It’s truly amazing how our life experiences shape who we turn out to be. When Maryam Eskandari, visited Iran every summer since she was 6 years old, it wasn’t a surprise what career path she gravitated towards by the time she was a young teenager.
We had a chance to sit down with Maryam and talk about the unique path she chose as Founder of MIIM Designs, a company that designs communities and creates culture by being “social architecture-preneurs”.
“My maternal grandfather was a textile designer and from him I learned about colors, fabric, and interpretation of different materials and the business side of things. My paternal grandfather was an architect and from him I learned about construction and actually got help on drawing up my first blueprint. I would spend one week with one grandfather, and the next week with the other one so by time I was 16, I knew I wanted to be an architect, but not sure exactly in what realm,” she shares.
After completing her undergrad at the University of Arizona in 2005, Maryam went on to work for various corporate firms. While in Seattle for a project, the local mosque reached out to her with their new building plans. Her company decided to take on the project.
“What I realized at the time was that there are so many elements and components to Islamic architecture that I had absolutely no knowledge of because my background was strictly in design.”
This led to Maryam heading to grad school. She was accepted to the prestigious Aga Khan Program in Islamic Architecture between Harvard and MIT which only accepts 4 or 5 students a year. “It was very difficult, I had to take two years of Islamic Law at Harvard, a lot of Islamic philosophy and Islamic history classes, and do design at the same time, ” she states.
But also during this time, Maryam started her first company with a partner called “M Squared” and actually got four clients based in Kuwait working on residential projects. “It took me awhile to realize that the definition of Islamic architecture might not be the same for everybody and we ended up dissolving the company two years later, ”she adds.
Maryam took the next year and a half off as a sabbatical to figure out what made her tick as an architect. “I wanted architecture to be meaningful, of its time and place, and had to be capable of evoking emotion. I wanted to create a platform of designers, thinkers, researchers- agents of change- to be able to examine the intersection of culture, politics and religion and have all of those components come together to integrate into a building. Combining traditional materials such as light (noor) within a mass, nature, sounds, serenity … all of these pieces coming together evolved into MIIM,” she shared.
When launching MIIM Designs in 2012, one of the biggest aspects that Maryam and her partners were passionate about was the social enterprise model of a business. According to stats stated by Maryam, 98% of architecture that is created around the world is not actually created by architects and the main problem is that most people don’t have access to a either a designer or an architect. And that’s where the term “social architecture-preneurs” was coined. “We volunteer our time and design abilities with a lot of non-profit organizations. We also train a lot of interns and they work on non-profit projects while actually gaining hands on experience working on architecture. The way it’s set up is our for-profit projects fund our non-profit projects,” she adds.
Maryam is currently working on an exhibit at the Children’s Museum in Manhattan on Islamic Architecture for younger children to open in January of 2016. But her portfolio is quite varied and includes projects at colleges, mosques, residential homes both in the US and Kuwait, and even the Humayun Tomb in India. But one point that she likes to clarify is that Islamic architecture is just one component that MIIM Designs work on. “We have the ability to create spiritual spaces using traditional materials, and each project will vary and can be created for any faith,” she claims.
Along with her grandfathers, Maryam credits her parents as a great influence and role models. “They taught me that your life can’t be one dimensional, you will constantly be evolving, changing and continuously learning. In order to be successful, you constantly have to be a student and must be constantly rebuilding and teaching yourself every day,” she shares.
In her free time, when she isn’t sketching on her notepad, Maryam and her husband like to take road trips or have get-togethers with their students and share aspects of their different cultures.
Maryam’s message for budding entrepreneurs, “You have to have a heart of a giver, a compassionate soul, a ruthless and energetic mind, and the most important of all, a network of mentors and mentees.”
Editor’s Note: Faisal Masood is the Founder and President of the American Muslim Consumer Consortium Inc. He has more than 20 years of management consulting, business management, entrepreneurship and sales management experience. Currently he works for JP Morgan Chase in New York. Sabiha Ansari is Co-Founder and Vice-President of the American Muslim Consumer Consortium, Inc. (AMCC). She has a degree in Psychology, is a Certified Empowerment Coach, and a consultant with Canavox, a program of Witherspoon Institute dedicated to promoting family and marriage values. The views expressed here are their own. If you would like more information on MIIM Designs and Maryam’s various past projects, please visit her website, www.miimdesigns.com.