ADPList Founders Felix Lee and James Baduor on Democratizing Mentorship

ADPList Founders Felix Lee and James Baduor on Democratizing Mentorship

Designwhine Magazine Cover Story New Age Jedi Exclusive Interview With Adplist.org Founders Felix Lee James Baduor

I wasn’t sold on the notion of writing a cover story for ADPList when we initially discussed it. Sure, I’d heard of the platform, and we’d interviewed Felix Lee, one of the founders, for our second issue of DesignWhine in 2020, but I dismissed it as just another product or service platform.

It wasn’t until Rajat Agarwal, our Founder, got into a bit of a debate on LinkedIn with a self-described “seasoned UX professional and educator” that I realised there was a group of people suffering from superiority complex who were busy putting others down, trying to hold on to the imaginary “gates” of the design community.

I reasoned that there should be a community where information exchange and differing viewpoints are welcomed. Where no one looks down on one another and lectures about what is right and wrong in the community are replaced with healthy debates.

I learned about ADPList’s founders’ passionate and amazing purpose of democratising mentoring and making it available to as many individuals as possible throughout the world while investigating the company. It was clear to me that it was more than a product or a service platform. Perhaps precisely the community I had wanted to find.

Their mission is quite similar to ours. ADPList seeks to assist designers overcome their problems through mentorship, while DesignWhine wants to convey tales about their hardships, hope, and accomplishment. I could imagine a great blend of ideologies for a cover story. I went on to research more about ADPList.

As unusual as it may sound, Covid-19 inspired the creation of ADPList.org. When the company first launched last year, Felix Lee and co-founder James Baduor just wanted to do something to help the design community, as many brilliant individuals across the world went unemployed. Initially, their plan was to create a list of persons who would be willing to provide assistance and advice to other designers who were struggling during the pandemic. Soon, they recognised a chance to convert their concept into a full-fledged website, which they named Amazing Design People List, or ADPList for short.

Today, ADPList has organically grown into a platform featuring 2,500 mentors who are providing more than 5,000 booked sessions a month. Some 20,500 mentees have signed up for the support. ADPList has also got a pre-seed funding of US $1.3 million recently from Surgeahead.

For us at DesignWhine, it was a no-brainer. It was now time to talk to Felix and James. It was now time for an exclusive, candid interview with them.

We have an idea on how it all started – from a spreadsheet to this online community of mentors and mentees – but how did you guys get together to work on this project?

Felix: It’s a great question to start off! I think it was quite serendipitous, you know, James and I, we have never actually met in person. We’re in two different countries, two different time zones. He’s never been to Singapore, I’ve never been to Ghana. We actually met on LinkedIn and discussed the ADP spreadsheet that I had started and he was like, “Hey, let’s start a website out of it.” Initially I thought he was looking for freelance work and I needed to pay him but he said he was just looking to collaborate and work together!

How did you manage to get the first set of “amazing design people” onboard?

Felix: Ah, so it’s like the classic chicken or the egg causality dilemma. Like when you’re working on an app like Uber, do you get the passengers or the riders first. In the case of ADPList, we knew a small group of people and we got them onboarded initially to be the “Amazing Design People”, you know, to be the mentors. So I think the first 15-20 mentors were all our friends and then it scaled from there. So I think the strategy in the early days for us was to get anybody we knew, our friends, colleagues to participate and get the ball rolling.

You have always stated that ADPList’s mission is to “democratize mentorship for all”, would you please elaborate on this mission? What is the significance of this in professional fields?

Felix: ADPList was born out of the need to bring people together to support one another in dreadful times of the pandemic. It has now become a global movement. We live in a world today where power, knowledge, and information is in the hands of the few elite who have bought it or people who have the right connections. When you think about true accessibility and equity in education and mentorship, you know, it’s not about what you can afford or about who you know, it is about anyone who wants to learn. And on the other side, if you think about giving back to the community as a mentor, it’s always been limited to smaller, closed groups like say, friends of friends or junior colleagues. It’s never been at a large scale, like a person in the U.S.A. being able to mentor somebody in a remote village in India and vice versa. It’s always been limited to that small proximity and we want to help scale this up. When knowledge is shared at scale, people everywhere can use it to learn new perspectives, to transform their lives. This is how we imagine true equity, democratization of mentorship to be. Our platform provides everyone with an entirely new and engaging way to share knowledge and transform their lives.

And what do you think is in it for the mentors? Why would a Sr. Product Designer at Google in the U.S. want to connect and mentor a budding designer in a tier 3 city in India?

Felix: That’s a great question. A lot of people ask us this question and we have formed an analogy to answer this one. So, let’s say we have two groups of people. One group as a mentor they just want to share knowledge, open, seniors of the industry. The other group only shares knowledge with people who are very close to them. We don’t want the latter group of people at ADPList. We want the former, who believe that their knowledge can empower others. What’s in it for them, you ask. Let’s say a young designer comes to you, I look up to you a lot, can I get thirty minutes of chat with you. What would you say? Pay me money or..

..let’s hang out!

Felix: Exactly! What’s in it for you? Probably nothing but the joy of helping someone. ADPList is normalizing that behaviour at a global scale.

How does this openness then ensure the quality of sessions?

Felix: We vet all our mentors. As hard as it sounds, especially now that we’re scaling, we still go through all our mentors’ profiles, we make sure that they are legit and they’re not here just for a joy ride. In fact, only about 30% of people make it through our vetting process. We also have a review system which is very strict. In case of a negative review, our support team reaches out to establish the causes and if there are consistent negative reviews we might remove the mentor from the list. So, reviews are there to help us ensure trust and safety.

How does ADPList empower the mentees to freely interact with the Mentors

Felix: James, do you want to take this one?

James: Sure. Yes, I think at ADPList we already created a sense of belonging. So a designer joining the platform already has an idea of the experience people have with these mentors.
So, it’s really like mentees are eager for these sessions. They know that they’ll be talking to someone they might not know but also that they won’t be judged, won’t be looked down upon. So, yeah, the sense of belonging is already there.

Do you think gatekeepers exist in the design community? What are your thoughts on that?

Felix (chuckling): Yes, gatekeepers exist and ADPList exists to take those gatekeepers down. People like to call us Luke Skywalker fighting against Darth Vader. And people are all for Luke Skywalker because they understand this is for the greater good. But, yes, I think there are a lot of gatekeepers. People who only do things either for money or popularity and try to keep knowledge to themselves or their closed groups. I think there are so many definitions of a gatekeeper. And I’ve come across so many “popular” people on social media with hundreds of thousands of followers but when you approach them and say “could I get five minutes of yours”, they don’t even reply! And I can tell you, when ADPList started, these gatekeepers hated us! Just like Darth Vader hated the Jedis. But when we came in, we came in like a reckoning force. And we were like, “Look, we’re going to make mentorship accessible to everyone.” And what it essentially means for them is that if they don’t start sharing their knowledge, they’re going to be obsolete.

I have thousands of followers on LinkedIn and I share my knowledge everyday and I have come across people who have no other means of learning but through the knowledge of others which they then impart to their friends. And this is very powerful because when you share your knowledge with one person, you’re in a way sharing your knowledge with the whole village, the whole city, the whole country. And this is what makes us at ADPList the Luke Skywalker to the Darth Vader of gatekeepers.

You mentioned that gatekeepers hated you when you began ADPList. Do you have any instances you’d like to share?

Felix (smiling): I think I’ll share one. So this famous designer. And when he tweeted against the wide accessibility of knowledge sharing and mentorship and trust me, all of our mentors on ADPList jumped onto that thread. He was obviously sharing a very privileged point of view. I did not get offended, I didn’t even have to jump in, I kind of watched on the side as mentors from ADPList debated him. Now, the industry has to be careful about what they’re saying. Today, we work closely with these former “gatekeepers” who now share their knowledge. So I think they now see the value in sharing knowledge. Even the director of Figma is now one of the mentors at ADPList.

So you’ve brought a few people from the dark side to be jedis, is that what you’re saying?!

Felix (laughing): Yes, not all though! There are a few on the dark side still!

What are the future plans on the expansion of ADPList, now that you have procured a handsome pre-seed funding?

Felix: So, we want to make mentorship even more accessible and connect people from every corner of the globe. Also, we want to move beyond just design to verticals like no-code development, marketing, infra and what not. I think mentorship shouldn’t be just for designers but for every industry. I believe that everyone is a mentor in their lives. And the next thing, from this funding is, we’re going to hire the best talents from across the world to help us build a platform where everyone can have a pleasing experience connecting with people on ADPList. We’re not planning to monetize right now, all we’re focussed on is providing an amazing experience to mentors and mentees and knowledge sharing.

Does that mean ADPList will cease to be called ADPList as it expands to other verticals?

Felix: Yes, which is why we have now stopped calling it by the expanded version of “Amazing Design People” list. We’re more generic now, it’s just ADPList.

Do you have plans of monetizing from the platform, charge for sessions?

Felix: Yes, we do have plans for mentors to create their own content. We want to make sure that if we think of monetizing in the next five years the monetization comes from something that is a lot more structured. But not for the next three or four years. Right now all we’re focussed on is making it as accessible to everyone as possible.

This article was last updated on December 11, 2023; Originally published on August 31, 2021

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