This month, OECS YES In Action caught up with Naadiya Mills, a 29 year old creative strategist from St. Kitts and Nevis advocating for a more inclusive industry and paving the way for Caribbean perspectives !
Tell us a little about yourself.
My gravitation toward creativity and artistic expression was very apparent at an early age. I had the ability to do things that really stood out to my parents, including building a complex 3D giraffe sculpture made of toy blocks at the age of 2. It was puzzling to my mom how something so intricate appeared in the living room next to her toddler. It was very clear to my parents that being creative filled my spirit. I was never without a sketchbook, crayons, paints or coloring pencils. They have been great supporters of my journey to be an inspirational artist from the very beginning.
I have had many supportive persons in my life, encouraging me to complete a Bachelors of Fine Arts (B.F.A.) in Graphic Design – as well as completing Portfolio School, receiving a certificate in Art Direction from Miami Ad School. Along my journey, I have had the opportunity to intern for Advertising Agencies in the United States, such as BBDO (Atlanta), Ogilvy (New York) and BrightHouse, A Boston Consulting Group Company (Atlanta). I’ve been able to work on brand accounts such as Lays, Norwegian Cruise Line, Vaseline, Coors Light, The Washington Post and many more.
My closest friend describes me as being tenacious and ambitious. I have always had her trust, in whatever overachieving ideas I have thrown her way. She will tell you that I have an ability to find creative ways to achieve whatever I set my mind to. My creative peers and professors would describe me as highly intuitive and incredibly strategic. I like to describe myself as uniquely normal. I have an unassuming presence. However, I am highly observant and constantly thinking of the most profound things, all while processing how to find innovative solutions to my observations. I am never without an idea. The world is a puzzle of which I try to organize it’s chaos in my mind. I have a deep love for puzzles that I carried with me from childhood.
When did you first notice your inclination towards the Creative Industry?
At a very young age, I had a dilemma. I was quite certain that I was going to be an inspirational artist. I wanted nothing more than to inspire and change the world, but I was only one person and lived on the tiniest island in the Western Hemisphere. Although, I knew without a doubt that change can be achieved through creativity. I did not know how it would happen.
Eventually the answer came to me at the age of 5. I spent my summers helping out my Grandfather in his tiny island shop. Sitting on top the stand alone freezer, next to floor-to-ceiling shelves, I would observe the operations of the shop. Eventually, I picked up on the buying habits of the customers and listened to the conversations that transpired there.
I began to understand the concept of brand loyalty and developed an appreciation for the language of branding. I understood this at the time to be only a narrative of copy, color and drawings. Fascinated, I switched from drawing cats, my favorite thing to do at the time, to drawing logos and brand systems – thereby beginning my journey into Graphic Design.
The more time I spent in the shop, I soon began to realize the subtle magic of influence that was a system of TV commercials, branding, packaging, posters and campaigns. I saw the effects of these ideas on my tiny island; the shift in habits, how we viewed each other and even how we communicated. From listening to the conversations in the shop, I realized that these brands and ideas were able to touch people on an emotional level. That trust and love I had seen for brands and the ideas around them had extended past the product to become metaphors that defined our experiences of life.
It was the most powerful thing I had ever seen. Someone’s idea and creativity had made its way to the tiniest island in the Western Hemisphere – all the way to me, and I was inspired.
From that moment on I set out to pursue a career in Advertising. I recognized that the Advertising Industry was just a massive system of global influence. A manufacturer of nostalgia. It had access to a key part of the human experience – lasting memories. Sitting in the shop and seeing the cycle of this system, it was very clear how I could be an artist and inspire the world.
What were you doing before you embarked on this journey?
Before heading off to college to pursue a B.F.A. in Graphic Design, I was heavily involved in clubs and school groups. My first attempt at forming a school club was in primary school at the age of 10. At the age of 4, on my second day of Kindergarten, I set my parents in a panic. Extremely impatient, having to wait more than 5 minutes to be picked up after school, I decided to make the 25 minute walk across town, in the height of traffic to my mother’s office. I memorized the route on my first day and calmly walked into the office to the puzzled faces of her coworkers. Understandably, that was the first and last time I did that! So I moved onto Plan B, I pitched to the Principal of my primary school the idea to have an After School Program. She agreed! So I became the President and Consultant for the Smart Kids Club.
In high school, I was voted President of the Royal Bank of Canada Young Leaders for Basseterre High. We were awarded 2nd place regionally behind Trinidad and Tobago in our efforts to ‘Strengthen our Caribbean Community’ – the theme for the competition. It was a very rare occurrence for the Leeward Islands to place that high in the competition. Our numbers are much smaller compared to the larger islands but the ideas we executed were impactful. One idea was version 2.0 of the Smart Kids Club, where I had high school students mentor primary school students in an After School Program. I leant on the strengths, passions and unique backgrounds of my team to create experiences that included salsa lessons and art lessons, along with the homework centre. Students who were interested in home economics became caterers for our events and after school program. I will always remember how strongly their creativity and passion came through in their menus and displays. We were 12 to 13 years old at the time but the opportunity and freedom to be creative and execute ideas influenced by our passions had a great effect on the group.
As I moved into 5th form, I would then go on to be voted President of the Prom Committee. My team and I took on an ambitious undertaking by putting together an event meant to inspire young girls. The idea was polarizing not just within our high school but in the community. The support and response that we got was amazing. Eventually, we would raise so much money, the Prom Committee Team would get called to the Principal’s office. We settled that dilemma by using the excess money to charter a catamaran for our graduation party - an iconic and nostalgic experience that was the summary and highlight to the end of high school.
Looking back, these experiences taught me so many things. I learnt how good ideas can bring a community together and how important it is to create opportunities that speak confidence into our youth. I am blown away by what some of the girls who participated in our ‘girl empowering event’ have gone on to accomplish.
What inspired you to start?
Participating in the opportunities that were available to me on the island helped to develop my confidence and important soft skills, which translated well in the advertising industry.
At a young age, I understood what my purpose was and I was given a chance to test these abilities through the school groups I was a part of. The response was very positive. I won awards for myself, my high school and my island. It was a reassurance for me that I was on the right path. I was confident that I was equipped with the tools and talent necessary to complete my goals.
What obstacles, if any, did you face and how did you overcome them?
I am a person of immense faith. Creativity and faith go hand in hand, therefore I am wildly optimistic. I do not focus too much on the obstacles, only the possibilities as I understand that solutions can always be found if you approach the problem creatively.
I think the biggest obstacle I’ve had is just adjusting to life in a new place, culture, people and attitudes. I’ve had to go through some painful learning curves but I always remained determined and kept pushing forward. That is the way to progress.
The hardest shift I have had to endure living in the United States was adjusting to ideas of race and seeing the effects of these ideas. I grew up in a culture of integration. Getting used to a culture of assimilation was and still remains a hard concept to wrap my head around. Watching people diminish themselves to exist in certain spaces while others turn a blind eye, is such a peculiar thing to witness. I struggle with conforming. In my essay for my application to Miami Ad School, I spoke on the pressure of conformity being a threat to creative potential.
There aren’t many people of color pursuing creative careers. When I began my journey, I was often the only person of color in the room. More than 10 years later, I am still sometimes the only person of color in the room. However, I am very happy to see that the industry is now strongly advocating for diversity and inclusion. I’m also doing my part, through my own initiatives, to inspire other persons to pursue creative careers. Having a variety of perspectives and stories will positively impact the Advertising Industry and therefore the world.
Tell us about the journey from the first spark of interest to where you are currently.
The first spark of interest occurred in my grandfather’s shop when I was very young. As a highly attentive and observant child, I saw and understood the power and influence of creativity and how it could be utilized in a tangible way. However, I struggled with articulating what I had seen. I did not have the terminology and did not know anyone pursuing creative careers to provide guidance. I could only describe my dream career at the time as being an “Inspirational Artist”.
When I moved to the United States and applied to college, I realized that even there not many people that I had access to were familiar with the ins and outs of creative careers. I remember speaking with a college advisor, who assisted me in figuring out my major. I told her I loved every aspect and field of creativity and wanted a career that allowed me to be a chameleon across all of them. Her suggestion was Graphic Design. However, during my time in college, my college professor would mention to me that my talents would best be utilized as an Art Director or Creative Director. The previous semester she had thrown out her curriculum to adopt a new one. One that was inspired by me. I naturally adopted the role of student and guide, helping my classmates who struggled to understand how they could create ideas with love that appealed to emotions and why it was important.
As I learnt the terminology and became exposed to more, I was able to do my own research. Eventually I would google my way to finding events that I could attend where I could meet the people who achieved the careers and success I wished to have.
I paid the fees and was able to meet and talk with persons in the Advertising industry. Their advice was all the same: If you want to get into the Advertising industry you have to go to Miami Ad School – a portfolio school (these are niche schools outside of traditional colleges that cater to creatives - they are highly regarded in the creative industry.) At every industry event I went to, Miami Ad School students were there. I met a student who worked with Amazon to design the concept of a smart watch for them. He proudly sported the end product on his wrist. “This was a class assignment?” I thought. I was amazed and sold.
When I decided to apply, the school had just begun their minority scholarship program. I was one of the first recipients of this partial scholarship and received a personal invitation from the school’s owner to attend. Through the school, I’ve had a lot of great opportunities including being taught and mentored by some of the most influential and creative minds in the Advertising industry from around the world. I’ve been able to work on creative briefs for amazing brands and pitch them ideas. There I developed my presentation skills, familiarized myself with industry jargon, such as ‘insights’ and learnt the ins and outs of the Advertising world. I learnt a lot about my strengths. I was even made aware, by a few of my teachers, of a strength that I really had not given much thought to – Strategy. I had never considered Strategy as a career nor did I know before that moment that it was a career option. I was asked multiple times by teachers, and clients I pitched to, to consider a career in Strategy.
Being in an extremely creative environment, my abilities were like wind, they were always there but now could be felt very strongly when put into action. I knew I was in the right place and on the right path.
What has been your biggest challenge along the way?
I am a mother of two, so balancing my responsibilities as a mom, an employee and a student was a learning curve. I’m grateful for all the support I’ve had and I am proud that I was able to push through to graduation and achieve my goals.
Another challenge was just learning how to assert myself and stand by ideas that I knew had a very unique perspective. My background and life experiences were different from my peers, which allowed me to have unique insights. I realized that by growing up on one of the tiniest islands in the Caribbean, I lived a utopian version of life. I not only understood life’s most purest insights, I lived it! Ideas have to based in truth in order for them to live, making insights very valuable. On the island, I was protected from ideas that can confuse truth, which allowed me to think more freely and create more purely. Also, because my culture was a mixture of multiple cultures from around the world, I had an ability to shift and understand different perspectives.
Learning how to articulate and defend these insights was challenging. However, I would build confidence in myself by saying “I am perfectly designed with every tool I need to be successful in what I was meant to do.” By understanding my purpose, I understood that there is a contract that was signed and sealed when I was created. I’m grateful that I was made tenacious and stubborn. I was able to introduce my peers to ideas that were different. I even won a few awards along the way.
Is there an achievement or contribution that you are most proud of?
It was very exciting to be recognized by Graphis (a publication that awards and publishes the best work in the creative fields) as an award winning designer. I’ve had one piece published in their New Talent Publication, and another in their 2020 Design Annual Book. I also won a few awards for creative bootcamps that I have participated in including the One Club Bootcamp and the Marcus Graham Bootcamp – two initiatives that are working to shed light on creative careers in the hopes of making the Advertising Industry more diverse and inclusive. Observing how important these initiatives are, and their impact, has inspired me to form my own initiatives in the Caribbean.
By taking the time to understand and explore my strengths, along with learning about the challenges of the Advertising Industry, it has equipped me with knowledge that has allowed me to carefully craft ideas of influence. As the Advertising industry in America works towards a more diverse and inclusive industry, I’ve realized that much of what is being sought already exists in the Caribbean. Such as a culture of integration, systems of love and humility – the key to creating deep and meaningful work. It is clear that by building up the Creative Sector in the Caribbean and crafting our own mass system of global influence, the Caribbean has the potential to be a model of what can be achieved.
My two initiatives “Food for Creative Souls” and “Who We Are” (a creative agency) were created with these insights in mind.
“Food for Creative Souls” seeks to nurture and speak confidence into persons with creative spirits. Through events, we create opportunities for persons to learn about creative careers and have access to mentors. Through boot camps creative persons can develop their skills, learn programs and explore or discover their creative gifts while understanding their strengths.
The first bootcamp was supported by the St. Kitts Department of Youth Empowerment. The students that participated were able to grasp an understanding of the creative process as they took on creative roles to create a 360 campaign for ‘Youth Month 2019’. At the end of the bootcamp there was a community event where the participants presented their work and were mentored by a Creative Lead from Facebook, fellow Kittitian – Neisha Tweed. At the event, the community – which included established artists, students, a government representative, and a mentor – were able to actively engage in a discussion on how to further develop the creative sector.
The goal of “Food for Creative Souls” is to rally the Caribbean community together in support of creatives. Through the exchange of support, sponsorship and creative work, knowledge and confidence is gained and the creative work seen in the community is constantly elevated. The result of this would be a strong and influential Creative Sector.
My other initiative, “Who We Are” has more of a business structure and will help to provide funding for the “Food for Creative Souls” initiative. The purpose of “Who We Are” is to help brands and companies, the world over, achieve more harmonious structures, campaigns, brand systems or designs that embody the pure truth of what it means to be human and have meaningful human experiences.
What would you say most motivates you to do what you do?
Understanding my purpose motivates me. It allows me to have faith in myself and that allows me to keep pushing towards my goals and to take more risks.
Being creative is a quintessential part of me. By taking the time to learn who I am and understanding the promise that is creativity, I have developed a strong intuition that has become a great guide. It dissipates fear. I live my life by the philosophy: “Trust that there is enough love in the universe to catch you”. As a result, I tend to leap faith first into my dreams.
Also, with the birth of each of my two children, I have entered into a higher state of being. Watching them grow as we both learn, is to come to know and understand life’s most divine insights. They are constant reminders to never forget the connection between life and purpose.
What are the goals you most want to accomplish in the near future?
I love using my creative and strategic talents to craft systems of mass positive influence. My biggest goal is to craft a system that causes a huge shift in humanity, that changes the world for the better. I’m obsessed with how we buy into systems and how easy it is to do so through apps or online!
Creativity is key to progress and I am dedicated to building up creative sectors, advocating for STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) and being a guide and support system to persons with creative passions.
Did you have any key mentors or people who deeply influenced your journey?
The first person I have to give credit to is my mom. She paid attention to my abilities, saw the passion and gave her full support. Although she did not always understand it, and we had no role models to follow, she trusted that I would find my way. Support and encouragement is something so important to have, especially at a young age. I was always encouraged to trust me and that’s what I did.
I’ve also had some very influential teachers. I’ve learnt the most from teachers who are crazy passionate about what they do! My college film photography professor has made a permanent impact in my life. Through her story and passion, I began to understand the purest form of ‘why we take pictures’. In her country, getting caught taking photos could cost her life, but she did it anyway because there were important stories that needed to be told. I greatly admired her bravery and respected her perspective. “Photographs are not paintings,” she would say. She regarded those kinds of photographs as a waste of film. Her class was tough, she did not accept excuses and mediocre work would go sailing across the classroom as she pulled the photographs from the wall. We worked so hard every week, wanting to make sure our work stayed up on that wall. I learnt so much in her class, not just about photography but how to attune our eyes to what’s happening around us. “Our eyes are the cameras not the tool,” she would say. Being introduced to her perspective, caused a shift within me. My style of photography is greatly influenced by her.
In high school, I took my first art classes. I had a phenomenal art teacher in Mr. Joseph. “Art teaches you how to see,” that was the main take away from all our lessons and exercises. I had a clearer view of my community and the world and got to see and understand my energy in visual form. Mr. Joseph is another teacher that is crazy passionate about what he does. He has a special skill to turn lemons into lemonade. Resourceful and wildly optimistic, he made art fun. You really could not see much of the struggle there was to keep art classes going.
I’m also grateful to my strong support system that is my family, friends, co-workers and teachers. Their encouragement and support played a big part in me achieving my goals.
What advice do you have for other Caribbean youth aspiring to get involved in the creative industry?
I would say:
- Take the time to understand you and learn to trust who you are. Find ways to build confidence in yourself and your abilities. Discover your unique perspective and find your voice.
- Do not take any part of your story for granted, be observant, connect the dots and collect those insights!
- Actively seek ideas that challenge your own perspectives and develop empathy. Be able to shift perspectives.
- To be more innovative, take the time to understand creativity.
- Be observant and learn what you can from nature. The Caribbean affords us access to stunning natural scenery/art, it’s the best teacher.
- Make time to be creative, keep taking creative risks and be willing to try new things. Discover all your gifts.
- Have side hustles. Come up with interesting creative ideas and implement them. For me I created puzzle books as a kid and designed time table keychains that I would give to friends. Find creative ways to actively explore your talents.
- Always be willing to learn. Creative programs are a constant learning game, there is always a new update or new program available. Make time to master these programs and improve your skills. YouTube is a great resource. Get Adobe Creative Cloud and practice.
- Find a strong support group whether in your family, community or an online group. Use Social Media to reach out to persons you admire.
- To get into the industry, research Portfolio Schools. There are niche schools that you can attend that are sure ways into the industry. The best schools are the most awarded. You can follow the award shows and keep track of not only the schools but also level of skill and creative ideas. Some of the big award shows are D & AD, Future Lions, Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, the One Show, the Clio’s and Graphis. My choice was Miami Ad School, but there are other options available. Also, look up diversity and inclusion initiatives such as the One Club, Marcus Graham Project, and the 4 A’s MAIP program. With these initiatives there are also many scholarships available. Keep track of them.
- Also, network where you can with people that inspire you and develop soft skills by participating in clubs and organizations within your school and community!
What’s next for you? What are you looking forward to?
As the industry begins to experience a shift and as it pushes toward being more diverse and inclusive, I’m looking forward to all the unique perspectives, stories and innovative ideas that are going to materialize.
I’m looking forward to seeing the Caribbean Creative Sector further develop and monitoring its influence. I also hope to see an increase in persons wanting to pursue creative careers.
I will continue to work on my initiatives and be a force that pushes for positive global change through creativity.
I understand the value of our youth and will continue to speak confidence into them and help in what ways I can to see them achieve their full potential.