I chose the wrong word. I chose 'Designer' instead of 'Doctor' when I told my immigrant parents what I wanted do with my life. At that moment, it was scarier than telling them I'd gotten a 'C' on a math exam. Where I come from, entering a creative field is inconceivable. And the only acceptable career paths are Medicine, Engineering, or Law. Even better, I could marry into prestige and show off a shiny partner at family gatherings.

My parents equated my creative career with the term 'Starving Artist' and felt I was throwing my life away. Despite this, they supported me through art school. I won't bore you with a long history of how many challenges I had to face. Well actually, maybe one. That's what makes this even better. I don't have an elite Design background but an Honours in Visual Arts. Even after a series of accomplishments, awards, and a promotional campaign positioning me as one of the faces of our graduating class, I still faced massive imposter syndrome. Yet there were no impressive Design-facing placements or internships for me. I had my parents’ support to pursue what I wanted on my own terms, even though it was rooted in concern.

I am a Senior Product Designer today because of my sheer commitment to punching, kicking, and forcing my way into the field. I am self-taught through dedicated practice of every new tool on the market (Figma was just starting to make waves), watching experienced Designers on Youtube, and nabbing a continuing studies scholarship to study UX Design. But I firmly believe that books, courses, and scholarships can only take you so far. The real world application of Design Thinking is only something you learn by getting your hands dirty on the job. It’s just that getting the job is the toughest part. Contrary to what many Aunties out there believe, the Design field is extremely tough to break into. It’s characterized by its "tech bro culture," classism, and commitment to a faulty meritocracy where word-of-mouth hires are king. In my case, I observed a lack of role models and diverse representation that discouraged my pursuit of growth.

At every family function, I dutifully explained to apprehensive crowds that my career is practical and will sustain a living. That Design is just fulfilling as a male cousin’s choice of Finance. I endured apologetic looks and micro-aggressions like, *"So you make things look pretty?"* or *"Can you design me a t-shirt?"* or my favourite, *"That's an easy job, right?"* Secretly, I begin to doubt my intuition and regretted not listening to Ammi and Abu. Luckily, I inherited my mother’s tenacity and persistence.

I stumbled into the world of startups by accident, landing in a client-facing Product role. Very few colleagues looked like me, or came from backgrounds similar to mine. In one role, I was the only person of colour in the entire company. It was immensely scary to advocate for my unique perspective in a room full of white men. Especially as a brown woman, when all I’ve ever been taught is to be polite, not be overbearing, and keep my head down. It was terrifying to work with others who didn’t share my struggles and who would never be labeled ‘bossy’ for asserting themself. I knew they’d never be able to fully understand my perspective. This work environment brought on crippling anxiety but ultimately taught me what it’s like to design functional digital products in the modern world. It also taught me to speak up, share my opinion and push back for what I believed in for better user experiences. I learned to take pride in my work instead of being scared to bring something to the conversation. I worked on letting go of the imposter syndrome of, ‘Why would my voice matter? I’m not a real Designer’, because someone bet on me to make a difference. I also acknowledge that shedding those thoughts takes time, practice, and support.

Every challenge I’ve faced has forged me into a better Designer. And Dropbox Design empowers me to continue growing. I’m surrounded by incredible designers who come from vast backgrounds and are from underrepresented ethnic and racial groups. Dropbox‘s employee resource groups (ERGs) are dedicated to building community while promoting diversity and inclusion, including groups for women, Asian, LGBTQ+, Black, Latinx employees, and more. These spaces and resources help me be myself at work and feel comfort in knowing my experiences are universal. On my Design team, It feels special to confide in my colleagues and know they’ve faced similar discrimination. That trust translates to key Design rituals like weekly Crits. It’s a safe and open forum where I know I’m getting a wide array of feedback without judgment.

Worthy of trust value

Photo by Asra Sarfraz

Being a Canadian-Pakistani Designer at Dropbox enables me to tap into this superpower: I can put myself in another’s shoes and identify their needs. I can show up, be creative, remain practical and be a problem-solver. At Dropbox Design, I’m not a diversity hire and I don’t have to play a certain part. I can lean on my diverse team and get valuable perspectives on how to approach a design solution. I don’t have to ask to be heard, I'm encouraged to take the lead. I am uplifted by cross-functional partners, given credit, and even celebrated when I forget to advocate for myself, something that is not common in this industry. I can provide safe spaces for my partners to give feedback and know Design Leadership is present with an open ear. There is immense power in seeing ourselves not as independent units, but as one part of a bigger thriving collective, all learning and interdependent on each other.

At our San Francisco Dropbox Studio, a mural asks,* “What creates a sense of belonging at work for you?”* As a practicing Muslim BIPOC in the field of Design; I feel a sense of belonging knowing I can show up unequivocally as myself at work. I am proud to work at Dropbox, a company even my father recognizes, where I get to build things that help millions of people get their work done. Belonging is created when my manager wishes me ‘Ramadan Mubarak’ during the holy month and asks how he can support me while fasting. It’s inherent in the fact that I’m not an afterthought, like when I was offered stellar Halal food options at our Design Summit in Austin, Texas. It’s felt in the representation I see in my Design Manager, Director, and our Brand Director, three extremely accomplished women of colour who inspire me to aim higher. These things matter. They don’t go unseen. They are the sparks that catch fire and burn down the old limitations telling us we can’t.

Maya Angelou famously said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Almost every human at Dropbox Design and beyond solidifies the feeling I have an important voice.

Belonging at work
Halal dinner card
Summit dinner blue

Images in order from top to bottom: Belonging Mural, Asra Sarfraz; Summit Dinner Card, Asra Sarfraz; Design Summit Dinner, Asra Sarfraz.

Asra Team Image

Photo by Asra Sarfraz

It helps me look back on when I started my journey into Design unsure of myself. I know now that those moments of hesitancy keep me humble as I move forward, prove myself wrong every day and aim on being better in my craft. That I could be working in Silicon Valley with my humble beginnings and shaping the way millions use these advanced digital products is something I don’t treat lightly. I couldn’t be luckier to work in a place like Dropbox and I’m excited to lead the way for future Designers of different backgrounds. I have built and shipped experiences for a billion dollar company and I know you can, too.

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