Fascinated with creating things even as a child, it was only natural for Priya Daniel to train as an architect at the prestigious Sir JJ College of Architecture, Mumbai, India and later as an urban designer at The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL in London.

Starting her career in a fairly unorthodox manner, her first job was that of an urban conservationist with the celebrated woman architect, Brinda Somaya in Mumbai. From there she moved to work at Atkins, Dubai, where she was probably the only female architect (as per choice) to work on a construction site. This stint provided tremendous exposure, working on large scale projects like the Kempinski Hotel & Residences at Palm Jumeirah and skyscrapers like Sama Tower on SZR.

Having an early introduction to the unglamorous, yet critical side of architecture helped shape her practical understanding of the field from ground up. She subsequently moved into the comforts of the Design office at Atkins where she worked on iconic buildings like the Trump International Hotel amongst others, thus gaining exposure to both aspects.

Eager to build on this foundation, she spent the next few years gaining experience in working on major and diverse projects globally, in London and with notable firms, Aedas and Surbana Jurong in Singapore. While architecture has been her primary profession, becoming mother to a baby girl got her to start a conscious clothing brand that focusses on women’s and children’s fashion.

Passionate as a designer, social innovator, and urbanist essentially meant the power to “create”. To create, to make things and lives better by reflecting on the needs of people and respecting the contemporary rhythms. Recognised as one of the Women Icons Asia 2019, Priya Daniel took time out to share her thoughts and experiences with AsiaBizToday.

On turning an entrepreneur
It was always my dream to set up an independent architecture practice. After having built several years of work experience in the corporate sector, I decided it was time to branch out on my own  and Five Scale Design was born (FSD). I spent the initial few months almost entirely on business development by travelling to a lot of countries and leveraging on my contacts in the construction/real estate space. This phase was very exciting, yet incredibly – there was always a constant need to remind myself to stay the course and remain focussed even in the face of multiple rejections and stumbling blocks. Looking back at that time, I would certainly say it was a period of frequent introspection! Gradually projects started rolling in and the firm currently is in the process of scaling up its operations.

At FSD, we design and deliver projects at all scales and sectors, across Asia and beyond. Our focus is to create transformative spaces that work in balance with their context. We value beauty, efficiency and logic with an honest expression of materials, clean lines and forms that allow the design and its inhabitants to thrive. We are currently working on some hotels and resorts, mixed used towers, residential and luxury interior projects.

Running my own firm has its fair share of perks, the principal one being the ability to manage my schedule and my time. This flexibility allowed me to make time to give back to community and indulge in my other passions – music, art and eco fashion, which brought me to my next venture – DARLINKS, a conscious clothing brand with fun and practical outfits that grow and stay with mothers and their children.

Watching my daughter grow out of her gorgeous little outfits so quickly made me reflect on how much wastage there is in the textile industry and also drew focus on the excesses I had in my own closet too. This led me to believe that there had to be a more sustainable option for kids clothes and what better way than to link to their mum’s closets! My background in being a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Accredited Professional, and practicing green building design principles, led me to challenge through the framework of sustainability.

Motivation in getting it going and experiences running the business
I wanted to practice architecture with autonomy and passion by taking alternative approaches that add value for my clients and communities. Both my businesses are social enterprises and are an extension of my passions, hence very fulfilling.

I realised one can never be fully prepared for starting a business despite the best of planning. I literally had no background in business or fashion but had to quickly come up the curve on Admin, Legal, HR, Marketing and business development matters. And I’m always building while operating.

Learning to proactively manage my time and energy to ensure I am able to multitask, move quickly, and think strategically while allowing for things to gestate has taken a while to sink in. The waiting, the downtime, the in-between – it all serves a purpose. I am learning how to trust my process, especially during the delays and detours. And through this journey I have had the chance  to build a network of amazing people and relationships.

Key factors that keep you going
Faith in the business plan, a passion to succeed, a reliable team, and sincerity in objective. I try to surround myself with driven and positive people, of varying backgrounds/ professions who act not only as a sounding board but also sources of inspiration. My husband is also an incredible mentor, and being a banker, has helped streamline and shape my business abilities.

Challenges along the way
The definition of smooth sailing while setting up a business is at best a challenge which brings about solutions. And at worst, a complete overhaul of the plan built to date. In fact it’s these bumps which consistently help in sharpening and refining the proposition.

Travelling to tier 2 or tier 3 cities in developing countries while exciting, has brought about personal safety issues and exposure to malpractices. And juggling this travel and demands of a nascent business with raising my 3-year-old daughter has had me frequently manage my responsibilities.

Yes, the AEC (Architecture, Engineering, Construction) industry suffers from a disproportionate ratio of male to female professionals- just 3 of the top 100 architecture firms are led by women. But I do believe that innovation, sound business practices, an empathetic work culture and passion for success trumps gender bias. Women have made great strides in the industry and the hope is to see appropriate representation in the near future.

Source of inspiration
Often in the least expected of ways and places- my travels, everyday objects, stories of people, my
daughter, the state of the world etc.

Proudest moment so far
Undoubtedly, seeing the first building solely conceptualised and designed by my firm being constructed and used. I’ve been part of numerous projects across the globe and led many teams under challenging timelines within the larger firms, but this felt completely different. It’s like watching your baby grow up.

And in near second was the moment when the practicality and applicability of our conscious clothing brand strongly resonated with other mums and their daughters.

Your definition of success
The clients who decide to return to our business, those who choose our team, our brand, time and time again, are an indication of excellence, consistent delivery and by some means- success, to me personally. It is a big compliment to our hard earned investment and concept.

How you make your money is more important than how much you make. Hence to me, making an impact while doing what I am passionate about is a critical yardstick. And hopefully I can be an inspiring figure for my daughter in the years to come. That would be special.

Your advice to aspiring entrepreneurs, especially women
Do not let time go by in doubting your own abilities and potential. You could be grinding for three years with no results and on the fourth realise the fullest of your vision. Keep hustling. Develop a network of mentors and people you can rely on for honest feedback and advice.

Learn the ins and outs of every aspect of your operation while building trust with your business network – that & how you grow. There are moments when the journey might feel lonely – It’s important to acknowledge one’s areas of weakness and seek to bolster that with the right set of people / competencies.

Be ambitious and constantly curious but take a moment to enjoy the significant milestones. These  are things I keep reminding myself and still have a long road ahead.