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Faculty Spotlight: Matthew Manos

“Relevance is my measurement for success. The last thing I want is to teach a student something that they won’t be able to leverage when they walk out the door.” Matthew is founder of verynice, a design strategy consultancy that gives half its work away for free to nonprofit organizations. Named one of seven millennials changing the world by the Huffington Post, Matthew Manos joins the Academy as assistant professor of design. 

In this candid Q/A, Matthew shares about his founder's "aha" moment in a skatepark, his love of teaching, and his irrational fear of symmetry.

Tell us a little bit about yourself, your background.
My name is Matthew Manos. I’m an assistant professor here at the Iovine and Young Academy as well as the founder and managing director of verynice. I studied Design Media Arts at UCLA, and earned an MFA from the ArtCenter College of Design in Media Design.

You started off in design. What triggered your interest in social entrepreneurship?
I actually started off in both of those things simultaneously. I officially launched verynice in 2008 from my dorm room while attending UCLA, but the origins can actually be traced back to when I was 16 years old, which is when I started my freelance design career. 

Back then, and still to this day, I spent a lot of time skateboarding. Every weekend, I would go to skateparks with my dad across the Silicon Valley. During one of those trips, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a man in a wheelchair jump into the bowl. Needless to say, this was a pretty unusual sighting. Out of curiosity, I decided to approach the man and spark up a conversation. I learned that he was the founder of a nonprofit organization, which had a simple mission – help kids that are disabled get around a skatepark.

This was the first time that I ever met the founder of a nonprofit organization, and I immediately became overwhelmed by the passion that radiated from him. The light bulb went off, and I quickly determined that this was the type of person that I wanted to work with for the rest of my life. verynice’s mission was inspired by that “aha” moment at the skatepark, and in the years since we launched, we’ve been able to save hundreds of organizations millions of dollars in service fees through our give-half model. You can read all about it in my first book, How to Give Half of Your Work Away for Free.

You’ve had tremendous impact through your design consultancy, why teach?
For as long as I can remember, my answer to “what do you want to be when you grow up” was always “a teacher.” To be honest, I never thought I’d become an entrepreneur. My company’s success was a total happy accident.

Growing up, my mom was a teacher and when I was little, we used to line up my stuffed animals and she’d have me teach basic math to a row of bunnies, bears, and lions. It was so much fun and little did I know it was all a trick to get me to learn. Reflecting on those moments later in life, I’ve realized it was a lesson in seeing teaching as a practice that is as much about learning as it is about relaying information to students.

I also don’t see my professor and practitioner hats as being at odds. In fact, teaching is something that spans my work both in and out of the classroom. As a practitioner, my specialty is in curriculum design and workshop facilitation, and the way I teach my students is exactly as I would work with one of our clients at verynice: collaborative, project-based, lecture-light, and informed by reality.

Do you think higher education is in touch with, or keeping pace with real-world business needs?
As a whole, no, but it depends on where you’re looking. One mentor that really stood out in my own development was a professor I had at UCLA, Rebeca Mendez. During class, she’d often reference examples from clients she was in the midst of working with.

Flash forward to today - the level of relevance she was able to have in the classroom is what I expect of myself. Relevance is my measurement for success. The last thing I want is to teach a student something that they won’t be able to leverage when they walk out the door. 

What drew you to the Iovine and Young Academy? What do you hope to bring as an educator?
I intend on teaching for quite some time, and the landscape of higher education is changing rapidly. In my opinion, the Iovine and Young Academy is the best place on earth for a teacher to learn how to adapt to that changing landscape. This is realized through our interdisciplinary curriculum, of course, but an additional draw for me was also getting the opportunity to learn more about the nuances of teaching graduate students online for the Academy's online graduate program Design@USC.

What is the most rewarding/challenging aspects of teaching, working with students? 
I started my current company from my college dorm room. As a program, the Academy encourages this kind of behavior, and attracts students with an incredible dedication and passion to make the world a better place. I want to teach each of our students what I wish I would have known when I was in their position, because I see myself in every one them.

Do you believe good design can create social change? If so, why?

I see design as the facilitation of solutions. As a result, the answer is “yes”, but “not on its own”.

In terms of good design, are you born with it or do you learn it?
You learn it. 100%.

What’s your current passion project?
A few years ago, I created a tool called Models of Impact which is a role playing and ideation game that simulates the process of starting a social enterprise. Participants work alone or in small teams to invent a new business concept that balances impact and revenue. It’s been used by thousands of practitioners across 100+ countries. I’m currently working with my team at verynice to develop more tools like this.

Describe yourself in three words.
A startup founder I worked with for a number of years used the following three words to describe me. I’m not particularly proud of all of them, but they are accurate: rumpled. tired. passionate.

Favorite quote? 
“The game is not about becoming somebody, it's about becoming nobody.” – Ram Dass

Could you share some fun facts about yourself?
Here are seven:
1. I’ve given a public lecture in a Stalin-era automotive factory in Moscow, and a former communist propaganda movie theatre in Saratov.
2. I once taught myself how to play the mandolin while riding a unicycle, and had moderate success.
3. I started my first business when I was 16, selling made-to-order abstract paintings designed to match the interior design of a customer’s home.
4. I skateboarded competitively from age 13-19, and was once ranked 4th in Northern California by the California Amateur Skateboard      League.
5. There was a point in my life at which I almost exclusively wore tie dye.
6. I love beatboxing and making sound effects, but refuse to do it on command because the moment has to be just right.
7. I get anxiety when I’m wearing a pair of matching socks due to a pretty irrational fear of symmetry.

Thank you Matthew!
Twitter: @verynicetweets
Instagram: @veryniceinstagram