Shar Biggers is an art director, senior designer, brand consultant, and the founder of Harlem-based digital agency Provoke.
I first heard of about Shar Biggers from one of our past guests, Ida Woldemichael, and from just the first few minutes of our conversation I knew that this was going to be a great interview. Like Ida, Shar worked on the Hillary for America campaign, and helped to shape the messaging and visual style of the candidate during her most recent run for public office.
While we did touch on Shar's political design work and spent some time talking about campaign life, we mostly talked about her backstory and her newest venture — a brand consultancy and design firm called Provoke. Shar's knowledge of psychology and business also feeds into another one of her businesses — a line of premium designed phone cases called Aitarah. According to Shar, there's no reason to have design without strategy, and that's something she's definitely applied to her life and her career. Thank you Shar for being an inspiration!
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Maurice: All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.
Shar: So my name is Shar Biggers, and I am a founder of a start up called Atara. It's a fashion, phone case brand and it is my second fashion phone case brand and I'm the midst of seeking investment on that. I am also a senior designer and art director in my full time job at this moment, or I'd say part time job, along with Atara, is a brand consultant. And I do that for start up brands and medium size brands and solopreneurs.
Maurice: Let's talk about Atara. I'm really curious about the phone cases, because I have kind of a ... I don't want to say off brand phone, it's starting to become more popular. It's an Android, OnePlus 6 and every time I see all these great, fancy phone cases, it's only always for iPhone and I think it just recently has started to branch into Samsung Galaxy, whatever, whatever. Why did you decide to go into phone cases?
Shar: That's a really interesting question. Actually, in college, actually while I was at the Portfolio Center in Atlanta for design school, I ran out of money to pay for my last year of college there and you know, it's a private institution, so I only had a certain amount of funds for it and I had left advertising in order to go to design school and I had a pretty nice salary. So I had a sports car and I had a loft, and then here I was going back to school and it was like I was starting from scratch.
Shar: So I ran out of money after my first year, and then second year, it was time to pay tuition and it was over Christmas break and it was due in less than a week, and so I just needed a quick idea to make some money really quickly. And I'm a woman of faith, so to be honest with you, I can't really take the credit for this, because I just said, God, I need an idea immediately. Give me a dream, give me something, and I went to sleep, I dreamed of accessories flying in the air and I had opened an Etsy shop a few months before that, but I didn't do anything with it. It was just there.
Shar: And so I dreamed of all these accessories flying the air with coasters. It was all kind of random accessories and I woke up and I just knew that I needed to pursue the Etsy shop and sell accessories and put my designs on them. So I quickly got in touch with a manufacturer in China to see if they would be willing to work with me and they were and I just started putting designs together. I mocked up some photos of the designs in Photoshop and made it look like a photo shoot, but it wasn't. And actually Beyonce came out with her album, I think it was called, Beyonce, in 2013, going on to 14, because that was December. And I ended up putting a bunch of her quotes and stuff on the back of some phone cases, because I was a big fan of hers and then I put it on Tumblr. I had no following at all on Tumblr. I was on there for inspiration to look at design inspiration.
Shar: I put the photos up and they went viral and my shop blew up overnight. So it was on Etsy, it was like celebrities and all sorts of people buying from me and posting the pictures of it. So it was really cool. And to be honest with you, I had all my bills paid in a week. And then I think I had, I can't remember exactly the exact amount of money by week two, but it was some thousands of dollars and I was like, okay. I'm sitting on something here. So I started putting out a bunch of other types of phone case accessories and I just took it from there. And I saw how much of a need there was in the area, especially at that time. There were not a ton of really nicely designed phone cases.
Shar: So I was able to put my new aesthetic, which is a little bit more high brow. I was able to apply that to phone cases, which is a very rare. Because if you've seen phone cases, honestly, they're usually cheesy, teeny bopper or plastic, kind of like junk. So, yeah. That's actually how I got into the area and I came up with another solid idea for it, so I'm taking it up a notch this second time.
Maurice: Wow. That really sounds like an overnight success story. I had no idea people were that fanatic about phone cases. But then I guess when you put Beyonce with it, that's amazing though. That's really something. How is the business going so far?
Shar: So now it's going pretty well. I haven't launched yet. I'm now in the investment phase. I'm trying to get somebody to back me because this time around, I'm not doing graphics on a case, I'm actually doing materials, embroidery. I'm really, really taking it up a notch, or more like a few notches. I'm taking up for these phone cases and I'm trying to do something nobody has ever seen before on phone cases. So this is so new, that I'm having a hard time finding a manufacturer that can produce it.
Shar: So, I might have to go to China soon to sort of see if there's somebody ... They have a trade show coming up where you get basically all the phone case manufacturers in one place and that's really important because they all are located near Hong Kong, so it's really important to be able to have access and get over to them and be able to have a conversation as to whether they can produce this or not. Otherwise, I'm going to have to find ... I'm pretty sure somebody will be able to do it, but that's what's holding me back right now is the prototyping and also that I need the investment.
Shar: Because in order to get ... I know it might not seem like it, but in order to get any type of fashion line, even if it's accessories off the ground, it takes a lot of money. So, that's sort of where I'm at right now with getting that done and the goal is to launch by January. If I'm lucky, December.
Maurice: Nice. Well, I mean hopefully from people that are listening, if they want to find out more about it, we'll talk at the end of the interview about links so people can check it out or if they want to get in touch with you to support or anything like that.
Shar: Yeah. That would be great.
Maurice: Yeah. So before all of this ... And I also want to talk about kind of what we mentioned a little bit before we started recording, which is your agency Provoke. Before this, you worked at Amazon as a senior designer. Can you tell me a little bit about the work that you did there?
Shar: Yeah. That was awesome and I actually encourage any designer listening to check them out. I don't know about other people, but I was hesitant to go to Amazon and they recruited me for I don't know, three years maybe to come on board and I just kept saying, "No. No. I don't like your design." And I remember when I finally gave it a shot after I left the Hillary campaign, because I really love fashion, and I was in touch with one of my connections that's there that kind of runs their internal creative agency at Amazon. And I was saying, "I kind of want to get into fashion, so I'm not sure if Amazon's going to be a great place for me right now." And he said, "I think I can get you in at either Shopbop or I can get you in at Amazon Fashion." And I said, "All right. Well, you know, let's see what you're talking about and then I'll think about it." And so, he got in touch with Amazon Fashion and they set up a little coffee shop interview with me and it went really well, so I decided to give it a shot.
Shar: And I think it was one of the best decisions I could ever make, because even though I wouldn't necessarily say that Amazon is known for amazing branding, well, in the visual aesthetic sense, I would say they are not necessarily known for that. But, the business skill set that you learn there is absolutely, absolutely like no other company. The amount of innovative ness that they have and the amount of ownership you have as a designer to lead the projects and come up with the concepts are I think unmatched, from what I have seen from other companies.
Shar: So, I think it was a great opportunity and I got a chance to work on the Amazon Fashion branding and visual identity. I got a chance to work on Prime Wardrobe Subscription Service, which is a, I don't know exactly how much, because I think the numbers haven't come out on the revenue for its first year. It dropped in 2017, or ... I think it dropped officially in 2018, like last summer. Like almost a year ago, it dropped. So the official numbers haven't come out yet. But it's a subscription service where you get to try before you buy and get clothes to your doorstep for free for Amazon Prime members. And you try on the clothes and then the ones that you don't want to keep, you put them in the box. So it's sort of like a risk free subscription service. And you either leave it on your doorstep or take it to your local shipping and have it shipped back for free. All of it is for free. Except for the stuff that you keep.
Shar: So doing the branding behind that, I did with another designer. We were the ones who really kind of got a chance to work on it. That was a really awesome opportunity, because that is a huge program for Amazon and so seeing how the logistics behind that works was awesome in the sense that it sort of teaches you how to run something on your own, because you're not strictly doing production. You're in all the meetings and everybody has the right to give an opinion behind how something is produced.
Shar: I think as a designer, that's a game changer in many ways because many times I think on the client's side, we can be looked at as production only. And don't get me wrong, Amazon sometimes has [inaudible] struggle with that a little bit as well. But I think overall, the type of leadership you get to take in a role, it expands beyond your day to day job responsibilities so to say.
Maurice: Yeah. It sounds really surprising. I didn't know that there was such a rich kind of design culture at Amazon like that. I mean from my end, as a user, that's really all i think about is fulfillment and how they ship or how they have inventory and things like that. What's something else about working at Amazon that you think people would be surprised to know?
Shar: Hmm. I think they would be surprised to know that our teams were ... They have small teams, so we're really, I don't want to say isolated, but there is not a ton of transparency into what everybody's doing. So, I don't have any idea what Amazon Prime team is doing. I have no idea what Alexa team is doing. I'm on Amazon Fashion and to be honest, within Amazon Fashion, I did not know exactly what teams were doing in Amazon Fashion. You really, really work with just what you have in front of you. And the people that work with you on that project.
Shar: And so, they call those ... I'm pretty sure they still call it this, but it's called two pizza teams. Meaning that every team should be able to feed their team with two boxes of pizzas. And they keep it that way so that you can become an extreme expert and specialist and just kill it with what you have in front of you on your plate, on your team. And it actually ... I know that might sound weird, but it works really well and keeps them ahead of the curve in just about every segment. So, think about it. You know, taking over Whole Foods and just about, I sometimes feel like every other industry that they are going after. It's because of these two pizza teams that they create. And I think that was a really strong decision and the reason behind that is so that you can always ... Our teams can always feel like they're in start up mode.
Shar: What the drawback is, that there aren't a lot of people on the team, so that means that you're wearing many hats. That means that you can't say that's not my job. You know what I mean? You get a chance to touch so many different things and have an opinion across so many different things to make sure something gets produced really, really well. And we don't pay attention as hard to what our competitors are doing. We basically get together and brainstorm the heck out of something until we can make it ... Until it's something that we haven't seen before. Or until it's something that we can really dominate in it and it's not even necessarily trying to dominate, but we're constantly ... We call it being customer obsessed.
Shar: So we create something, we test it, we create something, we test it. Okay, we see that they're not responding to this, test it again. And designers work on that with the visual aspect. And until we have something where the customers absolutely love it to death, we're not putting it out. So, I think that's pretty ... I thought that was surprising because I really did not know that's how it worked, but in the end, it ended up being a really awesome take away for me to see and be a part of.
Maurice: Nice. Now I learned about you from Ida Woldemichael, who we had on the show last year. And you both worked on the Hillary for America campaign, so I'm curious to know, how did you first get involved with working with the campaign?
Shar: Oh that's funny. I wasn't looking for it, so I was working for myself and I had my own studio. It was still Provoke back then. And it was just me at the time and I was working with different clients. I think my last client before that was Sephora and I had just finished up with that and I was getting ready to move on to a beauty client. And right around that time, I got a call from the design director from the Hillary campaign and she asked me, "Hey, you know, this is the Hillary campaign, we love your portfolio and we heard about you from" ... They said somebody they heard about me from and they were just like, "We want to see if you're interesting in coming on board." And I was just like, "Hmm. I'm not sure."
Shar: Because the honest truth is, I wasn't sold on Hillary at that time. And I can remember I called my mom and I was like, "Mom. What do you think about this?" It wasn't that she had done anything wrong, it was that I genuinely did not know much about her and I wanted to be sure that I supported everything that she was about. So I called my mom and my mom just basically told me, hey, you know. She basically explained how Bill Clinton, when Bill Clinton was President, it helped her tremendously and how it was when he was the President, that she was able to afford to buy a house and how her pay increased on her job and she knew if she was able to link how it was directly tied to some of his policies and things. And so I was like "Okay. What about Hillary?" She was like, "Well, she's all about making sure women get paid equally." And that's what I wanted. "And I think that you should really consider it because she's really broken down many doors for women and she doesn't get the credit she deserves."
Shar: So I was just like, "All right. I'm going to think about this." And if my mother's opinion is really big to me, so if she's saying go for it because she wants equal pay, I'm probably going to say yes. So, I remember I went in for an interview and then when I met the team, I was just like oh my God. I love all of you guys and I've never been able to design for such a good cause. And I'm a very conceptual person that doesn't just believe in designing without a reason behind it.
Shar: And so I finally had something that was extremely important. Meant a lot, and then when I started to pay a bit more attention to the things that were going on around, politically, it was sort of a no brainer. So, I sat down shop and went ahead and joined them full time, which meant that you don't get any days off. You work Monday through Sunday and you just sort of go hard all day long, but I don't regret any bit of it. It was like one of the best times of my life.
Maurice: Nice. I really like how ... I was talking to different people who've worked on the campaign. I've spoke with Marcum, I've spoke with Ida and of course, speaking with you now and there's always just like this warm effusive praise about how well designed ... I really ... I guess, how well the campaign went in general. So it's really good to hear that.
Maurice: Now that you've had some time away from it, what did you learn from the campaign? What did it teach you being in that experience?
Shar: I believe that I learned that I wanted to ... One that life is too short for me to just work jobs that I'm not extremely passionate about. And, now, I won't just go and work anywhere because they pay me well, or I won't just take on a project just because it's a project. I want to be able to add something and I want to work with companies and brands and people, projects, concepts that mean something to the world and they're adding something.
Shar: I just pay a lot more attention to what I do and what I contribute my time to. I think also Hillary taught me a lot about myself. I began to study her and the walls she's broken down, the barriers she's broken down for women. And I tell people all the time, you know, the media's done a good job of making her look like the bad guy, but if you just take the time to research her history and look at the things she was the first to do something, just that alone will change your mind. Because I need a legal pad to write down all of her firsts. She's done so many firsts as a woman that people do not have any idea about, their minds will be blown.
Shar: And I think that inspired me to want to strike out on my own. I've always wanted to strike out on my own, but it really put a fire under my butt to go after what I really wanted. I felt like I could really do it once I saw here. And humanly saw her. Not from afar. She came in, we got to meet her. She interviewed many of the positions herself. She gets stuff done. I have never seen that before. And a person that walked the walk. It made me say, I want to be that transparent. It made me say, I want to be that honest, even though I know a lot of people might not feel the same way. I saw an honest individual and it inspired me to want to do great things in that way.
Maurice: Now the campaign's, over and of course as you said, it's empowered you to want to sort of give back and work with other businesses and things, which is why, I'm assuming, you started Provoke. But talk to me more about what Provoke is, about the work that you do. Just tell our audience about that.
Shar: Okay. Provoke is a brand consultancy, but it's also a design firm so to say, but I think the difference between this and what many other designers so, is that I believe in providing brand strategy first, before jumping into design, because I don't believe there's a reason to have design if there isn't a strategy. And I think sometimes as designers, we think that strategy is just solving a problem visually. But, the problem needs to have purpose and it doesn't matter how great the design is, if isn't' conceptual, it doesn't mean anything.
Shar: So, I offer brand strategy first to basically dissect the brand, the company, the start up or even if it's somebody's personal brand. To dissect that. Literally down to the t to position in, to get their [inaudible] meaning getting their brand positioning together. Figuring out who their target audience and magni sure they have the correct target audience. You'd be surprised how many start ups and even medium sized companies don't have that right.
Shar: So we break all of that stuff down before moving into design. And design, even thought we all want to get to it, that might not be what they need. I might find another problem that needs to be solved before they can even touch design, or we can even think about design. Or their product might not be right. So, we have to get all that stuff down first, otherwise we'll be creating a design that maybe isn't honest. Isn't transparent. Isn't authentic.
Shar: Doesn't separate them. Like let's say they sell commodities, some sort of commodity product. Well, if I Just give them a pretty design, am I really separating them from the competition? So, I believe that especially for boring companies, B to B's, you know. They're not the most exciting. Finding a way to separate them, finding a story that's really true. You know, because I think coming off of ... If you think about prior to social media in the internet age, brands could tell us whatever they wanted and it did not have to be true. It could be like, "This is a nutritious meal. Look the box says this is nutritious." And then come to find out, when social media comes, you get exposed by the customers who say, " No. What they're telling us is not true." And now we have to hold them accountable.
Shar: Gen Z, who's coming after Millennials now, they do not purchase ... They are not loyal to brands I should say. Not that they don't purchase, but they're not loyal to brands that do not share values with them. Common values that are authentic with them. They won't become loyal to them. So it's even more important now to make sure that as designers, we walk hand in hand with companies first. Understand what their offerings are, try to help them find their story. Because to be honest with you, most companies really don't know how to do it, unless they are in a position financially where they can get some help in that area. And to be honest, a lot of companies, they're not aware or privy to the need and how-
Shar: They're not aware or privy to the need, and how serious this is going to be for them down the line. I think, especially for minority businesses, we cut ourselves out of market share when we don't take our branding and our storytelling seriously. Yeah. That's sort of, I guess, the long form explanation of what I'm doing with Provoke. I'm really excited about the offerings.
Maurice: I want to dig in a little bit more with what you said there, just at the end about minority businesses, because it's something that, I mean, I'm passionate about. Before I started with the work that I'm doing now, I had my own studio for nine years called Lunch. I know exactly what you mean about making sure that strategy is a part of design. I'll tell you, for me, my business didn't level up until I took that seriously, until I made sure that that was something that I was offering to clients, I would say by default.
Maurice: What I think I was doing before, is I certainly was doing the design aspect, you know? I was a good pair of hands. I was a mechanic, essentially. I could come in, I could do your logo, I could design your WordPress theme, et cetera, et cetera, but not really seeing how that solved what your goal is. Sometimes, I would find clients didn't even want that, and so maybe part of that is just how you qualify what are the right types of clients for you to work with? Not every client is going to want to do a strategy session or branding session before they get into whatever the final deliverable is. They just want what they want.
Maurice: They may not have put the thought into it, you know, for whatever reason. Some people just need that, and I think that's fine, but that doesn't mean that you as a designer necessarily have to serve that, if that's not what it is that you want to offer.
Shar: Agreed. You don't, and to be honest with you, I'm not as pro-designing a brand without strategy first, or I will tell them ahead of time, "Listen." I know that maybe, you know, some people might think that this is about money, but it's really not. I really am passionate about any brand that I work with, I'm taking it on because I believe in it. If I don't believe in it, I can't work on it, because then everything that I'm preaching cannot be true, you know, from transparency to authenticity. You know, it can't be true.
Shar: If I believe in the product, then I'm going to tell you, "Hey, you're going to sell yourself short here if you come out and just put out something pretty, you know? When I click on your website, I don't know what separates you from every other competitor immediately. You know, you need to immediately be able to speak to me, and you have a very short span of time to do it. If you, you know, want this, then sure, you know, maybe I'll go ahead and do it, but I have to be honest and upfront with the risks that you're going to take with skipping out on this process."
Shar: To be honest with you, if you have the right conversation, and it's not even more so about telling them so much as it's about guiding them, and just saying, "Hey," you know, asking them questions. It's really like therapy, you know? It's like asking them, "Hey, what are your business goals?" You know, and they tell me their business goals, and then you say, "So, what do you think is stopping you from getting there?" That has nothing to do with design. Nothing to do with design, right? I'm asking you what is stopping you. They're just talking, you know? They're telling you, you know, essentially all the issues that they're having with their business, and you're able to observe and say, "All right. I have all of this information. Based on this information, I can tell you that you need to work on A, B, C, D, and E. If you don't, you're going to have a glass ceiling there. You're not going to go up from there."
Shar: That's why I said that branding might not even be the issue, you know? It's not always the answer to everything, even though a strong brand does get you somewhere, but if your product's crap, you know, or your offering has an issue, or you're not honest tier. You know, whatever issue there might be, we've got to figure that out first, right? Once we figure those things out that are the problems, and how to solve it, then we can position you in a strong way that separates you from your competitors, especially if you're a commodity brand, you know, which is the greater majority.
Shar: Most people that put something out are not putting out something new and innovative. They're putting out something that already exists. If you're putting out something that already exists, and you want to be the next Coca-Cola, you know, what are you doing that's different? What are you providing me that's different? Why should I be loyal to you? The company needs to think about that. Most of the time, they don't. They think just because they're selling it, and they think that they're special, that that's enough. No, it's not. It's not enough.
Shar: Once we have that conversation, a lot of times they have an understand. Really, to be honest, I'm not doing the majority of the talking in the situation. I'm asking questions. They're coming to the conclusion on their own.
Maurice: I know what you mean about it being like a therapy session. You'll sit down and you'll talk with the client, and then as more things are uncovered, then you can get to the root of the issue.
Shar: Yes, yes.
Maurice: Well, I'm curious to know this. You didn't start out studying design. What did you start out studying when you went to college?
Shar: Man. I started out studying psychology.
Shar: Yeah. I have a bachelor's in psychology, and funny story is that I thought I wanted to be a psychologist. Actually, I love my mom, but she sort of steered me in this route, because you know, I feel like in minority households, we have a lot of pressure to, you know, especially if you have more conservative parents, to pick a field that's going to, you know, make everybody proud. I went with psychology because I was always helping people and giving people advice. I mean, at a very young age. It seemed like it made sense.
Shar: I went to school for psychology. I think in the end, it really helped me, because I have a deeper understanding of people and how they work, even organizational psychology, which I did get a chance to dig into quite a bit, which also teaches me how businesses work, and their thinking, and how people relate to that, right? I think that that around that time, around the organizational psychology space, I started to think about business. I started to have a hunch that I eventually wanted to be an entrepreneur.
Shar: I actually tried to take business in college, like pick it up as a major, for, I don't know, maybe two semesters. What ended up happening is I took accounting, and accounting scared me so badly, and I was struggling so badly, because I'm not a math person. I'm totally right-brained. I was struggling so bad that I was like, "Dude, drop business right now." I ran back to psychology.
Shar: I ended up getting into studying neuropsychology. It was one of my very last classes, and I liked it so much that I pivoted, and decided to go to school for neuroscience. What ended up happening was I picked up a summer program at Morehouse School of Medicine, which by the way, for people out there, is for both men and women. It's not the same as... It's not the Morehouse undergrad. They're probably going to be like, "Excuse me?"
Maurice: Well, I graduated from Morehouse, so they know that.
Shar: Every time I say I went to Morehouse School of Medicine, people are like, "But that's for men. Are you trying to tell me something?" I'm like, "No. It's for men and women."
Maurice: Right. It's a coed school.
Shar: It's a coed school. I went to Morehouse School of Medicine, and I studied neuroscience, and I got accepted into the PhD program. I also got a full ride, and a stipend, and a chance to go to an Ivy League in the summer to enter the NASA program. My family was so proud, but I ended up hating my life, so I was like, "Dude. I don't like this." It was just me and a bunch of mice all day, studying, having this longitudinal study. It was okay, but I don't want to work with mice. I'm a social butterfly, so please don't do this to me.
Shar: Anyways, I found that I started studying business at night time. I don't know, I just started doing it, and I started to have the itch to get into advertising, and you know, be creative. I ended up getting out of that, and I went to school to get my MBA instead. In the middle of that, somehow, I really cannot tell you, I talked my way into an advertising agency, which is unheard of if you do not have advertising experience or a education in advertising. I ended up going, getting into a medium sized agency in search engine marketing.
Shar: Social media and digital marketing was so new, you could teach yourself. Schools, you know, had not started teaching that yet. That's how I was able to get in, and that was like the beginning of my career in that. I ended up seeing the graphic design department, and I kept trying to go over there, and they wouldn't let me. They were like, "Shar, you don't have a portfolio. What are you doing?" I was just like, "Let me in, please."
Shar: They were like, "You got to go back to school." I was like, "But I just finished my MBA. Please, don't do this to me." They were like, "You don't have a choice." Essentially, in order for me to move on to another agency, and get in as a designer, even though I started, I taught myself web design, I was building websites when it was so new, I taught myself how to do a ton of things in design, infographics, it didn't matter, because I didn't have a portfolio, and so nobody wanted to give me that shot. That's why I went to Portfolio Center in Atlanta for, I guess you can call it visual design or communications design. That's sort of how I got my start in design.
Shar: Yeah, that was like the longest, craziest road. Had so many pivots. Jesus, I don't even know how I made it through, but I finally feel like I figured out a part of my life's calling, you know? I feel like I'm a designer/entrepreneur. I think, in a sense, my background actually suits me pretty well, you know? I think that now, I have a really... to be honest with you, in many ways, I've seen myself as a businesswoman more than a designer, because I have an understanding of business in a different way now, that I don't think most business people have an understanding for.
Shar: You know, having an understanding for design, and bringing that to business is something I almost never see. I very rarely ever see it.
Maurice: Yeah, I was going to say, your background definitely, it suits what you're doing right now with Provoke, because you have the psychology experience, so you can dig into the client, and the user, and find out the motivation behind why they make certain changes. You've got the MBA, so you have the business acumen in terms of, you know, reading a balance sheet, and profit and loss, and all that sort of stuff. Then, you also have the design experience from going to design school. Yeah, the confluence of all three of those things is very rare. Whether you're self taught on one or two of these things or not. I can see where you're coming from with that. I mean, being able to bring all of that to the table is a huge asset.
Maurice: And you worked for a political campaign. Just in terms of networking, I'm pretty sure after the campaign, there was no shortage of, "Oh, I could work here if I wanted to. I could work here if I wanted to." Even if not that, just people you could get in touch with for more work, or for other opportunities after the campaign, because campaigns tend to be this little... They're like a little startup in a way. You know what I mean? There's so many moving parts to it, and it's all running like its own business for a very short period of time.
Maurice: It's like a microcosm. Everything is very condensed in that, and then once the campaign ends up going, of course you're all acquainted with each other. You know, you're all alumni, because you've been through the same type of experience, but then just the reach that you have after the campaign. I say this as someone that worked on a mayoral campaign, like 10 plus years ago. I still am able to reach out to people and have connections from that, so the fact that you're doing this now, outside of a presidential campaign, I'm telling you, I'm telling you, down the road, it's going to suit you well, absolutely.
Shar: Oh man. You're right about that. It really does. It opens up the doors like nothing else. To be honest, I don't know many people that came off of the campaign that... Actually, I remember towards the end of the campaign, a bunch of companies came. They were like waiting to hire us. I want to say Facebook came, Google came, all sorts of amazing companies came. I think I was not there that day, because I got deployed to Raleigh, North Carolina at the end of the campaign to door knock and help turn the state blue, so I don't think I was there when that happened. I definitely wasn't there when that happened.
Shar: I remember hearing about all the opportunities that everybody was getting, before the campaign was even over. Yeah, it actually really did open up doors, many doors, and I'm really thankful for it. Actually, want to know, whose campaign did you work on 10 years ago?
Maurice: Okay, so it was Lisa Borders's campaign, when she was running for mayor. I was the director of new media for her campaign.
Shar: Wow. Wow, that's awesome. How was that?
Maurice: It was a surreal experience, because it was the first set of municipal races that happened right after Obama got elected the first time. You had all of these politicians that were trying to figure out, "How do I use social media so I can get votes like Obama?" I mean, back then, you're like... I mean, it's just a part of the toolkit, social media and the engagement. It's not the way to get votes, politicians were thinking. To be clear, we tried to work with several politicians that were running for mayor at the time... I mean, I can say this now, because it's a decade or so out. We were trying to work with Jesse Spikes, who was this lawyer that was running. We were trying to work with Kasim Reed's campaign, who ended up winning.
Maurice: It was hard to get them to not see that Twitter followers do not equal votes. Twitter followers just means you have a larger audience to pull from. It does not mean votes. Back then, it didn't matter. It didn't matter.
Maurice: At Lisa's campaign, we were doing everything from... My goodness. We had a Myspace page.
Shar: Oh my god.
Maurice: See how long ago this was? We had a Myspace page, we had Flickr, we had Twitter, Facebook. Instagram wasn't out yet, I think, then. Yeah, this was 2009-ish. 2008, 2009. Instagram was not a thing. We had Flickr. We literally took pictures and uploaded them to Flickr or whatever. We had about seven or eight different social media things. We were running on a WordPress site. I think a lot of people at the time said that we kind of had the best social and web presence, which to me, was flattering, because I'm like, "We kind of don't know what we're doing, because no other..." The only people we could look to to do similar things like this was like, "Oh, well, what did the Obama campaign do?" Then, the Obama campaign has millions and millions of dollars, and hundreds and hundreds of people. We're like three people in a warehouse building downtown near Centennial Olympic Park, trying to figure this out, you know?
Maurice: It was really something. See, I was... How old was I at the time? I was 28, I think. 27, 28. Something like that. I didn't know what I was doing. I had just quit my job the year before. Like, Obama got elected, I hated the job that I was out, and that empowered me to strike out on my own. I quit my job, started my studio. Had a little bit of money saved up for like three months so I could try to figure out how to get clients, and all that sort of stuff. Then, fell into this thing, where I ended up working with the Lisa Borders campaign.
Maurice: Part of it was just like, "Look, I just need to keep working so I can keep eating," you know? I was like, "I need to keep working, so I can keep getting paid, so I can keep paying my rent. Let's just make this happen." We had some turnover in the campaign, as I think happens with campaigns. I think it got to about June or July, and they cut half of the staff. Me and some other people were still the ones remaining, and we got a new campaign manager, who was Stacey Abrams.
Maurice: Yeah, Stacey was Lisa's campaign manager, so I worked with her for a while on this stuff, too. See, in her eyes, it's like, galaxy brain. You know, see how she's doing now, where I'm like, "Man, I remember, we were sharing pizza, going over Lisa's campaign, like 10 plus years ago."
Shar: That's awesome.
Maurice: We were really just trying to really just figure it out. I mean, I say we didn't know what we were doing, but I felt like we kind of knew enough about social media to know what not to do. We knew that there were certain crowds that we would be able to reach and that we wouldn't. If we were on Twitter, we'd know we could reach younger, tech-savvy millennials that knew about the platform, because Twitter was still pretty new back then. I think Twitter had been out maybe for about two or three years then. We could reach a lot of old heads on Facebook, because that's just where they were at.
Maurice: We had to kind of figure out where people were, how we use the tools to drive engagement so we wouldn't necessarily put the same message on Twitter than we would on Facebook, one, just because of the limits of what you could say in terms of character count and stuff. A lot of it was really just trial and error, trying to figure it out.
Maurice: You know, it's politics, so I'm not going to lie and say that it was all above the board, that it was all above the belt. There was definitely some opposition reach and some things planted. Oh, so this is what was probably much bigger... No, it was probably... Well, it was big during the 2016 campaign and stuff. Comments on other blogs. Monitoring comments, and seeding comments. Yeah. Kind of shady. I probably shouldn't be admitting to this, but I don't care. You know, like seeding comments on popular political blogs to drive, you know, the conversation one way that we wanted to go. You know, all that sort of stuff.
Maurice: I mean, I'm not going to lie. Looking back on it, it was a lot of fun. I learned a lot during that time. I made some great connections with some great people. Still keep in touch with Lisa to this day. I see Stacey now and then, but Stacey is huge now, of course. Yeah, I still keep in touch with people from the campaign now. I was just talking with someone yesterday. We're trying to work together on a project. Yeah, it was really just trying to figure it out. There was no game plan. There was no strategy. We were just trying to pick apart what Blue State Digital did, and like, "Well, how can we take that and scale it down to the city of Atlanta to try to do a similar type of thing?"
Maurice: I was, you know, a designer, so I would design mock-ups for projects that she wanted to have, I would make logos, and all this sort of stuff. It was fun. It was grueling, because I was the only one there that had some design and social media skill. We had, you know, volunteers and things, but they were knocking on doors, and you know, putting out yard signs and stuff. Lots of late night strategy meetings. Lots of just, I don't know, just trying to figure it out. We used YouTube a lot. You know, with video. This was back when we had... I mean, did phones have cameras back then? I'm saying this like it's like 50 years ago.
Maurice: We had these little flip cam. You remember the flip cam?
Maurice: We had flip cams that we would use to get video, and yeah. It was a fun time, though. I look back on it fondly now that it's so long ago. I know at the time, I was just like, "I'm just trying to get through to the next day."
Shar: Yes, yes. That's true. That's true. You're just trying to get through. Yeah. It's so intense, you know? You can't really see the end, you know, because you're just trying to get through each day and no day is the same, you know?
Maurice: I'll tell you, and what's different, I think, from a presidential, than a mayoral race is that with a mayoral race, we would be so fierce, and in the game, and a lot of it was so much just inside baseball. I don't know, if I had a day off or something, and I'd go out in the world, people don't care. People did not care about who was voting for whom, and what their policies were. They just voted for who they liked. It kind of would put stuff in perspective, like, "Man, we are really spending all this time."
Maurice: That's not to say that average Atlantans didn't care, but they probably didn't care. You would do all this work, and you'd wonder like, "Well, what does it mean in the long run? What is it standing for?" Whereas, I think with a presidential campaign, it's probably different, because everybody's talking about it. It's on the news. It's on the media. There would certainly be times where I could step outside of the election bubble, and it was radio silence.
Shar: Yeah. No, I think we actually have more similarities than you think, because I mean, the similarity that I'm primarily hearing is that on the presidential campaign, people did also vote for who they liked. A lot of times, it did not come down to policy, you know, even for example, being that Hilary had a lot of policy for women, but yet, you know, many women still did not vote for her, even though it would have benefited them in the end, you know? A lot of them voted for who they liked, you know, over what was going to help them.
Shar: ... you know, over what was going to help them, you know, and so that was interesting to see. I think that ... I can't speak for everybody, but I kind of wonder if we knew that that was going to happen, you know, would we have gone a different route in, you know, how we positioned Hillary. Because, you know, inside the campaign, we got to see an amazing Hillary, to be honest, that I don't believe the world got to see.
Maurice: You know what, I feel the same way about Lisa. I do. I certainly think that there is a perception ... and she's aware of this, as I'm sure Hillary is aware of this, of how other people see her, and so she's very aware of that. It's a carefully crafted image. Like Lisa's got her St. John's suits, her hair is always this way, her makeup's always this way, and that's who other people see when they saw her. Like the Lisa that we saw in the campaign was funny and down-to-earth and would crack jokes with us, and would sit up and eat pizza with us late at night and everything, and it was like, man. Like you could see like, "She definitely wants this," you know.
Maurice: Then she'd go out and do the debates and things and the media would just like rip her apart in everything. I think what was also kind of weird ... and I don't know if this still happens with municipal races ... is how they would try to ascribe partisanship to the position. Like being a mayor is not a partisan position. You're not a Democrat or a Republican, you're just a mayor, you know what I mean?
Maurice: There was this whole thing going around, and this was mostly fueled ... well, it was all fueled by race, as the most in it, because the other person who was doing well in the campaign was a white woman. Her name was Mary Norwood, and so because Mary ... well, you lived in Atlanta. Mary lived in Buckhead. She's very much a Buckhead Betty, as they would say, and so because of that, there was the perception that she was a Republican, despite the fact that Mary had a long history with City Council and meeting with people all across the city. It's like, "Oh, Mary's a Republican and Lisa's a Democrat."
Maurice: I remember we did a commercial, and this was like the commercial that pretty much was the nail in the coffin for the campaign, I think. We did a commercial, and at one point in the commercial someone ... like these people, these women from all different walks of life which would never hang out in real life, but all these women from all different walks of life were talking about Lisa and how she's great. Then one of them says, "And she's a Democrat," and I'm like, "What does that mean? That doesn't mean anything." To me I was like, "Well, pack this up. This ain't going to work."
Maurice: The experience of working in the campaign and being close with her, and her family was all throughout the campaign. Both her brothers, her sister, her son. It was something where you got to see her as being with her family, but then also we were kind of part of that family too because of the common cause of making sure that we got her elected. It was a wild time, man. Whoo, it was ... I can only look back on it fondly now, because at the time it was rough. It was so rough. Oh, man. Oh, my God. Yeah, that was something. What do you think helps fuel the ambitions that you have?
Shar: Helps fuel it. I think ... I mean, I have really big goals that I haven't told many people about, and in order to reach them, I have to achieve certain other things first. You know, I don't know about specifically what all fuels it, but I put all my goals ... I write all my goals down and I put them like on my walls, you know? I look at them every day, you know what I mean, and I think about ... I think about how I can achieve it every day, and every day I feel like I'm one step closer, you know, even though many times it feels like, when you're on the road towards purpose, that you are stagnant.
Shar: It feels like, you know, you're not getting anywhere many times, especially when you have really big goals. In the very beginning of getting those things done, it's like you're at the very base, you know, of building blocks, and making like the foundation for success. It takes so much work in the beginning, and it seems like, you know, many times it feels like it's never going to pay off, but I know it'll pay off, you know, in the end.
Shar: That's really what's fueling me, is just the overall, overarching goals that I have, and how I want to ... I want to leave a legacy. I want to be able to say that in the end, I was able to help the helpless and the voiceless, and you know, open up doors for them that have not been opened yet. I really, really want to do that, especially in the creative industry, and there are some areas that we dominate creatively, and those are not the areas that I'm speaking of. I'm talking about, you know, areas that I feel like are more untouched. I want to open up doors in those areas, and so doing the work, it just ... it's hard. It's hard, but I believe that I'll be able to do that, you know.
Shar: Also, one of my goals is to be able to eventually get to a position where I can invest in founders and people that want to launch businesses, especially for people that aren't able to typically get the funding that they need. Like me being a woman of color, trying to seek funding is not easy. It's not easy. I can't remember the percentage, the percentage behind it, but very, very few women get funding. Very few women get funding. To put minority women on that, oh, my lord, and yet, we are one of the groups that are launching businesses at the fastest rate.
Shar: What I'm finding is that we're launching with very little capital, and as a result we don't have a strong positioning. In the end, very few of us will really rise to the top, because we are not able to provide the funding we need necessary upstream. You know, I really want to be able to be of some help in this area and change that, be one of the people that changes that, you know, and care about this space a bit more, so that we can start to be ... we are able to be in a position to open more doors for one another.
Maurice: Yeah. I'm looking up the statistic now. It's 2.2%, which is a decrease from 2017 where it was 2.53%. Wow.
Shar: Is that for women, or ...
Maurice: That's for women in general. That's crazy. Wow.
Shar: Isn't that crazy? It's insane, and we have great ideas. We have so many great ideas. I see so many businesses and I want to help them so badly, you know, be in a financial position to fund them, and right now, be in a position where I can advise them. I give a lot of free advice. I give a lot of free advice. There have been many times, you know, where companies have come to me that are minorities and they can't find funding, and they just want advice on how to make it. A lot of times I give them the advice freely because ... you know, I can't let it be manipulated or taken too far, but I try to give freely because I want to see them win. I want to see them, you know, be able to get a slice of the pie, and they have excellent ideas.
Shar: I've seen some have really innovative ideas, but they just ... they don't have the backing, and to be honest, they don't have the resources, the connections. They're running low on everything, so they essentially launch and it never goes anywhere. They're never able to build the brand awareness. They have very little following, if any, and a lot of times they go out of business in a couple of years. It's really sad, you know, these glass ceilings, and that's a part of the goal I have. That's one of the goals that I have, to break that ceiling, so yeah. You know, wish me luck on that.
Maurice: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think you've got what it takes to make it happen, definitely. When you look back at your career, what do you wish you would have known when you first started?
Shar: That's a good question. What do I wish I would have known? You know, sometimes I wonder, if I wished that I would have followed my dreams for going down the creative road from the beginning, because a lot of times I feel like I'm really behind. You know, a lot of people that I know are in the same space that I am, you know, it would be hard to go and work for companies, consulting firms, design agencies or in-house, client-side, and people that essentially should be around the same age as me, they might be creative directors, and I was a design lead, you know what I mean? Or at times, you know, just a designer. That was tough for me, and I felt really, really behind, because I took the long road, you know?
Shar: As I'm thinking about it now, that used to be a regret of mine, that I didn't find the creative road early and I wish I'd knew about it, because to be honest with you, nobody told me about design when I was younger, like when I was in school. I didn't even know it was an option. The most creative space that I saw other people that looked like me go into was like ... I hate to say this, and there's nothing wrong with it ... but I would only see them going into like cosmetology or like ... and that was considered creative, you know, back then, and it is creative, but in the area.
Shar: I was just like ... and my mother, by the way, I used to be in that area when I was growing up. I would do a lot of cosmetology to just pay, to like have money in my pocket, and my mother told me very early, "That's a no, like don't even ask," and I respect her for it, because she was just trying to do her best in raising me, and she wanted to make sure I had the best. I don't fault her in any way, shape or form. She's amazing, oh, my God, but I think that the fact that I did not know about the creative field, it like took me a really long time to find out, you know what I mean? It took years. You know, I went around the blocks a few times.
Shar: Now when I think about it, I think in the end, it was probably better that I went this route, because had I gone the typical design route, which is go to school for design, maybe go to a finishing school and then get your career started early, I think that's amazing and awesome and I think it's a great advantage to find out early. I think that the advantage that I now have is that I've touched a few different areas now that have great advantages in this field, and so I think in the end, I don't regret it. I do at least wish I'd knew about it.
Maurice: Yeah. No, that's fair, and I think certainly that feeling of thinking that you've sort of started late is something that I can empathize with, because I didn't go to design school at all. I didn't go to design school at all. My undergrad is in math. My graduate degree is in telecommunications management. I was doing design stuff on the side, like as a lobby.
Maurice: I started learning in I think it was maybe my junior or senior year if not earlier of high school, was when the internet kind of started becoming a thing. I was reverse-engineering websites to try to figure out, "Oh, how did they do that marquee, or how did they change this background color and stuff?" This was like the late '90s, so there was no General Assembly or Treehouse or anything that could show you how to like do all this stuff, and so I was doing a lot of stuff just on my own, on the side, doing little things for people here and there, not really knowing if what I was doing was enough.
Maurice: I got my first design job in 2005, so I graduated college in 2002, 2003, and I worked a bunch of just customer service jobs, because I had a math degree and there were like two options. You could go to graduate school or you could teach math, and I didn't want to do either one of those. I couldn't find really decent work. I was selling tickets. I was a telemarketer. I finally got my first design job in 2005, and then worked for a couple of places around the City. Worked at WebMD, worked at AT&T, and somehow even in just those three years, I felt like that and the combination of me doing just stuff on the side, I was like, "I'm just going to strike out on my own."
Maurice: It was clearly a leap of faith to even do this, and I honestly think that if I wouldn't have landed in the campaign, that wouldn't have given me the push to continue to build my studio, and have done that for nine years to get to the point where I am now. I understand that feeling of like, "Oh, I didn't go the traditional route," but I think the good thing about design is that there is no traditional route. There's a lot of ways people can come into this industry and still not only, you know, make a name for themselves but also, you know, make a living.
Maurice: There's many ways to do it, but I can understand that feeling of like, "I didn't go to MICA," or you know what I mean. You didn't go the traditional route or you didn't start early enough, so you feel like you're kind of catching up. I think you've got the unique mix of skills and experience that you're doing it. You're doing it right now, for sure.
Shar: Thanks, Maurice. Also, that's really awesome that you were able to take that leap of faith and just like launch out on your own. It's so many people that, like, they never do it, or they limit themselves by being like ... you know, keeping themselves at like a really basic freelance level, and they have ... they really have what it takes as problem-solvers to really ... we really can do many different things. I can't wait until the world gets to a point where they realize the potential of designers to work in many different roles. We really can. I don't think people realize how design can solve just about ... I mean, even if it's not about design, just the problem-solving skill set you need to have to be a designer can be applied so many different places.
Shar: I want to say that one of the main places I learned that at and got a chance to see that was the Hillary campaign, and also Amazon. You know, actually the first place that I saw it was SYPartners, which is similar to IDEO. It's like an ideation company and they work with mostly Fortune 500 companies, and they come to SYPartners to get their problem solved, many different types of problems. It's not just only design. It's like, "Hey, you know, we need to go after a new market, you know, and we don't have an idea how to do it."
Shar: All it is is designers who come into a room, sit down and brainstorm all day and problem-solve for these companies, and they pay millions of dollars for that to happen, and it works. It works, you know? The designer doesn't leave with like a new portfolio piece, but they leave knowing that they helped So-and-so brand expand or diversify their products, or create a new movement.
Shar: You know, a lot of times we did things that had nothing to do with design at all, and so that was when I first learned that, whoa, designers, we can solve the problems for the world. In seeing the companies like IDEO and SYPartners, Frog, seeing those companies literally position design in that way, to solve those types of problems, is really revolutionary. I hope that designers are able to see that they carry that type of potential inside of them, that they can solve anything.
Maurice: Yeah. Where do you see yourself in the next few years? What kind of work do you want to be doing?
Shar: I'm hoping that Aitarah is a massive success. I really am. I'm hoping that it's a massive success, and I'm hoping that ... now, this is a long shot, but I'm going to throw it out there ... I'm hoping that I'm in a position to lend, to be a lender, to be a person that is able to invest in other companies and help open doors for other companies. I'm hoping that even in five years I can do that, and I'm working. I really am. I'm working, busting my butt to do this, so we'll see.
Maurice: Just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you, about your work, your projects, everything? Where can they find that online?
Shar: Okay, so you can find my company Provoke online at weareprovoke.com. Again, that's weareprovoke.com. Also, I'm on Instagram. Now, be forgiving towards me, because I just launched the Instagram for Provoke, as I have just come back into having a full-time studio not too long ago. I recently launched the Instagram for it, and it was @weareprovoke. Aitarah is ... I'm still working on that on the back end. I have not made the website yet, but it will ... the URL is aitarah.com, A-I-T-A-R-A-H.com, but it is not designed yet, so don't go there. That's going to be the name. That's the name of the phone cases, and I'm in the middle of getting that website done. I'm trying.
Shar: You know, if I'm going to sell brand positioning or brand strategy, I have to step forward and create the most bomb brand ever, okay? I can't just put anything out, you know? I can't do it, so I am ... like that's why I said, I'm looking for the ... I'm trying to get the funding that I need behind it, and I'm being extremely ... I don't want to say picky, but I'm trying to be ... you know, I'm trying to work at the details and the ... and how intricate it's going to be, every little piece of it.
Shar: I'm really trying to design every touch point to the T, so that it really creates an amazing experience that essentially sets the tone for how I think branding should be, which is a different thing, you know? It's kind of like Warby Parker, but not necessarily the same thing. You know, doing something that is like ... that takes branding to a new level, and also brings excitement back to branding. Hopefully I ... once Aitarah is done, you'll see something special there, and that's really the only places that they can find me at the moment. I have a ... do you usually share like LinkedIns and Facebooks and things like that?
Maurice: Yeah, sure.
Shar: Okay, for LinkedIn it's @sharbiggers, S-H-A-R, B-I-G-G-E-R-S.
Maurice: Okay. Sounds good. Well, Shar Biggers, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show, for sharing not just I think the passion that you have clearly for entrepreneurship and for design and everything, but also sharing your story about how you got here. I think, you know, for a lot of our audience, it's really refreshing to hear that you can go and do other things, or you can sort of come into this industry at any given point in time and still be able to make an impact.
Maurice: Certainly, like I've said before throughout this interview, you really come with, I think, the skills and the network equipped to really go far. I am putting it out there too that in five years, you're going to get to where you want to be with what you want to accomplish, so thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.
Shar: Oh, my God. Thank you, Maurice. Thank you for having me. It's been like a pleasure, and thank you so much for believing in me. I really appreciate it, and I really can't wait to see where you go with this. I think this is an awesome platform to have, and so very needed. Please don't stop doing what you're doing.
Maurice: All right. All right. Thank you.