Women In Gaming - Nichol Bradford
In the first entry in BGN’s Women in Gaming series, I had the opportunity to sit down with Nichol Bradford, Former Director of Operations (China and Asia Pacific) for Blizzard Entertainment and Senior Global Director of Business Growth for Vivendi Universal Games.
Nichol is currently CEO of The Willow Group, whose mission is to permanently move 100 million people into a state of fundamental well-being by 2025. She is also the Executive Director of the Transformative Technology Lab at Sofia University that is working outside traditional research boundaries to find creative ways to manage the intersection of technology and consciousness.
We had a chance to talk about what it takes to be the architect of your own success, the power of “raising your hand” to create opportunities and the benefits of being obsessive about your passions in life.
This interview also appears on the blog Black Girl Nerds.
Lauren: I was reading through your bio and was completely blown away. It’s a big leap from Blizzard to forming your own company. Could you explain what was your motivation for leaving behind the career you so carefully crafted for this new opportunity?
Nichol: I still consider myself in gaming because I think a lot of what I’m doing in this new world is going to migrate to game environments. So, there’s a silver thread in it but a part of it is just that I love games. I still love games and I still love Blizzard and all of the people that I worked with before. I just became really fascinated by technology and consciousness. Although I’m passionate about games, I found something else that I’m really interested in.
The reason why I got into the games industry is that I love science fiction. I always read a lot of science fiction, I always read a lot of fantasy fiction and I wanted to watch the holodeck. I truly wanted to be on the team that was going to launch the holodeck and I assessed that the holodeck was going to come out of the games industry. It’s about storytelling, human narrative and the way we interact with our minds our identities. So when I think about what I’m doing now – exploring human consciousness – is very much in line with games. Now I’m working with a group that is looking to develop games that help explore consciousness – not purely just for entertainment, but also for transformation.
Lauren: You mentioned the word holodeck several times. I take it you’re a ‘Star Trek’ fan?
Nichol: For sure! I love Star Trek, Star Wars and Firefly. I love pretty much every franchise out there that includes gadgets, technology and the future. I love when I see us in sci-fi. That’s how I know we make it. I wrote my novel “The Sisterhood” about nine black women who start a multinational company and they’re all black girl nerds. Every last one of them could be a black girl nerd. They’re knowledgeable, they’re very, very smart, they have a vision, they’re focused; they collaborate with each other. I wrote a book about us.
Lauren: Would you say you identify as a “nerd” or a “geek?” Apparently there’s a difference between the two and it sounds like you may fall on the side of “nerd.”
Nichol: Yes, I’d say in some ways I’m a nerd and in some ways I’m a geek. I love technology and the promise of it. I’m definitely a ‘technology optimist’.
Technology is a part of everything that I do and the way that I approach it because I’m not a programmer and I’m not an engineer but I have a great deal of comfort with scale and the desire to communicate benefit to people.
A big part of my job (now and previously) has been scanning the horizon to see what’s coming. One of the reasons why I was willing to leave games is that the amount of technological change that’s on the horizon puts us on the edge the greatest innovation since fire. With computer science, everything we know is about to accelerate quickly. It becomes important to move technology from productivity to actually supporting to our psychological well-being. I’m working with a group of people now, we’ve started a couple of technology labs and I have my company and the products we’ve developed and I’m helping to integrate other companies in this endeavor.
I found a challenge – a problem that I think the human race is facing and I’m drawn to working on that – especially for Black women. Black women are so heroic and one of the things I love about Black Girl Nerds and about black women in technology is that it gives us the opportunity to merge our heroic nature with things that have exponential potential to improve the world.
Lauren: What were your first jobs and experiences in the gaming industry?
Nichol: My undergraduate degree is in Marketing so my domain of expertise is in strategy, marketing and operations. Before I got into games, I actually was in sales. Being able to sell to people, to help people find what they’re looking for and communicate the benefits in such a way that they can see the connection between their need and your product is a very vital skill.
I was in graduate school at Wharton getting my MBA and a lot of people use that experience to answer the question, “How do I find a job that will pay the bills?” My approach to life is a little bit different. I asked the question, “How do I find a job that justifies having bills?” I really do believe that if you are passionate about what you’re doing, the money arrives.
I loved technology, I love narratives, I love telling stories about how humanity knows it’s human – the existential questions. All of those things appealed to me, but I didn’t know I could have a career in it. I went to the library (before the library was the internet) and I searched for things I was interested in. Eventually, I found an annual report for Electronic Arts. I looked at the financial statements and said “Wow, they’re making enough money that they could hire me.”
I started investigating and asked myself a couple of questions before making any big moves in that direction. I wanted to know that I really liked the people who worked in games. So I volunteered at GDC (Game Developers Conference) because I wanted to make sure that the people I worked shoulder to shoulder with were people I really liked…and they were. I also wanted to make sure I liked all different types of players, not just myself. I spent several weekends playing Quake and Doom with younger game enthusiasts to get a sense of what they liked and how they played.
My first job in games was Associate Brand Manager at Disney Interactive. It took me 9 months to get on board. Back then, there were very few MBA’s in the games industry. In fact, it was a bit of a deterrent because you were labeled as a know-it-all. It was still very much a hobbyist industry and you got in because you had a friend on the inside. To counter that perception, I made sure I talked to as many people as possible and I asked for an informational interview from everyone I met – whether they were in sales, finance, legal, marketing or development – because I wanted to education myself and understand the industry.
I was at Disney for 2 years then moved to Vivendi Games and became a Brand Manager. I spent 2.5 years doing marketing then became a director. I had a lull in one of my projects and was asked by the Head of Marketing to work with he and the CEO at the time (Bruce Hack) on a different project. Within a month it was clear that I wouldn’t go back to marketing.
At the end of that project, rather than taking an open role, I pitched a position to the CEO that would involve me working for him – Senior Director of Strategic Growth. One of the highlights of that position included being involved in the Activision acquisition by Vivendi. It was a rewarding experience. He was a legendary CEO – extremely creative, charismatic and taught me a lot, including the need to be “hard on the issues, soft on the people.”
After a year and a half, I was asked what I wanted to do next. My reply, “I want to go work for Blizzard Entertainment in China.” I chose China because when I was in grad school, I spent three weeks there on an extension program. I knew I always wanted to work there; I knew it was the future. It was a perfect combination of my love of gaming, being able to work at a studio like Blizzard and working in China – one of the most relevant and dynamic markets in the world today.
Lauren: Were there ever any obstacles that stood in the way of your career or any issues that could have been attributed to you being a black woman in the industry?
Nichol: Let me say that I stand on the shoulders of a lot of women and people in our community who made it possible for all of us to attend schools and make waves. What I tell people when they ask me that question is that it’s really important to raise your hand and to create opportunities. I pitched my job. I wasn’t necessarily following a normal track. I asked to go to China rather than a traditional spot. Because I’ve always raised my hand for opportunities and created opportunities, that’s been very helpful.
If you find the things that you are passionate about and capture your imagination, obsess about those things. Become geeky or nerdy about those things and in that, you’ll find the opportunities. Be obsessive about your knowledge base and push yourself a little more. For every problem, every thing you don’t like in the world or in your community, there’s an opportunity to fix or change it. That’s how you move forward.
One of the things I often see women doing is that we’re reluctant to raise our hand if we’re not 100% sure on how to do something. If it’s a new opportunity, a chance to open up a new division, launch a new product, whatever it may be – if we haven’t launched a new product before, then we say, “I can’t do it because I haven’t done that before.” Guys don’t do that. Guys will say, “I can probably do that” then learn as they go. We have to learn to be confident, bet on ourselves and say if we’ve been successful at something/anything in the past, we’ll be successful in the future as well.
Lauren: Would you say that hesitation or that doubt about being able to stand alongside male peers is one of the reasons why there’s such a shortage of women in tech?
Nichol: That problem has many different pieces to it. There’s a retention piece because there are many women who are leaving tech. There’s also an access piece in the sense that there are organizations are saying that they can’t find anyone. There’s also the early exposure piece in which we need to get more young people to choose STEM fields in high school and college – but they need exposure before.
Lauren: Your speech at the 2007 GDC emphasized the need to expose and educate children to STEM topics early in life and let them know that not only can you play games, but you can also make them. It’s imperative that kids know this as early as possible.
Nichol: It’s a great hook! When a kid loves video games and you make it clear that they can learn how to make them, very often they become interested in learning how to do that. What really made me aware of that is that I track the results of annual studies done on what kids want to be when they grow up. In 2005-2006, more black children chose careers in video games and computer science rather than athletes and entertainers. Knowing this creates the perfect opportunity to ensure they have the basic reading, writing and arithmetic skill sets in grade, middle and high school.
In giving kids advice, we should be encouraging them to pursue careers that are “above the software line” like programming. Programming is good because that’s making software and there are jobs that are going to ultimately be replaced by software. Companies today (like Uber) are enabled by software and jobs that are above the software line are ones to focus on when scanning for the future.
Lauren: You were involved in the creation of groups such as Blacks In Gaming, are you still involved with them in any capacity?
Nichol: Oh, I totally am! I think it’s the testimony to any organization or cause that’s worthwhile that you’ve created something and it can be passed down. That means that young people are coming in and are passionate about it.
It’s come such a long way since the beginning when I went around E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) grabbed every single black person I saw and said, “Hey! We’re going to meet this Friday at 5:00!” There were 30 people at the first meeting and I kept everyone’s contact information and started to get sponsors. Diverse People in Games grew and ultimately became Blacks In Gaming, was eventually taken over by Microsoft and is still very active today.
It makes me feel good that there are other people doing some of the things I did. Now I’m pioneering things that I think are of equal importance: transformative technology, meditation technology and psychological well-being via technology. That’s the next big thing.
Lauren: What are some upcoming events for The Willow Group?
Nichol: We’re hosting a conference in the Fall that’s going to be the first event of its kind -completely dedicated to transformative technologies. We’re gathering a roster of remarkable speakers from a robust community of neuroscientists, engineers, mathematicians, psychologists, meditation practitioners. We’re excited to have the chance to speak about staring an entirely new sector in the technology industry. What we’re working with has decades of research behind it, but this is the moment to take it to the next level.