Q. How has your Greek organization helped you navigate your career?
Mike Render II
Damond Nollan ended up becoming an example for me. His character and success really inspired me to want to follow in his footsteps.
Mike is a 35-year-old Graphic Designer at North Carolina Central University. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in Graphic Design in 2004 from North Carolina Central University. He is originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, and currently resides in Durham, North Carolina.
Before we dive into the deeper questions about community and career, we’ll start with some basics. First, tell me a little bit about what you do.
I got my Bachelor of Arts degree in Visual Communications — which is basically graphic design — from North Carolina Central. I currently work at North Carolina Central University as a graphic designer. I used to work under Tobias Rose when he was in IT, and eventually I ended up in his position when he left.
How did you become interested in graphic design?
By my senior year of high school, my best friend and older brothers had already gone off to Kent State. I had passed up a scholarship opportunity to run track. Anyway, my best friend was pursuing a degree in business, because you can make a lot of money. I followed in his footsteps, ended up flunking out, got put on academic probation, so I had to prove myself.
Interestingly, my mom — she was the first female CIO for a IT company in ‘99 — had just gotten a job at Central. So she called me and wanted me to come to North Carolina so she could monitor my progress. I got admitted to Central in 2001, but I still wasn’t sure of my major. My mom told me to try an art degree, because of my drawing skills. I used to draw Ninja Turtles all the time when I was younger. And I don't know if you remember, but on the show Good Times, J.J. painted The Sugar Shack*, and I thought it was kind of cool. That was my introduction to graphic design.
I ended up taking some intro classes in software. I started designing logos and flyers for people, and the campus afforded me the opportunity to really work on my skills.
Nice. Are you currently where you want to be, or do you see yourself somewhere different in the next 5 – 10 years?
I really enjoy Central, especially as an alumni and being able to do what my degree is in. I would like to freelance more, but the business management side of creativity is challenging. I’m a part of a couple of Facebook groups for black designers, which are really helpful, because you can see people doing the same things you’re doing.
I’m in a few design groups myself on Facebook, so we’ll have to share our groups. But part of what I’m doing in these interviews is learning about how our communities help us to navigate our careers. You’ve talked about your mom’s influence — how she wasn’t going to let you fail. Given the question about community and the release of Burning Sands earlier this year, I want to narrow in on the Greek community, and hopefully provide some balance to what we saw in that movie. Just to confirm, you’re a member of Kappa Alpha Psi, correct?
Yes, I joined the Smithfield, North Carolina alumni chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. in Johnson County. November 13, 2010. I wanted to join in undergrad, but it just didn’t work out. To be honest, I didn’t even know about alumni chapters then, but while I was working in web services in 2008, I had met a member of Kappa Alpha Psi. He was actually my supervisor, and he’s the one who told me about alumni chapters. At the time, he was the president of the Smithfield chapter. In fact, he’s the one who led the reinstatement of that chapter. He ended up becoming an example for me. His character and success really inspired me to want to follow in his footsteps.
In addition to your mom, were there other key people, Kappa or otherwise, who have helped you navigate your career as a graphic designer?
My main influencers were my classmates, especially Tobias Rose and a few other peers. We would do this thing where we’d compete in order to improve our skills.
One of our class assignments was to make a futuristic poster. It had to be a certain size. When it was time to present, Tobias was the only one who came in with a poster-sized print. Everybody else had the same size: 72 dpi, 8.5"x11" poster. We didn’t know how he did it. Later we found out that he had trained himself on dpi, and that encouraged us to be more competitive. He had unique skills and was always ahead of the game.
Jesse Mayven was a type whiz, and he did really good illustrations and digital artwork.
It didn’t really matter who was the first or who had been around the longest, but the simplicity of the motto and the networking benefits of membership really appealed to me.
Tell me more about why you chose Kappa Alpha Psi.
For one, it was the example that my supervisor had set. And I had already done my research, too. The Kappa motto was one that resonated the most with me. It was simple and the most authentic, and they weren’t just talking about achievement, and they weren’t trying to be politically correct. It didn’t really matter who was the first or who had been around the longest, but the simplicity of the motto and the networking benefits of membership really appealed to me.
Are there any Kappa programs or initiatives that have been particularly helpful as far as your career in graphic design goes?
To be honest, I was a little underwhelmed by the amount of resources available as far as graphic design goes. There just aren’t a lot of members who are graphic designers. But I did meet a brother from the Charlotte alumni chapter, Martin McNeese, who is a graphic designer and who I can talk with regarding design stuff. He does a lot of design work for Kappa, and he’s got his own company. I don’t remember the name of it.
I feel like I can translate skills that I developed in Kappa to the real world. So it provides that environment for learning and growth.
I think it changed. It used to be The PopShift or something. I’ve spoken with Martin on a few occasions myself. He’s always very open and willing to help. I really like his work. But even if there aren’t any organization-specific resources available in terms of graphic design, what has Kappa taught you about personal and professional growth and success?
Before Kappa, I didn’t have to dress up a lot. Once I became a member, I learned simple things that you’ll need a lot when you go out into the workplace, like how to properly wear a suit. When it’s appropriate, like for presentations. Things like the number of buttons that are appropriate and how to wear pocket squares.
My public speaking improved a lot. The president wanted to create a newsletter for our chapter, so he reached out to me knowing I do graphic design. He wanted me to present my ideas at the council meeting, but I was scared, nervous, plus I’m soft-spoken. But Damon Nollan, my supervisor who introduced me to Kappa, said he was also scared of public speaking, but he was really good at it. He reminded me that I’d just be talking about something I’m already passionate about and already qualified for. That made me more confident, and I ended up doing really well on the presentation.
I’ve also held several Kappa leadership roles — I was vice president, treasurer, and webmaster for a chapter with over 150 brothers. So all that is really helpful when I had to interview for my job at Central. Even working with meeting agendas. I feel like I can translate skills that I developed in Kappa to the real world. So it provides that environment for learning and growth.
I know you mentioned that Damond has been really influential for you. Is there a piece of advice that he, or another brother, has given you that continues to resonate with you?
I think the best piece of advice that sticks with me came from my co-worker, Calvin Reaves. He wasn’t a Kappa when we first met. He had tried to cross in undergrad, but that chapter wasn’t having a line. He ended up joining grad chapter in 2012 under me.
He told me: ‘Always be ready to help somebody,’ because he said I was ready to help him. It doesn’t matter how you came in, it matters what you do after that. We have a duty to help others.
I’m not sure what it was like crossing undergrad, but crossing grad, you have to juggle more adult responsibilities. At the time, I was driving back and forth every day between Durham and Smithfield. I’m working a full-time job with three kids I had to take care of. I was engaged. Your priorities change from when you’re in undergrad. You’re more mature.
Find the nearest person doing what you want to do, observe them, ask questions, stay close to them, otherwise you’ll be in the dark.
What advice would you give to an undergraduate student or a Kappa pursuing their career?
Learn about different industries, connect with brothers of influence. Based on your membership involvement, they can attest to your skills when it comes to job opportunities.
Also, find the nearest person doing what you want to do, observe them, ask questions, stay close to them, otherwise you’ll be in the dark. For me, that was Tobias. Those people have already faced the same problems you’re facing.
This is where Mike turned the tables on me. We took a detour to further discuss the shortcomings of BGLO-based films (like Burning Sands, which further prompted me to interview a few members for this short series), my joining AKA as an undergraduate, and lessons I’ve learned that I still apply to my personal and professional life.
Mike Render: My issue with Burning Sands was that it didn’t show why those guys were willing to go through all of that. Stomp the Yard had a stepping focus. BET Brotherhoods movie and Black Boots on YouTube started to touch on deeper topics about how hazing doesn’t make you a better member, but they didn’t really expand on it.
I agree. I think the challenge is that they want to make money with their movies, so they’re going to tell the parts of the story that sell. Those are the most dramatic parts. People don’t want to watch movies about volunteering in the community, or sisterly relations activities.
MR: True! I would watch them!
Me, too! Unfortunately, we’d only make up a small portion of that viewership, and the producers and directors wouldn’t make much profit.
MR: What was your undergraduate experience like? What did you learn? What kept you going back?
My undergraduate experience was challenging, because I was a double-major at a PWI. In Burning Sands, the guys are crossing at an HBCU, so there are certain understandings that professors and staff seemed to have had about BGLOs that most of my professors would know nothing about.
As the only black woman in my design classes, it was very obvious when I didn’t show up for class. When I was on line, my absence was felt. In fact, one of my studio professors caught up with me while I was walking between classes, and I was trying to dodge her. She’s this really bubbly lady, and I was tired, stressed and not feeling it. So she asks me if everything is ok, where have I been, and am I sure everything is ok. I just smiled and told her everything was fine, and I quickly walked away.
After I crossed, I became pretty active like you. I served in several roles — VP, DP, webmaster, historian, stepmaster.
MR: Are you familiar with the 80/20 rule?
Not exactly. What is it?
MR: It’s when 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people in an organization.
Oh yes! I haven’t heard of that specific phrase before, but I was definitely in the 20%. Now that I’ve matured, though, I realize that isn’t a good or bad thing. It’s really all about learning people’s strengths and weaknesses. That was actually something my LSs helped me to realize.
A line of 24 women is big for a PWI. Like you, I’m also an introvert, soft-spoken, and I’ve always kept a small circle of friends, so having to work with more women whom I couldn’t choose was a challenge. We all were challenged to adjust to one another, and we kept each other in check.
I remember shortly after my line crossed, we had a program. One of my line sisters was given a task, but she dropped the ball on it. When we had our next chapter meeting, she was kind of put on the chopping block. But she made a good point: don’t put people in positions that set them up for failure or embarrassment. Whatever task she was given, it was not her strength.
Even while I was juggling two majors, being vice president and organizing programs, creating steps for a stepshow, bringing in a line, I was very stressed. Plus, there were things that I was dealing with in my personal life that I didn’t share. My grades were going down, too.
Looking back, I realize — I think we all have realized — that everyone has a strength. I may be more hands-on and better at working behind-the-scenes than some of my LSs. But I have several LSs who, they might not show up when and how you want them to, but they can work a crowd like nobody’s business. They can cheerlead and boost morale. They have good ideas, even if other LSs have to implement them. You need that, especially when it comes to things like fundraising. I suck at fundraising and being social. Ultimately, I discovered that sisterhood and teamwork works because of the collective strengths of each member.
In addition to learning about interpersonal interactions, I also got to see the politics of a large organization, from the chapter level to the regional to the corporate.
Those are lessons that I’ll definitely take with me as I build bizqit.
MR: What keeps you coming back?
For one, I made a lifelong commitment, so I don’t have much of a choice!
Even though I’m not currently active due to life circumstances, I always know I have a soror who is available. On my entrepreneurial journey, I know I have LSs who I can count on to support and encourage me. If I ever need to get away, they’ve offered their spaces as an escape. That support isn’t dependent on whether or not I’m active.
Shortly after I graduated, I joined the Sigma Tau Omega Chapter in Cary, North Carolina. I really loved that chapter. It’s easy to get lost in a grad chapter, but it’s also hard to get bored. There’s always a program, or initiative or volunteer activity that you can help with.
I definitely intend to reactivate soon, for professional and personal reasons.
This concluded our dual interview. I thanked Mike for his willingness to share his story.
* The Sugar Shack was originally painted by North Carolina Central University alum Ernie Barnes.
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About this insight*
Our communities are rich with knowledge and insights, but we don’t always know how to leverage them along our journey to success. Even along my own journey, it didn’t occur to me until much later that my family, my peers, and my professors were instrumental in helping me to build the ideal lifestyle that I envision.
To highlight some of the ways in which we can use our communities’ knowledge for our good (and ultimately, theirs, too), I spoke with several students and professionals about the role that people, organizations and experiences within their communities play in helping them to navigate life and career.
* Insights are edited for brevity and clarity.
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