The Role of Mentors and Sponsors with Natasha Espada

Principal and founder of Studio ENÉE architects, Natasha Espada shared with us the importance of mentorship and sponsorship in her life. Natasha spent 20 years working for Leers Weinzapfel Associates on a diversity of award-winning projects before following her intuition and opening her own practice. She is an active member of AIA, Boston Society of Architects and Women in Design Principal's group. She is also an Adjunct Professor at Northeastern University and has co-authored a chapter for the 2014 AIA Manual of Professional Practice, focusing on national and local trends in office culture. Don't miss Natasha's words of wisdom!

How did you get to where you are, Founder and Principal at Studio EE?

Natasha Espada

Natasha Espada

Starting a firm was not my ambition. I was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in Miami, and I arrived in Boston after graduate school. My parents moved to Tokyo when I was in college and I spent any time away from school commuting to Tokyo. Through a graduate school connection, I was able to work for an Architect, Kazuyoshi Ishigura, during one summer in Tokyo. I studied and visited projects by Ando, Maki, Tange, Izozaki, and many other Japanese architects. Japanese architecture and culture has had a profound influence in my life and work.  I ended up in Boston because I had three cousins here in school and I wanted to work in a large city. By chance, I went to the BSA when they were having a portfolio review; Robert Silver from Schwartz Silver saw my portfolio and used it as an example. I gave him my resume and I worked with them on a competition for the summer. We were coming out of a recession and they didn’t have enough work to keep me on, so they called Andrea Leers and Jane Weinzapfel on my behalf. I started at Leers Weinzapfel Associates, Architects in 1993 and I was there until 2014. I was very fortunate to never know what it is like to be a woman in a male-dominated firm. I worked very hard and LWA gave me every opportunity I could imagine. I started as an intern, I became an Architect, then a Senior Architect, an Associate, a Senior Associate, and an Associate Principal. Once I had children, I worked part-time but I always managed to meet my deadlines and contributed to the administrative aspects of the firm. I am not convinced that work-life balance exists, but I was able to figure out how to have both.

One day, I woke up and realized that my kids were growing older and, although they did not need me as much as they did when they were younger, they needed me around for support. I wanted to have the flexibility to be closer to home to see what they were doing outside of school. At this time, I was also doing research on project teams, firm culture and award winning design for a chapter I co-wrote for the AIA Manual for Professional Practice. In a conversation with Billie Tsien, she mentioned that an architect’s career is very long, but your children are only around for a short amount of time and if you miss parts of their life, you can’t turn back time. This coincided with thinking about my career and where I was heading. I did a lot of research on firms and connected with a range of mentors. Each mentor had different strengths so depending upon my issues at the moment, I knew whom to reach out to. At that time, I had never really questioned my career as I felt that I had growth opportunities all along. This time, my heart told me that I needed to see what I could do on my own. It had nothing to do with my happiness at work; it was more about my personal journey. It took me 3 years to decide what would come next. Then came the day when I woke up and I knew that I was ready to start my own firm and to see where it would take me. I realized that it was a big risk to leave a very established award-winning firm. But it was a good time in my personal and professional life to try something new and my family was very supportive. I was assured that there was a future for me in the firm, but in my heart I thought, if I do not try it on my own, I will regret it. I took the plunge.

The first week that I left, I would call LWA and say “What are you working on?” I had been at LWA for over 20 years of my life - they were my colleagues and my family. They continue to be my mentors and I still call Andrea and Jane for advice. I don’t regret leaving the firm but I do miss the people. When I first started my firm, I quickly moved into an office space to try to create a firm culture similar to the culture I had left but with a new spin. Regarding work, I thought I would have to take 20 steps back because the type of work I was doing was so high profile - it takes a career to build those types of clients and projects. Surprisingly, I was able to reconnect with my clients and gather new clients who focused on the type of work I had been doing but on a smaller scale. We have a range of projects with several colleges and universities and public entities such as the City of Boston, BPDA, and Massport. In the end, I know I made the right decision. You never know how things will connect later in the future, but for now I am challenging myself in different ways. I am creating a practice that is nimble and it allows me to experiment with design at a different scale and in a different way. Starting a firm from scratch is really difficult but it has been very rewarding. I was fortunate that LWA had exposed me to every aspect of the business and it served me well when starting my firm. Being a well-rounded architect and understanding the financial and business aspects of the firm is very important. For me, running the business was not an issue; the issue was trying to find meaningful work. I had the best preparation and foundation as an architect and I knew that I would only make it to the next level if I used those tools wisely.

How did you find your mentors?

The good thing about working in a firm such as LWA (with highly respected people) is that they have a lot of connections. There are people who mentor you; you can talk to them about your concerns and receive advice. There are also people who sponsor you and say, “I am recommending this person for this particular role”.  I was in an unusual situation where Andrea Leers and Jane Weinzapfel have been both my mentors and sponsors. Outside of the office, Andrea invited me to her juries at the GSD and recommended groups and affiliations for involvement and Jane nominated me for a BSA elected committee. This led to being involved with Women in Design, which led to being a member of the Women’s Principals Group and an elected position on the BSA board. I feel it is important to have mentors that are more experienced than me, but I also have peer mentors, who are just as important. Several years ago, a former BSA President connected a small group of us who were in mid-career. We are a close-knit group. We support each other, but we also compete for work. They are colleagues to lean on during tough times and who celebrate your successes with admiration and respect.

Do you have a favorite project?

I do not have a favorite project. I feel like all of them have given back in different ways. They are all like my children - they all have different qualities. Some projects are more challenging than others. The best projects are the ones that are unexpected. The ones that seem to be the most successful are the ones with the most challenges because they force you to think outside of the box.

What motivates you?

Finding opportunities to create interesting and creative projects and to continue to grow intellectually and professionally. I am motivated by having the opportunity to create impact in cities, communities, and campuses - to create good space and architecture and to contribute and give back to my profession. I am always thinking and questioning where we are and where we are going - what kind of projects do we want to do and how do we want to push ourselves to be better? It is a feeling inside that you want to explore and find new things - find opportunities in tangible or intangible things and question things all the time. I am also inspired by beautiful art and architecture.

If there is any policy in the design field that you would like to change, what would it be?

Having a flexible working environment and encouraging and allowing employees to have time to develop their interests and strengths. This will make your practice more productive and more diverse. It will also encourage emerging and mid-career professionals to be inspired and remain in the profession. I also believe all employees need to be exposed to every aspect of the firm. It will give them the experience to understand how decisions are made comprehensively throughout a project. Even if later on in their career they only focus on the part they are most interested in, they will need to develop many skills in order to be a well-rounded architect. And not only well-rounded at work, but also as an individual. I believe that in order to be a successful architect, you need to have interests outside of architecture. For example, traveling, reading, an interest in music, or whatever makes you unique to the situation brings other layers of ideas into the creative process and your work. These interests will inform your design in different ways. No one wants to hear you talk only about architecture - they want to hear you talk about your ideas, your, philosophy, your life, and how it all intertwines. That is how you link into other people and you start to create change in promoting the value of design and architecture.

What is your position on women in the architecture field?

I am Latina and a woman so I cover a couple of bases. I feel a responsibility to mentor young women to help them define their passion and to give them the confidence and support in finding leadership opportunities in their field. This begins at an early age. For 5 years, I was the co-leader of a girl scout troop. My goal was to expose girls at an early age to the many possibilities available to them in the future.  For young women in architecture, I feel a responsibility to mentor them because their path in a firm is most likely not as traditional as it would be for a man. I find that as children, girls are not taught the same skills as boys. They are not usually exposed to manual labor, construction, and the built environment. I always encourage women to push themselves in learning the technical skills as well as design. Men seem to have a leg up on the technical aspects of architecture when they start working in a firm. However, if given the chance and encouraged to do construction administration, women learn fast and can achieve the same level of technical expertise as our male counterparts.

I also think that women need to “lean in” and learn how to be confident about presenting and communicating their ideas clearly. If you are not clear, you are not going to be heard. Part of the clarity is having the confidence to have the foundation of all the information behind you- in programming, concept, design, and construction. If you only focus on one aspect of your practice, you are not going to have the confidence to step it up in any situation and your credibility may be questioned.

Another important aspect is the need to include more men in the conversation about equity. If you do not invite them to the conversation, it is not going to progress. It needs to be a true partnership amongst all involved. When I first led the women in design exhibit at the BSA, women had to submit their work and compete with other women because they weren't being given the proper recognition within their firms. Several years later, we had to transform the exhibit because women were not submitting work; they had outgrown the original mission of the exhibit. In 2013, I curated an exhibit about women working in urban environments and I received positive feedback about the exhibit. Most of the positive feedback was from our male colleagues, who were inspired by the work from the women leaders exhibited. This year I attended the Women’s Leadership Summit (WLS) in DC. Carl Elefante, the 2018 AIA President, mentioned to me that if more men knew what he heard at the Women’s Leadership Summit this year, we would see a change.

What are your observations and advice to the emerging professionals?

Due to advances in technology, social media, and the early successes of emerging professionals in other industries, young professionals in architecture feel like anything is possible and they are in a rush for leadership. They want quick results because everything can be done with a click of a mouse. For me, architecture is about building in layers and processes. I encourage emerging professionals to give themselves time to develop a good foundation. If you are a prodigy and you have success early – you win your first design competition right out of school - you have a non-traditional path. For most of us, an architectural career takes time to develop. You need to give yourself a strong foundation as an intern because you don’t want to make unnecessary mistakes early in your career. This may discourage you and set you up for failure. Although you learn more from your failures than your successes, you do not want to be put in a situation where you are set to fail too quickly. You want to fail at things that are manageable so that you can get up, brush it off, and keep on going.  As an emerging professional, your goal is to learn in order to develop the experience to guide the future of your career. I am still learning every day and I do not expect to ever stop learning. Take your time, have ambition, but look for leadership opportunities that are appropriate at your level. You are going to do yourself a disservice if you are a Principal two years out of school and you are not prepared for it. Find mentors that will support and encourage you, but take your time and enjoy what you are doing as you will most likely have a long career. If you are a natural leader, leadership opportunities will present themselves.

It is also important to surround yourself with people who will support you as an individual and see you for the qualities that you bring into a situation. Push the critics aside as success comes in many forms. What makes you and your work important is that you bring your own personal perspective to it. If you hide behind what you think is your perspective, your work is not going to be meaningful and it will show. Don’t be afraid to fail, seek out mentors and sponsors, find your passion and your voice, collaborate with others, set high standards for your work, pay it forward, and you will find success.

Zhanina BoyadzhievaComment