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How a College Dropout Found Success Without a Diploma

Everyone knows the supposed formula to success: go to college, get good grades, graduate, get a good job at a huge company, work, work, work, and then retire when you’re 60.

Everyone knows this formula, but sometimes it doesn’t work for everyone. Some people – whether out of choice or out of uncontrollable circumstances - break the rules and skip out on a step or two.

Sure, we’ve heard stories about people like Mark Zuckerberg breaking the rules and becoming successful but can a regular person in a place like the Philippines make it work?

Well, it worked out for Kalibrr Product Design Lead, Kevin Velasco.

Kevin dropped out of the University of the Philippines (UP) when he was 19 to pursue a career in product design. He is currently the Product Design Lead for Kalibrr.

Like the Kalibrr site? Give Kevin a shout out. He’s the guy in charge of the user interface and user experience (UI/UX) of the website.  It’s his job to determine your needs and goals and help you achieve them. Thousands of Kalibrr users lay their eyes on Kevin’s stellar work every day. But it took a while to get there.

So how did a college dropout find success without a diploma?

From college kid to Kalibrr

Kevin never really planned on getting into product design. In Kevin’s own words, “a mixture of luck, opportunity, and being open to learning new things” were the key ingredients that brought him to this path in life.

Kevin was still in UP when he started taking a class under Danny Castonguay, Kalibrr co-founder and CTO for Emeritus. One day, Danny posted an announcement in their class Facebook group saying that Kalibrr was looking for a videographer for one of their projects and Kevin, a former Film major, decided to sign up for the job.

While working on the project, Kalibrr’s original product designer left. Seeing this as an opportunity to stay longer with Kalibrr, Kevin dropped out of school and began working on building his design chops. As with most new beginnings, it was a rocky start. With no design experience, he had to design everything on his own while struggling to learn UI/UX design principles.

His light bulb moment came when he realized he could also tackle his design problems like a scientific problem. For Kevin, product design isn’t just about design and art. It involves the application of principles from sociology, anthropology, art design – basically everything that can help understand human behavior. He started looking at user behavior as a scientific process and began treating design elements as variables to be tested until he figured out what worked for Kalibrr’s users and what didn’t.

The most valuable lesson Kevin learned in school applied to his early days in Kalibrr. Kevin shares, “One of the most important skill you can have when working for a start-up is learning how to learn.”

“I was like Jon Snow. I knew nothing. If you accept that, and accept feedback and don’t treat feedback as an attack on you, you can create great things.”

Leaving school for the real world

While it may seem like Kevin easily handled the transition from college dropout to product design expert, it was a change that left him shell-shocked. Dropping out of school meant getting a head start on adulthood. While Kevin was all set to leave school, he wasn’t quite as prepared for the nitty-gritty part of adulthood: being completely and totally independent. Kevin jokes, “I realized if you don’t cook, clean, look after yourself, you die.”

Nevertheless, it was an experience that taught him to be independent far earlier than his peers. Kevin says, “If I stayed in school and graduated, I would’ve stayed sheltered and be unable to survive on my own. I’d still be a helpless child.”

The decision to leave school wasn’t very difficult for Kevin. He found the traditional format of school to be far too slow. He liked the thought of working for a startup like Kalibrr because everything he worked on made an impact on people. He loved the thought that “thousands of people can see what [he] was just designing in [his] sketchpad three weeks ago.”

But make no mistake, Kevin isn’t encouraging anyone else to follow his lead and drop out of college. It was the scariest thing he ever did in his life, but he still considers himself fortunate. “Truth be told, I was a really bad student so dropping out wasn’t a big decision; it was more of an inevitability. It just so happened that I got lucky that Kalibrr was willing to hire a dropout.”

The dropout advantage

While one might think that not having a diploma might make things tougher, so far it has never been an issue for Kevin. He believes that leaving school early has given him an edge over his peers. It has helped drive his career forward faster and toward places he never thought he’d go.

While his peers were at school, he was adjusting to a working environment. And now, as people his age are just graduating from college and looking for jobs, he has already been working for two years. Aside from his job as a Product Design Lead, he also does freelance front-end and back-end web development, as well as other programming projects.

Another edge that he has over his fresh grad peers is that he has had more time to build networks within the industry. He gets to connect and work with the brightest minds in the start-up community – a priceless advantage as he believes that skills alone don’t create success, networks do. “You can be the best programmer, but if you don’t have people out there to support you, it’s very difficult to get anywhere. You have to exert so much effort to get anywhere.”

Designing his future

At 22, Kevin still has a long way to go in his career. While he’s still enjoying his time in Kalibrr, he has huge plans for the future.

He dreams of putting up a practical art school where people can skip the traditional schooling format and learn how to build, design, and innovate with startup businesses in mind. And while he can’t really imagine himself going back to school anymore, he’s toying with the idea of getting an MBA one day in case he puts up his own startup.

Ultimately, he sees himself applying design thinking to solving tangible problems our communities.

He wants to merge the principles of design thinking with sustainable technology to help ease poverty in poverty-stricken communities in Metro Manila. Instead of seeing these communities as a problem to get rid of, he prefers to see them as an opportunity to empower people - just like looking at design as a scientific problem with an answer.

He believes that if we take these communities and teach people to grow their own food, generate their own electricity, and build sustainable communities, we can empower them to become productive members of society. “We can make opportunities for them to be creators in their own right.”

With Kevin’s openness to new things, eagerness to learn, and nifty design skills, he’ll get where he wants to go with or without a diploma.