Marquise Stillwell, Founder and Principal of Openbox, a design and innovation consultancy, discusses the importance of traveling, creating opportunity, and the key to true leadership.
You once told me that you can't have true creativity and innovation without vulnerability. Can you tell me how you reached that place of understanding?
I'm driven by curiosity. We all need to stay curious. Curiosity is a big part of the work that we do as creatives. You can't truly be that way if you're not willing to be vulnerable, which means that you're willing to be comfortable with being uncomfortable all while knowing that you don't know everything. Understand your blind spots and know how to either solve for those blind spots with real people who can help you out or with a real understanding that can then guide you.
Can you tell me about how traveling has impacted your life and the way that you do your work?
Yea, I mean, exposure. I think one of the challenges for people of color is that we're constantly trying to find fair access. We're always saying, "Give us a chance." I think that we also have to push ourselves. We're not always great at being uncomfortable because sometimes we feel that we've been so uncomfortable for so long and think, "God if I could just breathe. If I could just find a moment where I'm accepted." I get that in spirit, but in practice that's not how life really works. We have something very special because we understand what it means to be uncomfortable, but we don't put it into practice in regards to getting out, traveling, seeing people, and also seeing that people are very open to us.
There are places where we may be uncomfortable, but we should find comfort in that because we're different and our differences are what makes us special. Traveling outside of the U.S. allows us to understand what it means to be an American and not just a Black American or African American. So I encourage us to travel, but I encourage everyone to travel because it's so important to see the faces and to feel that people are all going through different types of struggles.
What's one of the most profound moments that you have experienced while traveling?
I think they're all profound. I think that I've been lucky to feel vulnerable and scared. I would say profound for me is finding those lonely moments in the middle of a city where you don't speak the language. I think for me back in the day, way before cell phones and all of those different ways of communicating, I was in Madrid one night. It was raining. I didn't have a place to stay. I was tired of speaking the language and just running around with my bag trying to find a hotel. Back in those days you would kind of go in and out of different hotels, you know, figuring what you can afford and what you can do. It was one of those times where I was trying to ask for help. No one wanted to speak English and I was tired of speaking Spanish. I think it was one of those moments where I was really able to push myself to a place where you're scared, you're lonely, you're tired, you're gross. You're pushing and the best of you is coming out because you're learning how to deal with yourself. You're learning how to deal with your own frustration. You have nothing and no one to fall back on. That type of vulnerability is what definitely allows me to be in a city like New York City and be able to travel anywhere in the world.
"IF YOU'RE THE SMARTEST PERSON IN THE ROOM, YOU'RE NOT CONVENING WITH THE RIGHT PEOPLE. LEADERSHIP MEANS THAT YOU'RE NEVER THE SMARTEST PERSON IN THE ROOM."
So in my career, I want to be able to collaborate with a variety of people on different projects. I really admire you and I find it to be inspirational that you have that opportunity. Do you think that your ability to work with lots of people from all over is a result of traveling or was it more from creating your own opportunity?
No one says, "Hey, let's pick a team," unless you're on a basketball court and even then you have to earn it. You gotta to show up. No one's playing fair. I think that we get too comfortable within our own comfort because we have this common style that we think is collaboration, but it's not.
It's like when we all get together to march because somebody did something against us. That's not collaboration. It's very different. Even at this point, people who are still leading the charge are doing most of the work and we're just followers. I think we're great at following, but leadership is something special. It's something different. As much as we cry about Dr. King, we have no idea what it means to give up your body. We don't even celebrate that on his birthday. We don't even celebrate that during Black History Month. We celebrate from the first to the 15th and halfway through we're done.
How did you begin creating opportunity?
I would say one, constantly exploring, being vulnerable, and taking risks. Two, constantly reinventing yourself. Three, not caring about what other people think about the first two.
I feel like that's easier said than done though.
No! It's easier lived than done. You gotta to live it. You can't just say it. It's taken me time and iteration to be able to do that. I'm 47 so I'm able to better articulate that.
"We can talk about failure, but we want it private. Public failure? That's the best. There's no better lesson than when the client or someone else calls you out and you thought that you were doing a great job."
How has failure played a role in where you are today?
It's everything! I would say it's a constant. I would say that critique is a gift, right? You know, it's like today we just had a client give us a critique of my team and it wasn't favorable. It's really tough to hear, but very important. I'll never get to be great if I'm always okay with being good. For the most part, we don't want to hear critique. We can talk about failure, but we want it private. Public failure? That's the best. There's no better lesson than when the client or someone else calls you out and you thought that you were doing a great job. The only way that we'll get better is when we get better at dealing with critiques. So seek it out. Ask for feed back.
So today, you received negative critique. How did you set an example for your team in dealing with it?
Some of my thoughts are going to take time for you to have some context to, but the best way to explain is that from a management standpoint, you manage the space and not the particles. What that means is that you really understand the relationship between the two people and not the relationship to the person. The space in between is the work and the interaction -- the dynamic between the people. If you're managing the space between versus that person, then you're really helping to move people to their best selves. A lot of times what we try to do is manage people, their personalities, who they are, and who they're not. I've really gotten better at accepting people for who they are and managing that space. That takes a lot of time.
What current projects are you working on?
The team is working on a number of different projects. As far as me personally, I'm always kind of convening people and ideas and helping to set up conditions for something to happen. I'm working closely with the Lowline project, you know, the underground park. That's something that I'm spending a lot of time on and even with that I'm really helping to convene people and ideas versus "moving stuff". As your career goes, you'll get to a place where you move away from moving particles and the day to day and move into helping to shape ideas. That's really where you want to be if you want to grow your career in a way that you get to own everything that you do. For me that's kind of like my everyday.
"I always tell people that racism doesn't begin with hate. It begins with indifference. The same thing with failure. It's indifference."
I consider to you to be a great leader. I know that comes with time, but what do you consider to be the key to true leadership?
Knowing that leadership doesn't mean that you're out in front. Leadership doesn't mean that you know everything. Leadership means that you're showing up. You're being present. If you're the smartest person in the room, you're not convening with the right people. Leadership means that you're never the smartest person in the room.
Do you have any other thoughts related to failure?
I think that we complicate things too much to where it's this big burden. Really we fail everyday and it's just about living in awareness. That's it. I always tell people that racism doesn't begin with hate. It begins with indifference. The same thing with failure. It's indifference. Just admit that you've fallen, get up, and keep moving. That's all I do everyday. I fall. I apologize. I do something stupid. I apologize. Very Simple.