“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.”
– Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
When I was young, I had a voracious curiosity for the arts and sciences. I loved to sketch and enjoyed going to museums with my parents and siblings. They were big on opening their children’s eyes beyond what we experienced in school. As an African American family in a predominantly white community, my parents stressed the importance of knowing where we came from, respecting the sacrifices of our ancestors, and stepping forward in life with courage … especially in environments that weren’t always welcoming. I vaguely remember the brick getting thrown through our back patio door and other assaults for the the simple act of being different in the neighborhood. My parents and their parents saw much worse during their upbringing in the South. As I navigated those early years, being different was often accompanied with a cloud of doubts and implicit innuendos. I had the grades and the extracurricular accomplishments, but I was not immediately identified as someone who would go to a great college like my similarly qualified peers. It was like an invisible door was in front of me, and it was locked. After getting accepted to the University of Notre Dame, a few decided to credit affirmative action versus my own merits.
College was an interesting migration. I was interested in the arts, but I incorrectly assumed that creative majors would not offer a viable career path (life had to prove me wrong later on). I picked the next best thing that seemed to offer lucrative jobs at the end, mechanical engineering. With my parents’ incredible sacrifice to create an avenue to attend college, my subconscious reminded me that I had four years to get this right. No room for failure. No extra semesters allowed. The expectations at Notre Dame were on another level, and my first semester’s grades reflected that fact. At the first sign of adversity, my first-year advisor attempted to convince me to change majors to business or the humanities. I felt a second door slamming on me. Thankfully, my father had different advice, encouraging me to pivot my learning style instead of my major. With humility, I sought help from those who were doing better, and I pushed myself to understand the material from multiple angles before going into my exams. The second invisible door started to creak open, and it didn’t take long for me to rightfully belong in engineering. Others in my underrepresented peer group experienced the opposite, leaving me standing as the only African American in my mechanical engineering section at graduation. I don’t remark on that proudly … it really bothered me being the only one.
After graduation, I entered the nuclear power profession during an interesting time for the industry. Being a highly regulated vertical, the industry hadn’t hired new cohorts of engineers in quite some time, and many of the original OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) engineers were retiring. The knowledge gap spanned over 10 years, which led the nuclear industry to aggressively hire new folks out of school. The door was wide open for me in this case, and I knew I’d better run through it. This runway gave me incredible professional experiences well beyond my years: fourteen nuclear power plant campaigns, a U.S. utility patent award, and the opportunity to garner the organization’s trust to lead high-performing teams on mission-critical projects. I still remained as one of the “few” African Americans in the company, but I learned to embrace that reality by welcoming teaching moments in the face of ignorance, and inspiring young African American kids to pursue STEM careers when I would encounter them in the community. It was important that others see that these doors were accessible by people that looked like them.
Fast forward years later, and I had the opportunity to work for Nike, Inc. after getting my MBA. I started in a business capacity, but I wanted to understand what was happening on the product side of the business. I started networking simply by asking interesting product folks out for coffee. Some didn’t want much to do with a “numbers guy” from corporate, nor did they seem interested in understanding my story. Thankfully, for every nine closed doors, there was one open door that motivated me to move forward. I would find that one person who was willing to introduce me to two more people. That one person who was willing to let me help them “for free” on their project. One person within Nike Innovation remarked, “you don’t have to answer to anyone for your lunch hour, evenings and weekends. Instead of working out at lunch, come over here and work out your brain with us.” Taking his advice, those coffee chats turned into stretch assignments, and word of my contributions traveled until I was afforded an opportunity to enter Nike’s footwear product engine full time.
During this transition, I enjoyed seeing the confluence of Design, Strategy and Technology within the Nike product environment. I was able to meet Jason Mayden (former Nike/Jordan footwear designer, now a D-I-R at Accel Partners) who was the first person to sit down with me and explain the core components of “Design 101” and he left it up to me to explore the construct he laid out. As busy as he was, he could have easily declined my invitation for coffee. I will never forget his generosity, and I commit myself to pay it forward everyday. As I networked across the Jordan Brand, D’Wayne Edwards (who was the Jordan Footwear Design Director at the time, now founder of PENSOLE Footwear Design Academy) saw the creative work I was doing for “hobby,” and encouraged me to try my hand at designing real shoes. He opened a massive door for me, and gave me a couple design briefs to execute under his mentorship. We met together at 6AM to discuss the daily assignment, we would then go do our respective “day jobs” and I would go home and work into the late evening to fulfill his assignment, meeting D’Wayne again the next morning. We repeated that daily over the better part of a year until two footwear offerings launched and were well received at retail.
The experience with D’Wayne opened many doors after that (getting to help the Nike Innovation Kitchen, for starters), but surprisingly, it also increased the number of “closed” doors in comparison when I inquired about design and innovation opportunities. (Every open door seems to be accompanied by 99 closed doors.) It took a tremendous amount of persistence to continue and not get discouraged. I could have chosen to claw and scratch on more footwear projects, but through the journey I realized I had a special mix of skills spanning across business, technology, and (now) design. The outside world was beginning to celebrate this as companies, agencies and institutions started to embrace multidisciplinary thinking. However, to curb any overzealousness, a few shoe projects didn’t give me complete confidence and credibility on the creative leg of my three-legged stool. What was clear was that I was sitting at a precipice where I needed to commit to what I really wanted for my career.
To solidify my creative foundation, I made the decision to quit my Nike job and pursue a Masters in Industrial Design from ArtCenter College of Design. Folks thought I was crazy for giving up my seat at a dream company. But I was giving up the dream job for a much bigger dream in the end. ArtCenter represented a massive door that would empower me to innovate at the intersection of Design, Strategy, and Technology.
I am still very grateful to Nike for allowing me to experiment and take bets on my curiosities. Sure there were plenty of closed doors, but having one in 10, or one in 100 open doors fueled my faith that the universe was conspiring to help me. The path would not be given for free. I had to work for it and eventually understand the different ways I could “pick the locks” to go through the right doors on my journey.
When I reflect on what it was like to face those doors, a few lessons come to mind:
- An innate belief in one’s self is required to step forward with courage, even in the face of ignorance and doubt projected from others. From believing comes doing … and the creation of evidence that forms the lock pick for a stubborn door.
- There is also such a thing as self-doubt, often exacerbated in times of adversity. You have to look deep inside and remind yourself of what you want out of life, and never give up. Change your approach, but never compromise the dream and your vision.
- Your vision will constantly evolve, and it will take calculated bets to explore what your vision should be in the first place. Never stop learning and exploring.
- Your path will surface crossroads and inflection points where you will really need to dig deep and make a serious commitment toward your future. Make the no-regrets move based on what the signals are telling you.
- Respect some of the doors that remain closed, and know that it’s likely for good reason. Journey forward and be persistent in all that you do. As you navigate, make sure you are thankful to those mentors and advocates that helped you … and be sure to open doors for others who are traveling behind you.
Kevin Bethune serves as Vice President of Strategic Design at BCG Digital Ventures. His team delivers future visioning, ethnographic research, concept development, industrial design and design-thinking across all corporate ventures. Before moving into strategic design, Kevin facilitated improvements in corporate planning and footwear product creation at Nike, Inc. At the same time, Kevin carved bandwidth to design shoes for the Jordan Brand and Nike Innovation Kitchen. Previous to Nike, Kevin worked in the nuclear power industry, upgrading reactors across the U.S. and South Korea, and gained a sincere appreciation for what it takes to innovation and incubate product that needs to meet the needs of multiple stakeholders. Kevin holds a Bachelors of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Notre Dame, a Masters of Business Administration from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon, and a Masters of Science in Industrial Design from ArtCenter College of Design.