We had the good fortune of connecting with Jesse Herrera and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Jesse, what was your thought process behind starting your own business?
I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas and had a tumultuous past that involved 4 years of gang activity. Reflecting on this experience, I learn to appreciate the value of why and the intimate details that led me to this lifestyle. It helped me to understand the nuances of my many chapters and some of the struggles I contend with today.
As a designer, I identified a disconnect created by our industry between the end user. This was case with the multifamily projects I designed for seniors to the classroom spaces I built as a public administrator. As designers, we were thrust into positions to assume what the end users needed rather than inviting them to participate as part of the project. For example, when designing a classroom, I have no clue on how to best teach a class or what key experiences are important to current students. By ignoring these key insights, we lessen our ability to create great solutions. This trend often leads to unhappy clients, accessibility challenges, shortcomings, and eventually costly alterations.
I witnessed similar in the non-profit sector where well intention individuals far removed from the problems, would gather to propose solutions. The ideas, although novel, lacked the community’s perspective and often only addressed the most visible symptoms of an issue. This often would lead organizations to fund what they thought were best without understanding the community’s capacity or priorities. A key example of this may be proposing a bike sharing program without asking if it is a solution a community would want or could use. Or trying to improve literacy scores without taking into consideration the environmental barriers.
Reflecting on both my professional and personal chapters, our organization CoAct, recognizes design as a creative problem-solving process that is grounded in empathy. It is a powerful tool for turning bold ideas into action. It is an intentional effort to connect with those we aim to help. By anchoring the narrative in their lived experiences, we can use the insights gained to understand the challenge and design better solutions. We see our success in the solutions, stories, and tools we leave behind that build the foundation for future work. Impact is our currency, and together, we look to define our legacy on the lives that we improve.
Please tell us more about your career. We’d love to hear what sets you apart from others, what you are most proud of or excited about. How did you get to where you are today professionally. Was it easy? If not, how did you overcome the challenges? What are the lessons you’ve learned along the way. What do you want the world to know about you or your brand and story?
Graduating with an architecture degree from the University of Texas at Arlington, I spent a much of my professional career practicing design and project management. Starting with architecture my depth of knowledge spans the entire design-build frontier including experience in construction, trade construction, and public real estate development.
My career path was rocky to say the least. Plagued by a market crash in 2008, I found myself jumping from job to job on a frequent basis. Though stressful, this gave me an opportunity to get fluent in a myriad of construction methodologies. I learned how to be an effective problem solver and how a small business operates. I had to be very aware of a company’s finances, and what signs indicated I needed to start looking for a new job. A missed invoice, reduction of bonuses, or the need to use alternative vendors could be indicators of the business going under. Anxiety was a constant challenge and the fear of losing work would often lead to long hours to prove my worth. There was always a constant fear the next day could be my last.
I finally found refuge at Tarrant County College in 2012 and was graced with my first stable job since graduating college. The stability allowed me to get reacquainted with the community groups I had to abandon and time to hone my craft. It gave me a place to experiment with new methodologies and appreciate new perspectives. I spent 7 years with the district. Through my tenor I was able to explore the impact of human centered designand strategic planning in developing effective projects.
It would be easy to say my success came from sheer determination alone. In the past, it was a story I often told. My success came from my support system. I had loving parents that provided a stable place to stay as I worked through the recession. They were patient with me as I went through my emotional episodes of leaving my former life. They gave me space to get a few bumps on the head and better understand the “why” of my gang life without harsh judgement. Their support in addition to the friends I have come to call family, gave me the confidence to overcome these chapters of my life.
In turn that support has allowed me to pursue my quest to help support others. It has allowed CoAct to incubate community owned urban farms. It has allowed CoAct to create a student led project to raise awareness on college homelessness. And it is allowing CoAct to take a deeper look into how COVID-19 is affecting our communities.
I am curious by nature. It is the unabated desire to know the answer to something that helps me and CoAct take the intentional strides to become better acquainted with the challenges we are addressing. I bring a genuine authenticity to my work and the relationships I build. I understand the grit and grime that is a part of our story we must embrace. I am unapologetic in achieving the mission. It is beyond my ego or personal aspirations; it is about getting the job done. I work to deliver my best no matter the task. I juggle a balance of optimism and realism to help me embrace bold challenges and take ownership to what I commit to. The work will outlive me, so I take strides to leave the best foundation possible.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Prior to COVID-19 I would say a week in Fort Worth would not be complete without a trip to Grace in downtown to sip on a wicked drink from Dez or Daryl and ordering my favorite burger in DFW. I would follow it up with a trip to Proper to erase some more brain cells with an iteration of ranch water they call “The Burbs”. Usually by drink two my hoodish side would want to play and I would finish the night at Chuyitos with some cheap beers and Tejano dancing. Recovering meals would either come from JR’s Taquira in Northside or an early trip to Esperanza’s of North Main for their Chilaquiles. If we had a week then a trip to Kimbell and Modern is a must. Even though I have been many times, The Kimbell is still an amazing piece of architecture. The way Louis Kahn scripted the textures and subtle environmental elements into the space create a sensory experience unlike any other. A trip to Dallas to visit the Celebration Café is a must. In similar fashion I would follow it up to Seafood Shack to get the best Micheladas in DFW. A trip to Dallas would not be complete without visiting my friend Lilly Benítez at Blade Craft. Seated in the Heart of Deep Ellum, we would catch a shave and then head to Serious Pizza for some good eats. No trip with be complete though without a cookout. I have been blessed in my journey to pick up some mean cooking skills and a collection of friends that share my passion. Some of my best memories hail from Montreal, where I spent many a cold night huddled with friends cooking some of the most amazing dishes of my life. Nothing beats fresh sashimi and glass of local red on a Tuesday night. The cookout would be filled with powerful margarita’s, music, and plethora of dishes to make any foodie froth at the mouth. No one leaves hungry and we all get to enjoy the experience. And maybe, just maybe with enough tequila a friendly wrestling match breaks out! This would be the pentacle of the trip. An all-night affair to share stories, dream big, and remember those we love and lost.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Success is about your support system. I truly believe no one succeeds alone. I want to start by giving a shout out to my team, our steering committees, our board, and those who I have come to know as my family. Specifically, I would like to thank these individuals for helping me along the way and believing in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself. Amanda Arizola, you are more than a friend, you are family. Your mentorship and emotional support have helped me scale multiple mountains. Olga Hickman, you have been a great friend and have given me a plethora of fresh insights as a young Latino executive director to a newly formed non-profit. Your time and wisdom are both greatly appreciated. Matt Green, thank you for your support and helping me steer this massive ship to address college homelessness. Our work is just beginning. Yolanda Sifuentes, you have been an influence and a great friend. Your determination is admirable and without your belief and help over the years we would not be where we are at. Jose Rodriguez, I have come to know you as a brother, and you amaze me every day with your talents. I cannot wait to see what amazing things we do together. Charlie Blaylock, your heart is unmatched, and I am honored to call you friend. I cannot thank you enough for the time and energy you have poured into helping our group address food insecurity.