Note: Kendall College of Art and Design was founded in 1928 in Grand Rapids, MI, by Helen Kendall, widow of David Wolcott Kendall, who was known as the dean of American furniture designers. In celebration of its 75th anniversary, and in honor of the vision of Helen Kendall, the college has presented a lecture and discussion series entitled "Gender and Leadership." The following article is adapted from a speech given by the author as part of that series.
Many years ago, I had the opportunity to spend time in Mexico with several Mexican architects visiting architectural sites that spanned several centuries. During that trip, I saw the work of Luis Barragan, now a world-renowned icon, but still undiscovered at that time. I remember my own reaction to Barragan's work. It was exquisite. It captured the time and the place, the texture and contents of its surroundings. It was, in a word, poetry. When I returned to the United States, I had a different perspective on abilities and talent and excellence in architecture. I had always believed that the best new work could only be found in the U.S., and here was the most beautiful building, a world class building, in what was called a third-world country.
Talent and success are self-evident, no matter the culture, the race, the gender; excellence is excellence no matter the source. I had a profound insight: we must examine our own perceptions and expectations of bias—gender bias or any other. In developing my own career and opportunities for leadership, I have looked for ways to showcase my skills and talents, as well as doing something good for my community and beyond. Because I practice my profession in my community, I owe it that. This path of endeavor has served me well in creating credibility and leadership opportunities that are not judged on gender, but on accomplishments.
My personal philosophy for dealing with any bias, whether it be gender, race, cultural, social or otherwise, is to acknowledge that it does exist and then move on. Don't allow it to define you or limit your opportunities or stand in the way of your success. Accepting gender bias as one more obstacle or challenge one must face in order to succeed empowers one to focus on those qualities one possesses that cannot be evaluated on gender or any other bias. If we focus on sharing our talents, skills and resources for the enhancement of the quality of life, we can break through any barriers that gender bias—or any other prejudice—presents.
Challenges and Opportunities
I have an older and a younger brother. As children, my older brother and I played a lot of games, and we were very competitive. These were my first challenges in learning how to maneuver and cope in a male-dominated world. I learned that to win at physical games I had to use mental strategies. I learned to make slow moves when the boys expected fast ones; I learned to overcome my physical limitations with mental strategy. I learned that imagination and creativity were just as powerful as my older brother's experience and knowledge.
When I was a young married woman, it became my dream to be an architect and own my own firm. Since I was a wife and mother, and no architecture school was close enough to my home, I took engineering and drafting courses at a local community college. Through this experience I gained employment at a well-known local architect's office. That was my first experience in real architecture and what it meant. They were impressed with my ability, my tenacity and my willingness to go beyond my job description, stay late and come in early. I just knew that I would be an architect one day. I knew that everything I learned and every challenge I overcame would prepare me for my ultimate dream of owning my own architectural firm.
We moved several times due to my husband's career, which made it difficult for me to finish my education in architecture. Yet in every new city, I enrolled in night school and took whatever courses were available. I became licensed as a realtor, a pilot and a general contractor.
Then we moved to a new city where I studied interior design and fine arts. While taking classes I interned in one of the largest architectural and interior design firms in Charlotte, NC: Gant Huberman Associates. That was a wonderful experience for me, because Gant Huberman is a minority architectural firm. Harvey Gant is the first black architect to graduate from Clemson University, and he was also the first black mayor of Charlotte. When I was there, I never experienced any gender bias in that firm. However, in the broader world, I certainly did.
Confrontation and Common Ground
One of my first negative experiences was with a contractor on a building project of mine. He could not believe that I had the audacity, as a woman, to tell him that his work did not meet our specifications in either material or detail, and that he would have to remove and replace it. However, I explained to him that we were both really in the same position, working together as a team to benefit the client and to give them the very best project that we could. After that, we became very good friends, and we have worked together over the years on many projects. So one thing I learned was to be honest and take your complaints directly to the person with whom you have an issue, and generally you can work it out.
A building inspector decided that there was going to be a different set of rules for me than for the male architects and developers that worked in our area. I confronted him, and he decided that he was not going to change and that things were going to continue just the way they were. So I went to his superiors, but only after I discussed the matter with him. He finally relented and we now have a very fair evaluation of plans and processes in our city, and I continue to maintain a professional relationship with this person today.
I must say that I've had a wonderful experience in the field of architecture, a profession that has only about eight percent practicing females in the U.S. On the whole, my employers and colleagues have judged me on my accomplishments rather than my gender, and we have worked out our disagreements professionally. I think that sometimes our differences are gender-based and not gender-biased. We have very different perspectives from which we assess a situation. That doesn't mean that either of us is wrong; we're just simply looking at a problem from very different viewpoints. There's a great book about that, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. It focuses on personal relationships, but there are many insights in that book that have been very helpful to me.
Knowledge, Money and Connections
In 1981, I took a leave from Gant Huberman to pursue my architectural education. In the following years I won two national design awards, had a project featured on the cover of House Beautiful, and endured the failure of my marriage.
I determined that this was as good a time as any to prepare for my dream of having my own architectural firm; however, a couple of small details stood in the way: I didn't have any experience in accounting or business management, and I didn't have any money. So I started by enrolling in business management classes and taking seminars on accounting principles.
Then I went into business with my younger brother, Allen Kirks, marketing a software package he had developed. He said, "I know you don't know anything about software or computers, but if you're willing to learn something new, I'll give you the opportunity and I'll split the profits with you." I immediately read everything I could find on the art of negotiating. I quickly realized that women are natural negotiators. One of the critical attributes of negotiation in business in general and particularly in negotiating is listening deeply, internalizing what someone said and reflecting on it before responding. It can be the difference between success and failure.
I stayed with my brother from 1987 until 1992. With my exit nest egg, I could finally make my dream of becoming an architect and having my own firm a reality.
During the period of those four or five years that I worked with my brother, I had not laid aside my dream of becoming an architect. I had already finished my architectural education. I had done my internship and I had finally qualified to sit for the architectural boards. I became registered in 1989. And I remarried. My husband, Henry, is a contractor and developer.
During my tenure with my brother's firm, Henry and I started to buy underutilized residential and commercial property in local historic districts. I worked out the restoration designs and my husband handled all the construction.
Over the following decade, we allowed the Historic Salisbury Foundation and other non-profits to use these buildings for fundraisers. These events became very successful for these groups and they also benefited me. They let me demonstrate my design ability at a time when I didn't have any paid projects in my portfolio. So this was my way of helping the community and also providing myself with some tangible examples of what I was capable of, and it actually did lead to my first architectural contract, a church renovation.
I did all this work from my studio on my dining room table, using a contract draftsperson. The next year I acquired a small office in a historic building, and I hired my first employee, Jeff Sowers, who is now vice president of my firm.
In 1995, my son graduated from college and became a CPA. I decided that it was time for me to return to school as well. I had learned about a program at the College of Architecture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte that had a masters program geared for practicing professionals. They only selected eight students for the program depending on their skills and professional experience. We had to commit to several semesters of travel abroad and additional trips across the U.S. to study how towns and cities have rewoven the torn fabric of neighborhoods, reinvented blighted commercial corridors and cleaned up contaminated industrial sites. I did my graduate thesis project on two towns: Telc, in southern Austria, and Cesky Krumlov in southern Czechoslovakia.
What struck me about these 1,100-year-old towns was that they were still relevant and very vibrant. The leadership of those cities understood the value of conserving the past while meeting the future. They had simply reinvented the use of existing buildings over the centuries to accommodate the current technology and functional requirements to mitigate obsolescence.
When I asked an American interpreter who was married to a Czech woman why he had stayed in Czechoslovakia instead of bringing her home to America, he said that in their society, the perspective on community and the legacy left for future generations is at the foremost. He said that the project he personally was working on now, his wife's family estate, which was in bad disrepair, would probably not be completed in his lifetime—rather, it would be completed either by his children or his grandchildren. In short, it is normal for people there to think about what they were going to leave for the future.
This experience contributed greatly to my focus and my firm's focus on environmentally sensitive development and redevelopment. Preservation and adaptation of our existing buildings stock is the ultimate in recycling. This is the foundation on which I built my firm's focus of environmentally responsible architecture. Architecture that preserves the old, adapts the obsolete, cleans up the contaminated and designs the new with the perspective of long-term effects on place and community, region and, ultimately, on our earth.
From that starting point, my firm has grown. We now have designed medical offices and churches, done institutional and municipal work, commercial work and, most recently, designed the Center for the Environment, an extremely environmentally sensitive building on the campus of Catawba College here in Salisbury.
As the firm was expanding, and while I was pursuing my masters degree, I had identified an area near downtown that was dilapidated and had homeless men sleeping in the alleys. I needed new office spaces because we had outgrown our space, so I put in a bid on a solid 1900's building that needed work. With some difficulty I convinced my husband and my banker to go along. I determined that if we bought this building, renovated it and invested in the area, we could act as a catalyst for other developers to join in renovating the area. Subsequently, we renovated two other façades for other building owners on our street with the city's façade grant program. The renewal effort was on its way.
While I was in graduate school, our design studio did a study on an eight-block area surrounding this block, and I did a master plan for the block on which my building sits. Included was the concept of Easy Street, a street that was a public alley in the 1920s. I felt that it should be reconstructed and that the buildings should be restored and public gathering space should be included. All of this is a reality today. Within five years, $20 million has been spent on construction in these adjacent three blocks. Our neighbors now include the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce Building, a new structure designed by another architect; the F&M, a prosperous locally-owned bank; the Waterworks Visual Art Center; a trolley barn; and a new seven-unit office condominium. There were many other architects and developers involved in this project, but the end result is that our city now has a beautifully reinvented eight-block area where the county had originally proposed demolishing all the buildings and creating a giant parking lot.
Growing Through Community
All the while, I have continued to work on boards and committees to try to make a difference in our city. I have had the privilege to serve as president of many organizations. I was president of the American Institute of Architects chapter in Charlotte and a director on its board, among other positions. One of my most exciting and rewarding projects was working on the Salisbury Community Development Corporation for which I designed pro bono the affordable housing for a small neighborhood. My greatest reward was seeing the beaming faces of the young, single women and men with small children receiving their first opportunity to have a home of their own—people who had grown up in public housing projects.
My notoriety as an individual or as a firm comes not from me, but how my firm and I serve our community and our clients. My staff is very talented and they are also very committed. In fact, we have a requirement in the office that everyone must serve on some community board or non-profit organization that contributes to the betterment of the community. They are leaders in training.
We do not have a formal brochure or any kind of advertising budget in our office. Instead, we allocate 10 percent of our profits every year to fund various non-profits. Among these are the Piedmont Players (we have funded a production of "The Miracle Worker"), the Historic Salisbury Foundation, the Rowan Blues and Jazz Society, the Salisbury-Rowan Symphony, the Waterworks Visual Arts Center, three private colleges, the Rowan Arts Council and Salisbury Parks and Recreation Department. Each year we focus on a different group of non-profits.
What I've realized over my career and life to this point is that leadership is really an ongoing process. Each lesson that I've learned, every piece of new knowledge that I've acquired, each new challenge is there to help me serve my clients. Beyond that, serving my community, in order to enhance the quality of life for all of us, providing opportunities for growth and increased responsibilities for my colleagues and my staff will provide a legacy for our firm. Helping to develop people's leadership potential increases the influence we can have on the future of our communities.
As I reflect on the experiences and events that have shaped my life and given me opportunities to lead, I acknowledge that I, like many others, have certainly encountered gender stereotyping. However, I also realize that many other obstacles and challenges must be overcome, sometimes on a daily basis. Many of the other challenges I have faced were just as difficult and disconcerting as gender stereotyping. Most of the professions I've pursued over my career have been male dominated. It became a given to me that gender bias would be a factor, so I simply acknowledged it and set it aside. I just didn't focus on its existence. That enabled me to focus on overcoming the other obstacles that face anyone, man or woman, white or black, native-born or immigrant. Anyone who has a dream and the ambition and drive to succeed will face obstacles.
Another factor that contributed to my opportunity to lead was the series of choices that led me from one opportunity to work with my community to the next. There was a common thread that ran through all my activities—a commitment to investing my time, energy and resources to improve the quality of life in the community in which I live and work.
I have realized that things, individuals and institutions are connected in an ever-increasing, intricate web. The sum of all our contributions through these connections is much greater and more powerful than any one of us can achieve as an individual. So I challenge you today to get connected and change the world by contributing your creativity to your community. It worked for Helen Kendall, the founder of Kendall College, three quarters of a century ago, and it continues to work for leaders and cities across the nation and throughout the world today.
Karen K. Alexander, AIA, is an architect, realtor and developer and the founder of KKA Architecture in Salisbury, NC. She is a recipient of the 1998 Gertrude S. Carraway Award from North Carolina Preservation for a body of historic preservation projects over the last decade in Salisbury. Her projects have been published in numerous national magazines, including Better Homes and Gardens and a cover story in House Beautiful. She holds a Masters of Architecture from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.