Elizabeth Bayne: Did you always know that you wanted to do Industrial Design?
La Mer Walker (MS '12 GradID): No, I didn't know this was my path. My original career path was architecture, and so I did that as an undergrad at USC and practiced in the field for a while. Along the way, I met several ArtCenter alumni and I got introduced to the Grad ID program. It was a nexus point for a lot of interests I had.
EB: When you arrived on campus, what was your first impression?
LMW: It felt like the proverbial home that I'd dreamed about as a kid down in Louisiana. A lot of the art and design that I was seeing through being an admirer of sneaker design, being an admirer of architecture, being an admirer of fashion, was all here — in ways I hadn't seen in other places.
EB: About how many people in your program were Black?
LMW: The diversity came in a few different ways. I would say the international factor was attractive for me, as well as a presence that I really enjoyed. As far as a Black presence, it was almost nonexistent. There were a few friends in Illustration and a few in Product, but not very many.
EB: There have been approximately 300 Black alumni in 90 years — does that sound like a lot or a little considering the time span?
LMW: That sounds like a little. A very, very shockingly small number actually.
EB: Is a good or a bad thing?
LMW: It's not a bad thing. It's a fact. I think that the caliber of people within that group is amazing, stellar. And that's a pride factor for me. It's an opportunity is what I would say. That there's a whole set of generations coming along that should know that these things are possible. So, I look at it positively.
EB: Why? What do you foresee?
LMW: I see people understanding the value of being an individual, as well as a community member. And I think that's really important for everyone from all kinds of backgrounds, but especially within the Black community. People understanding that they can develop a unique voice and to really hone that and become known for that. It's pretty powerful. And they can do that in ways they might have thought were only possible being a celebrity or an athlete.
EB: Architecture, it’s a creative field, why didn’t you decide to be a teacher or a dentist?
Well, my parents are both music teachers. And part of the process of creative discovery that they had us go through was just experimenting with different things. My experiment was in the art and design classes at junior high and high school. So I would say how it happened was me being an explorer, wanting to see if I could do something that no one I knew had done, and what would become of me. I actually was OK with finding out. And more importantly my parents were too. That's not always the case.
EB: What do you do now?
LMW: It's an interesting time of transition. I've been co-founding a new platform called Valence, which is a new type of professional network for Black professionals. So we're at about a 7,000-person membership right now. And it's been fascinating to create the brand, to build out the partnerships and relationships. ArtCenter is going to be a partner.
EB: Why create this network? What was your vision?
LMW: Part of it was an experiment that came about from working with my partner and co-founder, Kobie Fuller, who's one of the few Black venture capitalists here in L.A. And we started talking about what I'd been doing at BCG Digital Ventures, which was building a team that was an anomaly in its diversity.
EB: People blame lack of diversity in the workplace on not being able to find the talent. Can you bridge that gap?
LMW: The velocity and immediacy of decision-making that happens across fields puts you in a place where you need to have that quick access and trust of your connections, of the people you know, who know the people you possibly should know. And so we want Valence to be that. We want it to be a stamp of quality, a stamp of culture, and a stamp of professionalism people can really rely on. Particularly people discovering new fields. That's where we want Valence to be a successful point for people to say, "Hey, I didn't know that because I have an accounting background, I actually could end up in a venture capital." Or, "Hey, I'm a designer, but I could end up being a founder because I've got these skills and experiences."
EB: What you created is fairly complex. Did ArtCenter play a role in preparing you for this?
LMW: Absolutely. In every way. No. 1 is the pressure-cooker model ArtCenter applies to getting things done. I'd say the second part is the aesthetic imperative — making sure whatever we create and put out as a brand has the highest level of execution. And I want to say No. 3 that there's an emotional factor within that — we want people in the field to know it's designed for them.
EB: Do you consider yourself a designer or an architect? What do you define yourself as?
LMW: I still call myself a designer even though I worked as an architect, even though I work in venture capital now. And design, to me, is realizing dreams. So anything around a dream I might have — whether that's working on a film, to working on a simple logo and brand endeavor, to an interior — it's all about bringing something to life with the vision and the passion for it.
EB: Are you a Black designer?
LMW: Absolutely. To me that means having a unique, hybrid view between being an outsider, as well as an innovator. So some of the things that we look at, because we're coming at culture from a very different oblique angle, was always going to have us in a place where we're creating something both new, fresh, different and at the same time that is timeless. So that's where I think the superpower in being a Black designer lies.
*This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
Photo credit: Everard Williams
Because we come at culture from a very different angle ... we're creating something new, fresh, and at the same time, timeless. That's where the superpower in being a Black designer lies.La Mer Walker (MS '12 GradID)Co-Founder & CCO
ArtCenter's Commitment to Black Lives