Career by Design

Architect Barbara Bouza's Career Does Not Include Glass Ceilings

By Melanie Johnson

Not many teens navigating the hallowed halls of high school know definitively what they want to do for a career.

Growing up in Santa Maria, Barbara Bouza (’85, architecture) loved art, creative problem solving, and math, and she also had an analytical side.

It wasn’t until an architecture class in high school that Bouza realized she could pursue a profession that would tap into all of her passions.

“I took the course and I knew I wanted to be an architect,” she says.

Bouza is the co-managing director and principal at the Los Angeles office of Gensler, the largest architecture and design firm in the world.

“I don’t take for granted the many opportunities I’ve had,” she says.

Wanting to stay in California for college, she enrolled in the architecture program at Cal Poly Pomona. The first year was a crowded field, as the program enrolled more applicants than it had room for. Bouza made it successfully through a rigorous freshman year and continued on.

“It was balanced,” Bouza says of the university’s program. “There was a strong focus on design and thinking creatively. It also had a practical component as well.”

While a student, she interned with the Westwood-based architecture firm RBB, because the program required students to gain work experience in the field. After her internship ended, RBB hired Bouza part-time and she stayed on after graduation.

She worked a few years before deciding to head to London with husband and fellow architect Manuel Bouza (’85, architecture) to study for a year in the Architectural Association’s graduate diploma program.

The couple stayed for 3¹/₂ years and worked with the internationally recognized firm Foster + Partners.

“I loved it,” she says. “I encourage young people to travel and study abroad. It was a great opportunity. It was if we didn’t do it then, we would never do it.”

After coming back to Los Angeles, Bouza worked at Morphosis, then returned to RBB where she continued to focus on healthcare projects. One of her most memorable projects was the Alta Bates Comprehensive Cancer Center in Berkeley. The American Institute of Architects’ San Fernando chapter recognized the project with a design award, and it was also featured in the publication Architectural Record.

She then took a job with New York-based Pei Partnership, serving as the Los Angeles point person for the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center project, a 1 million-plus square foot, eight-story replacement hospital that was built after the previous facility was damaged by the Northridge earthquake.

Gensler, aware of her talents, approached her about a career opportunity. She interviewed on a day she will never forget because it was the day after Sept. 11, 2001. She took the job and has been at Gensler’s downtown Los Angeles office for 17 years, starting the firm’s health and wellness practice with a couple of colleagues, as well as focusing on media, tech, science and aerospace projects.

Culture Shift

Bouza has found great success in a field that is not very diverse.

The Los Angeles Business Journal named her the “2014 Executive of the Year – Women Making a Difference.” As a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), Bouza will be the AIA Los Angeles chapter 2019 president.

Of the estimated 125,000 licensed architects in the United States, around 18 percent are women. For African-American women, the number is much smaller at approximately 430 or 0.3 percent, she says.

Despite the lack of representation in the profession, Bouza says through the support of colleagues and mentors, she was able to make her dreams a reality.

“As an African-American woman architect, I could look at the statistics and be discouraged that the odds are stacked against me,” she says. “But the opportunities are there, and we need to do a better job of supporting each other.”

Bouza and Gensler continue to push for diversity in the profession.

More than 50 percent of Gensler’s employees are women, including at the CEO level. Bouza has been working with other leaders at the firm to continue promoting Gensler’s Diversity Scholarship program, a university outreach effort designed to build a diverse pipeline of talent.

“The broad range of practice areas and markets we design for, such as workplace, education, retail, healthcare, sports, airports and media, provide amazing opportunities that require diverse leadership,” she says. “As a global firm, we are local first, and the cross synergy of different viewpoints has been key to our success. Diversity is a seat at the table; inclusion is having a voice.”

She also mentors young women through leadership programs such as Girls, Inc. and Dress for Success.

Bouza is a longtime member of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), which offers a summer camp for high school students interested in the field. She spoke at the national conference on “How Diversity Drives Business Innovation.”

Bouza is on the board of directors of Imagine LA, a non profit organization dedicated to stopping the cycle of family poverty and homelessness through an innovative mentorship program that provides parents and their children the tools to thrive.

Experience has taught her that a little extra guidance helps those new to the world of design and community of architects.

“It doesn’t matter your background,” she says. “It’s about opportunity. The great thing about architecture is we have the ability to create a meaningful impact in people’s lives.”

At Cal Poly Pomona, the College of Environmental Design also is striving to bolster diversity. In the architecture program, there are about 120 new undergraduate students every fall but sometimes only one or two African-American students, says Michael Woo, dean of the College of Environmental Design.

The university is working with NOMA and school counselors to identify African-American students at high schools and community colleges who might have an aptitude and an interest in architecture or the college’s other disciplines. An open house and breakfast for high school and community college counselors is planned in the fall.

Diversity is very important for those seeking a career in the ENV disciplines, Woo says, adding that Cal Poly Pomona’s affordability and proximity to Los Angeles give students a great opportunity to focus their work on issues they care about.

“Design professionals have a big role in developing cities and urban environments, from immigrant communities to dealing with issues like homelessness,” he says. “If we don’t have enough ethnic minorities in the architecture and other design professions, then many urban communities will be shaped by designers and policymakers who don’t really understand the people who live in them.”

As a principal and one of two co-managing directors, her responsibilities include ensuring a culture of design excellence, bringing in new client business and focusing on talent development and recruiting.

Holistic Approach

Bouza has learned that architects need to look at communities as a whole, not just the buildings. It’s a message she tries to impress upon students and younger architects.

In Gensler’s work with Netflix, understanding the client’s business has been key. Her team came to recognize that the DVD-by-mail-technology-companyturned- media-empire has a strong culture of “freedom and responsibility” and incorporated those values in the design of several local and global projects.

“They are an amazing company, and their space needs to be able to evolve as they continue to look to the changing landscape of media platforms,” she says.

Gensler also has done a range of projects for Duartebased City of Hope, including a medical office building, new workplace offices and a campus master plan. The firm’s strategy and brand design team helped City of Hope develop the communications and graphics materials for its Diversity and Inclusion Strategy program to best align itself to the population it serves.

“Architecture is beyond designing buildings,” she says. “You have to look at the overall client relationship. I
always encourage those entering the profession to look at architecture more holistically.”

The ability to collaborate, communicate effectively and listen are as important as the practical skills related to design, she says. In an architecture class, students might work alone on a project; in the working world, it’s about collaboration and the exchange of ideas.

“So much today is about conveying an idea,” she says.

“The world is less patient. You have to be quick and to the point, nimble to change and articulate. Know your audience.”