March 8th, 2020
Interview with CEO Joanne McCallum
What moved you to launch mcCallumSather?
Very simply, I wanted to develop an architecture firm that featured sustainable design principles at the core of everything we do. Although a well-known term nowadays, sustainable values were almost unheard of in architectural design 24 years ago when mcCallumSather was founded. People quite literally laughed at the concept. Part of the reason of starting my own firm was that I felt the only way to understand what your potential would be was to go it alone and challenge yourself. Connected to this was overcoming gender barriers within the industry and being able to create an environment in which women could thrive. I wanted to create an environment of continuous learning, pushing the boundaries of design and fronting the future of sustainable objectives whilst providing an opportunity for young professionals to gain knowledge and experience through real-time, hands-on experience.
What main obstacles have you faced when starting or growing the business?
I started my own architecture firm in a time when women didn’t do that. You still don’t see a lot of female owners in the field, although I am encouraged to see more female leadership around me, and it grows every year. I am fortunate to not have had to consider gender during my career trajectory although gender inequity was clear. That said, I can recognize the subtle and sometimes not so subtle daily challenges I once faced, having to prove myself as equal. Equal in skills, equal in experience and equal in knowledge to my male industry counterparts. While not a direct obstacle blocking from my career success, I could not tell you that this scrutiny was not present upon my work, which is why I wanted to create the working environment that I did; one based on merit and skill, without any gender qualifications.
Do you have any advice for those wanting to start their own business?
Be brave. My bravest day was the day that I quit my job and put my name on the door of a new architectural firm, specializing in a field that no one quite saw the value in just yet. I have not often felt that my gender was a detriment to my career, as I was always determined to succeed. When I look back at it now, although it didn’t seem like a big thing at the time, I can see that it was a courageous thing to start my own firm, especially at that time.
In a fast-paced, ever-evolving industry such as architecture, every day is an act of courage when you consider the risk involved within the industry. During my career, I have learned to handle these challenges in an intelligent, knowledgeable and professional way.
What do you hope the firm inspires into those who follow it?
24 years ago, I was not thinking directly about the value of mentorship; I simply feel that there is value in women supporting women and that if I have something to offer, share or teach, then it is my responsibility to do so. My goal was to always be pushing forward, in my own life and career, but also for my firm and the individuals who work for me and lead the charge. I’m proud to have pushed hard with the future in mind, so that today, we can pride ourselves on our standing as sustainability experts in our field, with a staff full of women and men at all career levels who helped to get us there. It’s not just about whose name is on the door, I actively delegate key decision making to my team members in order to develop their skills and confidence in our workplace. My hope is to encourage others so when someone tells them that they can’t do something, it doesn’t stop them but motivates them.
What are your biggest hopes for the firm in the future?
My biggest hopes for the firms are to continue to make a difference – and to actually make a big difference! I would love for every building we do to be net-zero carbon/energy or net-positive energy. I hope for the line between buildings and occupants to begin to blur and actively interact with our buildings to control energy flow and consumption, and I hope to understand and implement biomimicry into our designs and create more fluid and resilient environments on a larger urban canvas.
What women inspire you?
I have a passion for history and I have been fascinated with the lives of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Jean D’Arc and Queen Elizabeth I, but I have been immensely impressed and informed by the writings of brilliant female scientists and authors who have been pioneers identifying environmental challenges, pointing the way towards solutions. I am inspired by marine biologists Rachael Carson and Sylvia Earle and biologist Janine Benyus. They are brilliant women, who without question have changed the narrative about environmental degradation on land, in our oceans and how to learn from nature and natural systems.