“I never thought the industry was dominated by a certain demographic,” reflects Charmi Deepak, senior manager of capital projects in global real estate at customer service software firm Zendesk. “I was just doing what I was doing.” Still, she remembers thinking to herself at a meeting years ago with a team of general contractors, “I am an architect, a woman of color, and everyone else is men . . . of one color.”
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While there tend to be more women in design, the same cannot be said for architecture and project management. In those meetings, questions meant for Deepak were often directed over her head. “I would see and feel the bias,” she recalls, “so I basically told them, ‘What’s going on? You talk to me.’”
In her 18-plus years in the industry, Deepak has witnessed progress toward gender equality, and she herself has helped do the work. She breaks down biases and speaks up in the face of prejudice. “I’m glad to be at Zendesk now,” she says, “where equality is important.”
As a seasoned architect and skilled project manager, zooming in and out of a project is second nature for Deepak. She brings large enterprises to fruition thanks to her ability to understand the bigger picture, offset by a keen eye for even the smallest details. The dual functionality of this approach to project management expertly keeps her end users in mind and aligns with client expectations while still incorporating local culture. Deepak does all this while speaking up along the way.
The senior manager came from India to the United States for a master’s degree and hadn’t planned to stay. But when she was offered a job in Berkeley, California, working for an architect she admired, she decided not to return to home.
Deepak’s career path has been fueled by an exploration of different perspectives. As an architect, she got her start working for a smaller company that focused mostly on residential spaces, then for Gensler and later Nelson, some of the larger firms at the time. When she ran operations for Nelson, she managed client relationships, led technical reviews, developed the business, and expanded the client base. “It was like running my own company,” she remembers.
Transitioning into project management was a direct result of client needs. “[I could] provide more impact to the users because I was controlling more aspects of the project,” she explains.
The transition was seamless. And at Zendesk, where she has built her department from scratch, the work is centered around the client. “I try to first understand my end user’s business goals,” Deepak says. “That tells me how they’re going to use the space and how we can best design for the space.”
For Deepak, a highly functional space is defined by ease. “It’s my mantra,” she says. “Whenever I’m designing a space, I ask: Am I making this easier?”
At Zendesk’s headquarters in San Francisco, the company dubbed its new Executive Briefing Center ‘the Kitchen’ for its homelike design and welcoming atmosphere. Like the heart of a home, the space has become the heart of the office. Mapped out for functionality, the Kitchen is a crossroads for the company’s many divisions—a spot where people come together. “It’s a happy place,” Deepak says.
A successful project is no accident or pleasant surprise, not for Deepak. She always puts herself in her client’s shoes from the start. “If you can do that,” she says, “that makes their life easier, your life easier, and meeting [expectations] natural.”
Though she is guided by the client’s overarching goals, Deepak interweaves the fabric of the local community into the minute details. “For each project, we hold a design summit where we walk down the block about a mile in each direction,” she explains. “When we come back, we write down what we noticed.”
This culture is subtly infused into the blueprints. In San Francisco, she embraces subway tile. In Montreal, she welcomes concrete. From Melbourne to Krakow, Deepak’s spaces ultimately reflect the neighborhoods in which she’s designing. As she puts it, “Design is details. It’s how the details come together.”
The inherent subjectivity of the design process presents potential differences of opinion, but as long as you can back up your point of view, she welcomes opposition. “The freedom to speak up is so underrated, right?” she says. “Just because your superior thinks one way [doesn’t mean there’s not] a different way to do it.”
If you can defend your design, she says, speak up. If you encounter unfair biases among colleagues, speak up.
Deepak’s innate quest for progress and love for learning has refined her problem-solving skills and boosted her creativity. She doesn’t hold back from sharing her perspective and has difficult conversations when she needs to. She’s not driven by a paycheck, but by an enduring passion and curiosity. “Agility is very important in this profession,” she emphasizes, “and I want to speak up so it’s easier for the girls who are going to follow.”
Urbanworks is a boutique real estate development firm based in California, with offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco. We strive to improve the urban environment through a thoughtful and rigorous approach to design and construction, maximizing long-term value by creating dynamic environments that are compelling places for people to live, work, and enjoy.