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The Center Centre is a school whose time is now
Chattanooga's entrepreneurial ecosystem is about to get a serious population increase, with the opening of a downtown school for unicorns. Talk about your charismatic megafauna! But it won't be My Little Pony meets Harry Potter at the Center Centre.
That's the name Leslie Jensen-Inman and her cofounder Jared Spool chose for a new school whose first program will be a two-year degree in "user experience design and technology." She explains that design and technology generalists who can work in user experience (UX) design are so rare and highly prized that they are called unicorns in the web world.
"It's hard to find these mythical magical creatures that have a holistic mix of design skills, research skills, content strategy, business savvy, leadership and software development, but these kinds of design generalists are really important within a company," she says. "We are focused on creating industry-ready designers who can, on day one of getting a job in a professional setting, jump in and be an asset to the company without a whole bunch of onboarding."
"Unicorn Institute" was the working nickname that became the real name for the yearlong research project that led to the creation of the "Center Centre." Combining both the American and global spellings is an inclusive shout out to the rest of the world and a reminder that user experience is at the center of most businesses now.
Although a school was the goal of the research project—which surveyed companies that are heavy users of unicorns, including Sears, JPMorgan Chase, Marriott, Bloomberg, Cars.com, GE and others—it was important to keep the two separate until the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) gave its approval for the school, which it now has done.
With competing goods and services sold more every day via web sites and mobile devices, user experience is a key competitive tool, and nationwide there are 150,000 unfilled jobs for UX designers.
"GE told us they'd like to hire every single designer we could produce," says Jensen-Inman. "All of these people, they just don't want to hire one person, they want to hire lots."
Jensen-Inman is a design educator who has worked on an international level to write curriculum and raise the standards for this type of education. Jared Spool has had a UX design firm for 25 years. Both were frustrated—she with the lack of real-world design opportunities for her students, he with the lack of qualified designers to help his clients realize the plans he could help them conceive.
Together, they designed an innovative curriculum that combines direct interaction with world-class industry experts every three weeks, short-term school projects individually designed by facilitators for each student's background and needs, designing longer-term projects for real companies and nonprofits and doing build out for those projects in collaboration with professionals.
With THEC approval in hand now, Jensen-Inman and Spool launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund course design, which met its $21,700 goal in three hours. Jensen-Inman is hoping to reach her Kickstarter stretch goal of $112,000 by the Feb. 22 deadline. That would allow the school to hire its first three faculty members and admit its first cohort of 36 students this fall.
She hopes to expand rapidly, reaching 400-500 students in five years. The school currently has enough office and teaching space for that first cohort. As it grows, rather than one large campus, she envisions separate locations around downtown of about 7,000 square feet for each group of 36 students and three facilitators.
"We can help bring life here," she says. "We can help bring foot traffic, and our students will get the benefit of being around professionals and being accessible to other companies that hopefully will work with us to help mentor students and that need UX downtown."
She also sees the Center Centre—particularly the opportunities it creates for unaffiliated professionals to interact with its expert speakers—as creating another inducement for professionals to relocate here.
"If I'm a web person I can live anywhere in the world," she says. "Why wouldn't I live in a place with a great cost of living, great people, great atmosphere, the fastest Internet and where I can get an injection of professional development every three weeks?"
With just over a week left in the Kickstarter campaign and more backers from Malaysia and the United Kingdom than from Chattanooga, Jensen-Inman hopes to get 1,500 contributions—at any level—from locals. Even contributors of as little as $1 will get their names on a Great Wall of Thanks in the school's headquarters.
"It's not about the bucks, it's about the backers," she says. "It's very cool that people from all over the world are supporting this and they understand the importance of UX education. It would be really neat to tell the rest of the world that Chattanooga supports it, too."
For more information on the Kickstarter campaign, visit unicorninstitute.com.