A New Chapter

I’m excited to share that I am starting as the new director at Austin Center for Design. Jon Kolko, the founder of the school, will be transitioning into an advisor role and remains as core faculty. I know many people will wonder what this means for the school, so I hope to take a moment today to share some thoughts.

I was part of the AC4D’s inaugural class of ten students back in 2010. I was drawn to the school’s immersive approach, entrepreneurial spirit, and its opinionated focus on working on problems that matter. The inaugural class acted as co-founders of the school. We shaped the curriculum for future years, and charted new territories with the career paths we each took on after the program.

My own personal journey since graduation involved building two startups from the ground up. I co-founded HourSchool, an education platform where anyone can take or teach a class, inspired from the research we did with the homeless population during AC4D. It was bootstrapped and scrappy. I learned to code, grow a team and market with very little budget. A few years later, I moved on to join Aunt Bertha, a search and referral platform for social services. I helped grow that company from 4 people to 40 people through 2 rounds of funding, built and led multiple departments, and our product has touched the lives of over 300,000 people to date. As I began teaching at AC4D in the last couple of years, I had to reflect on my own experiences in order to share the lessons learned with my students. Those experiences – taking something to scale, relentlessly iterating and executing, while convincing others to join my mission – are also what I hope to bring to my new role at AC4D.

Jon and many faculty members have built an incredibly strong foundation: an education pedagogy that embraces empathy, prototyping, and abductive logic; that stands upon a foundation of solving problems worth solving. The program features small class sizes, affordability, and access to world-class working design practitioners. The faculty instills in our students a culture of rigor and constant iterations. Their success is reflected in the AC4D alumni’s career paths, happiness, and salary. As I take over the director position, the lofty vision that the school was founded on remains unchanged: to transform society through design and design education. My job is to build upon the foundation Jon and others have created.

I have spent many hours chatting with alumni and faculty as they reflected on their experiences. I have also talked to people in the industry to understand what they are demanding from new designers. With these findings and together with AC4D’s theory of change, I believe the following are the biggest opportunities to extend the impact of our school:

1) Design Jobs in the Public Sector: When the school first started, design jobs in the public sector were rare, at least in the United States. Designers who want to work on social issues had to venture out on their own, or resorted to working for Fortune 500 to make a living. We had supply, but not a lot of demand. In recent years though, more and more progressive organizations have been joining forces and started to invest heavily in the role of design when considering how they deliver services to their constituents. AC4D is in a great position to work directly with governments and foundations to tackle the challenges they face, through our students’ studio projects, fellowship placements after graduation, and other consultative engagements to support capacity-building initiatives within these institutions. This will ultimately lead to more design job opportunities in the public sector. My vision is to see design positions proliferate through every department of our government and a Chief Design Officer at every institution that is working towards the public good.

2) Support our Social Entrepreneurs: A focus on social entrepreneurship has always been with us from the start. When our students graduate and decide to venture out on their own, like most entrepreneurs, they have to be scrappy and lean. Anyone who has started their own business before would know that the runway doesn’t last forever and often times, it’s a race against time. AC4D will continue to build partnerships that help our students take their ideas further, faster: working with coding academies to get concepts off the ground, piloting minimal viable products with schools and clinics, or collaborating with data scientists and policy makers to inform go-to-market strategies.

3) Growth and Sustainability: This transition also marks a good time to evaluate our internal operations. Creating a diverse funding strategy, building a team of staff, and providing more formal support for students, such as financial aid, are all natural progressions as the school heads into the new decade. This is also important to ensure that our education remains affordable and accessible, for people from all walks of life who aspire to use the power of design to address the wicked problems we face today.

People have asked what my motivation is to taking on this role. My answer is a simple one: AC4D changed my life, and I have witnessed it changed many others who went through the program. I’m excited and honored to be part of the journey of our future students. Here’s to a new chapter and all the new possibilities it will lead us.