There is no doubt that women are creative beings! And they’re making waves in UX/UI design, accounting for around 53.5% of the design workforce, according to AIGA and Google’s combined 2019 study. However, only 11 % of them hold managerial positions. Maybe from now on the numbers could have increased. This should be the case, as businesses rely heavily on the design element as part of their blueprint for success.
One of the leading women representing women in design is Niraali Parekh, founder and creative director of Bokaap Design. She lives and loves design, in addition to traveling which is her other passion. Design is more than just a passion for her, and she loves it because it inspires her to solve problems. Now, after 11 years in this field, Parekh wants to strengthen her company’s focus on multiple verticals, as well as the female workforce she works with. In a conversation with SME Futures, Parekh shares his lesser-known side with us.
How would you describe yourself as a person?
I am a very responsible and organized person. Punctuality is essential for me. I am adventurous and like a good challenge. I always want to do something that I’ve never done before. This challenge keeps me going. And I like problem solving. Design (branding, packaging or technology platforms) is at the deepest level of problem solving.
Can you tell me about your childhood, who inspired you, and what did you want to become when you were a little girl?
I come from a family of entrepreneurs. My great-grandfather was a plywood trader in Mumbai who opened his shop in the early 1900s. My grandfather took the lead and expanded the trade and helped Vile Parle become the hub of building materials traders, often granting loans to new entrants to become businessmen. Eventually, my father took over, diversified the business and started several new businesses: some succeeded and some failed. I often tell people that our parents or grandparents had their own “start-up” long before it became a term. And that too while having to support a spouse and young children when they themselves were so young and just starting out in the field.
I have seen this entrepreneurial spirit since I was a child. I saw the hard work to build something; I also witnessed many troughs upstream.
My parents attached great importance to sports and the arts. So not only was I a level 2 brown belt in Karate, but I was also a national level figure skater. I have represented Maharashtra in several skating championships across India, winning several medals and best skater awards. Waking up at 5 a.m. to practice, going to school, finishing my homework on the way to the second practice of the day, having dinner on the way home, sleeping and rehearsing. And the competitions themselves have taught me tenacity, teamwork and discipline.
I applied (by sheer luck) and was accepted to study at the prestigious UWC Mahindra College for my 11th and 12th years. Very few families would send a 16 year old girl to live in a boarding school with 70% students from all over the world. My grandfather was instrumental in convincing my father not to pass up an opportunity that could change my life.
Even though I’ve always been good at drawing and always wanted to pursue a career in the creative field, I didn’t know my options. My introduction to creative thinking took place at UWC. The exposure to diversity has been great from an early age. UWC prepared me to study abroad, and I earned a degree in graphic design from Savannah College of Art and Design.
While in college, my parents back home were going through a tough time with the business. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t adding to their stress and that I was working at the university for my own pocket money. I learned a lot about business, work ethic, time management and the benefits of being a humble and honest worker. I also experienced criticism and how to deal with it. Eventually, after graduating in 2004, I got a job in the United States in the design industry and worked there until I returned to India in 2009.
After studying and working in the United States, what motivated you to come back to India and start your entrepreneurial journey?
When I was a student in the United States, I attended a seminar where one of Pentagram Design’s partners was the keynote speaker. He was guiding us through some of the company’s work.
Inspired by the idea of a collaborative studio environment, the seeds to create a boutique design studio where experts from different fields like design, content creation, marketing and technology can come together as a collaborative team y have been sown.
I was part of the “reverse brain drain” around 2009-2011. Like me, hundreds of American-educated Indians were returning to India to join their family businesses or start their own businesses. So it was a natural conclusion that I was going to set up my studio in Mumbai, India. I happened to be in the right place at the right time as some of my first clients belonged to this group.
At that time there were not many design studios in India. Major advertising agencies set up in-house studios to handle branding work, but there were very few stand-alone boutique design studios in India. So, with my skills in graphic design, web design, and web development, I set out to complete every type of project that came my way. I was what they now call a “Unicorn UX”.
So, what are the advantages of your business over your competitors?
We focus on human-centered design. Which means putting people at the heart of all our work! We understand the people behind the product(s), the people the product is for, and work as a team through ideation and iteration with the people designing the product. Design thinking is a human-centered approach to design, and we follow this process for all of our projects.
We’re also a lean team led by the founder – making sure the brief doesn’t get lost in the hierarchy of different team members. What is presented and promised is always delivered by working with the client as a collaborator through all our projects.
And recently, Bokaap Design changed its name. With our approach focused on branding and UX/UI solutions for technology, we can be more strategic in the type of projects we take on. Now we are more collaborative and the commitments are longer term for the life of the product cycle.
Have you ever encountered issues of gender bias working in a male dominated environment?
I’ve been fortunate that in the 11 years I’ve run my studio, I’ve encountered very few gender biases or instances of the glass ceiling. A lot of that is because I run my own business and have the ability to choose who I work with.
I would not accept the project if I felt that I was being taken advantage of or disrespected. There have been a few instances where I have stopped working with large companies.
Being a woman and a small business they were trying to squeeze my time, resources and skills beyond what was agreed upon – a minimum payment to start with. I held on and decided for my team (also all the girls) and focused on developing the kind of company culture I wanted. Letting these customers go was one of the best decisions I’ve made. My team appreciated the fact that I was looking out for their best interest and wouldn’t let my clients talk down to them.
How do you think business has changed over the years in terms of design and the technology space?
In 2010, when I started my studio, there were very few boutique design studios. But the technology boom was also happening gradually. The market has opened. In India, more entrepreneurs have emerged, producing D2C products or developing technology products. This has led to increased design awareness and the need for good design to stand out and appeal to consumers. “UX/UI Design” has emerged globally as a new field as an offshoot of “Web Design” and “Human-Computer Interaction” or “Interaction Design”.
It’s impossible to build a tech product these days without a good designer on board. So yes, we have become an integral part of any business. Although we still have a long way to go in India, I think it will only get better from now on in terms of design services compensation.
What is the roadmap for Bokaap Design?
Since I started the studio, my goal has been to stay relevant based on what’s happening in the market. With each new technological innovation, we have improved our service offerings. I continue to make it my mission.
My vision now is to undertake UX/UI projects in the AR/VR space and wearable technology. I want to focus on B2B Tech, EdTech, MedTech and FinTech spaces.
Until now, my business was 80% in India and 20% worldwide. I want to expand my business overseas so that there is a balance between customers from all over the world.
What is your favorite hobby ? We heard you love to travel, what’s on your to-do list for 2022?
I like to learn new things and I like to be active. Since 2015, I have been learning Spanish, with the intention of becoming perfectly fluent. I traveled solo to Spain in 2017 to study abroad and immerse myself in the culture.
As a sports enthusiast, all vacations are active vacations. Skiing, diving, surfing, windsurfing, stand-up paddleboarding, or even hiking, I make sure that my vacation revolves around one of these activities.
My bucket list for 2022 is to travel to Macchu Picchu, Peru. My three passions came together – love of Spanish, art and culture, and active vacations. I plan to hike the Salkantay trail. I hope it will happen this year!
What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs or women in this field?
Stay on the path and don’t give up. Working allowed me to be financially independent and to have my own identity that was not attached to any male member. He was my biggest savior when I was at the lowest point in my life after my divorce.