Meet the team: Melanie Araujo-Valdes Olmos

We are honored to welcome Melanie Araujo-Valdes Olmos to the Design Dept. team. Melanie brings a wealth of experience to her role as a Leadership Coach and Instructor. We’ve enjoyed getting to know her perspective, and thought you might too:

How has your background in psychology shaped your career path?

My background in cognitive psychology sparked my interest in people, how they think, and how our environments affect how we show up in the world, including the workplace. As I switched to (Product) Design, I found my background helped ask questions that would get to the core of an issue, be that a design problem or something regarding the design process. In addition, I consider myself a lifelong academic, and I love learning.

What is the essence of a psychologically safe environment?

A place where you can speak up and question the system that you operate in without fear. Fear can be broad — fear of being perceived as a rebel or not a culture fit, fear of stepping on someone else’s toes, or loss of primary income. It can also be more toxic, like the fear of being left out of promo cycles, or more harmful — the fear of retaliation. A psychologically safe environment means you can show up as yourself, asking the questions you need to ask to do the job you’ve been hired to do.

How do you support leaders in creating that space for their teams?

In short: I teach them how to listen. I help leaders develop a sensitivity for others at a deeply emotional level. So much of the work being done in tech touches upon principles, values, news cycles. Discussing complex (people) issues within the realm of product can mean you have to navigate a broad range of opinions and emotions. I take leaders by the hand and do just that: making sure they attract — and retain — their world-class teams.

You founded a mentorship program in 2015 to support underrepresented leaders and creatives. What did you learn from that experience?

The best way to attract talent from underrepresented backgrounds is to develop custom programming and work directly with leaders to ensure that programming is successful. Plenty of creative talent has not walked the traditional path into the industry — tapping into those pools requires you to have a hard look at the entire arc of the hiring process. Top of funnel, company values, principles, hiring heuristics, interview loops, retention — everything should be on the table.

What encouraged you to become a coach?

After a performance review, I began to consider my design career for the long term. Do I jump to the management track, or do I continue to pursue a path focused on craft? Neither appealed to me — and I’ve never been one to allow others to determine my destiny. What I enjoyed most as a designer was solving people’s problems within the context of the businesses they worked for — and within that scope, I preferred working with people over pushing pixels. I could be found regularly coaching folks on the professional and personal challenges they would encounter in their day jobs and enjoyed this much more than shipping software. When the folks I coached achieved their goals and sought me out to help them navigate a path towards their next milestone, I knew this was my calling.

Perhaps this has to do with my academic background and general curiosity about people. As a Black woman and first-gen American, I’ve always been aware of the power structures within organizations. My mother always made it a point to let me know that these systems were not built with our best interest in mind. But that did not mean that I could not be successful within them.

It’s evident that these systems and workplaces in tech may not have been designed with Black or Afro-Latinx people in mind, and those of us who come from a low income or non-traditional background (i.e., design schools, supportive families, etc.) are still here and thriving. But there are very few of us who make it through and stay in business. The need for coaches who understand their experience firsthand and who won’t attempt to dismiss or gaslight them is needed more than ever.

Furthermore, as an IC, I would regularly manage up and my day-to-day responsibilities. It was until after the birth of my son and recovering from the burnout that I moved over into design leadership coaching to help leaders expand their self-awareness and cultivate empathy for experiences outside of their own.

What’s the difference between a mentor and a coach?

Great question. Let’s take cooking as an example. A mentor will tell you how to precisely prepare a meal without considering your unique flavor plate while a coach will help you create a meal that not only meets your special flavor plate but also helps you to create an experience that others will appreciate even if your unique plate is not their cup of tea.

What do you hope for teams in 2022?

That leaders learn to slow down, listen, and retain their talent better than ever — and that individual contributors find their voice to advocate their needs for safety, visibility, and recognition — so that they can continue to innovate for the companies that employ them.

A little something for fun…

What’s your designer secret?

So this might get me in some hot water with folks in the industry, but my secret at large companies is to follow the product leads because they hold the key to getting work shipped. When a Product Manager respects the designer’s time, great — when they don’t, make sure to understand their business goals as well as they do. People ultimately really don’t care that much about your design process outside of the design org. It’s your impact on the business that matters.

What’s your secret designer obsession?

Modernism in art, architecture, and design. It’s an addiction. Before the pandemic, my partner and I would have regular museum dates. I chased Agnes Martin in California, Wim Crouwel in the Netherlands, and Ricardo Bofill on the Spanish coast.

Want to work with Melanie? Send us a note!

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We believe leadership is a creative practice.

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Design Dept.

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We believe leadership is a creative practice.

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