BIG is one of the world’s fastest-growing and best-known architecture firms—but you wouldn’t have believed that 10 years ago. Founder Bjarke Ingels credits one woman with turning it around: Sheela Maini Søgaard.
Søgaard joined BIG in 2008 when the company was struggling financially. Ingels needed to hire someone with a strong business mind and the backbone to get them through it. Enter Søgaard, a consultant with no architecture experience who had just left her job at McKinsey. When she began, BIG had one office, one partner, and 45 employees. Ten years later, it has expanded to 12 partners and over 500 employees across the globe. She joined the company as the CFO—and became the only female partner shortly after. A year later, she became the chief executive.
Søgaard broke ground as a woman CEO in architecture, a male-dominated industry where only 18% of licensed architects are women. As chief executive, fostering equity remains a top priority: “Gender equality and equal opportunity is something that is truly central to how we think about leadership at BIG,” Søgaard told Dezeen in 2017.
Her initial impact on the company was simple: She got them paid. Recognizing that the architecture industry was rife with free work, Søgaard brought what Ingels calls a “’fuck you, pay me’ attitude.” Not only is she the reason BIG got so big, according to Ingels, but she was integral to crafting an uplifting atmosphere conducive to creativity. “Creativity thrives in positivity,” Søgaard told Fast Company last year. “You need positivity to be innovative and to be creative.”
In an interview with Quartz, Søgaard reflects on the importance of recognizing one’s value, embracing conflict, and the unbeatable power of tenacity.
1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?
In the Batman movie The Dark Knight, the Joker says at one point, “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” I saw that movie in 2008 when I had just joined BIG and was observing with some horror the standard practice of architects partaking in architectural competitions for no compensation whatsoever. We took the Joker’s advice and largely stopped doing free work. It’s a virus in creative industries that you have to work at no compensation while giving away your best and most valuable ideas. I still have that clip on my laptop.
I am comfortable with making decisions, and I generally make decisions that create forward movement. I am unafraid of struggle and welcome discussion and push back from colleagues to get to the best possible decisions. And I am targeted; I achieve the goals I set. Essentially everyone will get to where they want if they walk in the right direction and continue for long enough. So far I’ve possessed the patience and the tenacity to keep walking.
I would ensure that all women have a mentor in the management level above their own position.
4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?
I wish I had known that everybody else is also simply trying to “figure it out.” And if I could go back, I would tell myself that everyone else doesn’t always—in fact rarely—know better.
One of my first jobs was for a large multinational consulting firm. I really liked my colleagues there, and I am grateful for the things and lessons I learned. Among one of the lessons was that working all the time and always putting my job before anything personal would eliminate all joy from my life. I got exhausted at the thought of fighting a losing battle to maintain some balance in my personal life, so I quit that job and started looking for something else to do.
6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?
I am genuinely interested and curious about the lives and thoughts of my colleagues. I find that when you surround yourself with people you really like, admire, respect, and who reciprocate those emotions, building solid relationships comes quite naturally and requires less curation. However, I also find that it requires more and more of a conscious effort to dive into a conversation with depth because of all the agendas pulling at my schedule.
During a moment when I doubted my abilities to lead a certain agenda, BIG founder Bjarke Ingels told me, “You only have to do things once before you can say that you have experience.” That resonated with me, and I have used that as a support often since.
When men they become fathers, they should also insist on being a partner with equal initiative at home. One of the biggest factors holding women back on the career ladder is that they still struggle to balance careers and family. If fathers insist on being dads and take on an equal share in child rearing and household tasks, then men and women would be more equal at work and home. Difficult conversations with employers would belong to everyone and be met with greater understanding.
This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.