Gabrielle, whose career spans nearly 30 years, was the first African-American and the first woman to become managing director of Perkins+Will’s Los Angeles office. Photo courtesy Perkins+Will
Two years ago, when Thornton Tomasetti was launching its inclusion and diversity efforts, I had the opportunity to meet Gabrielle Bullock, Los Angeles-based principal and director of global diversity at Perkins+Will. Being an award-winning architect and leader of the firm’s Diversity, Inclusion and Engagement program has enabled her to effect positive change in wide-reaching and unique ways. Regularly sought out for her leadership and expertise in social equity, her work serves as a transformative model for the AEC industry.
As we celebrate Global Diversity Awareness Month in October, we honor Gabrielle and her achievements. In a recent conversation, she shared some of her thoughts, experiences and successes on promoting diversity at Perkins+Will and in the AEC industry.
How has Perkins+Will’s Diversity, Inclusion and Engagement program made a difference to the firm’s success and culture?
Incorporating diversity into our culture has been very successful, especially since the program is part of our strategic plan. Our studios and many individuals around the firm are making the effort to create and implement initiatives around diversity, inclusion and equity on their own. While we still have progress to make, we are gradually getting there. It is quite pleasing when I look at the report cards that we do annually to evaluate our progress across the six areas that we focus on and see that we’re doing so well. In terms of commercial success, we have actually won projects—significant ones, too—because of our philosophy around work and inclusion and representing the clients and communities that we serve.
One of these projects is Destination Crenshaw, which is an outdoor street museum in Los Angeles in the center of the black community. For the first time in my career, I now have a client that looks like me, and I can’t tell you how proud I am to really be of the community and for the community. It may sound kind of like motherhood and apple pie, but it’s been such a rarity in my career to have a diverse client. We also won a major healthcare project that has diversity and inclusion as a top priority. The interview process required experience with inclusion and diversity. It was fortunate that we did not have to scramble and create a statement or a philosophy, since we were already engaging in the D+I conversation. We won another project, because the L.A. Times featured me and Perkins+Will’s program. These projects have one thing in common, which is that they all focus on the local community. While these projects may not necessarily be iconic, one-off buildings, they are focused on the communities that they serve. I think the AEC industry should recognize and believe that diversity, inclusion and equity are permeating our clients, our projects, our teams and our offices, so the quicker that we can embrace it and connect to it, the better and more relevant we will all be as a profession.
How do you measure your progress?
Each of our studios develops a strategic action plan on an annual basis around six areas based on three overarching goals: One, to build and foster a culture of diversity, inclusion and engagement. Two, to build a pipeline for the future to increase the underrepresented groups within the profession. And three, to impact the industry overall. The first category is Recruitment and Retention. In general, people tend to hire who they know, which means they tend to hire the same kind of people. If we weren’t demographically diverse five years ago, and we’re still recruiting from the same pool, then most likely the increase in diversity is not going to happen. We look at how we recruit, where we recruit, and who does the recruiting. The second category is Learning and Development, specifically toward diversity and inclusion, and that would include the training workshops that we do and any other internal, locally focused learning and development. The third category is Culture of Diversity. Are the leaders of our different practices talking about it, embracing it and advocating for it? What activities are you doing to ensure a culture of diversity and inclusion in your office? Category four is Outreach, and that speaks to the pipeline, both at elementary and middle schools as well as higher education.
One example is that Perkins+Will has a visiting scholar program at Tuskegee University, a historically black college (HBCU). Last year, we sent our L.A. studio’s design director, Nick Seierup, to spend three weeks working with the university’s design studio. This effort enables the students to gain an understanding of a large architecture and design firm and to expose them to the opportunities that large firms can offer. Typically, large firms don’t hire or recruit from historically black colleges and universities, but we have made a commitment to do so. The fifth category is Leadership Commitment. Similar to the Culture of Diversity category, this revolves around internal leadership and advocacy. Are the office leaders and middle management embracing it proactively, addressing issues quickly, and providing opportunities? The last category is Work-life Integration, which focuses on work-life balance and can be difficult to achieve. Work-life integration was an important consideration across the firm, so we spent the first couple of years reinforcing our philosophy. We have become more flexible, enabling people to work remotely. We even put this in our strategic plan to ensure that our philosophy on flexibility was being carried out in every studio.
Each studio creates its own strategic plan for what it’s going to focus on in the coming year. We send the studios a progress tracker report with the six categories, and they fill it in describing what they have done and whether it has been successful, using a scale from one to five. One is “You haven’t done anything,” and five is the most impactful. We then issue a report, which includes these report cards for each office, a one-pager highlighting recommendations, and best practices along with the numerical score. This information is then assembled in an annual report along with our demographics and is used as a guide for business planning efforts for the next year. Having diversity, inclusion and equity as one of the business planning metrics is crucial for our success.
What can the AEC industry do to promote and increase diversity, inclusion and equity?
The AIA has finally stepped it up, and I think that creating the Equity in Architecture Commission was also a huge step forward. However, until AEC firms make a commitment, putting a stake in the ground by showing that they are devoted to these values, it’s just going to be another side topic. I am encouraged and optimistic that more and more firms are addressing it, or are trying to address and learn about it. It is sometimes challenging to keep the momentum going, but the key is to take it one step at a time, and just do something!
Does Perkins+Will look for partners and collaborators that are also engaged in this dialogue when selecting consultants for project teams?
We are planning to focus on this more in the near future and to communicate to our partners that this is important to us. It would be great if we could get the engineering community to embrace inclusion and diversity. I am pleased that Thornton Tomasetti is doing this, because I think that you could lead the way.
How has the industry changed since you started in your career?
There are more women, and there are more people of color; still not enough, but increasing. I couldn’t talk about this when I first started out 30-some-odd years ago. Over the course of my career, I realized, like many people have, that it doesn’t have to be this way. I think that once that happened, I looked at the profession differently. I used to be in awe of being an architect and was not always certain that I was qualified because I didn’t see people that looked like me in the studio, or as clients. Being the only one in the room can have a traumatic effect on an individual. It can deter people from staying in the profession.
What advice would you give to a firm undertaking a diversity initiative?
Inclusion and diversity training is critically important. The commitment must come from the top initially, particularly at large firms like ours, and whatever program is developed must be deliberate and ongoing. The commitment to inclusion and diversity has to be the same as the commitment to design excellence and the commitment to sustainability in order for it to become part of the firm’s culture. I would also suggest that each office have representatives or a structure that engages as many people as possible. At Perkins+Will, our studios assign a diversity champion who is responsible for shepherding the effort at the local level and who fills out the report card. Our program goes from the firm-wide executive leadership level all the way down to the local studio level. I am very pleased at how successful our program has been and how it has been embraced by my colleagues and the firm. I am very encouraged and hopeful that the AEC industry will continue to make strides for inclusion, diversity and equity.
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