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Meet The Duo Behind The Cover Of The Latest Issue Of InLife International: Oak Theory

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InLife International Magazine’s latest cover story spotlights Hannah Ryu and Veronica Shelton, the visionary co-founders of Oak Theory. In an industry where diversity often takes a back seat, Ryu and Shelton are transforming the design landscape and breaking down minority stereotypes.

As renowned experts and women of color specializing in UX/UI, Hannah, and Veronica have personally encountered the glaring inequalities, gender biases, and stereotypes that persist within the tech industry. Often finding themselves as the “token” women of color, they felt compelled to conform to certain expectations in order to be heard in boardrooms. Acknowledging the existence of an “invisible” glass ceiling, they founded Oak Theory to challenge and ultimately change the industry’s status quo.

Oak Theory’s mission transcends merely challenging norms; it is about building a competitive design studio driven by skill and perseverance, emphasizing brand values. Specializing in UX/UI, web, and application design, Oak Theory combines profound user-centricity with effective design principles to empower their clients’ business growth through authentic and impactful design.

Oak Theory’s impressive client roster includes Disney, HBO, Salesforce, Estée Lauder, Oprah, Unilever, Sephora, Subaru, and MAC Cosmetics. Their outstanding journey has recently led them to collaborate with industry giants such as Google and the University of California. This success story is a testament to their resilience, creativity, and commitment to shattering industry norms.

In an in-depth interview with InLife International Magazine, Hannah Ryu and Veronica Shelton provide a rare glimpse into their extraordinary journey. They discuss the driving force behind Oak Theory, their experiences navigating the tech industry, and their ongoing efforts to promote diversity and inclusion.

What motivated the founding of Oak Theory, and how does your mission to challenge minority stereotypes in the tech industry influence the core values of your design studio?

We started our studio really out of discontent with what we saw in our industry. We didn’t see anyone who looked like us leading or at executive levels at companies like ours. We make up 0.1% of UX/UI design companies that are led by women of color (source: Clutch). We say this all the time – just existing in our space as who we are, leading our company, and building our brand – that is our mission in and of itself. – Hannah Ryu, Co-Founder, Director of Business Development & Operations

Given the marked underrepresentation of women, especially women of color, in UX/UI leadership positions, how do you both navigate and challenge the persistent gender bias and stereotypes in the tech industry?

By showing up. I believe that Hannah and I exist in this space, and it is a mission all on its own, so showing up (and showing up correctly) is a huge leap in taking on gender biases and stereotypes head-on. When we show up to meetings with clients and even with our team, we recognize that for most, it’s the first time they are seeing women of color in our positions. I don’t take any of it for granted; I understand the responsibilities that come with it. Many women, especially women of color, understand that we don’t get as much room for error as our male counterparts. So there is a lot of pressure with always feeling the need to show up perfectly, whether it’s not showing too much emotion or always feeling two steps ahead in conversations, and that is something that, over time, I believe both Hannah and I have learned to navigate a bit more freely. That means being okay with making mistakes, giving ourselves permission to be vulnerable, letting our hair down, and diving into the work without feeling bad about it. – Veronica Shelton, Co-Founder, Director of Creative & Technology

Can you share specific experiences or obstacles you encountered in the tech industry that inspired you to create Oak Theory as a competitive and diverse design studio?

As a black woman in the tech space, I can say that there have been more challenges than I think I have space or time to write about. Whether it’s the constant need to prove ourselves to be allowed in spaces we’ve already earned our right to be in or feeling unseen in products we are building and not having the safe space to speak out about it. These challenges are why we know we have to exist here. – Veronica Shelton, Co-Founder, Director of Creative & Technology

Considering the scarcity of women-led UX/UI studios, how do you envision Oak Theory contributing to industry transformation and shaping the standard for diversity in the tech sector?

It’s multifaceted. We are not only leading a company as women of color but also in the influence of the projects we touch and the clients we are engaging with. It’s in the interactions like sitting across from C-suite folks who have never negotiated with people who look like us, and it’s in the simple but thoughtful design decision we make with the type of stock imagery we’ll choose to use to ensure more folks feel seen in the pages that they are navigating. Understand that we are just one studio but are here to take up space. We see our growth as a movement that is beyond our company or brand. We are creating more normalcy for other women and WOC in our industries and in business. – Hannah Ryu, Co-Founder, Director of Business Development & Operations

In founding Oak Theory, how have you both cultivated an inclusive and empowering work culture that challenges industry norms and sets a new benchmark for diversity and equality in the design field?

We’re always learning. This is our first time starting a company; we’re constantly growing as leaders. We’re never going to be perfect or claim to know how to create the best inclusive and empowering environment. We try our best with what we know how to do and stay fair, direct, and focused on the work. What we do know is that many of the folks who come through our organization have told us that the environment is very different, especially for our POC teammates.

Just because of our backgrounds doesn’t automatically mean that we understand all diverse perspectives. We have teammates from all different cultural and language backgrounds. At the end of the day, we look to work with other talented and hard-working folks from wherever they are coming from. That is the best thing about running a remote-first company. We have had the opportunity to work with teammates from all around the world who have unique perspectives and approaches simply due to the fact that we all come from different life experiences. – Hannah Ryu, Co-Founder, Director of Business Development & Operations

Oak Theory prioritizes user-centricity alongside effective design principles. Could you expand on how this methodology distinguishes your design studio and enhances the success of your client’s businesses?

I believe what sets us apart is that we REALLY dig deep into understanding who we’re designing for. Before we even think about the visuals, we’re all about getting to know the users through research, interviews, and workshops. It’s all about making stuff that is not only cool to look at but also super user-friendly and accessible. Our methods have been a game-changer for our clients, leading to better engagement and even helping them score some funding. I’ll also add that being a woman of color-owned studio, we prioritize bringing fresh eyes and diverse insights to the table, which sets us apart and makes a real difference for the businesses we work with. – Veronica Shelton, Co-Founder, Director of Creative & Technology

As co-founders, how do you envision Oak Theory’s long-term evolution and impact, both within your industry and in the broader context of advancing diversity and inclusivity?

To normalize it! To see women of color leading and building companies like ours and building big because, why not us!? I think again, given the statistics of how few of us are out here leading companies like ours, we’d like to think – what would it look like 10 to 20 years from now to see WOC-led companies in highly technical design spaces? We could all envision how that would shift the way many of us experience our world. We’d feel more included, more seen, and more truly, authentically designed. – Hannah Ryu, Co-Founder, Director of Business Development & Operations

Given the unique challenges you’ve navigated and conquered with Oak Theory, what guidance would you offer to aspiring women and women of color seeking to enter the tech field or launch their own design studios?

Do it. Just give it a try! It’s challenging, but there are also a lot of opportunities out there. Folks are looking for fresh perspectives, and we need you to challenge the status quo. If you don’t see someone who looks like you doing what you want to do, maybe you’re the one we’re looking for to stir the pot. We’re here rooting for you. – Hannah Ryu, Co-Founder, Director of Business Development & Operations

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