Diversity is the Fuel of Innovation
Recently, I reread an article by Deborah Berke, an architect, Yale University professor, and the first female dean of the Yale School of Architecture, that made me start thinking about my experience with diversity. As an employee-owner of DLR Group, I deeply value one of the hallmarks of our culture: The opportunity for professional growth. I believe that professional growth cannot happen in a vacuum but must occur within richly diverse experiences. Six years ago, I relocated from Colorado Springs to Seattle to lead the firm's Justice + Civic Studio in the Pacific Northwest. In that time, I’ve seen a studio of three grow to more than 20 professionals.
While I would love to take credit for this phenomenal growth, a combination of good fortune combined with diversity of skills, opportunities, and life experiences had more to do with that growth than I could have produced on my own. Good fortune ironically came from an unexpected place—the economic crash in 2008. By 2010, the economy had bottomed out, and our industry was poised for growth in the public market due to pent-up demand. That’s where the fuel of diversity began to move our team forward.
A team of professionals with diverse skills makes for a powerful team, harnessed together and pulling toward one purpose of innovative design solutions. In our integrated studios, those diverse skills span from programming, planning, architecture, engineering, and design to project management, construction administration, and a host of other support specialties. Couple that with seasoned knowledge of multiple building types and delivery methods, and suddenly there is unique synergy that pools strong collective wisdom. True success and energy came from the inherent diversity these individuals brought to the studio.
Do you remember the 1964 animated classic, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer? In it, a band of diverse, misfit toys without a home helped save Christmas. This is what our Justice + Civic studio felt like—a workplace designer here, a K-12 architect there, an engineer with project manager tendencies, a few strategic hires, and several young, talented professionals who didn't know any better. This was a recipe to turn what is typically a homogeneous industry into something truly special. I like the way Malcolm Forbes describes diversity as “the art of thinking independently together.” We moved past a my-way-or-the-highway mentality as we learned to appreciate what and how everyone uniquely contributes to a more holistic, well-rounded conclusion.
Diverse Life Experiences
In 2010, I became the fourth member of the burgeoning Justice + Civic studio in Seattle, composed of 75 percent women and minorities with backgrounds from the big city of Boston, rural Wyoming, and international experience in Glasgow. Diversity is the catalyst of innovation, and innovation is born from understanding through extensive past experience along with adding a unique perspective and will to test something new. Innovation comes when we willingly look at the problem through a different lens, through that of teammates with different viewpoints looking at the same problem.
As a Hispanic engineer from the least populous state in the country, leading to one of the largest Justice + Civic architectural practices in the country, I am a proud member of a growing brigade of misfit toys, and I would not have it any other way.