18 months ago, Morehouse alum Rafe Chisolm journeyed to the bay area to take a position as a product designer Pandora, a company he’d always wanted to work for. His landing there was a happenstance of sorts; his love for design and technology led him on the path to one of the largest music streaming services in the United States, improving the user experience and helping to reshape the listening experience.
Chisolm didn’t start off wanting to be a designer, but he’d always been interested in creating products. As a kid, Chisolm was interested in patents, often researching his ideas at the patent office. “It seemed impossible. I didn’t know when I’d have $50,000 sitting around to create one prototype.”
He decided the next best thing would be to become a patent lawyer, so he majored in pre law at Morehouse, minoring in computer science and sociology. After graduating, Chisolm eventually got a job at a law firm working in intellectual property, but soon found himself at an impasse. “I was like, I hate this. If this is what I have to do to get to where I want to be, I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Oglethorpe University had a partner program with the Atlanta College of Art (ACA), so Chisolm enrolled there. Just as he was about to transfer to a full time program at the ACA, they were bought out by the Savannah College of Art Design (SCAD), decimating his credits. “It was either start over at SCAD as a freshman or not do it at all.” Chisolm told us.
Instead of starting over, he interviewed for jobs with design focused work. “I’d go to an interview sometimes knowing I’m not going to get this job but I need to know what the market is looking for.” Eventually he landed an interview with the High Museum of Art. “I wasn’t approaching this one as I won’t get the job, I approached this one like I’m getting this job. I realized they were trying to go in the direction of MoMa in NY so I came up with microsites. I came to the interview armed to the teeth.” They gave him an immediate offer. “It was basically the best scenario I could have gotten outside of going to school…that was my turning point; not only can I do this but I actually love what I’m doing.”
He honed his chops in Atlanta at a few more companies, like Cox and Airtran, eventually landing at Delta, where he got the chance to attend SxSW. It was there that Chisolm found himself at a meet and greet with Pandora’s leadership. “I wasn’t really sure who anyone was except for Tim Westergren, the founder.” He had no idea at the time, but the guy he’d ended up talking to about the direction of Pandora for half an hour was Tony Calzaretta, the VP of design. “Luckily the conversation didn’t go left”. He had an offer within six weeks.
Chisolm says Pandora has been a really good culture fit. “I always loved music so working here is easy. When I think about other things I’m interested in, community focused, that kind of fulfills me.”
When Chisolm is not busy working on designs at Pandora, he has a few projects that fulfill his love for politics, tech, art, design. “ I have two products on my own, one is geared towards philanthropic giving on transactional basis, enabling people to give whenever they want to. The other is getting people involved politically, getting maximum yield of results while recognizing people have limited time to engage”
Chisolm advises HBCU students to “really think about the interests that you have and try to figure out how you can express that in one career’, adding that tech is a great way to unify varied interests. He believes students should take advantage of events like hackathons even if they aren’t technical or designed focused. “If you have a brain and an idea and you see problems in the world, go for it, you never know where you fit in. And in the context of this economy, you may find yourself in tech anyway.” He suggests that students go to meetups, find mentors, and use institutional resource groups and organizations. “Go to linkedin and find alumni organizations in cities you want to go. Reach out. People will answer the email.”
He also advises that students find younger people to mentor, through groups like Black Girls Code that have linked up with HBCUs. “You never know where it’s lead you.”