16 December, 2020
Episode 03 — It’s about time to shine a light on Black resilience
Brad Neal, IBM RegTech Director of Design, discusses how history, legacy, and resilience have formed the foundation for a career steeped in creating meaningful connections and advancing design excellence.
Transcripts are edited for readability and clarity.
Nigel Prentice: Racial Equity and Design is work that we’ve begun this year to continue to push IBM in new ways, ask the company to stretch in new directions, and actually take that work beyond the confines of IBM itself, and potentially, and hopefully, impact the world of design, overall.
The whole idea is to improve the experience of Black designers in their careers within the company and beyond. So, thank you all for joining me. As I thought about this episode, one of my favorites poems actually has come to mind, and I want to share a bit of that with you, as I think it is a clear and direct connection with our guest today. Here it is:
“Out of the night, that covers me, Black as a pit from pole to pole, I think whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul. In the fell clutch of circumstance, I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance, my head is bloody, but unbowed.“ Now, those are just the first few opening lines of “Invictus“ by William Ernest Henley, and I met this brother several years ago coming into IBM together with me actually.
So, we are part of that first cohort of designers who, lucky enough, and through, I would say good circumstance and hard work, have become senior design leaders at this company, and he’s someone who I’ve been a fan of since day one. I’ve watched his career progress and blossom since day one.
He’s a fantastic manager, connects with human beings effortlessly. Honestly, when I know I need a go-to person to get stuff done, to give me some wise counsel, and honestly, to give me and remind me of why we’re doing the work, I have never been disappointed talking to this brother. In fact, I’ve always been delighted, and so it is no surprise that he has taken on the reins of a big piece of the IBM software portfolio and is currently serving as an IBM Director of Design for IBM’s RegTech software space, and so I’d love for you all to welcome Mr. Brad Neal.
Nigel Prentice: Brad, how are you doing?
Brad Neal: I’m good, man. It’s a wonderful intro. I appreciate it very much.
Nigel Prentice: Of course, man, you deserve it for sure. So, listen, I’ve been thinking quite a bit here recently about our work in Racial Equity and Design, and you have jumped on board and been kind enough to share your time and talent with this workspace.
Nigel Prentice: But I want to understand a bit about your history and the context for how you arrived at IBM. Just tell me a little bit about your background, where are you from and where you ended up going to school?
Brad Neal: Sure. So, I’m originally from Chicago, so south-side kid. I went to the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign for Graphic Design, which I left there with a BFA in Graphic Design and Art History kind of by accident. But I made my way into the world of print design first when I graduated, and did that for a few years, and then really hone my skills with a tiny design firm. It was a three-man show. Myself, the president of the company, and the senior designer, and just got thrown into the deep end, wearing every hat possible, just because I had no choice. Then throughout my next few years, I took a year to freelance and just saw a ton of the landscape of design in Chicago. So, my first job, Hartford Design, there’s this old guard of design in Chicago, and they all know each other.
So, when I left Hartford, Tim [Hartford] just passed me to one friend, who passed me to another. So, between them and there was a staffing agency, I kept work pretty steady for the next year, before flipping over into interactive design, also done during that freelance period, and I never looked back. Like the interactive side of things, I thought was just super engaging and fun, honestly. Frankly, it paid better than the print design work, so there was no downside. But I’m super thankful for starting in print, and the sensibilities that Tim [Hartford] really impressed upon me, I think have been what have served me probably better than anything else throughout my career.
Nigel Prentice: Gotcha, and also a little bit about your background. Our families play a huge role, and I know you’ve told, you’ve shared with me a story or two about your father and his sort of relationship with race and race relations, and I know that the city of Chicago has a history, right? There’s a lot there, and in fact, some of my family might actually have moved. Well, they did move from the South to the North in terms of one of those great migrations that we talked about.
But nonetheless, there’s always some interesting stories coming out of Chicago. I was wondering if you could share a little bit about how your dad interacted with the idea of race relations in your early years.
Brad Neal: Yeah, and for him—it was — I always felt in my mind, like he had a thing about white people, and I couldn’t put my— I can’t describe it any better than that. Like my young mind, that’s all I could describe it as, and I always felt I didn’t understand that. I was just like, I don’t think it’s really like that anymore. Like I know, when you were growing up, things were different, and it was probably a little bit more tough. I knew like the textbook answer, like yes, Black people have been marginalized, across the United States, since we got here, to put it mildly, and my father and my aunts, and uncle, they all had it rough growing up, but my experience had been so different.
I just didn’t see it. He would get into a certain mood. I would always tell like when he was super, super upset about something because his eye would start twitching, as like an involuntary thing. But when I saw that, I would know it was like, “oh yeah, he’s real hot right now.“
It would almost; it would just be like “Ugh Pops, come on, you got to — we’ve moved beyond this isn’t the this isn’t really what it is anymore,“ but, over time, I started to see things differently. Then I was just like, he was right, and I was just too young to know.
Nigel Prentice: Is there a moment when you—that you can put your finger on when you know that your young mind turned into the more mature mind or at least a mind that was able to see what’s going on and you too started to see some of the things going on in society? Clearly, in 2020, we all see it, no matter where— what background in, where a person might come from. But speak a little bit about that in terms of your high school, college, and early adult years being a father. Is there a moment in time where things turned the corner, or was it more gradual?
Brad Neal: It was definitely more gradual because I looked in those moments, I got pieces of it, but I looked at him, and hindsight being 20/20, you look back on it, and all these things started to add up. Like I remember, my parents had it out with a couple of my teachers when I was in grade school because they felt that I was being unfairly graded versus some of the peers in my class.
Like they would look at the work that I was doing and the work everyone else was doing or the way that a teacher would single me out for things, and I look back on that because Hyde Park [in Chicago], it’s a pretty diverse neighborhood. Some of the teachers, I think most of the teachers, were white, and there were a handful of Black and white kids in every class. But I remember specifically, them going up to the school multiple times, just having these dog fights with my teachers about what they were doing versus what other kids were doing in my class.
I remember, and it wasn’t always my own experience. I would also —because they had a lot of friends that I grew up with, and they would tell me about getting pulled over by the cops, as we got to be like driving age, for no apparent reason or being followed through stores, and some of those experiences once I got out on my own or we just out in the street and doing our thing.
And then some more things that stand out in my mind more vividly. Especially like we used to go play basketball every Tuesday, religiously, like me and a couple of my buddies. Coming home from playing basketball one night, I was on the phone while I was driving, and I had taken an alternate route that I don’t normally take because there was this was by like White Sox, by the stadium, and there was a police car. A couple of cops had gotten out, and I’m driving past, and I can see this kid like face down in the street with a cop. I can’t remember if he was either he had his foot or his knee on the back of this kid’s neck in the street, and agony on that dude’s face. I can still see it.
I only saw it like for a second, but that really stood out in my mind. That was a turning point for me. It was just like, the cops are really not out here for us. They are like; they are targeting us. They’re not here protecting us.
Nigel Prentice: Man, and you said that was high school, right?
Brad Neal: That was undergrad, might’ve been younger.
Nigel Prentice: Gotcha. Gotcha. Yep. So young adults as well in terms of what your age, and so as we fast forward a little bit and think about what we all saw this year played a million times on social media and television in terms of the George Floyd murder.
How did that moment affect you? Can you go back to that timeframe? Clearly, the same exact incident, knee on the neck. Terror on the face of a Black man on the ground at the hands of the cops. Now, of course, we can’t, we don’t know what was going on, contextually in your story, back in Chicago. But we certainly have the facts in the George Floyd murder. Curious about how that affected you? Having had seen something very similar.
Brad Neal: It was —it’s a difficult thing to describe because it’s not all one thing. Obviously, it makes you angry, to say the least. Some of these—like it happens so often, sometimes I just intentionally avoid watching the video.
It just stirs up too much. It’s too painful, and it’s these things are, they stick with you forever. Certain things you cannot see. I like that kid I was describing. I could still see his face, however, 20 years later, and so I just chose not to watch, but it was weird because it’s extremely upsetting, but also you feel numb to it, and I think because it happens with such regularity that you, unfortunately, come to expect that this is the terrible and unfortunate norm. That— it’s all while we’re here and trying to create as much change as we can, but you’ve seen it so many times.
It’s just you got to start building up your defenses to it and just preserve yourself for the next time something happens. You gotta find a way to live and keep moving, despite the tragedy. So, I think that’s part of that numbness is just a wall starting to go up.
Nigel Prentice: Certain things you just can’t unsee. Very powerful words there, and I know you to be a fun-loving guy. A family man, a husband, a father just— just a nice human being to be around, Brad. So, I’m curious about what conversations you have with your children? This is a stage in our life where you have children; I have children as well. And yeah, we’re at that stage where we’ve got to tell them something. We try to shield them as any parent wants the best for their child, of course.
Have you had that conversation? Have you had the talk that we, as Black men, many times, have to have with our kids?
Brad Neal: Yeah, a lot earlier than I hoped to. Cause I feel like there’s an innocence that gets taken away. When you have to tell them that when they get old enough, you’re not going to be seen in a neutral way when you show up in the world, depending upon who’s looking at you, they might just perceive you as a threat, just because of who you are.
And there’s a lot of detail and a lot of nuances that I don’t think they can really wrap their heads around yet, but enough so that they understand that Black people in historic — and what we ultimately want to do it, we have to break it all the way down and go back to like when Black people showed up in America, and we gave them like the super-light version, it hit the high points, but help them understand like, It has not been an equal existence for us.
There has been huge amounts of marginalization and oppression that we’ve had to fight and overcome, and unfortunately, that work isn’t done yet. So, when we encounter police officers, it’s not all like “officer friendly,“ and everything is good. It’s sometimes you gotta keep your guard up, you got to anticipate what may happen, and by that, like when I go to the car now, it’s I know where my wallet is, my registration, but license because I don’t want to reach for anything. You’ve seen Black men die for calling out what they’re going to do and doing exactly what they said they would do, and they get shot anyway.
So, I’m like, I want everything out where people can see it. So, I don’t have to do anything with my hands, and I’m telling them, because I got pulled over, taking them to school before, and that was like super alarming, and I’m just like barking out orders: “Look, y’all be quiet.“ “Don’t say anything.“ “Let me interact with the officer.“
Just trying to keep everything ultra-cool, and they didn’t make a peep. So, I was happy about that. I don’t know if it was just because they were scared or if they were just following instructions, but either way, I feel like that was, in a way as much as telling is what me and Erica [Brad’s wife] were like, trying to describe to them. Having part of that experience firsthand and just watching me interact with this officer.
Absolutely. Yeah, I hear you. These moments end up being ingrained in our children’s heads. I had a similar one when I was a child, and I’ve had needed to have taught, meaning watching my father interact with cops. Luckily nothing happened, and nothing’s happened since as a father as well. But I know that it is an omnipresent thought for us and in a lot of ways.
Nigel Prentice: Which leads me in an interesting way into our world of work because there’s some level of institutional concerns at play here, and when I say concerns, that’s to put it lightly. You were just talking about having to have this wall up and being numb, and that’s in the streets or while out and about. I’m curious about how that might have impacted us or you use specifically at work in your career? You’ve had success. You’ve had promotions. You’ve come through your career, and from the outside, looking in, it looks super successful. But I wonder—and I wonder, have you thought about this, have you thought about this idea of institutional racism existing just below the surface or even deep below the surface, but nonetheless, they’re in present?
That work, has that ever crossed your mind?
Brad Neal: Yeah, I think you see like little peaks of it here and there, and I think probably the first time it really crosses your mind, for me, it was like in Chicago. I spent ten years working there before I moved to Austin to join IBM, and I never expected to see another Black person.
If I did, they were working like the front desk or answering phones or delivering mail, or sometimes they’re like an account person. But never, almost never, another designer. There’s only one or two, maybe that I can think of in those ten years that I was working like full-time, and just the fact that there has been no presence, there has been no room.
It was like, I can find everybody else under this time, predominantly, white folks, in all these various agencies. But then I know Black designers, we’re out here, and we have the same amount of training, the same amount of talent. All the things that employers are looking for, but why aren’t we showing up?
There’s a reason for that. I don’t think it’s just one reason. I think there’s a lot, and I think it speaks to the question and that the system itself is not built to really embrace diverse candidates. It’s built to just keep promoting the folks who were already there in the first place. I think that’s the first time it really starts to creep in for me, and also considering the once you’re there, how do you advance and grow your career? Because I definitely—I think back to the intro you gave and the poem you led in with, and those words were so strong, and it just speaks to resilience, and it speaks to strength, and it’s so much, so it’s yeah, to find a way to survive and make it through, he was like, what’s the alternative?
Just continually be held back, continually being at the bottom, continuing have no way to advance your own life or for your family, and you just decide that you’re going— you have to go harder than everybody else. If it’s not going to come to you by way of merit, then it’s gotta find a way around, and so I have definitely felt instances where you hit a wall for no apparent reason. It makes you ask questions, and the question gets asked so much is it really, for some reason, that I’m just not aware of, or is it because I’m Black?
It depends upon who’s on the other side of that question. Who’s in the position to control your work fate versus the person next to you, or whoever’s running that company or division or whatever, but yeah, it just puts it plants the seed of doubt. That’s a question that’s always in the back of your mind is this really happening for the reason that I think it is or is supposed to be, or is it because I’m Black and there is some other motivation that is being hidden?
Nigel Prentice: So, then that might lead you to always question, what’s about to happen in this career conversation with my manager or with my senior exec team or, whatever the scenario is at work. If that seed of doubt is there. I wonder if anybody can fully be comfortable, right?
Brad Neal: Yeah. It’s hard because you can’t be your full self in that context. If I’m showing up, being myself doing what I think and has been communicated to me that I should and need to be doing, and something’s still not right then, the only other variable is it the culture that I come from and how I handle myself at work? Is it how I dress? You start asking yourself all these questions, and particularly if you’re the only Black person there. Culture plays such a big role and where you come from even, just like how you look. When I walk— and I experienced this a lot of times, like when I walk into a place, just how people are dressed, how they carry themselves, how they speak.
Sometimes that gap is readily apparent, other times not so much. It’s situational, but more often than not, I was out there by myself, and it was just like I was in enough situations. Like you figure out what adaptations to make, you figure out what successful in things and what things aren’t, and you start to internalize some of those things, and that’s just— that’s what you do. That’s what you take to work and how you project.
Nigel Prentice: And so, the code switches is real. Huh?
Brad Neal: Yeah, certainly.
Nigel Prentice: Yeah, and what does that, being, or, you know, in our, where we are in our careers, you, especially, You’re leading teams. You’re now a manager, maybe second line manager. Everyone’s looking to you to set the direction and interpret what the company’s strategic imperatives are as applied to your division. So, you are in the spotlight quite often, right? You are on stage or in WebEx’s running the show. Something you said earlier struck me, you can never bring your full self to work.
Then you just said this idea around whenever you enter to the room. Does it smolder under the surface for someone like that for you? This idea of race being an actor on the stage of our careers? Is it omnipresent? Does it take up mind space every day, all the time, or is it on and off on and off? I’m trying to get a sense of how present these thoughts come to you.
Brad Neal: It has its moments. I would say for me, and I think it’s a little person by person. It’s easier for me to compartmentalize things mentally and separate them. Certain teams I’ve joined, it’s super clear that I don’t have a ton in common with these folks, but I think just having developed people skills. Generally, you find ways to connect and form those bonds despite coming from different places and being different at some fundamental levels.
It may take a little extra work and a little time, but those relationships are possible, and they’re worth pursuing. But it’s certain instances that I can point to. It’s nothing that’s constantly in the back of my mind that bothers me on a regular basis, but there are certainly times when it’s more front and center; it’s kinda in my face, and I’m forced to grapple with it. But it’s easy for me to let things go. Like I don’t get bothered and stay bothered by very much of anything, for which I’m thankful cause I think that’s one of those things that will probably be quite problematic if I were unable to let it go in my own mind.
But it’s just a bit of a reality that I’ve learned to accept and, again, just make the necessary adaptation so that I can still move forward and find success.
Nigel Prentice: And I think that’s remarkable, to be honest, and what I mean by that is this idea of coping, surviving, and then thriving.
These are skills that you’re actually giving us. You’ve said things like compartmentalize, people skills, which I want to dive into in just a second. Finding ways to connect with other people who don’t share, maybe your ethnic or family-style culture, but you find another cultural element to connect with them on. I don’t know the craft of design or being from the Midwest or living in the Southeast now.
These are things that I’m assuming are ways that you’re connecting with folks now or, outside of race and this finals thing you said, not getting bothered and staying bothered. So, there’s no chips on any shoulders at this point for you, is what I’m hearing, is that right?
Brad Neal: There’s some chips sometimes, but it’s only for me. I don’t walk around showing it. It’s more like the internal driving factor. To give an example, I have always prided myself on craft in terms of just being a designer, like growing up in Chicago and working at big agencies, small ones, these various design firms, I’ve encountered a lot of people. Some of them have been wonderful in relationships that I still hold on to its value very much—lots of different kinds of people. But one of the things that I pride myself on is the level of quality that I can deliver myself and continually pursuing like sharpening up those skills. That’s something that I hold on to because I remember specifically, I met two of my favorite creative directors, where I was working at Acuity Group at the time, which is now Accenture interactive.
These dudes were so sharp. They were where I want it to be, but they were saying still, good designers. They hadn’t gotten to the point that they were just managing teams and so far away from the work. I was terrified of becoming a creative director and not designing anything because I loved it so much.
I liked having my hands on the work, but I knew that was probably some reality that I would experience as I moved up far enough. But I looked at them, and I remember having conversations with them about how do you balance those two things? Because I don’t want to be just a dude who sits in meetings and takes notes or gives performance reviews. I went to school and learn this craft, so I could practice it.
So that’s something that always stays with me and never feeling like “I’ve made it“ or that everybody knows, and everybody gives me the proper respect for blah, blah, blah. I always feel like I got to prove myself, even if I don’t. In my head, every time I sit down to create something, that’s the mentality, and it just sticks with me.
Nigel Prentice: That’s really interesting. In what you said there about—now you say, “I know there are some chips sometimes,“ and I applaud you for that because dealing, in reality, is super important. How do you not let it take a toll? Then to me, the third act in this little play is how do you thrive with it? I just heard a little jewel from you right now, is that you will feel something, you’ll get a message from someone that seems ambiguous or unclear. You don’t know if it’s passive-aggressive or straight-up aggressive or institutional racism or not, but either way, that drives you to do more, and you connected that to craft. I think that’s special right there because not everybody has that. Some people will feel an offense and then shut down, check out, underperform, all sorts of things. Do you turn this into guidance for your teams sometimes?
Is this something that you might talk about if you’re coaching someone?
Brad Neal: Yeah, in coaching and talking to people on my team, it’s always situational and trying to understand. Give the person what they need for who they are because on my team, there’s a wide range of personalities and skill skillset, and I think what motivates one person may, you know, be a deterrent for another.
It just depends upon who they are and what they respond to. In my mind, being a good leader is understanding that about them and trying to meet them in a way that will best give them what they need, versus “this is how I do it,“ “hopefully it works for you“, “but if not, sorry, this is how I do it.“
I don’t do that. I try to impress that—that spirit of excellence. I remember it was a very clear memory. I remember one of my first days in undergrad laying in a bunk with my roommate, my two roommates, who are two of my best friends. One of my best friends from childhood; I grew up across the street from him, was one of my roommates.
I remember lying in bed and thinking about what an immense privilege I had. And part of that is that I come from a family where my parents both divorced and remarried. I graduated owing \$0 in tuition because they all pooled their money together and paid all six years of my tuition so that I didn’t have to take out a loan, and I remember feeling that was an immense privilege, and I can’t screw this up.
I can’t take that gift and waste it, and so that was definitely a motivator. It was like, I got to do good with this because I knew this is, this doesn’t happen for everybody. So, when I take that drive, that kind of grew in me and, I don’t want myself to do mediocre work. I don’t want my team to do mediocre work. I try to communicate it clearly, and not in a way that is forceful. Like you being a jerk about it, but to set clear expectations that we need to be pushing the boundaries even if the people around us aren’t pushing, that’s okay. We don’t need them in order to have a big goal for ourselves and know what brand of excellence we should be striving for.
Nigel Prentice: Speak a little bit about the role of the senior design leader and how that manifests itself in your leadership as culture maker.
Brad Neal: Yeah. Yeah, it’s it all comes from experiences.
Having worked in Chicago for those ten years and having such exposure, that freelance year in particular, because I’ve bounced around to so many agencies in that year, and some of those experiences were wonderful, and some of them were complete garbage. I remember there was agency.com I was freelancing for, and I knew I got picked up, and there was like this little “boys club“ they had within the broader design team that I was working with.
And they were the three-headed monster, our art director and his two cronies, and you just knew those were the cool kids, and if you weren’t in with the cool kids, you were on the outskirts. I was not a part of the cool kid’s club, and I remember one day, in particular, one of those dudes— we had Dunkin Donuts in the office.
My favorite was chocolate glaze. It was always like the one I went for, and he said— I grabbed it. And he was like, that’s your new name by the way, “chocolate glaze.“ I was just like, “I bet it’s not!“ “I bet it’s not,“ I said it very calmly too, but I was just like, you need to be careful with saying things because we’re not gonna do that.
But I think about those very terrible experiences, and then I think about the very good ones. It’s helped me have a head for when I get the opportunity to lead a team and create experiences for them and culture, and I was like, I know what I want, and I know what I don’t. I know what kind of manager I don’t want to be, and I know the kind of manager I do want to be. My goal was always like, I want to be the manager that I wanted when I was a young designer and having come across so many good and bad, that really helped me shape that picture for myself, and then so many of the good people, they just invested in me freely.
They didn’t have to give their time, their effort, their expertise. And that was something that I recognize when you get back together with classmates from undergrad, and they talk about how horrible their jobs are going, and mine was wonderful. It was just like, okay, again, this is atypical, and I need to be careful with it.
So, it’s always just been a part of me to give time, effort, wisdom, skills— give it away, free. The same way I got it and just reinvest it in other designers that are coming up just like I was the designer coming up.
Nigel Prentice: That’s what’s up. That’s what’s up. By the way, best line ever: “I bet you’re not. I bet you’re not.“ I can’t tell you how many times there’s been a potluck or something at work, at IBM, or even other places, and I have not gotten the fried chicken. You see what I’m saying? I’m not going to do it. Yeah, I’m not going to let y’all see that. Now I might stop at Popeye’s on the way home, but that’s a whole ’nother story— all those stories. That’s so interesting because there’s this idea of feeling safe, and people in management sciences, I’ve heard them referred to it as psychological safety at work.
I wonder, can we have that? You know, as Black and Brown folks? Man, I know, and I’ve seen it. It’s difficult for a lot of folks, and you said the word earlier, a few times, loneliness. Yet you don’t appear lonely. I see you in the halls these days. It’s always on WebEx, of course, but you don’t appear lonely.
So how do you pull that trick out? How might you give that sort of early career, mid-career person; who’s searching for a community searching for a foundation. In some cities, it’s just not there. Meaning a lot of Black folks in Austin, Texas— you’re not going to find that thriving social scene like you might in LA or Atlanta or Chicago even.
What advice would you give to folks who are trying to traverse those formative career years as well and being disappointed that they might be the only Black and Brown face they see for days on end for meetings and hours, and maybe even years on it.
Brad Neal: Yeah. It’s not all one way or the other. I say that because like how I grew up. It was all Black neighborhoods, like the Southside and the West side of Chicago is all, is almost all Black. It’s changing over the years, but you saw a white person, it was automatically like, “Oh, they’re lost.“ They don’t know how they got here, and they’re probably looking for a way out. That was always the joke, but it was usually pretty true. My parents worked hard to introduce diversity of all sorts, like culture, people, food language, all these just opened the world up as much as possible beyond just this black bubble that we lived in and on the Southside of Chicago, which was a helpful foundation to have, just generally just to have— be able to appreciate other people and other ways of being, and culture beyond our own.
Once I got to the point where I’m out here in the world establishing relationships, it was just good people was good people, and it didn’t really matter that they didn’t happen to be Black. I found value in those relationships, and I learned early on to invest in, you know, those relationships just for the sake of being good people, not because have to work with this person. They’re my teammates, so I guess I’ll go ahead and engage. But I always found that if you were genuine and you could find a way to connect with people that, that made everything else go vastly smoother personally and professionally.
And I think that’s why I’ve been able to hold on to a lot of the relationships that I established early in my career for as long as I have. Cause there’s like real people connection. Once you’re not sitting in the same space with someone every day for eight hours a day, you don’t have too much incentive to keep in contact unless, this is my friend now, beyond just work.
And so, it’s fulfilling in a different kind of way. But it’s still fulfilling, just, from a human good kind of perspective, and being able to have meaningful relationships. Having relationships with other Black people is important, but it’s not the only type of relationship that I want or need to have. There’s space for both, and I value both.
Nigel Prentice: So, let’s talk a little bit about that. What’s the combination of the advice you’ve already given, this being genuine and connecting with people? That’s great advice. It’s universal. Have a fantastic motor that pushes us towards design excellence. Fantastic, universal advice. What about that Black designer who doesn’t quite know what’s going on around them? Who’s questioning the context that they’re finding themselves in? What thoughts come to mind there?
Brad Neal: I think one of the things I have come to value most about being here is, there’s only a handful of us in the US. But there are other Black designers that we can connect with, and I think everybody on some level experiences that desire for community, which we’re fortunate to have. So, I would say we should definitely be reaching out to each other and support each other.
If you don’t know someone, introduce yourself, it’s fine. I’ll volunteer myself for pretty much anybody who’s looking for that. But I would say to seek the people that you desire to have community with, if you don’t already have community with them, and try to create those connections.
Outside of that, if you’re experiencing that boxed in feeling and not experiencing the advancement experience and the growth that you desire for yourself— because I have certainly been in that situation in the past. I try to seek that wise counsel from folks that I do have those relationships with and try to learn as much as I can about what am I doing?
I want to get out of my own head. I want to know I have a thought for what I’m doing and how well it’s working and what should be happening versus what’s actually happening, and I want to know that I’m not just listening to myself and there’s something objectively that I should be considering that I’m not. Once you’ve done all you can do, and there’s really nothing left, you’re in a pinch. I’m not advocating for people to just go around jumping ship. I’m speaking from personal experience. I have taken the bet on myself multiple times in my career and gotten to a point where I’m just like, “Nope, this is not for me.“
Or I know I’m ready to do X, even if you don’t think I’m ready to do X. I’m going to take the bet on myself and go find someplace that can do X, and it’s worked out. It’s definitely a risk, and it’s a last resort. But when it comes down to a dislike, am I going to let myself be held back? Because ultimately, you wind up being unhappy. If you’ve gotten to a point where you’re ready to grow, you want to do something else, you want to challenge yourself in new ways, and those doors aren’t being opened for you, then you find a way to open them yourself.
Nigel Prentice: My man dropping jewels right now. This is fantastic.
So, the question is, if there was a magic one that, that you had, and IBM could manifest whatever was the right thing to do by the Black designer, what’s the thing that comes to mind for you? I think.
Brad Neal: It’s a few things. I don’t think it’s just a one size fits all solution, but I definitely think representation is number one. When we dug into the numbers a little bit and just having more presence overall. There’s a big disparity in the Black population versus a white population of designers, and being able to just have more presence is part of it.
But not just that we’re here, but also the types of roles that we’re able to occupy. Seeing folks rise up in the ranks across all the various business units cause obviously you have some that are massive and some that are tiny, and that skews the numbers. But seeing us at every level of the company and not just, there’s a bunch of Black folks here now, but they’re all like us. That’s not equity. So, creating the appropriate space and opportunity, and making sure that the playing field is level in terms of how we support people, how we promote people, how we coach and advance, and invest. Cause this is really, it’s an investment. Investing in developing the talent that comes through the door so that those are folks that will grow and mature with the company.
Ultimately on the receiving end is IBM reaping the benefits of those folks who have grown and are able to deliver in ways that they didn’t or couldn’t when they first joined because of what they received in that investment when they got here.
Nigel Prentice: Listen, Brad, this has been a fantastic time spent with you. Thank you so much for spending time with me on the podcast, and I want to thank all of our listeners for coming in as well and sharing on this journey with Mr. Brad Neal. So, thank you so much, my man. A great time spent together, and I can’t wait to continue working with you on these issues.
Brad Neal: Absolutely, thank you. I appreciate having the time. Obviously, anytime we get an opportunity to chat and chop it up, I’m always down for it. So yes, this is a no brainer.