Shani Sandy is a real mover and a shaker in this industry. As a design executive for IBM, she combines business leadership and creative concepts to help advance design thinking for clients all over the world. But how did she go from freelance work to being a lead at one of the top tech companies in the world? Find out in this week's interview! Shani and I spoke about design thinking and what IBM looks for from designers, and she gave some great advice for designers who are looking to take their career to the next level and advance into bigger and greater roles. We also talked about building teams, diversity in tech and design, hiring and recruiting, and a lot more. The key to Shani's success has been carving out your own lane, and I think this week's interview really shows she's done a phenomenal job doing just that!
Shani Sandy is a real mover and a shaker in this industry. As a design executive for IBM, she combines business leadership and creative concepts to help advance design thinking for clients all over the world. But how did she go from freelance work to being a lead at one of the top tech companies in the world? Find out in this week's interview!
Shani and I spoke about design thinking and what IBM looks for from designers, and she gave some great advice for designers who are looking to take their career to the next level and advance into bigger and greater roles. We also talked about building teams, diversity in tech and design, hiring and recruiting, and a lot more. The key to Shani's success has been carving out your own lane, and I think this week's interview really shows she's done a phenomenal job doing just that!
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Maurice Cherry: All right. So, tell us who you are and what you do.
Shani Sandy: Absolutely. So, first off, thanks for having me. It's great to be on your podcast today, Maurice. I've been following you for a while. Just kudos all the way around. My name is Shanti Sandy and I am currently a design executive at IBM. I actually am a recent hire starting a little over three months ago in November.
Maurice Cherry: I'm curious, what does a design executive do?
Shani Sandy: I know, I know. I will tell you a stumper, a lot of times, when I share with folks my new title. Here's the interesting way of thinking about the design executive role, specifically here at IBM, I think what IBM did was recognize that designer in terms of their growth, will sometimes get into a situation of, "Do I focus more on my practice, or do I go into a management lane?" And lots of times we end up doing both, frankly. Prior to me starting here at IBM, I was very much doing both. I was very much leading as a manager and head of my team, but also still very involved in the craft, the practice of the work. It's really challenging to do both in a way that you feel is excellent, at least for me it was. So, what was attractive to me, about this specifically role as design executive is that there is a path here at IBM where you can focus on being a manager, a leader, really an advocate for design, and still have a view into practice. Still be able to touch practice and provide direction around it, but there's leadership specifically dedicated to practice, and that's the label for that. Our design principles are distinguished designers.
Shani Sandy: So, it's kind of a split that happens here where you can go that executive path, which is more around management of the team and evangelizing design as a practice and also design thinking, or more into that practitioner path where you're still very much hands on with the work that you do, rather that's user resource design all the way down to front end development. That's kind of the split that has been created here, and the design practice really embraces both, but I think it recognizes that it's often challenging to actually be able to do both as one individual, right? That's how the role came to be, and my focus is really on that community aspect, building the practice from a leadership point of view and really making sure that design has a seat at the table from an executive level.
Maurice Cherry: I think it's really important that you point that out because certainly I feel with people who I interviewed for the show, even with designers I've talked to in general, that split does come at some point in their career where they have to decide, "Do I just wanna keep designing or if I want to make more money or get more seniority, do I move up in the leadership ranks?" It does feel like when you move up in those leadership ranks, you're doing less and less of the sort of hands on type of work. You're more so managing a team and making sure they have what they need to do the work and you're not doing as much of the work. I'm glad that IBM has decided to kind of merge those together in this role, because usually when I think of IBM, I think mainframe -
Shani Sandy: Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: Big computer, I'm a kid from the 80s, so, that's what I think about.
Shani Sandy: Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: I know within the past five to seven years, IBM has really kind of stepped out there in terms of a lot of practice as well as I think hiring and things around design and design thinking in general.
Shani Sandy: Absolutely. One of things that attracted me to IBM was something I saw about four or five years ago, before it was even on my radar. I saw Phil Gilbert speaking at an AIHA event. He was talking about IBM looking to take in design thinking at scale and hire all these designers, a thousand plus designers. I was sitting in the audience thinking, "Okay, sounds really great, but let's see how this goes." Right? I had a healthy dose of skepticism when I heard that. Some years passed and I kind of kept my eye on them, and as i was building out my own team at S&P Global, the former company that I worked at, I definitely started to see changes happening at IBM, specifically hiring and also the espousing of this kind of design thinking ethos, meaning that there are different methods to approach innovation and problem solving and just basic thinking, and IBM decided to embrace design thinking as one of those methods.
Shani Sandy: The ethos is one that I think is something that clearly attracted me to the company because it goes beyond just a design team. Design team is not meant to be the only team in the organization that embraces design thinking. It's meant to be a method of problem solving that involves all of us. Counterparts that may be on the engineering side, that may be marketers, commercial side, all of us are meant to be able to say, "Okay, well, here's a simplified way of thinking about things as an actual method to the way that we can process information and keep our clients in the center of that." When I saw that this was a philosophy, all the way up the ranks to the CEO level, and that there was actually a general manager focused on design and design thinking, it just felt like wow, I don't see a lot of companies doing this. In fact, frankly, I didn't see any other companies doing that. So, that was something that I completely admired, so when I got the phone call about this role, it made a lot of sense for me to entertain the conversation and ultimately join the team.
Maurice Cherry: Okay. Now, with design thinking, I feel like that's a term, aside from the way that you just mentioned it, it's a term that's kind of been overused a bit.
Shani Sandy: Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: I hear a lot of folks refer to design thinking and not doing it in the specific and measured ways that you're talking about, but they feel design thinking is just a consultation or something like that.
Shani Sandy: Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: I'm thinking in particular, you may have heard of this criticism from Natasha [(Jan) 00:07:26] who is a partner at Instagram, talking about how basically saying that design thinking is, it's problematic, it's bullshit, it's not this thing that can fix the world. I know there was a lot of discussion around that.
Shani Sandy: Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: What are your thoughts on that, how people are kind of misusing design thinking?
Shani Sandy: Yeah. Look, it's a tool, right? It's a tool. It's a methodology. I know talking about is just general criticism. I think anyone who proposed that a methodology, an approach, a tool is going to be the be all and end all and solve all problems or solve major complex problems, is not being truthful. I think that we found success here with using design thinking at an enterprise level, where you're bringing into the mix. Like I said, a multifunctional, a multidisciplinary team to tackle the paying points of our clients and to really put ourselves in the shoes of our clients, and to come to the table with a really healthy bench of design practitioners. So, you're thinking about the user research, the actual UX of how someone experiences an offering, the actual building out of a product or an experience from a font end development point of view, the visual design from a UI point of view.
Shani Sandy: I think that design thinking allows you to understand what are the elements you need to create as best as possible successful scenario for working through problems, but it's an approach. It's one approach that necessitates a number of other important elements. The right team members, the right problem statement, frankly, the right environment that actually really embraces that approach, right? I think it's always ... I appreciate a healthy dose of cynicism when it comes to making any practice the golden child, but I don't think we at IBM, or even I myself personally, would say that it is the pinnacle of problem solving or innovation.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah.
Shani Sandy: I think it's one approach that when used as fully as possible, is very successful with outcomes.
Maurice Cherry: I think also a part of that criticism that people have behind design thinking is that it deals so much with the future, it deals with the intangible. You're pulling something out of data and analysis that may not specifically be there. I used to tell people that, I sort of see design thinking as the same as the scientific method, just in terms of the steps that you have to do with forming the hypothesis, running experiments, iterating on that sort of thing.
Shani Sandy: Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: And it kind of is the same. I think the scientific method is more about dealing with tangible data, that sort of stuff, whereas you know with design thinking, is much more intangible. You're dealing with things that you may not necessarily, you mentioned UX for example, you're dealing with humans there. That's a totally different kind of thing. So, I see where that criticism can come in, especially as it's being misused.
Shani Sandy: Yes.
Maurice Cherry: Certainly, I think, as design thinking matures, there will be more kind of stringent rules around how it's applied and things like that.
Shani Sandy: Yeah. I think that's exactly the thing. I think there's still a certain level of evolution that's happening when people think about design thinking, and any time we're starting the conversation, we should level set. We should say, "Well, actually, what do you mean by design thinking?" Right?
Maurice Cherry: Yeah.
Shani Sandy: Because I think the brands of design thinking that IBM focuses on and espouses is different from and IDO. I think in principle, in general, there's a similar thread that cuts through all types of design thinking, but you're absolutely right, I think that's part of the challenge with it. very nebulous, and it's not always clearly defined. And frankly, I think, it's probably a good thing. I embrace that. I embrace that contrary in attitude or even some of the cynicism because it forces us to really get very clear on what we mean and have some kind of proof behind what we're doing and how it's actually being successful.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. So, you mentioned with IBM hiring all these designers, I'm curious, what does IBM look for from designers?
Shani Sandy: Oh, wow. That's a good question. I don't have my HR hat on. I can speak to it from what I've experienced, and also what I've seen so far in my early days, I think. When I reflect on the recruiting process that I went through and the people that I met, and actually what I really appreciated about my process is that, I don't have the traditional design profile in some ways, right? I started off as a designer, I won't take it all the way back, but, I started off freelancing and had my own little studio for a couple of years. Then eventually started up in start ups and worked for some agencies. I took probably my longest stance at a start up that was a Finn tack, financial technology, start up in New York City. From that point on really built my career as a designer, but was very much a designer in a space that is typically not familiar with designers, in finance, in technology, at that time. Now, it's a no brainer, that any tech company, of course, is gonna have a slough of designers by discipline, but when I started in the early 2000s, that wasn't always the case. Or, there was one designer that did everything.
Shani Sandy: So, I come from a background where I really had to craft my career and define role in spaces where designers weren't typically thought of as top of mind or as essential. I think when IBM probably saw my profile, they also recognized that, "Oh, this is a different type of designer, a designer, sure, that has practice experience, but also is kind of familiar with being in places that have some complexity that are often times B to B businesses that really deal at scale and deal in a global arena." I think from what I've seen, there is a desire to look at designers who, one, may not fit the typical mold, particularly for this type of design executive position, because I think that position also requires that you have practice in terms of your experience, but you practice in terms of actual disciplines, right? But you also have the ability to work in a leadership team of individual that may not understand your practice. And that you may need to be very clear on what your value is as a design leader.
Shani Sandy: The other thing that I've found IBM focusing on from a kind of designer attracting, what type of attraction would make sense for designers here at IBM, has to do with getting a lot of the kind of early career professionals, the merging designers coming out of school, because they have clearly a certain level of vibrancy and excitement and ambition. And there is a vast community here that can help to really groom them into whatever practice area they end up focusing on. That's been clearly a focus area when it comes to recruiting for design talent here at the company. Our team, we're focused on hiring, too, and building up our bench as well. I think we're still growing. Our team, specifically in my part of the business, but we have a really, really significant team that we built up. Like I said, a thousand plus designers of all types, already here. I think that's a testament to the fact that the profile of a designer has breadth here. It has range. Again, that's partially why I'm here, because I'm a bit of a unicorn when it comes to being a designer who ended up taking the executive route.
Maurice Cherry: There's a word that you mentioned throughout that, that I think is really important to kind of zero in on, which is groom. There's a lot of places where they kind of, I think, expect designers to come in on the first day, hit the ground running. There's not a lot of kind of shaping into the type of designer they are, or even [crosstalk 00:17:19] or anything like that. So, I think it's good to hear that IBM looks for those early career professionals, because there's a lot of design positions out there, there's not many that are, I don't want to say junior, but that's kind of a qualifier I have to use, but, you're just coming out of school, you've got maybe -
Shani Sandy: Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: Two or three years experience, where can you land where you can really kind of grow yourself as a designer and not just keep doing production level tasks or product level tasks without any kind of path to advancement.
Shani Sandy: Yes. Absolutely. I've been, I think we've all been there, right?
Maurice Cherry: Oh, yeah.
Shani Sandy: You get to this point, and you're kind of like stuck doing this same type of low level transactional work, and it really can be the breaking point to whether you stay in the field or not. If you don't have either people in your corner, or you don't use your creativity to say, "Okay, how can I spin it to something else?" You can quickly decide to leave the field and do something entirely different.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. How do you think designers can transition into doing more of that work with strategy and leadership like what you're doing?
Shani Sandy: Yeah. I fundamentally think that a designer's mind is actually the special part of the career path. Even when I think about my career and some of the careers of my peers, this is not for every designer, right? I think if you are in the position that you mentioned, Maurice, where you want to transition into more strategic work, or provide a certain level of leadership at a senior level, then it's really about designing your career. I still very much feel like I'm a designer, even though I haven't opened up Illustrator or InDesign or Envision apps, I haven't opened up a tool like that in a while, right? But, I feel very much tied to design because for me, I'm designing an organization. I'm designing community. I'm asking my team to design our culture. So, there are ways I'm still using my design mind to make sense of a very complex and new turf for me, and then putting some framing around it. Categorizing it, simplifying it. These are the things, I think, design minds do, in general. And I'm applying it just in more of an organizational point of view.
Shani Sandy: I think for designers who are looking at, "Okay, well, how can I shift and transition into something else?" I think the first thing is to define what you think that something else might be. It doesn't have to be perfect. It just define, "Okay, well, I think I really want to move into ..." Let's say creative strategy, for example, and start to look at some of the people in the field that may have associations with that type of work and study those people. You'd be surprised when you reach out to someone who you think maybe inaccessible, the response is you're likely to get. I think it's important to study folks in the field and see what people are doing. When you can, go to events. Go to talks. Join a slack channel where there's a community around what you want to do. You have to be plugged in.
Shani Sandy: I think the second thing is, there are things you can do on your own, right?
PART 1 OF 3 ENDS [00:21:04]
Shani Sandy: The second thing is, there's things you can do on your own. You could, there's no reason why you may be a designer that again, is working on execution for most of what you do. But there's no reason why you can't be in a meeting, let's say for example, and propose, perhaps I'll be the one to lead this meeting. Perhaps I can be the one in the meeting to ask questions or to keep us on track with, what are we trying to get at? What's the problem we're trying to focus on? And keep that mindset around higher level thinking.
Shani Sandy: So even the small ways you can start to do that in the organizations that you're in. And I think that those types of things, whether they're plugging into the community or doing some kind of self reflection and taking smaller actions within the context of your organization, in your teams, are really accessible, even though they may seem like they're not, when you're doing some of the more executional, transactional work that that tends to happen when you're new or mid level in the fields.
Shani Sandy: So I think those are two, two things that I would absolutely propose to any designer that's feeling a little stuck. And I think, one last thing I'll mention, because this is something that I ended up doing that I think was really valuable for me and shifted the way that my career evolved, is that I took on a new project that was not given to me, was not defined. And it was a project that, quite frankly, I don't think the company would even thought a designer would do. And it was about rationalizing our portfolio of offerings. And you would immediately think, "Well, why would a designer of be involved in that?" And I stepped up to the plate to say, "I want to do this project."
Shani Sandy: And I, of course it was strategic when you hear about it, but for me, why I did it and why it made sense is that I, I wanted to make sense of why we're doing what we're doing. And the only way for me to get a sense around what our offerings were and how it impacted the market and then to be able to design for it, was to do the work. And there was no one doing the work and I stepped up.
Shani Sandy: So as a designer we see these gaps all the time. Just because we don't have the label, doesn't mean we can't step up and say, "Well I'm going to try that and do a little Skunk Works piece out of it." So, I know I told you a bunch of things and I could probably talk more and more on that, but those are some food for thought to start.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. No, no, no. I mean, I think it's important, definitely the stepping up part. Because of how designers look at problems, we see these gaps and so it's not even, it's not enough to point them out. Especially, and I'm talking, I think, specifically to my freelancers out there. It's not enough to just point out the problem. Find a way to solve the problem. Talk your way into the solution.
Shani Sandy: That's right.
Maurice Cherry: One thing that I used to tell, I still tell this to people, when they're trying to go after bigger budgets or large companies for example, like that. I would always tell people, try to find a way that you can be a line on the annual report. Yes, you can come in and say that you can do these different tasks and things of that nature, but look at what they're doing and see where the deficiencies are, where you can kind of put yourself in there and then you're a part of that, you're part of their regular structure, you're on retainer and that sort of thing.
Maurice Cherry: But definitely, if you see those issues, that's why even for in house, if you're working in house and you see that there are different gaps that you have in certain design processes or things, step up and fix them. It's that sort of initiative, I think, that hiring managers or even people in the seats, we like, they pay attention to that kind of stuff.
Shani Sandy: They sure do. They sure do. And it can be as simple too, Maurice, your point is saying, being the person in the room to actually physically stands up, pick up the magic marker or the sharpie or the erasable pen or what have you, and go to the board and start scribing some things. And visualizing what's being said. Even those types of steps, will start to put you in that tract of like, okay, solutioning and being seen as that person that's coming to the table, to come up with ideas that may or may not work, but that takes initiative to actually solve problems. And that is so critical in growing as a designer, but just as a professional, frankly. So yeah, I couldn't agree more with you.
Maurice Cherry: So let's go back. Of course, I did my research. I see you went to school, you started out at Columbia University?
Shani Sandy: Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: From there you transferred to Tufts, which is near Boston. What was that experience like? What made you make that switch from [crosstalk 00:25:54]?
Shani Sandy: Yeah. Well, you know, I'm a city girl, represent Brooklyn. Have to give my Brooklyn shout out. I really wanted to come back to New York City. So a little bit of background. I actually went away to boarding school for high school. And that was not too far from New York City, it was in Connecticut, but for a city girl, that feels like another planet, to it to go away to school and in the suburbs of Connecticut. And I knew two things.
Shani Sandy: One, I wanted to come back to New York City for university and be closer to my family, be closer to city life. But two, I had a lot of interest in the rigor of the program at Columbia, specifically the art history program, the liberal arts program. And so I always had my eye on coming back to New York City and attending Columbia. It was a bit of my dream school.
Shani Sandy: So I started off freshman year and really enjoyed being back in the city. And my classwork was very much what I had anticipated, in terms of the kind of the core curriculum and what I wanted to focus on in freshman year. But I quickly realized that the art history department there, is a fantastic department, by the way. And that was one of the things in terms of my major, that I wanted to do, but I also still really wanted to do my studio art work.
Shani Sandy: And the disadvantage that I found at Columbia at the time was, the studio art program was not rigorous. I knew I had the desire to continue painting, I wanted to continue drawing, but I also wanted to look at interactive media and other types of computer generated artwork. And I wasn't able to do that there. And so it was very much a torn decision for me to decide, "Okay, I'm going to leave Columbia, my dream school and go to Boston and go to Tufts", which had a combined degree program, would actually would allow me to finish off and my bachelor's in art history, but also do a BFA and focus in studio art.
Shani Sandy: But I recognized that I wasn't fulfilled in the way I needed to be. And so I made the decision in my sophomore year to leave Columbia and transfer up to Tufts in the school, the Museum of Fine Art, into a combined degree program, where I was able to do the two things that I wanted to do. So it wasn't the easiest thing to express to everyone that I was going to leave, but they understood. When I explained why, my parents understood and I went ahead and ended up having to do a little extra college time. So I ended up being in college for five and a half years as opposed to four, but I wouldn't trade it, Maurice. I would do it again because I made a decision to boldly decide I'm going to leave Columbia and go up further north and try something different that I think is more along with what I'm supposed to be doing in my life. And so I think it was one of the best decisions I've made for my academic career.
Maurice Cherry: And so once you graduated, what was your, what were those early moments of your career like?
Shani Sandy: Oh boy. Bruised and battered. No, look, I graduated right after 9/11. So it was a tough time to be a graduate. And I know that folks, even now who are graduating, are having challenges too. I spent the first three or so years as a freelancer. I hustled, I came back to, well the first about year or so, I stayed in Boston. I did work for a small company in Boston as a designer. And I mean, it was so small that I was working out of this, the owner's home, small. Hey, I mean, he had a cat that would jump on the [inaudible 00:30:21]. It was a whole thing.
Shani Sandy: But that was important first step. Getting out of school and having a job that I could actually put my skills to use. And then I decided that I was going to come back to New York and continue to freelance and look for work. And I really hit the pavement. I was interviewing as much as I possibly could. I ended up taking on jobs, of course, for people that I knew, but also for small startups in the city. And that's one of the advantages of, being in New York City is, that there's at least, is more to try. Doesn't necessarily mean it's going to last, but they are more things to try out.
Shani Sandy: But it was rough, economically, because businesses just weren't at the same level of bringing on the talent full time after the events of 9/11. And so, those early days, I think the two things that I learned from those early days, one is how to have that entrepreneurial spirit and gumption and make things happen without getting a paycheck. So I was designing, but I also was teaching. I was trying to do anything that I felt was a match with my talents. If it wasn't done, I was doing that. So that gives you that hustle, to just figure it out and make it work.
Shani Sandy: But then I also, was able to really get more critical about what I wanted to do with my career. And so when I ended up finally moving into my first salary job, it was unusual because it was in the tech space, financial technology space, but it was also finance. But I realized I wanted to do something that was going to be a little difficult. That was going to be a bit tough. And so that definition happened in those three or so years, when I was figuring it out and doing all the things that us young designers do. From logo work to websites to business cards, I mean, all of it.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. I was in college, I was a junior, I was a junior in college when 9/11 happened. I remember vividly. I was studying for a test from my abstract Algebra two class and I was in the study hall at Kilgore at Morehouse. And saw the footage and everything. And then at the time, I was still in the scholarship program. There was a scholarship program from NASA, it's called the Project Space Program. And so essentially, what it was is that, I would say mostly through college, I didn't have really any kind of plan.
Maurice Cherry: Because the way that my scholarship was set up, once I graduated, I knew that I was going to be working for NASA. That was the path.
Shani Sandy: The path, right.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah, that was the path. And so I was taking classes I wanted to take. I majored in math, not, I mean I'm good at math, but it wasn't the kind of job where I knew like, "Oh, I'm going to have this great earning potential when I get out." It was part of the scholarship. So 9/11 happened and then they ended up yanking the funding for the scholarship and now all of a sudden it's like, "Oh wow, I'm a junior in college with no job prospects whatsoever."
Maurice Cherry: And I managed to finagle my way into a few interview books and I did what I had to do, just in terms of trying to find out where my prospects were, but I was too late. I mean, folks in the business department and other departments already had stuff lined up. And I mean, when I graduated, I was working for the Woodruff Arts Center, which is like a theater space here in Atlanta. I was working there selling tickets to the symphony and the theater and the museum and stuff. And I still had that job when I graduated. I actually had to go back to work. Was it after graduation or was it the next day? It was like the next day. And I remember my boss taking away the calculator at my terminal like, "Oh, you got a math degree now, you don't need this." Like, "Gee, thanks.
Maurice Cherry: But I know what you mean. Those first few years were brutal. I did telemarketing and all kinds of call center jobs and stuff before I found my first design gig. It was three years after I graduated before I found my first design gig. So yeah, you start doing those things just to make sure you've got a roof over your head, food on the table. And it's like, "Oh, when is the thing going to happen that's going to figure out what my career was?" Because I mean, I went to school for math, but the only real prospects for a math degree are graduate school in math, becoming an actuary, which I didn't want to do or become a math teacher, which I also didn't want to do.
Maurice Cherry: And I had to turn my hobby, which was making websites and doing stuff in Photoshop. I had to turn that into my career, which luckily I've been able to do. But it's one of those things where you have to, those years were really lean. I had to really figure it out. So I know what you mean about building that entrepreneurial spirit. It's not something you can learn in college, you have to go through the fire.
Shani Sandy: You have to go through the fire. You have to have clients who don't pay you. You have to be, you have to have pull all nighters, you have to look for work in the most unlikely of places. Like you said it all and I think that builds character. I really do. I think that builds character and it's really foundational work, whether you realize it or not at the time. I think it pays off in dividends and I, my background too, I, my dad's side is from the islands and that also comes with its own set of philosophies, as well. And so, you always have a job or two or three. And so it was absolutely no question that I was going to have to figure it out. And don't get me wrong, I had support from my parents as well, but I knew that I was expected to figure that out.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. So between the work you've done at S&P Global and the work you're doing, now at IBM, you're building teams and everything. How do you ensure that you're keeping diversity in mind when you're building teams? I think that's something within the past, maybe five to seven years, has really been a big sticking point in the tech and the design community as well. Making sure that you are building a diverse workforce. How do you keep that in mind?
Shani Sandy: Yeah, I think it is such a critical question that you asked, because there seems to be formulas that folks will talk to you about and you'll see the buzzwords about diversity inclusion and all the corporations and how they're approaching it and what have you. And I really think it boils down to being tuned in and connected to your network of people and making sure that you have enough sponsorship to bring people into organizations or connect them to other people who may not be an organization, who may have their own company or may, to be doing a special project or what have you.
Shani Sandy: So for me, my experience with making sure that there is diverse representation on the team has varied depending on where I am and what position I'm in. Prior to joining IBM, and even still how I work today, my network reflects me in the majority of individuals I'm connected with in terms of gender and color and geography. However, because of the organizations I've been involved in, my network also reflects that. Which typically is male dominated, which typically is Caucasian, which typically is a higher income set that I grew up in.
Shani Sandy: And so I've kind of had always had this, particularly when I graduated college, but even in college, understood that duality of the worlds that I was going in between. And so when I think about how I've hired, I have one very close recruiter that I worked with, who knows my philosophy in terms of making sure that when I'm bringing in people into my team, that I have a team that is diverse from a racial point of view, diverse from a gender point of view, and also from the way that they think. In terms of designers who may not have a traditional background, who may have not actually gone to school for design, but picked it up along the way and taught themselves.
Shani Sandy: So it's from a practice level, but it's also very much from an identity level. I think some times we skirt around the issue when we talk about diversity and you'll hear people talk about, well yes, it's diversity of thought and skill set is important too. Absolutely. We all know that. That's absolutely the case, but we also are dealing with systems that have been placed, that have not given equal opportunity to people of color, to women. And so that has to be righted.
Shani Sandy: And so when I can, and it's particularly because I have a network of people that have similar backgrounds, I'm going to connect those people into my organization, if there's a fit or into a friend's organization and connect each other. I think that is really where a lot of this change happens, is on that, in that personal level. And that the companies that exist, some of these leading companies, yes, have to have the infrastructure and the process in place to be able to mechanize recruiting and retention. But it's folks like us, who are in the field and have networks of people that look like us, that are the starting point, frankly, to bringing in more diverse talent.
Shani Sandy: And so I tap into my network as much as I possibly can, texting, calling, posting jobs or what have you. I think that's really the root of it. The one thing that I have been considering, I haven't done this formally yet, but I did it in the past when I was recruiting is, look at doing like a rider. And saying, "Okay, if you're going to show me candidates, then from the candidates that you select and put in front of me, I not only want to see all these skill sets, but I also want candidates from these underrepresented groups, as part of the pool you're going to put in front of me."
Maurice Cherry: So sort of like an inclusion rider, in a way.
Shani Sandy: Exactly. Exactly. And that's something that, you're setting the stage, you're setting the tone on your expectations, but then you're also then able to have a starting point already that gives you at least a-
PART 2 OF 3 ENDS [00:42:04]
Shani Sandy: Starting point already that gives you at least a certain level of diversity that you may not be tapped into just because you don't have the connection to other folks. So, those are some of the things I'm thinking about. I know in IBM, we actually just recently had a call around our approach to diversity in terms of reaching out to diverse schools, specifically HBCUs, and also looking at similar kind of Grassroots Guerrilla efforts. So, I'm going to get involved in that as well. But I haven't quite figured out exactly the approach that I'm going to take specific to where I am now. But the network ... it starts with the network. It starts with your personal connections.
Maurice Cherry: Well, I'll drill down just a little further into that.
Shani Sandy: Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: What are your thoughts on the lack of hiring, retention, and promotion of black women in the design and tech fields?
Shani Sandy: Yeah. I have a lot of frustration around it, and this ... I try to make my frustration productive, as opposed to making it put me in a place of stagnation or, cynicism. A couple years ago, it was actually when I reached out to you a couple years ago, I decided that I wanted to really highlight some of the voices that exist in the field. Specifically the black voices that exist in the field. Men and women. And use that as baseline for my thesis work that I completed in 2017 specifically looking at, okay well what do these designers who often times are not recognized, who have not been normalized, who have not become the icon, so to speak when we go to conferences, or when we see essays in the design community highlighted. Those folks are not represented. And so, my efforts to turn that frustration into something productive started with working on my thesis and interviewing women and men in the field, and get their points of views, specific to their career path, and each and everyone of them was unique. But also what they thought about creativity, specifically.
Shani Sandy: I won't go too far down that path because that could be a whole nother segment, Maurice, but I think the point is that the change that has to happen with representation and actualization of black women specifically, is going to really start with our community, and I mean the black community, making sure that we connect each other to opportunities, and uphold each other, and normalize each other, and make each other icons, right? I think that's foundational, and that was part of why I wanted to have research that really spoke specifically to designers who weren't represented in that way. But I think we also have to push on organization's, too right? So we have to push on ... I'm going to call ... Cindy's like, "We have to push on." I think AIGA is moving towards this, and I see some of the work that they're doing, and the diversity and inclusion space, and the new conference they have coming up I think this year. For the first time I'm seeing a very colorful group that's represented a line up of speakers, right? So-
Maurice Cherry: Yeah I think they have ... Ashleigh Axios has been on the show.
Shani Sandy: Yeah, yes.
Maurice Cherry: Episode 150 for people. I think she's putting together the lineup for that.
Shani Sandy: Yes. Her point of view is reflected in that lineup, right? And so wow. Imagine that when you start to kind of change the dynamics of who's leading in organizations, who has the ability to kind of frame up what things look like. Whether it's a speaker line up, or whether it's an ethos, how that representation and the actual people who are presenting changes. So I do very much think it's the community level in terms of the specific, the black community, but we also have to demand that we have a place in these large organizations. From academic institutions, all the way to some of the kind of industry institutions that exist, too.
Shani Sandy: And I'll tell you up top it is lonely, but there are people doing it. I think of Bozoma Saint John she's not necessarily a designer, but leading black woman in now the kind of the marketing space I think she's CMO right now at Endeavor. And she's out there, and she is bold, and she does not apologize for being who she is, and leading the charge, and just making sure the world sees her, right? And so I think frankly, a lot of the work is to make sure that we're seen. If we don't have the kind of sponsorship we're looking for in organization, create our own. I'm like, everything doesn't have necessarily be that all you have to be going through these particular types of companies or get these particular types of awards to [inaudible 00:47:58] worthy.
Shani Sandy: The Oscars just happened, right? I mean we just talked about that. I mean, we create our own as well. So it's a push. It's a push to push ourselves and have representation in those organizations, don't get me wrong. But I also think the more valuable work, and the work we're going to more proud of at the end of the day is how we pull our networks into opportunities, and how we create our own spaces.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. There has to be a seat at the table essentially.
Shani Sandy: Yes.
Maurice Cherry: We have to make our own seat at the table, or make our own table.
Shani Sandy: Or make our own ... I mean look. With a vision path, right? That's what you did, right? You made that space. What was it 200? What 70? Where are you in episodes? I just checked yesterday.
Maurice Cherry: Well, this episode when it comes out will be 287, so. We're getting up there. We're getting up there, definitely.
Shani Sandy: Yeah, yeah. So, and then folks start to catch on, and come with the accolades of what happened to you, but we don't wait for that.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. And to be clear when you talk about sponsorship, I just want to make sure that the audience is not confused. You're not necessarily talking about financial sponsorship?
Shani Sandy: No. I can clarify that, thank you. Yeah. Sponsorship is a more active way of being able to put in place opportunities for people. So for example, you'll hear it a lot where someone else will say, "Oh I have a mentor versus a sponsor." A sponsor will be the person that can support you, that can promote you into let's say, a new opportunity whether it's a job, or a speaking opportunity, that a sponsor's active in that way, right? That's what I mean when I talk about sponsorship.
Maurice Cherry: Got cha, got cha. I like that distinction, too. A sponsor versus a mentor. And sort of also to talk about kind of creating these own platforms, and this will by the time this episode airs, of course this will be out there but one thing that I'm doing personally is I'm putting out call for submissions for this design anthology that I'm going to put out called Recognize and we're doing in conjunction with Envision, as part of an endowment from their design forward fund, and it's going to be an anthology that features essays, and commentary from indigenous people, and people of color. It's what I'm calling the next generation of emerging design voices. And this is something that really came out from winning the Steven Heller Prize for Cultural Commentary last year.
Maurice Cherry: Being at the galla, and talking to people, and then even sort of honestly the fall out from getting that award,. I haven't talked about this publicly, so this is kind of inclusive. So, a lot of the fall out that came from that award was really interesting. There were calls of people saying that it was an affirmative action sort of thing, how is this going towards a podcast when it's supposed to go towards writing. A number of different kinds of criticisms about me winning the awarded. About how someone who is not a traditional designer ... and the fact ... Because I mean when I won the award I was doing marketing for a software company.
Maurice Cherry: I was not an in-house designer, I did not go to design school, or anything and yet I've won this design award from a design organization. It's like, well is AIGA giving these out? That's one of the criticisms I heard from some people, things like that. But certainly I think with the ethos behind me making revision path with ... so that black designers could be recognized. I mean when I go to a design museum, or a design convention, or something like that and I go to the book store, and I'm looking for design books to pick up, there are very few, if any by people of color. And that's not to put down the current crop of design writers that are out there writing and creating books, I think that's great. But who's the next generation? Who are the next voices that we're trying to lift up so they can be recognized ... which is what I'm coming to realize ... But who are those next voices?
Shani Sandy: And so, this anthology hopefully will be a way to showcase that, and spotlight that. I hope that this will be something that I can kind of keep going year after year, or what ever the frequency is. We're just starting it out this year just to see kind of what the feedback is going to be. But I hope people will kind of get a chance to submit and check it out. We hope to launch it by the end of the year, fingers crossed, knock on wood. So, if you're listening, definitely get those submissions in, I'll pout a link in the show notes and all that kind of good stuff.
Shani Sandy: Yeah. I'm going to be looking out for that. It's sorely needed. I think it is one of the spaces that's also very much ignored. Not just in terms of black designers, but folks who are so called new, or emerging in this space, to give them recognition, right? And if it's going to be ... I think again, one of the element to making change happen on that larger scale level, so when people came at you with a certain level of criticism around why you got the award, or what have you, that's chipping away at what is tradition. That's chipping away at what status quo, and so the things that you're doing, Maurice, the things that I'm doing, that our community is doing, slowly, I believe is chipping away at this status quo that looks a certain way. However, at the same time, we need to be creating our own and that's why I appreciate kind of both approaches.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah, absolutely. So what advice would you give to somebody that ... I mean they're listening to this episode, they want to follow in your footsteps, what advice would you give them?
Shani Sandy: That your path is your path. You carve your own path, and there is no convention to how you can arrive in a field, specifically we're talking about design, but whether you're a developer, or wanting to be a creative director, or a marketer, in that kind of complementary scope of what we consider creative industries, that the path is really yours to carve. When I reflect on my path, there were certain foundations that I had to have. I chose, for my foundations, to go the academic route, right? I chose to do that bachelors, and focus my interest there. And have a fine arts degree, and a studio art degree. But I also recognize that there was a heck of a lot of value that I gained on the found actually doing the work, and being in practice. So you kind of have the theory and the foundation element you get from school. But you also have to compliment that with practice.
Shani Sandy: So there are certainly foundation elements that you have to have, I won't discredit that. But I think that when it comes to deciding, oh well should I work at this agency, should I just work at agencies, is it okay for me to go in house, and go to a brand, what about starting my own thing, I think frankly do it all. I don't see ... Do it all. I think that unless you have a clearly defined desire for working in one way, which I think typically not what designers mindset is like anyway, unless there's that brand desire, try it all out. Do your own thing on the side. Work at a studio. Try an agency. Work in house, right? There's no specific formula that's going to yield specifically where you will be as a design professional. The only formula is really what you kind of put together as a combination of your experiences. And so that's something that I learned in my career was that each experience led to the next experience, right?
Shani Sandy: And I only knew that the next experience was because I tried something out that I had not tried before. I think that's just a fundamental. Try things that are necessarily the convention. And I think the one other thing I will share with listeners is that get outside of the field too, and I think the thing that can also be very inspiring about figuring out where you want to go with looking at folks who may not be in the same discipline that you're in, but there's some qualities and things they exhibit that you really want. So for example, perhaps they created their own spaces. They created their own firm or company, and you know you have that intrapreneurial desire, but has nothing to maybe do with design, or a complimentary discipline. Why not learn from that individual, and figure that out, and still be able to kind of hone your practice as well.
Shani Sandy: I guess the closing thought ... There are no rules in this, and 10 years ago, if I were to go back, and look at where I am now, I don't even think there were ... a design executive, that wasn't even ... five years, that's not even five years ago. That wasn't a title. Frankly, this role I have right now, this is a new, this is actually a new role, right? So there wasn't something for me to look at and say, oh that's exactly where I wanted to be. It was a combination of all the experiences that I have put together, and I reflected on that, and thought oh actually, this type of role makes sense for where I want to be and they happen to be thinking in a similar fashion, and we have a connection there. But I couldn't have planned for this, but I could do the work that would allow me to be here. So, take on those experiences. Don't do just the formula that you think it is going to school, and getting a job, and working at a particular type of shop, or what have you. Try it all out.
Maurice Cherry: Where do you see yourself in the next few years? What kind of work do you want to be working on?
Shani Sandy: Yeah. I'm a perpetual learner. So, I know what ever I'll be doing will involve some type of community building team related aspect. That's what I love to do is working with people because I think the impact that you can make as a collective is so significant, and so transformational, that I know it's where I wasn't to stay. But, in the next couple years, I'd like to be able to say, when we look back and say that I've been able to add to my team, a level of transformation that was driven by them that is owned by them, and that they're proud of. That, to me, would be the icing on the cake to have transformed the culture to that level, and to have the next design executives in Que, right? To take on those roles. What ever the outcome of wherever two years is, that's in general where I want to be, but I also keep myself really busy on the personal side, too so I have some creative projects in the works, as well, and I'm working on a comedic show with my partner, and that's something-
Maurice Cherry: Okay.
Shani Sandy: Yeah I'm really excited about that, and so hopefully, again, in a couple years, that'll be will be on that would be syndicated, it'll be everywhere. And it'll be something I'm also kind of evolving into chapter two and chapter three. So, I'd like to keep myself, my talents occupied and growing. And so where ever it is, I want to be putting it to the fullest use in the next couple of years.
Maurice Cherry: Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you and about your work online?
Shani Sandy: Yeah. So, I am definitely on Twitter. I'm not a every day, every hour kind of Twitter person, but they can find me on my Twitter. My hanzle is @S-H-4-N-I. That's S-H the number four N-I and my website. Shanisandy.com. So it's S-H-A-N-I-S-A-N-D-Y.com. Pretty easy.
Maurice Cherry: Sounds good. Well, Shani Sandy, I want to thank you. Oh my God, thank you so much for coming on this show, for sharing. I mean not just your story about how you got here, but also really talking a lot about the work that you do aside from your design work at IBM. But even just with building teams, with helping, with just kind of the next generation of designers. I think that this is something that a lot of people will get a lot of motivation from, and certainly the important point about carving out your own lane is something that I certainly feel very strongly and passionately about. I think that when people listen to this interview, they'll get from you as well, so thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.
Shani Sandy: Thank you Maurice. Thank you so much for having me. This was fun. Thank you everyone.