Educate yourself: It’s on us. A lot of well-meaning white people may not grasp the full extent of racial injustice in our country. I know I didn’t, and thanks to programs like Pathways To Equity, my understanding is broadening, and it’s only the tip of the iceberg. You can’t help fix what you don’t know is broken.
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’, I had the pleasure to interview Erin Ruby.
Erin Ruby, CID, IIDA is the founder of New York City-based multidisciplinary firm, Erin Ruby Design, which specializes in the development of branded, commercial interiors and product design. Offering a human-centered and holistic approach to design, Ruby and her studio embrace a philosophy deeply grounded in the context of the human experience within the space.
Ruby’s portfolio is vast — she has collaborated with esteemed architecture firms such as TVS Design, TPG Architecture, and Studios Architecture on projects for clients that include Interface, Dow Jones, The Johnson Company, Orrick, and IMG Worldwide. Her expertise and industry know-how has organically evolved into product design and award-winning collaborations with such celebrated names as Tuohy, HALCON Furniture, HBF Textiles, Decca Contract, Gunlocke, MCONTRAST, and Johanson Design.
Committed to providing equitable services to residents of New York City’s Upper Manhattan neighborhoods, Ruby co-founded the SolutionsNOW Foundation: a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides immediate support to local, underserved communities, seniors, and individuals experiencing food, housing, and economic hardship. Ruby is an alumni of the Pathways To Equity training program offered through Open Architecture Collaborative, which provides designers with the knowledge and adaptive skills to engage in meaningful community partnerships.
Erin graduated from Virginia Tech in 2000 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Interior Design.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Iwas blessed as a kid with an adventurous family! I’m the youngest of four, and each of us were born in a different state in various regions of the country. My parents are both pastors, so we moved around a lot. Moving so often taught me to be flexible and adaptable and allowed me to make friends easily. I had the opportunity to see the beauty in human creativity, diverse cultures, and experience different ways of life. Because of that, I’m able to relate and empathize with people and perspectives different from my own. Change was a natural way of life in my upbringing, and I celebrate that.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand.
I was given this book when I was in high school. It was left for me as a gift from one of my favorite customers at a restaurant where I waited tables. After seeing him reading it one day, I asked what it was about. I lit up when he told me the plot, and shared with him my dream to become an architect. So he left it on the table for me. I devoured the book in a few days. The character of Howard Roark really spoke to me. He was fiercely independent and had uncompromising integrity. The integrity of his ideas meant more to him than any monetary reward or recognition. I could totally relate to that! I was young and very idealistic. And, I still am.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
I have a few. The first: “Ask forgiveness. Not permission.” I’m not sure who said this originally, but this was stated by one of my interior design professors at Virginia Tech, Dr. Anna Marshall Baker. It has become a mantra for me in how I approach my work and desire to be helpful and/or of service to people. I’d rather take action and make a mistake or ruffle some feathers than not do anything at all.
The second: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken” — Oscar Wilde
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
For me, the best form of leadership empowers people to learn through their own experience. Great leaders don’t dictate. As a leader myself, it can be really hard to let someone stumble when we are so attached to “the right way,” or obsessed with perfection. But I believe it’s the most effective way to foster emerging talent.
My first design job was in the corporate interiors studio at TVS Design in Atlanta. The studio was composed of all women under the age of 30 (except for the Principals, at the time). These 27-year-old women were leading teams for projects over one million square feet without blinking. They did it with ease. I was a sponge (aka: annoying!) and constantly asking questions, but they were so patient with me. And they let me present to clients within the first two weeks. Even though my work was naïve, the fact that they let me make mistakes and learn on my own was invaluable. Now having 20 years under my belt, and having worked in many different environments, I know how unique that experience was. Because of their model of leadership, I gained confidence in my abilities and asserted myself as a young professional moving forward. I saw myself modeled in leadership so it made it attainable for me.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I gain clarity and a sense of calm from a daily meditation practice, daily walks, and about an hour of cardio or yoga, sprinkled in for good measure. That wasn’t always the case. I have a tendency to overwork to the point of burnout, and I’m also a recovering people-pleaser. Prioritizing myself before the task at hand did not always come naturally to me, until I was forced to reckon with it. I became aware of the somatic connection between stress and illness, bodily injury and pain when I discovered I had three herniated discs in my cervical spine due to ongoing work stress. A highly reputable neurologist from a top New York City hospital said I’d never do yoga again and he’d see me in 30 years for surgery. Screw that! So I started seeing a holistic chiropractor, and my first “adjustment” was an emotional release. I got more out of that visit than five years of therapy. Six months later, I was back to full strength and practicing yoga several times a week.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
I think it was the perfect storm. It was the Great Equalizer; no one was safe from it. You couldn’t buy your way out of it. Though as it progressed, we learned how it disproportionately impacts communities of color.
The pandemic began to show us the gaps and how precarious our systems and government are.
It jolted people out of the routine of their daily lives, forcing them to stay at home, re-prioritize what matters in life, and appreciate the small things. Essential workers. Everyday heroes. Neighbors helping neighbors. Seeing others as no different than yourself. We all have family or loved ones who we care about and know someone impacted.
Our collective attention was focused on this pandemic and how to survive it. So when Amy Cooper called the cops to falsely report “an African American man” was threatening her, and that very same day George Floyd was tragically murdered — our collective attention was diverted from the pandemic to the atrocities of injustice impacting Black people. The movement for Black lives and Black Lives Matter became not just a Black issue. For what feels like the first time at least in my memory, white people were tuned in to this issue. Everyone was tuned in to this, like no other time in history.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
As I step into the role of Chapter President for IIDA NY, I’ve been having a lot of conversations with friends, colleagues, designers, asking me what IIDA plans to do about the utter lack of diversity in the design industry. I’ve started collaborating with African-American designers to build a cross-sector Equity Council that would represent all facets of our industry, as we are not just designers at IIDA. We are manufacturers. We are design and architecture firms. We are salespeople and tech people and furniture dealers. We are students. We are teachers. We build corporate and hospitality spaces. Our clients run the gamut from small businesses and institutions to Fortune 500 companies.
If we are to enact any sort of change and attempt to do that only within the confines of our own association, we will be missing the mark. Change doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We are working on assembling representatives from other professional associations, design firms, architects, educators and client and media sectors to sit at the table. The mission of the Equity Council is to achieve equity and accountability toward increased diversity and inclusion in the design industry. No small task! But this time calls for meaningful action.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
At the end of the day, diversity in leadership is good business. There is a distinct and measurable correlation between diverse executive teams and positive financial outcomes. Why? This goes back to the notion of operating in a vacuum. If your leadership or organization is only comprised of people from similar backgrounds with little to no racial or gender diversity, you will produce lackluster results devoid of different perspectives. Groupthink perpetuates a cycle of conformity, not accuracy. Different perspectives lend nuance and subtle distinctions that aid in solving complex problems.
Diversity in leadership is also key to attracting and retaining a diverse staff. If you don’t see yourself represented in leadership — and leaders tend to mentor those whom they have something in common with — you are less likely to be supported or groomed for a leadership role. You may go elsewhere, where that support is offered and there is ample representation.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
1. Educate yourself: It’s on us. A lot of well-meaning white people may not grasp the full extent of racial injustice in our country. I know I didn’t, and thanks to programs like Pathways To Equity, my understanding is broadening, and it’s only the tip of the iceberg. You can’t help fix what you don’t know is broken.
2. Self-reflect / be self-aware: Know that your body will be cause for judgment or misperception depending on the audience. Be OK with that. Talk less. Listen more. Let go of defensiveness.
3. Assess: Know where your business or organization stands today in regards to representation and where you can do better. Then do better.
4. Lead with intent: Prioritize diversity. Attract, retain, mentor and support diverse staff. Hold yourself and your clients/suppliers/consultants accountable.
5. Practice Practice Practice: Take action! Make mistakes! Just start.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I don’t know if resolved is the right word. We have a lot of work to do. We’ve only just begun the process of interrogating and dismantling the systems of injustice that have been in place for generations. This is a marathon, not a sprint. But yes, I am optimistic. I’m optimistic about the up-and-coming generations who have only ever known a globalized society and who know that we are all connected. I think as they begin to step into positions of power and leadership, laws will change and old systems will be broken. New and diverse perspectives reflective of the greater world around us will enter into the mainstream. Power will be decentralized. Racial justice is inextricably linked to climate and environmental justice. Police reform and criminal justice. LGTBQIA+ rights. Reproductive justice. I’m very grateful to be alive during this time and to be an active participant in the shift.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I will pick a person both from the world and the United States!
From the U.S.: The inimitable Stacey Abrams. I once lived in Atlanta so I follow Georgia politics. I was gutted when the governorship was stolen from her. She’s a force, not only in politics but as an activist fighting for voter rights and protection. Please donate to her organization Fair Fight, which is leading the charge for free and fair elections around the country. I believe she will be President one day.
From the world: The inimitable Riz Ahmed, British-Pakistani actor, rapper, and activist. I’ve been following his work for a while — what I appreciate most is how he uses his art as a vehicle for social change. If you haven’t seen his speech to Parliament about representation, please Google it! And everybody needs to check out his latest album and short film, The Long Goodbye, a breakup story like no other with Britain. Both timely and timeless. Absolutely stunning.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!