Illustration by Kyle Webster
Nagela Dales is a purpose-driven entrepreneur, leader and the founder of Silver Lining Consultancy and Agency (SLCo), based in New York. SLCo helps companies brand their ventures, build strategies for their business growth, and learn what it means to dig deep and scale their impact.
To ensure businesses correctly and authentically include consumers of color in their overall narrative, Nagela launched a collaborative community initiative called Idea Trust (IDT), which has just created its first ebook: 5 Steps Towards More Inclusive Research. This book explores how to build a more proactive and honest relationship with BIPOC consumers using bias-aware and bias-free research.
For this article, I talked to Nagela about how she helps reshape organization’s narratives to make them more inclusive, nuanced, and positive; effective team management during COVID-19; her leadership principles and the role humor plays in her approach, and more.
Tell us about your mission to make design and innovation more accessible?
I want the design process to be radically more inclusive. If the end product has to be accessible to more people, the process has to be open and accessible too. This is where the power of co-design makes us better designers. I am a business designer, so I invite consumers into the process of designing business models. This is how I help build businesses that genuinely work for people.
Who gets the title of innovator or designer? This title is defined in a set way that is led by a very privileged voice. This is what I’m here to change. What problems do we deem worth innovating upon? The answers to this question come back to equity and inclusion. There are many problems that affect specific issues, races, and communities but sometimes if there isn’t a mass appeal or a commercial appeal, then it isn’t deemed a problem worth innovating upon. This has to change.
“For so long, we have designed products for a perfect, optimal world that can only be useful in a certain context. We have to get better at designing for this very messy world.”
There are tonnes of people who are deserving of innovation. I know an entrepreneur who has created a beautiful tool to help women take their braids down faster. Black hair is a billion dollar market and taking our weaves out is a problem area. However, in some parts of the design world, she wouldn’t be called an innovator. I find this very problematic.
I also spend my time working on and thinking about consumer empowerment. Innovation shouldn’t be about leaving anyone behind or changing people. History has shown us innovation can create harm in the name of progress and change. We need to rethink not only how we define innovation but the cycle of innovation. Within innovation work — especially work led by the most represented, most empowered, and resourced, there should be a vested interest and excitement in empowering (not just selling) underserved consumers. And a focus on strategies on how to bring them in as stakeholders in an authentic way.
I love Mat Rosa’s framing of accessibility as a physical or mental liminiation. If there’s a mum who has to use a product and she has a toddler on her hip – your product still has to work for her. Design is about creating products for a very messy world. For so long, we have designed products for a perfect, optimal world that can only be useful in a certain context. We have to get better at designing for this very messy world.
What have you struggled with the most during COVID-19? How are you overcoming these challenges?
As a Black woman, I can’t separate COVID-19 from a brutal cycle of police brutality, inequality, and injustice. For me and my team, the hardest part has been learning how to keep going. How do we show up in the world in a present way feeling excited to work when there is so much division, heartache, and disagreement in the world? It’s hard to not feel disillusioned. It’s hard to stay purposeful about our work and stand up and say this matters even when you are facing the hurt of the world. Some days, I give my team permission to stop. I have to. But I can’t do that every single day. I’m learning the nuances of leadership; when to stop and when to push my team. Exploring together what it looks like to stay connected to our projects and our work in a very meaningful way.
I implemented Edward De Bono’s six hats method; this helped me manage where we were from a culture and team morale perspective to what kind of meeting we are having and how we are going to solve it. It has also helped me decolonize what productivity means to me as a business leader. I’m trying to advance my business and I wake up every day and there is trauma waiting for me. I‘m here to say it’s okay to slow down or speed up.
What part of how we “designed” before COVID-19 do you hope will NOT return? What will we take from this experience and use in the future?
There was so much of what we were doing before that wasn’t working for a lot of people. We viewed too many things, including people, as collateral. If someone couldn’t come to the office because they were living with a long-term condition, it was an obstacle they had to overcome.
In my experience and in our interactions, I have noticed the number of people that could be considered expendable has decreased – we’ve been forced to make it work for everyone. By nature we have had to be more inclusive. Is this true inclusion if it only happened because we were all forced into the same context?
We’ve definitely made our work more inclusive at SLCo. People who couldn’t engage with our product, event, conference, meeting – they are now a part of it. I don’t want the cost of this to be what we have all suffered. Millions are still suffering. We have to be willing to pay the cost of inclusion. If that means we are spending more time on researching how to make our meetings work, it’s worth the cost. Before we weren’t willing to pay this cost and now we are. I hope we will stay in this place. Willing and ready to pay the cost. It will only benefit you, me and us. I hope it leads to a more open, more genuinely inclusive workforce.
I want to see businesses continue to pursue and learn what it means to be anti-racist. Before we were content with a statement and now we are saying that is not enough. Now, Black and brown people are keeping businesses accountable. There has been a social shift of accountability that consumers have over businesses and that is awesome to witness. It’s not cancel culture. It’s accountability culture. It’s balancing the power between consumers and businesses. I’m here for it.
What are you hoping could emerge for your design practice during these extraordinary times?
The positive thing about COVID is that it has helped me reach different types of customers and clients. I’m brilliant at innovating in a nurturing and creative environment, and now I’m learning how to make that happen remotely. The process has been amazing. It’s been brilliant to work with Black and brown women virtually and remotely and give them access to our services, workshops, frameworks, and mindsets.
I’m excited about what will come of this work. It has also helped me as a founder and a designer be even more intentional about my process – it covers creation, building my business, and brainstorming. When you are doing everything remotely, you are much more aware of emotional and time bandwidths. Learning how to do this well remotely has forced me to leave even more of the jargon behind. Things that felt inaccessible and lofty before are nowhere to be seen. I’m more forthright and straightforward, and it feels good.
Lastly, demand for our services is skyrocketing. More and more organisations are asking us every day to help them design more inclusively. I’m incredibly passionate about this and genuinely believe we can create a significant impact for the teams and leaders.
How did you get to where you are today?
Someone once asked me who has inspired me. Now, I am incredibly chill and I am not known for having an ego but my answer is that I inspire myself. I am inspired by the person I want to be and the world I want to live in. Having this version of myself in front of me that I’m excited to meet has helped me to stay focused and has held me accountable. I am building this world, not only for other people but for me – as a woman and as a Black woman. There is an onus on Black women to do work for others, when everyone else gets to make money and we don’t, so I’m doing this work with myself in mind.
I want to help founders build incredible businesses. I want to help them innovate, disrupt, and decolonize their success. I want to build a business that is part of making the changes that need to happen in the world. I want to see the people I linked arms with win. Being future-focused in a way that includes myself is very motivating. This is what keeps me climbing. This is what keeps me curious and excited. In my life-time, I can be part of a better world. It’s in my DNA to do for others. I am still the woman I want to help. I am the she’s, the he’s, and the they’s.
What does design mean to you?
Design is the process of adding value to something. It doesn’t matter what that thing is, it’s about adding to it and making it more. This is a simplified definition that I go by because it goes back to the symbiotic relationship of being and doing. Business design is about how we create, instill, give and deliver the most value out of our business model. Designing for equity means how do we give the most value possible to people who have been underrepresented and under-invested in. How can I add to the person I’m designing for? That’s the question to ask.
What are the key tenets of your leadership philosophy?
Humility. I am on a humility kick because when you are on a mission to out-design inequity, there is a love for solutions. And humility reminds me that we’re tackling a very big thing. The Stockdale Paradox, developed by Jim Collins, talks about how change begins when you confront the brutal facts. Every good-to-great company embraced what we came to call the “Stockdale Paradox”: you must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time, have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.
Deep belief in people. I have a deep belief in our ability to change. I’m obsessed with the concepts of change and transformation. Believing the best about people and their potential helps me be a good leader. It keeps me accountable to pushing people, to giving second chances, to equipping them and providing resources. I am as obsessed with your development as I am with my own. This is a hard thing to do – to surround yourself with people you want to be better with you.
Abundance; creativity, solutions, community. I don’t want to build from inside a box. I want to build a community.
Humor. We don’t have to do everything with such gravitas. Humor is empathy in action. I use humor to understand people. I use humor to let people know they are safe with me and I’m ready to listen. I use humor to help you see differently. Some of the most insightful people in the world are comedians. They can dive into a very specific behavior and create a punchline or a joke. Humor connects us with humanity – the weird, wonderful and awful things we do. It helps me turn hard moments into moments of community gathering. Using humor isn’t just a value as a Black person living in a country full of a lot of hard facts. It’s a way to not let the facts overwhelm you.
And how do you honor your leadership principles at SLCo?
Personal leadership is very important to me. I know that how I live, how I organise myself and how I show up might decrease my capacity to be a present leader. Treating myself as more than what I do helps me to treat myself as a well-grounded person who stays curious and humble. These are all the things I think leaders need to ground themselves. Leading myself increases my confidence to lead others. I truly believe that what we do is so impacted by what we are experiencing in the world. How you experience the world is deeply connected to your ability to work.
Humor is a tenant of my leadership. Humor is one of those things that to do it well you have to understand the person who’s on the other side. I try to meet people as more than just their work. When people know you see them more than a commodity, they feel safe and do good work. When you create that safety you can have boundaries, rules, roles and metrics that people feel good about because they are not working from a place of fear or competitiveness. I want my team to work from a place of value add. I will encourage everyone I work with to think about how I can ADD value, rather than how I can PROVE my value.
What do you want to say to designers listening?
Let’s go back to the idea of us being in a process as designers; the process and the journey of design. Let’s stop obsessing about the end result.
Discipline is a discipline.
Practice is a practice.
“You need healthy practices that will help you feel, see, hear and know differently. You need your mind to change regularly and often.”
In times of old, artists, creators, architects had the opportunity to apprentice without feeling the need to generate a name for themselves. They had an opportunity to create and shape their point of view. Design is our discipline and how we express ourselves to the world. We have to be disciplined about the processes we create and how we grow. We are watching everyone’s end results but not paying attention to their discipline.
You need healthy practices that will help you feel, see, hear and know differently. You need your mind to change regularly and often.
We have permission to solve problems as designers. There are so many big issues in the world and we look at them not knowing our place and being overwhelmed. Let’s go back to what we do best – inequality. How do I out-design inequity? Take your frameworks, tools and solutions to big problems. Bring yourself and your work to big solutions. If you are committed to the discipline and practice as a designer, you can and will be part of amazing solutions.
To learn more about Nagela and her work, you can follow her on LinkedIn and check out SLCo’s agency site.