DV Alumni: Unlocking Strategic Innovation with Design Visionary, Kevin Bethune

Don’t miss part one of our riveting two-part series with the digital innovator, author, founder and Chief Creative Officer

Kevin Bethune’s career is as extraordinary as the innovations he has brought into being. Starting his career as an engineer in the nuclear power industry, he went on to design Air Jordans at Nike and grace the halls of BCG Digital Ventures (BCGDV) before eventually founding his own innovation think-tank, dreams • design + life.

From the power of transformative design to making multidisciplinary career leaps to his experience navigating corporate America as a Black professional — no topic is left unexplored.

Grab a coffee, settle in, and enjoy this profoundly inspiring and thought-provoking interview with Kevin Bethune.

BCGDV: Your career path has taken you from designing nuclear reactors to Air Jordans to the halls of BCGDV and beyond. Tell us more about your background.

My life started with a creative inclination, but I didn’t necessarily understand how to channel that in my youth. I drew as a hobby, but notions of design or innovation were in the abstract — they were just radically outside my worldview. Growing up for most of my childhood in the downriver Detroit metro area — in the heart of Big Auto — all my neighbors were working for the big American automotive brands. They were engineers, business people, or technicians. And so, the intersection between drawing and science and math — those interests coalesced into starting in mechanical engineering.

When it came time to start my career, the nuclear industry had a wide-open door. It was facing a knowledge crisis in that it hadn’t hired young talent in decades. The timing was right to go into that industry and get deep engineering experience from day one — and incredible mentorship from the folks who were about to retire.

A natural curiosity for business arose in that technical journey. I wanted a bit more agency and license to influence the bigger picture beyond just the engineering work. That led to earning an MBA. The MBA led to joining Nike, which was a great environment to scratch that creative itch that had been dormant from my youth.

At Nike, I saw real, professional design functioning for the first time, and I ended up back in grad school for design. That was a career gamble to position my career at the epicenter of converging disciplines.

BCGDV: Can you share more about that career metamorphosis — of going from technical engineering for nuclear plants and into Nike, where you were taking on more of a design and business point of view?

I’m thankful for the nuclear experience in that it taught me a lot. It humbled me in terms of what it means to create a product that satiates the needs of multiple stakeholders — especially in mission-critical work and given the safety implications of nuclear. It’s kind of mind-boggling remembering some of those projects.

Fast forward to Nike, I was entering a gigantic, matrixed environment. Learning the realities of what a publicly-traded company has to deal with — helping senior executives work with Wall Street, articulating the messages that matter — was humbling in its own regard. I had to be mindful of different challenges and stakeholder needs than what I had experienced coming purely from product creation.

But you know, I’m a product person at heart. I have to scratch those creative itches. So while being mindful of the business planning responsibilities, I networked like crazy to figure out where the cool product stuff was happening in the Nike portfolio. You could say that curiosity was always a defining thread, as was wanting to carve out time for exploration.

BCGDV: After leaving BCGDV, you founded your own innovation think-tank, dreams • design + life. Can you tell us more about the work you do there?

First, I definitely have to give thanks to Boston Consulting Group (BCG) at large, as well as BCG Digital Ventures, the corporate innovation and business building arm of the firm, for the runway that allowed us to get where we are today. Not to rewind too far, but coming out of my second dose of grad school, most of the recruiting conversations I was a part of didn’t necessarily embrace the hybridity that I represented.

But in meeting the right co-founding team and thanks to BCG, we got the runway to do things differently. At BCGDV, we were empowered to show what is possible and what multidisciplinary teaming can do. And that runway is still rare, even to this day.

I’ve very much taken that same spirit into this next chapter. There are two core filters we apply to determine the work we take on and where we spend our calories.

First, when evaluating new client partnerships, we ask: Is there a human imperative that we can latch on to? Perhaps it’s unlocking human potential, like serving an athlete — or unlocking human benefit, maybe in the form of a health and wellness solution. We double down on human-centric challenges rather than just digitization for digital sake.

Second, because my career has been a concoction of different physical and digital creation experiences, I bias my energy toward holistic solutions that span physical, digital, and service touchpoints. So, to no surprise, most of our clients are in the Internet of Things space. They have some physical, digital, and service-related elements — and we’re building ecologies with the work that we’re driving.

BCGDV: Many people are now looking at how to get in on emerging technologies, from crypto to the metaverse and everything in between. How do you walk someone through thinking about it as an ecology instead of just, “How can we make our own metaverse or NFT?”

I believe that some of the hot-topic technologies and platforms you’re mentioning are still enablers at the end of the day.

Ultimately, we need to think about all the stakeholders — not just the consumers that are consuming. Let’s think about the entire constellation of stakeholders. It might include end customers or consumers, but it also might include other benefactors or other folks involved in the exchange of value — whether it’s money, information, or resources. Let’s think about their journeys as a part of that constellation and how they interact in isolation — or how they commingle with each other.

How do we show up for those people when and where they need us — on their terms, not our own? It’s not necessarily about always ushering someone through a market funnel to click to buy. How we show up for people is the motivation.

In design, I’m always concerned about how we are creating new avenues of usefulness or utility for someone — in their journey, on their terms. And knowing that stakeholders are mired in information impinging on them, how do we help them parse through the noise? How do we serve up the information that will give them confidence that that path to utility we’ve created is right for them?

If we show up in the right way, that will create emotional resonance. People are going to almost subconsciously want to use our solution over and over again because it fits within their world, not necessarily our business construct.

BCGDV: That’s a really nice segue to the work that you’ve done in your first book, “Reimagining Design: Unlocking Strategic Innovation.” What prompted you to write this book?

It’s funny — a book was not on my career bingo card, to be honest. But navigating BCG and thanks to mentors that were immediately around me, I grew to learn the importance of eminence. During my time at BCG, everyone was always writing or giving talks at industry conferences. And this word that I never had in my career vernacular — “eminence” — was introduced to me.

But it isn’t eminence from an ego-centric perspective — it’s about the ability to engage in communities outside of your immediate career concerns or your immediate work. If I engage the community and can share with generosity something I’ve worked on, that frees my mind up to learn something from the other person. It’s almost like a circuitous loop — and opportunities arise when you share and exchange.

Upon leaving BCGDV and having to wrestle with the same challenges with my client partners at dreamsdesign + life, I realized there was a codification here. And I got to thinking: Is it a book that adds to design thinking? A book that minds the intersection between design and business, because we’re constantly wrestling with that opportunity?

But the timing of the book contract that eventually landed with MIT Press was at the very start of the pandemic. As a result, the writing journey took a fascinating set of turns.

BCGDV: This book is a powerful mix of your own personal story, while also being approachable in terms of talking about design and what design can do. It’s also a reflection of what it’s like to be “other” in an organization. Why did you choose to blend these three topics in your first book?

It’s a great question, and honestly, unbeknownst to the publishing team and me, the writing was sort of a cathartic journey of unpacking. When I started on the book, we were wrestling with the initial isolation of the pandemic. We were witnessing jarring tragedies in the news regarding police brutality against Black people. And we were seeing the rise of hate crimes against Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities.

When I started to reflect on what codification I would offer in a book, I couldn’t ignore what was going on in the world. I couldn’t help but reflect on how the overt things I was seeing in the news or experiencing within my own family also connected to a lot of the covert stuff we often feel within the institutions and enterprises that we navigate daily.

I couldn’t separate those in my mind. And as I was writing, I was sort of unpacking all those experiences — the trials, the tribulations, the resistance. And believe me, there was resistance when it came to some of those multidisciplinary career leaps. It was not easy to make some of those jumps. There were 99 folks telling me, “I don’t see that for you,” for every one that would open the door.

Some of that was constructive feedback I needed to hear, but some of the resistance was odd and confusing. Some of it pointed to my identity — not my work, work ethic, or qualifications.

So a lot of that entered the book. And then conversely, when I think about design and innovation opportunities, I know how it felt — within certain teams in my career — to be the “other” in the room, to be a marginalized voice not taken seriously. At the same time, I was looking outside the company walls and, at times, seeing significant, gaping, unmet needs. And they were needs left unmet by institutions and enterprises that could address them but didn’t because of blind spots, ignorance, or embedded institutional racism.

There’s also a huge business imperative here. We can’t let these blind spots hold back our opportunity to serve people. Trust the business concern will be taken care of if we show up for people in the right way. Unfortunately, I think we all probably have experienced teams or companies in our career where people were okay with the status quo, the blind spots, and the biases remaining. But if the last 24 months have shown us anything, it’s that we have to ensure our future teams are prepared.

BCGDV: How do you personally identify if an organization or team is prepared for the future? What does that identification look like and mean to you?

From the angle of representing the field of design and innovation, whether I was aware of it or not before, I’m hyper-aware of it now. In the past, maybe I didn’t realize in institutions that I may have been a part of, that a privileged few in power defined the pedagogy, or the methodologies, or how business was done.

But in a hyperconnected or hyper-converging world, we see this beautiful tapestry that is humanity. We’re so connected, we see right around the corner of the globe more easily than ever before. But when you look at the composition of teams — what they look like, how they behave, their intersectionalities — you also have to look at the approach and wiring of their pedagogy or methodologies. And you ask, where did that wiring come from? Does it represent that beautiful tapestry that is the world?

There are just tons of mismatches if we’re honest about unpacking the spaces that we’re a part of. Let’s be honest and have brave conversations to reveal where we have gaps because the malalignments are holding us back more than we realize.

BCGDV: You describe this wonderful binary of leadership in your book between essentially a gate-keeping style of leadership and a servant style of leadership. How do those two interact?

Whether it’s infusing design or becoming more diverse, equitable, and inclusive, ultimately what we’re talking about is transformation. All of these things require transformation — and transformation requires leadership.

During the writing process, I was forced to reflect on where I have experienced both good leadership and tenuous leadership. And that includes looking in the mirror: When have I had the right leadership behaviors, or when was I functioning as a gatekeeper and didn’t realize it?

When setting direction for any new initiative, a gatekeeper may demand compliance. On the other end, a servant leader may help articulate a vision but will give structured runway, carve out the work, and create autonomy among the different members of the team to help them be successful. And through their learnings and their journey, the vision gets better informed, and we can rinse and repeat from there.

As I was examining all of this, I found a spectrum in leadership behaviors — and the notions of gatekeeping and servant leadership were the endpoints. And as I reflected, several dimensions of effective leadership behaviors came to mind, each of which are explored throughout the book.

BCGDV: Can you share some of the ways that we can support Black creatives in the workplace? What does it really mean to lift them up, especially if you may not be coming from the same place as they are?

It’s probably one of the biggest challenges that keep me up at night, not only for my business but also for my client partners. Unfortunately, in most disciplines, our teams simply don’t match the composition of the world. And in design we’re woefully behind — any design discipline is like 1 to 3% African American or Black in general. And if we just take North America as an example, the Black community can be anywhere from 13% to 40%, depending on where you are in this country. We need to start by being hyper-aware of our biases in that respect.

Instead of designing for, the next evolution is to design with. And “designing with” is about engaging in co-creative participatory exchanges with the folks we’re serving — entrusting them as co-creators, as thought partners — and not just subjects to be studied.

We also need to ensure that our teams are representative. We need to have authentic relationships with those demographics via our own people who have relationships with those communities.

Granted, many Black creatives — because the representation has been so low and the pedagogies defined by so few — have not had the luxury to start in a creative discipline at the start of their careers. Usually, the arts are the first thing to be cut in school systems and institutions. And often, because of the lack of generational wealth, we’ve had to start in more pragmatic places to get started in our careers.

But as we navigate professional circles, we get exposed to the power of design — much like I saw at Nike. We come to design from a different vantage point, a different angle. And based on what the world needs, I think that is perhaps more beneficial than if we went down the same trodden path as some of our more privileged peers in the space.

I think the design field is starting to wake up to the reality that it can’t just function as an ivory tower anymore. Potential can come from any vantage point if we’re open-minded enough.

BCGDV: How have you navigated with being an “other” in a company, where you can talk about systemic imbalances and inequities you’re seeing?

One thing I am careful to say — and I make this clear in the book — is just because I’m a Black man navigating corporate America, I’m only writing about my personal and professional lived experience. I cannot speak to another’s lived experience with their different layers of intersectionalities and the multiple facets that make them human. I won’t pretend to know what someone else goes through, but I’m going to share what I’ve gone through with the hopes that the perspectives unearthed can be valuable — for someone else who’s similar to me or different from me.

I can say from personal experience of knowing what it feels like to be marginalized or not seen — I think it builds a humility and a sensitivity to wanting to lean further into the notion of designing with someone. This means treating someone as a human being — not just someone to be researched, to be just exploited for the sake of a “click to buy.” Let’s meet people where they are with humility and not presuppose that we understand the rubrics of behavior change and all the assumptions that go into our business-model thinking. Let’s not presume to know. Let’s be humble. And that does bleed into servant leadership.

I was just in a workshop a few months ago — a high-profile workshop — and there were 30 of us in the room. We’re at this tier-one company, and this Black woman that I remember had such an incredible background. So much promise — young in her career but so much promise, so much potential — she had very articulate things to say in that room. But to witness her hands shaking under the table — because she was trying to rehearse in her head what she was about to say to be deemed credible — was jarring. I don’t like to see anyone in angst with simply wanting to be themselves in the room.

BCGDV: Let’s talk more about participatory design and what it means to open up that space for people in the room to be themselves. What does that look like in real life?

I think that the end goal should be, how could I include those folks in my team? That’s the end state so that we have threads of authenticity to the community to go back to more people that look like us and have that engagement.

To your question about participatory design, I think it’s about creating safe spaces of honesty. Whether we have to create space outside of the day-to-day workplace to allow convening, we have to set ground rules.

We have to say, everyone that comes in this room, you leave your title at the door. We’re going to be very upfront, honest, and transparent about what we’re working on. We’re not studying people behind the mirrored glass anymore. Let’s have a conversation. Let’s introduce some easy, low-fidelity tools that we can work with. Let’s put the hypotheses on the table — but let’s beat it up, test it, and design together. Maybe we leave that day and go build things thoughtfully — and concept test or prototype — and then go back to that community.

The research sprint is not a one-and-done act where we finish, hand the insights over, and move on. Let’s stay engaged with the community — even if we’re building products and services — and keep the community vested. And sure enough, those folks might be future employees of our team one day. Let’s keep that open aperture.

BCGDV: How do you balance humility with self-advocacy and being able to stand for and protect some of those safe spaces? What are some of the ways you’ve been able to balance these in your own life?

Any leaning of experimentation that happens, as you unearth evidence, you can’t help but feel a sense of conviction around whether that evidence is helping or potentially inhibiting us in our progress — in our ability to serve the constituents we’re designing with.

Those convictions, we have to listen to what our heart is saying about these things. And again, having the humility to make sure that we’re not just leaning into our own voice, belief system, or thoughts around something.

And despite the obstacles that will naturally come — politics and organizational mechanics will get in the way of your ability to serve that thing that’s convicting you — you have to keep leaning in. You have to keep reinforcing the guiding principles that will hopefully matter and serve as the underwire of any business model, product, or new service construct that you hope to realize over time.

BCGDV: What’s the most meaningful act of inclusivity you have seen in a business context?

There’s nothing more gratifying than when a safe space is created. Take the highly visible Immersion Sessions that we used to have — and I’m sure are still happening — in the BCGDV environment.

It was always gratifying when our most executive stakeholders from the client partner would come into the room and get to enjoy not just the partners articulating what was going on — but would feel the full diversity of every slice of humanity being in the room. They would get to hear every part of the puzzle that made up this multidisciplinary recipe — the convictions of human-centered value criteria, questions around revisiting the first principles that drove our present consensus of how industries are supposed to behave, insights into different trends and exemplars.

It was immensely gratifying to watch the stakeholders enjoy that diversity of inspiration, insight, data points, and observations — and then see that workshop converge on the guiding principles that mattered to move the team forward until the next Immersion Session. Or, with laser focus, presenting the new hypotheses that came from that day’s work.

It was all about the garnered momentum — not about having people feel like the right or wrong answer was presented. Growth opportunities don’t work that way. We have to foster and spark momentum that builds on itself versus feeling like we have to have the correct answer all the time.

Anywhere where there’s a safe space where that diversity can showcase itself — I love those moments.

BCGDV: How do you process the imposter syndrome that often comes with being “other” in the room? How do you fight that in order to really show up in the moments that matter?

There were times when, after a leap, I was the “other” — and not just with respect to being a Black man. Maybe I stepped into an arena where compared to my peers, I didn’t have the long pole of experiences that they did in one area — I had poles maybe half the length, but a couple of them across different areas.

And of course, I still feel that sometimes when I’m in a new space or with a new client partner, but the motivation is to get started. It’s not about whether I am right or wrong with everything I say. Now I have the belief system that the summation of experiences does make me more resilient and future-informed in terms of where the world could go. The patterns that I could bring to the conversation — coming from a different angle or background — could be uniquely valuable to the conversation. No one else in the room can offer it.

You have to lean into your uniqueness and stop the constant mental trap of second-guessing yourself. It’s not about being right or wrong in every moment — it’s about momentum and learning and failing forward.

Speak to your convictions. Give it a try. Solicit real-time feedback from your mentors and leaders. But go for it every time — because the world needs your uniqueness.

BCGDV: What would you share with those who want to be allies and make sure they support colleagues and team members who want to be and feel seen in “otherness?” How can allies help build that safe space, even if they might not be a team leader?

It’s an excellent question. The future will require us to be in multidisciplinary settings more than ever before. I think all of us — regardless of race, background, or creed — will feel like the other at times.

The need will be multidisciplinary moving forward, we just have to get our heads around that. To that end, this rubric of breadth and depth of collaboration and team chemistry comes to mind.

When I say breadth, I mean we will each need to — again, regardless of discipline — figure out our unique way of communicating, collaborating, and aligning with folks that are different from us. And I think that takes humility.

Before you can lead anyone, you have to foster trust. There needs to be trust across the different disciplines. Instead of aiming to lead someone different from you, how can you solicit trust first by serving that person? How can you have a servant leadership mindset, regardless of your title or what level you stand in the hierarchy? How are you serving that person and fostering trust? Once you establish trust, then you might have the license to lead.

And then, when I speak to depth, we shouldn’t be a part of any organization where we feel like we can’t raise our hand and question or raise a concern. Or think about the broader ecology beyond the business concern of marketing to market and consuming to consume. What are the broader implications on other facets of society and people?

Depth is soliciting the breathing room to allow the different experts in the room to inform their own plans. Let them get away from the team room, go deep on their craft and their subject matter expertise, and bring something back to the team — whether evidence, insights, or prototypes — to galvanize the team and move it forward. It’s an orchestration that we all have to learn how to master.

BCGDV: For our last question, in order to be a designer, do you believe that grad school is necessary?

It’s not a requirement, but it depends on how much depth and how quickly you’re after achieving that depth. Grad school can be an accelerant, but there are all kinds of emerging ways to learn, to satiate that desire to be a lifelong learner. We should all be lifelong learners.

I reached a fork in my career journey where I felt like I could have clawed and scratched for 10 to 15 years before I earned similar credentials to just going and investing two more years. And, of course, it was scary because it was two more years out of the workforce when I thought I was finished with school after the MBA. To do two more years of full-time study was quite daunting.

But the bet has paid off, and more than just financially, it’s allowed me to dream and be able to bring others into the dreaming too. I’m living my life’s dream — despite whatever business challenges arise on any given day — I get to live my dream.

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BCG Digital Ventures - Part of BCG X

BCG Digital Ventures, part of BCG X, builds and scales innovative businesses with the world’s most influential companies.