Dara Huang is a world renowned architect and arguably one of the most influential of her time.
Dara is the founder of Design Haus Liberty and co-founder of Vivahouse.
Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role
I got my master’s degree in architecture at Harvard University, but my passion for design ignited when I was a child – I remember creating designs with crayons when I was as young as three years old.
I started my career as an architect at Herzog de Meuron in Switzerland and then worked for Foster + Partners in London before I started my own practice, Design Haus Liberty; which became one of London’s leading design studios. About five years later, after having done several co-living spaces, I realised there was a real need for innovation in the construction and design side of thing, so I came up with the idea of prefabricated living pods. I subsequently met Rajdeep Gahir, who was my perfect commercial match and we co-founded Vivahouse together- the world’s first pre-fabricated, flat pack internal modular housing model, that also acted as an operator – turning housing into a service.
Together, we have created a housing concept that can be set up in any city empty space such as all the surplus commercial spaces we have now. This is going to be big for our rental market and high demand for housing.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
I never really sat down to plan it as such, I don’t think that there is any sure-fire way to set yourself up for success. I have, however, always had ambitions and high aspirations that I never lost sight of, despite the knock-backs.
I am a firm believer that you cannot create someone who understands how to run a business overnight, however, I do think that some people are natural born entrepreneurs. It’s a mix of skill sets including tenacity, hard work, talent, understanding of business development and how to build a network, all whilst simultaneously creating buzz. And, eventually if you’re successful you can hire people who understand how to run a business to surround you. It’s very hard to know if you are a natural entrepreneur until you try it. So, if you are born with a creative mind and are quick to make the most of any opportunities that come your way, you will eventually get to where you want to be in your career.
Have you faced any challenges along the way?
It was pretty easy leaving the job I had to create my first company because I was young, had no real responsibilities and at the time and I was living with my boyfriend who was covering rent and living costs (who I actually paid back when I became successful). At the time I started, I was 31 years old and I didn’t have a business plan, I just had raw passion to do what I loved, but I learned along the way I was really good at sales. There was never a single moment that I didn’t have clients or people banging down my door for something. I wasn’t focused on money initially, so I was able to really enjoy what I was doing and I was getting tons of PR along the way.
Of course, being new to running a business threw up a whole host of unexpected issues but it ended up being one of the most worthwhile challenges I ever accepted. Dealing with the trials and tribulations on your journey is part of the fun of it, and it gives you even more satisfaction when you have overcome them. It took me five years to get the right team to run a smooth business. It was a combination of learning the hard way before we made enough money to be able to hire proper expertise. But even today I still drive the business – it’s not a skill set that any school can teach you.
Being a woman in any male dominated sector has always been a challenge, but I really think it’s all about how you look at it. I always look at the positive of every situation and turn them into opportunities, so for me being a woman meant that I was able to stand out and make a real difference in a sea of men. I’ve had to exercise conviction and confidence in my presentations, and it was a sure-fire way to where I am right now. The older I got, the more confident I felt in my decision making.
How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?
I mentor young women on a regular basis. They often reach out and come to me with issues about their career, where they are going in life, what it is they want to do, and how they should best do it. News flash – It’s totally normal to feel lost especially around the late twenties and early thirties, I certainly did. I think this is the threshold in which women put the most pressure on themselves to feel they must make serious decisions in their lives. At this stage, they’re subconsciously thinking about things like family, where and how they should settle down, should they take off with what they are doing now etc.
I felt really lost until I started my own practice, but the journey leading up to that was what made my first company what it is today. This is why I think it’s totally fine to explore and feel lost for several years; when I created my own company, It was the most joyful and fulfilling feeling I ever had. I think the root of trying to figure out where you’re supposed to be, is always to ask if yourself if you absolutely love what you’re doing – if you’re not sure, then move on.
What do you want to see happen within the next five years when it comes to diversity?
I would love to see more accommodation of mothers and child care in the work force. It’s catered to a lot more in China and the United States than in the UK. There are shorter maternity leaves but much better provisions at the office.
I don’t think that a woman can have everything, I think there are tradeoffs but if we can provide optionality, educate men on the concept of more equal child care and alleviate the bottlenecks such as pay gaps that keep mothers from working, then we can create a more gender equal landscape. Women must continue to be supported in order to overcome challenges, but also be given the freedom to take risks in order to surpass expectations. Without that support, the work force is losing 50% of the brilliance that it could potentially have.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
Depended on what stage in the business I was in:
I remember only dreaming of working on multi-million-pound projects, now it’s our bread and butter. I used to dream of working internationally, now 70% of our revenues come from oversea projects. I used to dream of being in magazines like the FT or Wallpaper, and now we’re being featured with them regularly. Being invited to design the Samsung Pavilion for the 2012 London Olympics was a particular highlight.
I think it’s important to stay curious, hungry and keep learning or else you stop getting excited about the small things. I get excited every day – when we got a new printer last week I jumped for joy. So, achievements really vary from the big and the small – from internal operations to external business acquisitions.
Most recently, though, co-founding Vivahouse with another likeminded woman like Rajdeep has been so much fun, we have already learnt so much from one another – I’m excited to see how much more will come.
What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
With Vivahouse, we want to create a societal change. Everything we have built with Vivahouse has been mindfully created to ensure we have a scalable product that can span borders and cultures to become the new way of living.
Next steps are mainly focused on securing funding for us to launch more sites across the UK, and to fulfil international projects that we’re looking to lock in – with the likes of Hong Kong and Manhattan first on the list. Watch this space!