A Worthy Charge

Mar 24, 2023

Women continue to face obstacles on the path to leadership. We asked seven accomplished alumnae what they learned on their journeys—and what ultimately shaped their success.

Women in Leadership collage
Image Caption
(Left to right, top row first): Lakisha Ann Woods, Susan A. Salsbury, Dr. Daina Penkiunas, Jessica Leonard, Willow Lung-Amam, Ebony Stocks and Allison Wilson.

There’s a statistic in the architecture world that Lakisha Woods thinks deserves more attention. It’s not related to community development, sustainable practice or green design—but rather, who’s doing it. Although 51% of architecture students are women, they comprise only 17% of all registered architects.

“When women and minorities leave school, so often we lose them,” said Woods, who is executive vice president and CEO of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). “What’s happening in between? I’m very focused on ensuring they know they have a place in practice—because we need them.”

Woods knows from experience what’s standing in their way. With a resume of leadership roles at some of the top organizations governing the built environment—including the National Institute of Building Sciences, where she was president and CEO until joining AIA in 2022—she has seen the role that office culture, unconscious bias and insufficient opportunity play in hampering a woman’s advancement and fortifying the glass ceiling. A 2022 survey by Dezeen found that women make up just one in five of all leadership roles among the top 100 U.S. architecture firms.

The persistent issues facing women have incited Woods to double down on AIA’s role in flipping the narrative, but also to write one of her own: leaning on the countless experiences of female colleagues and with the unflagging encouragement of her husband, Woods wrote the book, Never Get Their Coffee: Empowering Fearless Leadership over the pandemic, a call for a cultural shift and a catalyst for female empowerment in the profession.

“This isn’t something I just saw at the start of my career, this is still happening today,” said Woods. “Each woman I spoke with had a different story to tell.”

Woods discussed AIA’s efforts to support and empower women, create opportunities for underrepresented professionals and develop tools for equitable practice during a recent visit to UMD’s School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. During a talk with faculty, staff and students, she reflected on her past experiences but also shared the wisdom that shaped her success. 

“If you want to be seen as a leader, lead,” she said. “Recognize what your strengths are and build on them.”

In honor of Women’s History Month, we asked Woods and six other alumnae to reflect on their professional journey and the fearless, unapologetic and forward-thinking work that’s making history right now. Below, they share what they’ve learned in practice, how they’ve gracefully navigated obstacles, and the good advice and invaluable habits that helped along the way:

Lakisha Ann Woods (B.S. Business & Management ’97), EVP/CEO, American Institute of Architects

Surround yourself with smart people: “I have a variety of mentors that I turn to depending on the topic. We all need to have a network that helps us. Colleagues in the association community and long tenured CEOs have given me advice that has helped shape who I am and provided opportunities to excel when I was a brand-new CEO. I know that mentorship helped guide some of the decisions I made early on.”

Be the change: “Women must also champion other women. I find so often that the biggest factor in keeping a woman off the leadership team is the one woman already on the team who fought so hard to get there that she’s unknowingly pushing others from being able to share that table. It requires us to reset and help each other.”

Making sure you have the right team: “Surround yourself with exceptional and talented people and everything will fall into place. All of my success is because I’ve always had a great team. Give them the tools they need to be successful and get out of their way.”

Susan A. Salsbury (M.ARCH ‘97) AIA, LEED AP, WELL AP / Senior Associate and Project Manager, WDG Architecture

An architect who specializes in multi-family, mixed use projects, Salsbury is currently tackling a unique post-pandemic challenge facing cities across the country: the conversion of office space to residential. “They present a new set of puzzles to be solved,” she said. “We know that the D.C. area has a housing shortage and it is meaningful to be able to address that issue in a significant and sustainable way.”

When faced with a challenge, go all in: “I didn’t get licensed as quickly as I should have after grad school. Preparing seemed daunting and it became too easy to put it off. For me to move forward I had to go all in: I cleared my schedule of all distractions and set up firm weekly study sessions and a regular exam schedule and made it my top priority. Once I got that structure in place, I finished all nine exams within six months.”

Get comfortable being uncomfortable: “By that I mean don’t shy away from difficult situations or hard conversations—they are bound to arise with clients or colleagues. Knowing that you got through the situation will give you the confidence to address the next challenge. As you move up in your career, the problems only get harder, so you will need to continuously develop your skills in addressing them.”

Write it down: “I’m big on lists. I keep a detailed to-do list on my OneNote with daily, weekly, and monthly goals to help me and my teams stay organized. There are a lot of different issues going on in architecture all at the same time, and this is my best way of keeping track of who is doing what and when to make sure nothing falls through the cracks.”

Dr. Daina Penkiunas (Individual Studies ‘82) / State Historic Preservation Officer, Wisconsin Historical Society

Although her desk is located in the historic Wisconsin Historical Society Building on University of Wisconsin’s campus, Penkiunas’ office is really the natural and built environment of the state; her staff, the legion of practitioners who study and save it, from maritime archeologists to architects and everything in between. One of their most recent projects, working with the Veterans Administration and a private developer on the rehabilitation of a Civil War-era VA hospital established by women in the 1860s, now serves as supportive housing for homeless veterans. “It is so rewarding to work with my colleagues to see these projects through that might otherwise be lost.”

Draw on your past to be confident in the present: “There are always going to be challenges to work through and sometimes the end feels pretty far in sight. Often there are multiple things that need to happen to bring a project to fruition. When it feels overwhelming, have comfort in the knowledge of precedent—that you’ve done these things before and that, ultimately, you’ll get to the end.”

Be open to opportunity: “There are so many directions that your career can take over time. I think it’s important to recognize that there are people who believe in you along the way and who could open your eyes to a different path or career. Be open to it and be willing to explore the path you might not have thought about.”

Attitude is everything: “I come to work every day knowing that each day brings a new challenge, but striving to be positive helps me to be present in whatever it is I’m working on.”

Jessica Leonard, AIA LEED AP (B.S. Architecture ’05, M.ARCH ’07)), Architect and Planner, Principal, Ayers Saint Gross

For Leonard, every project is a passion project. As an architect and planner, she’s been at the table for some of ASG’s largest and most complex institutional projects: land grant universities, such as Purdue and Ohio State, but also the national treasures of the Smithsonian. Most recently, Leonard worked alongside a cadre of accomplished women in business, philanthropy and entertainment—including Rosario Dawson, Tori Birch and Linda Carter—to site the new location of the future Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum in Washington, D.C. “It was a surreal moment to be able to use my skills to elevate women,” she said. “I’m really fortunate that I’ve found a career and a focus that I’m passionate about.”

Teamwork makes the dream work: “You’re never going to do it alone. I’m only successful because I’m surrounded by an amazingly talented team. That humility is something I never want to lose sight of; it’s allowed me to connect with my team, with clients and remain true to who I am. Working with great people has helped me continue to grow and not being afraid of failure. I don’t for a second take for granted that I’ve gotten where I am because of the people I work with.

Stay curious: Have confidence in what you know and don’t be afraid of what you don’t know. I ask a lot of questions in my job. I think that’s why I like working with Higher Ed, because they pursue learning and innovation and are always looking for the next discovery—and I get to learn along with them. If you ever stop learning, you’ve lost it.

Say yes: I’m relatively young in leadership. It can put you in positions you might not feel prepared for. But I’ve learned to say yes and take every opportunity. I ask for help when I need it to do the job well. I feel like there is a lot of personal insecurity to deal with in a field that has historically said, “we’re not sure if you belong here.” I want to be part of the change that might create a different place for women 10 years down the road. So, I’ve stopped asking “why am I here?” and have instead said, “I am here.”

Willow Lung-Amam (MCP ‘07), Associate Professor of Urban Planning, University of Maryland

With a triple-D behind her signature—director of UMD’s Small Business Anti-Displacement Network (SBAN), director of community development for the National Center for Smart Growth and director of UMD’s new Urban Equity Collaborative—Willow Lung-Amam is not just busy, but quickly becoming a national voice on some of society’s most pressing issues including gentrification and displacement, fair housing and small business equity. SBAN, which she launched in 2020, galvanizes practitioners and small business leaders from across the country and arms them with the resources and data they need to help keep small, BIPOC and immigrant-owned businesses in place. “It has been the journey of a lifetime to be able to build a national network of people who care about an issue so important to me.”

Have faith in the work: “Academia can be a pretty lonely endeavor; there are times you question if your contribution matters, if anyone is listening or if you have something to say. Feeling the confidence to know that your work is important isn’t something most scholars—especially women, people of color and others who historically have been excluded from the ivory tower—feel naturally. When I was getting ready to publish my first book, I worried about how it was going to be perceived. But I was really happy with the story I was telling and felt I found my voice through the writing process. After it was published, I got so many notes from people in the community thanking me for reflecting their story in a genuine way. That gave me more inspiration to do what I do; I know that I’m standing up for other people who don’t have the platform that I do.”

Make your journey a collage: “When I was going through the tenure process, a female colleague said something to me that really resonated: Your journey is your journey and your job is to create a collage that works for you. Take a little piece of this and a little piece of that and keep adding it to your puzzle—eventually you’ll see the bigger picture. You don’t need to look for one person or mentor to model yourself after, look for kernels of inspiration and other people’s journeys that inspire your own. Even when you don’t see the big picture in front of you, know that putting the right pieces in place, it really is art of your own making.”

Have a plan—and know it might not work: “Every semester I write a plan with what I want to accomplish and calendar it all out to ensure I have time to do all the things on my list and adjust my goals accordingly. But as structured as that sounds, I leave a lot of room for surprise and new opportunities to emerge that I didn’t anticipate would come my way. I have to be willing to let go of some things to make room for others and reprioritize. It’s not a linear journey.”

Ebony Stocks (M.RED ‘08), Executive Vice President, Prince George’s County Economic Development Corporation

Stocks’ role with the Prince George’s County Economic Development Corporation took on new meaning in 2020 as businesses roiled from the impacts of COVID-19. Working round the clock, she led her team in creating new programs, processes and connections with outside agencies and contractors to stand up, process and disburse millions in financial assistance. In all, the Economic Development Corporation administered $40 million in grants to businesses countywide. “I learned that I could do the seemingly impossible, and I’m very proud to have been able to help thousands of businesses survive a very dark period.”

Be yourself: There is an inspirational quote I found on Pinterest that helps me when I’m feeling discouraged. It said, “The world needs who you were made to be.” This quote reminds me that I am a unique person, with my own ideas, skills, perspective, experiences, voice and methods. If I try to diminish myself, allow others to put me in a box or compare myself to someone else, I am doing the world a disservice.”

Perfect is the enemy of the good: During my time in the UMD Master of Real Estate Development program, a professor pulled me aside and said that, by the quality of my homework, it was clear that I had spent hours researching, writing, editing and rewriting my work to craft the perfect narratives for the assignment. Her observation was that I was doing “too much.” It seemed odd for a professor to say that a student was working too hard, but this observation/advice helped me to put things into perspective. Listening to this advice has helped me to increase my productivity, be more efficient and reduce my stress levels, because it helps me to prioritize and focus more on the tasks that will have a greater impact on maximizing outcomes.  

Read—everything: Reading has been the number one habit that has proven invaluable in my success. Whether it is books on real estate, finance, history, current events or even fiction, there is always something to learn. Reading is a way to invest in yourself and, by making reading a regular habit, I’ve learned things that have helped me to succeed not only in my professional life, but personally as well.

Allison Wilson (B.S. Architecture ’09, M.ARCH ’11), Associate Principal, Sustainability Director, Ayers Saint Gross

When it comes to delivering designs that inspire and impact, the impact that Allison Wilson is most concerned with as ASG’s sustainability director is the one on the planet. It’s a habit that she cultivated as a project team lead on WaterShed, UMD’s first-place-winning entry to the 2011 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, and that she’s honed on projects like Texas A&M University’s Sustainability Master Plan and Residence Life Sustainability Plan. “We built such strong relationships through that plan's process and the work we developed together has really accelerated positive environmental, economic and social impact. It was also pivotal in helping me shape the current phase of my career, which is focused on developing college and university sustainability and decarbonization plans.”

Redefine architecture: “Despite the fact that I am licensed and consider what I do to be architecture, I have off and on received pushback about the extent to which I am an architect because I don't draw buildings every day. Whenever I get discouraged by that feedback, I remind myself that an architect is a licensed professional responsible for protecting the health, safety and welfare of the public. Nowhere in that definition does it say an architect has to draw buildings every day and working to slow and mitigate the impacts of climate change caused by the built environment is, in my opinion, very much an exercise in protecting public health, safety and welfare.”

Protect your time: My mom has said this to me many times: Your time is your most precious resource; be mindful of how you invest it. Being careful with how I invest my time has helped me make and maintain healthy life/work balance boundaries and helps me make space for the activities that are most important to me.

Make lists and keep notes: “My work includes lots of moving pieces and I'm able to keep track of the complexity by maintaining to-do lists and keeping good meeting minutes. I keep my to-do list organized in chronological order and I review it every Friday to close out my week and set myself up for success in the week to come. Meeting minutes have saved me time and energy many times over the last decade. They become part of a project's history and there's great power in being their author—never give up a chance to be the one taking notes!”