Kevin Bethune at CMU lecturing about his career in design. Photo by Erick Irvis.

Kevin Bethune’s first book, “Reimagining Design: Unlocking Strategic Innovation,” came out in the spring and is already one of MIT Press’s bestselling books of the year. 

No one is surprised that the former Pittsburgh resident would have any trouble connecting with an audience of eager readers. Bethune was hired by Westinghouse shortly after graduating from Notre Dame with a mechanical engineering degree and also earned an MBA from the Tepper School of Business at CMU and a M.Sc. of Industrial Design from ACCD.

Self-effacing, but confident, Bethune returned to his alma mater recently to do a series of lectures as part of his national book tour. He also wanted to reconnect with a region that will always be special to him.

The founder and CEO of dreams • design + life, a design and innovation think tank located in Redondo Beach, California, knows that designing the Nike Air Jordan Fusion 8, a bestselling product that sneaker aficionados buy (but never wear so as not to diminish the value), is bound to impress more young people than his ability to design upgrades for nuclear reactors. That’s just life.

His apprenticeship at Nike, which was itself a turn from the path he was expected to follow, opened the door to design and many other possibilities to advance his philosophy of diversity, equity and inclusion across many platforms.

Bethune no longer works for Nike. He’s now the head of his own consultancy firm and leans heavily on skills he picked up in both Pittsburgh and in Portland, Oregon. 

In his book, in conversation and in public lectures, Bethune is frank about the challenges of being an African American in a space where being a designer/engineer/dreamer is considered a “white thing” in terms of aspiration.

But he has always refused to accept other people’s limitations on what he could do.

The following is an excerpt from Bethune’s Q&A with NEXT:

Tony: Why did you write “Reimagining Design?”

Kevin: To be honest, writing a book was never on my career bingo card, but life comes at you fast. [It] began to percolate more recently, because I found myself navigating unique leadership opportunities where I was tasked to [introduce] design and innovation capabilities in spaces that hadn’t fully understood or experienced the power of creative problem-solving.

Those moments required courage and conviction because the stakeholders around me didn’t necessarily know what to ask for from design, but it was also an opportunity to show courage and demonstrate what was possible.

I realized other organizations could benefit from my unique experiences and point of view, so I put together a book proposal. The MIT Press found it interesting and signed me to a contract, coincidentally, at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020.

Writing through that period — as well as navigating the summer of George Floyd and the heightening awareness of police brutality on Black and Brown communities, and the rise of hate crimes against AAPI communities — was a crazy time, but the book took a surprising pivot to really embrace a mixture of professional perspectives with my unique experiences as a Black man navigating extreme multidisciplinary leaps.

Fast forward a couple of years; the book is now out and the common thread of feedback is that the book serves as a mirror for folks to “see” themselves differently and reveals opportunities of how they might lead and influence their organizations differently.

Kevin Bethune. Photo by Harrison Boyce.

Tony: Your roots are in Detroit and elsewhere, but you spent quality time in Pittsburgh. What did this region teach you?

Kevin: Yes, I spent seven proud years here. I was recruited by Westinghouse. The nuclear power industry hadn’t hired young talent for the 10 to 15 years prior to me coming out of [Notre Dame].

Many engineers who designed the world’s fleet of nuclear plants faced retirement, [so] the industry was facing a knowledge crisis. Compared to other industries with a conservative stance on career pathing, the nuclear industry wanted to provide new talent a wide open door to engage on critical engineering projects earlier compared to my peers in other industries.

I think that early experience complemented the “grit” I felt as being an important part of the culture of the region. People were not afraid to face “hard things” whether personally or professionally. My nuclear experience required hard work and strict intellectual fortitude. I learned what it meant to create mission-critical products within a business construct. 

I learned how to build trust in serving high-performing teams, which led to the privilege of eventually leading those teams.

A natural curiosity for business crept into the work, and that eventually led to spending my final two years at the Tepper School of Business at CMU earning my MBA. Pittsburgh cemented my early adulthood, and I’m also thankful it was where I met my wife, Sefanit.

Tony: You’ve designed sneakers and redesigned nuclear reactors. That’s quite a range of marketable skills.

Kevin: Nike opened my eyes to the power of design. Through the early Westinghouse work, I found myself working on many reactor projects across a large swath of plants, most extensively across the U.S. and in South Korea. That work was a mixture of structural analysis, classical hand calculations, computer simulations, hardware fabrication and extensive lab testing to bring new hardware solutions into reality. We also had to travel to different plants to implement our solutions to extend the life of each operating reactor and/or improve its performance. Compared to footwear, nuclear was a very different animal of “extreme.” 

By the time I got to Nike, I felt I could make connections from the physical realities of nuclear power to the physical creation realities that are part of the Nike footwear machine.  I could at least converse with Nike designers and developers about 3D technology and rapid prototyping from my engineering days, while learning a ton about Nike’s design approach. However, I did have to fight off the “not invented here” syndrome where some folks would scoff at or dismiss my pre-Nike experience as not being of the same caliber as Nike product creation.

That comes from some just wanting to make you an “other” when you bring lived experiences that are different from their comfort zone. Those critics didn’t realize how ridiculous they were sounding if they took a moment to imagine the complexity I had to navigate in nuclear. Shoes were challenging to design and engineer no doubt, but don’t dismiss my pre-Nike experience as worthless.

Tony: What did the students ask you most about during your CMU lectures?

Kevin: Most of the CMU students wanted to hear the “playbook” of what led me to cross such extreme multidisciplinary chasms and eventually create my own think tank in dreams • design + life. With hindsight being 20/20, I strongly believe that curiosity was my defining thread that connected every chapter of experience. Curiosity has never failed me. Curiosity begets a desire to experiment. Experimentation breeds evidence, and evidence informs the convictions that drive us forward. That’s exactly what drove me forward through every step in my life.

My hope is that “Reimagining Design” offers a different narrative on what it takes to lead, and that it will spawn the appetite for folks to share even more narratives of different leadership archetypes that run contrary to the standard tropes.

My career wasn’t born at Nike, so I was often perceived as different or the “other” who didn’t match people’s comfort zones or biases. I think feeling unsure of my place and spending so many calories on politics affected my mind, body and spirit. I didn’t feel well … I didn’t feel like myself. I didn’t feel welcome. 

What saved me was leaning into my curiosity regardless of what folks had to say about me and what they felt I should be doing for my career. I found a path that led me to design … and how design would end up becoming an integral part of my multidisciplinary identity. I guess you could say that I learned that my career was actually mine … and that the dream was much bigger than designing shoes.  

Dear readers: I hope you’re enjoying the change of pace in my weekly column in NEXTpittsburgh as much as I am. I’m also working on a new podcast with my friend and fellow journalist Natalie Bencivenga. In Other News will launch in early 2023. Stay tuned!

Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.

Award-winning writer Tony Norman tells the untold stories of Pittsburgh’s Black communities in a weekly column for NEXT. The longtime columnist and editorial writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan and an adjunct journalism professor at Chatham University. He is the current chair of the International Free Expression Project.