As the woman who approached me to start this series, Jess Nelson was an obvious powerhouse from the first time we met. Always looking for a path that could marry art and business, it led her from fine art and education to study graphic design, work as a recruiter for creatives and eventually landing in product design and UX. Having found the industry she was searching for, Jess now leads the way for others by speaking up about the pay gap, co-hosting Nashville UX meetups and empowering women through leading groups at LWD. Here, she shares her journey along with the events and people who helped form it along the way.
So tell me about your journey. How did you get to where you are?
I've always been a visual creative. I wanted to be an art teacher when I was growing up, so I went to college for art education. I grew up around New York City, and I was going about my business getting my education degree when suddenly I had this image in my head of me going into the city and calling on clients, meeting and talking to people. And I loved this idea — I literally couldn’t get the image out of my head. That didn't exactly line up with the degree I was pursuing at the time.
I had been in this art education program for two and a half years at this point and I was like, “I don't think this is what I actually want to do.” My favorite teachers were always the ones who had their own experience making it in the field. I knew graphic design was a good way to be creative in a professional sense but I always had this creative paralyzation around computers. I was fearful of touching a computer creatively for anything other than photography.
I loved painting and sculpture and all that getting your hands dirty stuff. I really didn’t feel “creative” around computers at all. I was like, “All right, fuck it. I'm just going to study design. I'm gonna switch my major to design and learn what I can.” I switched to design and learned how to use the software and the basics of design, which really do line up so closely with art. It was not as hard as I expected because all the fundamentals are so aligned.
My dad is a businessman through and through, so a business mindset was really, really deeply ingrained in me. I always struggled with how to maintain my creativity while knowing that business is also something I enjoy. I thought graphic design was the answer. I graduated and got a little bit further into my career as a graphic designer and I was like, “Okay, I like this, but I just don't feel like it's me.” I was always more focused on if there was a business problem the design was solving rather than the aesthetic. I did a few years of various graphic design gigs, working at a small agency for a minute, working at Marathon Music Works and Exit/In for a bit doing all their design and ticketing.
I have the most zig-zagging path, one day I went to interview with a recruiter for a design job and ended up getting hired as a recruiter. Being a recruiter was so random, but it was a really good learning experience because I learned things like how to do a better job search, which companies in town had a soul (most didn't), how much I should be getting paid, and how to nail an interview.
After being a recruiter for a year I wanted to get back to my creative roots, and ended up taking a graphic design role with Asurion’s training team. I gave tours to people coming to visit the office, and the day that changed my career trajectory I was giving a tour and ended up connecting with someone who was in the product organization at Asurion.
I had no concept of what product was. I had no concept of product design. I kinda knew what UX was because of recruiting but I didn't understand how it worked in a larger company. I walked up to this guy and I was like, “Hey, I know you're on our product team. Are there any other designers in Nashville? I'm on an island here, I'm the only graphic designer that I know of in Nashville.” And he was like, “Yeah, actually we have four product designers in Nashville and I'll set you up with them and you can shadow them.”
So I shadowed these guys. It was these three dudes and they were all older than me and very experienced and intimidating at first, but they're all super sarcastic and funny and I hit if off with them. I spent a whole day with them, then emailed their boss that night and said something like, “Hey thank you for letting me shadow your team. I really loved seeing how they work and if you ever want to hire someone with graphic design experience I’d love to learn UX and product design.” I just threw it into the wind, you know? He actually responded the next day and soon after I was asked to join the product design team.
I was on that team for two and a half years. It was a huge learning experience. I learned about design thinking, and saw it was something I had been doing at every other job I had, I just didn't realize it.
What made you ready to leave that position?
After about two years in that role and a ton of learning, I started feeling stagnant. The straw that broke the camel's back was a male peer in the industry interviewed for the same role I was in. He had less experience than I did, but was a great candidate. I had referred him for the position, so I knew when he ended up not taking the role. I asked him what they offered him. He got offered more than I was making after I had consistently proven myself over the last two years.
I went to HR and talked to them about it and I was like, “Hey, this is problematic. I've been here for two and a half years. I've shown my value. I've never missed a deadline. I've gotten my shit done. I've excelled. I came in not knowing UX and you've put me on projects that you've removed senior people from.” They came back with a small increase in pay, but still not as much as they had offered my friend.
I knew I was underpaid but I didn't know until that point how severely. While looking for other opportunities, in truly serendipitous timing, the company I’m at now reached out to me. The offer they gave me was fair, accurate and it's a really ethical company. They really care about their employees, and I’ve learned a ton about product design since joining.
That’s amazing. I'm so glad you made that jump.
I really felt like I didn't have a choice at that point. I had been putting it off, I had already asked for a raise before and gotten it. I had gotten a raise six months prior. I still felt like I needed to voice, “There's inequality here.”, even though it was scary. Calling anyone out for something is scary, but I felt like if I didn’t, I would’ve been doing such a huge disservice to myself and any woman who had gone or will go through a similar situation.
I'm sure other people are still having great experiences there, but it was my time to go and I'm so glad I did because my current role with StudioNow is exactly where I need to be. It’s a young, growing company, we have incredible development talent and I have a great product manager peer out in San Fran. My role as Head of Product Design is taken seriously. My word actually matters and that’s a nice feeling.
Were there any people at Asurion who particularly encouraged you along the way?
There’s this thing I like to imagine, the way Nascar drivers have logos on them, if someone vouches for you professionally their name is on you like a Nascar sponsor logo. I feel like I have all these people who have vouched for me and I'm wearing them on my sleeves. There’s been so many people who saw things in me that I hadn't seen. I had a woman who was a Senior Director from Asurion who was a mentor to me. She told me once that I had what it took to be a CEO one day, and if anyone knew what that looked like it was her. I thought she was joking.
Do you feel like that had an impact on your self worth?
Absolutely, I had always had this inferiority complex of thinking I wasn’t even smart, and yet here’s this powerful woman telling me I have all these amazing qualities. That has always stayed with me, you know? I had always been super self-conscious and self-doubting.
That was one small piece of the very large puzzle of working on myself and stepping outside my comfort zone. I hated myself in high school. I had no confidence. I would never stand up in front of a group of people and say anything. I definitely had some social anxiety and had been pretty badly bullied. I felt like I needed to escape that entire state because even if I went to school in New Jersey, I knew I would know someone from high school. I felt like I just had to get away, like really away.
How did you choose Nashville?
I chose Nashville because I wanted a Christian school that wasn't Christian. I wanted a Christian school that wasn't like, “You must go to chapel.”
I didn't want the partying on campus, and I wanted it not to be socially unacceptable to go to church. I've always been like an eighty year old woman on the inside. I visited Nashville and I just really liked Belmont and the city.
I would have liked to have gone to a cheaper school, looking back, because student loans are no joke. But at the same time the student loans put a fire under my butt to hustle, you know, I'm basically paying a monthly payment for a Porsche every month.
Once you finally did observe the UX and product world, what was it that clicked for you that this is actually what you were more interested in?
I was always looking for the marriage of business and design. When I shadowed the design team, this guy who ended up being my future coworker was designing a webpage and they were talking about how they test it and all these research methods and I was like, “Oh that's super cool.” I didn’t realize how much human interaction was involved. He then designed something with a dollar value in red showing how much money people could save (red was the brand color). I couldn’t help but think, “Usually when a dollar value is red, that means you're losing money.” There are not good feelings associated with that. I’m debating whether I should say something, and I did. They all turned and looked at me and they were like, “Wow, yeah, that’s a good point.”
Up until that point, I had no idea there was a field that required both sides of your brain that much. Watching someone use a product you worked on and being able to measure and observe how they use it and do interviews and that sort of thing is the greatest part of the job. It gets you out from behind the computer. I love meeting with my users and seeing what their pain points are, then being a part of the solution. I remember being in college and thinking, “I'm not taking a web design class because I don't want to be stuck at a computer all the time.”, and that is not at all what this work actually looks like.
Last week I was in New York City going to meet with users to talk about how they use our platform. I kept thinking, this is the image of myself I had in college that made me switch my major. Here I am walking into clients’ offices in New York City to have meetings about a platform I’m tasked with making better. It was such a weird, great moment.
That sounds like such a good feeling.
It was so weird. My husband met up with me at the end of the day and he had sunflowers waiting for me and I was like, “This is the best day ever.”
So do you have any things that you want? You're obviously in a very up point right now, things are really clicking and you have worked hard and put yourself out on the line to get what you want. So what are some other things that you want to work towards?
The desire to develop and grow people has still never left me. That was one reason I took this job was because there is an expectation that I will hire people down the road. For me that's a big goal, and I've learned to start thinking about my goals in a more abstract way because I never would have thought I'd end up in UX ever, and I love it. Definitely leading people and developing other people’s skillsets is one hundred percent on my future radar.
I like that you call it developing people, I've not really heard that as a term but it makes so much more sense than just being a boss, or even just a mentor to one person.
Totally, I've told other women that I want to be a leader and have had mixed reactions, there was one instance where this woman was like, “So what, you just want the power?” I called her out on how shitty that sounded, but she had said it off hand, and I was like, “It's not about power, it's about using what you have to help someone else, as corny and idealistic as that sounds.” I've had really great bosses and I've had really great leaders that have developed me and I've had bad ones. I've witnessed really shitty ones and know that the difference that makes doesn't just end at 5:00 when you go home. I've seen bosses ruin people's lives, like my husband and his experience with his former boss was one of the worst things that we've gone through in our marriage. It didn’t just stay at the office. I see how he is now, working under good leadership, and he’s almost a different person (in a good way).
That is what my biggest driver is, it's different than a lot of people's desire to get to the top. But that's particularly what drives my desire to grow.
So what are the other things you really enjoy? Do you still create art projects on the side?
I still do painting for fun. My instagram is @jessnelsonart and it’s randomly updated. I do large scale marble abstract paintings and I have them up in a handful of places just like a few local businesses, but it’s more just for fun. I do freelance graphic design, branding stuff, only through word of mouth now. I don't advertise it. I really like hanging out with my husband and going to concerts, we went to go see Erykah Badu last week. I hang out with my dogs a bunch. I also co-organize Nashville UX and help plan our events which is a big part of my time. I am really focused on elevating women, LGBT individuals and people of color in the technology industry of Nashville. So many people do not realize what they’re capable of, and would benefit greatly if they had someone who could see their potential and help grow it. I feel like I have a responsibility to pay it forward, as people saw things in me that I didn’t see myself.
I also have a tendency to overwork. I'm very intentional about forcing myself to relax. I’ll put on a stupid TV show and zone out for a while, because it doesn’t really come naturally to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
You are much more capable than you think you are. I think that most young people are more capable than they think they are. I’d also tell myself to quit comparing yourself to everyone else. Just because your design style is not hatch show print doesn't mean it's not valid. I always had a much more like corporate sort of aesthetic in college and was always more concerned with functionality over form which is somewhat frowned upon in certain design circles.
I definitely spent a lot of time doubting myself because the stuff I did looked different and I thought different meant worse, and it doesn't. It just means that maybe you're not surrounding yourself with the right things and that was a really hard lesson to learn.
What's something that you are struggling with right now?
Patience. I'm very bad about wanting to fast forward through things and I've always struggled with it. I'm always thinking about 20 other things as I do pretty much anything. Taking the time to slow down and appreciate where I'm at is a conscious effort. I would love to fast forward and be like, “Okay cool, I'm going to hire this person, I'm going to implement this design system, I'm going to build this cool new feature.” But we're working through the nitty-gritty of building a product and it's not pretty. It's hard grunt work and it's not sexy, you know? It’s a lot of sifting through the mud. The patience of knowing it’ll be worth it isn’t easy.
What do you feel like you would like to have in terms of support?
I don't believe in a one-to-one mentor situation anymore as I've gotten older because I just don't think it's realistic, but I love the concept of a panel of people you can trust and I love adding to my panel and getting different perspectives on my panel. For me just adding people who can gut-check you is hugely valuable. I'd love to connect with more people that are honest and willing to hurt your feelings to make you better.
I've found that for me, if I can be talked out of something I should be talked out of it. If there's that little piece of doubt in there, I should just be talked out of it. If I can talk through it and remove that doubt, then I know I’m doing the right thing. It’s a balance. At this point if I talk through a decision and can’t be talked out of it by someone I trust I feel very confident in it. I’ve also had to learn how to develop the skill of confidence.
So what do you think are the things beyond what we've talked about that have built up your self worth?
Fake it till you make it. Just being thrown into situations and coming out the other side having done something that scared you is invaluable. There’s no book or podcast that can teach you what you’re capable of. There’s nothing that can give you the feeling of rising to the occasion, or attempting, failing and realizing the world's not over. Look at those things that scare you and realize that no matter what, you’re going to come out on the other side either successful or not and you will have learned something either way. I remember I was working at the Apple store during college and they asked me to teach workshops. They're like, “You're an education major, you could teach.”, and I was petrified because I didn't want to get up in front of people. Talking to strangers petrified me and ten workshops in, I was rolling through it with no issues. I would never have jumped that hurdle or at least not that soon. I realized that by saying yes to things I want to say no to, I always end up growing and learning.
What's your favorite wine?
I like dry red wines, but that being said, I can throw down on a frosé any day of the week. That is my guilty pleasure for sure.