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Ex-Nike Designer On How To Cultivate Tomorrow’s Top Creative Talent

The former lead designer on the Jordan brand, who left to build Vessyl, has landed at Accel to foster young talent from atypical places.

Detroit. Chicago. Atlanta. Minnesota. They’re not your stereotypical breeding grounds for the next star of Silicon Valley. But it’s these middle American urban markets where Jason Mayden plans to hunt for the most promising 14- to 25-year-olds who could become the next Mark Zuckerberg.

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“We want to broaden the aperture on the conversation that allows us to have a presence at Stanford or Berkeley, but then show up in the middle of Bangladesh at a cricket tournament,” Mayden says. “We want to be both, and be there authentically.”

Following 13 years at Nike (where he worked on the designs of everything from Nike+ to the Jordan Brand), and a year and a half at the hardware startup Mark One (best known for the smart cup Vessyl), Jason Mayden has left to join Accel Partners, the venture capital firm best known for its investments in companies like Facebook, Dropbox, Etsy, VSCO, Squarespace, Spotify, and Slack.

Mayden’s first job at Accel will be similar to that of many designers who’ve been snatched up by venture capital firms. He’ll work with the young portfolio companies to hone ideas and instill a design-forward culture, mining his own experiences at Nike. “The beauty of what I learned from my time in sports is you have a very limited amount of time to spend with the athlete to turn their [viewpoint] into a product,” he says. And he sees working with Accel’s portfolio of founders and CEOs, translating their intent into goods or services for public consumption, as parallel.

His second job will be incubating a startup of his own within Accel–a secret project for which he’s partnering with Nike alum Bryant Barr, technology specialist Jim Cai, software engineer Dian He, and NBA superstar Steph Curry. Mayden isn’t sharing any details yet, other than to downplay expectations that the startup could be related to sports.

Then there’s Mayden’s third job, perhaps the most surprising of the three. He’ll be traveling to cities around the U.S. sniffing out cultural hotspots, where he hopes to discover what he calls “cultural alchemists”–young people who could make the next great startup founders.

“It’s not just coding talent. The cultural alchemists have a very specific profile,” Mayden says. “They fall between 14 and 25. They’re focused on immersive experiences, deeper engagements. They’re not people who want to pick a lane, they want to be a lane. They’re drawing from different influences. They have access to a planet. Their favorite food ranges from empanadas to sushi. Their music ranges from EDM to classical. The alchemist is a DJ, a coder, she grows a microfarm, she plays sports.”

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Right now Accel mines most of its talent from top-tier schools. Mayden intends to recruit from places like sneaker shops and art galleries. As Ryan Sweeney, general partner at Accel who brought Mayden to the team, explains it: “The lines just blur within investment firms now and what our companies need. We have a talent partner–a lot of firms have talent partners–to find often great engineers for our companies. But design and creative are just as important for a good tech startup. So shame on us if we’re not finding the next great design talent as well.”

But what exactly does Mayden do if he finds not a 23-year-old who is ready to make her mark on the world, but a promising 15-year-old still learning so much? There’s no set rubric or curriculum at Accel. And so Mayden paints a picture of something akin to a classic mentor/mentee model, with plenty of possibilities to arrange internships and meet-ups with Accel’s portfolio partners across the U.S.

“It will be more about exposure and to soft skill development, teaching them how to craft a narrative, how to organize a thought, how to follow through, the basics of showing up and being professional,” he says. “As they get older and see more, their ideas will evolve. But we want to groom them very early to teach them the soft skills of leadership, the intangibles of great leaders, because if we can engender that early, they’ll make the [right decisions] when they want to be a founder.”

Of course, it’s impossible to really picture everything that Mayden is describing–hunting through the culture and arts communities of major cities–without considering the fact that he’ll encounter a lot more minorities in these urban markets than are typically represented by Silicon Valley’s workforce. But Mayden insists that’s not the underlying goal of his new program.

“When you talk about the idea of youth culture and youth-centric initiatives, ethnic diversity is automatically embedded within that. While some people have made broad, sweeping statements about one specific group, what we would like to say is, let’s capture one specific mindset,” he says. “And if we’re accurate and authentic, we’re going to have gender and ethnic diversity naturally, because that’s what the future’s going to reflect. That’s the world we’re going to live in.”

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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