Madame CEO: Sheela Søgaard on Executing a Vision, Raising a Family, and Solving for Mission Critical
By Julia Gamolina, portrait by Flemming Leitorp
As Chief Executive Officer and Partner at Bjarke Ingels Group, Sheela Søgaard manages the overall health and growth of the studio’s 500+ designers and support functions globally. She oversees BIG’s finances, operations and business development, and is responsible for optimizing cash flow, developing the organization and executing strategic priorities.
Prior to joining BIG as Chief Financial Officer in 2008, Sheela led Business Development efforts for Danish culinary entrepreneur and NOMA co-founder Claus Meyer and before that, she developed strategic solutions at McKinsey & Company. Sheela is an Advisory Board Member for the National Gallery of Denmark and is on the Board of Directors at Maj Bank. Having roots in Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Denmark, Sheela holds a Master’s degree from Copenhagen Business School. In her interview with Julia Gamolina, Sheela speaks at length about her path before and at BIG, and her experiences as a mother, advising young architects to know what their mission critical is and to work with people who energize them.
JG: Tell me about your background prior to joining BIG.
SS: I got my college degree in Business Administration from Copenhagen, and after college, I worked at an American consulting company, McKinsey, in Copenhagen as well. I wasn’t there for very long in calendar years, but the amount of hours I worked probably doubled that [laughs].
My time at McKinsey taught me that I enjoyed the analytical process of identifying, diagnosing, and implementing solutions to a challenge a company was dealing with. It also taught me that I wanted to be part of the operational side of a company; it really wasn’t my “bit” to diagnose and give solutions and walk away - I wanted to help companies actually implement the strategies.
What did you do next?
After two years there, I decided to leave, and went to work with a Danish hearing aid company, both in their supply chain and product development. I was really happy there - I felt that my work had a greater purpose, and I also felt truly challenged and educated. I had great colleagues, great managers, and bosses who really believed in me.
How did you find yourself in architecture?
I was getting married to Martin, whom I’m still married to today, and I remember sitting at my desk one summer four months before our wedding, thinking, “Oh my god, I’m in this corporate company and I know exactly what’s going to happen next - I’m going to get married, I’m going to have my 2.3 children, and then in two months I’ll be promoted, and in another three years I’ll get promoted to another position…” I almost had an anxiety attack! I thought, “My life cannot be so predictable that anyone can map out exactly what I’ll be doing for the rest of it.” I thought, “I need to work with a different set of people - people who have non-conformist ways of looking at things.”
What did you change?
That same day, I went onto a job website, and there was a posting for a business development manager for Claus Meyer, a Danish Chef. I wrote an application right there and then, and ten minutes later they called me and asked me to come in for an interview the next morning.
I took the job and I really got what I wanted - to work closely with a founder who was more energized with the agenda of what he had set out to do than he was with the short term profit. That energized me too, and I realized that that’s what I wanted to keep doing: to work with founders who were fired up about what they were doing.
Did you want to be a founder?
I have unromantic diagnoses of what my own skills are [laughs] - I’m not the creative visionary in terms of a product or service. Bjarke is visionary in giving form to the future and combining functionalities and programs. I don’t have that, but I do have the strategic and operational skills and vision to see how you can tweak something to make the delivery of a service more efficient. That’s exciting when there is a creative vision that you want to provide the path to success for.
How did you finally discover architecture, and Bjarke, and New York?
When my first child was about six weeks old, one of the members of Bjarke’s board and the husband of a close friend of mine, Christian Masbjerg, called and said, “There’s this architect, and he’s going to be a rockstar - would you please meet with him and talk about the financial side; they’re struggling a little bit.”
Christian set up a meeting between Bjarke and I for the next day - I left my daughter with Martin and met with Bjarke in a four hour window I had between two nursings [laughs]. I had never heard of Bjarke, and I didn’t know very much about architecture, but Martin did, and he knew who Bjarke was. He told me, “You have to meet this guy.” I had the meeting, and about seven months later we agreed that I should start working for him.
Was it tough, having recently had a baby?
Taking care of a baby has actually been the most stressful thing I’ve ever done. I have a huge amount of respect for women who manage to stay sane while being on full-time baby or toddler care - we think it’s stressful to go to work, but at work, you manage time with other adults. You go to the bathroom when you need to, you can get a cup of coffee, meetings generally start and end on time, and your day has predictability and structure.
With a baby, especially a first child, you are the sole responsible adult - there is often times no one to turn to and say, “Now what?” I was so surprised that I could go through a whole day without having emptied the dishwasher, or having showered, or having had anything to eat by the time Martin came home. A whole day goes by in incremental intervals where you feel like you’re not getting anything done, and yet you’re exhausted all the time! So it was fine for me to go back to work, and I would have gone earlier.
Take me through the beginning of your career at BIG.
I started as a CFO. The first thing that really marked my time there was when Bjarke asked me to be CEO, so that he could focus on what he really wanted to do - architecture! What led me from August 2008 to that moment in February 2009, was that we managed to turn around a relatively tough business situation - a lack of consistency on the business side - that had led to a difficult financial situation. By making me CEO, Bjarke sent a strong signal, not only to me but also to his clients and to the practice, that the business aspect was going to be one that he prioritized. Not prioritized over architecture, but one that he awarded attention to.
How did you turn things around?
In a very short time, we managed to create a culture where we insist on getting paid. I know that sounds so insane, and insane that the opposite could be true - clients not paying on time, or not paying at all. Some of the reasons why could be that architects aren’t always super diligent or interested in contracts and agreements, perhaps because some of those things are a little tedious. In my experience, designers are very eager to engage in design and are also super positive people who believe in the best in everyone and that their time will be honored.
From August to December, we managed to collect on money people owed us, even some very old debt, and established an internal culture and understanding that you don’t hand over work if the client hasn’t paid, and you don’t start work until you have an agreement on what the parameters are.
What was the next milestone?
The next was when we got our first American project, VIA 57 West, a residential building here in New York with which we started the New York office. That altered the way we worked, and the way that I worked because at first, the New York office wasn’t profitable.
We had to start thinking about what it was that we needed to emulate from our practice in Copenhagen. Turning things around financially in Copenhagen was relatively simple, mostly adding and subtracting. I was very young then and just thought about things like, “If we deliver on this project, this is the fee we need to ask for, and if they can’t give us that, we can’t do it.” To emulate financial success in the New York office, I had to look back and consolidate what it was that created success while protecting BIG’s architecture in Copenhagen. Having to harvest my own experiences into something that could be replicated taught me a great deal, and I moved to New York and brought my family here, to do that.
How does motherhood play into all this?
I’ve never thought of work and motherhood as separate; it’s all just my life. Of course, there are “office hours”, but I work outside of those hours too, and I also engage with my children, and their teachers, and their friends, while I’m at the office. I couldn’t imagine not having my three children. They have turned out to be the most significant beings in my life, and the greatest source of joy, and fear, and anxiety, but also adventure. There is so much tied up in them thriving and them being happy, so of course their milestones mark my life too. Moving them over here from Copenhagen to New York was a huge adventure for me and Martin.
All this to say that motherhood plays into it just fine! I feel so fortunate that people want to ask me about that and take an interest in how I manage, how mothers manage, because it is the single most challenging thing in a career and in a parent’s life, to make work and parenthood match up. If no one interests themselves in how that works, then it never becomes a topic of discussion, and it will take longer for work conditions for parents to improve. It’s a huge part of life, and I actually feel bad that there aren’t enough people asking the fathers about fatherhood - they love their children as much as mothers do, and they deal with many of the same challenges.
How have your responsibilities changed in your ten years at BIG?
Ten years ago, I did everything from creating an invoice, sending it out, sending out a reminder for clients to pay, then calling clients to pay, to putting bids together for when we had a request for a proposal, reading through RFPs, understanding the scope, communicating with the architects, and putting together a proposal to send to the client. Also then negotiating those proposals, negotiating contracts, hiring people, letting people go, negotiating leases, and setting up internal vendors - everything from lunch caterers to cleaning personnel. I did everything! I manned reception, I answered phones - we were a small company then.
Today, my job is very different because we’ve blossomed in a lot of different discipline areas. We now have experts in in-house counsel, finance, HR, PR, etc, so my job now is to provide direction, be a facilitator, and to tie these things together big picture.
What have been some of the biggest challenges?
At BIG, for me there was constantly a need to calibrate the balance between the quality of the finished building with the potential for financial profit. In finding that balance, because we care so much about the quality of what we are working on, I realized that we at BIG are surrogates - we don’t just help bring the building into being; we incubate it, develop it, grow it, evolve it, and make it healthy, before it's then handed over.
There is something about having invested care. That was a lesson for me and continues to be the thing I try very hard to impart on the people that report to me; that we don’t only have a responsibility to maximize our business results, but that our responsibility is to create a sustainable business with output that we want to brag about. We want to say, “We did that, and it made the world better.”
What have been the biggest challenges personally?
The balance of how much I give where and at what times. Recently, one of my children was diagnosed with a learning disability - a terrible term in English because it sounds like she’s disabled from learning, which she is not. Now that we know what it is, can send her to the proper schools, and she can get proper help, our lives have changed. Before that though, we were going through a terrible time, our child was deeply unhappy, and all of our energy was going into trying to lift one child out of a severe depression.
I realized that just like with my work, when mission critical is so critical that you have to put all of your energy towards that one thing until it resolves, mission critical in this situation was my child, and the only thing that mattered was to fix her situation. Once that thought process matured in my head, I called Bjarke, told him that I was going through this thing, and he said, “First things first, of course, do what you need to do.” I grounded myself, ie no travelling, for the next eight weeks, only worked during whatever time was left over, and really focused on my family.
How have you brought the lesson learned from this into your work?
You only work as a good worker, employee, CEO, founder, etc., if all the “mission criticals” are up to at least the lowest denominator. As soon as something so important falls below that, then that’s where you need to focus completely because your work and life are all one ecosystem - it isn’t work and then home. Your day may be compartmentalized that way, but the whole thing is a connective tissue. That’s one of the things I find difficult over here in the States, that the maternity and paternity regulations are so constrained, that there isn’t a lot of room to give parents that true break that you need when you have a new child - to have full salary coming in reliably, to be able to work flexibly, and to make sure you have a solid start to your new family.
In Denmark, we come from that tradition, so we’ve made huge efforts at BIG to have really good maternity and paternity policies in the US. It’s much harder when you’re one of the few companies doing so - the reason that it works in Denmark is that all companies need to do it. When you’re doing it alone, it's a huge risk and a huge expense, but if you want parents to stay at your company, it's a benefit to the company to give parents a good start to their family, whether it’s their first, or second, or third, or so on child. We have put a lot of focus on going beyond the standards for paid leave benefits and committed to Pledge Parental Leave so we have happy, healthy employees, and this is something I really hope we can inspire mothers, fathers and companies to start advocating for more.
What have been the biggest highlights?
The best moments have been in those challenges! Honestly. Any challenge has come from a lack of skill, so in solving challenges, I’ve gained new understandings and have expanded my skill set, and that has been really rewarding.
Where do you feel like you’re in your life and career today?
I feel super gratified - when I look back, I’m exuberant and energized by what we at BIG have achieved so far, and both intimidated and challenged yet excited by what lies ahead and the climb that we still want to do. BIG continues to evolve and challenge me and I feel like I still have so much more to give and to develop.
On a personal level, I’m grateful to have three healthy children and a loving husband whom I admire deeply. Our children have the best of both worlds - they live here in the city, and in the summer they get to spend two months in Copenhagen because their mom can work from there.
What has been your general approach to your career?
I want to work with people who energize me - that’s almost the end all and be all of everything. I also always tell myself that if someone can do it, then I can do it too. That has two sides - if someone can do it, I can be just as good as someone, but also if someone can do it, then there is someone to ask. I’ve never been afraid of something that I haven’t tried before and that’s been a true guiding factor.
Finally, what advice do you have for those who want to start and run their own practices? For those just starting their careers?
For those starting their own firms, if you can’t, at the beginning, afford business staff, make sure you get business advice; someone to help you establish some guiding principles and a pain threshold of when you engage in a project so that you curb your investment in it. Not curb your enthusiasm necessarily, but match your enthusiasm with your business structure. And really only work with and hire people that energize you, and that represent you.
To those starting their careers, select the people that you want to work with. Also, there are so many great companies, so many great people, and so many great initiatives, that you don’t have to be stuck in something that you don’t enjoy or in a company where you don’t feel like you’re advancing or evolving or being allowed to contribute in a meaningful way. There are so many things you can do in the world, and form, and be part of, that there’s almost no limits to what you can expand into.