From studying Political Science to globetrotting Founder, CEO, and role model: our interview with Michelle Caers
From her first job in Tokyo to growing companies spanning India, France to Canada, now leading women in tech initiatives and running her Strategy & Design firm — DesignedUX — Michelle is an experienced design and product leader in Toronto with quite an illustrious and equally adventurous career path. Walking into a Parkdale cafe, greeting us with a giant smile and an incredible aura — we certainly were stoked to learn more about her journey through the intersections of design, tech, and startup life across the globe.
Let’s start with a bit of an intro. Can you tell me about your roles with DesignedUX and the DMZ?
I founded DesignedUX at the end of 2013, and we’ve just entered our 5th year of business with impressive year over year growth.
At the DMZ, I’m one of the 10 EIRs (entrepreneur-in-residence) in different designated specialties. Mine is design — and I advise startup CEOs and Founders on product market fit, customer acquisition strategy, and design. I was talking to one Founder, and he said “you know, if I want marketing help, I’ll go ask the marketing person. If I want financial help, I ask the finance guy. But if I want to talk about building my business, I come talk to you.” That summed up for me, where design fits in the business ecosystem.
What about your career leading up to founding DesignedUX?
I have a very eclectic background. My first professional job was in downtown Tokyo in Japan. I joined a really large company called Nova Group — a language school that had an arm in real estate, communications, and tech. After Japan, I went to England to get my MBA at the University of Nottingham. Afterwards, I returned to Canada and started in a web dev shop, helped built another tech company from the ground up, worked at Desire2learn, and was on the founding team of Savvica, mostly in the tech in education and e-learning field.
At Savvica, we had three web properties, the largest one being Learnhub. This was an international student recruitment and marketing company focused on India. We began with lead generation, then expanded into dedicated microsites for all our universities, and then guided those universities to use social media marketing and influencers to engage with students. We grew Learnhub to 20 million visitors a year and served over 260 university and college customers around the world.
So you’ve spent time in Japan, France, India, England, as well as travelling to many other parts of the world. Have your travels impacted how you approach business problems?
I think we can all agree that one of the key elements for understanding customers is empathy. By traveling the world and meeting people from all walks of life, I gained strong empathy and was able to put myself in someone else’s shoes and see things from their viewpoint. We’re not designing for ourselves, we’re designing for our target user.
You’re now heading the recently-announced Women in Tech program. When it comes to women in tech, and specifically when it comes to design, the amount of senior or leadership roles that women hold are heavily skewed. How do you see that situation improving?
There’s been a lot of focus in the last few years around this topic. The number of women in leadership roles have been very low across all industries. In some Fortune 500 companies and in healthcare, a majority of the workers are women but at the leadership level it’s still skewed in one direction. Maybe this is just a part of our history and the way it was. If we want to change it, first of all — we need to see women in leadership roles, and I’m out there to be a role model for young women by leading the women founders program at the DMZ. If you want to found a company, you can found a company. If you want to be on a leadership team, you can get there.
I’m out there to be a role model for young women by leading the women founders program at the DMZ.
Secondly, we need to give women opportunities. When I’m hiring people to join my company, I look equally for the best candidate in men and women. The candidate may not have every box checked, but if they have the right attitude they can learn and be effective. Taking an open approach to hiring people who don’t necessarily look like us for leadership positions. We need to take an open approach to hiring people who don’t necessarily look like us for leadership positions.
Take an open approach to hiring people who don’t necessarily look like us for leadership positions.
When I evaluate a company, I first go to the team page to see the diversity. Sadly often when I do see women, she’s one of two roles — she’s head of Marketing or HR. While I applaud that women have these roles, I’d like to see head of design, tech, business development, all roles equally shared. It’s so interesting because when we’re growing up, we have role models that are men and women — our parents, our aunts and uncles, our teachers. Once we get into the workforce, it’s suddenly not equal anymore and we’re expected to somehow compensate for that and still be productive. It’s silly, really. Everyone will be more productive if there is more of a balance in leadership and amongst colleagues. It’s also more fun.
Everyone will be more productive if there is more of a balance in leadership and amongst colleagues. It’s also more fun.
Wrapping up, here are some rapid fire questions.
What’s your secret talent? Or something people don’t expect from you?
I ride a motorcycle! I rode my motorcycle from Toronto to Vancouver and back through the US, to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday. I rode across the country on my own and it was spectacular.
What shows are you watching on Netflix?
I’m watching the Punisher right now. I’m not into anything horror, or anything scary, supernatural, etc.
What have you read recently?
Any closing advice for junior designers?
Absolutely. The advice I would give to someone just starting out is to choose a role where they can optimize their learning in whatever aspect that is. One designer that has worked at DesignedUX had an agency experience starting out and really learned the ins and outs of production. Another designer came from a fine arts background, and was able to take that artistic knowledge and apply it to product design. Those that came from a humanities background really focused on user experience and human-computer interaction. Everyone was able to achieve their goals would approach it from a different place. There’s no one formula for design.
Thank you for reading! Stay tuned for our next interview with another leader from the design & tech community. Got someone in mind we should interview? Hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org.