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Jun 01, 2021 By IIDA HQ
Samantha Josaphat on Building a Career You Love
2021 Anna Hernandez/Luna Textiles Visionary Award winner discusses creating your dream career and re-discovering a love for architecture and designing spaces
By IIDA HQ Jun 01, 2021
Published in Foundation

Samantha Josaphat, IIDA's 2021 Anna Hernandez/Luna Textiles Visionary Award winner is a Brooklyn-based architect, interior designer, and founder of STUDIO 397. Samantha named her firm to honor her position as the 397th African American female architect to achieve licensure in the United States. She holds a Bachelor of Architecture from Penn State University and has served as President of nycoba|NOMA, the New York Chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects.

Establishing STUDIO 397 after years working at corporate architecture firms, Samantha set an intention to reconnect to her love of architecture and design. With leadership experience gained through work with NOMA, and a passion for forward-thinking and sustainable design practices, she has grown her firm from independent consulting to a firm employing a diverse staff. Through her experiences in a corporate environment, Samantha has committed to a workplace that challenges biases, and gives minority designers a voice and outlet for their talents.

Image courtesy of STUDIO 397
Image courtesy of STUDIO 397
Image courtesy of STUDIO 397
Image courtesy of STUDIO 397

Describe the successful progress and growth of STUDIO 397, and what impact you hope to achieve:

Samantha Josaphat: Prior to founding STUDIO 397, I worked for corporate firms where I gained experiences in leading technologies within our industry, and had access to professionals with a vast range of experiences, from whom I learned a lot.

Being an active member of professional organizations, and serving on the board gave me additional insights on how to lead, but being able to translate that into a leadership opportunity in the office was the struggle. Too often I was placed into roles with leaders that had less experience than myself, and I knew that my value and capabilities within our profession were not being fully realized—my volunteering experience gave me the confidence I would need to sustain my resilience as an entrepreneur.

For about a year I consulted with 3 other firms, and by September of 2018 I had two of my own clients. Within 3 years of founding STUDIO 397 we tripled the size of the firm, going from 1 to 3 team members—going from only having consulting jobs to only having client projects, from saying yes to everything, to being able to be selective on prospective projects that align with our strategic business goals. We work on projects with budgets from under 100k to projects with budgets over 1 million.

I will never forget that first day of work on July, 10th 2017, sitting at my dining room table by myself working in CAD. It didn't feel lonely at all, in reality, it felt like I gave myself the opportunity of a lifetime to realize my greatest potential.

You speak about the founding of STUDIO 397 as being a turning point - your last resort to finding success and satisfaction as an architect and interior designer. What were the influences and situations that were contributing to you considering leaving the profession and what influenced you to start your own firm instead?

Samantha Josaphat: It was an unfortunate yet fortunate situation I was in. I found that I experienced different treatment in the corporate workplace than my equals on several occasions, which begin to cripple me physically and mentally. When speaking with some of my colleagues/friends I learned how they were valued differently in the company, and it was a real eye-opener. I realized that no matter how qualified and responsible I was, I was being perceived as less than and treated differently.

Although I know myself as a resilient person, there were many times while working at different companies where I would slowly fall into depression. It becomes very exhausting to have to think beyond the practice because your presence comes with a million other factors that shape how you are perceived and what opportunities will be afforded to you—I would routinely reach out to other black professionals that I looked up to for advice, and with 5-20 more years of experience than me, who’d I’d admired to seek advice on how to navigate the profession and I eventually realized they had been facing the same issues for more years than I have. I was at a roadblock trying to find a solution. Once work began to affect my relationship with family, friends, and my own way of being I decided I needed out, it didn’t feel worth it, after all the years of hard work, late nights, and enormous student debt.

It was sad because the bureaucracy of the profession was making me lose my passion for architecture, but before I completely jumped ship I decided I was going to try something different, and launched STUDIO 397. Since the founding of the firm I have had many people come to me and tell me how courageous I was for starting my own practice, but what folks don’t realize is that I didn’t have a choice, that was an act of survival to stay in the profession. That act of survival is one of the fortunate parts of my journey— it saved me professionally, emotionally, spiritually, and financially.

How did your involvement in NOMA help you to become more self-actualized as a designer, and why are professional organizations like this essential in advancing the industry?

Samantha Josaphat:
I met my first boss at one of my first professional NOMA events, who called me almost 6 months later to offer me a job at SRW Engineering and Architecture. It was a small practice at the time, so I got a lot of hands-on experience on projects, I was of value to them and I felt it. When I went on to other firms where I experienced a lack of value, I would always remind myself of my first job experience where I was confident, even when challenged. I later became a board member for the local NYC NOMA chapter (nycoba|NOMA), where I gained management experience just by simply being in the room, at the table, and on the email thread with accomplished architects and designers. Year after year my NOMA network expanded to where I became friends with so many talented and award-winning professionals (still mind-blowing). These relationships expose me to the depth of what is out there and affords me the opportunity to confidently move in ways where I can’t always envision the result until I am there. NOMA has a large range of diversity when it comes to the types of professionals and careers so there has always been a network for me even when I change the direction in which my career is going. NOMA’s trailblazers and Black architects and designers of the past are an inspiration for me as I settle into my new career path as an entrepreneur.

Image courtesy of STUDIO 397
Image courtesy of STUDIO 397

What advice do you have for designers considering pursuing entrepreneurship—what have been your biggest lessons, and what are some things you wish you knew?

Samantha Josaphat:
As a young entrepreneur I am often blown away by the expectations of what life would be, and what my life has become. My professional journey has shown me that I have the abilities to be resilient, attentive, and courageous. I have learned that it's not all about what you know, but what you believe, and the value you put on one's mind to think beyond the given confines.

Being an entrepreneur has taught me how to successfully operate various complex situations at any single given moment. Whether it is figuring out a complex design problem or figuring out how to manage client expectations. Oftentimes we found ourselves at a crossroads where clients expectations don't match the client's budget. This requires me to set firm expectations when it comes to time commitments on a project and deliverables to the client, which then needs to be communicated back to the client.

My advice to other designers considering entrepreneurship would be to remain patient in building up your portfolio and clientele, while being aggressively consistent with how you network within and outside of the profession. I’d also mention being resourceful with your network—my network of advisors changed once I became an entrepreneur because I needed to seek advice from folks who understand the pressures of managing a startup/design firm, and who could also point me in the right direction when trying to establish what will aid in the firm's longevity. It’s fine to be vulnerable within your professional organizations, that’s what they are there for, as a network of resources.

What role does sustainability have in your practice, and the future of designing spaces? What does it mean to design for now with the future in mind?

Samantha Josaphat:
As a contributing professional to the interior design profession, it is a priority that STUDIO 397 takes a sustainable approach to sourcing responsible products and creating responsible assemblies. Oftentimes this means educating our clients on best practices. Every responsible decision we make as a firm is reflected in how we contribute to industry standards, which is observed by others outside the industry

Our Timeless Design approach is how we design for now with the future in mind. STUDIO 397 not only considers the source of our product selection but the performance of the building envelope and interior fixtures and finishes. Some of the questions we also ask during the design process are “where is it,” and “how is it made?” Even in our day to day office operations we try to take a sustainable approach when it comes to the amount of printing we do and how we source our material samples. Material Bank has had a huge impact on what we can share with our clients and how we declutter our workspace, which naturally declutters our mind.

What do you hope to achieve with STUDIO 397 both in your design work, and overall impact on the industry?

Samantha Josaphat: Through STUDIO 397 I hope to achieve continued success in my confidence as an architect and designer, and willingness to be challenged along the way. I consider my success to be the firm's culture, which pushes all team members to be their best selves—which is reflected in both our client relationships and projects. I am so proud of the dynamic team that I’ve built and wish to continue growing a healthy community of architects and designers that can be themselves at every stage of the project. We hope to be an example to the industry that a strong culture provides excellent design results, and also how to work with small businesses for an even more interesting project outcome.

Describe your overall contributions to the interior design profession:

Samantha Josaphat:
Having the experience of realizing my value and being resilient during my darkest time as an architect and interior designer has shaped the way I inspire others within the industry. Being transparent about the time when I wanted to leave the profession all together, and resorting to STUDIO 397 as my last attempt speaks to so many about the idea of trying something different for a different result. That difference still kept me in the profession, I just needed to change up my approach.

It is a true blessing that the success of my choices to start STUDIO 397 has contributed to the change in which others perceive underrepresented professionals in our industry. Leading by example has been a form of communication I share with others who have a position to provide opportunities. I push to seriously challenge their biases for professionals consistently being overlooked, as they may turn out to be unavailable in the future when needed.

If we all challenge our biases then true collaboration can actually work. The importance of new energy gives way for us to sustain and contribute to the legacy of others who have and continue to build the foundation of the interior design profession.

The Anna Hernandez/Luna Textiles Visionary Award provides entrepreneurs with a stipend towards building their young firms, and establishing a base for success. Learn more about applying for this award here.

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