Sabine Grimes of Unison: “Patience, perspective ”

Patience, perspective — Patience is a virtue and incredibly important! Very good things happen overnight and patience is needed with staff, vendors, contractors and clients. Being short with staff and vendors because you’re stretched for time does not yield positive results! I have learned the value of being patient, being in the moment and truly ‘putting myself […]

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Patience, perspective — Patience is a virtue and incredibly important! Very good things happen overnight and patience is needed with staff, vendors, contractors and clients. Being short with staff and vendors because you’re stretched for time does not yield positive results! I have learned the value of being patient, being in the moment and truly ‘putting myself in others shoes’ with my growing team.


As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sabine Grimes.

Founder and Principal of Unison, Sabine Grimes has managed interior architecture and design projects around the world. She was Design Director for Great Gulf, one of North America’s leading real estate developers, where she worked with top architects and designers to design and build commercial and residential projects across Canada. Her current projects include large condominium, office, hotel and hospitality projects across North America.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Being a designer and owning my own firm was a natural evolution. I grew up as a child in a rural, ‘open-minded’ community in Quebec that pushed me and supported my creative desires through art, sketching and painting. I moved to Toronto for school and to further my career, which led me to be a strong and independent individual. You need both creativity and determination to run a design firm and these two influences have played a strong part. Also, I have always been excited by concepts that are most intriguing and complex which led me to spatial design…there is never a shortage of intrigue and complexity in that!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

The learning is endless….absolutely bottomless! In my early days when I was an employee working for others I had always yearned for more. More exposure, more learning, more experiences. I definitely got this and more when I opened my own firm. There certainly is no ‘boring’ day in my career….always a new challenge, and a new hill to climb. Before starting my company, I had assumed there would be a plateau of sorts, but that certainly doesn’t exist. Survival and thriving means constant improvement, change. Rewiring your brain every couple weeks (and sometimes daily!) takes an incredible amount of energy. The adventure and the backstory before we start working on projects is sometimes just as interesting as the project itself. The most notable story was the way our business was formed in the first place. Years ago, I was working at an interior design firm, managing a project and client. Somehow, the client ended up liking me and my capabilities better than the firm that I was working for and ended up hiring me! It was great to get this vote of confidence and to win over such a large client as our first.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I think ‘funniest’ and ‘mistake’ is actually an oxymoron. When you are first starting, every mistake seems somewhat devastating and there is absolutely nothing funny about it. That being said, there have been many choices I have made that seemed to be good at the time and turned out to be big mistakes and lapses of judgement. I only can laugh at myself now by how ‘wrong’ I was a few years ago when I thought I was being very much in the moment and doing the right thing. Even though I do have a good business sense and I do tout myself for being a good designer, the learning curve is STEEP. Some of the people I had hired and the projects I took on….these were choices that obviously had not benefited me well in the moment. The good thing is all of these ‘mistakes’ mean that we have the opportunity to learn from them and make sharp corrections in our course so we can better ourselves long term. One particular mistake I made was growing too quickly at the beginning and being flustered in a meeting. Usually I’m really quite good, thorough, articulate (I would like to think at least!) and because I was spread too thin and had too much on my plate I had the project address mixed up with the client address….a silly blunder but of course it made me seem like I had no control over the project and my company. Definitely not a mistake I want to repeat, but thankfully, not a deal breaker!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have never been shy to ask for help or to ask someone’s opinion. There were always strong, inspiring people that I looked up to, but there is no ‘one size fits all’ or a ‘right’ response to your problem. Many of my friends and close contacts have their own businesses or are leaders — getting their thoughts on my constant questions have been invaluable. I am lucky to not have one person that has supported me but many! Through this learning process, I have learned that the best leaders are the ones that have the ability to fully understand the specific circumstances at that exact time and to respond appropriately. You can not ‘copy’ an inspiring slogan that was used 100 years ago and believe that it will be inspiring in your company at this new juncture. The reason why leaders have been inspiring at certain times is because they truly understand the context in which their issue exists and are able to speak to it in an inspiring way. The hardest, but best advice that I’ve received from my peers and mentors has been ‘Why are you asking me, trust your gut’. This has been the best vote of confidence in my ability to do it myself. Having people around you that appreciate your different strengths is absolutely paramount. Having their support and encouragement is even better.

If I were to think about specific people that have helped me along the way I would give credit to the following people — George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg from Yabu Pushelberg, my first design studio, for showing me early in my career the benefit of demonstrating in every project how dreams can flourish and become a reality. Claudine Lostao was an inspirational, supportive design leader during my tenure at Starbucks when I was working on the development team. She has given me invaluable advice both personally and professionally. Now that I’m a leader and in charge of guiding my team I often think back to her leadership style which she seemed to do with complete ease and without stress! Hopefully, I appear like that to others.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

I am a humanist and don’t call myself a feminist. I believe that every person, regardless of gender, has the ability to give their best to the world and to do what is right for them. I have worked in numerous jobs for a variety of different people and companies, I was never happy. Now, running my own company I can truly say that I’m happy and in my element. I believe that the biggest thing that’s holding women back from starting their own companies is themselves. You don’t need government support to have the confidence to run your own company. You need acknowledgement from your peers, friends, neighbors that you are just as capable of doing it as anyone else. Thinking that women need more support or encouragement suggests that being female is a handicap in itself.

There are many men that have companies that somehow function well when they have one mediocre idea and very little in terms of leadership skills. The difference really is confidence, which is disappointing. I think the same goes for executive roles — confidence is key.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

Stop drawing lines and separating women from ‘people’! I know my statement might ruffle some feathers, but I’m not a fan of the ‘his/ him’ or ‘her/she’ movement. As a ‘person’ that wants to be seen as equal to others, I don’t think that drawing attention to my gender or any gender for that matter speaks to my work or quality of work that I am able to produce. Superficial judgement does not recognize quality. In fact, it does the complete opposite. Maturity and depth typically produces quality and ideas that are sustainable.

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

A wise friend (who just happens to be male) said to me once:

“Men are the pawns outside of the castle walls protecting the castle and killing everything that moves, women are inside of the castle walls keeping peace, making rules and maintaining a civil society.”

This infers of course that men are short-sighted and are only there to protect the more prestigious and meaningful players….I laughed when he mentioned this as I find the analogy hilarious and more than a bit inappropriate. But, there is an ounce of truth in the statement. It DOES infer that men and women are wired in different ways and have a very different approach to problems and opportunities. Having a variety of types of leaders — both women and men — is needed to create a vibrant society.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

Not sure if there are any myths about running a business — I think most things that I have heard are actually true. Hard work, long hours, eventual payback….it’s all true!

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

Being a successful founder and having a successful business means that you need to exert leadership skill, business prowess as well as being an artist and visionary in your craft, whatever your craft may be. There are many people that are exceptionally good at their craft but have no desire or ability to be a leader, to mentor a team or to practice business. You need all of these to be successful. In one of my past jobs in my previous life I took a test called the ‘DISC’ which measures 4 personality strengths. I would highly suggest that everyone does this exercise at least once. It was great at measuring leadership qualities and helped point you down the right path. Obviously, I took the advice from the test, ditched my comfy full-time position and started my own company.

One of my favorite parts of my ‘job’ is to constantly show up to events and meet new people, chase the dream and create inspiration. Jumping on a plane at the 11th hour to meet a developer that just bought a hotel in LA and wants my input and thoughts on it is my favorite thing to do. I love the unpredictability, the excitement and thrive off the stress and pressure I put on myself. I love setting somewhat unrealistic goals and then surprising myself by being able to actualize them. As an employee you can certainly flex your creative muscle but it’s often following someone else’s dream, coming into work during specific hours and delivering within a prescribed mandate …not my thing!

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

I think the 5 things that are needed to succeed are the following;

  1. Drive, perseverance — Running a business is go, go go….all the time! There is never the opportunity to stop and catch your breath, especially if you’re in growth mode. If you do have a chance to catch your breath it’s probably time to jump on the next task that you are most probably behind in. If you are in a stage of growth and evolution, stopping is not an option.
  2. Inspiration — If you run your own business, there’s a good chance you did it because there was something you wanted to explore or you wanted to pursue an idea that you couldn’t get elsewhere. Having that want and inspiration to do it is essential. Without it, there is no reason to run your own ship. To that end, designing is actualizing someone’s dream that they usually can’t quite articulate or actualize themselves coupled with your aspirations and design spirit. Putting both together are the most important ingredients in a successful relationship and knowing how absolutely positive that relationship can be and how it can play out is the best inspiration.
  3. Curiosity — Nothing noteworthy is achieved by regurgitating what you already know. Curiosity and exploring the unknown, asking questions and doing the impossible is the essential guts for any business, but particularly a design business.
  4. Assertiveness — Confidence is key and essential. You can’t have clients that instill their trust in you if you are not confident and grounded in your decisions. This is true not only for design but for all businesses. That being said, there’s a time to be humble, to listen and to reflect others’ opinions to achieve the best results.
  5. Patience, perspective — Patience is a virtue and incredibly important! Very good things happen overnight and patience is needed with staff, vendors, contractors and clients. Being short with staff and vendors because you’re stretched for time does not yield positive results! I have learned the value of being patient, being in the moment and truly ‘putting myself in others shoes’ with my growing team.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I would like to think yes, you can’t continue running your business any other way!

I opened my own firm because I never found a workplace that welcomed the amount of skills that I had to offer. I believe that I provide great quality work to my clients….thankfully my clients think so too! We have been able to make projects possible where there was little potential and have created value where others have failed to see it. By being able to practice my ‘craft’ to my full potential and being able to execute it well, I do think that we have hopefully been able to create environments that can support our greater existences.

Many think about sustainability, physical wellness when they think about how interior design can positively affect our lives. We certainly keep these things in mind when we provide designs for our projects. That being said, I believe that placemaking is a truly undervalued art and many don’t realize that our own existence can be greatly improved if we really lean into the space that we are designing and think about how we want the individual to feel and act when they are within our space. As an example, we recently designed a condo lobby in North Toronto, paying special attention to the experiences the resident would feel as they moved through the space, not just the views as they would appear in the photoshoot. With the reception desk area we had provided a LOT of space for parcel storage, making the job of the concierge easier and more fluid. We created transaction counters of varying heights with adequate lighting, so that individuals could use them in a way that supported a more intimate experience. We introduced sound absorbing materials for the flooring, so the sound would not reverberate causing anxiety. I think what many forget when we speak about interior design is that we are able to support different types of life experiences and therefore are able to shape what people do within the spaces. I would like to think that we are giving people an opportunity to have more meaningful and comfortable lives when they exist within the spaces that we have designed.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Many people think their time is limitless and believe they always have tomorrow. You don’t and no one does. Everyone’s time is VERY limited. It is best to realize that the biggest thought you ever will have will be a mere drop in the bucket…so even if you think you have an earth shattering idea or perhaps something controversial, don’t bother waiting for someone’s approval on your idea or a vote of confidence, you might not get it. I would suggest that everyone be the best person they think possible and to live their life to their full potential. Great things come to people that take action, not to those that wait. I was always very hesitant to make the first step — to show up at the first meeting, to moderate the panel of the conference, even to speak up first in internal design meetings. I was nervous about screwing up, saying the wrong thing or generally doing anything wrong. I have learned and have come to realize that everyone in a position where they speak at conferences or lead teams effortlessly have had LOTS of practice and have made lots of mistakes themselves. The reality is, the more positivity you create and the more you try (even though some of your efforts may fail), the more the mistakes fade away and stay in the background.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I’m very lucky to be able to lunch or connect frequently with some of my most inspirational beings. The most inspirational people or things I have stumbled across are the ones that are NOT doing the same things as you. I find it most inspiring to connect with people that have a completely different perspective and craft than me. What has been most impactful and meaningful to me so far is to keep my eyes and ears open all the time and to listen to everything around me — not just the 5 key people that I hold on a pedestal. When you have someone or something in mind you know what you expect — when you open your mind and heart to many things that cross your path, it is pretty amazing how rich and fulfilling your life can really get!

This being said, one aspirational person that has inspired me for my whole life has been Paul McCartney, for really being able to capture the essence of beauty and life in his lyrics and music and making complex aspects of life make sense, even when it’s crazy. This is not easy but the hardest thing that you can ever do and seeing that he has been able to make this reality with music gives me inspiration that I perhaps can do the same with my craft. President Obama has great positive and inspirational qualities as he has proven the benefit of having a calm demeanor and perseverance, qualities that are rare in this day and age. Of course, Jane Goodall, for realizing that there was SOMETHING MORE and something beautiful about a subject that was previously not properly discovered.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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