Transcript – Bridging the Equity Gap with Industry Legend Bill Stanley

Katie: Hi everyone, and welcome to AEC Marketing for Principals. This is your host, Katie Cash. And today, I’m joined by the Executive Vice President at Smartegies, Ms. Donya Edler, or as I like to call her, my partner in people, because she just has such a way with people and connecting with everyone. Donya and I are going to be joined by William J. Stanley III. And we are so honored to have you on our show – a living legend and industry trailblazer. Thank you both for joining me.

Bill: Thank you.

Donya: Absolutely. Yes. Thanks Katie. It’s definitely a treat.

Katie: Yeah. So, Bill, I would love for you maybe just to take a moment and share with our listeners a little bit of your background and your story. There’s all kinds of awards and accolades that you have attributed to your career along the way, but maybe just take us back and help us understand how you landed in architecture and what gave you the bug to start your own firm with your darling wife and all the good stuff.

Bill: What I would say to you first is good morning. And secondly, if you see a turtle sitting on a fence post, he didn’t get there by himself. I’m a fourth generation Atlantan. My grandparents came to Atlanta University in 1890. I grew up in the Atlanta University Center. My parents built a house and moved to Collier Heights. I’m a Westside boy, and there are builders in my family. My cousin practiced architecture in Chicago. I have a lot of masons in the family. My great grandfather was a bridge builder – who was the man who made all the money that allowed him to send his children to places like McGill University for medical school back in the 1920s and things like that. So, I was privileged to be around people who both were craftsman, and both were involved in education.

But (Georgia) Tech was a tough place. I was the first Black to graduate from the College of Architecture at Georgia Tech, but I was a tough kid. I’d go into Morehouse as a pre-college student in the 10th grade. I knew physics. I knew chemistry. I knew architecture. I knew math. I won the English Cup in high school. I was not going to be outdone.

So, I was one of the leaders on campus. One of the rebels. And I just believe that the situation for equity, inclusion, involvement, transparency, is very important to all of us. So, I became involved with the National Organization of Minority Architects as a student. I got along well with my classmates. Architecture was not one of those isolationist’s curricular. You had to work together, and you had to know each other because I had the skills to always be able to pull it out on these all-nighters, by student, by classmates respectively. I had skills, and I had drive.

So, the awakening of 1969, being in Europe and understanding what architecture was about from a European standpoint. But then getting to know rural people in these other parts of the world, just knowing that they’re poor people in Ireland, and poor people in England sort of opened up my eyes. I thought Europeans were all wealthy. Riding around in carriages. That was not the case. I could relate to them, what they would do. I could relate to the poor people in this country. And sort of understood a bond. And became bonded with them. And some of the people that I met as friends over there, we’re still friends, and I’ve had a lot of opportunities to go back and visit them.

That takes up most of the schooling part of it. Right out of college or about to leave college, I met my wife, who was just starting in architecture at Georgia Tech. Although, she was an adult. She was 21 years old. So, she already had a degree in math and chemistry with highest honors. But because the state of Mississippi didn’t have a school of architecture, they had to pay for her to come to Georgia Tech. And so she came up one morning, to the black house, which was across the street from the president’s mansion, and said, ” I’m studying architecture.”

“Well,” I said, “Study me ’cause I’m the architect.” And that’s how our relationship started.

I took her all over town in this raggedy, convertible common gear and took her to the High Museum, which was brand new at the time. And other places that would just be just starting in 1972 in the town. And we just became friends and had an opportunity to do work together her second year. The rest is history. I realized she had tremendous work ethic and was very smart and cute. And she could do what I could do, which was to work all night long on projects. I had her work for me on St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Gainesville, Georgia. And we pulled it out. We put it together ourselves. And five months out of school, I bought a house. And it was a rag tag. It was terrible. It was built in 1850, a beautiful home, at one point in its life, but it was a mill shack. So we pulled it apart, put it back together for $7,500. And so, that’s a part of the learning process in architecture. I haven’t actually answered any questions, have I?

Katie: Oh, you’re fine. I was just going to ask you – I love hearing about the new architects that buy their first home as a fixer upper and what they envision, see in it. Because everybody always sees some kind of charm in those, like you just mentioned.

Bill: This house, built in 1850, was one of three on the street. Willis Mill Road in Southwest Atlanta. With a creek in the back. The Battle of Euclid Creek was fought in my backyard. So, anytime it rained, a divided would come out, getting rifle balls and trench murals and things like that. It was, it’s still an active area. It’s still an active battle ground for all intents and purposes.

I put the shingles on the house, welded the stair, and dug out the basement. I’d come home from John Portman’s every day and take off my suit and put on overalls, get down, and dig the basement up. So, we understood that if we’re going to make mistakes in architecture, we’ll do it on our own dime and on our own house. We don’t do residential architecture, but it opened our eyes to all the things that needed to happen.

At the same time that I was interning in New York, I was interning in Detroit, working for John Portman and Associates on very large projects with responsibilities for detailing a lot of other things. so at age 30, we decided that we would finish the house and get married. And December 30, 1978, we got married. And between then and January 30th, we got married. I left my job at John Portman Associates. We started the firm, the practice with a couple of other guys who were classmates of mine.

And that was 43 years ago. We’re still going. We were the oldest Black architectural firm in the state of Georgia. But we’ve been fortunate to have worked all over the country, primarily in the Southeast and Southwest and South Africa, but in New York and other places. We’ve enjoyed a lot of opportunities. We’ve not done all the work. We’ve not done the biggest work, but we think what we’ve done, we’ve taken very seriously. We’ve done some of the best work. We’re all very civic-minded individuals. So, we’re involved with a lot of issues that don’t have anything to do with architecture, necessarily, but do have a lot to do with the community.

We believe very strongly in education and engagement and in dialogue. Moving up the ladder in the ranks of architecture, we both won the Whitney Young award, which is one the highest awards for architects nationally. And we both won the Rock Shallow Work Unit- the AI Georgia science award.

We have a 35 year history of giving scholarships to the most improved students who are of African descent, undergraduate and graduate at Georgia Tech. And so, we have the celebration. We had it last week for the Institute. In a couple of weeks, we have the college award, and we meet these young people and give them a piece of Ponce rubble sculpture and a scholarship. And then they get an option to come and intern with us in summertime and learn architecture.

Katie: So, when I said that you were living legend and industry icon and trailblazer, that might not have been enough, I might’ve needed to add a few more things on there. You have had quite the fulfilling career and leaving your mark. Like you mentioned on more than just architecture.

Bill: Well, it’s important. I see my students from Atlanta University Center all the time. They’re captains of industry. I tell them, I’ve trained a lot of, made a lot of, would-be-engineers into good preachers and lawyers because a lot of them didn’t continue in engineering, but I was very close to them.

 I was a very tough lecturer and taskmaster in laboratories. And so I gave them tremendous amounts of work in getting them ready to come to Georgia Tech, but they respected that. I had great relationships with them. It’s fulfilling. I did that for 17 years.

You can’t expect to be the first and to remain the first, unless you see the second, the third and the fourth person coming behind you. And we feel very strongly about uplifting our people and getting them to college and getting them into trades or getting them into pursuits of life that will help them fulfill their lives.

Donya: Katie’s absolutely right about you being a legend. Our podcast series this season is focusing on those professionals in AEC who changed the landscape with their work with their professions. You are certainly in that category. And, I think, shortly after you guys, you and your wife, founded Stanley Love-Stanley, the firm became one of the largest African-American architectural practices in the South. And so, it was very well known in the African-American community, but in just the architectural community as well.

And I don’t know if our listeners realize, but one of your signature projects was the Olympic Aquatic Center at Georgia Tech for the 1996 Olympic Games. So talk about a legacy and a legend. It’s a great facility still there.

I want to talk a little bit about how it’s so important for you to bring along that next generation and to lead others. And during your career, you’ve been recognized numerous times for being a socially conscious architect. And how do you describe that? How do you describe socially conscious architecture?

 Bill: As a people, we have various experiences that craft our lives. We like to solve their dances, we learn stories. We learn things that happen to us and around us, consciously and subconsciously. The environment that you’re raised in is extremely important. What shapes you? What environment makes you work?

If we do a good school, and I will say this, none of our schools have ever experienced graffiti. The kids have always been very respectful of them because we try to put as much time and effort into a school or a church or a library as we possibly can, because that may be the one place that a child goes that is above and better than the home of the environment that he’s in.

And so lifting them into places. I mean, it’s not going to be a museum. It’s sometimes very simple materials, but they should hold this place as a place especially designed and built for them. So, our responsibility is to make sure that each community has an opportunity to thrive, to give back, to engage.

I was on the Board of Morris Brown College for 20 years. I resigned this past year. And, of course, now they’re accredited. But I was there during the tough years when teachers were volunteering, when people were boarding up buildings, and we were at a handful of students. I had a social consciousness because my grandmother taught at that school back in 1911. And my aunt went there. My sister went there. Once you get outside yourself, outside those things that make you comfortable, you realize that there’s a much, much bigger world around you. You have a responsibility as a leader, and a community, to make sure that what you do offers an opportunity for people to be uplifted. Equity, balance, form, all those things factor into the spirit that we have about ourselves and what we feel about ourselves.

So for me, It’s more than winning an award for a building. It’s more about how the public accepts the building, what they think about it. It’s more about what you do from a standpoint of – I happened to design a community. We do master planning for communities around the country, and we look at that central place that people gather and understand and feel as their own. And try to use that as a pinnacle for other things that happen in the community.

Not everything is glass and steel. In fact, most people don’t relate to the glass and steel buildings that we see around us in Midtown. They relate to the home, to the park, they relate to the library. They relate to those things that help them to enrich their lives, help them to understand their families, to bring mom and dad and grandma into a place that is safe, that is always clean. It’s always well-maintained. That’s always cool, but they can do a lot of different things. And that starts to shape the environment.

So, we want to make sure that in a medical environment, for example, a woman comes in, and she has a comfort level with where she’s going. So that her maternity experience is one that is pleasant. She’s not being filed in and filed out. That we do things to make her feel comfortable, that we care about her, that the furnishings, that the smells, the sensibility, that those, all those things work together. It takes a certain level of sensitivity to do that.

And so far as breaking barriers is concerned, that’s another aspect of the social environment and the social conversation. I’ve got to have somebody that I can talk to. Somebody who understands where I’m coming from in terms of getting outside of themselves. But they have to come from a very privileged background. They may have been the richest boy in town or the best environment. And somehow, they need to recognize that not everybody comes from that.

Unless a matter of fact, the people that you’re going to work with are going to look like the person that cleans your house when you were a boy or the woman who nursed you, as we say. And so understanding that there’s an equity in what you do, and you are still the servant for these people because you’re there to try to enrich their lives in one way or another, becomes very important. And that’s a hard conversation to have with people sometimes. They don’t get it, but it’s okay.

Donya: But it’s so relevant today. Especially since the pandemic, it seems there’s just a plethora of discussion around diversity and equity and inclusion and empowerment of people. And so, what’s the role of that diversity, equity, and inclusion force in architecture?

Bill: For one thing, we need to be able to be at the table when these decisions are made. I heard a conversation yesterday about a Black person and what is going to be without a Tyler Perry or TD Jakes, how it’s going to transform that corridor called Campbellton Road, which at one point in time was very splendid. But now it’s blighted in so many places. But it ends up in a place called Sandtown, which is a very wealthy community. It starts out at Oakland City, and it moves down through a number of places.

So bringing people together to understand that this is not difficult. This is not an easy game to play. That we have to have developers and financiers who understand that this table has to be set such that a lot of people can participate in it. You cannot just have an all-white environment. And so, any time you have something that says that the playing field is not level, we have to have a conversation about that. I may be your friend, I am your friend, but you must know that there are other people who have to be involved in this equation.

If a kid looks at a building or environment, and he does not see Black people working on it, Black people designing or building it, he may think that this is not a profession for me, or he may take it for granted. He may think that the only thing I can do is play rap music, wear jewels, and play football, which is crazy. You should be able to do anything that your heart desires.

Our attitude about architecture and planning and design is that we should be at the pinnacle of those decisions. We should have an equal share of that pie. Because at the end of the day, Atlanta is changing. Atlanta’s being gentrified. Big time.

And so a part of what we’re doing, what we’re talking about, is equity in housing, equity in community, equity in services, equity across the board. We have to live together with this. You decided you wanted to come back to Atlanta. If you don’t live in Atlanta, you have to live in an equitable place.

Donya: What’s your message to younger architects today, and how can they advance in their careers, but still keep in mind the importance of being socially conscious and keeping in mind the importance of equity and inclusion as they are coming along in their careers?

Bill: All that they have to do is chart a path for their careers. And imagine what the end game is. Will you become a partner in a firm? And if you become a partner in a firm, will you become a shareholder? And if you’re a shareholder, will you be a person who makes decisions? What is your bandwidth? Can you make money in architecture? Can you be happy in architecture? Can you sustain yourself in this profession?

Or do you find yourself having to go somewhere else to get your satisfaction? It should not just be a job. It should be a career. It should be a livelihood. It should be a life’s work. And so, when you’re deciding who you want to practice with, don’t be afraid to be an entrepreneur. It’s okay for you to start out and get into business for yourself.

If you find a firm that has equity in its agenda, then make sure that you have that serious talk with the employer. Can I be president of this company one day? And if the answer is no, you’d better have some alternative plans. Think ahead. Not only financially, but from the standpoint of health and safety and wellbeing.

I recognize that most of my friends, I can talk about 50% of the things that are important. There are certain other classmates of mine, I can talk about 20%, it’s football and basketball. Other than that, they’re on the other side of the table. They have a way away from where I am sociologically. So, we can remain friends around sports. That’s it. But others, I can have a deeper conversation with and just pick the people that you know that you’re going to be comfortable with, but make sure that you stay involved and stay engaged. You have to do it.

Katie: I think that’s great advice. One of the themes of the season, Bill, is just talking about the gaps in the industry that arise. Generational gaps as new leaders come into play, skills gaps, communication gaps. And I think you’ve just hit on a number of those.

And I think if I’m not mistaken, if I went back to something you said earlier, you were a hard teacher for some of your students, just trying to prep them for the business of architecture and just letting them know what that’s like. And my understanding is that there’s a program at Georgia Tech under the College of Architecture, I think they call it the Profession of Practice or something like that, that’s all about the business of architecture, and how you make money as an architect, how you pursue projects. It’s kind of trying to fill that gap so that people know there’s more to it than just being a great drafter, being able to design. That it’s being able to pick up a phone and have a conversation. It’s being able to have hard conversations with diverse stakeholders. What could you maybe share with our listeners on the concept of overcoming some gaps in some of those challenging conversations that might arise?

Bill: Architecture is divided up into a number of different areas of comfort. Some people are great designers. Some people are very detailed, and some people are great face men. Some people are great promoters, let’s call it what it is. And find your spot. You may have to have the talent to fulfill all of those spots. But you at least need to know what your limits are, and how you engage in that.

You need to have your eyes wide open to know what the economy does with architecture. It ebbs and flows with building and construction, with the economy. If we’re on the precipice of another recession, then architects get ready. We’re about to hit a skid in a particular market sector. Last time it was housing, this time it may be – we don’t know.

But you need to understand your environment and all the things you have. The thing about architecture is that you do so much work and you study so hard, you prepare so hard, and then don’t get paid at the same level that the computer geeks do. If you’re going to make $65,000 that’s top money, and the roommate who never went to the class, he was a geek. He’s going to make $115,000 starting, to go out West somewhere. And what’s the equity in that? Well, it’s because at some point in time AI is going to take his job. But you can still be creative where you are. So don’t come into this profession thinking that you’re going to be wealthy, unless you decide that you want to do development on a practice or have something that deals with the front of the top end of architecture, which is at the development and the owner’s level.

You have to love what you do. And so that sustains you and says that even though I’m not in it for all the money, I’m in it for the craft. I’m in it for the beauty, I’m in it for the satisfaction. And I can live well within those bounds, then you start to make a decision of what aspect of architecture you want.

It’s flexible. If you’re more towards the development of a planning stage and that satisfies you, fine. If you want to get into building and construction, because that avenue allows you to have a greater opportunity to do bigger things, that’s fine. It’s flexible, but you have to make that decision, or you have to make sure that you have the tools within your toolbox to be flexible and change careers or change aspects of the career to suit your skills, to suit the economy.

I’ll be 74 in a couple of weeks. And I plan to practice another 15 years easily, or as long as I want to practice. But there’s no crystal ball. But there’s so many options and what looks like it may be a difficult task at one point in time in an undeveloped area, they end up being the best work for you. Enumeration comes in a number of different ways.

Katie: One thing I would love to talk about is maybe you can share with our listeners, and it’s something you said a little bit earlier, is just making sure that there’s equity at the ground level. There’s lots of design firms out there. There’s lots of projects out there. And we’re seeing more and more teaming take place. Some that are driven by the owners mandating that there needs to be local involvement, minority involvement. Others just because there’s a natural partnership. From your perspective, Bill, what’s the best way to go about exploring a partnership between two different design firms?

Bill: I don’t want to dance with you if I think you’re going to step on my toes. I don’t want to dance with you if, halfway through the dance, you see another suitor, and you let him cut in on me. I don’t want to dance with you, if you think I smell bad. I don’t want to dance with you, if your hair is all in my face, and I can’t see.

So, I’m going to pick a person I can dance with because there’s certain things about that person that seem to work with my sensibilities. Their values are similar to my values. The economic proposition is, being what it is, we can at least respect each other from a standpoint of how the pie is divided. I don’t expect you to come in and pirate my workers, my staff.

So, we have to put in clauses and sell “X” number, yet you can’t hire anybody to work with my firm. I wanted to ask if you’re so privileged that you disrespect me in a meeting or from a sample to making decisions about what should happen on a project. I don’t care how the marriage is made.

But, I believe that you choose partners wisely because they impact the portfolio. They impact other business deals that you’re involved with. And if you see that there’s something that you can do.

For us, it has to be something that talks about equity. And so, there are a lot of partners that just don’t happen. But there are some good ones that can happen. There’s some good ones that you would normally not have had an opportunity to be involved with because you’re willing to listen.

Hopefully, as younger people become practitioners. And as they move, they’ve had a better experience in college with individuals of color, and they’re more comfortable with what’s going on, the equity gap will start to lessen. We’ll start to see owners who are sensitive to the fact that I really do need some people of color designing my buildings, and building my buildings, and doing my interiors and being engaged in every aspect of the work.

Donya: Absolutely. There are so many studies out there that show the tremendous benefits of having diverse teams and partnerships. It’s a win-win for everybody. You’ve got diverse perspectives and talents. And so, there’s still work to be done in closing the gap on how do you bring those teams together so that each side is equally benefiting and equally contributing to the project. As you said, there’s still a lot of work to be done in that area, for sure.

Bill: But it is worth it, I think people are willing to take a look at. And for Christ sakes, I live in a dormitory in your freshman year, and then you move to a fraternity house, that’s okay. I play sports with you. I was on the battlefield with you. I was in this trench with you. I’m talking from an educational standpoint. People that I went to school with, I knew at the core. I knew when they were all equal. All eating Ramen Noodles and potted meat.

And so now we’ve dressed up. I still remember you well. And so the qualities that I knew you had then, are the qualities that allow me to be comfortable. And that’s the key word. Comfortable and trusting you and being engaged with you at this level.

I think once the other playing fields are starting to level, people become more comfortable and say, “Oh yeah, why don’t I invite you over to my house? And let’s talk about it or let’s go to lunch someplace that I’ve never been before. Let’s go to your hood and have lunch, and let’s see the people that are in your environment. Let’s get out of Sandy Springs and go to Fourth Ward.” I think that’s the kind of thing that people have to be willing to do, is move into these different neighborhoods, get in these different environments and really see there’s a richness.

Donya: Have you had an opportunity to work on any projects with a younger generation of designers?

Bill: I’m always around young designers. I look for them. That’s who I want to be around. Yeah, absolutely. They know the technology that I have no clue about. But I draw by hand. I’m like a colloquial. I’m so old that I drew with dilute ink on linen. That stretched linen like the Egyptians. And so a lot of young people don’t know how to draw. But I don’t know how to touch a button and make things happen. I don’t have to do that, but we know how to communicate in the design environment. We know how ideas have passed back and forth. We understand each other’s culture. I know how to detail. I know how to make it not rain in the building. I know how to make the curve immaculate. And then you just stick it into a computer and tell me what the fermentation is to make the curve work the way it’s supposed to work. The math. You do the math. Collaborations between young people and old people is something that’s [good]. Because I’m young.

Katie: I love your passion. I feel like it’s just contagious sitting here talking to you. I do want to see you on a real dance floor. I feel like that would just be so much fun.

Bill: Are you saying you want to dance with me? You’ll have to write me. You find a place and you find a time. I know some places, now you might not be comfortable, but yeah. It’s interesting that you say that. People come together to dance in those times, and it really looks like weddings. Cotillions. The big balls. We will have a ball at Georgia Tech sometime in the not-too-distant future.

Katie: Absolutely. So Bill, I have one last question for you today. You mentioned you’re a young 74, you’re going to work for another 10, 15 years, or as long as your wife will let you, what’s next for you? What does the next few years look like? How are you going to make your lasting mark?

Bill: Well, the next project is always the most important one. You continue to do the next project. We want to travel a little bit more. I’ve been traveling all my life. I want my wife to travel with me a little bit more.

We transitioned with other people and to other responsibilities for the firm, but we always keep our hands in the mix. It’s very important that we keep our hands in the mix because the brain does not stop because you reach a certain level of experience. Unless, of course, you have a disease or something, that’s different. But Picasso didn’t stop working. John Portman didn’t stop working because they hit 90. They just kept on cranking out, kept on working, kept on engaging in dialogue with people.

And so as you engaging in dialogue with young people, you have an opportunity to let them shine. Do what you do.

Katie: I think everything about design and construction is it’s a people business, right? It’s relationship built. It requires a lot of collaboration. It requires a lot of team members. Everybody that’s smart bringing their piece of the solution together to make that vision come to life.

I have thoroughly enjoyed talking with you. I think we could probably keep peppering you with questions, but I know you’ve got other things going on today, but on behalf of myself and the team at Smartegies, and all of our listeners, Bill, thank you for sharing your story and your passion and really giving the listeners something to think towards as they explore the next wave of design.

Bill: Donya and Katie, I look forward to dancing with you. Save me a dance card.

Donya: Likewise. Thank you so much, Bill.

Katie: Thanks.

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