Classic LRC–Application to Firebelly University 2011

Last Day of School

Wow. What a whirlwind!

Nine months ago I started my first day at Firebelly University with what seemed like the beyond crazy dream of starting a design studio that served a higher purpose than just selling products. I wanted to work with organizations I believed in, I wanted to create campaigns that moved people, I wanted to make a positive impact on the world – and I wanted me, & my colleagues, to be paid for their work. A novel idea, I know.

The concept really did seem distant and foggy though that first week. Hell, it was foggy for the first 8 months! However, after lots of workshopping, I have learned that it is possible to run a design studio with a conscious. And not only is it possible, I’ve learned how to do it. Correction, I haven’t learned how to do it, I am doing it.

Firebelly U has given me the opportunity to pitch my business to some of the most successful social entrepreneurs and creatives in the Chicagoland area and beyond. Their advice and anecdotes have been completely invaluable.

SO much so, that last March Made By We started working with their first client – the Ohio Innocence Project out of Cinicinnati OH. We were a perfect partnership because they were doing all sorts of amazing work, but having trouble sharing the impact they were making in their community outside of their organization.

We worked together to create an inforgraphic that was so successful it brought one of the inmates to tears, and a member of the legal team offered me their first born child & swore to tattoo my name across their chest. For the record, much as we like babies and tattoos, Made By We prefers payment in the form of cash or check, thanks!

Since then, we have started working with five other non-profits and social enterprises – and our community of collaborators is ever growing. The ‘We’ of ‘Made By We’ does not only refer to the collaborative approach we take with our clients, but also to the fact that MBW is made up of many collaborators and creatives.

Depending on the style and scale of a project we expand our creative team for a custom fit. Offering pay to in-house designers,  freelancers, young designers & others who may not get the experience to work with the social sector otherwise. We’re growing fast, too, so make sure to let me know if you’d like to collaborate!

In a way, I can’t believe Firebelly U is over. That might have to do with the fact that I’ve still been in the office every day for the last two weeks. It has been a tremendous experience and I will never be able to fully express my gratitude to Dawn & Deborah for taking a chance on me. The wildcard. And to all the people who have been supporting us along the way, I have no idea how I’ll have repay you all for your inspiration, motivation, kind words and generosity. I probably wouldn’t even have a roof over my head, let along be starting a business, without all your help. You know who you are & I love you all!

Enough with the mushy — I am beyond excited that I am now able to focus all my attention on Made By We help it grow into the company I could only dream of nine months ago. Things are kicking off slowing by surely and I can’t wait to see how we grow. If you’re interested in working with us, or collaborating internally, reach out to me here or tweet at us here!

Tomorrow Labs: A Collaboration with Partners In Health

Working with the Partners in Health (PIH) team was incredible – so many bright minds and passionate individuals all in the same room. Our process began where any adventure should – trying to truly understand where they were as an organization at that moment in time. Who were they trying to reach? What obstacles stood in their way? How could they better fulfill their mission? We asked question after question and listened for the entire first day – quite a data load!

Day two brought more insights and personal stories. Cori Shepherd Stern, a film producer and agent for social change, was a vocal member of our team and had some incredible stories to share. She has been documenting PIH’s work in Rwanda and though some of her stories were heartbreaking, all of them were inspirational and filled with hope. We spent a long time understanding how these personal connections and relationships fit into the PIH model, sketching out systems and working to make their process visual. For the second part of the day we broke into smaller teams and did ‘yes,and’ style brainstorms, which introduced lots of new ideas into the group. Needless to say, we ended the day with LOTS of ideas! Mercifully, one concept stood out from the rest, and by nightfall we had agreed on a direction to pursue.

After a good night’s sleep,  we began to poke holes in our “solution” and really find the problem points. Addressing these concerns was painful and exhausting (everyone just wanted the answer to be perfect and move on) but we kept at it and came up with a stronger solution for it. We probably made the most tangible progress this day, which really helped to keep people’s spirits up. As amazing as our time spent brainstorming in the rooms was, I really appreciated the opportunity to check in with some of the other teams at meal times and learn about their days, too. By day three I already felt like I was surrounded by my best friends… I guess working day and night to solve common problems will do that!

We started out day four by completely modifying our solution, as is want to happen in these sorts of brainstorming sessions! Katie, Maggie and I cobbled together a presentation with direction from the PIH team, and managed not to be the last team out of the office, despite the last minute changes in approach. We really considered how our solution would live in the real world – would the rest of the PIH organization support it? Was it a sustainable solution with a chance at longevity? How much would it cost to implement and does PIH have the personnel to maintain it? All these creeping thoughts influenced us to continually modify and tweek our solution, and I think we really could have used another week (or two) to really think through all these issues. As much as we wanted to deliver  an airtight solution in one-week, that was not in the cards.

The last day was presentations and I was so proud of all the teams. Design thinking can be a very uncomfortable experience, and all five organizations clearly participated in this process to the fullest and explored new ideas without hesitation or fear. The ideas generated were inspiring, and most important, implementable.

I am so excited to see each of these organizations continue to tweak and modify the ideas generated at this workshop, and hopefully implement these solutions in the near future. Working with the PIH team was incredible, and I know they will continue transforming the global health landscape for the better way into the future.

Firebelly U: Brand Presentations

The brand tank presentation was a lot of fun. I felt like I had a much better idea of what I wanted to say and that made it a lot easier to present. In fact, maybe too easy, since my entire presentation was basically one run-on sentence. I will definitely remember to take a few deep breaths before (and during) my next presentation.

The most important thing I learned:  Iapparentlytalkwithnopunctuationdoyoufeellikeyouarefallingoffofacliff?

As always, the feedback was really helpful. It was nice to get some branding feedback; despite the fact that we are all designers, the designs of our actual businesses came secondary to our business plans and objectives. But the brand really is an important part of the business and I was happy to hear their feedback. I am excited to see how Made By We grows over time and changes. Based on just the last few weeks I imagine there are still some growing pains to come… but it’s worth it!

Thanks so much to everyone on the brand panel, I had an amazing time!


A visit to Post Family

If there is one thing I have learned at Firebelly U, it is the importance of community. Spending time with Sam Rosen only further exemplifies the benefits of having good people around you. Though he is a serial entrepreneur and always embarking on a new, inspiring project, the consistent element in all his projects is the strong and supportive community he is surrounded by. There is no shortage of interesting things to talk about when it comes to Sam, he is the founder of One Design Company, runs Chicago’s coworking space the COOP, built the coworking management tool Desktime and is a founding member of Post Family, among countless other things. Of all these though, the thing I am most inspired and impressed by is his involvement in Post Family (and so, as the author of this post, I am making the executive decision to talk mostly about that).
Each time I visit the Post Family space, it is arranged differently. Which is really impressive because the tables look quite heavy. But the “family” is always up to something new and the space needs to reflect that. And really, Post Family was established to be a catch all and adaptable creative space, so it fits. Here’s how it came to be: In 2007 Sam, along with Rod Hunting, Chad Kouri, David Sieren, Davey Sommers, Alex Fuller, and Scott Thomas established Post Family so they could work on whatever projects they wanted. Letterpress, screen printing, digital, music, woodcutting, whatever. The goal wasn’t to make money, or to get famous. The goal was to pursue projects and ideas that interested them, and do it with interesting, talented people. Though some of them hardly knew each other when they started the collective, it is obvious they have become as tight-knit a group as their name suggests.
I think the idea of creating a space where anything goes with a group of friends is really attractive to creatives right now. There are coworking spaces popping up everywhere (did I mention Sam runs the COOP?), and creatives are setting out on their own left and right (like the Firebelly U Fellows, for example). The thing that most coworking spaces don’t have though, that Post Family does, is the element of community. Each of the members of Post Family genuinely care for each other and are invested in each other. The phrase “success breeds success” comes to mind when looking at all the things they have accomplished both together and individually.
Everything about Post Family is seeped in community. And for that reason, I not-so-secretly wish they were taking applications for their family (Looking for a little sister, Post Family?!) In all seriousness, though, having a group of friends, family or coworkers that support you makes a huge difference. Whether you establish your own collective, like Sam did, or just have a group of quality friends you can turn to, make sure you nurture those relationships. It’s the people that make this place worth living in.
Okay, so I warned you, this post was really about Post Family. But, Sam does a lot of really amazing things. And you should take it upon yourself to learn more about him & the projects he is working on at his personal websitePost FamilyOne Design Company, and the Coop. Also be sure to check out Desktime and come to their upcoming show, Manual Labor.

Doing Good with IDEO

I had so much fun visiting the IDEO Chicago offices! Lawrence, Annette, Sara and Mary, a HUGE thank you to all of you for spending part of your days with us! Before we sat down to talk shop with everyone, Lawrence gave us a tour of the office. Even the offices at IDEO reek of innovation (in a good way). There were giant chalkboard walls, open meeting spaces, dedicated workshop rooms and even a rooftop deck with a community garden. One of my favorite spaces though, was the prototyping area. Bandsaws, screens for printing, a laser cutter and tons of raw materials for workshopping filled these rooms to the brim. And almost all of it was covered in a thin layer of saw dust. Positively delightful! Access to a space like this would be a dream come true for any maker!

After the tour, the IDEO folks gave us a run down on some of the recent work they have completed and an introduction to their process. While I was a student at Miami, we workshopped with IDEO a few times, so the process was familiar. It was really interesting to hear about how they apply their process to various projects. We’d been chuckling over the site for months in the Firebelly U office, so we were really excited to see it included in their presentation.

What was most fascinating about was, again, their approach. Before the idea of a website or text message notification system or any of the hilarious (yet effective) videos were produced, they conducted interview after interview after interview. (They picked up some great stories along the way, too!) I think what makes work is that it wasn’t a predetermined form they were forcing content into, they intentionally selected the forms they did based on the research they gathered first. This is an approach we often try to use with our clients because, ultimately, it does yield a better product. However, most of our clients come to us with a set idea of an end product – website, business cards, new logo, etc. I guess figuring out how to show the importance of a format-agnostic approach to clients is part of what makes IDEO so successful.

While I am sure we will continue analyzing the IDEO secret sauce for months to come, we truly did have a fantastic time visiting their space and learned a lot. Thank you again to the entire IDEO office! Let me know when I can stop by and live work in the prototyping space!

More posts on the adventures we’ve had at Firebelly U are online here.

"For me, the enemy is structures. It’s systems [of thinking]." -Prexy Nesbitt

Reflection on Shark Tank

“Da-Dum… Da-Dum… Da-Dum Da-Dum Da-Dum!!!”

Just the phrase “shark tank” makes the Jaws theme pop into my head, which is not a comforting sound when you are pitching your business idea for the first time in front of a panel of esteemed judges and critics!

Before the holidays (Happy 2012, by the way!) the Fellows all had a week to prepare a presentation before a panel of unknown critics for a “shark tank” pitch. We had fifteen minutes to make our case and then some time for Q&A afterwards for feedback and comments. It was sort of like the American Idol of the business world and leading up to the event rumors of more than one Simon Cowell were circulating strongly!

However, despite the fear and nerves, and perhaps because of them, the “shark tank” pitch went by quickly (and relatively painlessly) and ended up being really beneficial.

Describing my (somewhat unconventional) collaborative design studio for-benefit business model in a concise and articulate manner was a challenge. I realize now how important it was that we had a concrete deadline for presenting this so early on. Even though I was uncertain of some aspects of my business model, I made decisions and stood by what I presented. No more wishy-washy maybes – this was it folks! It was a relief to have something definitive together, even though it was nowhere near perfect.

My business has evolved since this presentation, and some aspects and elements have changed or been removed completely, but it was helpful to try the different ideas on for size and see how they fit – and to see how people reacted. The “shark tank” panel zeroed in on things I had hardly even considered, or had taken for granted as “givens”. They challenged me to rethink some of my preconceived notions and tendencies. In the end, that is what will make my company stronger in the long run. So, while someone pushing you on something that is incredibly personal and precious to you may be slightly uncomfortable, it is worth it. Hands down.

So next time the “Da-Dum, Da-Dum” starts up again, I will probably be just as nervous, but I know it will be worth it.

A visit from EPIC

Originally posted on the Firebelly U Blog

We had a blast with Chris & Erin of Epic last week! First of all, Deborah made us the most delicious vegan green curry (that was so spicy we all had runny noses by the end of it!) and a sweet sticky rice dessert with grilled pineapple! YUM! Then, just when we thought things couldn’t get any better, Chris & Erin totally blew us away with their presentation on EPIC. They kicked things off with a profound question…


It doesn’t have to, but it does! EPIC wanted to change that by bringing talented designers and creatives together with non-profits at “rallies”. It gives burnt-out creatives an opportunity to work on a project they thoroughly care about, and it gives the non-profit design services that don’t suck. In fact, EPIC has given over $3 million in creative services to non-profits during their existence. Amazing.

We came away from the conversation with some great advice on working with non-profits. I think this is actually excellent advice for working with any client, but especially within the mission-based sector.

  1. Give a damn. Care about the organization you are working with. And don’t fake it, the people involved with the non-profit typically are involved because they are seriously passionate– they can tell if you aren’t being authentic!
  2. Do the research. Don’t make assumptions! Nobody likes to be stereotyped and generalized, so really dig in to the organization and find out who they are.
  3. Live it. The best way to learn what a non-profit does is to do what they do. Volunteer with them, serve with them, fundraise with them– whatever you have to do to better understand what motivates them and why they do what they do!

So with that, I heartily recommend anyone in the Chicago area who hasn’t gotten involved with EPIC before, do so now! Erin & Chris are 100% authentic and passionate about what they are doing– and the opportunity to work on a project you really care about is not worth passing up.

Chicago Urban Farming: Iron Street

This is urban farming at its most awesom-est. Jason Feldman of Iron Street Farm  gave the Firebelly U Fellows a tour of the revitalized manufacturing facility and a summary of how they are seeking to make a positive impact on their community.

The once abandoned industrial building now is home to a variety of fruits and vegetables, composting stacks, hoop houses, honey bees, fish and a few hundred, if not thousands, of soil-improving worms! There are so many positive things about this venture, it just about makes my head spin!

Allow me to point out a few:

  1. The urban location of the farm provides a convenient location for the city to drop off tree-clippings & landscaping waste. The city saves money on gas and lowers their carbon foot-print, while Iron Street gets much needed mulch for composting and growing. Win-win.
  2. Some local restaurants and community members send their food scraps there to keep it out of a landfill and add to the composting pile.
  3. As a part of the south-side Chicago community, Iron Street provides locally-grown, fresh produce and herbs to their community members. The farmer’s market helps keep it going!
  4. Iron Street is involved with several youth organizations, including After School Matters and Heifer Project International, providing educational and exciting outdoor activities for neighborhood students. How else will kids know where their food comes from when they grow up in a concrete jungle?

It all comes back to their mission to not only grow food, but grow people. It is obvious how much the people who work and volunteer there truly care about the health of their community. It is people like them that are truly changing our world for the better. It was a joy to walk around the farm, and I cannot wait to see how it expands over time. If you are ever presented with the opportunity to head out there, do yourself a favor and go.