“Be so good they can’t ignore you” says Pallavi Dean, founder and creative director, Roar.
One of the Middle East’s most sought after designers, Dean’s parents moved from India to the UAE in 1974. This is where she studied and ultimately founded her award-winning practice. Here, she shares her experience of diversity in the UAE’s design industry.
“Diversity — and its evil twin, discrimination — is clearly a big global story right now. I’m a designer who lives, works and was raised in the UAE, so I’ll approach it from that narrow perspective.”
You could argue that I drew not one but two short straws: I’m Indian and I’m a woman, raising the spectre of both racial and gender discrimination. And I certainly didn’t have family money to fall back on. Only a scholarship from the American University of Sharjah allowed me to complete my architecture degree.
But my story is very much one of hope and optimism.
Sure, I’ve suffered my share of discrimination: in one of my first jobs after graduating, I earned Dhs5k a month while my British colleague — also a fresh graduate — earned Dhs10k. It wasn’t till I moved to London in my mid-20s that I found a workplace culture (and pay scale) that was truly colour blind and meritocratic.
But since moving back to Dubai in 2008, sour incidents have been few and far between. Of course, you get some ‘toxic masculinity’ on building sites, where patronising men think you’re just there to choose cushions and fabrics. But that’s the exception, not the rule. And I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s my male Emirati clients who are among the most respectful.
Racial slurs happen, but they are also few and far between. One example: I’ve been doing a lot of work with a very senior female Emirati client in recent years. We got chatting over coffee and she told me: “This is your country too. You were born here and raised here, you have a business here and you’ve raised your family here.”
Have I just been lucky? Yep, there’s always a bit of luck in building a successful company. But if there’s one phrase that, for me at least, has summed up my two decades in the UAE design industry, it’s this: “Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You.” It’s the title of a book by Professor Cal Newport, who stole it from the American comedian Steve Martin. When asked by up-and-coming comics how to get hired, Martin always told them to be so good they can’t ignore you.
So I got my Master’s degree; got international experience; I read a book a week, mostly self-development; I hire business coaches, psychologists and mentors for me and the team. All of which makes sure that every design coming out of the Roar studio meets the gold standard, is on time, and on budget. Bottom line: most clients I meet discriminate on three things — quality, price and speed, in that order.
That said, diversity for me means far more than just the absence of discrimination. As architects and interior designers in Dubai, we’re creating buildings for a vast diversity of people. One day it’s an office where the priority is a nursing room for mothers; the next day a home where prayer rooms are paramount; and the next day a hotel with a rooftop bar to lure the late-night party crowd.
My diversity journey has had its ups and downs, but far more of the former than the latter. In Dubai I met a British guy who I married. Our two kids are British — and speak with that typical half-American expat accent picked up from re-runs of 1960s Batman TV shows and the video game Fortnite. My Indian mum and dad still call it home.
I will be forever grateful for the diversity of the UAE.