Leading the Firm: Advice from Women Business-Owners
Until recently, much of the built environment in our communities has been designed predeominantly by and for men. Over the last several decades, however, the planning profession has seen an increase in women in the field. Women planners provide an important — and for too long, unheard — voice in planning that brings the entire profession closer to achieving gender equity through practices like gender mainstreaming.
In celebration of Women's History Month, APA interviewed two women planners who started their own businesses: Anindita Mitra, AICP, founder of CREÄ Affiliates, LLC, and Elizabeth Schultz, AICP, AIA, NCARB, founder of CRIT Workshop.
Together they reflect on their personal career paths, the unique perspective women-owned businesses can bring, and their advice to the next generation of women planners.
This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.
APA: Why did you start your own consulting firm?
Anindita Mitra, AICP: I started my own consulting firm in 2001 because it gave me the freedom to talk openly about sustainability and green development. It was an interesting time to build a practice that focused on sustainability. There was a lot of skepticism about change, and sustainability and green building were seen as fads. Having my own company offered me the freedom to select the topics I championed, the clients I worked with, and the conversations I was able to have with them.
I feel enthused about the future and continue to marvel at the concrete changes that are being made around energy, land use, circulation, health, public space design, and our opinions of marginalized communities.
Elizabeth Schultz, AICP: In college I knew I wanted to have my own unique practice integrating planning and architecture. My friends will tell you that it was always a part of my "40-Year Plan." My over a decade of experience in the field, strong mentorship, and dynamic network of colleagues fostered the opportunity and the confidence to start my own practice. For the past several years I was asked, "When are you going to start your own firm?" Now I can proudly say, "I have!"
APA: Do you have any advice for weathering challenging times?
Mitra: The profession routinely loses many quality planners during challenging times. I would like to encourage those who are passionate about planning to hang in there, especially during challenging times. I did a poll during my equity session at the 2019 National Planning Conference in San Francisco. It revealed that of the 200 or so participants, most were in the profession because they cared, were aware of the injustices in our cities, and wanted to make a difference. These are the colleagues that I want to work with side-by-side during challenging times.
Planning can be hard. However, planners know that economic changes are cyclical; therefore, it is important to remember that better times are always around the corner. So, when the times are hard and work is slow, or if you are forced to leave your job, come back when the season and market are better. If nothing else works, call me — I will be ready to give you a hand to get back into the profession.
Schultz: Communities are ever evolving and so are their planning needs. While planners are equipped with a toolkit of skills, we often have to apply a tool to a new issue or concern. Be open to asking yourself, "How might I apply my skillset to help in a new way?"
APA: Do woman-owned businesses bring a distinct perspective to planning projects?
Mitra: No doubt about it. Most women in planning bring a strong sense of community. Those of us who have pursued the path to building a family view our communities from all generations — as a girl, a young woman, a pregnant woman, a mother of young children, a mother of teenagers, and finally a caregiver of our elders before we are elderly ourselves. This range intimately connects us and changes our perspective of our community and infrastructure.
Schultz: All planning practices bring a unique perspective to projects. Most woman-owned businesses have less years in the industry — inherently making them more nimble, more adaptable, more engaging, and more able to evolve their problem-solving approaches.
APA: What planning work are you most proud of?
Mitra: I have been fortunate to participate in or lead the most amazing projects and work with wonderful clients and client communities. One of my early projects was working with an amazing client to develop a vision for a marginalized neighborhood in the Midwest. I was able to build trust between the many diverse members of the community.
Of my recent projects, I cannot not mention my role as a sustainability consultant for Washington State Ferries Long Range Plan. Thanks to the support of the project manager, I was able to broaden the past focus on only environmental sustainability to include a new focus on maintenance, workforce education and training, and social equity. I love the old cliché that my most favorite project is the next one, because it would probably be true.
Schultz: Continually advocating for economic development, job opportunities, and affordable housing in low-income neighborhoods that struggle from historical disinvestment.
APA: What advice would you offer to young women starting in the planning profession; or to those interested in starting their own consulting firm?
Mitra: Welcome to the profession. It needs you. Irrespective of your gender identity, it is important that as a planner, we have to be unafraid to speak up and speak our truth, and to patiently listen to others who are doing exactly that.
Women are well represented in the planning profession now. I remember the days when this was not the case. They now have the opportunity to intentionally pay it forward by supporting other women as well as those with other gender and racial identities, who have still a long way to go to reach a semblance of parity within the profession.
- Set goals, plural.
- Get certified! Seek continuing education opportunities and maintain a dynamic network of supportive professional colleagues.
- Challenge yourself. See hurdles as obstacles to spring your career forward and upward.
- Give yourself time and grace.
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