Articles · · 5 min read

How reconnecting with ancestry, culture, city, and community raised my confidence as a design leader

A guest post from CDO School alumni Carolina Tod, about how she reintroduced design into her leadership journey to get unstuck, and make forward progress.

Who are you, and what do you do?

Hiya! I'm Carolina Tod, 32 years old Brazilian & afro-indigenous designer based in São Paulo. I currently run a product + design independent publisher & school called Produtos para Humanos. I help craft financial experiences as Design Manager at a local company called FintechMagalu, and I'm also a proud alumni of CDO School. 

What are you really passionate about right now?

As a small business owner, I'm passionate about making my own thing work! One of my main goals is to help people better understand their career path and self-development. So most of my time is spent talking to other professionals, reading and researching mental models, strategy foundations, self-awareness, time management, and ethics. Everything that helps my partner and I build or remix tools that allow people like us to advance more confidently.

And like most young women in their thirties, I've developed a passion for true crime podcasts, which made me more curious and investigative about everything. 

Carolina Tod

Last year, I moved to this location in downtown São Paulo, which is a landmark in the history of the Brazilian LGBTQ+ community. Since then, I have enjoyed investigating places, people, publications, and historical dates. One of my favorite things is to read digitized editions of a publication called O Lampião da Esquina. 

Lampião da Esquina was a Brazilian newspaper part of the LGBTQ+ community history that circulated between 1978 and 1981. It was born within the context of the alternative press at the time of political opening in the late 1970s, during the easing of years of censorship by the Brazilian military dictatorship. 

Generally speaking, what do you do to get unstuck?

I try reconnecting with my ancestry, culture, city, and community. Working with product design in Brazil for at least 15 years, I learned to appreciate more things from abroad than my own. This fact made me compare myself with others with different experiences, backgrounds, and life stories than mine, leaving me constantly stuck. 

Starting with music, I've learned to appreciate the work of Elza Soares, and when I get stuck nowadays, I listen and sing along with her album "Planeta Fome" or "A Mulher do Fim do Mundo".

“Her lyrics help to keep my priorities in order and never forget the reality outside - that it’s crueler for those without the privilege of working in the technology industry.”

What are some hard things you have to do at work?

I never really had a structured development plan or feedback from my work over my career. So I always wondered if I was doing good work or going in the right direction with my design craft. At some point, I heard from a few peers that what I was practicing wasn't design anymore, which triggered an even more intense emotional response that lasted for a long time. 

Feeling like a fraud, I didn't know what I was doing when I reached the leadership path. So the most challenging thing I have to do till this day is leading 13 designers while I heal and figure out what kind of leader I want to be. That's a lot of responsibility.

What helped you do that work?

As a woman and person of color trying to find her way in the corporate world, was to realize that our field is not immune to epistemic injustice, white supremacy, colonial mindset & privilege maintenance. Popping this "pristine" bubble of our industry gave me the courage to share things I know and learned in my career with other people. That's why Produtos para Humanos, my business, exists today. 

This side business gave me the privilege of clarity while hearing other people's stories that some knowledge in our industry isn't (maybe on purpose) shared. This fact undermined my confidence and the confidence of those by my side. Things like how business work, structured decision-making processes, and strategy are topics discussed outside of traditional design or product education. And most importantly, that wasn't a character flaw; as a design professional if I wanted to learn them and remix them to my craft.

This series of events was fundamental to understanding that there is more in the world than my 9-to-5 job can provide for my professional development. I was ready to pursue something else.

My search led me to find Second Wave Dive, as it was one of my first attempts to be in contact with other people with my values. And it totally inspired me to dedicate myself even more to my side business. Here at SWD, I've learned not to let the values I believe fade, the resilience to keep going, the certainty that I will fail, and the ability to hear others more than speak about design. 

As you can tell by my answer isn't just one thing that keeps my faith in working in the tech industry. It's a series of small things & encounters plus living in a community is what preserves my sanity to do a better job one day after another. 

When did you know you were doing a good job?

I can't tell to this day if I can tell if I'm doing a "good job" in the industry sense. Still, as long as my students and the people I lead daily keep identifying their struggles and starting a healing path to build more confidence, I'll be happy with my presence and with what I deliver. Fundamentally that's what changed within me, build and follow my own standards.

Lastly, do you have any trade secrets that are tiny little things, but they totally work?

  1. Never forget to take care of yourself. If you don't do that you can't really help other people in the process.
  2. Never underestimate the value of learning other functions' foundations. Math & Words like ROI, acquisition, and growth can be frightening even for most seniors of us. But, closing the gap between our craft and business in plain language can be rewarding AF.
  3. Remember your childlike curiosity about how things work at your product or company. You don't have to know everything every time.

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