“At that time, nobody could quite understand why I did not want to take the opportunity for an education abroad in those turbulent times in Ethiopia’s history. But I just felt most privileged about staying right here in my country, with my family, friends and studying architecture.”
Rahel Shawl was born the middle child among five in Addis Ababa. She started her schooling in German school, and then went on to Nazareth School to complete her middle and high school studies. Rahel joined Addis Ababa University and took an architecture entrance exam at the end of her first semester in Arat Kilo Science Campus. She was one of the 23 out of around 320 students who passed the entrance exam and were subsequently accepted at the Addis Ababa University, Southern Campus, known at that time as The Building College. Although by that time, she like all her siblings, had her I-20 visa to study abroad, she managed to convince her parents to let her finish her studies at Addis Ababa University. Rahel received Bachelor of Science in Architecture and Town Planning from Addis Ababa University in 1991 and later a Diploma in Advanced Environmental Studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Loeb Fellowship in 2017. Upon graduating from the Addis Ababa University School of Architecture, one of her design instructors and mentor asked her if she was interested to work with him and the team on a design project of a church and Theology College to be constructed in Addis Ababa. As the church project was not able to pay much, she complemented her income by making jewellery with leather, beads and other materials while working as a junior architect.
Rahel now has more than 26 years of architectural, interior and landscaping design and supervision experience in Ethiopia. Through the last years she has been the co-founder and founder of two architecture practices (Abba Architects and Raas Architects) and the co- founder of Equinox Property Development Company, achieving recognition for her works, both in international and national capacities. She is currently working as a Managing Director and Principal Architect at RAAS Architects Plc. in Addis Ababa.
What makes RAAS Architects different from similar practices is the value Rahel puts in the office being as a working and a knowledge building space for young architects. Rahel is recognized for always pushing boundaries of learning new and unknown standards in the design process, and is never satisfied with just producing work. She makes sure that everyone is invested in the project for producing works of excellence from the early process of design thinking to the realization of the project. “As Ethiopians, why are we for most parts settling for low quality in our buildings when throughout history we’ve proved we can do works of excellence?” she argues. That is her motive for pushing for excellence in both design and construction, as she believes that at this time of fast growth of our cities, architects have a big responsibility for positive leadership.
\”We are delegated with important work because it is in these spaces that architects build that individuals and societies can thrive to be creative and productive; otherwise we have failed an important task.\”
Rahel is also aware of the impact of her leadership on her team and their families, her designers, her contractors and her clients. Just like she is building landmarks through her architectural designs, she is hoping to build a nation by positively influencing the mindset of the youth in the fields of architecture. Together with her team, they have completed many building projects, both local and through international collaborations, where some of the works she has been involved in have been recognized both in local and in international platforms. The leadership style at RAAS Architects is participatory and horizontal involving all in decision-making, as Rahel believes in creating a space for creativity, growth and empowerment.
\”The quality of your leadership determines the quality of project you get at the end.\”
Rahel recounts many of the obstacles she faced throughout her career, particularly as being a woman in a leadership role. Even though Rahel has constantly proved herself through her works, she still experiences sexism from some of the male clients and colleagues. She’s always manoeuvring and preparing herself in situations where this becomes an issue like for example inviting her male colleagues to go with her while she is pitching for a project since their presence makes a big difference. By letting her male colleagues lead the discussion in the office instead of her when it is clear that the client prefers to discuss with a male figurehead. And sometimes by giving instructions to the male engineer on her site visit when the laborers wouldn’t take instruction from a woman.
“Being a woman is very difficult in this profession for many reasons but primarily because it is such a male dominated field and women end up having to work double to prove their worth. It is also physically demanding with long hours in the office and field works, which starts to be especially challenging as women start having families.”
She shares that the only way she was able to get the job done time and again was by simply proving herself through hard work and dedication both as an architect and as an entrepreneur. “This is it; just plain hard work, resilience and proving ourselves through constantly producing works of quality. It would not be possible if one just talked about being equal to the men without doing the work on the ground.” Her friendly, diplomatic and yet firm character has helped Rahel to influence rather than force issues through the complexities of the design and construction processes as she believes that good leadership is essential for the building project to be successful.
Throughout the years, Rahel became more aware that young women in architecture are looking to her for mentorship and guidance and feels responsible to share her story so others can learn from her journey. Although Rahel is accessible to most young architect students and emerging professionals both male and female alike, she has a special interest in empowering women, as they are more likely to lose their place in the forefront of the architecture profession. She invites young women to her office; takes them as interns and speaks to them in universities and high schools to inspire and empower them whenever the opportunity arises. In universities and at workplaces, female architects are often told that they will not amount to much as they will be leaving the profession to have children and raise a family. They’re even asked during job interviews if they’re involved in a romantic relationship or plan to start a family. “Who would understand what women go through better than women? So, that is why I do this apart from the conviction that women have an important role to play in our society through architecture” says Rahel.
Rahel herself has been married for over 19 years to her best friend from architecture school and together they have two children. Rahel is grateful for her family and friends and particularly for her husband whose support has been priceless to her especially in this line of work. In spite of her busy career life, Rahel is very close with her children and highly involved in their life. “I believe that it’s not just how much time I spend with my family that is important but rather the quality of time,” she stresses. Rahel believes that constant balance in all aspect of life enables a woman to thrive. At her office, she keeps working at how she can create the space to allow her female employees to have balance and flexibility.
Beyond her contribution to the architectural community, Rahel has throughout her life also been involved in community service. When she was in university, she had observed that some students drop out of school because of financial reasons and to support their families by working instead of going to school. She strongly believed that to help educate young people would be a sustainable solution in which they are enabled to help their families. Therefore, she collaborated with a church group who were supporting people in need and set up a small scholarship fund by collecting money from her friends. The church helped identify students who earned good grades in high school but due to financial problems had to work to support their poor families. She and her friends started with 2 students and gradually grew to up to 7 kids at a time. “It was simple, really” says Rahel. “We are privileged in so many ways and I have plenty of friends here and abroad who were eager to contribute monthly for these young students. Just a mere 450 Birr per month per family meant one person could go to higher education and change his/her life and that of their families”. Many have graduated from university using the scholarship fund with a couple even starting their own support work for helping and paying to support young students. Rahel recalls that eventually, one of these students opened his own organization where he helps disadvantaged students.
Further on in her life, Rahel began her support to women through Gemini Trust, an NGO that supports disadvantaged mothers with twins, where Rahel was giving jewellery making trainings every Saturday for two years. After training them, she would give them jewellery designs which the women would make. Eventually, these items became one of the income sources to the women at Gemini Trust.
A recipient of many awards including a recent recognition as a finalist for the Dorfmann Award at the Royal Academy of Arts, Rahel shares how she’s so happy about her choice to stay and work in Ethiopia, despite the enticing opportunities available if she left. The contribution she’s making in her community, persevering through all the negativities and influencing many people while building projects is keeping her grounded and content.
“We need to be proud of who we are, which enables us to know our self-worth. Once we know our self- worth, no one can pull us down and we can get through anything. So, let’s have a sense of peaceful identity.”