Hajj Flemings on Design, Civic Innovation & Crushing the Digital Divide
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Hajj Flemings is the founder of Brand Camp University and Rebrand Detroit. In 2011, he was one of eight entrepreneurs selected for the CNN’s Black in America 4: The New Promised Land Silicon Valley documentary with Soledad O’brien. I was thrilled to chat with Hajj recently about design, social impact and civic innovation.
What kind of projects are you working on right now?
Branding of people and cities and closing the digital divide for small businesses. Ultimately our work centers around helping entrepreneurs eat. Pure entrepreneurs have to kill their prey every day, and so understanding the fundamentals [of] communicating a compelling story to [the] target customer is important. Rebrand Cities is a global civic design partnership with WordPress.com. Our audacious goal is to get 10,000 businesses online. Rebrand Cities is a game-changing project because it is connecting WordPress, which powers 30% of the Internet, to the local businesses to tell their story. We are helping real businesses in local cities and neighborhoods to become more successful/sustainable by creating a digital presence that drives commerce.
Can design change the world?
No. People change the world, not design. Good design in many cases can be harder to discover than bad design because it is invisible to the process—we just know that it works. The reason that I say no is because I believe that people change the world. There are a ton of examples where really smart people create solutions for other experts and forget they should be focused on helping people by meeting a human need in the simplest way possible. To maximize impact, this has to be a priority and should be obviously. However, this isn’t reality. Our on-boarding process for Rebrand Cities has evolved since its inception, and I will give you an example [of] how [a] human-centered focus and understanding your customer can change the world. Our initial process would take weeks [to] help a business owner understand their process, get them to create their content and get the first version of their website online. We now get to version 1.0 in a matter of hours by creating organized chaos and making the development process an interactive, immersive experience.
I’m talking with passionate small business owners in Chicago for @rebrandcities We are closing the digital divide.
We share a love for making design and technology more accessible—can you tell us a bit about that passion of yours?
Numbers always tell a story. There are two data points that helped me to realize that the wealth gap between which we know will continue to expand between the 1% and the rest of the U.S. Forty-six percent of businesses don’t have a website. 91% of people have an online experience before they make a purchase. This communicates how important the technology gap will be to the economics of small business. We also believe good design is good for business and that design is a business tool. When we started working with small businesses in the Grandmont Rosedale neighborhood on the west side of Detroit in 2015 it became abundantly clear that small and medium-size businesses were not the same, and that having an inclusive mindset would serve us well. Thinking about the fringes is good business for all businesses. We discovered unique needs such as website accessibility for people who are color blind, and digital literacy for a more seasoned business owner that needed assistance in navigating this foreign digital space. These scenarios and numerous others fuel our passion to crush the digital divide.
Brand Camp University is “an educational platform that is preparing people for the future of work.” What are the top three skills people need to be ready for the future of work?
The future of work is not linear, and we are challenging the five generations of people that are in the workplace that they need to prepare for jobs that don’t exist and build a skill and mindset that is portable [and] that leverages technology. We are focused on helping people connect with opportunities in a global economy that allow people to bring their whole self to work.
Three Skills of the Future
- Be a Doer: Getting people comfortable with being uncomfortable is a hard thing. People are obsessed with perfection and are petrified to start because everybody has a platform and can share their opinion.
- Be a Storyteller: Everybody is a storytelling whether you are an introvert or you are an extrovert. I am convinced that storytelling is a learned behavior. The future favors those who embrace this [and] put themselves in a vulnerable position.
- Own Your Mountain: There are a lot of things that you can do in life, but owning something and sticking to it is important. Most of us have shiny-ball-in-the-room mentality and jump from thing to thing because it is popular. So I recommend people think about their signature skills and identify how they are valued in the real world and see if you can get people to adopt, download or buy the widget you have created.
As a human brand designer, you’ve done incredible work in the city of Detroit using branding and digital campaigns to change the narrative of underserved neighborhoods. What’s been the biggest challenge through this endeavor?
One of the biggest challenges is that the people with the resources and ability to work in disconnected communities are the furthest from understanding the problems they have the resources to address. They don’t understand the day-to-day life issues of the people that they serve, so they bring a worldview that is not grounded in reality and try to force their ideas on a very hardworking community without concern or seeing the value that they bring to the table. So the process is typically viewed as a one-way exchange where the community that is being served should be grateful that we are even working with you instead of looking at it as a mutually beneficial knowledge/experience exchange. One of our goals is to create a two-way learning model that creates an environment that values the experience and worldview of both communities.
What makes a good brand (or a brand good)?
A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another. This drives the economies of your personal and/or business brand. Good brands deliver on their brand promise authentically and create experiences that people value, share and want to spend their money on and give their attention too.
It’s amazing the reach you have through your speaking engagements and events. You speak on a wide range of topics, but one of those is the “reputation economy.” Can you talk a bit about that?
I have been fortunate to speak at some of the top institutions of higher learning like Harvard University and some of the top brands like Disney, which has taught me a great deal about the value of a brand and that it is much deeper than colors and logos. In today’s economy we are battling for attention, and getting attention without having strong character is the quickest way to lose everything you have worked [for] your entire life. We focus on how strong character/integrity translated into new business, increased opportunities, brand awareness and trust with people that you have never met.
From your perspective, what is the value of a multidisciplinary approach to problem solving as opposed to focusing on a single area of expertise?
We don’t know what we don’t know, but what we do know is that diverse businesses have stronger bottom lines. A recent McKinsey study shows, “Companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.” (Source Fortune). Diversity isn’t constrained to race, so having a multidisciplinary approach brings difference perspectives and solutions to the table. Women see the world different than men. Financial leaders at the table force the business owners to evaluate business models to make sure the business is viable. We try to bring as many different perspectives to the table without slowing down the process because at the end of the day we want people to execute, deliver—ship.
What’s next for Hajj Flemings?
I was recently listening to a podcast by Seth Godin on Status Roles, and he posed this question: “Who eats first?” This might seem like a harmless question with no real significance or depth to it, but it really has a lot of meaning, and it gets to the heart of what is next for me. This question takes me back to the Fall of 2011 when I was one of eight entrepreneurs selected to be in CNN’s Black in American 4: The New Promised Land Silicon Valley hosted by Soledad O’Brien. This is where I was first exposed to the term meritocracy. The next big thing for me is deeper development of Rebrand Cities and Brand Camp University to make cities places for all people. We are in discussion with our first international city for the Rebrand Cities project, which is helping our team realize that the digital divide isn’t a U.S. thing, but it is a global issue and is valued by cities and municipal partners. We will continue working with WordPress.com and other global partners to make the web easier to be used by all people.
Editor’s Note: Flemings landed a spot on the HOW 100: A listing of 100 of the most talented and influential creatives working today. The complete list will be published soon—stay tuned!
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