Until recently, staying for a long time in the same company, or even for a lifetime, was highly valued. On the other hand, those who changed this trajectory were seen as professionals with little stability or who didn’t dedicate themselves as much.
Nowadays, the professional scenario could not be more different. We hear more and more reports from those who have decided to completely change their career path. And if this kind of news caused astonishment a while ago, today it provokes reflections about our relationship with work.
In this month’s Featured Story, we talk to Kristen Shenk, CEO and Founder of MLTI NYC, a multi-disciplinary creative agency based in New York City. In this conversation, Shenk tells how it was to leave a dream job at Nike and start her own company.
Check out the interview:
Q: Kristen, to start our conversation, tell us how you started your career. Have you always worked in the creative field?
A: Yes, I have always worked in the creative field, but within many different creative disciplines. I landed a post-graduate Graphic Design Internship at Nike WHQ fresh out of art school. Thankfully the internship segued into a full-time position and I stayed at the company for the next decade.
Q: What was it like to work in one of the world’s most influential brands and how did this experience help you?
A: At first it was intimidating! Starting my career at Nike was a dream and formed an incredibly powerful foundation for my design career. For one, Nike is a design-driven company in which design, creative, and storytelling are king. So not only did I learn from some of the best creatives, marketers, and storytellers in the world, I was also expected to bring my A game each and every day. I learned how to think; how to build a powerful and emotive visual narrative; how to sell ideas; and was encouraged to dream big. Starting my career at Nike formed a strong creative foundation upon which everything subsequent was built. And it also came with a great global network. I’m very thankful for my time at the Swoosh!
Q: Tell us how the idea of creating MLTI NYC came about and how can MLTI NYC help brands?
A: After a decade at Nike (where I had various roles across Product Creation, Nike Basketball Brand Design, and Experiential/Event Design), I moved to NYC and led design for Mtn Dew and Aquafina brands at the PepsiCo Design & Innovation Center. So I have deep experience in brand-building across very different industries.
Throughout that journey, I felt an increasingly growing itch and desire to build something of my own. Working for these big brands is incredible — you have the support of a big organization, dollars, and teams…but sometimes you can also feel replaceable within the giant matrix. I felt I had cultivated the creative skills, the leadership skills, and perhaps most importantly the courage to go out on my own and build a company based on my own philosophies and values.
I leveraged the first chapter of my career to learn and grow and absorb from great leaders and great companies, and built an impressive body of work. In this next chapter, with MLTI NYC, we take those foundational learnings of storytelling and bold, powerful design solutions, and apply them to a range of different clients and industries. If you’re a startup, we can formulate your brand story, your visual identity, brand voice, and create differentiation and an emotional connection for your brand. And if you’re an established brand (like Pepsi or Nike, who are both clients now!), we can deepen the connection with your consumers through seasonal brand campaigns, brand experiences, photography/film, et al. For the former, we can create a full brand from a blank page, which is really fun. And for the latter, we’re really good at understanding the core equities and legacies of established brands to deliver solutions that are on-brand and build upon those legacies, while still pushing the boundaries where and when we can.
Our name — MLTI NYC — is pronounced “multi” and embodies our multi-disciplinary creative philosophy. We thrive on creative diversity and love to create work that crosses over disciplines, including graphic design, animation, photography, copywriting, event design, and more!
Q: What is your point of view on the transformations that the design profession has undergone in recent years?
A: That’s a great segue from the previous question. “Design” is no longer limited to 2D, print, and typography+image. It’s fluid. It moves. It’s both 2D and 3D. It’s digital, it’s print. Now it’s even AI-driven! The way we communicate has changed so dramatically and continues to rapidly evolve. So, from a design profession standpoint, it’s important to keep up. It’s challenging, but also keeps us on our toes.
I also think collaboration is crucial in today’s design landscape. (Dare I say that the era of “design rockstar” is an outdated and tired notion?) The best work is a result of radical collaboration and a mix of both generalists and specialists, which is how we work at MLTI NYC.
Q:What is success for you? And what characteristics do you believe are essential to excel in the creative field?
A: My definition of success is ever-changing. I’m constantly challenging both my own definition and society’s “traditional” definitions of success. Of course, success to me means creating stellar work…but the process also matters. If the process of creating great work leaves a trail of toxicity, then is that success? Success is not just an “end state.” The energy that we put into the world matters.
Technical skills, work ethic, and clear communication are all important skill sets to be an effective creative. AND, I’m also learning more and more how important the softer skills are to the creative process and a meaningful career — things like mindset, self love, resilience, and optimism.
In fact, I’m in the process of writing and designing a book on topics of Creativity, Entrepreneurship, & Mindfulness.
Q: To finish our conversation, what advice would you give to people considering starting their business in the creative market?
A: Build the technical skills and absorb as much as you can from your job(s), leaders, and mentors. And once you’ve built the foundational skill sets…JUST START! Jump in the deep end and learn how to swim. Embrace the messiness that might come with it, and abandon the impossible notion of “perfection.” Starting a business comes with a steep learning curve. As long as you have the right foundational skills, you’ll figure everything else out as you go. Trust yourself, and trust the process!