Finding my place in the family business

Rhea Soman never thought that working at Lumiere, the research firm her mother Deepa founded, would be automatic. Rhea talks about how she began to see a place for herself, and is now playing a role in the firm's evolution. Deepa talks about what she and the firm are learning from the experience

Rhea Soman

[Image by StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay]

By Rhea Soman and Deepa Soman

My mother started a research firm, Lumiere, in September 1996, nine months after I was born. Over time, I came to see it as a sibling of sorts. She worked on the computer at home. I grew up amidst “work” and “office”. Initially it was just my mother, and in time there were other people. My brother and I would come from school, go to my mother’s office, which was on the ground floor of our house, and then go upstairs. Our dog Brandy was always in the office and she would follow us upstairs. The atmosphere was friendly, warm and affectionate. Lumiere was like family. We knew each other well. 

And yet, growing up, I had never imagined I’d work with my mom one day. Because this was a consumer research firm. And I always knew I wanted to do something creative—to create anything, though I had no idea what. When I was 10, I was diagnosed with a severe learning disability, with dyslexia, dyscalculia and dysgraphia, and a high IQ of 140. Painting was a natural talent and Meccano was a thrill. Observing was probably my favourite hobby growing up. My parents too gave me the space to be able to understand my own ability and style. They were not shocked by my diagnosis.

That being said, I feel I am lucky because my parents had always been education forward, focusing on teaching through different mediums, experimentation and leading by example. They took immense efforts to identify the challenge and help me be comfortable in my own skin, unlike countless other children going through their lives being fish who are asked to climb trees.

A turning point came in November 2016, closer to my graduation. I was introduced to Clifton StrengthsFinder. My Dad is a Gallup certified coach and we—my mother, brother and I—were his first coachees. Self-awareness is an important personal journey that everyone takes. It was important for me to learn to apply my talents to get outcomes in all leadership domains.

In hindsight, I can see that this, together with the exposure I got from internships in the application of design learning, led me closer to the idea that I could play a role at Lumiere.

During and after college, I interned in various sectors, including education, healthcare, hospitality (sustainable hostel design), bringing design solutioning to the table. I gained a nuanced understanding of collaborating with people with complementary strengths. 

In the last year of my design school, my graduation project, mentored by Prof. Rajan Iyer, was on the prevention of sexual harassment and abuse under advocate Vandana Chavan’s SMILE initiative. This experience in the social sector helped broaden my understanding of application of design learning. 

We were invited to share our work at the Lumiere Learning Monday—every Monday morning Lumiere has a two-hour classroom session. On the first Monday of each month, an external speaker is invited “to open the windows of our mind with respect to work or life”. Post lockdown we do fortnightly Learning Mondays with external faculty; the internal sessions are usually on Strengths Learning.

Our approach, research methodology, data gathering, and representation of work in the exhibition was very well received by the team.

That focus on knowledge and learning at Lumiere appeals to me. Not just books in the library, but the entire focus on tools, technology and people to create a knowledge management system. This is an application of the systems approach to learning.

I suggested Lumiere internships to many of my friends, who applied and did two to four-week internships here.

Somehow, I still did not see myself working at Lumiere then. I had seen first-hand the effort, stress and uncertainty it took to run a company, and thought a big MNC would be more secure.

This changed during my two-month volunteership in Israel. I ended up working in a hostel kitchen, bar and laundry and got a chance to meet people from different parts of the world. I was exposed to different cultures and faiths. Israel has an entrepreneurial zeal and an enterprising mindset. India is just the same. 

Growing up, I’d seen that my second sibling, Lumiere, had a strong entrepreneurial mindset—it was strong on experimenting and was not obsessed with scale. It was a lab, not a factory.

I realised having studied design, I could potentially craft an opportunity within Lumiere.

So, after I came back, I sent my resume to my parents and pitched the idea of the company having a design offering. It had never crossed my mind that working at Lumiere would be automatic. I have to be seen worthy of it through my work after being assessed like everyone else. I shared my portfolio and went through the assessment and interviews.

My parents were excited about the potential of a design offering, and jumped on board with the idea. They understood that research meets design with the consumer at the centre. Lumiere has expertise in exploratory research for early-stage innovation; I saw an opportunity to leverage the expertise by creating Design Labs. 

I got a lot of freedom to set up Design Labs, which was like a startup incubated within Lumiere. We got to do a slew of interesting projects. In conversations with prospects, I discovered that I was able to listen to their requirements, ask questions and was able to create curiosity about Lumiere. 

Putting the right team together was key, and when I joined, I had an idea of the people I might need in our team. I invited Disha Upreti, a good space designer, to join the team. Disha had interned at Lumiere, and was well-versed with the culture. Though not a researcher, she was interested in design research. Bright, meticulous and conscientious, we saw Disha would be a good fit. I was also able to pick Janhavi Kulkarni as I understood she would enjoy the kind of work we do, and that she would make herself invaluable to Lumiere. 

I worked from my home office in Santacruz, visiting the Nerul office—Lumiere’s head office—on two days of the week. Immediately after I joined, we got our first design project to create a customer experience using VR. This was one of our old clients and the opportunity to work with their large, global brands gives me a high. In a free-wheeling conversation, my dad and mom discussed the client’s wishlist. My parents invited me to the meeting. I am a thinker and not a great executor. We had no in-house experience with making 2D or VR films. Nevertheless, being a strengths-based organisation, we created a robust and efficient team. I onboarded Rohan Sindgikar, a film-maker and senior from college, to work with us. His background in film and excellent influencing and execution talents were invaluable. My dad conceptualised the initial solution with Rohan and I. He negotiated the commercials and stitched up the overall plan. The ability to create an overarching solution is my dad’s superpower. His number one talent is responsibility, which makes him extremely dependable. We worked with our partners in Hyderabad and delivered a complex project with filming across eight locations. The project was a success, thanks to a fantastic team effort. In a way it was proof that there was great potential in integrating design into research and development. This helped me grow as a designer, being able to work with the purpose, and the consumer. 

Yet, not all was smooth sailing for me and there were points of friction too. Long meetings bore and frustrate me. I noticed that many of our internal meetings were long winded. I was impatient. I did not speak up, but my irritation and tuning out must have been noticeable. There were other points of difference too. I enjoy one-on-one conversations with team members. My mother likes talking to the team from the front and is more inclined to inform and inspire. My approach is inquiry. I connect by asking questions and through joint discovery. If my mother sees a good thing, she is quick to assess its merits and apply. With her Activator talent, she is able to take quick decisions and move forward.

Also, Lumiere’s philosophy is to give opportunities to women returning to work after a gap to raise children or care for an ailing family member. Our core team has 18 women and two men, with my dad, Milind, who heads consulting and Rohan, who is a part of Design Labs and leads communication. Initially, I found it easier to relate to younger team members who were in a similar life stage as me. Older team members, their personal life challenges with in-laws and kids were alienating. Many diversity challenges began emerging. Younger vs. older, research vs. design team, newer vs. older team, with kids vs. without kids. In a small team, undercurrents are amplified and visible. We started picking small things like who had lunch together, who went together for walks after lunch. Suddenly it started feeling like the cohesiveness of the team had dipped. And this was felt by the larger team, and was fragmenting. 

It was when I started working on live projects, discovering how each person brings their own skills and talents to the table, that my respect grew. We are a diverse group and each person adds value individually and collectively. 

My parents played a catalytic role here. They both are qualified leadership coaches, and mentors to the team. I was encouraged to look at issues and depersonalise them. The Gallup philosophy comes from a place of positive psychology. It focuses on potential and not on observable behaviour. When you discover what might make someone think, feel and behave in a certain way, it gives you a deeper understanding and appreciation for their perspective. No one is doing something “on purpose” but because of the “balcony” and the “basements” of their talents. Everyone at Lumiere goes through their top five strengths assessment in the first week of their onboarding. They go through four formal coaching conversations. And each month we have two hours scheduled for learning about a specific strength. This exercise lets people understand themselves and their team members better. 

Project management vs design was another point of friction for me. The Lumiere project management practices applied to research projects. The specific steps involved for preparation of tools, carrying out research, the steps before analysis, reviews and the final report did not seem relevant to design projects. In fact, I found the project management workshop very alienating, as a majority of the conversation was around research and analysis. 

What was the common ground? That emerged through one of our early Design Labs projects to create branding and packaging and designing marketing collaterals for an early-stage startup. We saw the exploratory research with experts and possible user cohorts as an input for creating the branding and overall design collaterals. My design team and I had approached the problem as designers, while the client was expecting a confluence of classical research flowing into the design solution. The client was on a shoestring budget. We had not budgeted for the effort and time to match with the client’s expectations. 

I reached out to my parents to close the matter amicably. I learned about the value of staying calm, objective and dispassionate, while bringing a long-term view of valuing the client relationship. I learned the hard way the value of applying our existing project management processes, and using it as the backing to push back when needed. “Compliance is the devil,” my dad said. 

Things are now coming together in fulfilling ways for me. I am a visual thinker and my superpower is systems thinking. I can “see” the interconnectedness and patterns of different moving parts. Here’s one way that my five-member team at Design Labs and I are bringing that to bear: Our research reports are fairly detailed and verbose, with a lot of text. I can see all this detail, find patterns and synthesise it into an infographic or a crisp single slide. So far, people in the team had the liberty to choose any template they wanted as long as the logo was in the top right corner, with a specific way of representing the findings and the verbatim comments. Each report looked different. We’ve now created a best practice framework for the visual language of our brand, reflecting our brand colours and a minimalistic design. 

While the design team worked seamlessly on Google slides, the research team worked on Powerpoint. They sent us their ppt for “look and feel” enhancements—for “beautification”. This used to irk me no end. They did not understand the value of the “thinking” that goes into design. This also made the designers feel undervalued. It took us a few months, but the team is now comfortable in effectively collaborating on slides. Our reports are now created under the “good governance” of design language. Our team talks about how clients loved the quality of our research but our presentations were wordy and tedious. This has changed. The client now gets a consistent Lumiere brand experience, whether it is research forward project or a design forward project. The intent is to do great research and have visually well-designed storytelling.  

Even as I was settling into my role and beginning to see how Lumiere’s approach fit in with my ideas, the pandemic descended on us.   

In many ways we were well prepared for the transition to work from home. Lumiere pioneered, enabled and encouraged work from home. We had a physical office, but nearly half our team members and most of our associates worked from home in different cities. Our ways of working make it seamless for project team members and clients to work together on a project. Thanks to my dad who is always exploring tools and technologies for us to adopt, we adopted the cloud and are an HBR case as a small company, early adopters of the cloud. 

However, there is a difference in the pressure experienced by team members during lockdown. Those of us who are single end up working very long hours, while mothers with young kids find it difficult to balance time and experience greater stress, especially if they have to take care of housework too. We try to be sensitive to the needs of the team.

We had internal resources to move our work digitally. But regular clients were at varying levels for readiness to resume work. Slowly and painfully, work has started. In the meantime, we explored new tools, did internal projects and events, and kept the team engaged. We used the time to create new product offerings providing research, technology and design.

Through all of this, I’m learning that cross-functional teams that work together learn to respect each other's strengths, domain and forte. We are also tackling the diversity challenge by breaking silos between design and research. The research sprints helped in getting researchers comfortable in learning to use templates. 

Our 15-minute morning and evening assembly, the weekly quiz and celebrations keep the team spirits high. The Lumiere Observership program, set up as a learning experience, is offered to those returning to work or mid-career professionals. They participate in a four-week learning stint that includes coaching. The team learns to host different people and get exposed to their experience and wisdom. Each month we have one or two Observers as part of our team. This “talent exchange” keeps the team energised, vibrant and fresh. Work is fast-paced and fun. We have started going back to the office and those who can, are invited to work from the office. Our clients are coming with new project briefs and we find ourselves slowly getting back to the new normal after a very tough five months.

Deepa Soman: “Rhea is learning to write essays and I am learning visual thinking”

In this 5-minute audiogram, Deepa talks about the experience from her point of view. As a mother nudging her daughter to explore her potential, and as a professional learning from the strengths of a family member.   

“We are similar in many ways, yet very different,” she says. “We are getting better at working together in our flat organisation with an inclusive culture. Rhea is learning to write essays and I am learning visual thinking… Rhea enjoys client interactions and business development much more than I ever did. And she’s learned the value of our processes and no longer thinks they are a drag.”

Bookmark the series: A show every Saturday at 7.30 pm on Facebook Live, supported by a column + audiogram.

And join Rhea and Deepa Soman on Facebook Live on Saturday September 05, at 7.30 pm IST, for Episode 7 of Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation.

Still curious? 

  • Read Harsh Vardhan’s essay on The New Traditionals. He says, family managed businesses run the risk of being run over by their more contemporary counterparts. If they adhere to some ground rules though, they can come up trumps.
  • Read The secret to keeping a family business intact across generations—the Pitcairn family offers several lessons on how you can sustain a family business across not one, not two, but several generations.

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About the author

Rhea Soman
Rhea Soman

Design Lead, Lumiere Design Labs

Lumiere Business Solutions

Rhea Soman is a designer who works in integrating research and design projects into holistic solutions. She started a Design Lab in 2018, incubated within Lumière Business Solutions, a 23-year-old research agency started by her mother, Deepa. A core team of in-house designers and an extended team of associates make up this vertical. Lumiere works seamlessly on client requirements and has delivered solutions in space design, branding, packaging, multi-sensory experience design by leveraging IOT, robotics and VR. Lumiere has been able to create a robust model to build on the core Lumiere consumer understanding and research capability in early stage innovation.

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