Gensler Voices: Mustapha Williams, Gensler Chicago
April 08, 2021
This Q&A is part of a series of interviews with Gensler architects, designers, and others in the firm about their career journey, and the impact that design and architecture can have on our communities and the human experience. The conversation originated from an IGTV interview between Interior Design Magazine Editor-in-Chief Cindy Allen and Gensler Technical Designer Mustapha Williams.What sparked your passion for design?
I fell in love with design by seeing my own city of Nashville grow and explode, and that helped me wrap my head around what design really is and what the design industry can offer. I went to school downtown, so I watched as buildings were built and I was inspired. I also loved drawing. My parents would give me sketchbook after sketchbook and I would draw the skyline over and over — and then, I started adding my own buildings to the skyline.
One of my family members said, “You want to be an architect,” and I asked, “What’s that?” Sketching and observing the buildings going up in Nashville while I was in middle school really spurred the idea of becoming an architect.
In high school, I was an ACE student with the ACE Mentor Program, and every week we had professionals — architects, structural engineers, contractors, interior designers, and so on — come in and guide us through a year-long project. That program really fortified my resolve to become an architect. I also won a couple of scholarships, which allowed me to go to the University of Tennessee, where I pursued a five-year professional Bachelor’s in Architecture.
In 2017, I was awarded the Gensler Diversity Scholarship which came with a monetary award and an opportunity to intern at a Gensler office. I chose to intern at Gensler Chicago because I already loved the city — I mean it’s the city of architecture.
I quickly fell in love with the firm and with the city and I was eager to come back after I graduated from the University of Tennessee. I’ve been on Gensler’s Summer Intern Regional Planning Committee for a couple of years now, and it’s been rewarding to review portfolios and help bring in younger talent.
I started fulltime in the summer of 2018 and by that fall I was working with the team on a project for a major tech company in Chicago, which was finished by the summer of 2019. I was put on this team right when I started working at Gensler and as a young designer starting out at a big firm. I was involved in all the meetings with the client, so throughout the entire process I had direct communication with the client. I knew what they were thinking, and it made the whole design process so much easier.
A technical designer is one of the junior designer roles and it’s all-encompassing – you’re there to help with whatever the team needs, including working as a junior job captain. I was fortunate enough to work on my first project at Gensler from the very beginning at the strategy design phase through completion, and this experience really opened my eyes to the overall impact we can have in creating amazing workspaces.
The passion was already there but my mentors really pushed and guided me to turn this into a career. I’ve known one of my mentors, Joseph Cole, since tenth grade. He was my ACE mentor, also went to University of Tennessee, and worked at Gensler for a while — he really was my mentor throughout the important early stages of establishing my career. He allowed me to see a person that looked like me in a position of success in an industry I’m passionate about.
Another big passion is making sure I’m giving back. I am successful, but I did overcome some hurdles in life. So now I have the opportunity to give back to students who, without the ACE Mentor Program or the National Organization of Architects (NOMA), might not have the opportunities to succeed in the design industry.
In high school I was an ACE student and today, I’m fortunate enough to be a mentor in the Chicago chapter and serve on the ACE Chicago’s Associates Board.
I also serve on the Illinois Chapter of NOMA’s Executive Board (ended 2020). I was introduced to the organization when I joined Gensler as an intern; I went to one meeting and just fell in love with NOMA’s mission to increase diversity within the design industry. We know that the percentages of racial backgrounds in the design industry do not reflect the racial percentages in this country, and if we’re going to design for everybody, then everyone should be represented in the design teams. Eventually, a few of my friends and I were inspired to go back to the University of Tennessee and start our NOMAS chapter back up to inspire younger students, which was amazing.
In Chicago, Project Pipeline is a component of NOMA that provides students with education and exposure to the industry. Beginning in elementary school and building through middle school with workshops, there is a five-day summer camp where students go to places like Willis Tower and get to learn more about their city. We’re giving them the opportunity to both learn about design and raise their career expectations.
When you teach students about the role they can play in designing their community and the work they can do within their own community, you just see their eyes light up. Especially when they realize they can do this as a career – making beautiful spaces for their families and communities. It’s really about showing them they can positively impact the people around them through the power of design; it really is a huge passion of mine.
I am so grateful for where I have come from, and my challenge in life is to bring someone else up behind me. That’s my drive — helping and empowering the next generation is what gets me up in the morning as well as tackling beautiful design and creating wonderful environments for my community.
This year has been a tough one for many reasons, but one of the things that I’ve enjoyed the most is trying to create positive impact by working with the firm, recognizing there are issues of diversity and equity within our own industry, and acknowledging that it’s time for us to really put pen to paper to figure out how to fix these issues. It’s been rewarding being a part of committees within Gensler that are trying to do just this – increase the amount of Black professionals at Gensler and within the design industry. We always say actions matter more than words. There has been a lot of planning and conversations throughout last summer, and now we’re seeing a lot of these initiatives start to take off.
I believe design can be welcoming and open to everybody, and we need to continue to work to make sure it is inclusive of everyone. I’m currently working with a lot of great people at Gensler to do so.
One of the things I’ve learned is that the impact you can have, even as a young designer. Regardless of factors like how many years you’ve been out of school or what type of project you’re working on, there are so many connections, opportunities, and organizations through which you can create a positive change in this world beyond what you do in your 8 to 5.
At Gensler, I love what I do during the workday, but I also have a great passion outside of my 8 to 5 and I am encouraged at my firm to be involved in community organizations and to do community impact work. My best advice: build a cohort of people around you who are doing the work you care deeply about, and you will always inspire each other.
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