Tools for Change with Zaire Allen of Circular
Zaire Allen is a Co-Founder of Circular, a space that trains aspiring User-Experience (UX) designers to a level of proficiency that allows them to land their first job within the industry. Zaire is one of many who has made it his personal mission to level the playing-field for people of color within the tech industry, an environment, like many others, that is dominated by the white-male population.
Zaire breaks down the structure of Circular, and why it is better set up than some of the competition coming from larger corporations. Their key to success? Zaire says it comes from their approach to education: focusing on improving minority communities by providing the tools they need to empower themselves.
MW: So Zaire, I can’t think of a better way to start this journal off than to hear what it is you’re doing at Circular. Can you tell me a little bit about your role there and how it all came about?
ZA: So I’m one of the co-founders. What we do at Circular is we focus on training and mentoring people who have zero or little experience in UX design, and we take them from that level of knowledge to a working proficiency within 90 days. My day-to-day normally consists of operations. And that just looks like working and interacting with our students. Our students have access to a lot of material, as well as access to other students who are in a similar situation to themselves. So there’s a community being formed. Myself and the other instructors support and foster their learning by having calls similar to this one. We go over their goals and what they hope to accomplish through this program, and how we can help them get to that point.
MW: So alongside being a co-founder and running operations, you’re also teaching classes?
ZA: Yeah. So I’m currently teaching the first cohort, UX One. But I’m trying to get the instructors we’ve hired recently on-board so that they can take over for me. I’ll be focusing more on growth and making sure we’re going in the right direction.
MW: How many other instructors do you guys currently have?
ZA: Aside from myself there are two others. And we have plans to grow further and further past that.
MW: It’s a really interesting model. So it just sets up similar to an online class, right?
ZA: Yeah, so we’ve tried to imagine breaking it up into Phases. Phase One is more of an online class. We have plans in the future to offer some sort of subscription model where there’s ongoing support and the ability to access some of the benefits of being a part of Circular. Being able to access those things but at a cheaper cost. Right now our service costs 995 Pounds for our students. I’m not sure what that converts to in dollars.
MW: I want to say it’s right around the same cost if you were to take a single semester class at any normal college over here.
ZA: Precisely. Now, with what we do, our focal point in terms of pricing at the moment is making sure our service is more accessible than some of the corporations that offer a similar product. There are companies that have similar ideas and similar directions as to how they go about it, but our approach feels a lot more intimate. And we’re committed to improving the community at large. To think there are some courses out there that will charge you the same amount as it costs for a year at a University, feels like they’re taking advantage of the students. And we’ve achieved our price point because we set our business model up with accessibility in mind. And because of that we’re able to have a direct impact on our student’s lives. Students coming from backgrounds where they have no experience in design, to see how they’ve grown in such a short amount of time is brilliant to witness.
MW: Have you noticed any common trends of who your students are? Is it a wide array of age and demographics, or is it pretty focused?
ZA: So as a team, we’ve definitely noticed some trends. I’d say about 90% of our students are coming from London. And maybe that’s because word of mouth has done its rounds over there, we’re not quite sure. But, there is a big focus on UX jobs in London. UX and product design is really taking off. Another trend I’ve been paying attention to is that a lot of women are interested in getting involved in UX and UX design. When I first started, I didn’t think the demand would be as high as it currently is. However, women make up about 65-70% of our cohort. It’s amazing. Especially people from a minority background. And for me, as an ethnic minority person in tech, it feels great to know that I’m helping other people that may come from a background similar to myself get into a field where there has historically been little or no opportunity.
MW: That’s amazing to hear. It’s really cool to see that in a field that has so many barriers, the only real barrier that has been set up for you guys is that moderate price point. If the student can manage that, then there’s nothing else stopping them from becoming proficient in UX design. It should always be as simple as that, right?
ZA: Exactly. And we have payment methods that help those who can’t cover that cost up front, pay it little by little over time. Really we just care about making it reachable. We want people who are traditionally hard to reach or coming from different walks of life to have access to our course.
MW: I want to circle back to a point you made about the community being formed at Circular. Hopefully after your students take these classes and are equipped with the skills they need to start working in UX, you’re maintaining a community of people who have gone through this program and continuing to interact and grow with them. How have you guys approached that? How is it any different than say taking a UX course at a University, for example?
ZA: At the moment, UX One is in full swing. They’re just about at the halfway mark, I believe. As they go through this class, there’s a huge focus on building our slack community. When I speak with them, there’s such an emphasis on this idea that you’ll never know who will be able to help you get a job. A lot of these people come from really, really different backgrounds. Architects, account managers, community support workers. You name it. And we’re seeing this community of designers come together and have a friendship that is outside of just design, and it’s amazing to see. One of our main focal points is allowing that engagement and interaction to continue in the future. We plan on doing that by giving the people that paid in the past, some of the value that new students will gain. And to do so, there’s an emphasis on staying connected and keeping them in the know in regards to new developments. And as former students grow in their careers, there’s opportunities to continue to work with us and benefit the new students. It’s the knowledge loop.
MW: I love that. It’s clear to see that mentorship is such a cornerstone for Circular. What sparked that? Did you have mentors in your journey who really set you up for success, or was that something that was lacking for you?
ZA: Good question. Honestly, I just fell into it. I think it’s important to note here that this isn’t the first iteration of Circular. I was living in London as a University student and created Circular following a lot of frustration. Frustration in getting in touch with people and growing my network. I really, really wanted to be a part of the creative community and the tech community, and I found it incredibly hard to integrate into those. There were cliques. At its peak, we had 500 people waiting for it to launch, and a slack channel of about 300 active people interacting on a daily basis. That was back in 2017. I didn’t really continue with it because I realized I wasn’t actually solving any problems, and in doing so didn’t think it was worth continuing. But it gave me time to grow. I went from being a student to gaining employment, and there were a lot of trials and tribulations to even getting into employment. And there was no one there to guide me, to your point on mentorship. It was really tricky. Over time, I found out that there was almost a formula to get into a career like this. Once I found the formula, I started focusing on figuring out ways to help other people. My co-founder Isaac, had a similar struggle, to where nothing was really connecting until he found his own formula to get into a job. Between ourselves, we realized really quickly that if we had to take this route to finding a job in tech, how many people similar to ourselves got stuck before they even got to this point. And that’s pretty much how we fell into this idea of mentorship. We just wanted to help our community and help people in a similar situation get where they want to be in the tech industry. We originally had the plans to go into recruitment at first, but realized that recruitment isn’t necessarily the problem. It’s education. And if we can start with education and getting the right information into people’s hands, we’ll be in a position where we can allow them to not get stuck along the way.
MW: That’s interesting that you mention finding a formula for getting a job. Is that something that’s unique and personal to each individual? Or did you see overlapping problems that both you and Isaac were running into, for example?
ZA: It’s definitely both. The skills that you need to have to land a UX position are pretty standard. Understanding branding, storytelling, explaining processes. Having work to showcase those broad concepts is pretty standard. Obviously the formula comes into play when you start to consider and understand your own personal brand. Everyone has their story. So how are you going to package that up and present it in a way that is not only true to you, but attractive to an employer, is the real challenge. It’s playing to your strengths and weaknesses, really.
MW: You’re on the frontlines, empowering people from all different backgrounds with the toolset to start a career in UX. Why do you think it’s been so hard for people of color or minorities to land jobs in tech historically? Why is it more difficult than the average white male, you know?
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ZA: I can’t say that I’ve got the definitive answer, because I don’t think any of us do. I just want to preface that. But from my experience and my knowledge, there’s just a lot of under representation of people from minority backgrounds within the tech industry as a whole. Historically, many people like myself or from other backgrounds literally weren’t in these roles. It’s hard for information to be relayed, or for opportunities to exist, when nobody is communicating that for you. It’s almost impossible. The field is becoming more diverse every day, but it’s still an incredibly slow process. Things don’t change overnight, unfortunately. A lot of times, the people that end up in these roles of importance, are there because of who they know. They have the connections, whether that be their parents or someone they’ve aligned with. All of these things compound and form a high barrier to entry for people coming from a minority background, who don’t have those connections or that groundwork already laid out for them.
MW: It’s become pretty evident to see the effects of having systems in place that only allow one type of voice to make all the decisions. Do you think knowledge, giving people the resources they need, is that the first step in making systematic changes and opening the conversation up to more diverse opinions and solutions?
ZA: I think education is definitely a big part. I think it’s important to note though, that a lot of people already do have the education. And they have the skills. The difference maker is the way you package those skills. And that goes beyond color, you know? A lot of people getting started in design for example, don’t understand that case studies play such a pivotal role in landing a job. It shows your process, and it’s not always about the end product, but more so focused on the way you understand a specific problem. Little things like that, understanding the importance of certain aspects of a practice, are what causes barriers and leave potential gaps in education.
MW: 100%. We talk about this idea of presentation all the time in our own work. The age old saying is ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’, but that completely undermines the entire field of design, you know? Whether it’s how you present a case study, or how you present yourself, design at its core is to judge a book by its cover. Sometimes that’s all people have to go off of.
ZA: Precisely. It’s about the five senses. It’s about touch, feel, seeing, hearing all these different elements of design. Our users sometimes may not have an educated opinion on the design, however, they know when something feels off. So absolutely, you have to judge a book by its cover, or at least by how that cover makes you feel.
MW: You mentioned that the field of technology is changing slowly, as more and more people of color and minorities break in and create opportunities. Do you think that change is going to happen faster than we think, or is it a generational shift?
ZA: I think it will happen within a generation. However, if I’m being honest, I think I have an optimistic outlook on it. If I was working at Google, or one of the other big tech companies, I could very easily see and understand why people might have a more pessimistic outlook on things. That said, from what I’m doing and what I’ve seen so far, there is a big, big market for people of color and people that come from minority backgrounds to get involved. I’d say it’s happening a lot faster than it was three, four years ago. And people are paying more attention to it, focusing on technology from an ethnic background standpoint. I can’t say anything for sure, but I think we have a strong case to say that our involvement in the industry is growing and eventually the landscape will be flattened out and a little more even.
MW: It’s interesting to hear. I go back and forth. I think social media is playing a huge role in allowing more people to pay attention and be aware of some of these underlying issues. But these are systems in place that have been around for awhile. The tech industry has effectively been around for 50-60 years as we know it, so it’s hard for me to gauge whether or not that is something that can easily be disrupted. It’s always fascinating to hear people talk about it who are directly involved in that landscape.
ZA: That’s one of the most exciting things about tech though: It changes so fast. Every year something new comes up. I think once tech becomes a lot bigger outside of the US, not to say it isn’t big in other countries, but in places like Africa or the Middle East; The more startups you see coming from places that have fresh ideas and new takes on problems, I think that will have a really big shift on how we see the barrier to entry for the tech industry. I’m glad you mentioned social media a second ago, because it answers an earlier question about the barriers to entry and community. Seeing these little pockets of different communities on Twitter for example, it allows people to know that there are others like them that are getting into these roles. One of the really cool things I’ve seen a lot more of is people sharing their knowledge. Going out of their way to teach others or help them land a position or get started in the right direction. I can’t emphasize the importance of that enough.
MW: I was stalking your Twitter earlier and was just blown away by the resources you and everyone else is making available. Circular posted a time-lapsed video of one of the instructors designing a home page. You guys said ‘Hey, if you have any questions on this, let us know and we’ll slow it down and walk you through it.’ Like, that’s just so amazing to see. We did a Podcast recently with Jermaine Craig, who founded Kwanda. And I saw him pop up on your feed too. It’s just so cool to see these little pockets of people interact and see people with a similar mission in your own backyard, you know?
ZA: Exactly. Jermaine’s a cool guy. What he’s doing with Kwanda is amazing. I love the direction that it’s going in. And talk about adding a ridiculous value for the communities that he’s reaching out to.
MW: It’s interesting that design is at the center of what both Circular and Kwanda are doing. I remember we asked him what role design plays in these ethical questions of how can we build better communities? How can we make everything more accessible for other people? And I’m curious to hear your take on it. Do you view design as the language we use to navigate those dialogues?
ZA: Yeah. Design is what separates messages. A lot of people have positive messages, or specific information they want to get across. Design allows us to communicate those messages really clearly, or a lack of design will leave the message lost in the noise of everything else. For example, when I go on Twitter and I notice Kwanda has posted a new website, one of the first things I pay attention to is their branding. And in seeing that design, I’m noticing that he’s using design to leverage attention in a really effective manner. It’s brilliant to see and it’s why their messaging stands out against others.
MW: Is there room for collaboration between Circular and some of these other efforts? Or do you think everyone is kind of on their own wavelength right now?
ZA: I definitely think there’s an opportunity. Circular is such a great platform to have other amazing initiatives get involved. These initiatives could come in, and give a brief to our students for them to experience and work on. After all the work is presented, they can take one of the ideas from the students, and pay them to see the project through, for example. The student gets to gain real experience working with a professional team, and hopefully would get paid a little for their time, while the initiative at hand benefits from having multiple ideas to originally choose from, and the ability to work with a fresh, new mind that has a lot of perspective.
MW: So how is Circular helping students land these jobs after they take the course? Is there a shared network of resources, or are you giving them the tools to run with and they find it themselves?
ZA: So internally, we have a Business and Recruitment lead. He works with our students on a personal level. A lot of that work involves coaching the students on what they actually need to land a job, going back to our discussion on personal branding and presentation. He catches up with the students every two weeks and sees where their mindset is, where their goals are at, and working with them behind the scenes as the students work on their portfolios. He does an amazing job of helping the students fully realize their goals, and addressing what steps need to be taken in order for that to be achieved.
MW: I can’t think of a better thing to end on than just hearing about where you envision Circular going, and what your hopes are for it down the road.
ZA: My hope is to be able to educate the world one day. And that’s a very, very high level view of what I want to do. However, I want to work with smaller communities, as well as bigger communities. And working with UX designers, but also tapping into web development, and other niche areas of the tech industry and the creative industry and seeing if there are opportunities to commercialize what we do. Other companies provide a similar service, but they don’t approach education the same way we do. I think in doing so, focusing on improving communities and giving people tools of empowerment, it gives us an edge. We’re hungry, and we’re willing to go the extra mile to support our students. And personally, I just want the world to be filled with more creative people, especially those that come from backgrounds similar to my own. I want to see more people win.
You can find out more about what Zaire and the team at Circular are doing here. We truly believe they're disrupting a system that has been unfairly set in place since its conception. If it makes sense, get involved however you can and continue pushing the conversation in the necessary direction.