Yahoo’s Maurice Woods on Service Leadership

I recently read Daniel Pink’s book Drive and liked the concept of the FedEx Day. So, I developed a similar concept for my in-house team and coined it our “Creative Spa Day.” This is one day, taken each quarter, where members of my team can simply refresh and realign with their personal creativity. They can do anything that they believe will get those creative juices flowing.

On the day I took my trip to the Creative Spa, I chose to attend a small design festival and sat in on a session with Yahoo senior visual designer, Maurice Woods. Maurice is also founder and executive director of the Inneract Project, a program that educates under-served communities about the power of design.

When first meeting Maurice, you’re blown away by his physical presence. He’s literally just a couple of inches south of seven feet tall! After listening to him talk about his passion for design and all that he does to foster young, creative talent, you quickly realize his heart is mega-sized too. That revelation was refreshing to discover.

If you haven’t heard of Maurice Woods, you should definitely get to know this in-house designer—an amazing leader who has designed a good life around service.


What is your first creative memory? And how has it resonated in your life?

It began, unfortunately, as a bad moment that became a memorable breakthrough. For curiosity’s sake, I took my father’s most expensive watch apart and tried to put it back together again—a memory he would prefer forgetting. This was not my first creative endeavor, but rather, my first conscious memory of engaging in a process where I learned how things worked, so I could then create something better. Today, I’m still curious and eager in solving and building anything I can get my hands on. I believe that initial creative energy never goes away.

What lessons did you learn while playing pro basketball that has helped you succeed in your career as a visual designer?

Basketball is an incredibly disciplined sport—from training to endurance and mental toughness. I played for 20 years before finally winning a championship during my final season. Playing ball taught me how to never give up and keep chiseling away until I reached my goal—even through the toughest situations. That’s 20 years of diligence, preparation and patience! Two of the biggest things I absorbed while playing basketball were how to be disciplined and acquiring a competitive spirit.

Looking back, it’s these two traits that have prepared me for a career in design. They have taught me how to recognize when it’s time to strike, move forward, or wait it out—design is similar to sports in this regard. Being disciplined has gotten me through creative slumps and high-pressured, aggressive deadlines to deliver something valuable to both my managers and clients.

Competitiveness is the most essential takeaway from basketball and the one I value most. My competitive spirit has kept me diligent, hungry and most importantly driven. Although I’m a mild mannered guy, I’m tough on myself because I want to be the best. When I played ball, I constantly worked out, practiced and trained harder to edge out my competitors. In my design career, I’m no different. I can’t shut it off. It’s a big part of who I am.


Everyone needs a career mentor, especially creatives and creative leaders. Who in the industry has influenced your career the most and explain why they are so important?

My biggest career mentor has been Kit Hinrichs. I learned a great deal from Kit while working with him at Pentagram and Studio Hinrichs. What has inspired and influenced me the most, aside from his design work, has got to be his work ethic, business knowledge and leadership. I discovered that great work is not enough. A good portfolio will get you far, but understanding the business side, and being able to communicate with clients is just as important, if not more so.

Learning how to talk business with clients and put design into a context they can understand is beneficial. Being able to explain how design can enhance the quality of a product, drive sales and enact change in the minds of the people it affects is a deeper level of design thinking—an art to master. Kit Hinrichs is really good at this and I’ve learned from him to apply it to everything I do.

How can diversity enhance design thinking and the creative industry?

Diversity is inclusion, and I believe diverse thinking is a necessity for the advancement of our nation and the many cultures it represents. The way we each think, ideate and solve problems vary and no one person or culture has access to all the cultural influences the world has to offer. No one.

So, how can design not be positively affected by the thinking of a few different ideologies? It can’t. Whether we realize it or not, we’re informed by the challenges and experiences we each face. As a designer, I have strived for a long time to break down barriers impeding the proliferation of diversity within design and the creative field.


What is the Inneract Project and why is it necessary?

I was a creative kid who had no knowledge that I could channel my creativity towards a potential career path. So I decided to develop a program that exposed creative kids to design at an early age. I wanted to educate both them and their parents about creative careers they may not have known existed. That’s how the Inneract Project was born.

The Inneract Project is a non-profit organization that educates and exposes youth and communities to careers in design. Our program is led by volunteers who give their time to connect the design community with urban communities, schools and families in a collaborative effort to help under-resourced youth achieve their highest potential.

Our three core goals are to:

  1. Increase exposure to the field of design for underrepresented youth and their communities
  2. Increase interactions between designers (as mentors/teachers) and youth
  3. Create early access and opportunities for youth to become valued members of the design community

The design industry generates more than $50 billion in the U.S. every year. Yet design principles are not included in traditional education nor are design jobs featured in schools as potential career choices. Many students are never introduced to the value of design as it can relate to their future. That’s staggering to me. This is leaving behind a lot of kids, and when you think of underserved youth, who have even less educational opportunities, this can make for even more of a critical problem.

At Inneract Project, we believe design is a skill that everyone, regardless of profession, can and should leverage. We believe that design education is not just about compulsory education reform, but about providing youth and communities with context—showing them what design is and what it can do for their lives.

Why is it important for leaders to have a service mindset?

As a leader, service starts by developing a sound value proposition for the people working with you as well as those you are working to serve. At the Inneract Project, one of our values is to offer our classes free to youths who want to participate. To lead these youths, you must have a humble mindset and a ton of patience! I believe that as a leader, you have to listen first and then develop the proper environment for all stakeholders to find value in the mission—only then can students, parents and the design community come together to build a better future.

YDA_sketchingideasWhat is the greatest challenge the program faces and how can we help?

The first challenge is making the case for design’s relevance in the local community. We work hard to not only teach youth and parents about the value of design, but also potential sponsors who don’t quite understand the importance of the work that we do.

The second issue is getting more parents engaged with our program. Parents are key to the success of their children. Getting information to parents is challenging. We have developed programs like the Learning Lab Workshops, Lectures and Studio Tours as well as the Youth Day Design Academy that include parents. The Academy encourages parents and guardians to come to class with their kids on the first day to learn about design. Then we invite them to return after classes are over to a reception that highlights and celebrates their student’s progress.

For everyone reading this interview, you can make a HUGE impact by simply just spreading the word. That’s it. Follow us on Facebook. It sounds really basic, but this small act actually provides a big help to us. Another way to help is by supporting our cause through the donation of resources. We’re very interested in growing and developing new initiatives to reach more under-served, creative youth throughout the United States. I’m also interested in learning how you’d like to assist.

What advice would you share with someone thinking about becoming a mentor or giving back by founding their own passion project, but doesn’t know where or how to begin?

The advice I would give to anyone thinking of becoming a mentor or founding a passion project would be to start small and grow it slowly, step-by-step. Begin by analyzing the needs of your stakeholders and develop a program that can provide them with the best value. It doesn’t take tons of money to start. It just takes passion and the willingness to start. Finally, you have to love what you do and believe in it—let your passion and willingness to serve drive you forward.

Thank you, Mo. You’ve inspired me to serve.


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