Sam Aquillano is the Founder and Executive Director of Design Museum Everywhere, an online, nomadic museum with the mission to bring the transformative power of design everywhere. Design is everywhere, so the museum has no permanent address — instead, Sam and his team turn the museum inside out, making it accessible to all across many platforms and locations.
Sam hosts one of the top 50-rated design podcasts: Design is Everywhere, a weekly podcast on the impact of design in our lives. In addition to being named one of Fatherly’s 100 Coolest Dads in America and one of Graphic Design DUSA’s 20 Responsible Designers to Watch, Sam also frequently speaks on design, strategy, and entrepreneurship.
CONSCIOUS ENTREPRENEURSHIP — What meaning do you give this term?
I love this term because it aligns with my approach to entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs are a force to be reckoned with, and often I see founders steamrolling through business and life with a singular focus — oftentimes ruining relationships, thinking the ends always justify the means. To me, conscious entrepreneurship means being mindful of your approach and impact as you seek to start this new amazing thing. I have an approach I call respectful opportunism. Entrepreneurs absolutely need to find opportunities and also create them out of thin air, but we can do so respectfully — respecting the people around us, keeping a moral responsibility to lift others up, while still moving our businesses forward.
CAREER — What led you to your particular career path?
I knew I wanted to be a designer even before I knew there was a word for it. My parents fostered my creativity — I spent my childhood drawing and building, and I feel lucky I had a lot of unsupervised time to take risks and go on adventures with my brother and our friends. I knew I wanted to be a designer who created exciting, useful, delightful things that made people happy or solved a problem for them. Which I did! I never thought I’d end up being the Executive Director of a museum — but looking back it makes sense. I love community, I love learning and education, and I love the idea of place. Plus I’ve always had an entrepreneurial fire burning inside me. When I was a kid I started little businesses here and there.
So after about a decade of being a practicing designer and enjoying some successes in that role, I sort of took a pause and evaluated what I was doing, and I was doing a lot. I was working full-time as a product designer, getting my MBA at night, teaching design on the other nights, and I ran a professional development community for designers — all at the same time. In every aspect of my life, I was interacting with designers, and I guess I just felt something was missing. Designers are just one piece of the puzzle, we’re designing for — and ideally with — people! So I wanted to bring the public into the design conversation. My co-founder and I had a few ideas on how we could do this. I was very intent on combining all my gigs into one thing I could focus on to make an impact, and that ended up being a public museum of design.
MENTORS — We all need a little help along the journey. Who has been an invaluable mentor for you? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
I am tremendously lucky to have really a countless number of mentors — so so lucky. I don’t know where I’d be without the advice and guidance from family, friends, kind strangers, and our Board and Council members. I’m a true believer in distributing my ignorance and listening with the intention to act. It’s hard to choose just one mentor, but I’ll mention Scott Reilly who was on our Board and even become Board Chair. Scott was an expert in design and museums, most importantly he was an expert in developing the resources necessary to sustain museums. Scott taught me so much about fundraising, he taught me the foundation of everything I know now about sales, grant writing, donors, sponsorships, and more. He gave me a piece of advice I’ll never forget. I started Design Museum Everywhere because I love designing and developing community education programs like exhibitions, events, workshops, etc., and I like to think I’m good at it. Scott let me know that if I wanted the Design Museum to be a success, I’d have to hire folks to do that part and I’d have to become our number one fundraiser. It was a tough pill to swallow, but he was absolutely right and I shifted my focus to fundraising to create a sustainable future for the museum.
TO THRIVE — When you see yourself thriving: Do you see yourself opening up opportunities for others along the way to participate in your success, and how?
Definitely. With my role as our Executive Director, focused on strategy and fundraising, I find joy in seeing how we put our supporters’ funds to work — that happens through the talented individuals on our team. If I’m doing my job right I’m enabling their expertise and creativity to meet our mission. Take our Director of Learning and Interpretation, Diana Navarrete-Rackauckas, for example, she is a true expert in education — given the resources and time, the things she’s able to accomplish are incredible, teaching design to young people in ways I could never dream. And another example, our quarterly magazine, Design Museum Magazine — I had the vision to launch a print magazine five years ago, even as many print magazines were shutting down or going completely online. I may have kicked it off, but Jennifer Jackson and Sophia Richardson who develop content and do graphic design respectively, they’ve taken Design Museum Magazine to a whole new level, it’s incredible — it’s like getting a book on design every 3 months. I think my job is to recruit great people, set a direction, find the resources, and allow my team to do what they do best — that approach hasn’t failed me yet.
CAUSE — What are the causes close to your heart, and you are supporting right now? Can you share a story how you got involved? How did it make you feel?
My team and I are very focused on infusing more racial and gender equity into the design world. The design industry is white-male-dominated — but designers are designing for the entire world. Diverse voices and ideas will improve the design product and business outcomes, while also creating better solutions for a wider range of people. This means elevating BIPOC talent and shifting our organizations to be better spaces for diverse thought and community. While I’ve always been keen on fairness and equal opportunity, it was the xenophobia and racism surrounding 2016 that really woke me up, and I realized I could use my power and privilege to help make a change. We kicked off a permanent exhibition program called We Design: People. Practice. Progress., which brings together creatives from a wide range of backgrounds to examine and celebrate the range of career paths, applications, and impact in design. It features career stories showcasing how people have forged their unique paths into different creative professions; from graffiti artists and architects to civic designers and strategic planners, and it emphasizes the need for more racial and gender diversity in design and innovation fields and highlights the importance of equity and inclusion in terms of generating ideas. The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to close the physical installations of the exhibition we had on-view in Boston, MA, and Portland, OR, so we brought the exhibition online for everyone to enjoy and learn.
THE FUTURE — How do you see the face of entrepreneurship in 5 years? How do companies /brands need to adapt to secure their place in the future?
For me, the future of entrepreneurship is driven by community. If a startup isn’t thinking about building a community around their brand — no matter what it is — I think they’re going to be left behind. In 5 years, having an engaged community will be akin to having an email newsletter or social media presence today. These are your early adopters, fans, evangelists, whatever you want to call them — but they’re more than just customers, they’re in this with you — and let’s face it, you need all the help you can get as a founder. Your community doesn’t need to be huge, in fact for some brands a highly-engaged, close-knit community might be preferable, but no matter what you’re offering or selling, having a group of people in your corner is going to be essential. The tools and approaches to building and maintaining your brand community are coming online now and they’ll only continue to improve.
ADVICE — What kind of advice would you like to give to an aspiring entrepreneur who feels limited due to their background or lack of resources?
First, don’t let your background stop you from doing anything you know in your heart you’re meant to do. When you’re doing this alone it’s easy for background and lack of resources to generate doubt — my advice: find a co-founder who believes in the vision as much as you do. To doubt is human, but when you have a co-founder you’re rarely both doubting your efforts at the same time — so you can boost each other when necessary. Starting something is so difficult, having a partner is essential. And here’s the thing, if you can’t convince one person to go on this journey with you, how are you going to convince hundreds or thousands to join you by buying what you’re selling?
DRIVE — Do you sometimes feel bad for “wanting more out of life”, and if so, why? What is your personal motivation that leads you through the hardships of entrepreneurship?
Interesting question! I’ve never thought of this beyond the fact that life is short and I’m always trying to make the most of it. We only get one shot at this so my motivation is to make the most impact I can with the time, talent, power, and privilege that I have. This extends beyond my business into being a good person, husband, father, friend, etc. If I think back to why I started something rather than remaining in my corporate job, I guess I wanted to control my own destiny, even if it meant I had to work harder — I’ve never felt bad about that.
CHALLENGES — Entrepreneurship is very challenging. We each have our own coping mechanism. Mine is humor. What is yours? Can you share a story?
Entrepreneurship is extremely difficult, but I relish the challenge. I truly enjoy building something from nothing — it’s something I did as a designer, and I apply that same thinking to building and growing Design Museum Everywhere. I cope with the challenge by sharing and talking with my wife, who is also an entrepreneur; she’s a ceramic artist with a line of tableware products she designs, makes and sells. We support each other by bouncing ideas and asking each other for advice, this happens pretty much daily. Being a founder can be a lonely job, I consider myself lucky to have Nicole to remind me I’m not losing my mind, or to tell me I’m wrong, or just to talk things through.
INSPIRATION — Is there an entrepreneurial book or podcast that inspires you that you would like to share with our readers?
Definitely — I’m constantly reading business books to learn more and gain insights. I got my MBA at the top business school for entrepreneurship, Babson College, and I learned a ton. But there are some fundamental things that they just don’t cover in business school. I highly recommend The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It by Michael E. Gerber. He really breaks it down and it’s told through a story of Michael helping a fictional entrepreneur. I read it for the first time about a year ago, and I plan to read it again this year.
YOU — Is there anything you would like to share that we have not asked you here?
I’d just encourage everyone to check out our unique museum, we’re redefining what a 21st-century museum is, we’re online, we’re a community, and we’re focused on exhibiting and sharing ideas, making them accessible to everyone. Whether you’re a designer or someone interested in changing the world, I think you’ll enjoy visiting DesignMuseumFoundation.org.
Demee Koch about the MEDIUM interview series on CONSCIOUS ENTREPRENEURSHIP:
Conscious entrepreneurship for me is about building a sustainable business that values and respects the resources used and makes an effort of giving back to society.
I believe we need entrepreneurs to really get involved in the causes close to their heart.
This is why I reach out to entrepreneurs that aim for more than generating profit. With this interview, I aim to share entrepreneurial purpose-led passion to inspire others.
Looking forward to learn from you. Reach out to me via LinkedIn.