Women in Industrial Design: A Conversation with Shujan Bertrand

Over the last several months we’ve been researching the issue of gender gap in the industrial design profession seeking the perspectives of female leaders in the industry, and sharing those conversations with the community. 

This month, we sat down with Shujan Bertrand, an industrial designer with over 20 years of product design experience in soft good design, advanced product development, design research and strategy. Throughout her career, Shu has worked for a variety of design teams around the globe, from corporate to consultancies. Currently based in San Francisco, Shu is founder of Aplat, a culinary soft goods company committed to zero waste in design and manufacturing. In the interview, she reflected on her childhood and the role models that shaped her view of the world, and shared more about her personal journey as a woman in the ID space.

On gender as a hurdle, and how to combat that mindset. 

In thinking about Women in Design, I went back to my parents and how I was raised. We often don’t talk about early childhood education. But that’s where the baseline is. 

I was born and raised in Manhattan Beach, California on the ocean. My parents immigrated in 1970. My father was a mechanical engineer. My mom was a pharmacist who had her own medical background. They came here with a hundred bucks in their pocket and eventually went on to town three restaurants and three dry cleaners. I think the fact that my mother ran a business influenced me. I’m going to give my father some credit, but my mom was really running things. Having her as a role model, it just was natural to hustle. It’s just kind of what I grew up with. 

I also flashback to my dad rolling me under the car saying, “I’m going to teach you how to change the oil and fix all the machines.” Or my mom saying, “You gotta make 50 sushi rolls!” And I always thought, “Okay, I got this.” 

I realized that I was raised to solve problems sheerly because my parents were so generous with their knowledge. My father said, “If there is anything broken, just fix it yourself. You don’t have to call anybody.” My mother raised me to cook anything I ever wanted from scratch. I just respect my parents for doing that. We were not the Brady bunch. I mean, like every family, there were challenges but I think that foundation is really important to add to this conversation about women in design. 

As far as making changes, I think that the gap is in education. I don’t mean education in school, but parent education to build inclusion. I know the topic (of this interview series) is focused on inclusion in design. But I think that a holistic understanding of inclusion concerning disabilities, gender, color, and economic advantages and disadvantages applies to just so many other things.  We need to teach our sons and our daughters equally about how to solve problems, approach things from both perspectives, or all perspectives. Things are so multifaceted. It’s not two sides, it’s multiple sides. 

On navigating her ID career as a woman. 

Fifteen or twenty years ago I certainly was always the only female in the room. But I never saw that as a weakness or even a problem. I never felt the tension of being a woman or trying to stake out my ground. I just really focused on my work. I respected everyone around me. I came into the room with a mindset that everyone’s amazing and has something to offer, rather than saying, “I have something that you need to listen to.”  

But as the only woman in the room, I really did try to advocate for my point of view. I would say, “Well, from my experience as a mother or from my experience from doing X, Y, and Z.” I think that brings value to the conversation. It’s why we want diversity in our rooms. Because everyone has different life experiences. And certainly, when you’re the only person who has had that experience, it means a lot — particularly when you’re designing lifestyle products.

The moment where I felt most challenged was when I was pregnant. I never stopped working. I only took three months off for both children. I did feel “the pressure of my gender” at that point more passionately. Because I didn’t want my projects or my team to feel like I was absent or skipping a beat. 

I know that a lot of female designers, or women in general, struggle to have a voice and equality. I have been lucky to have had great work environments with all male bosses or leaders. Brett Lovelady, the founder of Astro, is still a great mentor. I speak with him every quarter to check-in. Astro set the tone for the type of design environment I wanted to be in — a warm and friendly and family-like space where creativity was always supported. My reference always goes back to my experience at Astro. I want to foster that kind of space today. 

On starting Aplat, and using her business to support other female-led businesses. 

When I started developing products after having children, sustainability in the home and for the planet became an even stronger priority. My daughter was born with a compromised immune system, and our doctor recommended that we have a clean and sustainable environment. I read every home environmental book and made the house as clean as possible for her — almost like an incubation house. That led me to understand how toxic our house, and every day environment, actually was. 

Starting Aplat was kind of a crazy, organic, unplanned, messy transition where you just follow your gut. It started with a bouquet bag. I was going to a big design party, a gallery opening for a designer we all knew. The bouquet was wrapped in cellophane and paper. And I thought, “You just killed the bouquet.” To me, it was just not the quality that a designer should get. So, I literally designed the entire collection in less than 48 hours, including a five-year road map. I thought that in the future we would change the way we gifted, the way we share, the way we did everything in the home.  The next thing you know, it’s in stores. It was that fast. And it was all about being sustainable. It’s the same collection today.

Currently, I have one person in my studio, a woman, who’s doing all the in-house photography and shipping and receiving. My e-com web development team in LA is female-owned. All my suppliers are women-owned businesses. And my three factories are all women-owned and women-led.

I’ve found adjacencies in moving from industrial design to the culinary industry. I now work closely with farms and with the restaurant and wine industries. Gender gaps are really big there as well. So, for example, I’m trying to work with only female farmers. Just like with female industrial designers, I’m trying to support other females at the mission level. Partnering with them and celebrating them and telling their story is exciting for me. I have great respect for women who hustle! 

On the need for diversity and balance. 

I was one of the founding members of (the) Women in Design (IDSA initiative) about eight years ago. I was always the person in the room thinking, “Why are we sitting in a room full of women?” Rather than just splitting off, if we really want change, men should be in that room too, listening to what we’re saying. On a ground level, just calling it Women in Design is very provocative. If we’re really trying to evolve, what does that convey? I acknowledge a thousand percent that women need safe spaces to have conversations. Men do too. But I question just advancing this conversation by simply branching out into a separate women’s group. I think the goal should be bringing people, both genders, in the room equally. To have real, honest conversations. I think there are some opportunities for a shift. 

I think it’s important to advocate for more human connection, regardless of their being male or female. I think it’s a mindset. If we keep thinking there’s division, then that’s what we’re going to get. I don’t want that kind of future. 

I encourage women to seek out male mentors too because at the end of the day, when you are just having a creative conversation, and when you realize that you’re all on the same page and have the same intentions, it builds confidence. So that when you go into a room, it’s not about gender. It’s about content, talent, and skills. 

On being a mentor to other women in design. 

I appreciate having platforms like Women in Design or speaking engagements where there are young women industrial designers out there. When I spoke at the IDSA Women in Design Conference in 2018 there were 250-300 people in the audience. I was thinking very naively that (by speaking) about Aplat and how I went from ID to manufacturing, I was just telling my personal story. We all have personal stories. But we don’t know who they’re going to touch. 

Several women have reached out after being somehow touched by my story. Often, we’re not talking about design. We’re talking about much bigger things. It was so amazing that a 10-minute talk could support and inspire these women to contact me. Hopefully, this interview today will also resonate with someone, somewhere. 

What I listen to for inspiration. 

The thing that changed my life during the beginning stages of Aplat was my obsession with “How I Built This,” the show on NPR with Guy Raz. I advise everyone to follow the podcast — many feature women-owned businesses. It taught me that when you’re a business owner, your investment and your returns are at least 10 years from the point of starting. So, I’m only 50% through. That gives me peace of mind that I’m not here for the fast buck. I’m here for the long haul. Because we’re doing something different.

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