Women in Business: Paula Azevedo, Principal, dash design

For Paula J. Azevedo, Principal of dash design's Miami office, hospitality design is a celebration of life and its many textures. "Our environments inspire us. The places I've lived, the people I've met, where I've traveled all of that influences my design approach" she says. "It's a discovery process, and I carry those experiences forward, gaining new perspectives, understanding and relevant design ideas."

To the newly formed office, Paula J. Azevedo brings over 20 years of interior and architectural design experience, an extensive, nuanced understanding of the hospitality

business, and a passion for collaboration and cultivating young talent.

Prior to working at dash design, Paula was Principal of her own collaborative design consulting firm at pja Create Studios. The firm flourished under her excellent client service, original design and keen business sense. There, she oversaw luxury hotels and spas, destination resorts and multifaceted commercial projects.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Every experience in my adult life has influenced who I am today. One of the most pivotal lessons, which one might consider unconventional, I learned was after I graduated from Texas A&M University. I decided to postpone graduate school so that I could travel, see the world and explore life more before getting grounded with responsibilities. I got a job with a cruise line that had everything to do with travel and nothing to do design and architecture. The job I originally thought would be just for 'kicks' turned out to be one full of responsibilities as I quickly climbed the ladder and became a manager. It was then I realized that I was destined to lead, take charge and ensure success, no matter the task.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at dash design?
My diverse work experiences have propelled me to become a hands-on and detail-oriented designer and that has definitely aided in my tenure with dash design. There are two experiences that stood out.

First, I worked for a construction/development firm that honed my hands-on and supervision skills. I spent a lot of time on construction sites, coordinating with external consultants as well as working collaboratively with colleagues to ensure turning over quality project to clients. It was during this experience that I realized I was entrepreneurial by nature. I became much more comfortable wearing many hats and being a part of all aspects of our business.

Second, as a result of client needs, I organically launched my independent design consulting agency. It was during this time I really began to grasp and understand the true business of design. Every decision made along the way effected the bottom line and profitability. This was a difficult lesson, yet valuable and I've been able to carry it forward, which has contributed to my success.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at dash design?
This is an exciting time for us. We just marked one year since dash design announced its expansion into Miami, an effort I helped make happen. I am proud to be a part of this endeavor and glad to have the opportunity to once again expand on my professional growth.
It's both exhilarating and scary to be a part of something new and somewhat unknown. There has been a lot of travel and working remotely, which has been one of the biggest hurdles. Not being in the same space or time zone as my team members puts me in a position where I must juggle my schedule to make myself available to then in order for me to stay on track. As such, my day is rarely a nine-to-five kind of day. I'm lucky though as our designers do their best to understand the work environment and also accommodate. They are fabulous and have adjusted to working collaboratively with me to create fabulous designs. The highlight is having become a complement to our company's founder, David Ashen, with the expansion and the continuation of building a business that he has lead for 12 years.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in design?
Design is all about passion, drive and details. For women looking to pursue a career in design, my advice is to embrace your personal style and vision. Believe in yourself, your knowledge and experiences, yet stay humble. Invest in your own success by cultivating an understanding of the world in which you work and live, how it functions and how it makes you feel. I believe this is the best way to communicate great ideas and is the basis for all iconic designs, especially as they become realized and built.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
To listen and not to engage or react prematurely. It's an important lesson, and our success as designers is dependent on it. Although it's not easy at times, and sometimes our enthusiasm and desire for great results propel us to want to jump right in. But I have found, as a good problem solver (another way to describe what we do), you have to listen first, absorb and digest information from the client before proceeding. The outcome will be better and of greater value to the client. This reinforces the collaborative process and builds mutual trust and respect with the clients as well as with my peers and design team. The net results are better designs that are interesting and reflective of the original desire. A bonus - the creative process becomes even more enjoyable and fun!

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I find it difficult to maintain a work/life balance since I work more than I make time for myself. As such, I have had to work harder at combining the two so they overlap. Fortunately for me, working in hospitality makes this more possible, especially when I have to travel so much for business. I do my best to add in an afternoon to explore the area by having a fabulous meal at a local establishment or visiting a gallery or museum. One of my favorites, however, is when I get to tack on a day to just relax and recharge with a spa treatment. I consider myself fortunate and it's through these experiences and the people whom I encounter that make me happy and which creates the balance that works for me. So when I'm at home and have some down time, I don't feel compelled to be super busy or involved. I am comfortable enjoying my time with my family, friends and my dogs. I thrive on the contrast and consider myself blessed to be able to do both.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
The workplace for women has come a long way since I first started my career. The challenges and struggles still exist, but are different today than they were twenty years ago. Before, women, as a community, had to prove themselves. It was uncharted territory and, fortunately for us today, there have been amazing women who have laid the ground work to make it possible.
Although measured most often by compensation and opportunity, the biggest common denominator then and now however is garnering respect. I believe many women are more compassionate, flexible and collaborative in our endeavors than most men. Our ability to manage and multi-task along with our drive to persevere has resulted in gaining respect in the business world. These are principles for which I attribute to the continued success of women in the workplace. I know they are key for my personal success as well.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have some great mentors in my life and my maternal grandmother was one of them. She always believed I was going to conquer the world! She was not a professional working woman, certainly not by today's standards, as few were of her generation. Regardless, she was forward thinking and spoke her mind. Some of the beliefs she shared with me, such as to believe in myself, in my formidable years have made me who I am today.

I often wonder too if it was her focus on the details that stayed with me. One example was how she would 'redline' or correct my thank-you notes (yes we actually sent notes back in the day) and return them to me. At the time it was disheartening and didn't feel great. But I would correct them and resend them to her so she knew I wanted to please her. What I believe it taught me in a simplistic way is that impressions are everything. It taught me to be mindful of how to present yourself and your work because you only get the one shot. It's all about the details and this is something I take pride in every day. It is also what makes me a successful designer.

Organically, mentorship has become a natural part of my everyday life where I guide, teach and share. Working with young talent, cultivating their abilities and being part of their growth is something I consider the best part of who I am and what I do.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
The women I admire the most are the ones who have conquered gender bias or other such obstacles to make a true difference in their profession and, in some instances, the world. One such person was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. With great strength and determination, working her way to become one of the most powerful people on Earth without the so-called silver spoon or special advantages. She was a force to be reckoned with and helped to make Great Britain a stronger, more powerful, country.

Within the design profession, there are many whom I admire and greatly respect. These are women who have made a difference in the design industry and, more specifically, put 'hospitality design' on the world map. For example, Trish Wilson, founder of Wilson and Associates, is an industry icon who changed the face of the design business as we know it today. She stepped up the game by educating her clients on the importance of good design and proved that it has a direct effect on their bottom line. This transformation has changed the perception of what we do and how we do it. She convinced her clients that by creating more aesthetically pleasing functional environments that they would make a lasting impression on their customers. And with the positive impression came their desire to return and ultimately be loyal to their brand. This was a win-win with the clients, increasing their bottom line and ROI and designs were elevated to a new level.

What do you want dash design to accomplish in the next year?
dash design is growing and getting stronger. However, with this growth, it is still our goal to maintain a boutique agency culture where we foster excellent talent and strategic thinkers. With our newly-formed Miami office, dash design's South Florida presence is becoming much more defined. We plan to do more in this region in 2015, as well as expand further into Mexico, the Caribbean and Latin America- thanks to our footprint here.