The woman in the BIG chair: Sheela Maini Søgaard

On International Women's Day, STIR speaks with the woman who has been critical in shaping one of the world’s most powerful architectural firms: the Bjarke Ingels Group.

by Soumya MukerjiPublished on : Mar 07, 2022

Vocal. Vulnerable. Audacious. Understanding. Breaking the bias is perhaps about embracing the beauty of all parts of being a woman.

At BIG - Bjarke Ingels Group, Sheela Maini Søgaard is the CEO and partner. Thirteen years after walking into Bjarke’s Copenhagen office with no experience in the architectural business, she today commands a team that drives arguably the most ambitious and game-changing firm in the industry worldwide. On International Women’s Day, I have the privilege to ask some straight questions about a journey that has been far from linear for a leader of many colours and much grit.

Søgaard shares that she had to learn the ins and outs of BIG as well as the larger fields of architecture and real estate during her early days at the firm | Interview with Sheela Maini Søgaard | STIRworld
Søgaard shares that she had to learn the ins and outs of BIG as well as the larger fields of architecture and real estate during her early days at the firm Image: Flemming Leitorp

Soumya Mukerji: When you joined BIG 13 years ago, you knew that you could not contribute to the architectural aspect, but could be the financial pillar that the firm then needed. How has your journey evolved?

Sheela Maini Søgaard: When I began at BIG, I really had no idea how the architecture business worked and I had to learn from scratch about architecture, real estate development pricing, scope division, liabilities, etc. I also had to learn the ins and outs of the BIG that I started in. I had to get to know and understand Bjarke to represent him and build his firm based on the vision that he had for it. I also had to distil the key goals we wanted to achieve, identify the obstacles and find mechanisms to overcome these.

While BIG is constantly evolving; and although running a company of 50 people in one office has different challenges than running a firm of 600 spread across five offices, I can still apply the same underlying approach. That is, to distil our most important focus points, identify the most important obstacles, and find tools or develop actions to surpass those obstacles. The immediate goals are different and the challenges to getting there are therefore also different, and that is what has kept me engaged. The evolution in BIG’s journey has allowed me to develop my own skills and to apply these while also constantly challenging me in developing new knowledge. BIG has a stellar team of leaders and talents across the group and functions that have elevated our expertise over many years.

What has kept me engaged and motivated is that there's this constant need for rethinking what the obstacles are, and the tools to resolve them.
Distilling the firm’s focus points while developing actions and tools to address obstacles and meet goals are central to Søgaard’s responsibilities as CEO | Interview with Sheela Maini Søgaard | STIRworld
Distilling the firm’s focus points while developing actions and tools to address obstacles and meet goals are central to Søgaard’s responsibilities as CEO Image: Magnus Moller

Soumya: Were your mixed roots of significance while contributing to your understanding of human behaviour in business?

Sheela: Yes, especially my exposure to other cultures while growing up, I believe, has enabled me to navigate many different situations. My father comes from a traditional Indian family, my mother is Danish, and I grew up in the Middle East. I do feel that this enables me to adapt my behaviour, read a room, and make slight tweaks to how I speak to make sure that I don't involuntarily offend or come across as pushy. 

Soumya: You have charted a successful trajectory over diverse disciplines before joining the architectural playfield. What lessons from these experiences do you carry into your current role?

Sheela: The best ideas come from all over the organisation – whereas businesses often tend to isolate the most important conversations to boardrooms and leadership meetings, effectively missing out on some of the best ideas in the organisations. That is why working in project teams is so beneficial – literally getting to talk to and hear the questions and ideas of colleagues who have a different vantage point than executive leadership. And that is why being accessible to your colleagues is a strength in an organisation.

What am I going to do with the power of the position if I don’t know what really matters to my colleagues at all levels?
Søgaard describes Ingels’ patience, enthusiasm, and leadership as some of his most remarkable qualities | Interview with Sheela Maini Søgaard | STIRworld
Søgaard describes Ingels’ patience, enthusiasm, and leadership as some of his most remarkable qualities Image: Courtesy of Bjarke Ingels Group

Soumya: What is the most remarkable thing about working with Bjarke Ingels?

Sheela: Bjarke has many gifts both as a human being and as a visionary, and certainly as an architect and designer. It will be 14 years of working with him this August, and I continue to be impressed and awed by his many abilities. But, there's one thing that perhaps stands out the most: Bjarke has the patience and respect to listen to a room full of conflicting voices and separate agendas and then to collect seemingly incompatible pieces and combine them into a coherent and complimentary vision – and then to articulate that vision in such a way that it becomes apparent and clear to everyone that they can get behind it without compromising their agendas. This means he can build enthusiasm and excitement in a room where others perhaps will simply gain an okay. He leaves the room excited, exuberant, ready to go! 

Soumya: And the most difficult thing (on a lighter note, of course).

Sheela: His enthusiasm is contagious but can also present a challenge. It keeps me incredibly busy and on my toes that he is so enthusiastic and sees opportunity in so many things!

Soumya: Is there a gender gap in architecture? How are you addressing the issue?

Sheela: I think that there is a gender gap in most industries today, including architecture and our own company. We are working to address it and are also considering how to speed up the process. Certainly, increasing focus on cultivating, mentoring and building diverse talents is something we are focusing on, and this will manifest itself in our ownership in the coming years. My main mission is to make sure we eliminate any barriers for women who want to move into the highest ranks of leadership at BIG and that we make it not only possible but also desirable for women to aim for the highest leadership positions.

Soumya: One golden tip for architects and designers to deal with payments.

Sheela: Get paid! Don't work for free. When I first started at BIG back in 2008, I had just watched Batman the Dark Knight with Heath Ledger in the role of the Joker. And he says in that movie, “If you are good at something, don't do it for free”. That has always stuck with me. And especially in this business we are so eager to be granted the opportunity to design a building, a city block or even an entire city that we sometimes forget that we are designing it for someone else. You are good at what you do, and what you do has value.

Soumya: What are your views on ‘financial creativity’ – a buzzword today that seems to embrace and bridge many disciplines?

Sheela: It’s rare that one hears the two words ‘financial creativity’ together! I am so happy to hear that in your question because traditionally all through my career, I could never understand why creative finance had such a negative connotation as if it rings of manipulating numbers into something that is outside of compliance, referring to financial ‘wizardry’, finding loopholes etc…I think that's such a strange way of divorcing financial pros from creativity!

I am a big believer in being creative when it comes to the financial and business aspect of running a company. And I believe that creativity is necessary and possible in every single corner of an operating model, without it translating into cooking numbers or books.

You can be creative about how to structure payments, structure costs, apply different instruments of finance in your business, and in creating your platform. We have not shied away from being creative in all corners of our company, whether that's HR, finance, controlling of the projects, and in developing a standard for coming up with concepts.

Søgaard believes that the unique skills and perspectives offered in a diverse workplace are vital elements for employers to take note of during the hiring process | Interview with Sheela Maini Søgaard | STIRworld
Søgaard believes that the unique skills and perspectives offered in a diverse workplace are vital elements for employers to take note of during the hiring process Image: Tycho Gregers

Soumya: What is the biggest challenge you face…

as the CEO-partner at BIG:

Sheela: In a growing office, to maintain and develop our entrepreneurial spirit and our culture. The biggest challenge for me is maintaining and identifying the nugget of our DNA. How do you disseminate who we are, how we behave, to new members if you are unable to be with them in these pandemic-ridden times?

as a person of colour in a significant role:

Sheela: I am a woman of colour and as such, I am perhaps even more mindful that I have lived a privileged life. If my colour has been an obstacle in any instance while steering BIG, I have been too thick-headed to note it. What I will say is that given my own colour and having experienced negative and hurtful remarks purely based on my colour in my private life, I am mindful to be aware of my own biases and to acknowledge these so they don’t prevent me from seeing talent, opportunity, and skill in people different from myself.

as a woman running the show:

Sheela: As a woman I have felt infinitely supported in my partner group at BIG, but outside of BIG I do still encounter “men only” meeting clubs where I cannot come because I am not a man. I tend to shrug those things off and just find alternative places to meet. Pregnancy, birth, nursing – those are things that I have needed room for. And I foresee that when I reach menopause, I will need support and understanding from my partner group and colleagues for that, too.

I don't worry so much about what people think about me changing a diaper in the middle of a meeting or nursing a kid. It is not an inhibitor, but I require some modifications. I have become more assertive, more vocal about what I need and that's what being a woman in this job has taught me. It is time we broke this taboo. I have had that audacity, I guess, which I can only encourage other women to have.

Everyone always says, "I don't want to be hired just because I am a woman or a person of colour." Why not? There actually are some unique skills associated with being different and the perspective that brings.

I have become more assertive, more vocal about what I need and that's what being a woman in this job has taught me.

Generally speaking, there are still men who, despite claiming they don’t see gender, interrupt women more than they interrupt other men, and who fail to give credit to an idea voiced by a woman only to acknowledge the same idea when voiced by a man minutes later.

But I have decided that I am a hopeful person, and also a person of self-determination. And this has for me translated into an appreciation for growing up in this time and an appreciation for my younger sisters and brothers around the world who are loudly making the establishment aware that diversity everywhere is a virtue. It has also translated into me being assertive and vocal about what I want and how I want it, and combined with my thick-skin, it means that I have simply done things the way that I saw fit without much credence paid to others' opinions or what has been done before.

City of Telosa by Bjarke Ingels Group | Interview with Sheela Maini Søgaard | STIRworld
City of Telosa by Bjarke Ingels Group Image: Courtesy of Bjarke Ingels Group

Soumya: BIG, today, is a game-changing firm that is reshaping the contemporary architectural landscape with some very ambitious projects. How are the new megacity projects great business opportunities even as they stand to reshape the future of sustainable living? Some of these ideas almost seem to border on a utopian future - how do you make sure to "keep it real"?

Sheela: We are very excited to contribute to the future of our cities and living. Working at this scale allows us to dive deep into the future ways of living, working and playing! We are engaged in a number of large-scale city plans currently, both for existing cities and entirely new ecosystems, and common for them are the opportunity to learn from the environments we live in and to elevate that to a more egalitarian and sustainable future city.

Yes, we are architects and designers, but if we are not part of setting the agenda, then we only become reactive to policies and developers and clients. If we instead also choose what we think are the biggest challenges in the world – and that is the privilege we have as we have built this platform – we are increasing our own ability to address those challenges. Maybe we won't be around to see the first city fully built in space, but maybe we'll be here to see the first portions of it.

We believe in projects not just with good business in it, but also good sense.

Soumya: What are some upcoming projects that you are most excited about?

Sheela: Some of our future cities - Telosa, Toyota Woven city; the Daily Express building in London; film studio work – we are building the first vertical film studio just outside of Manhattan for Robert De Niro and his Wildflower Studios! And of course our cultural projects – the Refugee Museum of Denmark opening in the summer of 2022 is stunning and all timber!

  • Site Model of Toyota Woven City by Bjarke Ingels Group | Interview with Sheela Maini Søgaard | STIRworld
    Site Model of Toyota Woven City by Bjarke Ingels Group Image: Courtesy of Bjarke Ingels Group
  • 120 Fleet Street by Bjarke Ingels Group | Interview with Sheela Maini Søgaard | STIRworld
    120 Fleet Street by Bjarke Ingels Group Image: Courtesy of Bjarke Ingels Group

Soumya: The best vision / strategies often fail owing to a lack of effective implementation. Where are the best organisations going wrong whilst relatively unstructured start-ups are winning the game?

Sheela: Simple – getting things done. Less talking and more doing. I have found that if we agree on what the challenges are, and the actions to address them, then giving people the power and mandate to do the job is gold.

Soumya: What is the most misunderstood aspect of running a business successfully?

Sheela:
  • The false dichotomy of business VERSUS creativity. (Creativity and business are totally interconnected and not separate or conflicting elements. Creativity can thrive inside defined parameters and is even driven by certain constraints.)
  • The five-year strategy plans in a constantly changing world.
  • Relentless measurement of peoples performance based on fixed KPIs.

Soumya: You have confessed to being averse to predictability. How did you make sure that your love for unpredictability never turned into impracticality?

Sheela: I am not sure I did…There's plenty of impracticality in my life. I have also made a lot of silly decisions and mistakes. And they are all important in the journey, right? I think the only thing that's worse than making a wrong decision is not making any decision.

øgaard shares that achieving a work-life balance is a struggle between self-imposed expectations and workplace imposed expectations | Interview with Sheela Maini Søgaard | STIRworld
Søgaard shares that achieving a work-life balance is a struggle between self-imposed expectations and workplace imposed expectations Image: Courtesy of Bjarke Ingels Group

Soumya: Have you ever found yourself struggling to find work-life balance?

Sheela: Yes, I have absolutely struggled! However, I have also come to realise that there are self-imposed expectations vs. workplace imposed expectations. I have come to realise that I have to set the boundaries for what I am willing to give and then also live with the consequences. Work needs often seem more urgent than home needs, but that does not make home life less important. Now I prioritise my health, my family and my work. No employer will thank me for driving myself into the ground or for missing the most important moments in the lives of my loved ones or for not enjoying myself.

I have also realised that I need my work to be engaging and fun and rewarding, because it will take up a significant portion of time.

I have come to realise that I have to set the boundaries for what I am willing to give and then also live with the consequences.

Soumya: Your definition of true power in one sentence.

Sheela: Having the insight, the freedom, the confidence, and the resources to realise decisions.

What do you think?

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