Whitney Robinson

Maternal healthcare has always been in a precarious place here in the United States, but thanks to this week’s guest, Whitney Robinson, we just might be on our way to solving it in our lifetime. She brings her skills as a product designer and builder of things — as well as a mom — to help transform maternal health for Black women.

Our conversation began with a look at her current project, The Renée, and we talked about how work and life have changed for her over the past couple of years. She also spoke about growing up in North Carolina and attending Duke University, turning side gigs into full-time work, and shared how she measures success at this stage of her life. Whitney is a prime example of how you too can use your skills for the greater good!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Whitney Robinson:
Hi, I’m Whitney Robinson. I’m a product manager/designer of things.

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

Whitney Robinson:
I’m struggling a little bit with managing homeschooling. I have four kids. Projects… I know. And they’re homeschooled. I’m a new homeschooling parent. And then the things that we heard about in the news. Like the power dynamics that have shifted in homes as women and have become more of caretakers. And so it’s just a lot and trying not to be a statistic and all that kind of stuff. So I do feel like there’s been quite a bit of pushing for me this year. But I will say too, that I’ve definitely, this has been the year that I’ve realized I’m doing too much, and how do I do less, and doing less is okay. Yeah. So the year has been just kind of push and pull and just kind of realizing what I need to let go, where I need to just let the ebb and flow of life do its thing.

Maurice Cherry:
How is that process going, like learning to let go?

Whitney Robinson:
I raised by baby boomers, you don’t let go. You keep pushing, you keep going, you keep doing it. You have to have all the grades and the check marks. And so the letting go has been really hard, but I’m thinking more about, I’m thinking about what is my impression on my children. What does that look like? And I want them to let stuff go. I’m telling them all the time, just let it go. And so it feels real hypocritical when I realize, but I’m all over here and I’m stressed or I’m trying not to be stressed because I am holding on to this little bit of money for this one thing. Then I’m like, “Just let that go. It’ll free your mind up to do all the other things you do.” Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I can tell it’s a struggle. I mean, in general, I think it’s a struggle for a lot of people, but from your position, I can see also how it’s definitely a struggle when you have sort of homeschooling on top of that too.

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. And I’m learning that too. And there’s a reason why, there’s so many shifts happening right now, especially around our culture as people, and even the homeschooling. I come from people who are like, your kids, aren’t going to learn … A school building is the best place for them. And I’m kind of countering that. Like, oh, what does that mean? I can’t educate my kids or I have to assume that it has to be someone else? And I do see both sides, but I’m mirroring, I’m doing a lot of mirroring and I’m just … Anyway, this has been a very hyper intensive inner inspection time for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. If you don’t mind me asking, how old are your children?

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah, there is that. So eight, seven, five and two.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Whitney Robinson:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a dynamic range. I mean, you’ve got certainly the oldest, that would be, I guess, let’s see. Eight, you’re kind of fourth grade I think, something like that.

Whitney Robinson:
Third. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Third, fourth grade.

Whitney Robinson:
Homeschooling them means grades are a thing, but you are teaching them higher levels because you’re one on one so much. But I think if they were in a school system, it’d be third grade, second grade, kindergarten and preschool, or not even, maybe daycare or something.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. It’s a thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you have any other big plans you’re trying to accomplish this year?

Whitney Robinson:
So I’m new to the West End and it’s the Blackest place I’ve … Well, Durham was Black, but that’s not Black anymore. That’s where I’m from. That’s where I’m coming from. I’ve been in Durham most of my life, but this is probably the Blackest place I’ve lived in a very long time. So moving here was one big move. And then the next thing I want to do, I mean, I’m in tech and I just feel like I need to have a super opposite outlet. And so I’ve been asking around for a space to rent to have a plant shop with knick-knacks from estate sales of Black home where people come, sit, chill and just be. No airs. It just feels good. Smells good. That kind of vibe. That’s what I’m trying to do. I would love to do it in the West End if possible. So we’ll see.

Maurice Cherry:
The West End is, oh God, the West End is such an interesting neighborhood in Atlanta. One, just because of the history. But it’s also one of the few neighborhoods that hasn’t been, I guess, completely gentrified yet.

Whitney Robinson:
That’s what I hear.

Maurice Cherry:
When you think of like Cabbagetown, Reynoldstown, especially if you’re thinking Bankhead, which is now all, quote unquote, west midtown for the most part, the West End has largely managed to keep its, I want to say Blackness, but we’ll just say it’s managed to keep its idiosyncrasies. There’re certain things about the neighborhood, certainly, which I think in the next five years will change. I think the mall is probably going to be the biggest change. I think it’s already been bought out by developers or something, but I feel like that’s going to be the next. Once the mall changes, that’s going to change the whole neighborhood. Because I remember living in the West End when they put those condos up on, well, now it’s called Lowry, but it used to be called Ashby, but they put these big, huge condos up, I want to say maybe about 15 years ago or something.
And I remember when they first went up and I was like, “There is nobody that’s going to pay $200,000 to live in the West End. That is ridiculous. That will never happen.” And people moved there, which surprised me because I’m like, that CVS wasn’t even there. There was nothing there. I think the CVS came when the condos came, but I was like, “There’s what? Hong Kong City.” There used to be a place on the corner called Gut Busters. I think Gut Busters then became something else. Now it’s Mangos. Whatever. Nothing on that corner seems to live very long. Mangos for some reason seems to be an outlier. But there’s nothing about that downtown West End area that really screams high commerce, right?

Whitney Robinson:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
Especially not that would support a kind of, quote unqoute, live, work, play condo space that was built there. And I remember they had all these little shops right there in the lobby and then I just saw them all close down and I just saw all the prices going lower and lower, and lower. I don’t know who lives over there now, but I feel like the West End has largely kind of kept most of the neighborhood pretty Black. Although I think if you go maybe two or three streets back, like People Street back there, there’s $500,000 houses back there. It’s wild.

Whitney Robinson:
So the houses on, and again, I’m new. So I’ve learned that the houses on People Street are kind of highly sought after and being right here at the park, we’ve noticed just the change in a year. It’s a weird conversation too, because we also, I use this lightly, but we are changing the pricing of the houses even around us because we bought into the neighborhood when things are kind of high. But what we’ve heard is that too people were like, “Oh you all are Black. Oh thank God.” It’s been like, okay, good. People won’t get mad at us because we know that us moving in, that change something. We are aware of that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What are your work days kind of looking like right now?

Whitney Robinson:
I’m a flower child. So I kind of do things how they come at me. I can pivot very quickly. And that’s what my work days look like. Because the kids are here, I tend to do some instruction with them until about noon. And then I will jump on a call or two. I have some consulting clients right now. And so I will work with them. I’ll do some of my side projects, but the kids are always in the mix. So if people are like, “What’s going on in the background?” It’s, “Hey, I’m homeschooling. I have kids around me constantly.” So my workdays have really forced me to be, it’s like I’m not in a cubicle and I’m not in a very quiet space. So has really forced me to be very focused in those moments that I have quiet time. But also teaching my kids to be respectful of other people doing stuff. You can’t just run around and rip and run all day.
So often while I’m working too, I’m watching them from my window because they’re outside a lot. And so like, “Okay, you all go outside.” So I’m very much a hybrid pivoting type person. I’m moving around. I don’t have one place I sit in. I’m on the front porch. I’m in the yard taking meetings. I’m all over the place. But not in a bad way. It actually really works for me. And I try to shut down by the time I pick the kids up from orchestra. And so by then it’s like, whatever. And then at night sometimes I’ll do a little bit of work, but I try to really just, I try to shut my brain down.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think that that skill of being that flexible is something we’ve all really picked up. I mean, one, during the pandemic because of remote work, but we’ve also just had to pick it up because now we have to do so many things from one place. Like home is now the office, is now the gym, is now the schoolhouse, is now a number of different things. So it sounds like that’s a skill though that you’re kind of acutely aware of and you’re able to tap into it.

Whitney Robinson:
It’s one of the skills that I sell in my consulting. I mean, who better than to do disaster reliefs on the drop of a dime than someone like me. I can think through a lot of things coming at me at once. And I really enjoy that though. If it was too buttoned up, it would feel boring to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about The Renée. Tell me about The Renée.

Whitney Robinson:
I love The Renée. Not just because it’s mine, but because it’s solving a really big juicy problem in the world. We talk about tech. There are so many first world problems in tech. And so The Renée really centered around, and it started as an experiment. Why are we still having conversations around Black maternal mortality? Really I’d had four kids at that point and just became a [inaudible 00:12:50], had no idea. And so at the top of 2019, I said, “I’m a product manager. I know how to solve things quickly. So why aren’t we doing the same in maternal health?” To me, it just felt real ashy. What’s going on? Are people just talking about it to then move on until it becomes hot topic again? So anyway, what I would typically do with my team, I did a bit of, I guess, lack of a better term, user experience research.
I went to people who were directly connected to the problem and I started hosting jam sessions. And so everyone in the room for the most part identified as, I mean, you had to be Black to get in the room, but identified as Black women who had experienced pregnancy some way, somehow, whatever that is. Five to seven people. And really it was, I would facilitate a co-design session. People would share stories, collaboratively they would identify pain points, joy points, solve them, create for them. I mean, absolutely beautiful. So that gave me goosebumps for many reasons because that first one which happened in Durham was not what I thought it would be. I thought, “Oh, something very tech enabled is going to come out of this.” But actually what came out of it was very spiritual and human. And so I stepped away from that like, “I bet the system ain’t seeing us at all, if this is the type of solutions that we want.” Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

Whitney Robinson:
And so The Renée just became this tour of jam sessions. I don’t go into a place unless I’m invited. Not because I’m so cool, but because I didn’t want it to feel like this outside reaching in approach to looking or having this conversation with locals. Like, oh, here’s this person from Durham coming to tell us what we need to do. I didn’t want it to be that way. So everything about The Renée and the jam sessions have been, I guess, lack of a better term, asset informed. We understand trauma is in this space. So everything looks and feels good. So we wouldn’t host them in a conference room. It had to be a vibey spot. It could be in someone’s house. Everything is very lean and the overhead is very low. But the impact of these jam sessions were very actionable insight into what Black women were experiencing and asking for.
So I went around the country doing this right before the pandemic. I had a queue, there was some press. Fast Company wrote about, it said something like, who is this UX girl or UX person, I forget what they wrote, having hackathons within maternal health. And then that’s when my project blew up. And so I had a queue of maybe 16 places. We could go into country. We could go in towns. We could go in cities. People were just saying, “Hey, I just want you to come to Milwaukee.” And so it goes on the list. Sure. And so we went around doing those. Pandemic, obviously ended it. So I did a few virtual ones. My last really, well, the one that most people probably know is I did one with Stacey Abrams.
And then kind of decided that I definitely hit a point of saturation. Meaning, I was just hearing the same thing over and over again. And then it became, what is The Renée? Which is what you’re asking me. So I decided, we operate as this lab, almost research and development. We have our ear to our people. We know how to listen and facilitate these kind of spaces, but we can also create what they’re asking for. We can make products or services, or experiences, art installations. We can do whatever for what people are asking for. And so that’s The Renée. It’s kind of a vibe.

Maurice Cherry:
I love that you describe it like that. I mean, first of all, if there’s anyone that knows how to make a way out of no way, out of any way, it’s Black women. Point blank period. And I love that you refer to The Renée as a lab. It’s a space for discovery, for experimentation, for fleshing out hypotheses and things like this. You’re not explicitly calling it a company or something that may have specific deliverables. I love that it’s a lab. It’s a place to experiment.

Whitney Robinson:
Absolutely. And we don’t talk disparate. I know I mentioned disparities, but that was how I kind of came to like, “Whoa, this is a problem.” But we don’t do like, oh, you all going to just die. We hear that so much. That is actually a tool that can be used against us. That goes into, again, why we don’t, everything we do feels … I tell people if you think about the Soul Train and what it did for our people in its time, that’s what I want The Renée to be. Is that people can look to us as this kind of cultural boom within maternal health, because maternal health sounds boring. It doesn’t sound sexy at all.
But what if The Renée has an impacts like Soul Train and kind of creates these offsprings all over the country? There were many Soul Trains, even in my hometown. And it’s just putting out Black culture in maternal health. And that’s why I get goose bumps when I talk about this because I don’t know everything. And even though I’m a mother of four, I’ve learned very quickly that my experience, I’ve had home births, my experience is very unique to me. And watching people design and experience with strangers, shows why it’s important for Black folks to be at the helm of their healthcare. Is just, is a different vibe than traditional healthcare or the system.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm. No, absolutely. I mean, and I’m speaking broadly here for Black people in the United States. I imagine this may be different in other countries where listers might be at. But here in the US, I mean, Black people do kind of have this mistrust of the medical system of healthcare. Whether you think about something like Henrietta Lacks or you think about, honestly, even Serena Williams. We’re talking right around the time where she’s speaking of retiring and she’s been very public about the issues that she’s had to go through with her health, with having her daughter and everything. And social media has also really helped to elevate a lot of experiences of Black women, Black people in general, but Black women specifically around healthcare issues and how we are different, Black women are different, Black people are different. Even now to the point where you’re just starting to see Black medical illustrations. It’s 2022.

Whitney Robinson:
That’s what I’m saying. And this is a crazy laugh. Not a funny. For me, I have skin in the game. [inaudible 00:20:08] children that I can either say, “Oh well pray and I hope that the system you enter into will be better.” Now, I’m a believer in prayer. But I mean, I can’t sit and I personally, Whitney, I believe this is connected to my life’s work. I feel very uncomfortable waiting or hoping that someone else will fix this thing. And it’s also why I say to people, I’m not interested in dismantling what’s out there right now. Because even if I was told, hey, let’s say, I don’t know. The president was like, “Whitney, you’re now over healthcare. Change it.” My feedback would be, “Yeah. But it’s still going to have essence of the experimentation on my people.” The conversations we’re having right now are because the system was absolutely designed to do what it’s doing.
And that’s why it’s working the way it’s working. I would love, Black people can, and I’ve seen it, design their own, quote unquote, system. And I don’t even know if we know what that looks like, because it feels like it would be a daunting task. But I have seen it happen in small spaces. I mean, no oversight, no red tape. Oh, Whitney, we need grants. None of that. Give good food. Make people feel welcome, warm, see them as human and give them space to share. You’d be amazed at the commonalities from one part of the US to the other. It’s so hard to talk about without being in it and watching it happen to say, wow, this is the connectedness of Black folks. It’s really beautiful.

Maurice Cherry:
How has The Renée changed since you founded it? You mentioned you’ve shifted to these virtual sessions, but are there other ways that it’s changed?

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. So I actually, like I said, it was just an experiment to see what would happen. There have been so many iterations of it. So the jam sessions led to, I created a web application using no-code tools because who has the time. One of the things I heard a lot was support. Support how, no matter where I birth, how I birth. If we can feel supported, it’s a game changer. And so I learned from all of these conversations what a good support system looks like. So we put our web application out in the world for people to use to answer what Black women were asking for. I want to feel supported and I want to know how to build good support systems. Another thing that has changed, especially during the pandemic as healthcare has definitely changed. A lot of virtual things have come to the forefront. Quite a few university based hospital systems have reached out to us to say, hey, help us solve our Black problem and tokenize.
And I know it’s a thing. And so I never saw that coming. I did not. I really went into this thinking like, “Oh, purely, this will be some kind of tech thing.” Not maybe totally tech, but did not see the opportunity to actually work with healthcare systems. So I’ve collaborated with MIT, UCSF and a wearable technology company, and have had conversations with Penn, Duke, several. And so what it has, now I’m on edge a little bit because when you put something out there, very optimistic about what Black folks can do, when these kind of players are coming in, your delivery has to be buttoned up and so sharp. Going back to beginning of our conversation, that’s not very buttoned up, is not really my style. But I am having to think about, you know what? I want to be as big as Google.
I want whole municipalities and employers and whatever, who are like, we really are invested in seeing our Black mothers and Black parents have better experiences, help us to create whatever we need to internally to do that. I want The Renée to do that. So I think during these last couple of years, especially, I’ve gotten a bigger picture. I want to think about the future and not just the present. I want to think, what do I see? How do we see a Black design and led maternal space in the future? And what does it look like to then build based on what we see in the future?

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s go more into that. What does design within kind of maternal healthcare, reproductive justice, what does that look like? Paint a picture?

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. It looks slow. By slow I mean, it’s not really built on efficiency. And so we’re in a system right now that is graded, we’re not in a system, but healthcare in many ways. So I have to be clear. I’m not a medical provider, but just working in the system and with people in the system and having conversations. We’re looking at a system that is built on efficiency and their bottom line, whereas where we’re going will feel more like tender, loving care. It will feel like, oh, you just spent two hours with me to talk about my dog and now we can get into my healthcare. People want to feel the connection and the recall, and the consistency with providers. So for instance, one of the challenges in kind of, I guess, traditional maternal health is that you may not always have the same doctor, but when you’re talking to Black folks and what feels safe, it’s a consistency of care.
It’s oh, I’ve had this person kind of walk with me throughout a process. I think we will begin to look more like the midwifery. Honestly, we talk about, oh, we want to go back to the good old days, but this is a space that I do think the future probably will look more like what we used to do. So that’s why I said slow. It will feel consistent like what a midwife would do. They are your person. Your appointments are hours long. You can call, text whenever you need to. They come to you. It feels like a whole wraparound care. It is high touch. The success is you having a good experience. Your outcome sometimes you can’t gauge. But what if success is the experience of the person? And that’s what I believe Black folks are asking for. I want you to care about not just saving me and my child. I want you to care about my experience throughout, from beginning to end. Think of it as a flow. All of the touch points in between are intentional. So that’s where we’re going and that’s what I want to help build.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, just hearing you talk about this sounds, I can’t quite put it into words. It’s a very warm feeling. That’s what you want to have. If you’re not feeling well, if you’re sick or something, you want that kind of convalescent sort of care. And I think certainly our current system doesn’t work that way. It’s very cold and in efficient in many ways. We’re not even talking about insurance and stuff. But yeah, I like that slow, I guess, feeling or that slow experience that you mentioned. It’s more about, I guess, taking the time, building that rapport and making sure that people have a good experience. It’s not just about the care. It’s about the experience with the care also.

Whitney Robinson:
Definitely. And I do think it’s colorful. Just think about, again, going into a hospital or something, very harsh, bright lights, white walls, white lab coats. When I was having my first home birth, my grandmother told me, “That’s beneath you as a Black educated woman to do that.” But she was born at home. So this is an intergenerational conversation also, because let’s be honest, there’s a little bit of keeping up with the Joneses that happened to us. Oh, white women are doing this so we should do this or they’re saying it’s safe and so that’s the safest place for us. And then there’s this spiral.
And so my grandmother saying that to me, with all of her sass made me realize too, oh, this is not just one sided. Like, oh we can’t just look at hospitals and the providers, but this is generational. So many of the conversations too around birth experiences of older generations were covered in shame. And so those things were not shared. And so this new, or this system that is going back to really the things that granny midwives and doulas do constantly, it’s a part of their service, we are basically going to that. That’s what I would love to see because I believe, I’m banking on that being the care that people are asking for, that people want.

Maurice Cherry:
What other kinds of projects are you working on? You have The Renée, before we started recording, you mentioned you’re also doing something called Product Groove as well. What other projects are you working on?

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. Just know, I grew up on funk. My first concert was James Brown. It is a very heavy thread in my life the way I was raised by my parents. And so Product Groove really, I wish someone could do an imagery of a record for it. The imagery in my mind is we have so many, I have worked with so many first time or non-technical founders of color specifically who have an idea and they go and hire a dev shop. And then by the time they hire me, I’m like, “Ooh Lord. You about to have to refinance your whole house just to pivot.” So Product Groove is just a natural kind of iteration of the work that I’ve been doing with founders and companies. I love to just focus on non-technical and first time founders of color and helping them build strategy.
So it’s a support coaching product strategy type thing. I mean, to be corny, it’s helping you get into a groove. It’s helping you understand like, who’s your customer? And I have an idea, but should I really build something on it or is it just good for me? That happens a lot. People will discover a problem, but really they just, they’re the only one that cares about it. I want to help founders not make costly mistakes. And so it will be in cohort style, group sessions couple times a month. And I’m definitely asking people, I ask people to be committed to it financially and with their time, because what I am really good at is helping people build strategy, roadmaps, understand their people, understand research, things like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s kind of switch up a little bit, switch gears here. I want to learn more about kind of your origin story. Some of which I know because we’ve actually had your sister on the show before, but we can talk about that. But tell me about where you grew up and what was your childhood like?

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. I grew up in the country in the sticks when the neighbors, you couldn’t see them. I grew up playing outside all day, which is why I raised my kids the same way. No matter the weather, they’re outside. So I explored a lot. I was bored a lot. My sisters were my best friends and too because my mom was like, “You go to school, you come home.” That’s it. And so my parents played records all the time. People came to our house for drinks. So I just remember growing up, it was a very funky environment. And so my parents being very stylish people with high standards and also just really hard workers. I didn’t think of myself in lack and that’s not even just monetary. I knew that I could think through anything. I wasn’t taught to fist fight or anything.
I was taught, if you can think through this, you can get through it, period. So I went to a very rural country high school in North Carolina and then I ended up at Duke. Actually let me back up. I ended up at Carnegie Mellon for pre-college, two pre-college programs. I think that’s when I realized, Ooh you a nerd. I was doing gaming and stuff back in, I don’t know, 20, God, before I went to college. So early 2000. And then went to Duke, which was a shock. It was a culture shock to me.

Maurice Cherry:
How so?

Whitney Robinson:
I was top of my class in high school, but I came to Duke feeling like the bottom. And imagine a place where there’s an academic rigor and not that many Black folks. And then I chose computer science, so I was the only, only, only, only. I always said that if I went back to Duke and I gave feedback, I would, maybe it’s in the past and just let it go. But there was so much kind of leaving, so much of the work was team based and computer science and I was left out sometimes. People would just be meeting and not let me know. I was reprimanded for things and I was like, “Wait, how are you all doing that?” But I tried so, so, so, so hard. So would I do Duke again? Yes. But I think I would realize there is a fight in me that I did not realize.
But the good thing about Duke is I actually started in VR and I built … Duke had this six sided cube called the die and you enter it in and you are in an immersive space. So I started doing game design and character and asset design, and 3D. And that was fun. And so I created a simulation. Of course, it was a runway with a dude in an afro and bell bottoms. It was just a thread in my life. But you walked in and you saw this guy walk away from you. He turned around, he came back, his clothes changed. And so Duke really did though push some of the envelope for me when it came to the way that I approached things. The look and feel, and the vibe. I also walked around with an afro. I was one of the only people that was wearing a natural and I wore bell bottoms. I was just a nerdy person.

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean, was that uncommon on Duke’s campus?

Whitney Robinson:
I think so, because I think, especially in the Black population, I think people came from so many other cities, like New York, Atlanta. I’m a Southern girl raised in the sticks. And so I do think there was a bit of difference. I don’t think it was, people were pointing at me or making me feel bad about it. But I do think I kind of [inaudible 00:36:14].

Maurice Cherry:
You just felt different. Yeah.

Whitney Robinson:
I felt different. Yeah. I think I brought a different type of energy.

Maurice Cherry:
I know exactly what you’re talking about. I felt that way when I went to Morehouse. I too am from the sticks. I’m from Selma, Alabama. And when I first got to Morehouse, I did a pre-college thing too the summer before graduation. And it was so funny that that summer because, first of all, I couldn’t leave Selma fast enough. I was like, “Oh, it starts in June. I graduate at late May. Let’s go.” I was ready to go. There was that aspect of it. But also I graduated top of my class in high school and then I get to Morehouse and it’s like meeting, at least in my program, meeting 20 other people that are just me, at least in that way, where they were top of their class where they’re at and now they come here and it’s from all over the country. In some cases, I don’t think it was in our program.
It was maybe in an adjacent program because they put us in a dorm with, I think, two other programs. So we all kind of co-mingled with each other. But there were people there from other countries that I had only heard about in school. I had never known about meeting people from the Virgin islands or from a country in Africa or from Haiti, but they were there and it’s like, “Oh, I’m learning about you all in person,” and stuff like that. I know what you mean about that kind of weird country [inaudible 00:37:38]. I had an afro in college. And what was interesting for me is I came in, and because Morehouse is a all male school, my mom is a seamstress and my grandmother is a seamstress. So they taught me how to sew and do everything from a really early age. So when I came in already knowing how to wash clothes, how to iron, how to fix a button, how to sew a hole in a sock.
That was a weird opportunity for me to get to know other people in the program because something would happen and they would know what to do. “Oh, I got a hole in my sock. Oh I lost a button.” I will say, “Oh I can sew that back on.” “Oh, you don’t know how to iron. I can do that. I can show you how to do that.” Or they wash all their clothes and they all come out pink or something like that.
I was like, “Oh no, you got to separate. You can’t put the whole box of laundry detergent in there. You have to just put a scoop or something.” Teaching them how to read the tags on the laundry. And they’re like, “How do you know this stuff?” I’m like, “You all didn’t take home-ec?” They didn’t take home-ec. But it ended up that sort of weakness, I guess, at least what I perceived as a weakness ended up being a strength. Because then I ended up getting to know other people and I felt like I was more supposed to be there as opposed to just kind of landing there because of my grade. You know what I mean?

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. I do know what you mean. I mean, when I graduated, woo, I had a sigh relief because I just felt like I graduated by the skin of my teeth. But now years, years later, almost 15 years later after graduation, the thing that Duke does get you is in the door. It’s almost like you sacrifice your mental health to get to the door. And for me it feels like the tech world, there are some people that graduated with me that were early Facebook. We were those people. And so I think went from tech bro culture for me to tech bro culture. I really knew how to navigate it when I graduated.

Maurice Cherry:
And you’ve held a number of product roles at some pretty well known tech companies. You were at Abstract for a while. You were at Hire Runner, just to name two of them. But you’ve also kind of always had your own entrepreneurial ventures on the side as well. You had Freshly Given, you had Charles & Whitney. Why was it important to kind of always have something on the side like that?

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. I like to think about, anytime I took a full-time gig, that was the side.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Whitney Robinson:
The reason why I say that is because I am an entrepreneur at my heart and sometimes my husband and I are like, “Okay, look, we got to pay some bills around here. We have one, two, three, four kids. Just get a job.” So he or I would do that. We bounced and done that over the years. Yeah. But the thread, again, has always been, I mean, if you look at my LinkedIn, I’ve basically worked for myself for the majority of my career and have jumped on other teams or consulted with other teams throughout that time. Freshly Given was the only one that was way left field. That was a leather, I found discarded leather in a country town in North Carolina and decided, why would people throw away leather? What if we can reintroduce leather back into commerce? And so that was that project and that lasted for a while. And that was really fun until I started having kids. One day, I’ll pick it back up.

Maurice Cherry:
It kind of will always be there.

Whitney Robinson:
It’ll always be there. And that’s why I’m like, we talked about this at the beginning. That’s why I’m becoming more okay with letting stuff go knowing that life is short, but there’s also this long game. I get up in five years and maybe I’ll do it even better or maybe it doesn’t matter. I’ll be picking it back up and I put it down for whatever reason and that’s okay too.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a good thing about having the freedom to do that. But also it just adds to your overall body of work. You’ve done this thing, you’ve done it for a certain amount of years and you’ve decided not to do it anymore. And people may feel some kind of way about it. But if you want to pick it up later, you can. And if you don’t, you don’t, because you know that you have the capacity to always come up with something new.

Whitney Robinson:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. How have you sort of built your confidence over the years as a creative professional?

Whitney Robinson:
A lot of talking to myself in the mirror, honestly. A lot of prayer. A lot of realizing that people have been here before. I have to be careful, and maybe other millennials can relate, I have to be careful because we do live in a time where people are, “Oh I have an idea. I’m putting it out there. I’m making millions of dollars. You all can do that too.” It is okay for just in my confidence to realize, Whitney, oh, you’re wrong. That’s okay. Or again, people have done this before. It sounds cliche, but you stand on the shoulders of so many people who are now cheering you on. When you feel like you’re the only person doing something, for me, it feels like, woo, daunting. But when I look at myself as a byproduct of generations of people, then I’m really arriving on the same equipped.
I’m not lacking. I’m not a disparity. I’m not what other folks say I am, other folks who don’t identify like me or whatever. I am who all these folks who came before me said I am. I am the combination of their work and their prayers and their rest or their lack thereof. I have to have those moments with myself because I do it a lot as a mother too. Oh, you’re just not doing it well. That’s the craziest thing to think that as a mother I’m not doing well when I give it, I don’t want to give it my all because then I’ll be burned out. But I give it a really good effort daily. And so yeah, it’s those moments where I realize, ooh Whitney, you doing okay. You good.

Maurice Cherry:
That just gave me goosebumps talking about that kind of, I show up on the scene prepared, that just gave me goosebumps, because you’re right. I mean, so much of what we do is, at least I think now as adults working now, it is the byproduct of our parents, our grandparents, other people in our community praying for us, pushing us on, supporting us. We have what we need to succeed. And so even sometimes when that imposter syndrome can creep up, it’s just good to sort of have that, to know that, you have that conviction that you know that you’re prepared. Oh God, ooh, that really got to me.

Whitney Robinson:
I do think that as we have a lot of conversations about being woke and the things that were pressed upon us about ourselves that were not true when we first arrived in the US, how much of that is this continual thread in our lives. And again, that’s why I like to look at that and say, ooh, who told you that you aren’t supposed to be here? Who told you that? Think about where that came from and keep moving forward.

Maurice Cherry:
What keeps you motivated to move forward these days?

Whitney Robinson:
I’m really, really excited about the future. When I look at my kids and I see even their ability to create very beautiful things. My children love snakes. I am very afraid of snakes, but they love snakes. They pick them up in our yard now that they know how to identify them. And they just fiddling. Imagine, it’s great. They are frolicking with snakes all the time. I only have one girl and the rest of them are boys and even, you may have an assumption that she would be … She’s a ringleader. So I’m really optimistic about it because I can defer my fear so that these little folks can pass me.
At just the age that they are right now, they’re already doing more than I could even possibly think I would be doing. I have an opportunity, not only to raise a generation of people, but in my quiet time, I do see us winning. I see Black people winning and I do like the shifts around our bodies, our minds, our culture that we are collectively happening. Because these are the things we look back on and say, oh, that generation of people did what we are living, we are able to do now.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s funny, I talk about that sometimes with my friends about, we’ll say we don’t really feel like sometimes we’re adults or we’re kind of adulting or whatever. And it’s like, we are the adults now. We are the ones that are doing … It’s funny. I think about, and I don’t mean this in a lofty way, but just to kind of use the show as an example. When Revision Path got put into the Smithsonian in 2019, I was dumbfounded that it happened, partially because I had been working so hard. I had really been working on it since 2015. That’s a whole other story. But it happened and then the very next day at work, my boss, he was the CEO of the startup I was working at, this white dude, just gave me the worst professional dressing down I’ve had in my career.
I was just at the top of, I was like, “I feel like I reached a career high and now you’re like, oh, let me shoot him down to this point.” And it was funny because in the time that it happened, initially I didn’t even really celebrate it. It happened in June or July, I think of 2019 and I never really got a chance to celebrate it. And then I went to Harvard in October for the Black in Design Conference that they have there every other year. And that felt like my victory lab going to that. And so many people that had seen me work on this throughout the years and had seen me do it that were just like, “You’re doing a good job. Congratulations. How can we help out?” That sort of thing.
That’s just a night and day kind of experience. I don’t know if what I said even related to what you just said, but for some reason when you mentioned that, that came to mind right away of … And I’m not just me, but more so we are now in the point where we are making the history, we’re doing the historical things. And it may seem like a day to day thing, but people are going to look back on what we’ve done in 2070 and be like, “Wow, this kind of stuff was happening back then.” So that sort of, it helps me to think that the work that I’m doing is not in a vacuum and that it’s part of a continuum.

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. And I like to call them cornerstones. I think that those moments, whether they’re great or not, are cornerstones for our lives. And by cornerstone, I mean they often have some kind of inflection point and that is, but then collectively your entire life. For you, for instance, Maurice, your entire life is a cornerstone in the history of this country, your family. And so I think that if we look at it that way, it’s the day to day nuances you realize are collectively coming together to do a thing. And even just, like one of the things I am working on right now related to The Renée is around, is this kind of photo journalistic tour of the south capturing Black women in spaces of thriving so that our cornerstone during this pandemic, especially is that they were dying more. But you see these people in, I don’t know, Alabama are thriving and they Black. These are the things that I do think about in my life for these ups and downs.

Maurice Cherry:
At this stage of where you’re at in your career and in life, how do you define success?

Whitney Robinson:
That is ever changing but I would say, yes, right now, if it reduces my stress levels, it is successful. So if I don’t have an adverse reaction to it, so meaning I feel real good about it. Not that it’s easy, but it doesn’t feel like it’s weighing heavy on me unnecessarily, then I consider that success. So at this point, even projects that I join or people that I help. If I get that initial inkling of, hmm, girl, this ain’t it. I walk away and that feels like success. It’s listening and acting immediately without the fear of, oh, but don’t you need that? Or what if? I am not a fearful person and so I need to remember that my angle in life is, again, that I’m not behind the eight ball. That I am a person who will attract many opportunities, but not all of them are for me. And the things that are successful or lead to success for me are the things that create a space where Whitney can live and feel free within myself, within my community, within my family, all of those things.

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

Whitney Robinson:
I want still be in the maternal health space for sure. And by then in five years, actually the analogy that I tell people, going back to the Soul Train, if we get to the place where people see the pregnancy and everything at the beginning and the end as a Soul Train line, and we’re all supporting each other as one person goes down, that’s what I want. If our narrative shift gets to that point, oh my God, that would be incredible. But I want to continue to be in this maternal health space. I want providers, folks to look at us as a force. And so I’m sticking with this for a while. I want it to be creative. I want to dibble and dabble in the arts and be creative. Do new things that people just did not expect could come out of this space for us. So that’s five years. That’s what my career … I want The Renée to be my full-time, full-time

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

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. I’m obviously on LinkedIn, which is Whitney Robinson. Right now I have red lips and an afro on my profile pick. And then The Renée. And you can email me about anything at The Renée because I absolutely love email, but The Renée is the, so T-H-E, -renee, that’s R-E-N-E-E, .com. And you could find me at whitney@the-renee.com, but the website is the-renee.com.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Whitney Robinson, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. Since we’ve connected back in, what was that? 2018, 2018 when we met at XOXO, I’ve always felt like you’ve had this, there’s this presence about you. And I think people have to maybe, I hope they can feel it from the interview, but certainly when I first met you in person, you have this presence that like the ancestors are walking with you in everything that you’re doing. And even this work that you’re doing around maternal healthcare, hearing you talk about it with such passion and conviction. I’m so excited to see what you do in the future with this. I want to walk with you as you make this happen, because I really feel like you are on the right side of something here. And I hope that people, when they listen to this interview, they can feel that because I certainly do. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Whitney Robinson:
Thank you for those words. And I am very appreciative of this opportunity.

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Jeff Jean-Baptiste

I became familiar with Gusto several months ago through my last gig, and I was so pleased with the user experience that I had to find out who some of the folks were behind it. And wouldn’t you know it — one of them happens to be a former 28 Days of the Web honoree. Meet Jeff Jean-Baptiste!

After a quick check-in to see how things are going, Jeff talked about his role as a product designer and gave some info on his behind-the-scenes design work at the company. From there, Jeff shared his origin story of growing up in Miami, how anime became his gateway to art, and talked about his interest in architecture and how that drives his current design focus. He even gave some insight into the Orlando design community and talked about finding success at this point his career.

For Jeff — and for all of us, really — anything worth having is worth working hard towards. So get out there and make it happen!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Hey, so my name is Jeff Jean-Baptiste, a designer focused on just building great thoughtfully crafted experiences for people, just software that works.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2022 been going so far?

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Oh man, 2022 has been actually pretty amazing. I mean the backdrop of a lot of things happening in the world for me personally, is worked out pretty well, both professionally and in my personal life, my wife and I, we closed on a house so that’s going to be our first home, so that should be done in a couple months.
So that’s pretty exciting and, yeah, work it’s been pretty magical. Just the things that I’m doing is pretty exciting. I’m still very much so happy at my current role, and we’re doing a lot of great things that I’m looking forward to building on.

Maurice Cherry:
So what is it that you want to try to accomplish for the rest of the year? Do you have any sort of plans that you set forth at the beginning of the year that you want to try to do?

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah, I’ll talk about the two things. One on the professional side, I would say one thing I’m trying to get better at is becoming a better storyteller and I can get into more of that later as well. But yeah, that’s one thing, it’s a part of my goal is just can be able to tell a more cohesive and better story about when you’re designing products.
There’s always this the customer aspect and the pain that you’re highlighting and how you’re the things you’re designing, how it solves their pain. So I believe that’s one of the best ways people communicate and I’m a big, big movie buff. So I love stories. I’ve also started to read a lot lately and it’s just the way that stories are told. I feel like it’s an awesome communication method and I want to get better at that.
And first personally, in my life, I mentioned earlier where we’re close on the house, so that should be happening soon. So yeah, just ready for that whole process to be done and then going to be booking some time to relax. So we’ll be going on a cruise in a couple months and just out in the open sea. And that should be cool.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Take it now before the next global health scare happens, if you can try to squeeze it in there, I’m curious about this storytelling. Are there certain resources or things that you’re looking at to try to help increase your storytelling skills?

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
I haven’t looked at anything specifically. I just follow certain folks that I think are great story to. There’s a lot of people at my Gusto that are really great at this, and I’m actually being mentored right now by somebody internally in product who’s just trying to build that muscle a little bit more. And then, yeah, I think I’ve taken some cues from folks internally and then as well as I think Twitter is a great place for resources.
If you follow the right folks, there’s a lot of good nuggets of information there, but just trying to hone that skill a little bit more just through actually doing it myself. That’s I think is the biggest part of it is as I’m presenting design work, I’m really cognizant of how I am delivering that message and trying to communicate. So I’m actively doing that work as well as taking in some of his other external information as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about your work at Gusto. You’re a product designer there and you started last year. Is that right?

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah. Yeah. It’s almost been a year now. So in September I started. Yeah. So I started last year. Yeah. I’m going to working on a zero to one team and basically just a part of Gusto that doesn’t exist yet, which is specifically around HR tools and we’re building things like performance management and also some other things around HR tooling for customers to help develop and retain their talent at their organizations, which is super relevant right now in this environment with recruiting and everything and layoffs.
And I’m learning in real time, just seeing everything happening and also looking at my work and how I’m trying to help other businesses to try to develop and retain being a really big piece of that, their talent and how we can support that. But Gusto has been super great. It’s really great when you interview with a company and oh, you sell these mission and values and everything and you align with those things. And then after a few months at the company, you’re like, “Okay, something don’t match up.” But I found that.
I thought that I’m still like, wow, it still makes sense. It’s still relevant. And everyone is still what they sold me was true so that’s always good. It’s been quite the experience. I’m learning so much at this scale up and everyone around me and how we collaborate cross functionally is just awesome to work with these folks. They’re super talented. And it’s just an honor to work for a company. That’s doing some great things with some great folks.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s actually, that’s really good to hear. I can tell you just from the end-user perspective, I first encountered Gusto last year at the current place where I’m working at. They use Gusto for payroll and all that sort of stuff. And the whole experience is so friendly and inviting-

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
… which for HR software is a feat to accomplish because most of that stuff is like, “Oh, I’m only going to go in here to file time off or whatever.” It’s not user friendly. It doesn’t spark joy to use Marie Kondo’s phrase it. It doesn’t give you those feelings of like, “Oh, I actually want to poke around and see what’s on these other pages. The illustrations are fun. The color coordination is great.” I mean, again, from the end-user perspective, I like it a lot.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah. That’s a big part of what you’re beat against those as well. It feels likely human. You talk about these friendly aspects of it. It’s a delightful experience. It’s easy to use. And yeah, typically HR software is not that, right? It’s not sexy. It’s not-

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
… doesn’t make you want use it. It’s not approachable. Yeah. Design has been a big part of Gusto’s DNA since the beginning that one of the first hires of Gusto and when they were a startup 10 plus years ago, it was a design hire. So design has always been a big part of Gusto’s DNA.
And we’re continuing that we have a big investment in design and being led by Amy, our chief design officer that speaks volumes to where, “Hey, at the highest levels we have advocacy for design.” And her leadership is she’s bringing that influence to conversations at those levels as well in our strategy and direction in our vision.
So we don’t have to fight for that seat at the table. It’s already there. It’s all right now design, shows what you got let’s make this happen.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s really good. I think for a lot of tech startups, at least maybe it’s just the ones I’ve been at, but certainly there’s others that I’ve seen where design is always this afterthought. It’s something that maybe they’ll bring a designer on or they’ll have a few freelancers.
But you can tell the focus is really on just making sure that the product works and adding new features to it. Design tends to be a bit of a… We’ll get to it kind of thing. It’s very utilitarian. So it’s good to hear that for Gusto, that design is really at the forefront of everything that y’all try to do.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Oh yeah, totally. You hit the nail around here what you said, design have this afterthought a lot of times, and it’s a strategic part of building a product, thinking about design. It’s not just that fresh coat of paint you do after you build something, right? It’s from the beginning talking to customers, learning about those user problems, and distilling that down to the root problems and finding a thoughtful way to approach that even that is part of design way before even start putting those pixels out there and start delivering mocks to the engineers and stuff like that. So it starts really, really early on before any code is pushed. So yeah, design being like this thread that’s followed throughout, even from the end of delivery of the designs. And that’s what we try to practice, keeping that spirit of design, being at the forefront of everything that we do. And that’s super important. It really shows in the product, right? So that experience that end-to-end experience, you can tell, “Hey, this has been designed,” not like, “Hey, we just layered something on top of something that was probably just strictly technically engineering led or something.”

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm. Talk to me more about what the team looks like? You’re on the product design team. I imagine. Is it for a specific feature of the app? Talk to me more about that.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah. So we broke it up in these segments and I mean, an employer segment. So we focus on all of our customers, our business owners who are using Gusto to pay their employees and ensure them and use HR tooling for performance management and all that. And my team specifically, we’re working on the HR side and our mission is to help customers develop and retain their talent.
So my team is made up of myself, I’m the designer and I have a PM counterpart. He’s actually a hybrid a PM engineer, which is pretty amazing. He actually was a pretty strong, strong engineering leader in our team. And he actually started this PM rotation. And now he’s diving into that world and it’s been awesome to work with someone that has two sides of that coin there.
And we also have about four or five other engineers supporting this team. So our team we’re pretty much building those HR tools. We have that part of Gusto’s space expanding, Gusto’s portfolio past, just the payment and the ensuring benefits and side of things going into that HR tooling space. So yeah, we’re super excited to bring that part of Gusto to our customers.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, is this your first time working remotely for a team like this?

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
No, actually my remote professional journey actually started in my previous role at AdventHealth as a huge experience designer so that was the beginning of the pandemic. This is right around what? January 2020, somewhere around there. And a couple months into that, I was about a little bit over a year or so in that role, when I got into doing remote work for the first time, when they sent us home, they were like, “Hey, take your laptops and everything.” And being a part of AdventHealth, that’s a large health system.
So there was a lot of need, as you can imagine for us to deliver some digital experiences, to help with some telehealth type of things we’re working on at the time. So that was a pretty accelerated, but a hyper learning time for me on both the product, working on a product side for designing those products for app health and as well as, “Hey, now we’re in this remote world.” How do we work, right? And just learning that you have to be really intentional about remote work to make that work. And communication is one of those big key learnings there during that experiences.

Maurice Cherry:
I think a lot of companies definitely had to come to terms with that very quickly over the past couple of years. But for me, it’s been interesting. I’ve worked remotely since roughly about 2009, late 2008 was when-

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Wow.

Maurice Cherry:
… I started, but I’ve been working remotely because I had my own studio for a long time. And then once I got back into the quote, unquote, “workforce,” at the end of 2017, every gig that I’ve had after that has been remote first. So even with times where you’ve had to still go to an office or for something like that, most I say 90% of the work that I’ve done over the past five years has all been remote.
And it’s interesting seeing now how companies are trying to adapt to that, particularly in environments where that in person collaboration one was so key. But I would say also when it comes to looking for talents, a lot of these companies, if they’re in New York or in the San Francisco, Silicon Valley, et cetera, they’re used to looking for design talent right where they’re at.
And now with the pandemic and people being able to work remotely as they are. I feel like that probably does a lot for decentralizing design talent. What do you think about that in this current environment?

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah, I think just being forced at a mass level to work remotely, I think a lot of employees, right? So as I sees, we realize that, “Hey, I can still do this work from home and I’m actually enjoying all these other benefits that comes with that, right?” So obviously I don’t have to commute to work. There’s all that stuff eliminated. You save some time, but then also on the business side of things, you realize that there’s more focus on your outcomes versus your outputs.
I feel like there’s a new type of lens being put onto what are actually the employees producing, what are the actual outcomes of that experience? And I think just realizing all these different things and some of the advantages, and obviously there’s some disadvantages around communication and being more intentional about that. But I think it levels the playing field in a way. Now we’re looking at it from a perspective of, “Hey, I can hire anyone from anywhere in the country.”
They can do that work from home, right? And then we have to think about how do we strategically compete now on this level because now that someone like myself where I’m in Florida, so Gusto in California and being able to work remotely, there’s obviously a distribution now of talent across the entire country. So I think it switches the conversation a little bit less about location and proximity to some of these more bigger tech hubs in New Yorker, San Francisco.
And it’s now strictly focused on the talent itself. What are they producing? What are the outcomes? What impacts that come with these specific candidates when we’re talking to them? So I think, yeah, it’s pretty much leveling that playing field, but now I think another shift in that is around now that it’s a level, in a sense we’re looking at talent, that bar is getting more competitive as well.
So I think that’s an interesting dynamic that’s happening, but I think it’s a good one. I think on both the company and the talent side of things, everyone’s looking at the things that matter more. So at the end of the day, it’s about the outcomes, the impacts that you actually have as a designer, as an engineer versus your outputs. It’s like, oh, I can see you doing things in the office. And generally these office of conversations and things it’s easier to hide.
I feel like when you’re in an office setting versus remotely like, “Hey, we’re strictly measuring based on,” Like, “Hey, what can you actually tangibly impact to the team in the business?” There’s more of a focus on those things now. And especially in this time where we’re contracting a little bit in the markets, right? So companies are doing layoffs and they’re trying to save money, right? So they’re looking at like, “Hey, do I have the right people to support my company for the next 10 plus years?” Where do I need to strategically invest in talent? And where is waste?
Unfortunately, there is a layout since things happening because people might have over hired, right? During previous years and didn’t foresee some of this economic type of turmoil going on and everything with the market and the economics of this country. But yeah, it’s being very strategic about who you’re hiring and there’s a more to focus on individual impact.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, absolutely. I mean, I know that there were certainly a few companies that during the pandemic, they really became unicorns in a way. A lot of companies really leaned on them. And then now that culture is changing. As people are starting to get back out there, more travel, offices in some places are reopening, et cetera.
Now it’s like, “Oh, we need to scale back because we can’t support the level at which we’ve grown or they haven’t found an effective way to, I don’t know, I guess pivots to that, which is just business. That’s just how business goes. But to what you said earlier around about how this new environment means that you can pull talent from anywhere, it does strip away a lot of the…
I would say trappings of work, a lot of social trappings of work before I’m saying this we’re back in the old days, but it was more about showing up to work at a certain time and you hang out after work and you get to know people. And I mean, that stuff is great. But then when everyone’s just reporting in a Slack team, it strips away all these ways that you try to be so overly social that it’s like, “Okay.” What about the work that you’re doing-

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
… is the output of the work? What we need? Or are you just nice to have around?

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That whole thing about, I feel like, and I don’t know how true this is, but I feel like that whole excuse about a culture fit gets weakened a bit now, because of this new environment.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah. I totally agree with that. That culture fit is definitely weakened in a sense, right? One of the interesting thing, I don’t know if you saw this, but with remote work as well, a lot of companies have able to become a lot more diverse. They saw Black employees have risen some of the percentages there. It’s pretty interesting to see how it’s that decentralization of talent, someone who’s in a specific part of the country.
That’s not willing to move to the west coast to work for a specific company but they’re available now, right? So now I can hire that person and companies have actually become more diverse now being able to do that in remote. So there’s a lot of different changing dynamics. And I think for the most part, I think it’s a net good.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think so, too. What would you say is probably the most challenging part about the work that you’re doing now?

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Oh man, the challenge that I would say the work that I’m doing now, well on one side of it, the remote side of it as well, communication, I alluded to this earlier. That’s one of the keys to being super successful in a team, right? So being able to communicate effectively, but as far as the work itself, we’re taking on a new challenge, right? So Gusto historically has been more on the payroll and benefit side of things and we’re doing a lot of learning and talking to customers and trying to figure out what are the hardest challenges they’re facing right now in trying to engage and retain employees.
And what’s happening right now with folks that are doing layoffs and things like that. It’s very hard to try to get ahead of that, right? In case as an employee, but also on the business side, if you’re not doing layoffs, then employees who decide to leave for another company, how do you even get ahead of something like that? We talk to a lot of customers who try to understand those pains and how do you develop people internally too?
So it’s a super interesting space just working. It’s working in people, basically it’s people management and that’s a super hard thing to work in as well. Just how do you look at these relationships between companies and employees and try to help these companies retain these folks?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I think now certainly with us now being roughly three years in with this, there are people I’ve had on the show who have started their career in a remote position. And now they’re moving from remote position to remote position. And the difficulty that I see some of them with is that the job changes.
But I’m still in the same place because it’s from home, they’re working from home and it’s like, yeah, you can set those boundaries and close that laptop and such. But that separation is just so hard to have between a physical office and your home. Everything is condensed into one space.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah. It’s hard to make that separation for sure. And even every day I just get up and close my laptop and then I turn around and the TV’s right there. I’m just like, “Okay.” It doesn’t really feel like you’re actually disconnected sometimes. But I have done a lot of freelancing actually for a very long time since being in college and I’m actually been used to it to some degree.
So I’d have a day job as doing a design and going into an office, but then I’d also do freelance on the side where I’m actually working at home and helping folks with doing their websites or whatever at that time. So it was in a… I was prepared for this moment and I think that’s why I leaned into it so heavily.
As soon as I got tasted remote, I was like, “Oh yeah, this is me.” And I literally was looking after my last role. I was like, “Hey, I got to find something that was that’s remote first.” That’s what I want. I know that’s where I’d be comfortable.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, for me, the main way to have that separation is to… And I mean, this is a luxury, I think to even say this, but to have two separate machines, my main machine at home that I work on is a windows desktop. And my work machine is a MacBook pro.
So it’s completely different for me at the end of the day, I close my laptop, I put it in the closet one, so I don’t have to see it, just I don’t want that visual cue, but then when I’m getting ready for the next day work is right there. So it’s like, “Okay, take the laptop out, plug it in. I’m at work now.”

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
So you not only have that physical separation and actually being able to see it, but then you also have a different operating system.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, exactly. It’s completely different operating system, different peripherals. I’m like, “Okay.” I have to really separate it that way. Because back when I had my studio and I’ll talk about your freelance work too. But back when I had my studio, I would tell people, “Yeah, I can work half days all the time, any 12 hours I want.” I would just stay on the computer, working, working, working, because there wasn’t that separation for me. I was doing work and non-work from the same machine.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah. I will say that. So I’m the type of person where time can run away from me. I can be working and then I can forget that I need to quote, unquote, “clock out, right?” So my wife tries to pull me my desk. It’s like, “Hey, it’s past five. What are you doing?” One thing I’m excited about. Like I mentioned earlier, I’m working to be getting a house soon.
So I will have a dedicated office. So right now I’m in this, it’s an office/space that we used to watch TV. But when there’s more of a separation there, I can intentionally walk out of here and be like, “All right, works done.” Now I’m going to live my personal life.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. You’ll love it. I’m telling you just having that separate space. That is great.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah. I’m looking forward to it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So let’s switch gears here a little bit, learn more about you and about where you grew up. You alluded to college and studying design and I want to get there eventually, but let’s go back. Tell me about your childhood were you kind exposed to a lot of art and design and stuff growing up?

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah, I would say I have been exposed to a lot of art and design in very subtle ways. I grew up in Miami, Florida as where I was born. And at the time, I used to watch a lot of cartoons. I loved cartoons and I used to just try to redraw different cartoons. Of course, during my time, Dragon ball Z stuff like that. And I used to really do a lot of comics myself. I could try to basically create comic book series. I actually came up with one, I think in middle school. I even distributed it out and tried to sell some.
And so I was always super into drawing and art and design, and I was just always trying to find creative outlet. I was more of a house like nerd. So I’m looking into doing things on the computer. I didn’t even start doing anything digitally until later, but I was very much so thinking that, “Hey, I’m going to be an artist or something like that when I grow up or whatever.”
And then when I got to high school, I started looking at really, how can I really make a career out of this? And that’s when I started contracting a little bit on the creativity side and looking to what actual careers are out there. And I looked at being an architect basically. So I did enrollment for architectural drafting while I was in high school, which I came out with an architectural drafting degree actually out of it.
This was basically me doing half my time in my senior and junior year at a trade school to earn that certificate. And then after that, I went to USF for college and major in architecture. And I was really convinced in that was what I was really going to do first of my life. And I tried to put myself in this box where I was like, “Hey, I can only make money doing something that’s serious, right?” I have to be an architect-

Maurice Cherry:
Uh-huh.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
… that’s the only way I can create, I can express myself creatively and I still love architecture. I still love it. But I quickly realized when doing that coursework that I was mainly interested in the purely aesthetic side of just… I know if you ever seen concepts of different buildings and things like, “Oh, if what nature was integrated into certain structures and we could live in harmony with nature and these different wacky building styles.”
I was doing stuff like that and doing in that course and architecture and I was less interested in stuff like building code and stuff like that. So yeah, about halfway through that, I was like, “This is not for me.” I was lost for a little bit honestly. I was like, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” But I think around that time I pledged five days Sigma in college.
And one of the things that I had to do for my coming out show, well I took it by myself, was we needed a flyer and I actually made. My first flyer that I ever made was actually created in a combination of PowerPoint and Microsoft paint, so that was my first flyer, yeah. And then I was like, “You know what? That was cool. I enjoyed that.”
And then I sat down for a summer and was looking like, “Hey, what’s the actual industry standard tool I can use to make something like this.” And that’s when I taught myself Photoshop. And after that was the bullet train to just creating endeavors and doing things for people, just designing flyers that started off with that and then doing logos. And then actually guys started doing websites for people.
And that’s when I started to see the light, right? I was looking like, “Oh wow, I can actually create these really cool websites for people and make them look really nice and people will pay me for it.” And I was doing freelance while I was in undergrad. And then I was still searching like, “Hey, I want to do this professionally.”
And that’s when I started taking jobs, doing graphic design. I took a job at a local. There was a Gyros and Subs locally in Tampa, Florida. And I did all their marketing. I did their menu and I did some work on their website, their email marketing. And yeah, I took a series of jobs after that, just around design and web design and started doing marketing sites.
And yeah, then after that I actually got exposed to doing product design and UX design. When one client basically asked me, “Hey, can you do an app?” And I was like, “Sure.” I will say yes to everything and just figure out with the layer. So I’m like, “Listen, I already know.” And sometimes I’ll tell them straight up. I was like, “I don’t know how to do this, but I’m going to figure it out.” Yeah. That’s why I took this deep dive into learning UX myself.
And I was like, “All right, I need some formal structure around this.” It’s not just something I could just pick up. I have to know how to think in this way and how to solve a specific problem and approaching it from these different ways. I took this Interaction Design Foundation as this online type of classes that you can take basically different modules.
And that’s where I formalized my education around UX design I was like, “Hey, how do I apply some of my creativity and get some more of this skills on the side of UX to really understand having user-centered problems and really solving it from these really thoughtful ways and using user journeys and end-to-end flows,” so that was how I really started to formalize my education around it.
And from there, that’s why I started taking jobs from different companies doing product design eventually got to… I feel like AdventHealth was my first true rigorous cross-functional experience. I was working with product design, but I did along the way, I’ve learned so much from different companies out at Sodexo for a few years, doing graphic design there. And I got a little bit of exposure to doing some product design and I just wanted more of it. So I just started to align myself more and more with doing UX. And, yeah, here I am today.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I think it’s really worth mentioning that you cut your teeth on product design online. It wasn’t through a traditional four-year course or something. It was because you already, I guess, built an interest through your natural talent and curiosity and the work that you had been doing, but to then find a program online and then use that to level up to the next stage of your career, I think is something that probably a lot of people listening can get inspired by.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah, I think the most beautiful thing about. I think a lot of careers in product, there’s a lot of these unconventional pathways and especially in UX, I’ll hear different stories, very similar to mine. You don’t have to actually go to these specific design schools and stuff like that. There’s other ways that you can get there. It’s really just aligning your passion and just being able to apply yourself. Because if you’re going to do take a path like mine, you have to really want it.
So you got to be really committed because it’s not easy to pretty much teach yourself, stay focused because all this stuff was self-paced, right? It’s all out of my own passion, wanting to learn more. I was hungry for that knowledge. If you have that core part of like, you can definitely chase that in these different paths. But if you need more structure, then yeah, I would definitely say, “Hey, go to design school if that’s for you.”
But I know for me that was… I probably would have gone to a design school and like that, but I did not even have the exposure. I even to know that was out there. So I had to make due with what I had at the time. I was like, “Okay, well I’m already three years in here at USF. I wasted a couple years doing architecture. I know I want to do design.” Then I see that I can still probably get hired for doing design without having a full design degree. So I was like, “You know what?” I mean, I got a degree in information architecture, which did a lot of web design things, but that was actually supportive of it as well in my skillset.
So yeah, there’s these very unconventional pathways you can take, but just find what works best for you and get after it. But I think just having that exposure earlier, the better, if I would’ve had that, my path would’ve been much different, but I found a way eventually. So it worked out.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And I mean, you found a way, but also as you mentioned, you had that discipline to do it on your own. A lot of these courses they can give you or they do give you the information, they lay out a path for you, but if you’re not going to actually follow it and take it, then it’s for nothing.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Exactly, exactly. Just have that focus. If you’re going to like just be intentional about everything you do. If you know that something that you really want, just go after it and just stay focused. I think over the next few years, I think just the fact that information is so plentiful now. You imagine 15 years ago, all these resources weren’t even out here and then go even further back.
It’s just so democratized at this point, but now it’s going to be the difference makers, the people who want it versus the people who are just doing it like, “Hey, just so nice to have. And I’m half in half out.” So yeah, it’s going to be… We’ll see that separately time plays out so.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, I’ve been around long enough. I can imagine. I know because I was there. I remember 15 years ago. It definitely was not like this at all. I mean, hell even I would say maybe not even 10 years ago, you started to have some of the beginnings of some things you had, I think the beginnings of a general assembly or a tree house or something, but what you also really just had were things that people cobbled together of different snippets of code and things of that nature you had like, “Oh God, I’m dating myself.”
But you had dynamic drive. You had W3 Schools and stuff like that in lieu of something that could be more, I guess, official like a general assembly or a tree house or something of that where you could actually go through a more formalized career thing, almost like school, because you would have an instructor of sorts or someone that’s at least looking at assignments and giving you feedback in that way. It’s self-governed but at least you have that expert authority to help you along the way.
Prior to that, you just put stuff together and hope for the best. You really were like. I hope this works or there was so much experimentation back then. And I don’t know if the web really encompasses a lot of that now because so many things or productized and there’s design systems and such that everything is pretty rigidly locked into certain systems in order to scale.
And of course, to bring in designers and engineers and writers to all work together. But one thing that the early web definitely had, was a lot of just creativity-

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
[inaudible 00:37:35].

Maurice Cherry:
… just people experimenting, just people making things up. And I feel like that same feeling is why a lot of folks are interested in Web3 right now.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Mm-hmm. I think so.

Maurice Cherry:
They want that or they’re trying to get that feeling of freedom back that the early web had and granted Web3 encompasses a number of technologies. It’s NFTs, it’s crypto. It’s a number of stuff. And I feel like a lot of what’s reported out of it is largely very negative, but to be fair, it was like that when the internet first came about.
Like everyone was not hopping to get online. It was a lot of skepticism about what is an email address? Should my business be online? How do I make this happen? There was a lot of skepticism and granted, eventually people got over that hump. I think Web3 is probably a little different in this accord because of aside from just the learning curve in terms of figuring out all these different terms and stuff, which again, very similar to before, it’s also just the cost. I mean, I would say back then personal computers were, I mean my God, I got my first personal computer in whoo ’99, 1999 it was a Pentium 3. It was 500 megabytes. Maybe not megabytes, maybe it was 500. It probably was 500 megabytes.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
It probably, it might have been.

Maurice Cherry:
It might have been. Yeah, it might have been.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
It might have been without so much more computing power in the palm of our hands. Actually on my wrist right now, probably-

Maurice Cherry:
Right, right.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
… computing power.

Maurice Cherry:
Back then you could play solitaire, but now you could easily do that on your phone or something like that with an app. But I say all that to say that even that was a bit of a curve for a lot of people’s like, “Can I afford a computer in order to do these things? Can I afford?” Well, there actually wasn’t high speed internet back then. You had dial up, but you had two lanes, you had a slow lane and a fast lane. That’s what they colloquially called it.
And then eventually you had DSL and then cable and now high speed is fiber optic, et cetera, and stuff like that. But I see a lot of those parallels. And then I notice just how design is very much following those parallels as well. So I wonder in the future how Web3 is going to impact a lot of what we know now, even typically as product design, because product design is very much within a two-dimensional space.
But it’s also a lot of the interactions and the patterns and stuff are for a level of computing that we’ve had around roughly for the past 15 to 20-ish years. Once people start jumping into augmented reality, virtual reality, the metaverse and stuff like that brings up a whole new host of interactions and scenarios and problems as well, so-

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
… that’s interesting.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
I think it’s a lot of unlock. Yeah. I think it’s a lot of unlock that’s going to happen in the next few years. I think definitely what you touched on with augmented reality. I don’t know if you had Annie Jean-Baptiste here on the show but, she works at Google and I saw something recently with basically just allowing folks who deaf people, folks who can’t hear like to wear these glasses essentially. And they can basically see on the glasses, the words that are being spoken, written out in the glasses from there, they can see the words, right?
So I thought that those were one of those magical things that can be done with technology. And when things that are changing with having some of this spatial computing happening with augmenting your reality with adding another layer, basically into your environment, I think that’s yet another frontier that is yet to be designed for a lot of exciting things. I think as it technology matures, that’ll be really cool to touch upon.
And yeah, I’m excited to see where things go. I do like experimentation just generally seeing folks going to the NFTs and doing all these different things. I think everything happens in a cycle and things have become very strict and there’s a lot of rules and everything fits into a box and this might be another frontier where things are starting to expand a little bit and there’s a new space to start to design for.
And there’s the rules aren’t set in stone yet. So until that happens, there’ll be a lot of experimentation and folks are going to be going in a lot of different directions. So I’m excited to see where things go. I’m pretty optimistic about technology usually. So I’m definitely open to seeing and talking about those things too.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So you’re in Florida, you’re in Orlando or right near Orlando. How is the design community there? Have you found a lot of that there?

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Oh yeah. There’s a design community here. I would say basically on the UX side, there’s a downtown Orlando UX. This is actually a group that my former manager at AdventHealth, he organizes that group and it’s pretty small. It’s pretty small. That’s one of many design, little meetups that happen here. But I wouldn’t say the design community is that big, but it is growing.
There’s also a small VC startup community here as well. There’s a lot of little startups that you might not have heard of, but then are stealth mode that are happening here. I think there’s a lot of just between some of these major Florida cities. I feel like there’s a lot of cross-pollination that is happening folks that are in Miami, folks that are in Tampa, folks that are Orlando.
There’s a lot of networking that are happening between folks there, because I think there’s a lot of little bit of proximity there, but I think there’s going to be definitely just a lot bigger community of designers and folks doing product here in Orlando. I mean, especially since the people can be remote now, it’s like, “Oh, well I can move to Florida.” I was like, “Cool.”
So Miami is super expensive, but Orlando is getting there, but they’re not the worst. So this is my open invitation to folks that come to Orlando. I think it’s pretty great community and it’s growing. So yeah, interesting to see where that goes.

Maurice Cherry:
And you talk a bit there about that startup scene. I think we know when folks look at the south. I mean, I think they can, I don’t know how much of Florida they really leave out. Well, I know for example, back in the day.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
But Florida is not like a south-

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I mean.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
… if you don’t include Florida at all. I’m like,-

Maurice Cherry:
I know it’s tricky.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
… “I think [inaudible 00:43:54] southern,” but sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it is tricky because I don’t know. Maybe let’s say from Mississippi to Georgia. Well, so all going further, let’s say Mississippi to North Carolina, a lot of that, of course, people think of as the south. And then even when people think of tech or design, a lot of that gets left out unless people are thinking about Atlanta.
I remember just even 10 years ago, people would talk about what’s going on in design in the south. And they wouldn’t even look at Atlanta. They’d just look at Florida. They’d look at what’s going on in Miami? What’s going on in Orlando? And there’s six states that you all are missing. They’re like, “Yeah, nothing’s really going on there.” I guess, they thought we were just all barefoot blowing on jugs or something.
There’s technology here. There’s design here, which people now are taking note of, particularly as it relates to diversity. But again, the way that things are changing in just a number of different years and now with people being able to work from anywhere because they have remote work, you’re starting to see, I think you’re starting to see these talent centers even shifting.
I was reading today about how folks a lot of people are working out of Mexico City and the locals in Mexico City are go away. It used to be good here. And now y’all work from home. People moved here and you drove the cost up and you acted stupid like go somewhere else.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
The techies are ruining the scene.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it wouldn’t be the first city, right?

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
But what you’re starting also to see that point of decentralized talent is now work from home means work from anywhere. There’s people at my current job that, I mean, they are like jet setting. They’re like, “Oh, I’m in Hungary this month. Oh, this month I’m in Memphis, Tennessee. Oh, this month I’m in Mexico City.” And they can work out of those places because they can work quote, unquote, “From home,” which people are taking to me from anywhere.
But I think companies now are even starting to try to restrict that because what if you work from, I don’t know, what if you work from Cuba? What if you work from Russia or something? If you’re working from maybe a place that’s not so politically stable, what does that mean? So it’s opened things up, but then I think it’s also probably generated some different issues also.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah. I think that some of the companies are out there are finding some strategic ways to still give that flexibility with you can work from anywhere. I think Airbnb had something recently around, “Hey, you can even work at a different country for a set period of time.” You’re not going to be there for the whole year or something, but you can go to different countries and work from there for a month or something.
I forgot what the timeframe was, but there’s different things like that. And those companies that are going to be setting some of these different policies, that’ll be flexible and that they’re going to make sense to folks. So when you look at them, you be like, “That makes sense.” And also that’s really attractive. I like that model, folks are going to start picking those companies over others.
That’s a competitive advantage when you look at it from this 10,000 foot you’re looking at, “Hey, what are the companies that are being super restrictive? What are the companies that are the most flexible with this? And with that fits with my way of life.” I think all of this is going to be a journey of alignment. Everyone is looking for what is that company you able to do for me? And what the company is looking at for talent is like? What are these specific folks able to do for my company?
So that I think is on both sides, space, you had journey of alignment. We’re trying to find that equilibrium. We’re not there yet. I think everybody’s learning, but there’s going to be a lot of folks stumbling along the way as we’ve been seeing for a little bit now. And when we find that place to meet, find that middle ground to where things work, people will be making those choices. And they’ll be that clear separation of folks who are doing remote well and folks who aren’t doing remote well. And I think it’s going to play out.

Maurice Cherry:
I think so too. I mean, even now for job seekers, that’s now a consideration. It’s like, “Oh, well what does the remote work policy look like? Or can I work from anywhere?” Or even if you’re able to work from anywhere like some hybrid situation. Because some people do want to have that option to go into an office, but-

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
… it varies now. And I think companies have to try to realize that now with the pandemic, things have changed. It’s not even so much that things have changed in terms of the fact that people aren’t working in offices, but workers expect more flexibility now with where they work-

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
… and that’s something that is… That’s a big paradigm shift.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah. It’s been proven that it work can be done from anywhere and that you can still deliver product right from anywhere.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
And companies are seeing some advantages of that too. And we’re just trying to find our way, I think, with some of the shortcomings of remote. So I think having that hybrid model is what’s there to stay is, like some folks might still want to go to the office. They have that option. Cool. They’re in proximity of some of those epicenters, the New York, California have those options, but then you’ll also have that talent pool that are fully remote as well.
But I think it’s still important that these teams can still come together. At Gusto, we still like find these moments that, I’ve only been there for about a year now, but we’ve already come together twice. I went to San Francisco to do an onsite with my team and I left that feeling super energized for sure, meeting my teammates for the first time and us going out and doing some activities and team building exercises and my team building, I just mean just going to have fun going have dinner, stuff like that.
But those times were pretty fun. And we’re actually looking forward to in a couple months, I think in October, I’m going to go to Denver, we’re going to do another onsite there. So yeah, so still coming together for those special moments with your team, I think is a good balance. If you have a fully distributed team being able to do that a couple times a year, I feel like that works pretty well in my experience right now. I feel like it’s a good balance.
Everyone loves how structure is so far right now. And I think that’s where companies are trying to find where that what makes sense for their company and then what also works for employee engagement. So I think everyone just finding their way with that and finding what’s the right balance? What’s the right cadence of meeting up together? Those are the teams they’re going to win.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Right now with where you are in life and in your career. How do you define success?

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Well, I think success is definitely going to be defined by your impact at the end of the day, you on two fronts, right? So impacting those interpersonal relationships, the folks that you’re working with around you, people remember how you make them feel, right? So how they remember working with you? So I’m trying to also level up how I communicate? How I work with folks? Being able to include folks in things that we’re doing on our team and then also leveraging business impact as well. I think that’s another big key part.
I think of leveling up in careers in general is just being able to tie back what you’re doing to the goals of the business. So I think alluded to the storytelling piece as well. I think that’s another big part of that is just being able to tie that back to, “Hey, here’s the story that we tell about our customers. Here’s the opportunity that I’m trying to unlock with their pain and then how this translates to how the business can thrive by helping customers.”
So yeah, I’m just trying to tie all these things together. Be a good person, be a good human at the same time. I think it’s very much so about how as well, how you get to certain places in life and also professionally? I think those things do matter and how the impression that you leave on folks? So I’m just trying to do things sustainably and make sure that I’m having that impact along the way and growing.
I consider myself a lifelong learner as I’ve taught myself a lot of things, but there’s a lot more that you can still learn. And I’m just trying to take in as much information and trying to level up as a designer from different avenues, even beyond design, trying to getting to learn more about product. I’m trying to understand the technical engineering side and how to work better with my engineers as well.
So it’s a learning process, but I think if you’re challenging yourself every time to do better and learn more, it’s you don’t do 1% better, you do a little bit good every single day, 1%. And you’ll start looking back to a year, be like, “Wow, I made so much progress.” It didn’t feel it at the time, but damn I did that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What advice would you give out there to people that are listening to your story and they want to follow in your footsteps? What would you tell them?

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah, I would say be hungry, just be hungry for learning, be hungry to solve problems for people because that’s what these companies are looking for. At the end of the day is aligning your passion like, “Hey, I can do X, Y, and Z really well.” And then a company’s looking for that, but then also you want to align to their… You want your values and motivation to be aligned to that company as well.
So just try to make sure you have the baseline like, “Hey, I have the skills now let’s look at some of these other quote, unquote, “Soft skills.” Like how’s my communication? How’s my storytelling?” Those parts are harder to master, but with practice, you’ll get there. But I think just at the end of the day, I think that talent bars is going up for designers.
And I think what’s going to be a big differentiator for designers that are starting out as well, is being able to pair their design skills, being able to augment their design skills with storytelling and business strategy, because companies are really, really looking for that and making sure you can tie back what you do to those things. It’s just going to be crucial.

Maurice Cherry:
That reminds me a lot of the words of Douglas Davis that we’ve had on the show twice now. He’s the author of a book about-

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Business ticket of design.

Maurice Cherry:
… yeah, exactly. It’s about making sure that you’re able to bring those things to the table because in terms of visual design, and this is pandemic aside, your visual design skills are a dime a dozen. And honestly there’s probably always going to be someone that could do it for better, cheaper or faster. If you’re able to bring some advantage to the table, along with your design that’s what’s going to be the differentiator like you said.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah, yeah. I read that book and I remember that as well. That was a key unlock for me in my mind. I was like, “Wow.” There’s a lot of folks who have great design craft and it’s great to look at it. You can look all over dribble and see all that awesome design, but none of those are solving business problems. Most of them, anyways, they’re just there for aesthetic folks.
Just look at it for pleasure, but actually what does it solve when you look at business at the end of the day, that’s what you’re there to do. They hired you to produce these outcomes for the business. There’s a goals that they’re trying to attain. And I think as designers, we of heard, “Hey, design wants to see the table.” All right, we’re at the table now. Yeah.
Now, at the table, you got to be able to have that business speak. You have to be able to tell that story and be able to tie these things back to business outcomes. So yeah, I think Douglas Davis book is excellent read. I would definitely recommend every designer to read that. And then yeah, I’ve done some work as well in trying to level up my business skills and design and trying to pair that impact and was great at Gusto too, we did a workshop with designer fund as well to talk about that and learn more about how you can bring that business impact into your work and tell that story?
So it’s definitely something that we think we invest in ourselves and our designers at Gusto so that tells you a lot about how important this is? The business cares about leveling up their designers to understand that so that’s super important.

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

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
You know, I’m at this crosswords where you think about a designer or any profession where you’re an IC and you think the next step is logically going into management or people management. I never saw myself in people management and I’m not sure that I do, but I know I do like to be able to mentor folks, mentoring a designer, I guess.
So right now, and it’s super rewarding to hear their experiences and how they’re approaching network. And I’m starting to get more comfortable with that type of work. But I could as much see myself as still being an IC at a higher level in the future, as well as maybe dialing into people management, because I think there’s some rewarding work. It’s very different work. It’s not like, “Oh, I go to people management, I’m going to get on a promotion.” It’s a different level of work. You’re in the people business. You’re there to empower the folks that report to you and help unblock them to help them to develop.
So I think that’s a way of being able to be that resource for other people and just being able to pass on knowledge that you have and to help others grow. I think that’s awesome. I think at the end of the day, if you have a passion for helping people as designers, that’s what you’re doing, but going into people management is another way to do that as well.
I’m empowering and helping someone else to help other people and help unblock them as well and guide them. So that might be a path for me, but we’ll see, I’m still learning and I’m very much so in IT space right now, but we’ll see what the future holds. Maybe we’ll have a podcast in the future. You can ask me again.

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

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah, I’m on Twitter mainly. Twitter is my jam, but also I’m on LinkedIn. Those are the main two places that you can connect with me. You can reach out, you can DM if you have any questions and I’d love to talk to people. I love to chat. I’m pretty open. So yeah, just hit me up on there.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, sounds good. Well, Jeff Jean-Baptiste, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I think what really comes across to me as you describe your story and even the work that you’re doing right now is that there’s this energy and there’s this passion for what you do that really, I think shines through. It’s one thing, like you said, to be able to roll with the punches with the way that the current environment is going.
But the thing that sets you apart from other designers is what you’re bringing to the table. And I think more so than just your design skills and your business skills, you’re bringing yourself to the table. You’re showing up as a very personable, energetic person. And I think people will be able to really feel that from this interview, they can get that sense of this is who you are and this is what you bring to the table. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Maurice, thanks so much. I just want to say this was awesome time talking to you and yeah, I think what you’re doing is well for the design community and Black designers and practitioners and engineers at large has been great. This is a show I’ve actually listened to way back and earlier in my career. So I would attribute a lot of my success to this podcast. So thanks.

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Treavor Wagoner

Summer is here, and with the start of a new month, I’m bringing you my conversation with Treavor Wagoner, senior product designer, author, and quite the avid traveler! We spoke just as Treavor wrapped up his latest trip and right before the launch of the ebook version of his latest book, “So Much Trouble”.

Treavor talked about what drew him to working at Redfin, and from there he spoke about life growing up in a small Texas town. Treavor also went into his college days at University of North Texas, and shared how his love of writing drew him to teaching himself HTML and CSS. We also touched on a number of different topics after that, including how he’s unlearning harmful habits and how his non-linear career path has allowed him to indulge in a lot of his personal passions. According to Treavor, being Black and queer in tech is hard, but navigating it is possible — keep going!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Treavor Wagoner:
Hi, my name is Treavor Wagoner. My pronouns are he/him, and I am a system designer by day, and then a seeker, traveler by the rest of my life.

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

Treavor Wagoner:
I would say it’s been going pretty well. I moved back to Austin to kind of start going after my dreams. It’s been going well so far. Well, it’s been kind of going well so far. I just adopted a dog and so it’s a little bit of a harrowing experience.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. What kind of dog?

Treavor Wagoner:
So he’s a mutt, but we just got back his DNA results and he is German shepherd, Australian cattle dog, Shih Tzu, and a small poodle mix.

Maurice Cherry:
That is quite a mix.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah, a lot of energy.

Maurice Cherry:
I can imagine. Yeah. Aside from the new dog, do you have any kind of plans for the summer I saw on Twitter, you mentioned that you’re touring US national parks. Is that still going on?

Treavor Wagoner:
No, actually, I did that last year, so that kind of ties into what I’m back in Austin for. But last year I did a seven month road trip around the west and where I was seeing national parks, as well as seeing friends who hadn’t seen in years because of the pandemic. And then also kind of keeping an eye out for land to buy or a house to buy or whatnot because Texas prices have gone up so wildly, so it’s been kind of difficult to find places to live. But I moved back to Austin to kind of reassess, save money, just prepare for the next five years of my life. But as far as this summer, no big plans. I think it’s just beat out the heat here in Texas, train my dog, take care of my dog and hang out with my friends who live here while I can.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Now you were there for South By this year. This was sort of the first year back, I think, after two years, roughly of sort of remote South by Southwest. Did you notice like a big change in the city with South By coming back?

Treavor Wagoner:
Typically, before or BC, before COVID, South By would shut down the whole city and all the local residents would leave or just stay in the house until South by went away. But this year, it was very quiet. It was a slow ease back into city shutdown. Typically, when South By is going on, you can’t go downtown, can’t find a parking space to save your life. But I went down to downtown once or twice and it was like any other day, to be honest. No streets were shut down as far as I saw. So yeah. I mean, I didn’t really participate in South By, but just because I didn’t want to deal with crowds and COVID and things like that.

Maurice Cherry:
And you live there, so what’s the draw?

Treavor Wagoner:
Exactly. But the thing about South By which a lot of people don’t really realize is that you have South By film, music and all the other treks associated with South By, but there’s also a lot of free shows or peripheral shows that are happening that you can go to, parties and things like that. Restaurants and local vendors are doing cool things for all the traffic, all the South By people coming into town. So yeah, I mean, that stuff is fun, but like I said, dealing with traffic and parking, all that stuff kind of is a drain sometimes.

Maurice Cherry:
So currently I see you’re working as a senior product designer at Redfin. Tell me about that. What drew you to the company?

Treavor Wagoner:
Actually, I didn’t see it for Redfin initially. So I was the former head of design. Colin Gregson reached out to me on LinkedIn and he was like, “We’re trying to start up the design system at Redfin and we need someone like you.” I guess he had heard about what I did with Indeed. And he wanted to kind of do the same with Redfin, but at the time I wasn’t really looking for a job. I wasn’t working at the time. I was actually taking a break. I was on another sabbatical. I had just left a company where I had experienced racial discrimination and was taking some time to heal from all of that.

Treavor Wagoner:
And I let him know. I was like, “Hey, I’m not feeling it right now. I’m not feeling it right now. I’m healing from that. I’m dealing with COVID.” I mean, I didn’t catch COVID, but the pandemic was fresh and new. This was like March 2020.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. So I was like, “Uh-uh (negative), I’m not.” It was at a time where I was once again, wondering if I wanted to stick with the tech industry or just, I don’t know, do something else, but I’m a completist and obviously I decided to stick with it and he kept reaching out a couple of times to see how I was doing, where I was at. I think that the next time that he reached out was around June 2020, and of course around that time, it was not a good time at all because of protests and police murders and things like that. Which again, just kind of reopened the bullshit that I had experienced. And I was just very frustrated and angry and jaded and bitter and old.

Treavor Wagoner:
I think it was around December is when I told him, “Hey, I feel that I can jump back in and actually provide or do what I’m here to do when it comes to systems design and really help you out.” So we began interviewing and all that stuff, and it was probably the best interviewing experience that I’ve ever had hands down. They really made me feel comfortable, and in the past, what I’ve experienced with interviewing as a black person is that people don’t really see it for you, or they don’t think that you actually have the expertise that you do have. And with Redfin, I just felt like they allowed me to present my work and the stuff that I consider to be my craft, the things that I study, things that I love to do, which is signing a system and they heard me out, and they loved it. And they were like, “Yeah, you’re the on.” And then they offered me a deal. And I was like, “Yeah.”

Treavor Wagoner:
The story of trauma doesn’t stop there. In Texas, we had the winter storm maybe a week before I was supposed to start.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, with the power grid and all that stuff, right?

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. It was very bad. I was one of the unlucky few who did not have power or running water the whole time, and we’re talking single digits. Yeah. It was traumatizing. The whole time I was thinking, “Am I going to survive?” I’m checking in with friends and they’re telling me, I’m not going to say it here, but it’s pretty traumatic stuff that they experienced. We’re talking death and things like that. And I, like a crazy person who has experienced a lot of trauma in his life, I was like, “You know what? Sure, I can start a job following all that.” So I started the next week and I did it with a smile on my face, but definitely it was a mental wear down for me eventually.

Maurice Cherry:
You know, I think we’re going to look back in the history books and just see how much repeated trauma and shit black people had to put up with that summer of 2020, because I got laid off right around that time, in May, around Memorial day. And I remember I didn’t really feel like going back and trying to jump into finding another job. I had just been at this place for two and a half years and I sort of wanted to take a break, but I felt extremely guilty about taking a break at a time when people were out protesting in the streets for such a worthy cause. And I’m like, I really need this rest, though. I don’t know what I’m going to have another time in my professional career to actually be okay with staying still for a few months because we got severance and all that sort of stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
And what ended up happening, and I think a lot of black folks, again, during this time will mention this is that now you have this influx of companies that are not only pledging to do better in the face of all of this, but now all of a sudden I got work. I’m getting bombarded with offers and things to do and talking to companies internally about ways that they can change their DEI and all this sort of stuff. But then also being said, this is such a watershed moment, and do you think that this will continue? And I’m like, no, but also it’s not really up to me to do that because you, as the white people in power, it’s on y’all to continue this. It’s not on us. It’s not on the aggrieved to try to fix this. It’s on y’all. And of course now two years later, pretty much all of those promises have gone up in smoke.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah, I think I would say with Redfin, you asked me about Redfin. I would say that I’ve really seen them try. Not trying to be the spokesperson for Redfin, because I don’t think I could do a good job at it, but I’m really impressed with how they’ve been leaders in the real estate industry of trying to do the right thing for not only black people, but marginalized individuals.

Treavor Wagoner:
They’ve removed crime stats. Because our researchers are amazing, they’ve removed crime stats from house listings or property listings because they found that the areas that see a lot of “crime” are over policed and are predominantly black or brown, it’s kind of skewed data that they’re getting. So why have that on there? It’s not clean data, it’s not representative of the actual neighborhood, so let’s remove that.

Treavor Wagoner:
And I think they’ve kind of put the pressure on other real estate companies to do the same as well. So that really impressed me. Not only have you cleaned up house, clean up your own house, but you’re also encouraging other people to clean up their houses too. I thought that was really great.

Maurice Cherry:
And I should mention, this whole conversation is not to bash your employer. So I don’ want them to think that we’re going in on Redfin or anything.

Treavor Wagoner:
Oh, no.

Maurice Cherry:
No, but I think it’s just worth mentioning that during that time in particular, there were so many friends of mine I know that were finally getting more speaking gigs, getting more design gigs, more companies were hitting them up. They were getting more job offers and it’s kind of bittersweet because yeah, it’s great that you see what I’m able to offer, but this is what it had to take for that to happen? And for it to not even be a sustained thing, it’s just sort of this one spike, and then that’s that. It’s crazy.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. It’s interesting because it’s like, finally. For me, someone who’s been in the industry for almost 15+ years, who has been around a lot of designers who get awards and things like that, or whatever or just get a lot of recognition; it felt good to finally be recognized in some way, but it was also bittersweet because I’ve been here, I’ve been doing the dang thing. I’ve been doing a great job at it, and in a sense, it’s like you’re not really recognizing me, the work. You’re recognizing me, the black designer. I’m more than that. I do more than that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Or if anything, they’re kind of trying to maybe wallpaper over some corporate guilt.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah, exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, not to dwell too much on work or anything, but I’m curious what’s a typical day like for you at Redfin? What’s your day-to-day look like?

Treavor Wagoner:
So my title is product designer, but our design system team is very small. It’s just mainly me and my co-lead, who is a designer as well. So we don’t have a direct manager. We don’t have a product manager in our “pod.” We work with an engineering team, but they’re a separate team. They’re not actually a part of our team, but we work very closely together all the time. So my day-to-day is looking at roadmaps and kind of filling in for the product manager role. It’s also doing some design tasks as well, so designing components, researching systems, checking in with my co-lead to make sure that we’re on track to meet our goals for our MVP of the design system and things like that.

Treavor Wagoner:
Sometimes we get questions from our design system customers, which are designers and engineers from the company. If I know the answer, which most of the time I don’t, I’ll chime in and kind of help out wherever I can. So doing support, thinking about educating, how we’re going to educate our customers about the new system that we’re working on, checking in with our stakeholders as we’re building the design system, to make sure that we’re in alignment and we’re doing fulfilling business needs as well as our customer needs. And then also making sure our partners we work with to build the system are happy and aligned with us as well. It’s a lot of engagement. It’s a lot of communication, which for me as an introvert can be a little draining sometimes. But I would say that I have a pretty good self care regimen. I could do better, but I try my best.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think especially throughout the pandemic, we’re all just trying to hold on. Especially with all these other things that are happening out in the world that are not pandemic related that are still compounding stress. I don’t want to specifically give name to any tragedies, but for folks that are listening, they know what’s going on right now in this time in the world. It’s heavy, it’s heavy.

Treavor Wagoner:
It’s like a landmine. You’re just walking through this really beautiful field and you come across landmines here and there. Like you mentioned, not to name any tragedies that have happened, but there’s so many, so take your pick. But each one of those, it affects me. It affects me in some way. I’m an empath, so I see people hurting and I want to do something. I want to take the hurt away, but I can’t do anything about it. Yeah. I feel like the closest I can get is donating money, but even that feels like it’s not enough.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s switch gears here and learn more about you and your origin story. Like you mentioned, you’re in Austin, Texas right now. Is that where you grew up?

Treavor Wagoner:
I did not grow up in Austin. Austin was always this cool city, but I grew up near Waco, Texas. Which, if you’re not familiar with Waco for some reason, it is in the center of Texas, central Texas. I grew up in a very small town, maybe 15-20 minutes north of Waco. Very small town, we’re talking less than 900 people growing up. Yeah. I’m from the country. Right now, you’re probably not hearing my Texas accent, but it’s deep in there somewhere.

Treavor Wagoner:
At a certain point, my mother who at the time was a microbiologist, couldn’t find a job in the Waco area. She was also involved with the military. So we had our house in near Waco, but we also lived up in Arlington, Texas, which is in DFW. So we had a dual-residence type situation where we would live in Arlington throughout the week and then go down to the country on the weekends. So I had a city life and a country life at the same time, which I think hopping up and down I-35, sitting in a car for an hour and a half each way kind of yielded into me being a traveler when I got older, and just wanting to explore more of the world, more of our country.

Treavor Wagoner:
When I was at the age where I needed to start going to school, I started going to Christian private school in Arlington. It was non-denominational, so all walks of life were there. Catholic, baptist, Christian, Asian, black, white, Latino, et cetera. The neighborhood that we eventually settled in in Arlington was predominantly Hispanic, or at least it became predominantly Hispanic. And my babysitter who I went to hang out with after school was Hispanic, she was from south Texas and she taught me Spanish.

Treavor Wagoner:
So I was exposed to a lot of culture at a young age, but I was also from a small town, so I faced a lot of small town mindset, which is not being exposed to a lot of different cultures. So I was always met up with encountering people who did not realize that there’s a world outside of the small town, outside of where Walmart Super Center was the biggest thing, the happy place.

Treavor Wagoner:
So yeah, it was fun. It was interesting, but I eventually had to get out of there because I’m a queer person and it’s a small Texas town, so you can gather what that means for me. But I had to go find myself. I had to see what kind of life I could lead being a black queer person. And that’s where I ended up in Denton, Texas, going to UNT, or University of North Texas.

Maurice Cherry:
So before that, though, you started off at a community college at McLennan, was that in Waco or nearby Waco?

Treavor Wagoner:
It was in Waco. So I went at the same time. I’ve always been kind of an overachiever. I think it’s because of the private school education that I had. But while I was a, I think junior and senior at West High, which is in West comma Texas. We say West comma Texas because when we say West Texas people think Western Texas, and it’s a town called West. You may have heard of it. Speaking of tragedy, there was a fertilizer explosion that kind of almost demolished the whole town. It was around the time the Boston shooting happened in 2013, ’14.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. Anyway, so I went to high school there, but at the same time I did dual credit, which is when you take government and economics and some other courses, you also get college credit for them. So the local community college that was doing that was McClennan community college. So I didn’t actually do full fall spring semesters. I did summer school, summer classes. And then I eventually went to, I transferred those credits to UNT. So I consider University of North Texas my full on college experience, and McClennan, or MCC was my kind of interim exposure to college.

Maurice Cherry:
Was that a big shift, going from a community college to a four year?

Treavor Wagoner:
Yes. It was less of a big shift going from community college to a full on university and more of a big shift going from being very sheltered to just all of a sudden having no rules, no one to watch over me or keep me out of trouble or whatever. No one to keep me from figuring out what queerness is or my identity is. So yeah, it was a unique experience, I would say. It wasn’t something that I wasn’t used to, because I would say going from a private education to a public education was far more of a big shift, and that happened when I was in sixth grade, where all of a sudden you’re enforced to be very prim and proper, no cursing, to being in an environment where people are fighting, kids are fighting all over the place, cursing, having sex. Like, what did I get myself into?

Maurice Cherry:
It was a totally different world, it sounds like.

Treavor Wagoner:
It was a totally different world. No offense to Mormons, but I felt like I was a Mormon kid actually going into the real world.

Maurice Cherry:
Was your Rumspringa.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yes. But at 12, 13. Looking back, it’s funny and hilarious, but at the time it was kind of scary. So I would say when I transitioned from graduating from high school and attending some community college courses or doing some community college courses to full on living in a dorm, being on a college campus, meeting people from different parts of the world, I would say that was very exciting for me. I just felt very free.

Maurice Cherry:
I hear that you were dubbed “the guru” while you were there.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah, that was a nickname that my manager at the time gave me. That’s funny. I started as a web designer, so I was designing blogs when I was in high school, and online blogs were my saving grace as a black queer person. I didn’t have any friends, really, in high school, so I would just write online and that was my escape. So in escaping to writing blogs, I started designing them and created a service out of that for other bloggers. So I would create their templates, their blog templates. I learned CSS from doing that, and I think a little bit of HTML at the same time, and also got to flex my creative muscle as well and creating color schemes and finding this rinky dink image creation software, editing software, and creating mass heads for blogs and stuff like that.

Treavor Wagoner:
But that led me into wanting to do that as for actually getting paid to do it. And so within a couple of months of being on campus in my freshman year, I found a job flyer for a web designer for the rec center on campus. And I kind of just begged my way into that job. They gave me the job and after about a year or so of doing that, the head of IT for the division that the rec center department was under saw my work, and he was like, “Hey, would you like to do this for the whole division?” And I was like, “What does that entail?” He was like, “That’s like, you get to be the webmaster, web designer for 30 to 40 websites.” And I was like, “Okay, sure.”

Treavor Wagoner:
He was grateful for it because it was cheap labor, but I think that was the first time that I learned how to be… Not learned how to be, but I think that’s where I adopted my skill as in what I call an octopus. Like I mentioned, I had to maintain design, develop 30, 40 sites and they all kind of looked the same, but they had all had to look the same because they reflected the division, not so much their department. So I guess in a sense, it was my first time working with multi-brand design systems, which is crazy, because I didn’t really make that connection until just now. Like oh, I’ve always been working on multi-brand design systems.

Treavor Wagoner:
But because I understood system thinking, even at that age, which was around, I think it was 20, 22, he called me guru. So I understood our process was important. It was almost necessary to maintain that many properties all at once. You have to have some semblance of organization. So he just saw my approach and the fact that I plastered this cubby hole wall that I had. I was working from the storage room because we didn’t have an office or a desk for me to work in. And so while I was in the storage room, I would just plaster all the walls with site maps and diagrams and whatever, just to keep myself organized with all these many different properties that I was maintaining.

Maurice Cherry:
So what was that early post-graduation career like?

Treavor Wagoner:
Because I had already had a lot of experience under my belt already having been paid to do web design, salary wise, I was able to get a high wage for my first job out of college. It was hard because it was at the time where we were having the recession in 2010, so it was very hard to find a job. But once I got a job, I was able to get a high salary. And high salary at that time for me for a, I guess, relatively kind of new designer was $45K in Dallas area. Yeah. I felt like I was going from ravioli eating every night to having a luxury apartment overnight, it felt like. It was interesting. It was a little bit of adjustment, and I don’t think I quite found the balance. Eventually I was let go from that job, and I think that was pretty devastating to experience that. But it led me to creating my own business with my former partner, romantic partner, which was a bad idea.

Maurice Cherry:
Was that business Braver?

Treavor Wagoner:
It was, yeah. It was a combination of our names, but it was also a representative of the kind of work that we wanted to do, which was a traveling philanthropic, but also providing web development solutions to small businesses in the Dallas area. So yeah, and we were able to do that. We actually started our company cash positive, so that’s always been a great accomplishment of my own. It’s not something that people know about, but it’s something that I’m really proud of, that I was able to do that.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you’re also the co-founder and the executive director of a group called Black UX austin. Tell me about that, and what did you want to sort of get out of that group?

Treavor Wagoner:
Oh my gosh. So going back to talking about leaving a company that I was working for, that I faced some racial discrimination, a researcher that I was working with at the time, Carmen Brunes, she’s also black as well, but she saw what I was going through and she was like, “You need a release. You’re way too talented to be treated this way. And I want to provide an outlet for you to do what you do best.” Two other researchers had started Black UX Austin before I even came along and they just had never been able to get it off the ground, and so she told me that she wanted to actually take it all the way.

Treavor Wagoner:
She wanted to be nationally recognized and be the one stop shop for black people wanting to get into tech, specifically in the Austin area, largely because black people in tech are usually the onlies in the company. That’s the typical experience, whether you’re the only black person on your team, in your organization, in your department. And so you may experience things that if someone like you was around, they would tell you “Girl, you’re going through some shit right now. They’re treating you badly. It’s gaslighting.”

Treavor Wagoner:
So there wasn’t that community there before we came along. I don’t think there was that kind of community in Austin specifically, and if you’ve been to Austin, you know that it’s very white. There’s not that many black people here at all. It’s funny, because one of my best friends asked, I think he was asking someone else and I think one of his other friends had visited Austin and he was like, “Did you see any black people there?” And he was like, “No.” I told him, I was just joking, but I was like, “Yeah, I’m the only one here. I’m right here. You’re talking to the black people or the black community in Austin.” No, just kidding. There’s more than that of course, more than me.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. We started Black UX Austin as a means for black people in tech to have a community, to have a safe space, to not feel like you are being tone policed, to just let your hair down and just be yourself. We started right before the pandemic started and as we were reforming and making it kind of formalized COVID started. And so we were like, “Oh, crap.” So by that point, we had only had one in person event. And then we had to shift everything to be all virtual. And we got so good at it that other black organizations that were in and out of tech were like, “How are you guys doing this?” Because we got really good at it that people on LinkedIn, on maybe Instagram, too, or whatever were seeing what we were doing and were wanting to support.

Treavor Wagoner:
And these are not just black people, but also white people, organizations where they’ve seen or witnessed black people being oppressed or mistreated in some way. They just wanted to support. So there were other black organizations or organizations in general were just asking us, “How are you guys able to grow and thrive online as you’re doing?” Part of it was that I know a lot about creating online community, having been someone who grew up needing community when I was growing up in rural Texas and being the only very sensitive black person in probably a 20-30 mile radius. So I sought online community as much and as often as I could, and so I just learned from that and I think that has warmed its way into or carried its way up to now, which is providing community or safe spaces for other black people.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I feel like I’m mentioning all these aside, but as I did my research, I saw that you’re a poet and you’re an author. Tell me about that, particularly about the impetus behind your latest book. Where did the drive come from for that?

Treavor Wagoner:
My gosh. So first of all, I don’t call myself a poet. I do write poetry, but I don’t feel that it fits me well. I call myself a writer. Poetry is not the only writing that I will do. I want to do more memoirs and things like that, but actually I didn’t get my degree in design or web design or anything like that. I got my degree in creative writing. I had started to pursue creative writing and communication design, which if you’re not familiar, communication design, at least at UNT, it encompasses advertising and graphic design. So not web design, but it is design or the visual aspect of design. And at the time, it was the closest thing that I could get to a design degree.

Treavor Wagoner:
And my minor is in computer education and cognitive systems, which translation, that means a couple of courses in installing Linux systems and some Adobe Photoshop courses. So yeah, that was the closest I could get to having a web design degree at that time, which was between 2006 and 2010. But eventually I ran out of financial aid and I just stuck with the English creative writing aspect of my life. So growing up, I’ve always had, I guess, an affinity for writing. I’ve always wanted to be a songwriter, and so I started writing songs at 12, just because I had seen one of my favorite songwriters, Mariah Carey. You may laugh, but she’s a great songwriter. Obviously we know a lot of our songs. I’ve always just written lyrical poems. Yeah. There’s a floppy disk somewhere in my storage somewhere of maybe 500 lyrical poems I had written when I was a kid.

Maurice Cherry:
Not a floppy disc. You got to get it off the floppy disk, man.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah, I know. You know what, I think at some point I did translate them to modern digital at some point, so they’re probably somewhere on a hard drive somewhere maybe. But yeah, I don’t know if I want to revisit those, to be honest. They’re probably terrible. But yeah, while I was at UNT, I got my English degree and like I mentioned before, I had started my UX product design career. Product design is kind of like a jealous mistress when it comes to my other abilities, so my writing kind of had to be pushed to the side, but eventually I was approaching 30 and I was like, “What can I do very quickly that I can be proud of my twenties for?” And that was creating or writing a book.

Treavor Wagoner:
And so I self-published my first title, which is called The Remaining Trouble and Other Battles. And then during the pandemic, I kind of remixed it and expanded it and republished it as So Much Trouble. And in terms of writing, it’s probably the project that I’m most proud of, because the way I was able to produce it is how I envisioned it, and the quality is great in terms of design and writing. I was just very proud of it. I think all creatives should have something that they’re just absolutely proud of that they did. I feel like that’s very rare. Even if you do great work that other people admire, this level of self deprecation that designers have, or they don’t fully love the work that they do, even if it’s great. So I think that everybody should have that one project where they’re just like, “I absolutely love the shit out of this thing.”

Treavor Wagoner:
So yeah, the book is about, it’s a book of poetry, a collection of poetry about based on a time in my life where I had experienced relationship trauma. What I aimed to do with the book was to really just tell a story of a black kid who didn’t know how, but just really wanted to be loved and to love. And I feel it’s intense at times, but I love how it came out and anyone who’s read it has told me the same.

Maurice Cherry:
Now when I asked you earlier about what you wanted to discuss, you had told me a few things that I kind of want to unpack a little bit. You said navigating a box-based world as an odd shape. You said unlearning harmful habits, and you said self parenting. Talk to me about it. What’s on your heart?

Treavor Wagoner:
It’s very woo woo, and that’s kind of where I’m at in my mid-thirties right now. This is not the case for everybody, but for a few millennials, we’ve grown up in and seen some shit. We’ve grown up in a time where our parents told us one thing and the world is actually another. So there’s a great deal of, at least when you identify as black and queer or gay, and so those are two communities that have seen a lot of shit go down and who have experienced a lot of things, a lot of terrible things we’re talking. If you’re black, you know what we’ve been through, but in terms of the queer community, AIDS, I grew up during the AIDS epidemic/pandemic and the fallout, the religious fallout of that. People who are religious saying you’re going to hell because you got aids or because you’re gay or whatever.

Treavor Wagoner:
And just living in fear of identifying as gay and over time, I’ve learned to unlearn all of the survival tactics that I’ve had to learn growing up in rural Texas or growing up in Texas in general. Age 35, I’m trying to just radically authentically be myself and love myself and encourage other people to do the same. Not living under any guises, any false pretenses or anything like that. Just be yourself and love in that. I’m finding that it is yielding a great improvement in your health, in your physical health and your mental health as well. It’s really important to just be yourself. So that’s where I’m at.

Treavor Wagoner:
And I think you mentioned self parenting, I was talking to a friend of mine who is also a black queer person and he was like, “We need somebody to speak on the unique experience of being a black queer cis male and the relationship with our mothers.” My relationship with my mother has been very rocky. When I came out to her at 19, I wasn’t under her roof. She maybe would have disowned me completely, so I’m glad that I had the wherewithal and the knowledge to just wait until I was out of her house to tell her who I actually am.

Treavor Wagoner:
After that, I think we were even more distant than we were already, because I think moms know, but once you say the words, then they actually know, and there’s no denying it, and so I think that created a bigger rift between you, too. And so because of that, there were things that as a, what we call in the community “baby gay,” or somebody who’s fresh to the gay community, there are some things that I experienced that I really could have benefited from having a parent there or some kind of mentor or something to kind of guide me through all this newness, and I didn’t have that necessarily.

Treavor Wagoner:
So I had to learn how to self parent. I had to learn how to look at the seven year old, who was scared to be himself and say, “There’s nothing wrong with you.” To just learn to love myself. And I think that plays out in every aspect of my life, even my professional career. There are times where I deal with imposter syndrome or just being in spaces where I wasn’t previously, and now I all of a sudden am because of the great shift in thinking in the industry. I’m specifically talking about summer 2020, where all of a sudden the gates that I wasn’t allowed to enter through, all of a sudden I am, but I have no understanding of how this new arena plays out or how to be or anything like that. So I deal with imposter syndrome.

Treavor Wagoner:
And then you know what I do? The kid who just felt very ostracized, very on the outside of everything, on the outside of blackness, on the outside of queerness, just because I didn’t have access to it, that plays out. And so what ends up happening is when that little kid comes out, the 35 year old bubbles up and says, “You’re okay, I got you.” And that is essentially self parenting, basically being your own advocate and standing up for yourself.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you think you’re still trying to find yourself?

Treavor Wagoner:
I think if you’re living, you should be, because we’re always changing. I identify as a seeker. I think it plays out in my travel habit. I’m usually traveling by myself, and I prefer it that way, largely because traveling is not vacation for me most of the time. It’s me thinking and writing in exotic places, in dirty places or whatever, what have you. Just being here, there and everywhere, just trying to learn about myself in different environments.

Treavor Wagoner:
Also, I feel like growth happens when you’re out of your comfort zone, and so that’s why I do that. I want to learn as much as possible about myself. And I find it to be a common thing where people don’t want to do that either it’s from fear or they’re afraid of what they might find or lack of self confidence, which I totally understand. But I don’t want to live in fear in my life, so I put on a brave face and I go into the unknown. So, that’s me.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like there was a lot of subtext in that inhale just then. But black person to black person, I felt that. I felt that. If you knew that you couldn’t fail in your professional life, what would you want to do? What would you want to try to do?

Treavor Wagoner:
Oh my gosh. That’s related to the question of if you weren’t a designer, what would you be? And I would say if I weren’t a designer, I would probably be a professional entertainer, a singer or songwriter or something. Being a designer in the tech world, it can be very technical, very heady stuff. I find I want to flex my emotional muscle more. I try to do that as a system designer. As designers, we’re empathic anyway, or we have a lot of empathy. It’s just a part of the job, but it’s in a technical space most of the time, so you can’t really go too deep with it and understand fully what your empathic abilities are. But with creative careers like music or writing or even acting, you get to explore that more and understand humanity more or better. That’s what I would be.

Treavor Wagoner:
But if I were to stay in this hypothetical situation, if I were to stay within the tech industry, I think I’m close to what I dream of being. This is going to sound very nerdy, but hey, we’re all nerds here. Kind of like a special agent designer in the realm of design systems where I help teams adopt the design system, where I basically do the dirty work for them of taking the existing product and essentially almost creating kind of a new version of that product with the design system and basically going “bippity boppity boo,” over amount of time, taking what was old and crusty and putting some shine on it, making it golden, saving the day in that way. I’m almost there.

Treavor Wagoner:
A part of it is trying to get business to understand what design systems even are, and then also getting them to understand the pain point of a feature team adopting a design system and how hard and strenuous it is. So if there was someone like me or a team that I was a part of to go in and do that hard work for them and essentially save the day, get some happy smiles in there, make the business feel like their employees are happy just because somebody came in and helped them out, then that’s what I would love to do. I’m a person who, I don’t care about promotion. I don’t care about money. It’s more about how I make people feel. I want to help people. And if I can help people with their jobs, their day to day, that makes me feel good. That makes me feel like my job is rewarding. So yeah, that’s me.

Maurice Cherry:
What career advice would you give to somebody, they’re listening to you talk, they’re listening to your story and they see that you’ve had this very, I think non-linear career path, is probably a good way to describe it. What career advice would you give to someone who is walking that same sort of path?

Treavor Wagoner:
There was advice that I’d gotten from design evangelist Steven Anderson, when I was, I guess, fresh out of college and at the height of being really unhappy with my first job out of college. He gave the advice of have fun with your career. And I’m going to expound on that and say, don’t just get a job get a craft, something that you can believe in, something that makes you happy and makes you joyful. It makes you want to wake up in the morning and get to it, jump into it. I’m so glad that design systems has become a thing, because when I wake up in the morning, I’m really excited to just jump in with design system stuff. I really geek out on it to the point where people don’t understand what the heck I’m talking about, because I’m speaking a different language, I’m speaking a systems’ language, and they’re usually speaking a product language.

Treavor Wagoner:
But yeah, that’s what my advice would be is have fun with your career. I think something that we didn’t talk about really was at a certain point, I was a career contractor, so I was kind of like a handyman and that meant I was taking on jobs three months or six months at a time in Austin, Dallas, Seattle, or if I wasn’t anchored to a city, I was traveling full time around the country, doing things. At times, I was working from Costa Rica while I was backpacking and things like that. So yeah, I’ve always wanted to just not do things the typical way, and it has always made it fun. My favorite thing is to tell people things like that and to see their face is like, “Really? What?” Just shock people. So have fun with your career.

Maurice Cherry:
To that end, where do you see yourself in the next five years?

Treavor Wagoner:
I’m going to ask a clarifying question. Do you mean professionally or do you mean in my personal life?

Maurice Cherry:
I mean any way that you wish to take it.

Treavor Wagoner:
I was hoping you would say one or the other, because that would make it easier. But I’m in my mid-thirties and I’m thinking a lot about my personal life. I’ve given a lot of attention to my professional life up to this point, and like I mentioned before, product design or my design career has been like a jealous mistress of anything else that I try to focus on. So I had the great ability during my seven month road trip last year to kind of do both. I think about where I want to go from here or from that point, and also foster my design career. And I see myself retiring from design. I haven’t really told anybody that. I don’t think it’s feasible, but I would love to.

Maurice Cherry:
Why don’t you think it’s feasible?

Treavor Wagoner:
I think because I’m thinking very realistically, I’m looking at my finances and I’m thinking, “Okay, you want to do this and this and this and this and this and this. How are you going to pay for that? Oh, right. You have to have a job, Treavor. Come on. Get real.” So I would love to get to a point where design is not my only main means of income. I’ll say it that way, where it’s not my only means of income. Maybe I’m still doing design systems in some way, but it’s not the only thing that I’m doing. I’m finding balance. That’s where I want to be in five years, is maintaining a balance where I’m loving life still, I’m loving doing design systems or helping people with design systems, but I’m also creating a family.

Treavor Wagoner:
I feel like with my career, I haven’t fully been able to do that. I’ve been very much a career girl. So yeah. So to be able to kind of invest more in, like I mentioned before, the emotional side of myself and have family and people. I guess just foster more relationships. It’s kind of a long-winded answer, but that’s where I’m at. I’m kind of thinking on the spot a little bit, but that’s where I want to see myself in five years, is feeling balanced, full of joy, and loving what I do in terms of work. And I’m almost there. I feel like I’m almost there, and it feels really good to be almost there, whereas before it felt like it was a long time away.

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

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. So you can find out more about my writing and my design@treavorwagoner.com. My name is spelled a little weird, I have some extra letters in there, so I’ll spell it for you. It’s T-R-E-A-V-O-R W-A-G-O-N-E-R.com, and you can go to my design page and you won’t have access to my portfolio, but you’ll see all the other nerdy things that I write about there as well. You can also follow me on Twitter @TreavorWagoner. That’s it.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Treavor Wagoner, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I get the sense that you are someone that is at a crossroads right now. Usually when I give these post scripts, when I’m talking to the guests, I’m saying that you’re doing great work, which is not to say that you’re not doing great work, but I really feel this sense of tension within you, like you’re at a crossroads right now. I would be interested to see if in the next five years you fulfilled that balance that you’re seeking.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. I’ve been seeking, living that persona for years, and as a seeker, you eventually find. And so that’s probably part of the tension, is the realization, I would say, as a seeker is that you realize what you’re looking for, you have already had. And so now that I’ve kind of realized that I’ve always had it, now I get to actually discover it more, what I already have, and enjoy it. That’s where I’m at.

Maurice Cherry:
How profound.

Treavor Wagoner:
I am a writer.

Maurice Cherry:
Treavor Wagoner, thank you so much for coming on the show, man. I appreciate it.

Treavor Wagoner:
Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

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

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André Elijah

Virtual reality used to be a science fiction trope in the 90s, but now, virtual reality is actual reality! Take it from this week’s guest: the one and only André Elijah. His work building games and doing marketing projects as an immersive director is sought after by brands and celebrities worldwide, including Google, Meta, Snap, Drake, and Beyoncé. And that’s not all!

Our conversation began with a slight nerd-out moment about VR Troopers — shout-out to Michael Hollander! — and then André gave a rundown about AR, VR, the metaverse, and the ins and outs of immersive experiences. He also shared a bit of his origin story as a child actor, Ryerson University grad, and becoming one of the first people in Canada to use RED cameras (which are now a worldwide industry standard). André also gave some great advice for people looking to get into the immersive space.

There’s more than one way to success, and André proves that you don’t have to chase VC funding to do it!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

André Elijah:
My name is André Elijah and I’m an immersive director working in augmented reality and virtual reality.

Maurice Cherry:
How has the year been going for you so far? I can hear from in the background that you probably have started off this year with a pretty big announcement.

André Elijah:
Yeah, my twins are born in January. So yeah, I guess you can hear them in the background. I’ve got noise canceling headphones on.

Maurice Cherry:
No, no, no. You’re you’re all good. Congratulations.

André Elijah:
Thanks, dude. Yeah. It’s been a bit of a shift, but no, it’s been good. It’s been good.

Maurice Cherry:
How has it been juggling work and family? Are you sort of finding that balance now?

André Elijah:
No, it requires a really good partner that can take care of things on the home front while I work maniacally at all hours of the day and night.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, let’s jump into that work a little bit. You have a studio, André Elijah Immersive, and you just recently celebrated your five year anniversary. Congratulations on that.

André Elijah:
Thank you, sir.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me more about it.

André Elijah:
It’s basically a studio where we build everything we want to see in the world. There’s multiple parts to the company. We’re building games. We see games as the major catalyst to enable these new mediums and platforms. And so we want to be there and kind of build the content that we think will sell units and sell headsets and make this augmented reality and virtual reality future pervasive. And then on the flip side, we also work with a number of agencies and brands doing marketing projects, ad campaigns, that sort of thing, building interactive elements of that, or activations, augmented reality activations, metaverse activations, all kinds of stuff. So we’re constantly busy, probably a little bit too busy, some would say, but no complaints. This year’s been absolutely mental. I think I’m really lucky in that I was able to survive this long in this industry.

André Elijah:
A lot of people thought that VR in particular was going to pop off multiple times already and it didn’t and really kind of found its footing during the pandemic. There’s a lot of things that came together. Everything from Oculus Quest 2 or I guess now Meta Quest 2. Everyone being at home with the pandemic and needing something to do, the rise of VR fitness was really another thing that popped off and helped sell headsets and find a user base. And so all these things coalescing at the same time allowed for me to still be here and be in business all these years later. Definitely one of the lucky ones in that regard.

Maurice Cherry:
VR as a technology, I feel like has been trying to pop off since at least, I guess at least the ’90s, right, the mid ’90s.

André Elijah:
Yeah, that’s correct.

Maurice Cherry:
It has tried to gain some footing. The first, and this is probably weird, but the first thing I think of when I think of VR is VR Troopers. That really horrible, horrible show.

André Elijah:
That show. Yeah. In the ’90s it was basically a riff off of the Power Rangers because there was the three VR Troopers. I remember that. There was a TV station called the New VR and they carried VR troopers. Yeah, it was a station based at a Barrie, Ontario.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow. So, interesting thing. Do you remember the black guy that was on there that played JB?

André Elijah:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
He works in gaming. I’ve had him on the show before.

André Elijah:
What?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah.

André Elijah:
That is wild.

Maurice Cherry:
He told me all the behind the scenes. That show is so chopped up. It’s like the video form of, I don’t know, scrapple or something. It’s like a whole bunch of stuff taken from different shows that they cobbled together and it’s wild. It’s not even from one show. It’s from five different shows that they put together to make that show because they have different outfits in VR grid versus when they’re fighting the monsters. And it’s so funny. There’s a video on YouTube, if you want to check it out. There’s a video where the cast got drunk and did a voiceover of one of the episodes. It’s so funny. It’s so funny.

André Elijah:
That is awesome. This makes me really happy to hear, I’m not going to lie. It’s funny because no one knows what the hell VR Troopers is. You can mention Power Rangers and everyone knows that. Occasionally you can mention Masked Rider and people will get that because it’s just Kamen Rider. You mention VR Troopers, no one ever knows what the hell you’re talking about. So, you made me really happy right now.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. But to go back to my earlier point, VR has really tried to pop off since then. You had Nintendo with the failed Virtual Boy. You even had video games that had virtual or virtual in it, like Virtual Fighter. There’s been all these attempts to try to make virtual reality really a big thing. And it seems like, as you said now-

André Elijah:
Even the Metal Gear Solid VR missions. And I think it was Metal Gear Solid 2. It was all these simulated missions that were, quote unquote, in VR.

Maurice Cherry:
But even now, as you said, there’s been this perfect storm of I guess the pandemic and the technology becoming at a enough of a consumer price point where it’s starting to become commonplace now.

André Elijah:
Yep. Hundred percent.

Maurice Cherry:
So with your studio, what does a typical day look like for you?

André Elijah:
I don’t really think there is a typical day. It’s everything. So, right now we’ve got multiple VR games in production. One is kind of midway-ish. One is at the tail end and we’re about to go into certification. We’re working on a number of augmented reality projects and advertising campaigns and things like that. So, every day is kind of a mishmash of touching base with my team to see where things are at, play testing our products and projects and giving some feedback there, investigating new technology that we might be called to use in a campaign of some sort or an activation, pitching projects that we ultimately want to build and do. It’s a mishmash. Every day starts early and it goes late, but there’s really no set formula, just whatever we get time to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now we’re talking about VR virtual reality, which again I’m pretty sure most of the audience knows about. But I also just kind of want to level set the conversation because there’s a lot of terms when we talk about these immersive experiences that get thrown around, like AR, XR, the metaverse. Can you give us a couple of definitions of terms that are widely used in this space?

André Elijah:
Yeah. The three that I use are AR, VR, and regrettably metaverse because those are three biggest ones. XR I throw out the window because that just opens up its own can of worms. So, augmented reality is basically digital information overlaid on top of the physical world. So, whether that’s virtual screens that exist in your room, virtual pets that exist in your space and navigate your space that you interact with, things like that. Virtual reality is an entirely virtual space. So, you put on a headset. There is no pass through. You’re not seeing the real world. You are immersed in a fully virtual world with virtual interactions and virtual environments.

André Elijah:
And then we’ve got metaverse, which is basically a think ready player one basically networked experiences with other people in a virtual space. Doesn’t necessarily have to be in VR. You could make a case that Fortnite is a metaverse of its own with the way that people are able to express themselves with various designs and skins and way you can customize yourself. And you’re communicating with people and you have shared tasks and goals or you can just hang out remotely together. I think that’s the perfect example of a metaverse. And so those are really the three that I try and stick to because otherwise you get way too in the weeds with all the different terminology and you lose people.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Why do you regrettably say metaverse?

André Elijah:
Ever since Zuckerberg changed the company’s name, Facebook’s name to Meta, everyone’s been jumping on the metaverse bandwagon. I think in some ways it’s good that we have a shared language finally because if you’ve been working in this space for years, the terminology got pretty hardcore. You had AR, you had VR, you have XR. And then there’s a whole debate online as to what the hell XR even stands for and where the origins of it come from. That’s literally a Twitter battle every other day. And then we’ve got spatial computing, which Magically tried to use to differentiate themselves. And we have Microsoft with Mixed Reality.

André Elijah:
And so there’s all these terms and everyone has their own branded version of the same thing, which made having that common language difficult. So, here’s Zuckerberg blowing $10 billion a year, whatever to make the dream happening. Renames the company Meta in the spirit of the metaverse. And so everyone now is using metaverse for everything. But I just think if you’re building this content, you’re building real time content with networked interactions and expressiveness and personalization, all of things like that. Now we have everyone saying that Web 3 projects are all the metaverse. You buy an NFT and it’s for the metaverse, even though you can’t use that content anywhere else. I saw an article the other day about an audio metaverse and it’s like-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh God.

André Elijah:
Everyone is just… If you do a Google search every day, it’s just nothing but metaverse this metaverse that. And most of it’s bullshit. If people are selling you stuff that will be used in the metaverse, 99% of it can’t be used anywhere because there’s no interoperability with any of the platforms. So it’s kind of disingenuous I find when people use the term metaverse. I think it’s great because it grounds the conversation to a degree. And if anyone with real understanding will know that we’re talking about networked multi-user experiences that are digital. But for the most part, I think it’s become a bit of a hype train thing and I’m waiting for it to die off again.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like Meta, Facebook, whatever, they muddied the waters a bit by calling what they’re doing the metaverse because right after that, everyone of course is asking, “Well, what is the metaverse?” But they’re associating the metaverse with Meta and think that everything metaverse related has to do with Meta the company.

André Elijah:
Yeah, that’s true. But I was watching an interview this morning on the Breakfast Club with Charlemagne, and DJ Envy, and Angel Yee. And they had a Ja Rule on there and he was talking about how he’s building a Madison Square Garden for the metaverse. And I’m like, dude, what now? And so then he said two things later, he had said that he was building inside of the platform called the Sandbox, which is a crypto platform. But one Web 3 real time product isn’t the metaverse. He needs a certain level of interoperability between the different platforms and we need to be able to jump to and from them easily before I would ever consider it to be the metaverse. But it’s common parlance now. It’s to the point where 46 year old rappers are dropping the metaverse now in interviews.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. It’s funny. At work where I’m at now, we just released a print magazine and our next issue that we’re doing the theme for it is Web 3. It’s geared towards product communities. And so I’m trying to find what that intersection is going to be between Web 3 and product communities and stuff. But we were initially going to call it metaverse because of that kind of large encompassing, I guess, general definition of it as so many people jump on the bandwagon. But I think narrowing it to Web 3 hopefully will help with that. But I wanted to get those definitions because I think that along with NFTs and DAOs and all that stuff gets thrown in together and people just get confused and I almost feel like that’s on purpose.

André Elijah:
Yeah. I think the running joke right now is if you want to raise a bunch of money, maybe not right now because things are on a downturn, but certainly a couple months ago, if you wanted to raise money, you just say Web 3, metaverse, and DAO and a pitch deck and all of a sudden you’re valued at $50 million. And I was even thinking about doing some stuff in the crypto space and I talked to a couple investors. And honestly, dude, I didn’t have anything solid. It was pretty shaky. The idea that I had and the investors were like, “Yeah, your company, if you started right now, it’s valued at $25 million. I can help you raise $5 million tomorrow.” And it’s like, “Say what? Dude, I don’t even have a deck. I don’t have a company. What are you talking about?”

André Elijah:
I felt a little bit dirty having those conversations. I’m like, you know what, I’m just going to keep on doing this VR AR thing for a minute and just ride this out. But that was the thing. You throw enough of those terms around in a deck and you got a really big valuation and chances are Andreessen Horowitz is going to jump in and value it at a billion dollars, which is those things that was happening. So, it’s interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
So, I was going to ask this question. I’ll still ask it, but I can’t help but notice in your profile picture you have these Snapchat, AR Spectacles. And that’s one way that people can experience these immersive experiences. You also mentioned Meta Quest 2. Are there other ways that people can start to get a sense of what these immersive experiences are about?

André Elijah:
Yeah. So in the case of the spectacles, those are very much developer only or creator only, as Snap’s terminology would be. So, there’s only a handful of people in the world, maybe 600-700 people in the world that have Spectacles right now. They’re early. They’re very cool. I love using them, but they’re really for us to figure out what the capabilities in a lightweight headset need to be for augmented reality to be real and to go mainstream. So, there’s a lot of dialogue between people like myself and Snap to eek out the most performance and have an understanding of how we want to use these things in the first place. I think in the coming years they’ll hit mainstream and you’ll be able to buy them. But right now those glasses are very much for developers to spell out what the future is going to be like.

André Elijah:
In terms of what can you use today to get a sense of what all the stuff is going to be like, Snapchat is huge when it comes to AR. There’s hundreds of millions of active users right now using AR multiple times a day. So, a lot of the marketing projects that my team engages on are all Snap based just because they have a high number of users, the retention is really high, and people just love using the platform. And so my team has built projects for Direct TV and AT&T and Google and probably some others that I can’t even think of right now all on Snap.

André Elijah:
And typically when we get a request for breaking down the project, it always starts off with, “We’re going to target every platform. We’re going to do Spark AR and we’re going to do Web AR so you can hit the stuff in a web browser. And we’re going to do Snap and maybe even a dedicated app.” And two weeks into any of these processes, they’re like, “We’re just going to go to use Snap because they have the highest amount of users, the highest amount of retention, and the capabilities of the platform are dope. So, I think if you want to experience AR right now, Snap is probably the way to go on your phone.

André Elijah:
And if you want to experience virtual reality, Meta Quest 2 is basically the best headset you can get, best platform you can get. It’s a few hundred bucks. You can go to Amazon or Best Buy and pick them up and bring them home. And it’s honestly the best experience that you can get right now all in one standalone headset. You don’t need a computer, which I think VR was really held back for a while by the fact that you needed a gaming computer for the longest time to be able to drive these things. And so here we have a standalone device that’s basically Android phone on your face. And you get really compelling content. You get, if you want to work on your fitness, you got Supernatural, which is probably the best workout app ever. And I’m really into it for the boxing. We’ve got, if you’re into shooters, they’ve remade Resident Evil 4 in VR and it’s only available on the Quest and it’s probably the best VR game I’ve played next to Half-Life: Alyx.

André Elijah:
And so you’ve got all these games that are being able to run in a standalone form factor. And then if you want some of those PC only experiences, then you can connect with a cable or even wirelessly to your PC and have it be a PC headset as well. So I think if you want to get into AR, it’s going to be Snapchat on your phone for the time being. And if you wanted to get into VR, then it’s going to be Meta Quest. And even with the Quest, they’re enabling augmented reality and mixed reality experiences now, too. It’s black and white pass through, but all your content is color. It’s really compelling. It’s really compelling.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. I have a client that bought me, well, actually I had requested him to get me a Meta Quest 2 instead of paying me a deposit, it’s still in my closet. I haven’t broken it out yet. I need to give a spin.

André Elijah:
Yeah. Well if you open it up, which you need to, we can play together and you can add me and I will onboard you. That’s a promise.

Maurice Cherry:
No, you mentioned-

André Elijah:
[crosstalk 00:19:12].

Maurice Cherry:
All right. You mentioned these earlier clients that you’ve worked with. You said Snap, you mentioned just for some of the others I’m looking at your website here, Uber, Sony, Drake, Beyonce. When you’re working with these brands, are you seeing any specific trends when it comes to the type of immersive experiences they want to create?

André Elijah:
Early days VR was very much driven by hype. So, you basically wanted to have a very basic project. Keep in mind the capabilities when this wave of VR was popping off a few years ago, five years ago, the capabilities weren’t really as fleshed out as they are now. So it was basically you could look around in a headset. If you were lucky, you had motion track controllers. But you’re still tethered to a PC that wasn’t very powerful, especially when it was driving a stereoscopic two views at 90 frames per second. So, you were.

André Elijah:
Limited in what you could do. And early days it was basically let’s build this thing, attach a celeb or a big brand to it, and get press. And so basically you were building projects just to get press because there really was no market to make money. So, you were getting paid to build the experiences and your metric was how many views and how many articles did you get? And I think that did a lot of harm to the industry because weren’t creating anything really of value that stood the test of time. People weren’t getting much utility out of it and it hurt the space. And that’s why when I say I’m one of the lucky ones that’s still around, I mean 90% of my peers have died off in this industry to go to adjacent industries or something completely different because there just was no way to make money in VR for the longest time until the last couple years with the advent of the Quest and Quest 2.

André Elijah:
So, I think now we’re at a point where we have enough data and we have enough users that we can make a go of this, if you do it right, and really create value for people, whether it’s through an entertaining experience, like a game, or something that provides utility, like a workout app that actually helps people with fitness. Maybe it’s a meditation app that helps with people’s personal wellness and that sort of thing. So, I think we’re at a point now where we’re trying to identify what are the opportunities to create value for people? As opposed to what’s this flashy headline that I can get with a celeb or a big brand attached just for shits and giggles? And it’s a very different way of working. That’s why I pitch a lot of projects because I don’t necessarily have all these clients coming to me. But it’s like, “Hey, I see an opportunity because I’m working with the platform. I have some insight as to the numbers or percentage splits of who’s engaged in what kind of content. And I see an opportunity here if we do it right.”

André Elijah:
And I think that’s the key thing is doing it right because you don’t want shovelware. You don’t want to announce something that never gets out the door and you ultimately don’t want to fail the platform. As much shit as they take, Meta’s done a really great job in building a platform that succeeds for the developers and that you know that if you manage to get to that store and they push you in front of their audience, you’ll live to fight another day. You won’t have to close up shop, you can pay your mortgage, everything is good.

André Elijah:
And I think part of that responsibility is creating content that stands the test of time, that shows up and does well for its audience. And ultimately, I say this every time we take on a project, we got to come correct. I don’t want to build a thing that we ship on day one and we forget about it. I don’t want to ship something that people forget about. It’s like come correct, create value for the platform, create value for the users, and then identify the next opportunity, and rinse and repeat. But the key thing is to come correct.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m glad that you mentioned shovelware because first of all, that immediately took my mind back to late ’90s, early 2000s when companies were just starting to get on the internet. And they were making just trash just to say that they had some sort of presence, like Pepsi world or something like that. Where you go and it’s like, “Oh, you can view our latest commercial.” Why would I want to view a commercial? It wasn’t any sort of intent behind it, I guess, outside of it being just another commercial, another ad. But I think that was also because brands then, this was such a new technology and a new space, they didn’t know how to operate within it. I would imagine now with the metaverse, maybe companies are a little smarter about the type of experiences that they want to have, maybe, possibly, not really.

André Elijah:
I don’t want to anyone under the bus, but no. There’s group chats with people and we see the latest headlines every now and then from the Verge or Engadget and we trade it around. We say, “Why does this even exist?” There’s a lot of that going around still. That’s kind of the nature of the beast to a degree. You got these huge multi-billion dollar companies that are trying to create platforms and they want some big names attached and the people that have access to those big names. It’s the traditional agency model in a lot of ways where agencies aren’t really run by creative people. There’s a million levels of abstraction involved and everyone takes a meeting on every little thing and it’s designed by committee and none of it is breathtaking. None of it is new. None of it’s innovative. And the end product hurts.

André Elijah:
So, I think a lot of these projects and products that come out that are associated with a big agency and a big brand, you can probably guess that it’s not going to be the greatest thing ever. But if you have a really small, nimble team, that’s dope at what they do and they’ve studied the space and they’ve worked at it, they’ve put in those hours, and they get a hold of something valuable, like a brand or IP, then they’re going to knock it out of the park. That’s been the game with everything from the internet to we saw what happened in last year with the NFTs and Web 3 and all this stuff. Did we really need a Matrix Avatar project that’s basically just a rebranded version of Unreal’s Meta Humans? No, I don’t think we needed that. So I think, VR, AR none of it’s really all that different. I think you just need the indies kind of lay the groundwork for everyone else to follow. And you just make sure that the indies get their flowers and they get their paycheck so they can live another day.

Maurice Cherry:
That makes a lot of sense. That makes a lot of sense because what you are seeing are a lot of small studios and independent developers trying to stake their claim. And now the larger brands are kind of trying to rush in. And now that they see that, oh, this is something that I think we can be a part of in some way, now they want to try to rush in and get a piece of it. So, that makes sense. But some of these considerations you’re talking about, there’s so much to think about with, quote unquote, the metaverse there’s virtual wellbeing, there’s economics around NFTs and stuff, there’s intellectual property. How do you factor in these other types of considerations within your work? Do you think about that stuff?

André Elijah:
No, I try and limit the scope of what I do to exclude all that or else I wouldn’t get anything done all day. Our business right now on the games front, we’ve got a couple original games that we’re working on and we’ve become the master’s of porting games. So, we have access to the IP. We don’t have to worry about any of that. So, we’re in a good spot there. And then when it comes to the agency side, obviously we’re working with the brands and agencies. So IP again, isn’t really a concern for us because they’re coming to us and saying, “Use our name and do this thing.” So, I think the way I’ve tackled this, we kind of get around all of that. I don’t think I have, as well as the studio’s doing, I don’t think I have enough dollars for all the lawyers that would be involved with everything you’re mentioning.

Maurice Cherry:
That makes sense. Let the big companies sort that out. That’s what they’re paying for, right?

André Elijah:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I love that you’ve got this portion on your site with rejected projects. Why did you decide to show those?

André Elijah:
Yeah, so it’s weird, man. So, a lot of what people do when they’re indie is build products and projects and prototype things. But if you take a look at their portfolios, they only have the finished projects, the sexy ones, the ones that shipped. And you never know about what happened in those three months or four months between them shipping stuff. You never know what the backstory is. You don’t know the genesis of so many of these things. And I found myself for a while not shipping projects and doing a lot of prototyping and having a lot of discussions. And I just wanted an avenue to show it off and put it up as in a way that’s like, “Hey, this is not final. It’s not shipping. It’s not representing anyone. But these are the things that we’re thinking about. These are the conversations that we’re having behind closed doors.” The people that we’re talking to are probably people that you would want to want a product from or at least the conversation with to figure out what this would look like.”

André Elijah:
And ultimately I just said one day, “Fuck it. I’m just going to post all of this stuff sitting on all of these decks and all of these ideas and all these email threads and conversations that I’ve had. Why shouldn’t people know about it? They’re not secret.” I did the work to come up with the idea and get it in front of the right people and pitch them. So, maybe people should know that I’m not just kind of sitting around playing Fortnite all day, but I’m not shipping stuff, but I’m actually trying to get things done. I’m trying to build alignment behind the scenes with big brands and stuff. And so just kind of decided one day I got enough material, let’s do it.

André Elijah:
And to be fair, I’m probably showing only a 10th of the rejected pitches that are pretty decent. Just a matter of I need to find the time to throw all that stuff up. So I think we’ve got, what do we have in there, dude? We’ve got some People stuff. We’ve got Title and RocNation who I was talking to for a while about doing some stuff. I think we got Dead Menace in there. So, there’s enough cool ideas and content in there that it just kind of made sense to put it out there and say, “Hey, yeah, I know all these people.” And if we have something strong, I can take an idea back to them as well. And maybe we’ll do something in the future.

Maurice Cherry:
And it’s probably also just a learning experience, hopefully, for people that are like, “Oh, we just got pitched on a similar project. Maybe we don’t do it this way, or something like that. So it’s kind of a learning tool.

André Elijah:
Yeah. A hundred percent

Maurice Cherry:
Now as these immersive technologies become more readily available, now we’ve got, like you said, Snap Spectacles, we got Meta Quest 2. I’m sure there are going to be more peripherals that come down the line in the years to come. What do you think is going to set each experience apart as these technologies become more readily available?

André Elijah:
I think part of it is understanding the tech and how to make it work and understand the limitations and polish everything that you do. Like I said before, you got to come correct. So when we’re creating these different experiences, some of them are games and some of them are applications, mixed reality applications that add a layer of utility on top of your physical space, your home or whatever. I think user experience is really important. Onboarding users that have never touched a headset before is really important. Letting them feel comfortable and getting them to a point of comfort where they can share with their friends, “Hey, put on this headset and try this thing out.” We need to stop getting away from these high end technologies because this kind of tinkerer space or this hardcore technology space and realize that it’s for everyone. So I think polish and onboarding and taking the ego out of it is really important to grow that adoption.

Maurice Cherry:
Now we’ve talked a lot about your work. We’ve talked for the past 30 minutes about your work. Let’s kind of switch back to the real world. Let’s learn more about Andre Elijah, the person, the man. Tell me about where you grew up.

André Elijah:
Yeah. I grew up in Toronto, middle class family, parents working their asses off to give me a future. Initially wanted to be a child actor and got into that for a little bit. And that kind of kicked off my whole film industry thing. So, did a lot of auditions, was in some commercials and couple small movies and that sort of thing growing up. And really loved the energy of being on set really loved being creative with people. So, that I think set the tone for the rest of my career and seeing how people collaborated and worked under really stressful situations on a set to create something really, really dope.

André Elijah:
And grew out of that a little bit. Just the auditions were a lot with everything I had going on at school. I had a lot of extracurriculars and bands and drama and all that sort of stuff. Kind of aged out and then there was an opportunity when I was in, I think grade eight, seven or eight to do what was called an options program and I sucked at sports. So, it was basically an opportunity to do more creative things. So on top of doing debate, there was an opportunity to be part of the film club. And that piqued my interest immediately. My first time shooting and editing, it was a… My first camera that I used was a Canon and GL1 camera, which is a 3CCD or three chip semi-pro camera from Canon. And my first edit suite was I think Final Cut 3 on a Power Mac G4 with mini DV capture deck and external monitors and all that sort of stuff. So I started, they threw me in the deep end and I got to play with the pro stuff first.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

André Elijah:
It was probably seven or eight years before I ever touched iMovie. After I started in Final Cut, I found that whole process of shooting projects and editing them and taking them through post production really, really interesting and fascinating. And I picked it up quick. That just kind of became my thing. And I was always a geek and loved playing with computers. So, the fact that I could create the stuff that people would watch and enjoy while geeking out on these really hardcore computers was a dream from true.

André Elijah:
A lot of the older students, I was grade seventh, grade eight and a lot of the older students that were in grade 11, 12 when they graduated, they went off to work in the big leagues. We had some guys that went off to New York and worked on the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films. We had a couple guys go off to work at visual effects houses. We had some that went off to China and worked in documentary films there. And so I guess they all kind of took me under their wing and I got to see life through their eyes for a while and they onboard me to their projects. So, I was this young kid that was getting really shitty duties on their projects, but it was dope. And eventually I got good at editing. So I became an editor, freelance editor while I was still in high school and all that.

André Elijah:
I ended up working with Radio Television Hong Kong. I was editing some of their documentaries and a buddy of mine that I worked with in the corporate world, we were both moonlighting in the film industry. He ended up going to the American Film Institute. He became a directing fellow there and I edited the three short films that got him accepted into the American Film Institute. So, that kind of set me up. And then I worked at my first agency ever I worked at as a video editor initially cutting together demo reels for them and content for their clients. And then they turned me into a flash developer before flash got killed off by Apple, Steve Jobs, and one letter. They turned me more into a dev than anyone else. And let me see what happened when you press a button and something bounces on a screen. They did that. And I think in a big way kind of set me up to where I’m at now.

Maurice Cherry:
So, you got introduced into tech at a early age, but through media. I think that’s pretty cool.

André Elijah:
Yeah. I really just always love the creative process and being able to geek out to pull that process together. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a lot of fun. You see a lot of stuff and yeah, I think the common thread in my career though has been being on the cutting edge of technology. So whether it was the film and using janky ass versions of Final Cut Pro on these ridiculously powerful computers. I did a stint at Canada Pension Plan Investment Board. So, I was a systems analyst for them working on some hardcore service stuff. Years later, after film and agency stuff, working in AR and VR, again, cutting edge of technology. So, I think that’s always been kind of the constant in my life and in my career.

Maurice Cherry:
And now you went to Ryerson University, which I think by the time this interview comes out, people know it’s now Toronto Metropolitan University. But you majored in fine and studio arts as part of their new media program there.

André Elijah:
That’s correct.

Maurice Cherry:
What was your time like there?

André Elijah:
It wasn’t great. I went to Ryerson because the founder of my first agency, he was actually in the first batch of new media graduates at Ryerson. That guy has always been my hero and I love him to death. Shout to Spencer Saunders. I wanted to be like him, so I went to Ryerson and hopped into the new media program over there. And it was very different than when he went to school. I was one of those people, man, I like doing stuff. I don’t really like the theory of things. I like getting my hands dirty. It just didn’t click for me, which is fine. Maybe it clicked for some others, but I like getting my hands dirty. I like building stuff. I like doing the work.

André Elijah:
So, sitting in a class and watching someone code on a projector doesn’t really teach me that much. Hearing about a VHS fine artwork from 20 years prior when we’re doing stuff online didn’t really connect with me. It’s just one of those things. I think that’s been another constant in my life too. I just like doing, I don’t really like the instruction. I Just like getting my hands dirty with the code and seeing how things react when I change things around. So, Ryerson wasn’t really my bag.

André Elijah:
First couple years, I think I was in school full time. And then the last couple years I was working down the street at Canada Pension while I was doing my classes. So, Canada Pension was really cool. They let me slip off to class when I needed to for an hour or two here and then go back to work. So, I start my day early. I’d end it kind of later in the day, probably five, six o’clock. And skip out for, instead of taking lunches or whatever, I’d just go to class. So, at least my last couple years I had real work that I was doing to kind of balance it all out.

André Elijah:
But yeah, go get your degree. That’s the thing that gives you credibility I guess. But I can honestly say, at this point in my career, I don’t think I’ve ever looked back at Ryerson and been like, wow, they set me up for this or everything that I did there led to this. God, no. It was me just kind of downloading Unreal Engine when they announced Unreal Engine 4 and being able to play with those content examples and build my own stuff that really kind of got me here.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting. I have I guess similar experiences to when I was in college. I would imagine that college is still set up this way where your first two years you’re just slammed with classes because you have to take your humanities and all the general stuff before you can really get into your major. And then once you get into your major, there’s not so many classes hopefully. So, you have more time just outside of school to do things. My first year at Morehouse I was ready to go. I was like I don’t know if this is what I want to do. And I stuck it out because eventually I did have part-time jobs. I actually started working in the computer science lab at Morehouse and that’s how I got into, not necessarily how I got into technology. I was into it before then. But I got to spend so much time in the computer lab teaching myself HTML, basic JavaScript, et cetera, reverse engineering webpages, figuring that stuff out on my own that had nothing to do with what I was actually learning in my major courses.

Maurice Cherry:
And so I think if I look back at my time, similar to what you’re saying, I don’t know if I would really recommend it. I could say, “Oh, I went to Morehouse.” And that means something to people in the world. To me, eh, it was okay. It was all right. I got my degree. I got out, no debt. I can say that proudly.

André Elijah:
Key part, right? You got out, you survived, you did it.

Maurice Cherry:
We had our graduation outside. They normally have the graduations outside and it stormed on my graduation, lightning hitting electronics stormed. And I’m sitting there in my cap and gown drenched because the person next to me had an umbrella and he wouldn’t let me get under the umbrella because he’s like, “I don’t know who you are. Our last names just happened to be together in the alphabet. Get away from me.” Yeah, I get what you’re saying.

André Elijah:
At least you went to you graduation though. I skipped mine. So yeah, that tells you everything.

Maurice Cherry:
So after Ryerson, you started out as a freelancer. You were working as a production artist. You were doing a lot of post production work. Was that kind of where the education for you really set in, doing the work?

André Elijah:
Yeah. But even what I was doing half the time there was no template for, there was no real learning other than doing it. So, I was fortunate enough that I got my hands on the first couple RED cameras that ever landed in Canada. So, for the people that don’t know-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

André Elijah:
Yeah. So that was a big deal. But for people who don’t know, the RED camera was really the first 4K digital camera that film productions could get their hands on. So, it’s from a company called RED and Peter Jackson was the first director that would create a project with them. And it was a short film that he created specifically for the company. And since then, they basically redefined Hollywood and they’re kind of the norm now. And if you watch videos from any of the big YouTubers, like MKBHD, or iJustine, or Jonathan Morrison, any of these people, they all have REDs.

André Elijah:
And back in the day, REDs used to cost as much as a house. So the guy that went off to be a directing fellow at American Film Institute and someone else that I was working with, they both happened to get REDs at launch because they could spend as much as a house on a camera and they were directors. They didn’t want to know how these things worked. They didn’t need to know. So me kind of being the post-production guy and ultimately becoming an onset workflow person, I learned how the camera worked. I learned how to get the footage off the cards, transcode it.

André Elijah:
I could see a camera shooting and know whether or not it was going to die. And in the early days reliability wasn’t that great. And I just became the guy that knew how these damn things worked. And so I was consulting a lot on RED productions. Known as the RED whisperer because I just knew everything about them. I figured it out on the fly. There was no real support network for these things. No one had them. So, we just had to figure it out by the seat of our pants on a really expensive production on set. And so worked with those cameras for years.

André Elijah:
And then that’s kind of what led into me working with Beyonce. So, we were shooting a commercial, a real estate commercial, completely unrelated in New York City. And on the last day of the shoot, I got a message from the director of the Beyonce project saying we’ve got 10 REDs on the floor at a place called Off Hollywood and we don’t know how to set them up. And my partner and I went over there and we got all the cameras on the same firmware version. We set them up so they could do multi-cam shoots. And we got them all up and running at the facility or at the location, which was Roseland Ballroom in New York City, which I think is closed now. And we got those things up and running for four nights and in a day basically.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

André Elijah:
For a live via satellite, quote unquote, live via satellite segment for the Michael Jackson tribute concert. We got through that shoot and it was the first 10 RED multicam shoot ever. And we did it for Beyonce and that just kind of we hacked that together. It wasn’t supposed to work and it did. So all of this stuff, it’s you learn by doing. You learn by throwing yourself into really uncomfortable situations and just saying, “Fuck it, let’s just figure it out.” So, that’s kind of led me from thing to thing and it hasn’t failed me yet.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you founded a studio back then, Last Step Studios. And based on what I’ve heard, your current studio evolved out of that over the course of a weekend. How did that happen?

André Elijah:
Yeah, I’ve had multiple studios. I guess, multiple studios under different names. And I keep on using up all the cool names. That’s why it’s Andre Elijah Immersive now because I just can’t come up with any more cool names that should be the name of a company. So in that company, I founded it with another student from Ryerson and we wanted to make video games. And on day one we realized, oh, crap, video games are very expensive to make, very expensive. And we don’t have money because we’re broke students. And so we pivoted immediately to doing architectural visualization work using real time engines. And so it was initially Unreal Engine.

André Elijah:
The work that we were creating in Unreal, it looked cool, it was realistic looking, and we could change material on couches and on walls and stuff. And that impressed some people, but they ultimately came to us for more traditional rendering work or dollhouse renderings and some static renderings, that sort of thing, because game engines was so new to the real estate market. It didn’t really get a lot of pickup. Ultimately, I think we wanted to do different things.

André Elijah:
I saw the demo of the HoloLens. I think it was at E3 where they showed off the Minecraft demo in AR. And I thought that was really kind of awe inspiring. And I wanted to try my hand at making something like that. I didn’t have the computers to do it. I didn’t have the know how to do it. I just wanted to do it. And at the same time, the Oculus Kickstarter had popped off and VR was trying to find its footing with Palmer at the helm. And there was something new and sexy and crazy about it that I really wanted to be part of. And it just reminded me of the same energy of so many other things that I chased over the years, whether it was doing the post production stuff in Final Cut or I was getting hands on time with the RED.

André Elijah:
It was just kind of new and unexplored and I wanted in. And I saw it. I saw it pretty clearly in my head what it could be. And I just figured I had a chance. So, literally two founders kind of going in different directions and we dissolved the company over a weekend. And by Monday my new company was spun up and I started trying to land that kind of work. And so tried to figure out ways to differentiate myself from everyone else. And I didn’t really know what to do. And I had never 3D modeled in my life. I was the engine guy, my old co-founder was the modeler.

André Elijah:
And I figured, you know what, if I’m going to do anything, I’m just going to go build Drake’s house and see what happens. And so I learned to 3D model and I built out Drake’s house, which I think was I don’t remember now. I think it’s 25,000 square feet or something ridiculous like that, his new house. The floor plans have leaked on the BBC. And so I had the floor plans and I built it out. I made a website for it, sent it out to a couple places, a couple media outlets. It wasn’t anything… I didn’t do a full court press for it or anything.

André Elijah:
And all of a sudden everyone picked up this goddamn house and there were stories everywhere. Teen Vogue picked it up and the Verge or Polygon picked it up, everyone. And I got millions of views in record time. And everyone started hitting me up, platforms and technology companies and other brands. And they’re like, “What are you going to do with this thing? Can you do product placement in this house? Can we roll it out to our platform?” Et cetera. And it took on a life of its own for a while there, trying to figure out what it could be.

André Elijah:
And that kind of gave me the legitimacy in a weird way. It was a horrible project technically. My computers were really weak, so I couldn’t render shadows properly. Couldn’t render post processing. My processors were too weak so I couldn’t even bake the shadows. It was God awful. But again, you have a big name, like Drake, who he’s huge now, but he was big then. You take his name and then you add on something crazy like VR and all of a sudden that’s the perfect combination there for some headlines.

André Elijah:
And so from there, I got a bunch of companies and agencies reaching out to me to do some work and then created the first new home sales suite in real estate for Canada off the back of that. And it actually happened to be for Drake’s agency, the agency that represented him for a bunch of stuff and worked with him for a bunch of stuff. They hit me up to do the first new home sales suite in Canada using VR. And so we rolled that out and prospective home buyers actually went into VR in the sales office and checked out their future homes. And so we rolled those out. And I did some stuff out of Miami. And then all of a sudden I’m doing VR for real estate. The thing that I was intending to do with my old co-founder I’m now doing on my own. And from there other companies started reaching, startups started reaching out to me saying, “Can you prototype ideas of ours? Because we don’t have the talent in house.” So, that was a stepping stone.

André Elijah:
And then suddenly bigger companies are more amenable to me working on their stuff or they’re reaching out. Pretty gradual growth until a couple years ago. Epic Games gave me a MegaGrant for an educational project that I’ve been working on called Innocence in the Fire. And that was the first major co-sign that I ever got. And they were really great. And so as soon as I announced, “Hey guys, I got an Epic MegaGrant.” Bam, life went into overdrive and Snap took me in and has been really supportive. And they keep on shining a light on me with different profiles and different features at their conferences and stuff. And then now I’m working with Meta. I’m working with some other companies. So, it’s been, the last couple years have kind of everything’s gone into overdrive, which I really love and appreciate. But yeah, it took a minute and some craftiness to get in position for that in the first place.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like things really kind of snowballed after that. I think it was Drizzy Manor, that was what you called it, right?

André Elijah:
Yep, exactly. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Things kind of just snowballed after that. And now you’re also on the AR, VR program advisory board at Vancouver Film School. How has that experience been for you in a way entering back into education? Although not as a student this time, of course.

André Elijah:
Here, we’ve got a school that has some really amazing graduates. We’ve got Neill Blomkamp went there. End of story, Neill Blomkamp, it’s done, it’s a lock. We’ve got this really amazing traditional film school that wants to explore new media and a new platform. And they’ve really crafted amazing programs and talent to foster that growth. So, initially there was a buddy of mine that was teaching there. He had me just give a guest lecture. The students were really into it. They asked really great questions. And I was honestly impressed because I think certainly myself and my peers weren’t solid students like they were when we were younger. Just talking to the staff and the program coordinator, I was like, “Wow, this is legit. And let’s figure it out.” They just kept on calling me back to give talks.

André Elijah:
And for the project that ended up getting the Epic MegaGrant, we actually used some of the students for their thesis project. We let them build a prototype of the game. The work was really great. And so just in conversations of how do you teach the next wave of people how to get into the space and teach them to prepare for the future. That just kind of became the onboarding to bring me in as advisor for the program. And it’s been great. They take our ideas seriously. The students that they have are amazing.

André Elijah:
The talent they have teaching, they’re all practicing professionals. It’s not those who can’t teach. It’s like that’s not the situation here. They’re all professionals in the space. They’re all people I work with in the space doing really dope shit. And so the students are really lucky. I wish all these teachers were at Ryerson when I was there because maybe I’d take something from it. But no, it’s been a really great experience working with the school and seeing the impact that it’s had on these students and seeing where they land after they graduate has been really dope.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you’ve been quoted as saying that your biggest goal for the future is to set the standard for interactive and immersive education. Where does the passion for that goal come from?

André Elijah:
I went to private school when I was a kid and the best we had were VHS’s and DVDs that were horribly boring. And I think that if you’re paying that much in tuition, maybe there should be a better learning experience there. And I think with the accessibility of the Meta Quest or Snap on your phone, the level of access to content has never been more amazing and higher. And I think that if we, instead of doing shooty, shooty games all the time, we tried to engage people in new concepts and ideas and reinforce learnings, I think we’d be further along. So, I just think ultimately that if we were to use all these skills to build something dope, maybe the future has a chance, particularly around climate education.

André Elijah:
We keep on putting people into videos of this is a polar bear dying or this is the world on fire and it hasn’t really made enough of an impact. You just kind of see the trajectory that the world is on. It’s not great. So, I think that if we were to engage people more and actually show them the effects of their actions in a digital environment or in a simulation, that maybe it’ll hit different. The study’s have proven that if you experience things in VR, your retention is way higher. You understand concepts way more clearly in VR. And I think that if we were to use that for some good, maybe the world would be on a better path. So, that’s just one of my weird altruistic things. But I’m hoping that by making these games that are mainstream and onboard more users and get more people there, there’s a viable path to creating really dope immersive content for education. And then maybe we can turn this world around in a decade from now. That’s the hope anyway.

Maurice Cherry:
Now your career to date, as you’ve described it just in this interview, has been extremely prolific. Who are some of the people that have really helped you out over the years, whether there’s been mentors, peers, anyone?

André Elijah:
Everyone, man. I think this whole industry. I would say the immersive industry is more open and friendly and awesome than any other industry I’ve been part of. I think at the heart of it, we’re all a bunch of misfits trying to find our way and trying to lock in and create the future that we all want. And so it’s been ultimately way more collaborative than any other industry I’ve been part of. So, it doesn’t really matter if it’s a major executive at a company that’s doing immersive stuff or it’s a lowly developer that specializes in some weird thing. The whole industry has been really collaborative and really cool. And there’s you basically check your ego at the door. So, to single anyone out would be kind of weird because I’ve literally gone up to the top execs at Meta, formerly Facebook, and been like, “Hey, I really want a meeting with so and so.” And then they send a message and the next day I get a meeting with that person.

André Elijah:
It’s just one of these things. I think VR and AR, I don’t think anyone that’s in it, really in it isn’t a geek. I think we all identify with each other in really profound ways. And so there’s a level of humility involved in the industry that’s been really great. You see inside of industry Slacks and Discord groups and everything. We’re all sharing information. We’re all sharing learnings. We’re all helping refine each other’s pitches and play testing each other’s games and applications. And as much as it’s Andre Elijah Immersive, there’s a lot of people on my team and there’s a lot of people not on my team that have helped out and helped to get us where we are now. So, it’s really one of those things, it takes a village to raise a kid. So, I think we’re no different

Maurice Cherry:
If there’s somebody that’s out there that’s been listening to this and they want to follow in your footsteps, whether it’s I would imagine just getting into this world of AR and VR, what advice would you give them?

André Elijah:
I would say just do it. I don’t want to sound flippant with that, but this is one of those industries where it doesn’t take a whole lot to be able to get in and start building. When I worked in film years ago, you needed more than a Handycam to have a good looking image. You needed more than just iMovie to have a really solid edit and final delivery. You need the color correcting and all that sort of stuff. And so you have all the software and hardware considerations and all that. With AR and VR, you need a not so powerful computer and a $300 headset and you’re off to the races. Game engines are free. Unity and Unreal are free. They have lots of example projects and tutorials online that you can follow to find your footing and start building, but you don’t need a powerful computer because these headsets are all running mobile parts.

André Elijah:
So, you’re not pushing for photorealism for these projects. So I think for under a grand ultimately you can be set up and you can start building. And so I think that removes a lot of the barriers and a lot of the excuses as to why you can’t get into it. So, I would say literally just Google some of your favorite games and how to rebuild some of those mechanics. There’s literally YouTube channels that just show you in Unreal or in Unity how to build mechanics from games that we all play and like. Learning about the interaction systems and how to set up a project and how to compile. This is all stuff that’s available at your fingertips. So I think more than ever in this industry you want to do it. You can just go ahead and do it. You don’t need to ask for permission. There’s no one gate keeping any crazy hardware or software. You can literally just start.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you think you would’ve went into if you didn’t get into this field?

André Elijah:
I asked myself that a lot. For a while I wanted to be an entertainment and intellectual property lawyer. And for a while I wanted to be a robotics engineer. And for a while I also wanted to be a professional jazz trumpet player. I played trumpet for a number of years.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

André Elijah:
It was going to be one of those three things.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. So given how fast all of this is progressing, the technology and everything, where do you see yourself in the next five years? What do you want to be doing?

André Elijah:
I’m going to be shipping a number of games in the next two to three years and then probably go investor. My team members know that I can maintain this pace for a couple more years. They’re all young. They got a lot longer to go and I want to be the first check in on their companies when they go ahead and do their own thing. And I tell them all the time, “I need you guys to bang out these games on these projects and we’re going to do them together. And you’re going to have them to your name and it’s going to be great. And then you’re going to go out and you’re going to do your own thing and you’re going to stomp all over me and it’ll be fun. I just want to be the one to fund you.” So, I really want to be the ones that open some doors for them once they’re done with my stuff and just help the next generation I think.

André Elijah:
I think there’s been this whole thing since early web days, and then you saw the shift to the app store and everything and all these tech companies, there’s a certain progression. And you need to go get your Tech Crunch articles and your press and go get your venture capital and all this sort of stuff. And I think there’s other ways to do that. I think if you’re really good at shipping products and projects that connect with people, there’s a different way forward. And so I just want to impart my wisdom on these people and I know a lot of people and look at my rejected section, I know a lot of people. So if there’s a way for me to open some doors and connect some dots for folks, then I think that’s the position I want to be in a couple years. And not necessarily shipping a project for a brand every month, month and a half and deal with these crazy ass hours. I’m getting old.

Maurice Cherry:
And you got kids!

André Elijah:
And I got kids! I got to watch them grow up and do after school activities with them when they’re older and stuff. So yeah.

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

André Elijah:
Yeah. My website is www.andreelijah.com. And my Twitter is @andreelijah. So if you want some industry hot takes, that’s probably the place to go. And then yeah, my website, that’s where the portfolio lies. And if you want to know the work that we’ve done or the stuff we pitched and rejected section, it’s all there.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Andre Elijah, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Just hearing this, I don’t know, almost this whirlwind of activity that you’ve got going on, not just with what you’re doing now with the studio, but what you plan to do in the future and really how you’ve had this passion to do this for such a long time. I think it really points to the fact that while these technologies, VR for instance, have taken a long time to get off the ground, there’s been this constant steady push by people like you to really push things into the, not just the mainstream, but to the next level to create experiences that in the future we’ll be talking about for years and years to come. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

André Elijah:
I appreciate you, dude. Thanks for having me. It was a lot of fun.

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Azeez Alli-Balogun

Azeez Alli-Balogun came highly recommended by several former guests, so I knew that a great conversation was going to happen. Azeez currently works as a lead product designer on the globalization team at Netflix, and he’s also a co-founder of Design to Divest. But if you think that’s all there is to Azeez’s story, then think again!

We started off with a quick 2022 check-in, and then he talked about his plan to work on more Black-focused design projects, and also gave a glimpse at what it’s like working at Netflix. From there, Azeez spoke about growing up in Louisiana, becoming a jewelry designer, and how he transitioned into product design. We also spent some time talking about Design to Divest and Azeez shared what he wants the organization to accomplish in the future. Everyone has the power to make change with design, and Azeez is a prime example of this!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
My name is Azeez Alli-Balogun. I am a product designer at Netflix, a product design lead at Netflix on the globalization team. What that really entails is that we’re looking at how do we enable Netflix products and the content that we create to live in local markets, but also experience global audiences.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So I work a lot on the enterprise tools or the tools that help us create the subtitling assets, the dubbing assets, and all of those things that actually help our content become very, very locally resonant in local markets and local geographies, but also accessible to global audiences.

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

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
It’s been going really great. It’s interesting. We’re in the end of January, and it’s been incredibly productive, quite a lot of work that I’ve been doing in the beginning of the year. I’ve been invited to do a couple of different types of projects that I feel were very, very impactful. I think it’s just there’s so many seeds and so many things that have been planted in 2020 and 2021 that are starting to kind of blossom a little bit, which is both good and, also, I’m getting to a point where I need to make sure I’m prioritizing myself and my rest. I want to make sure that 2020 doesn’t lead to burnout for me with opportunities coming my way.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything special in particular that you want to achieve this year?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I mean the biggest thing that I think is really focusing on some of the work that I’m doing with Design to Divest, but really starting to produce more content or areas in where people from marginalized backgrounds, particularly the Black communities and African communities and indigenous communities, to be able to access design differently, access learning differently, and be able to participate in the creation of the world that we live in through their own cultural knowledge base.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So that type of work is something that I’m looking to start to really tangibilize in more meaningful ways. So I’m pretty hopeful that with all of the work that I’m doing and the projects and the communities that I’m a part of, that I’ll be able to create these platforms that allow or bring in more Black, African, and indigenous creatives to the forefront of creating some of the institutions that are going to shape the future.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, let’s talk about the work that you’re doing at Netflix. You’re the product design lead for the globalization team there. Now, you mentioned what you’re doing has to do with subtitles and dubbing. I can only imagine probably after the success of titles like Squid Game and Lupin and stuff that you probably have had a lot on your plate. But tell me more about the work that you do.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. It’s a lot of stakeholder management. So it’s interesting in the sense that the team that I’m working on really crosses so much of what Netflix does. It’s an integral part to growth. As Netflix grows our global subscriber base and grows into global markets, it’s incredibly important that we’re effective in the way that we localize our content as we start to even increase the volume of content that we produce, the volume of film and the volume of movies, and really trying to create platforms for different geographical spaces outside of Hollywood to be able to share their stories.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So a lot of the work is when you go into Netflix and you’re able to see the option to choose 20 different subtitles or watch things in dubbing, all of that stuff is work that I’m directly impacting and the team that I work on directly impacts. We’re working with linguists. We’re working with project managers. We’re working across the board with so many different types of stakeholders to ensure that there is quality attached to the subtitles and the dubbing and that if a director in Nigeria creates a television show or a movie, that same movie can be enjoyed by somebody in Swedish and it doesn’t lose a lot of the cultural nuances that represent how that content or how that TV show or film was created.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So it’s a heavy task because it’s very difficult to even measure things, like what is a good subtitle? What is a good dubbing or voiceover? Can we make sure that we are staying true to the content? Because when you think about different languages, it’s very, very … If you’re lucky enough to be able to speak multiple languages, then you know that there are certain nuances and certain kind of things that just don’t translate.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
You want to be able to translate those cultural nuances so people start to really understand what it actually means to experience the culture that that film or that television show or those characters are actually situated in. So there’s a lot of really trying to figure out how do we communicate, also creating a lot of the workflows that allow our stakeholders, the project managers internally at Netflix with the linguists and the other vendors that we use in order to create all of these assets, how do we allow them to do this work very, very effectively and at the volume and scale of the amount of content that we produce on a yearly basis?

Maurice Cherry:
So talk to me more about the team. What does the makeup look like?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
It’s a typical product team. I mean you have your designers. I lead a particular area of the globalization design side. I have two other design partners who are also design leads in other areas. I work with a product manager, and I’m in constant contact with the globalization project managers and program managers as well as vendors and linguists in order to really understand what is necessary and how to create the best conditions for their workflows to be successful in delivering on the subtitling and dubbing and other localization assets.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So the core team is I’ll have my UI front end team and backend team designer and me, as a designer, project manager. We’re the core product team building out all of the tools. And then we’re in constant communication with the project managers, the vendor managers, the linguists who are actually authoring and creating a lot of the subtitling and localization assets in order to ensure that we’re providing the tools that are really supporting their workflows in a positive way.

Maurice Cherry:
So Netflix has linguists that are doing the translating, I mean as they’re listening through to the content and making sure that those subtitles, like you said, are kind of accurate to the plot, culturally accurate, et cetera.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. I mean there’s a whole process there of subtitle authoring. I can’t get too deep into lots of that stuff because I think it’s one of the things that does set Netflix apart from some of the other services that you might encounter, the level of detail that we go into trying to create good subtitles. There’s a lot of experimentation and things that we’re doing right now in order to enable that process to be better for our members.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I remember when Squid Game had come out and there had been some kind of talk about like, “Oh, well, if you’re watching Squid Game, don’t watch it with subtitles because the subtitles aren’t right,” or something like that. Or no, it wasn’t the subtitles. It was the dubbing, I think, one of those two things. But I mean I can imagine even with a show like that, there’s still going to be some sort of cultural differences or things like that that get lost in translation.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. I mean that’s exactly right. I mean there’s always going to be some dissonance. We’re always testing things out to try to get it right. I think the one thing that’s really great about the culture at Netflix and how we go about designing and building product is we experiment in order to figure out how we can learn and improve and constantly improve. So if we don’t get something right the first time, it’s a learning experience for us. We take all of that feedback and use it to ensure that we’re doing better as we move forward.

Maurice Cherry:
What does an average day look like for you?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Average day? I try to segment a little bit of my days or my week. Some days I load up with meetings, so I’m meeting with engineers and my product manager partner and other stakeholders. And then other days, I create that space for me to kind of just work and I’m designing and creating different concepts that are related to the conversations that I’ve been having, so kind of going through the whole design process, but in very, very short cycles.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
It’s not spending three months or two weeks or just doing nothing but research, but do longer cycles of discovery research on a particular area that we’re trying to improve operational efficiency on and then take that, summarize that research into some opportunities, create some concepts behind that, and then start to socialize that with engineering and product in order to start to tweak and do more of … I try to do much more co-creation, co-designing with the stakeholders, the engineers, and product all together.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
That way the decisions that are being made are made with the right amount of input from the different internal stakeholders that influence how the product actually tangibilizes itself. So my typical days typically would be I have some times where I’m dedicated. I need time to intake all the information that I’ve gotten and then start to visualize that into some sort of concept.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
And then a lot of the times, I am taking those concepts in meetings and doing a lot of co-design in order to fulfill requirements and understand what the needs are directly with both the users and then my product stakeholders as well.

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

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Stakeholder management maybe. The reason that I would say that is when I think about the idea of complexity, what really makes anything complex is that you have a bunch of different competing priorities that happen at scale. So being able to really clearly align all the different priorities that are happening from different parts of the process and different stakeholders into something that works, I think, is the most difficult part because I’m also constantly listening and observing what people are saying, what people are doing, and then trying to translate that down into a language that can be understood by everyone who is involved.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
As you know, it’s interesting as we talk about language and linguistics, not only in different languages. There are different languages within different industries. There are different languages within different professions. So everyone might have a different way of communicating the same thing. Oftentimes, you can be in meetings where people are trying to communicate an idea or a concept with the language of their own profession.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So engineers might be communicating things in a certain way that’s different from product. That’s also slightly different from the way that the type of language that design would use to communicate something. And then our end users are using a different type of language and trying to wrangle all of those different concepts and in the way that people are trying to express what it is that they’re trying to think of in a way that everyone’s aligned on and everyone kind of understands.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
That’s where I feel like a lot of the true power of design comes because once you start to take the language and start to visualize things, then people can have something to have an opinion about. They can have something to kind of analyze and say, “That’s not it,” or, “That is it,” or, “It’s this and this. Add this or that or the other.” But bringing life to the words that are being said by all of the people in the room and then allowing people to kind of mold what’s been created to make sure that everyone’s voices is really being heard.

Maurice Cherry:
I would imagine language and linguistics probably influence a lot of the design work in general, right?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. I mean just really trying to understand the nuances of it and how those nuances can be misinterpreted because, as you know, a misinterpretation of even body language or a language or just a word or a concept can have dire consequences. So it’s important operationally as well as it is tangibly when we’re trying to create the product and making sure that the things that we create are very, very clear and transparent.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Netflix, it’s been an interesting place working. It’s been the most different place that I’ve worked at in my career because of the culture. The culture at Netflix is very unique. As I mentioned a little bit before about the experimentation culture of just trying to do things to learn, to get feedback, and then course correct. That also kind of goes into how we’re managed as employees. There’s a lot of the idea of freedom and responsibility and then the culture of feedback. All of those feed into the way that we’re able to work and the way that we’re able to kind of explore different areas of our profession in ways that we may have been restricted in other organizations.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So I think that that’s a huge part that I typically really enjoy at Netflix and enjoy working with a bunch of other people who have similar mindset of growth and discovery and learning. It really shows through whenever we’re able to create, learn from the products and the things that we create, and prove it for our members.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. That’s pretty cool. It sounds like Netflix does give you that freedom. I know there’s some companies of people whom I would love to interview, but they have a strict embargo on their employees cannot do podcasts or anything like that. So it’s good that at least they let you all be able to talk about your work and do other things freely.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. I mean it’s definitely encouraged, but I mean there’s definitely tons of stuff that we can’t say.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I walk a line a lot of times trying to make sure that … Because there’s so much transparency at Netflix and I think that that’s one of the really great parts of the culture at Netflix is that, as an employee there, the leadership from the top down is always going to be as transparent as possible. But with that comes responsibility of we’re letting you know all of this information. We don’t expect you to go out and tell the world all of the secrets and things. This is internal information that we are providing you context so you’re able to really do your job to the best of your ability. We don’t want to hide things from you.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
But it comes with a lot of responsibility, that level of transparency and that level of trust that our leaders kind of put in us as contributors to the mission that the company is trying to achieve.

Maurice Cherry:
Gotcha. I’m curious to learn more about you, your particular origin story. Tell me about where you grew up.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Both of my parents are from Nigeria, and I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. So I grew up in Louisiana. I spent most of my childhood in Louisiana and went there to high school. I went to Southern University when I graduated high school for a couple of semesters before switching over to design and going to University of Louisiana at Lafayette. But growing up, I wouldn’t have thought of myself as being a designer. I wasn’t exposed to it in that way. I mean my dad was in school for architecture, so I was exposed to that.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
But the ideas of industrial design or other aspects of design weren’t really things that came across. I played basketball, growing up. I was more interested in trying to go to the NBA than I was with anything else. But I was also an avid reader. I read quite a lot, and I did a lot of writing, drawing. So there was always that creative aspect, but I imagined myself going into medical school rather than design.

Maurice Cherry:
So when you went to University of Louisiana at Lafayette though, you ended up majoring in industrial design. Talk to me about that.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. I mean that was really the reason that I left Southern University because they didn’t have an industrial design program. So initially, whenever I was in school, my intention was to be a pediatric surgeon. Actually, I was like, “I’m going to study biomedical engineering and then go to medical school to be a pediatric surgeon.” That was my intention. At the time, too, biomedical engineering was a fairly new field of study within the higher education to where if you really wanted to do that, you had to get a master’s degree.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So while I was at Southern University, I needed to kind of create a curriculum for myself, working with my engineering faculty. I was doing mechanical engineering and double majoring in cellular molecular biology. But after a while, I was just like, “Something about this is not really what I want to do. I would love to create the medical tools and the medical devices. I’d love to design those things.” But it was just something that just didn’t feel right in terms of the education for me while I was in engineering.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I started doing some research. Maybe I might like automotive design. Through that, I found what industrial design was, and I was like, “Whoa. With this field, I can actually design medical devices. I can actually go and design prosthetic legs and all of these different things that I was interested in kind of creating.” That’s how I found University of Louisiana at Lafayette because that was the only school in Louisiana, at the time, that had an industrial design program. So I ended up going there and studying industrial design.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. So you kind of, I guess, looked at another way to get into the medical field then by looking at industrial design.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. So in your early post-grad career after you left school, you ended up going into jewelry design. I’m curious. What drew you to that?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
It wasn’t anything that really drew me. It was literally I graduated shortly after a recession in Louisiana. There were no jobs, really. It was really difficult to get a design job, especially in the South, in Louisiana. So really, what happened was that my portfolio was a bunch of … It was pediatric medical tools and prosthetics and stuff like that. The jewelry company, which had a connection to some of our professors at University of Louisiana, looked at my work and they’re like, “We really like your aesthetic visually. You have a really good sense of style and taste,” even looking at the medical tools, the medical stuff that I designed.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
That’s literally how I jumped into jewelry design. I was interested in fashion. I was interested in design in general, but I wasn’t intending to go be a jewelry designer. If anything, I would have wanted to go to do something in footwear design at Nike because that would have merged a lot of the biomechanics and technical medical things that I was thinking about in terms of design with human performance. So yeah. Jewelry design just kind of came about. It was an opportunity that kind of came about, but it really allowed me to start to understand what it meant to design for things that were going to be worn on people’s bodies.

Maurice Cherry:
That makes sense. How long were you a jewelry designer?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I was there for about two to two and a half years.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
It was quite an interesting experience, but even though while I was there … This is also the field of user experience design or a lot of the digital product design, all of that stuff. That was still fairly in its infancy. So even while I was there, I participated in some things, some interface things that were very interesting. From there, after I left that company, I wanted to discover what is it that I really wanted to do, but I also needed to look at where the market was going.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Industrial design jobs weren’t en masse. A lot of these jobs that when you’re designing physical things, they don’t have incredibly large teams. Just seeing the digital world kind of pick up, I started to make some pivots over into really learning that particular skillset, branched off to try to do a little bit of my own freelance work, both as an industrial designer. But then what I found was that I was getting more clients, more people looking for branding and web development and more digital kind of stuff.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
That’s kind of how I ended up pivoting or going to grad school to learn really more of a service design kind of method to incorporate both to be more agnostic about what my skillsets delivered and more focused on what the outcome needed to be of whatever it is that a client or somebody wanted to create.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a good way to put it in terms of trying to be more agnostic because what I’m hearing, and you can please correct me if I’m wrong here, it sounds like you were just trying to find where you were going to fit in. You’ve graduated. You have these design skills. While there certainly were things that you wanted to do in terms of design, those opportunities just weren’t available. So you were trying to see what could maybe your skills transfer into.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. I mean I think that that’s a good characterization. I’m a person who is always ready to adapt to a situation. I have my core values and principles that I’m going to stay in those, and I’m not going to allow my value set and my principles to be swayed. But those principles aren’t rigid outcomes. They just help guide me in terms of the decisions that I need to make in life. But at the same time, I don’t create a level of rigidity to what it is that I can be and what it is that I can do.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Because it in the same way of when you’re designing a product or a service for someone or for people or a community, you need to allow it to be what it needs to be rather than always trying to force it into being something that you envisioned from the beginning.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, when did you decide to go to grad school? Was that during this time as well?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. That was during this time. I was looking at a handful of schools. I was looking at Pratt, RISD. I almost went to SCAD for the service design program because I had a friend who I was in undergrad with who was there, and he told me it was a great program. Service design’s still kind of a fairly newer field in design in the United States. It’s still catching on. You’re starting to see it more so now than it was years ago. I mean it’s definitely been something that’s far more developed in Europe than it has been in the United States. That’s just a reflection of the market and how we view the utility of design here at organizations.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Hearing the service design methods and methodologies, that was very interesting to me, and I was ready to go to SCAD. But also, another friend of mine who I was in undergrad with had mentioned ArtCenter to me before, and I really liked the rigor that ArtCenter placed on developing your technical skills and the level of polish that a lot of the portfolios and a lot of the students had the capacity for after graduating from ArtCenter. And then also, ArtCenter had this program with the Drucker School of Management where the graduate industrial design program also could be a dual MBA degree.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Once I got there, I didn’t see the usefulness not necessarily in an MBA because I did take MBA classes at UCLA. I do see a benefit in that, but I didn’t see the benefit for that particular school that ArtCenter was partnering with. So I didn’t actually go forward with that, though it was a decision that I made to go to ArtCenter in the first place because that option was available.

Maurice Cherry:
While you were there, you also managed to work on an internship which let you transition into product design, right?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. I did a couple of internships there. The education, too, in grad ID, the name can be misleading because it’s industrial design. But really a lot of the training was for us to be innovation leaders, to be able to come in and really understand what the business needs are for a company and help them pivot into creating products and services that now are able to accommodate the changing landscape. So we would routinely have different companies come in. This is part of the ArtCenter education where different companies come in and do these studio projects.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
We did one with Uber whenever I was in maybe my fourth semester or something like that, where Uber was creating their Uber Air platform. We worked in groups with other students from other departments. So we had transportation designers, automotive designers, as well as interaction designers, in addition to us in graduate industrial design and worked with some of the key executives for that particular unit doing the Uber Air. Our task was really to design what that whole experience would be if we were to create air taxis.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
If Uber were to go into this business, how do we start to visualize what that whole experience would be, all the way from understanding what the airport security type situation would be to what is the interior of the electric vertical landing takeoff vehicle going to be, all the way to really understanding the market. So if you create this type of service, well, who are going to be the people to use this service and who are going to be the early adopters all the way down to the late adopters in order to get this service off of the ground?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So it was a pretty involved project that took a whole semester where we built life-sized mock-ups to test out what the interior of the vehicle could be and could look like. We did a lot of architectural design and sketches to understand where would we create and put some of these what we call sky ports, which would be the airports for people to access these vehicles, designing also how would we implement or integrate this into the existing application, so if somebody wanted to catch an Uber Air vehicle. So it was a pretty involved project that spanned the scope of a bunch of different design skills from automotive design to interaction design to industrial design and whatnot.

Maurice Cherry:
Kind of sounds like a air taxi, in a way.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Exactly. It was an air taxi. There’s so many different nuances in terms of what that whole experience could or would be. And also, there are limitations to the technology that existed at the time, still even to right now. A lot of that technology is still being developed in a way that could make it really feasible and economical to launch a service like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I would imagine also even just getting FAA certification because, unlike something like UberX where anyone that has a driver’s license can drive, that doesn’t necessarily mean anyone with a pilot’s license, I would imagine, would do Uber Air or something like that.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. There’s definitely some technical and some licensing, piloting things there, especially, also, I mean you’re thinking about just air traffic control as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, that’s right.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I mean that’s been there for a while. There’d be some adjustments and things that would need to be made in order to allow for another set of vehicles to be in the air.

Maurice Cherry:
So after you graduated from ArtCenter College of Design for grad school, you ended up working at a couple of other places before Netflix. You worked at a biotech company called Script Health. So you, I guess, in a way managed to get around to doing some work in the medical field, even in this sort of roundabout way. But then you also worked at IBM working on products on their data, AI, and cloud integration teams. When you look back at those two experiences specifically, what do you remember the most?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
It was interesting because with Script Health, one of my friends who’s a pharmacist, that was his startup that he was creating. I was actually working on that while I was in grad school and helping him really design and bring to life the vision of that product and that service that he was trying to create. So I won’t go too deep into it, but the gist of that really was building out a service to deal with the opioid epidemic and providing the right type of medication for overdoses, things like naloxone, to places in rural communities.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
There’s a huge lack of access to the right types of drugs and services in the most marginalized communities or the most affected communities. And then that learning, kind of taking a product from zero to one, the amount of work and effort that it takes to do the research and then finding a market fit, pivots and things that need to happen, partnerships that need to be made and created, and then visualizing the concept and telling the story and the narrative in a way that is going to inspire and communicate what it is about.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
That was also a crash course for me, really working with engineers as well as working with outside agencies that were taking my design work and starting to code it into something and really understanding what are the specific things that I need to communicate in order to make sure that what I do design ends up being the thing that gets created and it not being some kind of mangled version of that because there are details that I left out or things that I didn’t communicate that they just had to make a decision on, and it may not be the right decision.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
When it comes to IBM, the thing that I learned at IBM really was a lot of stakeholder management and also a lot of leadership skills, what it means to manage up, as well as how to align people and influence people around a shared objective and a shared goal and then trying to get things done within a short period of time. I feel like those were some of the key things. I mean I can dive really deep into aspects of that, but I think those were the main things that I’ve learned.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Working with people, I think, is an incredibly important part of being a designer, and understanding how to do that effectively, I think, is something that it takes a lot of designers a lot of time to really understand what it actually means to do that beyond just your hard technical skills.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, another thing that you sort of created that came about while you were at ArtCenter was Critical Discourse in Design. Talk to me about that.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. That happened while I was at IBM. So this was after my graduate program. I still have a lot of really great connections with a lot of the faculty at ArtCenter. After the murder of George Floyd, there was just a lot of energy around something needs to be done. I’m in the design community. Think about racism. When we think about prejudice, when we think about all of the things, these institutions that are perpetuating these things, they are designed institutions. They’re created.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
For me, in addition to, okay, well, protesting is one thing. But based off of my own skillsets and my own proximity to the type of work and things that I do, how can I start to impact or influence the change that I want to see in the world? So I started these conversations with some of my friends who are still faculty at ArtCenter to try to uncover what is something that we can do. We didn’t really have an idea of what it was going to be.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
But through the conversations and through a lot of the things that I was talking about in terms of how … A quote that I constantly say is that, “Design is the invisible hand that shapes all lived experience.” So Critical Discourse in Design came about when we started really thinking about when you think about oppression, oppression needs physical tools and objects. It needs a physical space. It needs to be designed.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So when you think about you can go throughout history and you can look at what are the tools or the innovations of oppression? A noose, a prison cell, all of these different things. So if you can design for oppression, then you can design for liberation. Critical Discourse in Design came about like, “Well, what does that conversation of designing for liberation, what does that actually mean? How do we start to translate theory into action? And then who are the voices that we need to bring to the table in order to be able to have these conversations?”

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Because when you think about the design industry, also where the Black designers is calling out is the 3% or 4%, depending on who you ask, of the people who are designers are Black. So the voices that are the most impacted by the things that are being created in the world are not at the table to voice how they feel things should be. They’re not able to provide their cultural intelligence to the institutions and the systems and the tools and the things that get created in the world.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So Critical Discourse in Design really was a response to that. It was really a response to how do we start to now bring in these voices and also to leave people not with just new words and new theories, but a theory that can turn into practice and really starting to understand what the connection between pedagogy, what people are learning, is with practice, how people create, how people experience and actually deliver things into the world.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, let’s talk about Design to Divest, which it sounds like came out of Critical Discourse in Design. Tell me about that. I know you’re one of the founding members of this collective. We’ve also had another member of the collective on the show before, Michael Collett. But yeah. Talk to me about Design to Divest.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. While I was actually creating Critical Discourse in Design, one of my really close friends who was working with part of Design to Divest messaged me and said, “Hey, do you have some capacity to join the steering committee here? This is what we’re doing.” So I joined Design to Divest. At the time, it was really meant to mobilize design skills and different designers, to mobilize those design skills around social impact projects. It was very like graphic design-based.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So I think part of what I was doing whenever I joined the team was really thinking about what Design to Divest actually meant as a concept, and what are the most impactful ways that we can create positive change or the change that we want to see in the world? That started over the past two years that we’ve been just having these discussions and doing projects and working on things to manifest into a version of what it is today, where we have a lot of things that we’re going to be releasing this year, hopefully, and that really talks about what it means to divest the inequitable systems that have been designed and created in the world. How do we start to celebrate and design for the communities on the margins?

Maurice Cherry:
I mean I think that came about at such a monumental time, during the summer that you mentioned where, of course, there were people out in the streets that were protesting against police brutality. You talked about the murder of George Floyd. Again, it seems like this was a time when a lot of people were really looking for this kind of thing. They were looking to hear from Black voices, but also just looking for ways that they can, I guess, channel whatever frustrations they had into something more positive.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. Not to say that that time still isn’t happening now, but [crosstalk 00:45:33]-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah. We’re still in it very much. Yeah.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
We’re very much in it, but it was reaching fever pitches. It wasn’t just in the United States, it was globally. Me being Nigerian and seeing with SARS and the protests that were happening in Nigeria, the protests that were happening in South America, things happening in Brazil, it was everywhere, where you started to see people were really fed up with the institutions and the things that were meant to serve them. But people were just like, “Nothing is actually serving any of us, and nothing is serving us in a way that’s going to provide any level of comfort or any level of support. It’s actually doing the opposite.”

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So I think Design to Divest became, especially for designers, because I think so many designers get into design feeling that they can change something or that there’s some sense of positivity that they can use design to affect, but no one ever tells them how. And then it typically falls flat with very altruistic ideas that really don’t connect back to impact. It just connects back to some sense of moral I don’t want to say superiority, but just a sense of moral reflection that you did a project that did something, but it doesn’t necessarily connect back to impact.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I think with the idea of Design to Divest, we really want to give people a path to connect the things that they do to the impact that they want to see in the world, the impact that they want to see in institutions, and the impact that they want to see in the different products and tools and experiences that we experience in the world.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, speaking of that impact, given now that the collective has gone on now, what? I guess this will be your second year of going into things?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
What do you want to see Design to Divest accomplish?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Quite a lot over time. But I think about education is a really core thing in terms of … One of the things that we’ve identified, too, is that there’s so many designers on the margins, designers of color, but particularly Black and indigenous designers who don’t have access to any type of content or education that teaches design in a way that validates their culture, in a way that validates their identity, in a way that celebrates the cultural intelligence of their heritage towards the creation of the things that exist in the world.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
When you look at design, the canon of literature and text that’s being taught to designers all are from European white men, and so there’s always a cultural disconnect. Essentially, what it does is informs people getting into design that you need to either erase your culture and assimilate into this culture if you want to find success in this profession because your culture is devalued or isn’t valued as a producer of good design, if you call something good design.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So part of what my hopes for Design to Divest is to really provide that platform, on one hand, for Black and indigenous designers to be able to have content and community to engage with around design that validates their identity, that validates their cultural heritage, and then that brings them to the table of creation. I feel like the world is a group project and, typically, only a select group of communities and culture have gotten to participate in creating the institutions, organizations, and business that shape the lived experiences for all of us.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I think it’s time that we create this space of ownership. I think this is what equity means, ownership and creation, and stop blocking these communities that are on the margins, Black, indigenous communities from participating in the creation and the stewardship of the world. I think that I want Design to Divest to be that platform that allows Black and indigenous communities to harness their ability to design through their own cultural intelligence, to create and populate the institutions and things in the world that are going to serve our communities.

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

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
That’s a tough question because I’m typically just inspired by people, in general. I’m inspired by culture, in general. Obviously, I’m inspired by my family, by my parents, aunts, and uncles, especially coming from Nigeria, making a way for themselves as expats into the United States and balancing multiple cultures. I’m also inspired by other designers, other creators, but also other people in other professions. I constantly draw inspiration from economists, from lawyers, from doctors in the way that they approach the work that they do.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I can say, as of late, too, I’ve been inspired by people like André Leon Talley and Virgil, who both passed, but seeing the impact that they’ve had. You can see that by the outpouring of support and the outpouring of responses that people have to their passing. To have that level of impact on community, I think, is also something that’s incredibly inspiring to me.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you give to somebody that is looking to enter into the design field? Because it sounds like, with your career, you’ve managed to really take that and apply it across a number of different facets of design and, even now, you’re still kind of paying that forward with the work you’re doing in Netflix, but also with this community work through Design to Divest. So if someone’s listening to this and this is inspiring them to want to get into design in some sort of way, what would you tell them?

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I mean one of the most important things, as a designer, is to be curious. I think that one thing that I would tell people is you just kind of have to do it. There’s so many people who are going to have something to say about whatever it is that you do. It’s also kind of that’s the idea of design is that whenever you design, there’s a difference between art and design in a sense, whereas design is really not meant for yourself. Design is outward. It’s meant to be critiqued by the people that you’ve created it for. So you can’t wait for perfection.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I think I would tell people that they have to just go out and do it. But another one of the most important things, too, is that design is a very community-driven profession. I think that it’s not done in isolation. I think that that’s in contrast to the way that we were taught about design. We were always taught about these individual people who are design heroes, whether it’s Dieter Rams or Frank Gehry or whatever. They’re not doing these things alone as individual people. They have a network of people. They’re talking to people.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
They are influenced by people, and they are finding different people who is inspiring to them to communicate with and also build with. So one of the most important things is to constantly seek out the people who are doing things that you find interesting and try to have a conversation with them and try to build your own communities, because that’s going to be the path forward for you finding the opportunities to design the things that you want to design, to create the things that you want to create and with the people that you want to create.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
And then lastly, too, I would also say is that you really want to start from a place of purpose. So if you don’t really have a purpose yet or you haven’t identified what that is, definitely just take some time to think about it. As everything, it could be an iteration. Your purpose whenever you were 16 could be different when you’re 24 or 50. But having a sense of purpose and principles to back that purpose then allow you to make decisions a lot easier. It gives you something to filter the opportunities that come your way with something that means something more to you than just existing.

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

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
I’m doing a lot of the work that I want to be doing in combination with Design to Divest and some of the freelance projects that I’ve been working on as well. But I think more of that work, more of the work that I’m doing with Design to Divest, more of the creating the platforms, creating archives and things who are Black and indigenous designers to be able to participate in the creation of the world. Also, I mean I do quite a lot of mentorship.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So I’d love to be able to build careers and create more pathways for designers from other marginalized communities, including Black communities and other marginalized communities to have a pathway to create. So I see within the next five years, continuing to grow and scale the impact that I’m able to have on the design community from both a pedagogical, educational standpoint as well as a practice and people standpoint.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So when I think about the practice, it’s really illustrating to both the business and design world that you want to be able to take … What it really means to be diverse and to harness diversity for innovation is being able to take the different cultural knowledge systems that exist, where there’s the aboriginal system of knowledge, the African system of knowledge, and being able to apply that to the problems that you’re facing as a society or in your particular company, reframing the problem underneath those systems of knowledge, and then allowing those systems of knowledge to be able to deliver on solutions for you.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
So doing work that allows me to bring more of those different systems of knowledge and those different diverse perspectives into the creation of things, and then on the people side of just continuing to bring more of those people who are holders of that knowledge, the descendants of African people from different African cultures who hold that knowledge or indigenous people, Native people, and providing a platform for them to use that knowledge that’s been passed down to them to design and create things that make the world a better place.

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

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. I try to not be so visible online all the time. They can find me on my Instagram, Azeez_Alli. In the near future, we’ll be releasing a new website for Design to Divest where they can check out some of that work that I’m doing. If anyone wants to chat with me or anything like that, they can always shoot me a message on LinkedIn. I definitely try to respond to people who reach out to me and might not be immediate, but definitely something that I’m open to chatting more and more with people who resonate with some of the things that I’m doing.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Azeez Alli, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show, one, of course, for telling your story about how you got into design. But I think it’s really important, especially now, as a lot of people are really looking at the work they do and try to figure out how it can make an impact in the world, I think the way that you’re taking your design knowledge and, one, how you’ve been able to apply it to different parts of design, but then, two, also using it in a way to pay it forward to the community is something that is super important.

Maurice Cherry:
I hope that we get to see a lot more of that in the future. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Azeez Alli-Balogun:
Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Sponsored by The State of Black Design Conference

The State of Black Design

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

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

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

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

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

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