On Equity and Architecture with Carole Wedge

With sense of humor and acute remarks, Carole Wedge shared with us her unique entry into the architecture world. Carole Wedge, FAIA, LEED AP, is President of Shepley Bulfinch, a national design firm with offices in Boston, Houston, and Phoenix. Over the past decade, she has led Shepley Bulfinch's transformation and growth with an emphasis on the creation of an open culture and frank and committed work environment. As an architect she has focused on the convergence of learning and teaching and research environments, with a long-standing commitment to sustainable design. A leader and mentor, Carole is committed to making the architectural profession relevant to future generations. She is an advocate for diversity in the profession and is active in Equity By Design. In 2011 Shepley Bulfinch was one of three firms honored by the American Institute of Architects' Diversity Recognition Program. Take a look at Carole's advice.


How did you get into architecture?

Carole Wedge, President of Shepley Bulfinch

Carole Wedge, President of Shepley Bulfinch

I graduated from college and took out a student loan to travel to Europe to see the architecture I had studied in school. When I returned home, we were in a recession. I moved back to my parents in New Jersey and started going on interviews with my portfolio. I thought I would have a job in no time, but all the firms were laying people off. I distinctly remember the day I interviewed at SOM, the company let 300 employees go. Person after person kept leaving the building carrying a cardboard box of their belongings with T squares sticking out of the top. I ended up working on Wall Street in an entry position in trusts and estates, obtained my broker’s license and learned a lot about money. I was there for three years when I started to think about going back to school for architecture. I came to the BAC because I liked the idea that I could work and go to school at the same time. I started at Shepley Bulfinch with a job in the mail room. I ran prints and opened the mail. In the 80s, everything happened in the mail room. I was there for the first fax machine and the first email address. It was fantastic. I met everyone in the firm, and I knew all the principals. Eventually, I started working on library projects, collaborating with many different people: staff members, users and faculty – and it became obvious that I liked working with people and was good at it. I quickly learned I could facilitate groups making decisions, and I think that is what steered me towards a leadership path inside and outside of the firm.

How did you become a President at Shepley Bulfinch?

In the early 1980s, there was a wave of institutions adopting equal opportunity policies. It was a federal and state requirement, and people had to start tracking what they were doing. My career at Shepley Bulfinch started in ’86, the same era as Title IX, which was about equality and eradicating gender disparity. Many of our clients – then universities and non-profit hospitals linked to universities – were passing diversity policies, saying equal opportunity was a part of who they were. Our owners, principals and leaders started paying attention to our changing clients.

When I joined Shepley Bulfinch, there was only one woman principal, and I thought that was a good sign because many firms had none. I don’t know if I decided I wanted to be a principal then, but I wanted to work somewhere that was diverse. Fourteen years later, I was the next woman principal, and it is kind of strange that it took that long. Some of the barriers were: could you travel enough; were you committed enough; as well as, do you look like me, think like me, did we go to the same school, and so on. I think all professions have struggled with unconscious bias in succession planning. It is easy and comfortable for leaders to promote someone like themselves to take over their firm. It takes more insightful people to imagine new kinds of leadership and focus on abilities and performance, not personal similarities.

We were lucky at Shepley Bulfinch. Around the mid-90s, the firm took a stance on the importance of diversity. Our HR Director, Jessica Smith, was very committed and open-minded. She brought different people to the table, who went to different schools, had different life experiences and had diverse academic backgrounds. This further empowered many of the firm’s like-minded principals, and we reorganized in 2000. We created a smaller board and a more strategic firm. In 2004, I was asked if I would be President. For the last 13 years, my design project has been Shepley Bulfinch, as much as staying close to clients and projects. I still love working with clients and still love seeing buildings get built.

What motivated you when you were young?

I always loved projects and creating things so design was an inspiration for me from the beginning. The family legend I grew up with was that both my mothers’ grandmothers raised their families as single parents. Their husbands died in their 20s, and they each raised eight children.  One ran a business and supported her family. She never married again and was the matriarch that ran a butcher store at the turn of the century. The thinking in our family was that of course women can do that!  The same thing was true on my dad’s family’s side. They were poor, working-class folks, and everyone had to work. I have reflected on these family stories, and there is something in that history that sticks with you about what is possible. 

What have you learned from working on some of your favorite projects?

The Marquand Library at Princeton University is very special to me. I was a young principal, I got to lead the project and developed great relationships with the people working at Princeton. There was another wonderful project at Cornell, an underground library, that I worked on where the Library Director took me under his wing. I was about the same age as his daughters, and he said, “I’ll teach you what libraries are about.” Probably the best advice I received from a mentor was “when you make friends within your clients, keep those relationships alive.” Your peers and friends on the client’s side will advance in their careers just like you. Another mentor said, “Pay attention to the smart people you meet and keep in touch with them.” You build a network over the course of your career and it is that network that helps you grow professionally.

What changes in the architecture field have you observed?

I have seen firms, projects and clients become more complex – just because of the sheer number of people involved in the process. I have seen technologies transform our world – from communication to 3d modeling to VR walkthroughs. And I have seen organizations begin to understand the power of diverse collaborative teams in design. I think the next wave will combine empathy, data and radically rethinking how organizations work. We have so many hold over behaviors from earlier times and earlier processes that there is incredible opportunity to reinvent our organizations, culture and design firms.

What changes do you see in leadership within the design profession?

One thing I keep saying is, “This is our firm; we get to change it.” As design leaders, let’s not assume firms, their structures and their patterns are fixed. Instead, let’s be observant and ask ourselves, “I know we have done it this way for a long time, but should we look at it again?” It’s interesting to see the doors that the more progressive men have opened for women in this field and then find out their personal story – what does their wife, daughter or mother do? How has their personal experience led them to believe in a variety of paths to success? I see the current generation more willing to do the work to increase the racial diversity in the profession. We need to reach into the schools and help children of all backgrounds understand how exciting and fulfilling a career in design can be. 

What do you think is an important role of a good leader?

To be that encouraging and empowering force. You don’t have to sugar coat it, but I do think you have to take seriously your ability to have an influence on people. Every professional has the story of the person who encouraged them, who pushed them a little bit and who positioned them. I had many mentors who helped me navigate, were good resources and helped me think about my career.

What are some challenging situations you have experienced?

The most challenging times are when you experience something that doesn’t align with your values. When a client is sexist, inappropriate or doesn’t like a certain employee for a reason that you sense is narrow-minded, that is challenging. As a leader, it is more important for me to help the client understand what each person brings to the table. Clients come in all stripes – demanding, easygoing, opinionated – and they often make split-second decisions based on first impressions. For me, the best way to handle these challenges is to simply start the conversation and expand the dialogue. Don’t be a bystander; your power is your voice. And if not you, who?

What could we do better to prevent such situations from happening?

Prepare for the difficult situation; think about how you might handle the challenge. I have been kicking around the idea of a mentoring workshop around the difficult conversations. I’ve been taken aback by a couple experiences this year, and had to ask myself, “Really? This kind of sexism/racism in 2017?!”  What if we did a workshop where you give people different scenarios and role play how you could handle it and share our best ideas. I don’t think we role play enough, I’m not sure we prepare ourselves or our colleagues for what to do when we experience something that is not acceptable. Because of this, we are often taken aback and not always prepared to address issues when they happen. 

What is your position on equity in the design field today?

Many people under 35 would say, “Oh, our generation doesn’t really see barriers between people; we have always been inclusive.” That is great, except that racism and sexism still exist in our society. That is great that inclusivity is your construct, but don’t be a bystander when you experience something that challenges inclusion. I went to a conference recently and what I took away is that you can have the greatest impact on diversity and inclusion by hiring project managers (leaders) who believe in it. The fastest way to get the ball rolling is by hiring other people that have that already have an inclusive, equitable philosophy about their life. Then they create those equitable integrated teams who can do great things together. 

What are some things you have learned about women in architecture?

I think my generation was trying to get away from women’s issues. The first AIA meeting that I went to, there was a woman in architecture who talked about work-life balance. My thought was, I don’t want to talk about this anymore. I wanted to talk about design. I always felt that you should ask for what you need, and if your company denies you -  tell them goodbye because it’s not the right fit. I think a lot of women were working in places that were not flexible. At the same time, I’m not sure they felt solid enough about themselves to say anything or hold true to their own values. I would love if they would say, “Well then, I do not want to work here because you do not share my values.” Today the conversation is much more robust. It is about design, opportunities, business management and finding mentors to learn from. The Women’s Leadership Summit that we started in Boston with AIA has led to a powerful network of professionals who are ambitious and want to lead the design profession. 

Any tips for emerging professionals?

If you don’t ask, you don’t get. No one is sitting at home worrying about you. But, if you ask, they are perfectly willing to help. Everyone thinks there is some magic combination of what you do to advance your career, and the answer is simple – keep working on your career -  it is really a lifelong project, try different things, keep learning, and make sure you truly enjoy what you do.   Have the authenticity to be yourself, do the work and do it well. The world is not completely fair. Do something you are uncomfortable with. You are not supposed to be comfortable all the time. You work and grow in different layers and it is up to you to find mentors along the way.

Your ambition is self-constructed. We make a big deal at Shepley that people are on a career pathway but it is really theirs to define. We are here to support it, embellish it, and understand it, but we can’t give you ambition. I can’t make you want it. A leader’s role is to open doors for people and give them opportunities – but I can’t make you walk through the door.

Get ready for when the baby boomers retire. Rehearse saying, “Yes, I will take on that assignment,” or “Yes, I want to be a Principal.” Sometimes women say, “I have to think about it.” Get ready to raise your hand and to say “Yes!”.