“No matter how great your product/service idea might be, you can’t do it alone.”
Kylan Kester describes himself as a passionate and resourceful designer and community builder. But, don’t get him wrong. This Atlanta-based professional is a multifaceted person. He’s one of those people that can have a conversation in a cafe across a diverse network of professionals across business, technology, fashion, and music. He even finds time to practice his Mandarin Chinese calligraphy.
In Summer 2018, Kylan joined European Innovation Academy in Turin, Italy. As an innovation enthusiast and a social entrepreneur, he wanted to take part in the Academy to learn helpful tools and methodologies that he could employ in his career in consulting and entrepreneurship.
In this interview, Kylan Kester told us what’s been going on since the end of the program. Check it out!
1. Why did you join EIA and what did you expect to get out of it?
I joined the European Innovation Academy after receiving an invitation to attend by my professor at the Morehouse College Entrepreneurship Center. At the time, I thrived in my Entrepreneurship class and worked closely with the Entrepreneurship Center on a first iteration of a business model for a marketing technology company that I founded back in 2017.
“I was excited to take part in this program because I am passionate about innovation and leading the work that disrupts broken systems and that uncovers new possibilities with approaches from diverse individuals that help reframe these problems and discover real solutions to some of our most pressing business and social problems.”
After reading more about EIA online, I took on the pre-work assignments and looked forward to mentorship and guidance from experts at companies such as Google, Ferrari, and Amazon who also provided a perspective on the process of designing and developing innovative products that make a difference in the world. Taking part in EIA in Turin, Italy was a great way to soak in the Made in Italy fashion, the classic culture, and Italy’s own inspiring culture of innovation and entrepreneurship.
2. What were the most valuable takeaways and learnings from the 3 weeks?
Three of the most valuable takeaways and learnings that I had along my journey with this during my time at EIA include:
1. No matter how great your product/service idea might be, you can’t do it alone-and your company’s culture should reflect that!
Building a team and a culture of high collaboration at the onset of joining Innovation Academy was perhaps one of my favorite challenges. Set with the task of building a multidisciplinary team that consisted of different backgrounds in business, marketing, design, and technology – my eyes were opened to the real challenges that founders face when attempting to find the right team.
As a result of my own perspective as an underrepresented founder in technology, I didn’t just stop recruiting at a multidisciplinary team; I prioritized inclusion and diversity on my team and led collaboration with two of the best women and two of the best men to join my team.. During EIA, we worked hard and smart every day–and we made incredible progress towards the design of a concept for the EIA Startup Idea Gallery that our founding team was ultimately proud of: Sova, a learning management software that helped professors automate project management and course feedback with an AI-powered digital assistant.
2. Entrepreneurship is equal parts mindset and skillset!
I have to say, my perspective was skewed before coming to EIA in that, previously along my own journey of entrepreneurship in Atlanta–I had always focused on raising capital and debt equity was the end of my tunnel. I thought if I had a business valued at something million dollars and enough hype in the news that talked about how great my product/service was, that these would be the indicators that I had a successful business and that I too, could be considered a great American entrepreneur.
My perspective changed during my time at EIA, as I spent free time networking with peers in the program to understand their approaches to solving the problems they were focused on. I also spent time reading Running Lean by Ash Mayura and Change by Design by Tim Brown, two books that dramatically transformed my experience. Through this literature, I discovered frameworks for entrepreneurial skills and other skills to succeed such as setting a vision, identifying the right team, designing for a profitable and scalable business model, and identifying the right product/market fit.
This experience was key in shaping my priority of designing the product for the right market and ensuring that the product that we designed actually solved the problem. It wasn’t until we approached this design-led integrated approach, which focused on feasibility, viability, and desirability, that my team began to see just how excited people were about the product throughout our tenure in EIA, and this was where our real customers and traction came.
3. Building great products/services takes the right time and the right resources.
From our work in Google design sprints to intellectual property coaching sessions with Innovation Academy’s IP law rockstar On Lu; we learned that designing, developing, and protecting a great product requires an intensive set of resources including time, which seemed to only get shorter as we achieved key milestones and made breakthroughs with the prototype for our product. Taking part in EIA helped me further contextualize the cost of operating a business and the importance of strategic planning to recover them. This experience also taught us how to be creative with tools that helped us communicate our vision to people who could help us toward the next step.
Admittedly, at moments the pressures of limited time created what I labelled “founder’s frustration”–I wanted my team and the work we were doing to get noticed and for it to mean something great. After countless brainstorming sessions, several Moleskine journals, hundreds of recycled sticky notes, and very necessary Aperitivo breaks; we managed to make the best out of the time that we had.
3. What happened after EIA? Which job or career path did you pursue?
After EIA, I returned to finish my degree at Morehouse College and took on a new role at Apple where I was able to use the entrepreneurial toolkit and methodologies I learned in EIA to support the company’s Global Retail Sales organization as a part-time Business Expert to conduct briefings that helped connect people, products, and processes at small and medium businesses who use Apple at Work.
In May 2019, I graduated from Morehouse where my commencement speaker, technology investor and entrepreneur Robert F. Smith, broke the internet by pledging to pay off the student debt of my entire class. This incredible gesture fueled my desire to pursue a career that helped build future generations of entrepreneurs in my own community. Through the skills and frameworks I was exposed to at EIA and Apple, I became unintentionally prepared for my current role as an Innovation Designer at Accenture’s Atlanta Innovation Hub, where I work with Atlanta’s brightest minds and Accenture clients to co-create the future, using design thinking methods to help our clients define and align their strategic or financial goals with the right ideas, people, or technology that achieve them.
My work has also culminated in an additional opportunity to lead in my community as the Community Coordinator of Startup Atlanta, a non-profit focused on helping local startup founders, funders, and community builders with navigating, connecting, and promoting Atlanta’s burgeoning startup community. In this role, I lead the design of Atlanta’s Startup Ecosystem Guide and will head up programming for the third annual Atlanta Startup Awards and the 2020 TechStars Atlanta Startup Week.
4. How has your experience at EIA helped you in your career and life afterward?
EIA was like an entrepreneurial playground where I really got to gain important knowledge about entrepreneurship in an environment that encouraged us to build 10x ideas without the fear of failure. My experience at EIA empowered me with a network, skillset, and the creative confidence that I have found that I needed as an Innovation Designer. In my life outside of work, this experience has allowed me to feel empathy for entrepreneurs, which drives my passion to do the work that I am most passionate about, connecting disconnected communities to the reward of entrepreneurial careers. Lastly, this experience played a great deal in shaping my own entrepreneurial journey, helping me understand how to approach the next company that I start, and where I can go for a network of resources and support when I am ready.
5. Any advice or comments for people who are thinking about applying? Why should they not miss out on this opportunity?
EIA is an incredible experience that I would encourage almost anyone who might be interested in entrepreneurship to take part in. Even if you don’t think you’re innovative enough to come up with a groundbreaking idea yourself, you’d be surprised what type of solutions you might come up with the right team, and EIA is a great place to get it all started.
Feeling inspired by Kylan Kester? Click here to find out more amazing stories from EIA participants.
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