When Dara Huang started her career in the male-dominated design world, she says she jumped in headfirst without thinking about stereotypes she might encounter.
The daughter of a Taiwanese scientist who emigrated to the USA to work for Nasa and a RIBA Award-winner, Huang earned a master’s degree in architecture from Harvard University.
Before starting her own studio, Design Haus Liberty in 2013, she worked at Herzog & de Meuron in Basel and Foster + Partners in London.
With a multicultural studio and projects in diverse locations, this fierce supporter of female creatives and entrepreneurs is one of the most recognised design talents of her generation. She talks to Gulf News about how she got to the top of the design game.
As a woman designer and entrepreneur, what stereotypes have you had to overcome and what advice would you have for others faced with similar situations?
I think ignorance is bliss because I led my formative years basically ignoring any stereotype and just jumped straight into the scene without much thought to my skin colour or gender. That naivety, if you may, gave me the bravery to insert myself into a world that I didn’t actually know much about. That ignorance was helpful because I wasn’t intimidated by age, wealth, or the fact that we didn’t have any experience or portfolio yet — just goes to show that selling is more about convincing than actually proving.
Over the last six years as the success of the company has grown, the work brings respect. However, I do recall one experience where this guy who did not recognise me took over the conversation and talked over me — when I introduced myself, he immediately joined the dots and completely changed his behaviour.
I can’t help but think, this must be what other women have to deal with who don’t have a platform to back them up. I also remember being in my 20s and basically never being able to express my own opinion.
I realise that this may be self-inflicted insecurity of being young because we do have the ability to create our own platforms and if I knew I had the power to win the respect of people regardless of race, gender, financial status, I would have used that power much earlier. Women need to stand their ground and not be afraid of their own voice — and then use it.
What would be one advice you would give your younger self?
I think my biggest problem is that I can only focus on one thing at a time and to be a good business owner you really need to multitask. I can do it, but not successfully. Another thing I would tell my younger self to be harsher as I’m often too nice and I get taken for granted. I trust people too much, and I’m not very aggressive, and for me confrontation is difficult. So from a financial point of view, I should have been more hard-nosed, trusted my gut and had more control over certain things.
You have so many different divisions and brands — why is diversification important for designers in today’s time?
I think the division of brands is just an experiment in trying to generate different types of revenue and looking at how we can create greater margins on what we’ve already started as a base. I think having different geographical locations is to mitigate risk in different parts of the world; also different cultures have different risk factors so some might take us on to do the whole new build whilst some will only really use us for interiors. Even in an environment of a pandemic we’ve seen how some countries have recovered faster or some countries are just starting to. So economy is always in flux even when it’s global.
What was the most important lesson you learnt as a businesswoman?
To not get too excited about opportunity but to be selective about it. I’ve had offers early on to buy my company or for investors and I said no, which was crazy for me at that time when I had no money, but today I realise that amount of money was nothing compared to the brand value and the opportunities the business is creating for me and my team; I’m glad I turned it down. There are many things I’ve learnt but unfortunately you only have one way to learn things and that is getting hurt and picking yourself up. Keep moving forward, hopefully a bit stronger and smarter every time.