From the archives: this interview originally appeared on the site on September 21st, 2010.
Since the early days of No Country for Young Women, we planned to profile women working in engineering and architecture. We were in negotiations with a prominent French architect for a few months, but the possibility to interview her fizzled out, when she told us at the last minute that she did not want to be associated with this project – because she was “worried about the title” and felt that women have already achieved full equality in the workplace, so what is the point of this? We were a little disappointed, to say the least. But as my mother likes to say, when one door closes, others open up, bringing you possibly even better opportunities.
I feel blessed about the early setback, because it allowed me to focus my search elsewhere and to find the amazing Pamela Abalu, interviewed here today. I was browsing through the 85 Broads global network, when I stumbled upon Pamela’s profile: the first few lines she wrote in her biography made my jaw drop. Pamela discovered at 24 that there were only 290 registered black female architects in the entire United States. She resolved to become a role model and mentor for African American girls, encouraging them to shatter the glass ceiling and enter this profession, in which so few are represented.
What is your name, age, and location?
Pamela Abalu, mid-thirties, New York, NY.
What is your profession?
What did you study in school and what degrees do you have?
I studied Architecture at Iowa State University and graduated with Bachelor of Architecture Degree.
What was your first job?
I was a summer intern during my sophomore year at one of the big four architecture firms in NYC. It was the worst and yet best experience of my life.
Who or what inspired you to break into your current line of work?
I went to a boarding secondary school in Africa and back then, if you had excellent grades, you were immediately placed in a “science class” meaning you were supposed to become a doctor, mathematician, engineer or scientist. If you had average grades, you were placed in a business / art class. We weren’t given the option to dream bigger than the boxes we were placed in. At 13 years old, I was completely disturbed by the administration’s paltry stance regarding my future. I complained to anyone who would listen and I couldn’t understand why no one else was complaining. I wanted to be an artist and a mathematician if I felt like it. To shut me up, the school allowed me to attend both classes and I naively decided to “build a new world” and because I didn’t know any African female architects, I became one.
Fast forward 20 years later and I am still amazed that there are only about 250 licensed African American women in the ENTIRE UNITED STATES! I became a registered architect when I turned 24 (which was supposed to be impossible) and have strived since then to inspire young women of color to step out of the boxes others put us into. We can soar as high as we want to and must never forget that.
Name/describe what has been your most rewarding project so far?
My international projects. I have had projects in Paris, London, Seoul, Beijing, Frankfurt, Dublin and Cairo. The opportunity to successfully work with diverse clients, local architects, consultants and contractors who are in disparate locations, while overcoming differences in language, time zone, currency, quality standards, codes, and contractual expectations and obligations is always rewarding.
Name/describe one incident when being a woman has helped your career?
I am a woman and one of color in an industry where we simply don’t exist. I think that because I am “unexpected” it gets me through doors that would take someone else longer to get through. I successfully lead the execution of multiple global corporate projects because I ‘get’ the bigger picture.
Name/describe one incident when being a woman has hindered your career?
There will always be hurdles in one form or another throughout our careers. What is so great about being a woman is that we don’t sit back and watch these hindrances happen to us; we are resilient and capable of overcoming every single one.
Who is your role model or mentor (alive or dead)?
My mother was an attorney in an era and country when then were no other women like her. She fought battles to pave the way for me and she showed me through her actions that I could be whoever I wanted to be.
If you could give one piece of advice to a woman starting out in your field, what would it be?
Every year… envision your five year plan. Write it out, look at it every day and expect it to come to fruition. There will always be someone who tells you can’t so something. I am testimony to the fact that it is complete crap. Do yourself a favor and just go for it!
– Interview by Elena Rossini