning on doing portraits of women who in math and science from the past just to celebrate them. But then they wanted something, when they said forward-thinking, that’s why they gave me the idea of having children in there, like giving like a hopeful idea instead of looking to the past, wanting people to look to the future as well. And I was the one who chose math and science, just because normally when you think of creativity, I usually think of a paintbrush, like dancing and music.

Keisha Okafor:
And they also mentioned that they didn’t want to hit the normal black stereotypes. So like a boombox and people doing break dance. They want it to steer away from that. So I personally like math. I still, even at my big age, I watch PBS Kids shows about math and science. So I figured that would be a fun thing to do, a fun thing to go around. And that’s in that forward thinking idea, it was me having like women in STEM, showing young girls the magic in front of it. So that’s where the idea came based on their feedback. That’s how that idea came to pass.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. And once they approved it, I was just going with it. The main critique was at first, I made everyone dark skin and almost the same tone. And they were like, “Oh, can you give it some variety?” I go, “Oh yeah, no problem.” And then they wanted me to use like, I was being very literal at first. So like the sky is blue, rockets are gray. And they were like, “Can you use like some of the colors that you use? Like the ones that you use.” And I was just like, “Oh, okay. So you actually want me to put my spin on it.” I was putting all these rules, adding all these rules to myself. This has to be very literal. If I’m drawing math, it needs to look like math. But once they said that, then that’s when I went crazy with the colors, like, “This guy could be pink and yellow and purple.” So yeah. Then I added my own spin to that. And that’s pretty much how it turned out.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I have to say it looks amazing. And for people that haven’t seen it, we’ll make sure to put a link to it in the show notes so you can definitely check it out. I mean, I get that kind of forward feeling, that forward-thinking notion from that. It’s interesting enough, I had discovered an organization, I think they either left a comment or I saw it somewhere else on the web, but because your piece was centered around STEM, I had discovered this group called Black Girl MATHgic, like Black Girl Magic, but MATHgic. And I mean, I love math too. My degree is in mathematics. So I saw that, I was like, “That is so cute.” That was the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s like it’s a program, but then they also sell some merch for fundraising and stuff. I was like, “This is really dope teaching young black girls math fundamentals and stuff.” It’s pretty cool.

Keisha Okafor:
Oh, that is so amazing. I just love that so much. And the lack Girl MATHgic, Oh my gosh.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like you working with YouTube on this was like a really kind of collaborative process. Are those sort of the best types of clients for you to work with?

Keisha Okafor:
Yes. I would say that working with YouTube was definitely like ideal client. They were very responsive, followed the schedule, they communicated so well. And they were also really nice, like we’re working with big clients, I just assumed like they were going to be very strict and we need to have it look a certain way. They want to work with people, but they want it to look a certain way, it’s what I expected. But working with them, I really saw that they wanted me to show myself in there and to put my own spin. When they said, put your own spin on a theme of black creativity, they actually meant it. That’s why I mentioned the thing with the colors. That was like very refreshing for me, something I really enjoy, like the great communication, being responsive, when things were delayed, they adjusted the schedule to match the delay. I was like, “You’re amazing.” Yeah. I really enjoyed them as a client. And those are things that seeing that it’s possible, those are things that I start to look for when I’m working with people.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s go back to freelancing just a little bit more. When you have a new client or you’re approaching, let’s say, a new project, what does your creative process look like?

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. So usually, I try to get as much information from the client at the beginning as possible because a lot of people say, “Oh, just do whatever.” But they actually have something in mind. So I try to ask a lot of initial questions, just to get an idea, like, do you have an idea or do you actually want me to give you my ideas? I just want that to be clear from the very beginning before I start doing research. And then I also asked like a lot of technical questions, how much do you want the resolution to be? What size? What’s your timeline? Because if it’s a small timeline, then I won’t try to do this super complex thing. I’ll make it simpler.

Keisha Okafor:
But in terms of like the creative making the thing once that’s settled, I usually do a lot of research on stock websites. I like iStockphoto, just to get an idea of like composition, and if it’s something I’m not familiar with, I can’t just think of 35 math formulas off the top of my head. I just got f of x imprinted in my mind, but I need more. So I like to look at stock websites just to see what kinds of things are default, their body poses, body expressions, what do real people look like? Because I don’t want every person I draw to have the same face, but different bodies and different hairstyles. That feels weird to me, but I like when other people do it.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. So I like to go on stock websites just to see if anything is giving me ideas, is it inspirational? Is it good for reference? And once I get that, I’ll start sketching out different ideas, trying out different compositions, just to see like, does anything look good? Can I draw this thing? What are the hands going to look like? And then usually, that’s when I start going back and forth with the client, seeing what they think of my ideas.

Keisha Okafor:
But if anything’s going in the right way, usually, that’s also the time I’ll ask, “Do you have any other ideas once you see this, a better idea of what you’re looking for kind of thing?” And then once that happens, I’ll either revise it or start going with color, again, make more ideas, send that to them. And then it’s usually just a back and forth, giving them the art and then getting their feedback. But as I’ve been working and seeing like how easily that can turn into a 100 revisions, I put limits like, okay, we’re going to have two rounds of revisions. And if you want more, this is going to cost. So yeah, I say back and forth, but it’s back and forth like twice just to protect my time essentially.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, even with all of this, are you also thinking a lot about, let’s say, colors, like a color story or anything to go along with a new project? Or does that come naturally?

Keisha Okafor:
Sometimes it comes naturally, but I also have a Pinterest board just full of different pictures that are like, it’s either a fashion outfits, stationary, graphic design branding, things like that. But if I don’t have any ideas, I’ll just pick from that, like, oh, let me try this, or since I’m on social media a lot and have a lot of artists I follow, there are just some artists I like the way they use color. There’s an artist, her name is Olivia Fields. And one thing she likes to do is have a very monochromatic color scheme, but she uses value so well it’s still very interesting to look at. So if I’m thinking about that lately, I’ll like, let me try to use a monochromatic scheme just to see what it look like if I do it kind of thing. If it doesn’t work, I’ll just trash it. But yeah, it can either come from other artists, that Pinterest board or I’ll just start off with, I want the main color to be yellow and then I’ll just randomly pick colors and adjust it based on that.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. So I want to switch gears here a little bit based on what we were talking about prior to recording. You mentioned you’re from North Carolina, that’s where you grew up. Tell me what it was like growing up as a creative kid in North Carolina.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. I will say my grew up story isn’t similar to like the ones I hear on interviews. People will be like, “I drew all the time, I love drawing.” I drew some of the time and I was mostly watching cartoons, animated movies, just a lot of TV, playing a lot of video games. It wasn’t until I was 13 that I even decided like, oh, I want to do something art related. It was from seeing the Incredibles. I saw the behind the scenes animation thing. And I was like, “I want to be an animator.” But then once I got closer to picking a college and saw what animation was, very quickly, it was like, no, I don’t want to do that.

Keisha Okafor:
I want to draw because I used to draw like a little bit, when I say every once in a while, I mean like a handful of drawings per year. I wasn’t really, I liked to draw, but I wasn’t sitting around drawing all the time because I was just overthinking it so much, I would draw, one time, I drew the Powerpuff Girls, like just very stiff Powerpuff Girls poses and look like them. But then I took it to school for the next few days and showed everyone. I was like, “Praise me. I’m a good artist. Look at me.” And then didn’t draw for like the next few months.

Keisha Okafor:
That was me as a kid artist, but still very much enjoyed it. I took art classes in middle school and high school. And I would say that’s where my artistic skills and sense and interests started to grow. I wasn’t doing anything like extracurricular. I was just taking it as an elective. So by the time I got to college, I was like, “I don’t have any other interests. I want to be an artist. And I’m hoping college will unlock the key to figure out how people actually get paid to make art.”

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean, you went to North Carolina State University, which we’ve had several alums just here on the show that have went there. While you were there, do you feel like they really prepared you to become a working designer out in the world?

Keisha Okafor:
Now, when I look back at it now, I’m like, “Oh yeah, they actually did.” But at the time, I didn’t think so at all, because it just felt very vague, because I also, I majored in art and design at NC State and I thought that meant I’m going to paint, like be an artist. They attach design to it. But they really mean art, right?

Maurice Cherry:
No.

Keisha Okafor:
It was like the first week they were like, “Hey, I know you guys like to draw and paint, but we’re not teaching you to be artists, we’re teaching you to be designers.” And in my mind, I was just like, “No, what is design? Oh, no.” Looking back on it now, I see they were teaching us how to think like designers and how to problem solve. And that’s something that’s been so helpful. And also, with drawing, making sure you understand the foundations of drawing, that’s something that I’ve been using a lot as well, but really that problem solving thing and also how to think like a designer, I would say that’s been the most helpful in my design career. But in terms of like how to get a job, how to make a good portfolio for a job, nope. I’m just like, “I wish I did something about it.” But now that I am working and have had jobs, those design fundamentals have actually been very helpful.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Now, after college, you ended up for a while moving out to LA, what prompted that?

Keisha Okafor:
It was actually like one of those moments of close family member passed away. So it was just very much like life is short kind of moment, let me try things that I would never do, just you never know you get this chance again. And growing up, watching a lot of TV, California always looked cool. And that was one of my bucket list thing, like I want to see what it’s like to live in California. So once that chance came up, I just went for it, oh, man. So scared. I was sweating on that plane just, Ooh, oh my gosh. I was so scared. But yeah, that’s how I ended up getting there.

Keisha Okafor:
And really, my goal was just to see, like, can I go there and survive? Can I do enough to make sure I don’t have a flight back in three months? And I ended up staying for four and a half years, going on five years. I came back to North Carolina at the end of 2019, months before, I mean, months before COVID happened. So I am so, oh, I don’t have family in California. So that’s why I’m like, I am so glad I moved just in time so I could be near my family and at least know they’re safe in person versus a phone call from like 3000 miles away.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, while you were out there, did you get a chance to really experience the LA design scene?

Keisha Okafor:
I don’t think so. When people say that, I’m just like, “So where’s the scene at? And how do I get there?” My only experience was through the jobs I had. And comparing it to North Carolina, the main difference I noticed was that things were way more fast-paced. Yeah, that was like the biggest difference I noticed. And also like, but this is with anything. Once you see the process behind things, it takes that bale away. Things aren’t as glamorous as I initially thought, like I had a job at a media buying agency, where I was editing album covers for social media posts or resizing banner ads that will be put on YouTube, like watching the YouTube video and seeing of like, oh, this looks so like, well, one it’s annoying, but also seeing like a big artist with an ad, I’m like, “Ooh, fancy.” But hearing the media buyers trying to get the space and make it and asking me to resize things and how crazy that process can be, I’m just like, “Okay. These are just regular people trying to just do their jobs.”

Keisha Okafor:
And I would say a big thing that just in general in the workforce, I’m just like, “Man, people procrastinate so much.” I thought that was like one of those warnings I got in college, like, you’ll never be able to procrastinate when [inaudible 00:27:40], but adults do that all the time.

Maurice Cherry:
All the time.

Keisha Okafor:
Yes. Oh my gosh. And it happens so much. When I was working on those album covers, I was just like, “Come on guys. Just please send me the picture so I can resize it.” But it did help me build up efficiency because there were such fast turnarounds. I was used to working at a fast pace. So coming back to North Carolina, that’s how I ended up, when I mentioned earlier doing the work of four people, because I was used to working so fast. Like when things are slower here, it wasn’t that big of a deal. It felt normal. It helped me in that sense. But yeah, you asked about the design scene. I would also love to know what the scene was like, where was the all people? Where were the people at? What do design people do? I didn’t really get that question answered.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it’s interesting because like, you mentioned earlier like, well, where is the design scene? I think designers carve out their own scene based on who they’re working with or working for, who they have met or inspired by. I’ve been to LA only once, I went in the beginning of 2020 in February. And I found that it was just like real, it was just so spread out. I mean, Atlanta is spread out, but LA is way more spread out. I’m like, it takes forever to get anywhere. Like if you’re going to go somewhere, you better hope it’s on your side of town, you don’t have to cross over and go down. It’s so big. I was there for two weeks and I know I only saw maybe like a 10th of LA. It’s so big. So big. I mean, I guess when I asked about like how the design scene was, I’m curious if it was different from maybe the design scene that you knew back home in North Carolina, like you mentioned, it was more fast-paced, but were there other differences?

Keisha Okafor:
That’s a good question. I will say, like you mentioned, because everything was so separated, it was kind of like, if you weren’t in that neighborhood, we’re not going to meet or we’re not going to meet often. So it ends up being like pockets of communities that I would notice. So I had a lot of animation friends because they lived in Glendale and Burbank and they were interested in working at Cartoon Network or Disney TV.

Keisha Okafor:
So I would meet those people in Burbank and Glendale, but then the people who were interested in more of graphic design or stationary, I talked to those people down near the beach because that’s where a lot of the agencies were. It was like, I could find pockets of people in different areas, but it was so rare for them all to come together just because how long it took to go places like, like literally, Google Maps will say something is maybe 10 miles away and you think, oh, I’ll get there no time. That’s an hour trip one way. I’m just like, “This doesn’t add up.” But then you take the trip and I’m just like, “That took an hour. Oh my gosh.” So it’s just like people aren’t going to make that. Even people who were natives, they weren’t really going to make that trip on a regular basis. So it was just like pockets of communities that I would have in the different places I was at depending on where I lived and worked. That’s how I ended up seeing the people.

Keisha Okafor:
But I feel like in North Carolina, everyone is in Raleigh, you’re in Raleigh, I can get to the edge of Raleigh, the top, it will take like 20 minutes. So to me, compared to being in LA, I’m like, “That’s not a big trip at all.” So I feel like people are taking more initiative to meet up, and I’m sure that’s because of COVID as well, have like a lot of meetups and groups and workshops and stuff. Whereas it would be like a once in a lifetime thing to do, I’ll take this trip one time an hour for this workshop, but don’t count on me to come every week.

Maurice Cherry:
And the web is going to change things too. I mean, there’s events and workshops and things. A lot of stuff has come online just over the past year that before either didn’t exist or it was just inaccessible because of location or something like that.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. Adobe MAX, the first time I attended it was last year because it was virtual. I lived in LA and it happened there every year, but I just was not about to sit there and pay for it not only, but just go there and talk designer talk. Sometimes I feel like there could be a prestige that some people might have, like, hello, I’m art designer. I integrate things together. They use all the design words and I’m not very good at that. I’m just like, “Yeah, make pictures.” So being in that environment isn’t something I would want to pay to do. So it was nice to be able to attend the virtual version because I never would have went otherwise. Yes, there were so many conferences and things I’ve never heard about that I got to hear about because it was virtual and people I got to meet because of that, which is nice to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. As I was going through your work, I saw your illustration work and your portrait work, which is beautiful, but your patterns, the patterns on your website are absolutely gorgeous. I love that you have in your bio, on your website, you mentioned that you’re an artist and designer depicting joy. What does it mean for you to depict joy in your work?

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. So in terms of people, you’ll probably see that I draw a lot of black people. And one thing that makes me happy about black culture and just black people in general is just seeing us love the things that we love, however we love it. It just makes me really happy to see all the different facets and ways that black people just are. I get so excited. And I feel like when I draw that, that’s where I’m trying to convey just how excited I am to see black people as they are, doing whatever they like, looking as cool or as goofy or as happy as they are. I feel like that comes through with the people.

Keisha Okafor:
And in terms of the patterns, I really like music. But when I hear music, I tend to see a lot of different shapes and colors just moving together. That’s how I see the song. Like me drawing those abstract patterns, it’s usually me listening to music and drawing whatever comes to mind. So just kind of like the happiness that comes from listening to music, that energy is something I’m trying to capture in the patterns. And I like for it to fit together kind of like different sounds fit together in a song, that’s how it shows up in the patterns.

Maurice Cherry:
And when you’re even doing these patterns, it also seems like you’re drawing from nature some too. I don’t know maybe if that was just the particular collection that you were doing, but I saw a lot of kind of tropical themes and leaves and stuff like that. It’s just very, very stunning work.

Keisha Okafor:
Thank you. Yeah, the tropical thing is I just love the way tropical scenery looks. I also think it’s nice, like all the different leaves and like patterns that you see within leaves, I think that’s nice as well, but also sometimes, if I draw too many triangles and circles, I’m like, “Let me draw something that people can recognize.” So it ends up just being leaves and flowers for some reason. I’m not even a big flower person, it just ends up coming out, or I’ll just look up pictures of flowers. But yeah, I really love tropical weather and themes and stuff. So I just end up drawing it a lot.

Maurice Cherry:
I have not met a Nigerian that didn’t like bright colors. So you’re definitely onto something there.

Keisha Okafor:
[inaudible 00:35:22]. I love that. You’re right. You’re right.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you get your creativity back if you are feeling uninspired, like say you hit a block in a project somewhere you’re working on something, what do you do to get that spark back?

Keisha Okafor:
So when I am inspired, I have a bunch of hidden Pinterest boards. And then I also have a notebook where when I’m inspired, I just write down ideas of things that I think will be cool to make. So when I am feeling blocked or uninspired, I’ll look through that Pinterest board. One is just called Black, and it’s just black people, just random black people that I can find on Pinterest. It used to be really hard, but I saved so many pictures and looked at it that Pinterest has realized this girl likes to look here black people. So now my homepage has that.

Keisha Okafor:
So I’ll either look at that Pinterest board, just kind of seeing people do stuff or I also have some with just colors or textures or shapes. I’ll just look through the Pinterest board or I’ll look through that list of ideas that I have. I’ll either do that or I’ll just take a break. Turn the thing off, turn the computer off, turn the iPad off, watch TV, play a video game, take a nap and then come back. Yeah. And then if there’s like a time crunch, I’m just like, “Well, honestly, think about the money.” I’m like, “Girl, do you want to get paid?” I’m like, “Yeah.” So I just do it no matter what I’m like, okay. Just loosen up. Then I’ll take a five minute break, loosen up, get some water or something and then come back and just do it.

Keisha Okafor:
Or another thing I’ll do, sometimes I’m not a good singer, but I love to sing. So I’ll just turn on Spotify and then just force myself to sing along out loud as bad as it’s going to come out, just so to get my mind not overthinking it. And then things usually come out better. If I have, like my mind is focused on me singing, even though like, what notes? What notes am I hitting? So that helps me have a bit of more energy and looseness to the art that I’m making.

Maurice Cherry:
One thing that I would do when I was working on projects is I’d always build in at least a week into the sort of like project plan, because I mean, I think the expectation, certainly, I think from clients, but oftentimes, for us as freelances, as designers, the expectation is we’ll get the work and we’ll just be able to knock it out, like we’ll sit down and we’ll know what we do because the client has brought us on for our expertise. So we have to be the expert.

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean, depending on how, if you set up a project rate or hourly rate or a day rate or whatever, sometimes clients will try to nickel and dime you to try to know like, well, how long did it take you to work on X, Y, Z, and blah, blah, blah? And I certainly early on in my freelance career, that was a mistake that I made. And then eventually, I switched things over either to like a project rate or I do like a day rate or something like that. I’d build in like a week of time because there’s no telling.

Maurice Cherry:
And for me, it’s almost like creative insurance, like I may need it in the future if something happens, like what if I get sick? Or what if I just am not feeling it? And I can take that time out of the bank sort of because I’ve built it into the project and then I can, like if I take a day off and then decide to come back later and do it, then that way I’m not impacting the project because I built that time in there. It gives me permission to not have to be a machine when it comes to like creativity because sometimes the ideas flow and sometimes they just don’t.

Maurice Cherry:
And I’ve certainly been at that place where you’re at, where you’re like, you just have to think about the money, like think about what this is going to do. And then you soldier on or you push through it. But yeah, that’s one thing that I would do is I just build in the time because the good thing is if you never use it, then you come out early and the client is happy. And then if you do use it, the client is still happy because you came out on time.

Keisha Okafor:
Right. That’s great. Because I learned in the design world as well, especially when I was at that media buying agency, it was an open office and there were only like eight of us. So sometimes I’ll work on stuff, they just be standing over my shoulder, “How long do you think it’ll take?” I’m like, “Please. Oh, I think it’ll take me a few hours rolling.” It wouldn’t. It would take me shorter than that, but I like to add in that buffer, just like you said, like if something happens, I can still turn it in when I said I could, but also giving myself that insurance, like you said, to make it.

Keisha Okafor:
But in terms of the illustration projects now, those few hours turns into a couple of extra days or maybe an extra week, like you said. Yeah. Especially when people say they have a tight turnaround, things never are as tight as people want it to be, especially with getting revisions and just getting feedback, especially if there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen. So it is way better to add in more time for that kind of stuff in the beginning, like you said.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now when you were in school, when you were back at North Carolina State, let’s say, I think that was maybe probably around 10 years ago at this point, right?

Keisha Okafor:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
Where did you see yourself career-wise by this age where you’re at now?

Keisha Okafor:
Honestly, by the time I graduated, I was just like, “Am I cut out for this?” Honestly, because I thought, again, like when I was 18 entering college, I thought, okay, college is going to give me the roadmap. And by the time I am a senior, I’m going to know exactly what I want to do, how to get there and I’ll be able to get there. But that didn’t happen when I was a senior. I felt kind of similar to how I was as a freshman, like, what? Like, what am I doing? I need to find a job.

Keisha Okafor:
So I mainly, the main goal I had, I was like, Keisha, please have a job, please have a job and an apartment that you can pay for with your job. I had very, very basic goals for myself, have a job that’s something related to design. Yeah, that was pretty much my only goal. I wanted, the idea of freelance sounded good, but then at that time, I had no idea how to do it. So it wasn’t even, it was more like a fantasy more than like me seeing myself there.

Maurice Cherry:
I didn’t go to design school, but it is something that I’ve thought about in terms of like, do I need this in order to have this legitimacy for myself as a designer? Because I’ve been self-taught and I did a little bit of work at companies, like I worked for the State of Georgia for a while, I worked at AT&T for a while. And then like, I really had just felt like, you know what? I got this, I could start my own studio and do this and really do it myself. And I’ve learned so much really just in the time that I had my studio doing things by myself, but they never really teach you entrepreneurship. I mean, again, I didn’t go to design school, but even with the work that I was doing, by the time I started my studio, I had a bachelor’s and a master’s degree and still didn’t know anything about freelancing. I was really either making it up as I went along or I was asking other freelances. I was really gaining this education while I was also trying to run my business.

Keisha Okafor:
Absolutely. Because in design school, in my senior year, we had this class that the description was literally, we’re going to prepare you to get a job. But when we actually took the class, they were like, “You need a website. Do you know what a website is? You can make websites on Squarespace.” I’m like, “Are you kidding me? This is my senior year and you’re teaching us that we need a website. Of course, we do. What are you talking about? How do you get a job? Please tell me what to put on my resume and how to get the people to actually hire me.”

Keisha Okafor:
Even then, like being in design school didn’t make that difference. It’s almost like they’re out of touch with what was happening in the world. Like they got the art skills, but getting a job or even being an entrepreneur, that wasn’t even close to being thought about in any of my classes. I would have had to talk to alumni who are already doing it. And kind of like you said, they were figuring it out on their own or like having outside resources to figure that out. So I definitely don’t think going to design school will or not going to design school, you won’t really be missing out honestly.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, by the time I really started figuring it out, I think I was about, I don’t know, I think maybe I was about two or three years into my studio and from just talking with other freelancers and picking up, because sometimes you just have to get, unfortunately, you just have to get burned a few times in business before you learn that lesson or whatever that particular lesson is. But I think by the time I was like, by the time I hit my fifth year, I had it down pat at that point, I knew about contracts and proposals and getting things done and everything just ran smoothly, but it took some time to get there.

Maurice Cherry:
So yeah. I think now, because freelancing is an option for so many people, whether they do it either independently, like you’re doing, or if they do something like working via like a design marketplace, such as ThemeForest or Envato Elements or Envato Market, whatever the thing is that Envato has with all of the different websites and stuff, Fiverr, even those kinds of things, Upwork, there’s ways that you can use those tools to manage your business better, but it’s still, at the end of the day, it comes down to really knowing what those fundamentals are and knowing what works best for you. I think certainly, when I was doing business, there’s not an all-purpose solution for like being an entrepreneur. I wish there was. But once you learn what works for you in terms of cashflow and payments and client communication and everything, then you’ve cracked it, you’ve cracked the code pretty much.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. A lot of the stuff I’ve learned even about graphic design because NC State does have a graphic design major, but I majored in art and design, a lot of the stuff I learned about graphic design was just learning by doing. It ended up being like the jobs I had, more doing stuff for family and friends was really the stuff that prepared me for the different jobs. And I’m learning that that’s the same thing that’s happening with freelance as well, like the classes that I take, the people, the Instagram artists that I’ll DM or Instagram friends I have, I’ll DM, those things have been really helpful. And also, like you said, being burnt, having bad clients, that helps me set better boundaries for future clients, like knowing what to do. So yeah, that’s definitely something I’m in the process of right now. I’m definitely looking forward to the part where everything runs itself.

Maurice Cherry:
It’ll get there probably I think sooner than you expect. Before you know it, it’ll just flow. It’s sort of like a… I mean, you watch anime, it’s like the Avatar State. Eventually, you’ll be able to just invoke it and you’ll be good.

Keisha Okafor:
Awesome. Avatar is one of my favorite shows. So I love that you said the Avatar State.

Maurice Cherry:
What are you obsessed with at the moment?

Keisha Okafor:
Speaking of anime, so I’m watching this anime called Fruits Basket. It’s a silly premise. When it’s like, if you hug someone of the opposite gender, they will turn into Zodiac animal, so like the Year of the Horse, or a cat, rat, like things like that. But you end up finding out everyone has these crazy backstories and there’s this whole curse and things like that. So I’ve just been binge-watching that show basically, because I’m so curious to see what’s happening. Other than that, I’ve been playing a video game called Mario & Sonic at The Olympic Games for 2020. I’ve just been going through the story mode. There was one, it’s the triple jump and I keep getting disqualified. So I got mad and turned it off, but I still think about it because I’m like, “I’m going to win.” Yeah. I would say those two things.

Keisha Okafor:
Also, I have a cat. I’ve never had a pet before, but I got one a few months ago, honestly, off the strength of seeing other black people on social media have cats and they seem to enjoy it. And I always wanted a cat. So I ended up getting one. So I spend a lot of time peeking over the couch, seeing what she’s doing or looking for her around the house and just smiling really big. She gets annoyed, but I think she’s used to it. I would say I’m pretty obsessed with her.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Do you have like a dream project that you would love to do one day?

Keisha Okafor:
That’s a great question. I would say the only dream project I had, I got to do it last year. So I got to illustrate a deck of playing cards and I pretty much did the art direction for the whole thing. So you mentioned the tropical idea, there was a running idea I had for a long time of joining black people in the tropical space, kind of like an oasis, a place where they could freely celebrate themselves without all the isms in the world that black people carry. So I pretty much made the deck around that and got the job black people being happy or silly in that tropical environment. And that was something I really enjoy doing. If I think of like a future project, it would be a similar thing, but in a different format. I haven’t figured that out yet, but definitely enjoyed doing that deck of cards, but I’m not sure if that’s like a book or like a coffee book or like a storybook, but that’s kind of like something that I’m juggling in my head right now.

Maurice Cherry:
What is the best advice that you’ve ever been given regarding what you do as an illustrator?

Keisha Okafor:
Interestingly enough, I would say the best advice I have is more of like a you as a person. So like, not finding your identity in the work that you do, you’re more than the work that you do. You are enough as you are. Like those kinds of things I’ve seen have made the biggest difference for me. Yeah, a lot of times the artsy-fartsy, mumbo-jumbo, it just slides off of me. I’m just like, this sounds, but when I draw, what does that mean? So hearing things like, I’m more than the art that I make is very freeing for me to be able to just have fun with it and do stuff that I like. And I don’t have to judge myself based on how well I drew today.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I can see how that, I mean, well, one, I see that is good advice just in general, like, make sure that you don’t get too caught up in the work, but also realize that you put your own identity into everything that you do as well.

Keisha Okafor:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next like five years? Like this whole pandemic craziness is over with, it’s 20, what? 2026. What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Keisha Okafor:
Honestly, I haven’t thought that far ahead. I was like, “Will the world still be turning at that time?” I think it would be.

Maurice Cherry:
I hope so.

Keisha Okafor:
You’re right. Me too. Honestly, I hope I’ll be doing bigger projects, projects I’m really excited about. I’m enjoying the projects that I’m doing right now. So more, just like an extension of the kinds of things I’m doing right now getting to illustrate different people, doing things, really hoping to get into the Children’s Book World, be able to illustrate them to children’s books. That’s something I’m looking forward to. And also, I want to get my patterns onto products. So one thing I’m hoping to do also in five years is to have my products on things. Yeah. More of like, just like all the different ways I can get my work out there, either on products or online in different formats. That’s something I’m hoping will happen, just as I grow and do things and get better at art, have it just spread onto different formats as well.

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

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. So you can find my work on my website, which is keishaokafor.com, O-K-A-F-O-R. You can also find me on social media on Twitter and Instagram, mostly Instagram @keishaoak, oak as in oak tree, O-A-K. The reason why it’s like that is just so you know how to pronounce Okafor. But yeah, that’s pretty much where I’m at, Instagram, Twitter and my website.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Keisha Okafor, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I have to say, I just love how joyful and colorful and vibrant your work is. Like I mentioned, when I discovered you from the work that you did at YouTube, I was just looking at your website, like, this is so fun. And I have to say that it’s rare to see a designer put that sort of joy into their work, but I am really excited to see what sort of work you’ll be doing after this interview, after people get a chance to really see your work, because I feel like this sort of vibrancy and joy in life is what we need right now. We need to be seeing more of this everywhere. And so I’m excited for people to really learn more about you and learn more about your work. And yeah, just thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Keisha Okafor:
Thank you for having me. I am hope, really excited for people to see my work too. And I really appreciate all your kind words. Yeah, I definitely, I’m just like, if I’m going to draw, I’m going to have fun with it and I want everyone else to have fun with it too. So definitely excited to see where it all goes.

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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.

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napoleon-wright-ii-300

When I asked Napoleon Wright II to describe what he does, he gave me a list of titles — animator, videographer, filmmaker, musician, designer, etc. Needless to say, he’s brimming with creative ability, and that always makes for a great interview.

We started off talking about the Raleigh creative scene, and from there went into how Napoleon first got into design, the creation of his design company Pan II Creative, as well as his forays into music. This industry moves fast, and a creative like Napoleon has just what it takes to adapt and thrive. Enjoy the interview!


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300-ariana-farquharson

Can you believe we’re at the last interview of the year? I’m ending 2014 with a conversation with Ariana Farquharson.

Ariana splits her time between freelance design and her new company curativ, a digital media startup that feeds news stories regarding diversity and innovation in creative culture. We talked about her design background, as well as what made her take the plunge into entrepreneurship. Big thanks to Britt Davis for recommending Ariana!

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