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Kristy Tillman: Inviting Yourself to the Table

About this talk

Have you ever had an idea that you wanted to be involved in and execute, but it never quite happened for you? For Kristy Tillman, Design Director for Society of Grownups, this was not only true for her, but at times it felt like the defining sentiment of her career. While we live in a world of interconnection, it’s still so easy to feel like we’re not making the impact that we’d like, or that we’re not taking advantage of all of our opportunities. But instead of asking for permission or waiting for opportunities to magically unfold before us Kristy challenges us to make our own opportunities. How? By inviting yourself to the table.

Kristy Tillman, Design Director, Society of Grownups

Kristy Tillman currently serves as the Design Director for Society of Grownups, a Boston-based start-up whose mission is to democratize financial literacy for the young adult set. There she leads design teams dedicated to crafting exceptional experiences across both digital and physical platforms.

Prior to Society of Grownups, Tillman was a designer at IDEO, an award-winning global design consultancy where she helped solve design problems across a variety of industries including consumer product goods, finance, education, and healthcare. She also did a tour through the footwear industry as a product graphic designer at PUMA and Reebok.

Tillman believes in a future where design is a tool that aids underserved communities in solving socio-cultural problems. As the former co-founder of the Detroit Water Project and founder of Tomorrow Looks Bright, she has a strong commitment to furthering the accessibility of design.


Full Transcript

So I want to talk to you about this idea of inviting yourself to the table. So, by a show of hands, can anybody let me know if you had an idea that you want to execute, or an idea that someone else has created that you want to be involved in, but it never quite happened for you? Raise your hand if that’s happened to you. Whoa, everyone’s hand is up.

Keep your hand up if you feel like this might be a defining sentiment of your career, like you feel like this might keep happening. OK, not that many hands. That’s actually great. So we live in a world now of super interconnectedness, right? The creative industry is booming, technology is lucrative. Now we have access to people and places and capital that we didn’t before. We were locked out.

Now we have tools that really help us be able to execute ideas. And so with all that interconnectedness and all that access, we often still find ourselves not quite having the impact that we like, not quite taking advantage of opportunities. So like some of you, I felt like that might be a defining sentiment of my career. I always thought that I might be on the outside looking in. As a black woman, a black female designer working in a predominately white male environments, it became clear to me that I had to start kind of butting into places, or I wouldn’t get the opportunities that I wanted, wasn’t getting the chance to make the impact that I wanted to make.

So you may be asking yourself, so what is this idea of inviting yourself to the table. Inviting yourself to the table is the moment you decide to create opportunities without asking for permission or waiting on an invitation. It’s the moment you decide to not sit back and allow opportunities to pacify you, or even worse, just let life happen to you. So throughout my career, I’ve found myself at all kinds of tables that weren’t designed for me, places totally unexpected for a black girl like me to show up, but surely places where I had a perspective to offer, and surely places where people who were already at the table needed my perspective, unbeknownst to them. So I spent a lot of time kind of originally avoiding this idea. There’s something seductive, there’s something alluring about being invited. Who doesn’t want to be sought after, and who doesn’t want to be invited by people that you admire or respect? And for all the other reasons you might imagine– fear of failure, fear of rejection, not be able to execute on my big ideas, could I survive or even thrive in these spaces? So my lens comes from typically race and gender, but I think self-doubt is something everyone in this room can relate to. So we as humans, we tend to draw from our past experiences.

For me, a lifetime a socialization, a lifetime of messaging saying that I didn’t belong in certain spaces, was a stumbling block. Now, I could continue to believe that, but I wanted to be able to realize my big ideas and be able to execute them. And so when you start to look at the problem a different way, I want to restate it. So how might I begin to make my own opportunities? So I decided to start inviting myself. So one of my favorite kind of examples of this is the Detroit Water Project. The Detroit Water Project is a project created by myself and Tiffani Bell back in July of 2014. So a story broke. The United Nations said they were going to come to Detroit to help with this unprecedented water shutoffs. Due to this bad city mishandling, exacerbated by old infrastructure, poor city bill management, seniors on fixed income, low-income households, mothers– single mothers– were having their waters turned off in record numbers.

So Tiffani and I decided that we wanted to do something. We had a perspective. We didn’t want to deal in Detroit politics. We knew that we weren’t prepared to transverse that landscape. There are people who are much better at that than us. We also had a strong perspective that we wanted to have an impact very quickly. There were lots of groups out passing out water bottles, doing traditional crowd funding, and we knew that we didn’t want to take that opportunity as well. We wanted to make a quick impact, and we just wanted to pay water bills, and so we created the Detroit Water Project over a weekend. And to date, we’ve paid over [APPLAUSE] Thank you.

So now known as The Human Utility, under the executive directorship of Tiffani Bell, my co-founder, our project went onto Y Combinator and 2014, and now with a 503(c) certified nonprofit company, where we’re now helping people in Detroit and Baltimore pay their water bills and keep their homes. So this was a table I wasn’t supposed to be at, right? I don’t know anything about utilities other than the ones I have to pay every month. We received pushback from organizations locally. We were discouraged by government officials and water utility officials. And frankly, two black girls who would graduate from HBCUs don’t start technology companies that go to Y Combinator.

So this is one example of one of my proudest, other than speaking here, of inviting myself to the table. But I’ve invited myself to a lot of tables. I was hired at Society of Grownups as the first designer. Now I lead both product and brand there. I spent a good deal of time at IDEO doing some of the best design work of my career. I’m working on a newsletter now that has thousands of readers. So I could rattle off a few more, but the most important point is, looking back, it’s only in retrospect that I can now see how these opportunities build upon each other, and how inviting yourself to the table one time begins to build a positive cumulative effect over time. So I have a few rules, a few guidelines that I’d like to share with you today about kind of how to go about inviting yourself to the table.

So my first one is welcome surprises. So it’s about letting go of this idea of a predefined path toward success where you begin to kind of construct reality in service of this idea. It would have been impossible five years ago for me to say, oh, I’m going to co-found a utility company, or I’m going to lead a tech startup, or I’m going to start a newsletter. None of that was on my path. So Saras Sarasvathy, who is a professor at the University of Virginia Business School, spends a great deal of time trying to understand what makes the most successful entrepreneurs entrepreneurial. And so I’ve been reading a lot of her work in preparation for this talk. Now, every invite to the table won’t be necessarily about entrepreneurship, but the idea is the same. Creatives who want to create big ideas, execute big ideas, under uncertain conditions can all take something away from her work.

So she says, “In fact, to the extent that the future is shaped by human action, it is not much use trying to predict it.” Basically, letting go of the idea of a predefined path. “It is much more useful to understand and work with the people who are engaged in the decisions and actions that bring it into existence,” which is inviting yourself to the table.

My next kind of rule of thumb is take a leap of faith and suspend disbelief. So don’t think about how impossible it is. Just do it. And I know that seems a lot cliche, but really the only control you have is to make a decision. Doing otherwise, like waiting a permission, means allowing life to just happen to you. Inviting yourself to the table, executing the big opportunity is to remove the uncertainty with what you have to offer. So Sarasvathy goes, “But entrepreneurs choose to view the future through effectual logic.” And effectual logic is a logic that makes entrepreneurs successful, as opposed to casual logic, which is what other people tend to rely on. “Consciously, or unconsciously, they act as if they believe the future is not ‘out there’ to be discovered, but it gets created through the very strategies edges of the players.” It gets created by inviting yourself to the table and butting in. If Tiffani and I had decided that paying one water bill worth of water bills wouldn’t have been paid.

So you have to be prepared to do the work and move through the uncertainty. That’s part of the challenge. Prepare for moments of failure as you ladder up. Things won’t always work out the way you want to. I have a graveyard of failed invitations. Even in retrospect with the Detroit Water Project, Tiffani and I had even started to try to create two or three different projects before that project was even successful. So I’ve learned a lot of hard-won lessons, like which table’s align with my values, who do I want to bring with me, and most importantly, who I want to sit with. And it was only through lessons learned via those failed attempts that enabled success to eventually happen. It was commitment to the process and not the outcome that put me in a place to land in a more meaningful and impactful place than I could have ever imagined.

So when you think about this idea of letting go a predefined path, taking advantage of inviting yourself to the table means that you get to land in a place that you would have never imagined otherwise. So my opportunities have ranged in various degrees from making my own table to actively engaging willing gatekeepers like Shawn to make room at theirs. But they’re all a result of preparation in a way at which I decided to engage the world, with a lens on creativity and eye on justice.

So creativity and tactics and execution, in a sense of justice, a strong internal duty to liberate your ideas even in the face of dissent, misunderstanding, and rejection. So I spoke a little bit earlier about how race and gender define my perspective. But you owe it to the world. Inviting yourself to the table means the idea would have never been realized. You owe it to yourself.

When we create, it’s a dialogue between you as a maker and society about what we believe should exist. Designers, coders, builders, makers– whatever all you want to call yourself– play a large role in determining how other people experience the make meaning of their world. Someone out there is waiting on your idea. Someone out there was waiting for us to make the Detroit Water Project. You owe it to those already at the table. You owe it to challenge what’s possible. When people like Shawn open up seats at their table, it’s a prime opportunity to engage. Making spaces at the table is an important function in a healthy, creative ecosystem, and you are needed at the table to expand the conversation on what is possible. And frankly, you owe it to yourself. There is no rule book. There is no defined path. Look for problems that can benefit from your expertise. Tina Roth Eisenberg, affectionately known as Swiss Miss, called this “finding your superpower.” Find your superpower and put it to work. Inviting yourself to the table means creating unique opportunities to leverage not only what you can offer and increase your opportunity space exponentially. And waiting on opportunities, and waiting on permission, and waiting on invitations from gatekeepers is a sure way to lead an uninspiring creative life.

So in closing, the challenge. I challenge you to think about what table you should be inviting yourself to; how do you make room for others at yours; but most importantly, which ones need your voice?

Thank you.

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