My Career Path: How I Became a Business Designer
This is part of a series on the unique and circuitous career journeys of the IDEO community. Read more articles on career development and mentorship on the IDEO U blog.
What’s your role at IDEO?
I’m a business designer, meaning I help get big, creative ideas to market by reconciling the creative with the practical. By incorporating viability (market) and feasibility (technology) considerations, and in a sense contributing guardrails to our projects, I help bring our human-centered ideas to life.
How would you describe your career path?
I was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia and followed my heart and gut to California, where I studied PPE (Philosophy, Politics & Economics) at Claremont McKenna College. Convinced that for-profit and social good can and should be aligned, I wrote my yearlong thesis on social enterprise and the ways that business can lend itself as a vehicle for positive impact.
Post-college I moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I worked for an organization helping farmers transition to get Organic and Fair Trade certifications. The meat and potatoes of my career to date was when I joined my family's global food importing business. Wanting to understand our suppliers' realities and products, I interned with our Chilean supplier of frozen berries, getting into the literal fields: harvesting strawberries, sorting cherries on processing lines, testing quality in quality control laboratories, and visiting all kinds of farms and processing facilities (salmon, nuts, dried fruit, juice concentrates) across Chile.
Nikki working across Argentina and Chile.
For about 6 years I expanded our Organics program, launched new product lines for our company, supplied the first source of Southern Hemisphere organic beans to US companies, Fair Trade certified our company and organic chia supplier, and pitched a new line of frozen vegetables to Walmart. At the core, my work was all about relationships: supporting small growers, building strong supplier-client relationships rooted in transparency, and creating win-win value for everyone.
Curious about other ways I could learn and make an impact, I moved to NYC to go to Columbia Business School. During the pandemic, I co-launched an import company to supply food processing plants with masks, then finished up my MBA having a blast interning with IDEO on a food project “reimagining breakfast.” IDEO's bright, warm, insanely incredible people were an enormous draw for me.
What career advice would you give others?
I didn’t have a grand five- or ten-year plan mapping my path to IDEO or to business design. How I arrived was by saying yes to work that afforded me the opportunity to get my hands dirty, wear a lot of hats, and do things. In my twenties, I was touring Japanese clients through traditional quinoa communities in the Highlands of Peru and managing contracts for millions of pounds of produce. I had no business carrying such responsibilities, and I was so fortunate because I learned an immense amount.
Nikki on a bikepacking trip in New Zealand.
For this reason, my advice is to seize opportunities that give you more responsibility than you should have, join a company or team where you won’t be a cog in a wheel, ask your colleagues how you can help them (you’ll gain so much more than you give, but you’ll give a lot in the process), and try to maintain a growth mindset throughout. All of this will help enable you to speak and act not from theory or logic, but from firsthand experience.
“Seize opportunities that give you more responsibility than you should have.”
Learn how to build and test business models in our online course Designing a Business.
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