Harlem's Only Afro-Latina Interior Designer, Shareen Bailey

On this week's #workitwomxnwednesday, I spoke with Shareen Bailey, Owner and Interior Designer of Green Shareen Design. A native New Yorker of Panamanian descent, Shareen has dedicated her talents to industries that span fashion, tech, and design. Like most millennials, her career journey is anything but linear, and she is proud of that. As I learned more about her journey, I found myself captivated by her creative talents. She lives and breathes creativity, and her ability to describe what being an interior designer is almost Shakespearean. I felt like her words took me to the actual spaces she had designed.

She is a Jack(eline) of all trades and exudes a healthy amount of confidence, but just 10% more than we all secretly wish we could possess. What impressed me the most about Shareen is how she approaches the world: with full gusto and resilience. If Shareen falls ten times down, not only would she get back up on the 11th try, but she would push her own self down just to show you that she can get back up on her own.

What led you to pursue a career in interior design?

Growing up, I used to tell people that I wanted to be a lawyer or an accountant. Then when I went to college, I decided to start a clothing company. I was going to school for business at that time and later went on to get my MBA. I decided, no matter what field I ended up in, I wanted to know and understand how to run a business. I then started my own clothing line through Etsy which lasted four and a half years.But once I realized my business wasn't going to survive, I started looking at what I could do next.

Then I went to go work for Apple. I started there as a Creative, basically teaching people how to use Apple computers. Then, I worked my way to Lead Creative Manager and then Senior Manager of the retail store. I then switched over to corporate and started building out their training products. Then shortly after that, I was learning how to open stores. Back then, there weren’t that many Apple stores like there are now. I ended up opening 75 stores in my career. I loved it but felt like I was missing something. I realized that I was yearning for that creative element in my work, so I left.

I realized at that moment that I wanted to do something that was a mix of design and tech. I went to go work at a design firm that helped interior designers connect with clients. I was the Director of Client Services for about a year. The owner was a great designer but didn’t understand the business side, so eventually, the company ran out of money. And as this was happening, I was like, ‘well, what am I going to do next?’ and I realized that I wanted to work in interior design.

Your path to becoming an interior design is not linear, how confident did you feel when you decided to make that decision?

When I decided to pursue interior design, I realized that there were so few African American or Afro Latina’s. But I realized this was advantageous for me. I'm a numbers person. I learn things very quickly, and I love tech. Most creatives are not like this. They’re very free-spirited and don't want to be necessarily tied down to a business plan.

I decided that I would go to design school and start my own firm. I took online courses because I was doing it in conjunction with working full time. It was an eighteen-month commitment, and I ended up finishing within eight weeks. There were a couple of reasons why that happened. I knew the company that I was working for was going under. I also had a young child. I had a particular lifestyle and life in New York, so you have to make things happen if you want to survive out here.

You're the only Afro Latina interior designer in Harlem, is that right?

It’s interesting, right? There are definitely black female interior designers who've been designing for years, and I sometimes run into them on the streets. I've researched and networked extensively around my neighborhood. Still, no one has been able to uniquely blend both worlds like I have. Harlem is very close to Washington Heights, and it's also bordered on the south end by a neighborhood called Spanish Harlem. There are really strong Latino communities on both ends of this Harlem neighborhood that I can just adapt to and support. And that's something that's really missing because if you don't speak Spanish in those particular areas and communities, you really can't connect with the residents there, so being able to wear both of those hats has been just huge for my business.

Where does your inspiration come from to do your work?

I'm inspired by a lot of things. I love the fact that there are some things that I don’t know because I see it as a challenge. And many times, those challenges come from a client who has an entirely different style than I do. In my opinion, designing isn’t something that you ever master. You will, of course, build your own aesthetic. But that takes time to evolve. If my aesthetic is very clean and modern contemporary and then I get a client who wants a boho-inspired space, I can either say no to this challenge or get out of my comfort zone and design an area boho and eclectic. Learn to seize the moment, embrace the difficulty, and use that to your advantage.

What does your creative process look like when you begin to design a space?

I'm used to being surrounded by loud noises, so for me, it starts with listening. There is a part of the creative process that has to do with really understanding the individual you're designing for and understanding what they want to get out of from a space. The design experience for me is maximizing all five senses.

For example, I'm currently designing a hair salon outside of Seattle, Washington. And they want the space to feel private, exclusive, and clean. And this is because they deal with some women who have alopecia, which means they suffer from hair loss. When those women come in and take off their wigs, it is a very vulnerable experience. So, I’m thinking, what does a space like this feel like? It definitely doesn’t feel art deco. The space shouldn't be bright and loud and filled with colors. It should feel calm like earth tones, or even skin tones. Maybe you have shades of brown that are in the salon. And because they want an exclusive or elevated experience for their clients, I introduce a metal, either a gold or a silver or rose gold. They also want the area to feel private for customers. Maybe there's a wall in the middle of the shop that separates the client and the hairdresser from everyone else in the waiting room. As you can see, my process is detailed-oriented, but that’s because I’m putting myself in the position of my client’s customers.

Who or what is your most significant influence?

Oh boy, that’s hard. I have a mix of time that I spend looking at other interior designers' work, and then the time where I strategically don't. But my concern is, if I spend too much time looking at other people's work, then you start emulating and imitating everything they're doing. You're not coming up with anything fresh. I also have a mix of Black interior designers that I draw inspiration from but for different things that they all do really well. For example, there is a designer in Atlanta who runs “Styled by Casanova”. She has incredible style. When I think about how to go about creating my videos for my YouTube channel, I draw my inspiration from her.

Are there challenges in the interior design industry that Afro Latinas face?

Going into stores and showrooms, you're not taken seriously. I'll go in, and I'll be sourcing for a specific item, and I may be ignored entirely and sometimes the sales rep doesn’t even approach me. They'll just kind of give me the, you know, ‘what can I do for you?’ expression. That’s when I would start to describe a specific fabric or finish that I want, and then they realize that I actually know what I'm talking about. If you don't always display that you know these things, then you don't get respect. I think that that's very different from our white counterparts that walk into a showroom and automatically are taken seriously. There's also an assumption that they have more money or that their clients have bigger budgets.

What are the top three skillsets to have to do this work well?

  1. Pick a design school. It doesn't have to be a four-year degree, either. Just pick a design school and learn the craft.

  2. Understand the technology and programs that are being used. Designers who are very experienced but used to do it the old school way of going to a showroom and touching the fabrics can't afford to do that now because of COVID. So, what you’re seeing is these younger designers who have been more well versed in the technology software are thriving. They’re doing animated drawings on the computer using AutoCAD, Revit, or SketchUp. Whichever software program you want to work on, figure it out, learn that program, and start doing some sketches.

  3. Network and build relationships. You can't get anywhere without networking because you learn so much about what opportunities are out there. You'll be given opportunities just through your network. Also, don’t get to the point where you feel like you know everything, and you don't need anyone.

What kind of membership associations would you recommend joining or looking into?

The two most prominent networking associations are NCIDQ and The American Society of Interior Designers. I'm also applying to work with the Black Artists + Designers Guild (BADG). There's also the Black Interior Designer Network.

There are also great podcasts out there. One is called the A Well-Designed Business hosted by LuAnn Nigara. She's not an interior designer, but she runs an affluent podcast for interior designers. It's literally all about how to run your interior design business, and she's like 600 episodes in. I’ve also started a new favorite podcast called “Plot Twist Design” podcast by Kelly, a real Interior Designer, and Real Estate Entrepreneur.

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