Feb 18, 2018, 15 min read
Interview by Julia Wagner
This week’s interview is with Bahaar Faquih, owner, and CEO of the global architecture firm FAA.
Suddenly faced with being the main family breadwinner, Bahaar Faquih took over her late father’s architecture firm at age 23 when fresh out of college and transformed it into a globally successful business.
In our conversation, we talked about becoming a young female leader in India without mentors but facing many doubters, working with your sibling and building a reputation.
Bahaar, great having you here today. As a start, can you give us a brief introduction to yourself?
“Yes, sure. Thank you for having me Julia, it’s a pleasure to talk to you. I am an architect and I have my own firm which is called Faquih & Associates India – also known as FAA India. It is based in Mumbai but we do projects all over the world. I would say my journey began when, starting out of high school, I decided to pursue architecture. In part, I guess, because my dad was an architect, too. So I was exposed to architecture from an early age. But I am not sure how much that influenced my decision. I did a year of architecture in India at an architecture college and realized that it was not exactly the curriculum that I was hoping for. I needed more freedom to express myself. Hence, I applied abroad in the US and got admitted to transferring to the University of Oklahoma in Norman. They allowed me to continue my studies midway. I completed my undergraduate, B-ARCH [Bachelor of Architecture] degree with a minor degree in construction management there.”
What came after graduation?
“I went back home to India hoping to take a 6 or 7 month break before continuing with my Masters. But, unfortunately, we had a family tragedy – my father passed away very suddenly. This put me into the situation of being the eldest in the family. We had no other real means of income. So, at the age of 23 years, I took the decision that, since I was an architect and had chosen this profession, I had to at least try and continue what my dad had started. Hence, I took over the architecture firm without any world experience or anything like that. So that is how I started my profession and career.”
Were you familiar with your father’s business already?
“Not really. You see, I was away for the great part of four years studying in the US. So I was not really aware of it to such a degree. I was also taking things very easy. I was thinking ‘Oh I am just going to take a break and then come back to do my masters’. However, there were five months between my return to India and my father’s death. During that time we had a lot of conversations and discussions about work, design, and life in general. That has always helped guide me, especially when faced with difficult decisions.”
“If you are very confident of yourself and passionate about what you are doing,
you project that.”
Before graduation, did you have in mind to maybe take over the business?
“No. It was kind of open-ended. I never had any pressure or expectation from my father. During the course of doing my bachelor of architecture, I had started to also take some classes in filmmaking, which were also very stimulating, creatively. I had half a mind of changing my profession to become a film director after I graduated. So I was kind of in the state of mind to ask ‘Which profession do I want to do?'. Finally, my decision was to pursue architecture.”
How was this experience? It must have been quite tough to get over the loss of your father itself. But how was it for you to enter the business and become the leader of the employees?
“It was a very long journey emotionally and professionally - a challenge every day. There is just so much to learn. Not just about the profession but about the business, the way the markets and people work, the way that the profession works in India as well as being a woman in a more male-dominated profession in an Asian country. It was very, very challenging. But in hindsight, it was a great learning experience. I had to juggle so many hats. So I learned a lot, very fast. ”
What were some of the most remarkable learnings for you during that phase?
“One big lesson that I learned is: If you are very confident of yourself and passionate about what you are doing, you project that. A lot of other people pick up on that – whether it is people working for you or people you are doing work for. Secondly, you must fulfill your commitments and value your ‘word’ so that you build a reputation. If you build a reputation over time it is a lot easier for people to have confidence in you and to trust you. I don’t think people remember your gender, age or experience if you build a record of honoring your word and commitments to the best of your abilities - with regards to both employees and customers. Sometimes things don’t go your way but it helps if the intentions are right and you endeavor to keep commitments and quality, with sincerity towards your work.”
“You must fulfill your commitments
and value your ‘word’ so that you
build a reputation (...) for people to have confidence in you and to trust you.”
What are some specific challenges you encountered?
“There were many. The first big project that I got was India’s first freestanding discotheque lounge. It was called ‘Fire & Ice’. It was the first of its kind being made in India. It was a big break for me because it was within 2.5 years of me starting my career. Something like that had never been attempted before in India. It was a building dedicated to being a discotheque itself, not being part of another structure, and converted from an old textile mill. A lot of people had doubts that someone who had just entered the industry would be able to do something like that. But as I said – if you are confident, it shows. We were able to finish the discotheque and it was a big critical and commercial success, though it has shut down since it is still considered an icon of its times. It also won an award from the Institute for Interior Design in India and several Bollywood movies used it as a location and have been shot there.”
What is something that went wrong in the process of building the discotheque?
“It was an old mill compound. While going into it and studying it further I realized that it needed structural reinforcement – which I had not expected. Secondly, one day we had some of the old mill workers staging a big show outside, protesting against the original mill owners. Of course, we had nothing to do with them but it slowed down the construction process for us and we were on a timeline. We had to convince them that this is not related to what we were doing. A third example: Because the mill had been out of operation for so many years, the interconnected electric grid gave us problems. When we had a dry run for the opening night, we realized that the grid itself had issues. So I needed to find the root cause and resolve the problem within 24 hours before the opening night where hundreds of people and celebrities were expected to attend.”
How did you achieve the scaling of the business? According to LinkedIn, you have 80+ employees by now.
“We kept doing projects and we kept getting larger and larger projects which helped us to scale up the company. It was not intentional, it happened organically. When FAA reached year 6 or 7 after I took over there was a realization that we needed a proper strategy towards professionalizing the firm. So we revamped, completely professionalized our systems, our branding, processes, staff career paths etc.”
How about the involvement of your brother, who is co-leading the company with you?
“My brother joined me a few years later. He is also an architect. That brought a diversity of thought and ideas which helped greatly and boosted FAA as there were now two partners leading the firm. While there is inevitably difference of opinion sometimes, I consider that a good thing. Two people form a bigger one.”
“Whatever enterprise you do, you have to
define roles very well. Everybody has
different abilities and functions.”
Was it always clear that you would be the co-owner with your brother? Was there anyone saying he had to take a leading role because he was a man?
“No, I never faced that. The only time I ever faced gender bias was right in the beginning. A lot of people said ‘You shouldn’t do this because this is a male-dominated industry. You are just 23 years and you have been away for so long. The real world works differently, it is going to be difficult.’ I don’t think their intentions were wrong, maybe they had my best interest in mind and wanted to give me a fair warning. But somehow, I was not convinced and I just decided to do what I thought was best.”
Working with family is different than working with co-workers; we experience that working as sisters on 'Here She Is'. What is your perception?
“Yes, there is another layer. It is challenging and rewarding of course. In my case, the first few years I was pretty much on my own. I kind of lead the company through the formative struggle and nascent period, going from zero to more stable, before my brother joined.
But certainly - whatever enterprise you do, you have to define roles very well. Everybody has different abilities and functions. Dealing with each other can be tough on the relationship. Your sibling is not just a work colleague that you can ‘shut off’. Also as siblings, you grow differently with time. It also helps to make sure that each person has freedom to operate, and having good communication.”
Back to your company - You started to get international projects at some point.
“Yes. A lot of our clientele for whom we had done projects in Bombay or India for had other ventures in other parts of the world like Dubai or Hong Kong. They started approaching us asking for help with the design of their projects and we took that on.”
“Don’t doubt yourself! Yes, it will involve
a lot of work and some setbacks. But if
you are committed and passionate about something, eventually it will happen.”
At what point did you go to the US, your primary home today?
“While setting up and running a firm, trying to get a lot of financing and business on a stable ground, my personal life was not a priority for about 12 years. Marriage was really not on my horizon. But then I met my husband, Anand, and decided to pay some attention to this. He was based out of New York and that is where we met. We got married and I moved to NY for a brief amount of time and then we moved to San Francisco. By that time my brother was fully on board and taking care of projects and business. So, it became a lot easier for me to hand over aspects of the firm. But I keep traveling between San Francisco and Bombay to make sure that the business and design strategy are in the right direction.”
In retrospect, would you choose to focus less on work during that phase of your life?
“Being an entrepreneur and business owner is about making choices and decisions every day. Looking back, I would have still taken the same approach.”
Tell us a little bit about your job today: Which tasks do you allocate time to? How do you split your time between the US and India?
“I travel to India every 2-3 months and then I spend 6-7 weeks there. And I also keep in touch with employees by phone, Skype, and facetime. It is a lot easier now to be on top of things without physically being there. All over the world, a lot of buildings get built while the architects reside in different countries. After having more than 17 years of experience in the field it is easier for me to embrace a role of strategizing and chief design/architecture role. Also, stepping in a more “hands-on” role if required, making sure that projects are going smoothly and correctly etc.. ”
Since the beginning of your professional career, you have been at the head of an organization. Have you had any mentors or someone who gave you guidance?
“I did not have any mentor to begin with. But I did learn a lot by observing the people whom I was doing projects for. Oftentimes, they were heads of other companies, CEOs of corporate entities or public limited companies. Observing them and interacting with them taught me a lot about running a business.”
Can you share an example of things you observed?
“Early on, our firm designed and planned a lot of factories and offices for the diamond industry in India as well as the pharmaceutical industry. I observed different practices that they followed in the businesses, for example they built brand value, they nurtured talent, conducted business meetings, how everything was laid out specifically, action-oriented, how to follow-up on commitments that have been made, how to handle disagreements, how to have a strategic vision. It was a mix, there was not a one specific person that I learned from.”
You stressed several times the importance of having a company vision.
“Yes, it has been one of the pillars of my thought process: For any position, career or company, it is important to be strategic. For example, if you think of design, there must be a strategic, overarching idea. If the employees are supposed to be growing with the company then there must be guidance on the steps we have to take. I try to have a larger picture before planning the specifics of how something will be done. This process gives longevity. It Also convinces the people who work for you or whom you work to be part of your larger goal.”
“In India, contracts are very difficult to enforce and legal recourse is tedious. Because of that,
relationships, reputation, and soft skills matter more in executing projects.”
What is your larger goal today?
“I have been thinking about exploring a new design direction for the company. and have been spending more time learning new tools and expanding my knowledge horizon. Building on the existing business with new complementary yet independent 'innovation labs'. I am also asking myself what the direction of my personal and professional growth is.”
In terms of cultural differences – how is living in the US for you? You became acquainted with the US mindset quite early but you are leading an Indian firm. Are there any intercultural difficulties?
“It is not really an issue for me. Even in India a lot of people are well traveled to the US, Europe etc. so they are aware of the differences. But in the day-to-day business, when handling labor and business practices in India vs. in other countries, you have to be a little bit more sensitive. For instance, the way how instructions are given in the US is very formal. When you start a project in the Western world, things are written down in the form of contracts and planned in great detail ahead of time. Contracts are enforceable and carry a lot of weight. Therefore, it is much easier. By contrast, in India, contracts are very difficult to enforce and legal recourse is tedious. Because of that, relationships, reputation and soft skills matter more in executing projects.”
You are not particularly active when it comes to social media. So social media presence was never important to your business success?
“Social media was in its infancy when I started my career so it was not part of my business plans. Though now I am fascinated by its potential and am beginning to understand how powerful it can be.”
“We are all presented with a choice at some point. But never let fear dictate your choice in judging whether you can do it or not.”
Looking back at all you have done and achieved so far, but also considering that you were sort of pushed into your career by your circumstances: Would you do things the same way? What would you recommend to others?
“We are all presented with a choice at some point. But never let fear dictate your choice in judging whether you can do it, or not. If you want to do something, it is your choice. That was on my mind when I was faced with the decision. And I would absolutely do it again and make the same decision. The experiences, personal fulfillment, sense of self and the people I have gotten to know during the last two decades have been enriching. Definitely, it was also a lot of hard work, stress, a lot of sleepless nights. But it was still worth it considering what I gained from it.”
Do you have any final piece of advice to share?
“If I was talking to any other woman looking to do things on her own I would say: We all have so much strength within us. We just don’t know it. But when tested, we are capable of doing great things. It was a realization I had. Don’t doubt yourself! Yes, it will involve a lot of work and some setbacks. But if you are committed and passionate about something, eventually it will happen. Don’t let fear hold you back. And more importantly, don’t let anyone else hold you back!”
Thank you, Bahaar.
“Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you and tell my story.”
Bahaar Faquih was born in Mumbai (formerly Bombay and referenced as such in the interview), India. She holds a Bachelor of Architecture with a Minor in Construction Management from the University of Oklahoma. She is the owner of architecture firm Faquih and Associates (FAA), a multi-disciplinary Architecture and Interior design firm based in Mumbai whose portfolio covers office and residential buildings, bungalows, hotels, and factories all over the world. She leads the firm together with her brother Kaif Faquih and frequently travels between her home in San Francisco and company headquarters in Mumbai.