Welcome to the weekly series ‘How I got my job as…’ where we speak to some incredible entrepreneurs and businesswomen both based in the UAE and globally to find out about their career paths that led them to where they are now; what their daily routines look like; the advice they’d give to those starting out; and the hurdles they’ve had to overcome.
This week we chat with Ale Aster Akinbiyi, a luxe interior stylist based in the UAE with clients from all around the world. From offices to retreats, her vast portfolio of clients features VIP gala dinners for brands such as Bloomingdales, Harvey Nichols and Erdem.
With over 13 years of experience in the industry, Akinbiyi launched her business three years ago and since then has never looked back.
To understand more, sat down with this interiors and events styling expert out more about the journey and entrepreneurial vision.
What was your favourite subject at school?
My favourite subject at school is sport. Maybe because I was incredibly good at it. Even to this day, it brings me immense joy, ranging from Wakesurfing and Tennis to Stand up Paddling, Skiing, Running, and cycling.
What was your first job?
I was a wedding planner in Barcelona. I had the chance to work with a Wedding Agency for three months over the summer and it was magical.
What brought you to Dubai?
I worked with Avantgarde, a German-based creative agency that has a presence in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. At the time, their client was Mubadala, and they needed support with organising Formula 1 Gala Dinners and VIP Events.
What inspired you to enter the interiors space and launch your brand?
As someone who has designed temporary spaces such as pop-ups, exhibitions, events, and fashion shows for a long time, I wanted to expand my scope to something more enduring. I wanted my design to have longevity. My experience of working with Al Tayer and designing spaces for Crate & Barrel solidified this desire. Obtaining an Interior Design Diploma became a natural progression for me. Once I familiarized myself with the various facets of interior design, I quickly realized that furnishing and styling, also known as FF&E and OS&E in industry parlance, was my calling. I had no interest in demolishing walls. My desire is to fill this specific niche was what inspired me to launch my own brand. Given the rarity of such a focus, starting my own brand was the only viable option for me.
Talk us through the inspiration behind your aesthetics.
Growing up, beauty and creativity were ingrained in my family’s DNA. My mother is a florist, and my father’s family has been in the jewelry business for generations. My aunts and uncles are architects, artists, and painters. It’s not surprising that creating beauty in any shape or form is in my blood. Being a Libra, I just have a special place for aesthetics in my heart and I love to experiment and express beauty in all forms. In my work, I find inspiration in the tiniest of details. Deep conversations with my clients to understand the emotions they want to evoke is usually what inspires me the most. While many look for beautiful spaces, my contribution to the world is making spaces look beautiful.
What are the key elements of your role?
I sometimes simplify my role by saying that I “place cushions for living.” However, my responsibilities go way beyond that. As an Interior Stylist, I am responsible for improving the overall aesthetics and functionality of a space without altering its fundamental structure. I don’t engage in major renovations like knocking down walls. Instead, I help determine the look and feel of a space by selecting, placing and styling furniture, paint, textiles, décor, plants, flowers and fragrances. Many people feel overwhelmed by an empty space. My role is to fill the space with carefully selected items that they will love, need, and that will complement each other.
Talk us through your daily routine.
As a working mama to a 4-year-old, my husband and I enjoy a delicious breakfast together before I hop on my bike to take my little one to Kindergarten. Once back, it’s time to get ready for work and kick-start my creativity. I love to read up on the latest interior design news. Browsing magazines, platforms, and newsletters for at least 30 minutes each morning is a great way to start the day off right. Depending on where I’m at with a project, I might hit up some shops or showrooms in the morning to scope out some products. It’s usually quieter in the morning, so it’s the perfect time to double-check things like finishings and comfort levels or find some new items to propose to my clients. If I don’t have any projects on the go, I’ll usually tackle some admin work or trying to push my marketing and social media content creation. As an entrepreneur, I’m constantly juggling a million things at once. From marketing to new business to finance and admin, it’s all in a day’s work for me. Oh, and I also do some interior styling on the side. I spend a good part of my day in front of my laptop doing things like furniture layouts to scale or sourcing items online. Before my day wraps up I spend some time getting organized for the next day, making lists, and setting reminders. Evenings are all about friends and family. I’m Italian, so I absolutely love good food. I’m always on the hunt for new places to try out and check out their interiors. At least once a week, you’ll find me out and about. Other than that, I love to cook and spend time with my family at home.
What advice do you have for anyone looking to follow in the same footsteps?
Discovering your niche and specialisation is essential. It’s important to accept that not everyone will appreciate your work and that’s okay. In fact, don’t try to cater to everyone’s preferences. Go find your fans, they will motivate and inspire you to keep going. Then, seek out your audience, they will appreciate what you have to offer. Finally, find the right clients, those who recognize and value your unique talent. They will be eager to pay you for the exceptional work that only you can deliver.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
One of the most valuable pieces of advice I’ve ever received was to tune out the competition and concentrate on my goals, on what I aspire to accomplish, rather than what others are doing. The market is flooded with noise, particularly on social media, and it’s too simple to get sidetracked, compare yourself to others, and lose sight of your objectives. I’ve personally unfollowed accounts and blocked out all the noise, which has allowed me to remain focused on my work and what I want to achieve. It’s a humbling experience to recognise that success is not about how you compare to others, but rather about staying focused on your own ambitions and working hard to achieve them.
And what is the worst?
The worst advice I received was people saying ‘Just Follow your Passion’ ! It’s wonderful to have a passion for something, but being obsessed with it is what truly makes you excel. So instead of “just following your passion,” I suggest making your passion your hobby and turning your obsession into your profession. Remember, it’s the drive and determination that comes with obsession that leads to success.
What has been the biggest challenge you had to overcome?
I would say for me there were two major challenges. First, I have experienced the journey of transitioning from a corporate job to entrepreneurship, and that was not easy. Suddenly, I found myself with no title, no one recognizing me and the absence of a monthly income. I also realised that if I didn’t work one day, I don’t get paid, which made me view my free time differently. It took me a while to enjoy weekends, and holidays again instead of worrying about no income during the ‘rest time’. The second challenge I had to overcome is linked to the advice I have given. When I started out, I thought I needed to cater to everyone and offer every service related to interior design. It took me a while to build up the confidence to only offer what I am truly good at. Finding my niche was a big step, but being comfortable with saying no to projects that don’t align with my strengths was not easy. Even now, I sometimes still have to fake it until I make it. But I’ve learned that being true to myself and offering what I do best is the key to long-term success.
What are the future plans for your brand?
A field I would like to explore is the Hotel Industry. There’s a huge potential for collaboration in this field, and I feel that the work I do, can help hotels stay trendy and up-to-date with the latest in styling, season after season. The work of an Interior Stylist can inject fresh and new energy into these properties and help them continue to shine in the hospitality industry. Another field we are exploring is the launch of a product. It’s a little piece of furniture that brings together the expat experience with local heritage. It’s been a couple of years in the making, but we’re just a production facility and strategy away from getting it out there in all its glory. Fingers crossed, we’ll have it ready to rock by 2024.