By: Mia Alfonsi & Kyle Niblett

Ten successful University of Florida graduates convened on Zoom this past month to speak to University of Florida College of Design, Construction and Planning students for the college’s annual Women of Influence event. Galey Alix, founder and CEO of Galey Alix Design, served as the keynote speaker.

“Design is at the core of my heart and what I want to be doing,” Alix’s speech began. “Find something where time disappears because your mind, body, and soul are caught up doing something you’re passionate about.”

The majority of Alix’s speech focused on being flexible enough to duck, weave and pivot your way out of doing what you don’t enjoy and finding pleasure in your passion.

“I’m not going to force myself to keep doing it just because I’ve already invested four years in it,” Alix explained. “If there is an area in design, architecture or business that you’re excited about, and you start doing it, your heart isn’t in it and you don’t feel called, don’t wait to be 50 years old with 30 years of regret because it didn’t go in a different direction.”

Alix went on to stress the importance of branding. From making everything identifiable and recognizable to thinking thoughtfully and strategically, the UF graduate reiterated how daunting it is to go out into the world with an education and license and build a business from scratch.

“The harder you work, the luckier you get,” Alix said. “If you work your butt off, you make the luck happen for you. I do not believe in luck.”

Detailing her mental health battles as well, the Gainesville native finished by mentioning the benefits of her career and how it saved her.

“I was helping people with their homes, but their homes were really saving me,” Alix said. “My story is not the story of an entrepreneur who built a business, but rather a story of overcoming a mental health battle by pursuing something I feel passionate about. Once you wake up and enjoy your life, you begin living.”

About halfway through the event, student attendees migrated through three 15-minute breakout sessions to share intimate discussions with two panelists. These timed windows gave DCP students the opportunity to probe panelists deeper about their personal experiences within the industry that have made firm impacts on their careers.

Perhaps the biggest topic was gender in the industry, more particularly how female students can find their footing in a typically male-dominated industry and how panelists overcame that. More often than not, panelists instructed students to use their gender as an advantage.

“It is very timely to be a female in this profession,” Ekta Desai, a partner and design lead at SchenkelShultz, said. She recognized that there has been a cultural shift in the architecture industry from male-dominated to a space where females are more embraced than before.

According to Desai, females bring soft skills like empathy and sensibility that make for more well-rounded and thoughtful work.

“That’s an added value you would bring, whether you are thinking about it or not,” Desai said. “Females are another form of diversity.”

Sharing in Desai’s sentiment, Cat Lindsay, owner of Lindsay Newman Architecture and Design, touted that emotional intelligence is a woman’s “secret weapon,” and students should wield that weapon proudly. But, to Lindsay, the quality of the human and of their work take precedent over gender issues within the architecture workplace.

“Try and eliminate it as even a consideration,” Lindsay said. “Just do the best you can, and it doesn’t matter what your gender is. If you do your job well enough, it is a non-issue.”

Because females typically rear more responsibilities outside of work such as maternity leave and childcare, students were interested in how these established women balance the commands of their professional careers and personal lives.

Laurie Hall advised students to set clear boundaries between motherhood and their professional priorities.

“Something that always stuck with me is, ‘Your biggest contribution may not be something you do, but someone you raise,’” Hall said. “Surround yourself with supportive people both at home and work who understand that those things are important to you.”

Another topic that was briefly touched on was resiliency in the wake of pressing environmental issues such as climate change. Pulling from her expertise in developing housing and policy and sustainable initiatives as the principal at her co-owned firm, Brooks + Scarpa, Angela Brooks enlightened students on how they can make a true impact through a new perspective on these issues.

“Our profession can better help cities figure out how they are going to meet these critical issues in the future,” Brooks said. “We have to start thinking about our communities holistically; it comes down to social equity and making sure that the communities that don’t have the same income other communities have can combat [real-world issues] like climate change.”

A final Q&A panel allowed students and panelists to unite for one last conversation filled with insights and advice. Here, themes of networking and involvement were highlighted amongst panelists.

CEO and President of Dix.Hite + Partners Christina Hite and Angela Brooks stressed the importance of getting involved in pre-professional organizations during college to make connections.

“When you get involved, become very active in the organization and work to make a difference,” Hite advised. “That will expand your network while also allowing you to foster change based on your unique perspective.”

To continue, Brooks reflected on her experience as a member of AIA’s Committee on the Environment (COTE). Though she was resistant to join at first, Brooks said, her involvement turned out to be life changing.

“I have eight new friends, mostly women, who were on that committee who all have the same passion I do,” Brooks said. “Through AIA, I was able to get on Capitol Hill and sit in a room with political representatives who were looking at me and asking, ‘Well what do you think?’”

Alix credited social media for her transformation from “nothing to something.”

“I’ve made so many wonderful connections to like-minded and like-hearted female entrepreneurs and designers,” Alix said. “It’s only worth getting to the top if you get there with other people because it’s lonely by yourself. If you can find women that feel the same way, and join forces, it’s like one plus one equals five.”

The 2021 Women of Influence Event closed with an inspiring and empowering bit from Alix, who reassured students of how their abilities and strengths as strong, smart and powerful individuals will lead them to success.

“I am so excited to have this new network of kickass female business owners, entrepreneurs in this male-dominated industry,” Alix said. “To the students, I know you are going places, and I cannot wait to meet you guys at the top! You guys give me hope for our future, so it’s very encouraging.”

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