How Black Design Mentors Shaped My Career

A young designer reflects on his career path and the Black men who have inspired and guided him along the way.

By Jesse Zackery

If you traveled back in time and met me as a child, you’d see a little boy who liked drawing and building things. Looking at me as an artistic, creative kid and knowing that I would become an interaction designer, you would think that my path was straightforward and certain.

But if you skipped ahead a bit, meeting me as a teenager, you’d see someone set on a career in marketing or accounting. Useful fields, for sure — but not ones that I had any interest in.

So what happened? Why would a kid who (still) loved drawing and creating work towards a career that didn’t involve these things?

I think the best way to describe this is visually.

Two side-by-side school pictures of a young Black teenager. In the left, he is wearing a white zippered jacket and black t-shirt. In the right, he is wearing a blue and orange striped polo shirt.
Me in middle school (left) and high school (right).

On the left is a picture of me in middle school. This middle school was relatively diverse and I wanted peers to see and accept me as an athlete, like some of the others in the school. On the right, is a picture of me in high school. This high school was not very diverse, and to feel accepted I gravitated toward clothes that were considered preppy.

Across all of my school photos, I can now clearly see what I valued so much in those years: fitting in and surrounding myself with people I had the most in common with.

When the school bell rang and after sports practice ended, fitting in was no longer a priority. On weekends, I would tag along with my mom when she went shopping. I loved looking at all the products on shelves and the clever solutions made to solve everyday problems. In the summer, I would spend the majority of my time at my grandparents’, building things with whatever trash and recyclables were available. I would draw up product ideas, do art projects, and find ways to customize my belongings. This was where I found my passion for creating and designing.

It was during one summer that I saw a commercial that expanded my view of what I could achieve. This ad showed a Black man in a lab and praised him for his ingenuity with peanuts: George Washington Carver. I was so inspired by this. A Black man inventing things that benefited people? That’s what I wanted to be! Watching someone who looked like me performing an activity for just 30 seconds unlocked my imagination of who I felt I could be. It validated who I was, and gave me permission to express that to the world.

My childhood dreams began to fade in high school, when I was asked to start thinking about a career and major. At this point, I was at a loss. I would remember my dream of being an inventor but never knew of any path to it. When it was time to choose classes, I would stick to ones that my friends picked or my mom recommended. I was envious when I overheard peers talking about a fun activity they did in photography class, or when I saw a computer lab full of students working on what looked like graphic design projects. The envy and curiosity weren’t as strong as my inclination to be around people who made me feel like I belonged. None of my friends were taking these classes — I didn’t know any Black people who were.

Then, one weekend my mom and I went to my brother’s college football game. His school was hosting a college fair for engineering majors. While there, I grabbed a pamphlet for industrial design, began reading, and immediately felt like I could make my childhood dream come true, to be an inventor like George Washington Carver.

When in college for Industrial Design, even though I was pursuing my passion, I struggled to find my community. None of my peers looked like me or had similar backgrounds, and this heightened my need for reassurance that I was on a path that was meant for me. Professor after professor, guest lecturer after guest lecturer, I saw no one that made me feel at home.

Later on in college, I took a tour of a kitchen tool company, and to my pleasant surprise, the lead industrial designer was a Black man. Larry was the first Black industrial designer I had ever met in person. I remember feeling quite overwhelmed with excitement and awestruck. He looked up at me with a smile while the host introduced us and let me talk with him for a bit.

Larry became a crucial mentor to me. Through the rest of college and early into my career, I would share my work with him for feedback. He’d model how to talk about the work through sharing his own portfolio and projects with me. He’d give me pointers on how to navigate spaces and share lessons learned in his own experience. He always made time for me. Larry helped me feel confident and optimistic about my future and my place in the design world. To this day, I can’t thank him enough for his support on my journey. Our one-on-one time taught me so much about the craft and what it takes to be successful. I was even fortunate enough to do a summer internship at the same company.

A Black male designer in a hooded sweatshirt sketches on paper while in front of his computer.
A Black male designer in a hooded sweatshirt sketches on paper while in front of his computer.
Me working on sketches.

Finally, if it wasn’t for a Black designer’s guidance, I wouldn’t even be working in the space I am today. Before graduation, a Black UX designer named Isaak who graduated from my college several years earlier reached out to me over LinkedIn. Isaak wanted to see if I would be interested in trying out UX design for the startup he worked at in California. I didn’t know a whole lot about UX design at the time. But because I could identify with him, I felt comfortable leaning into the unknown and giving a contract role a shot. It was so inspiring to witness a Black designer doing such amazing work firsthand. Today, he still serves as a mentor and even a friend.

Fast forward a few more years, and I am now a UX designer working at Google. What made all the difference to get to where I am today? There were people who showed me I could do it. Black men being visible with their unique passions validated and reinforced who I was. I was a shy kid, often reluctant to assert myself and take space. Black men giving back to the community through active mentorship gave me the permission to express my unique passions to the world.

My own story is my biggest motivator and why I’ve dedicated 300+ hours to volunteering with Inneract Project and have worked with 100+ kids over 5 years and counting. In my volunteer work, I’ve seen that young people are often looking for the same validation that I was. And that kids’ environment holds the greatest weight in influencing their path.

One of the most powerful moments for me was when a group of high school seniors I helped mentor all said they wanted to pursue careers that someone in their family or close proximity had. Not that long ago, I had the same idea. This highlighted for me how important it is to get out into the community, and help expand kids’ imaginations of what can be possible for their life.

Jesse Zackery is a UX designer and a long-time volunteer at Inneract Project. To find out more about Inneract Project and how you can get involved, please visit our website or check out our Instagram.

We are an alliance of designers/pratictioners engaged in bringing design to underserved youth and communities across the country and beyond