Amal Barreto is the CEO of SURFACE ELEVEN, a technical advisory on the world's finest materials for building projects. Amal talks to The Industry Leaders about how she navigated her first year in business as a new mother and why she's always tuned in to potential opportunities.
How did you end up sitting where you are today?
My story is a combination of determination and synchronicity. After watching my father run his own business, I'd always wanted my own so that I could use my natural gift of creating systems.
Returning to Dubai from my studies in Melbourne, Australia, I sought roles in efficiency improvement. This led me to an offer with a prominent wood floor supplier where I not only single-handedly increased company performance in key metrics but learned the business of flooring solutions and fell in love with it.
The time was right to start my own venture when I realized what the interior design community needed most (not another supplier!) - technical advisory on products for any wall, floor or ceiling under design goal pressures that are often complex. And so my company SURFACE ELEVEN was born.
What kind of work does your role involve?
My mission as CEO of SURFACE ELEVEN is to enable interior designers and architects in the UAE and GCC to create dream spaces with absolute freedom. My company serves as an access point to the world's finest materials for interior design projects all over the Middle East.
I don't think of myself as a mere supplier of building materials but rather a technical advisor to visionary designers. That means I educate them on the nuances of surfaces for the best return on investment. Materials need to be assessed in terms of design goals related to sustainability, aesthetic appeal, textural value, budget and bespoke options. Therefore, my role involves eyeing these details meticulously - an extrasensory skill that designers have to rely on when imagining possibilities.
On a daily basis, I'm building a dream company. The first order of business is always to embed values that make SURFACE ELEVEN establish trust with all stakeholders. I do this by inspiring my team of amazing employees, representing award-winning, elegant and sustainable brands, and giving back to the world through causes I hold dear. As a leader, I believe strengthening these core practices naturally leads to authentic customer interactions.
What gets you excited about your industry?
What gets me excited is the prospect of bringing life into a space by contributing to the creative arsenal of architects and interior designers. It excites me to serve design studios that create visual, sensory and emotional representations of their end client's identity. I see myself as a key resource that goes into the literal building of a city's landscape, connecting history with the future!
I believe design is the truest form of expression. While not everybody might think it's an "essential" trade in the times we live in, it connects people with their surroundings in ways that are deep, meaningful, synergistic and uplifting to the human spirit. This is why I do what I do!
What's the best advice anyone ever gave you?
My father's words never leave me whenever I need a boost of motivation: "There is no such thing as luck because opportunities are all around you. Train your mind to identify and recognize them."
I've come to believe that setting up for the opportunities to knock on my door is a crucial action when I face the world every day. Part of that involves staying physically organized to find important things when I'm in 'ASAP mode' while keeping my mind in the continuous flow of allowing the essence of what I want into my experience.
What, or who inspires you?
I am inspired by natural phenomena that show expansiveness; things such as standing at the foot of an ocean or underneath a starry sky. It reminds me that fear is only as real as I make it and that there are infinite possibilities available to me.
How do you keep up to speed with what's happening in your industry?
I have three strategies to keep up with where the industry is. I make it a point to attend online events being broadcast live. This has become so important because, although there are numerous print publications, change happens too fast and, as a leader, I have to adapt even quicker. Instagram live and webinars from people I admire and respect keeps me on the pulse.
The second strategy is scheduling coffee meetings with industry experts I haven't met yet. It is vital to get out of the office and actively listen to the personal insights of achievers about the industry. Gaining perspective from others' experience helps to push my own thinking about my customers' future needs.
I have realized that reading and learning about other industries has helped me understand their effects on mine because they are interlinked. So I believe it is essential to look at the macro picture by stepping back and observing it.
What was the most challenging project or situation you've overcome?
My first year running my business was the most challenging situation. Not only was it about finding my feet in the market, but I'd also just had my first baby. Juggling both was not easy, but I found my way by diligently managing my time, taking care not to multitask. Now that I think back to that, there are a lot of moments to be proud of. Getting cornered was the best way for my strengths to be discovered.
You finish work today and step outside the office to find a lottery ticket that ends up winning $10 million. What would you do?
Invest in my business. With the potential for creating global impact, there's no other dream that takes priority. I've actually already charted out where each million would go:
Working with people who align with our core values
Continue to build systems and technologies that seamlessly enable designers to have more choice
Market products that promote the circular economy
Training the design community on the intricacies of material that can impact design goals, and
Give back more to the causes I am passionate about.
How do you switch off after a day at work?
The only thing I switch off after work are my lights!
No, but in all seriousness, I meditate, bake, and spend lots of time with my three-year-old daughter, who is the light of my life.
If you had one wish for the future of your industry, what would it be?
The future is bright, but there needs to be more conscious thinking. I wish we'd go deeper into how the materials designers select affect the environment. Be it their manufacturing processes, emissions, ethical work practices or reusability. To do this effectively, the community must gain greater awareness, but there needs to be a move towards globalized standards of sustainability ratings. Right now, different regions have their own systems, which is a positive thing. But incentivizing builders and designers to use products that are good for our world would become stronger with common standards across countries.
What book or podcast should everyone know about?
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand is a classic. The central character is an architect who goes against the grain, someone I wholeheartedly relate to!