As a licensed architect and Associate Principal in the Los Angeles office, Jenny Apostol is as highly regarded for her work as a designer as she is for her ability to cultivate young talent. After giving birth to her daughter earlier this year, Jenny has returned to work at ZGF. As a new mother trying to figure it all out, her responsibilities are different now, but they haven’t stifled her aspirations as a professional and an emerging leader. She recently joined our Communications Director, Monica Schaffer, to discuss women in the workplace, motherhood, and mentorship.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Monica Schaffer: Jenny, you’ve been in the industry for 10 years and with ZGF for almost five of those. You’ve obviously been involved with several projects in that time, but can you share what you’ve been working on most recently? I know the new medical research laboratory for The Lundquist Institute* was a big one. (*Formerly the Los Angeles Biomedical Institute / LA Biomed.)
Jenny Apostol: That was a special project. I took it all the way from design to construction. The Lundquist Institute is a nonprofit research institution here in southern California. This building is the most significant new addition to the campus. Before it, their scientists and researchers worked predominantly in single-story barracks built during World War II. The amount of progress they made within those buildings was astounding. The project meant so much to the client, the scientists, and anyone affiliated with the organization. Not only was it an important project for the firm to build a relationship with a new client, but we really had an impact on the work they are doing.
MS: I was surprised when we went to see the new building and it was literally in the middle of these old barracks. It transforms the whole area.
JA: Yes, absolutely. It’s so rewarding to see how the new architecture transforms the local landscape, but also how this new environment is being used by the world’s brightest minds to further their ground-breaking research into treating some of the world’s most debilitating and fatal rare diseases.
MS: It means a huge amount to give them a space where they can do their best work because that work is literally saving lives. Let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about architecture as a woman. I know this has been a topic that’s top of mind within this industry for quite some time. What is your experience like as a woman in architecture?
JA: That is a very loaded question! I didn’t think 10 years ago when I was starting in architecture that the same issues that women were facing back then would still be prevalent today. A lot of times when I start a new project, I am still one of few, if not the only woman in the room and that alone tells me that there is still a ton to do. Over the course of my career, there have been occasions where it has been clear that people’s assumptions, whether conscious or not, have informed some questionable behavior on their part. That said, I have been fortunate to have had champions along the way and to have worked with teams for whom it didn’t matter that I am a woman. I was actually pregnant towards the end of the Lundquist Institute project. I was concerned about what people’s perceptions might be and whether they would suddenly think I wouldn’t be able to do my job anymore, but it proved to be a non-issue for the project teams and the client.
MS: Let’s talk about that for a little bit. I hate the word balance, but how are you balancing family and work? Do you have any tips or secrets you can share?
JA: I wish I had an answer. I just returned from maternity leave and am in the thick of trying to figure it out. Every bit of ambition and energy that I had before becoming a parent was fully dedicated towards my work. Now, a very large portion of my bandwidth must be dedicated to my responsibilities at home. Have I made my peace with where that division line is? I don’t think there is one for me. I am trying to look at it from an integration perspective. I am not good at setting boundaries between my work and personal life. It’s very hard. I understand now more than ever why women my age end up leaving the industry. I don’t know how moms do it—or some of the dads for that matter. These days, it’s less and less a woman vs. man thing in this regard, it’s a parent thing. I find myself leaning a lot on colleagues who are parents for wisdom and insights from their own experiences. I’m just trying to find peace with the new give and take between work and life.
MS: I love the idea of integration. I am myself a stepparent and there is no such thing as balance. I find that when I think I have balance, that’s when I fall off the high wire. Has being a parent changed your view on mentorship at all?
JA: Now that I have a little one at home, I take mentorship even more seriously. I think about what my daughter might want to be in the future. I think about what her potential struggles might be, and I know I can’t shield her from all of them. What I can do is be the best version of myself for my colleagues and for her, and do my part now to reshape the status quo for when she enters the workforce in the future. My mentors always guided me with empathy and humility, and I strive to bring the same approach in my own role as a mentor.
MS: So, will you mentor me? That would be great. When you think about your daughter’s future and the types of roadblocks and supports that she might encounter when she grows up, what kind of changes would you want to see for her to have a fulfilling career?
JA: This is a topic I talk about a lot with my friends and husband. There are a lot of connotations associated with being a child of an immigrant, a woman, an Asian American. I am all three. People who look like me and have a similar background, there are not very many of us in design and construction. I don’t see many women in leadership that look like me. It begs the question, is there opportunity for me up there? I do think that opportunities for a woman or minority are there for the taking. I feel a sense of responsibility to forge a path for myself and set an example for others. It’s about creating pipelines. It’s widely known that people in leadership are more likely to bring up people with similar backgrounds or similar interests. In most cases, I don’t think any of that is necessarily born of conscious malintent. What it means is that we must make the extra effort to look at those around us who may not have our same background, but who do show grit and talent and want to design.
MS: I just read an article this morning about hiring people not based on what they’ve done, but what they are capable of doing. Figuring that out takes more time than just reading a resume and talking to someone for an hour. It is also about removing unconscious bias and affecting institutional change. That’s where I see women having great potential, in leading that charge.
JA: Yes, when it comes to affecting institutional change, the answer is clear, we need to see more women in top leadership roles. I think that in order to be more progressive in how we are developing our teams, we need to really invest the time to do it. It takes time to get to know someone and understand their talent. Again, when we talk about mentorship, I am reminded of mentors who were extremely patient with me. I asked a lot of questions and kept repeating those questions because I still didn’t understand. Mentors must encourage young designers to take the time to expand their knowledge, improve their skillsets, and hone their talents.
MS: In terms of mentorship, what is the best career advice you ever received?
JA: The best career advice? To be patient with myself and allow myself time to learn and grow. It’s okay to not have all the answers.