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December 14, 2017
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48 Hours. 400 Leaders. One Inspiring Conference.

48 Hours. 400 Leaders. One Inspiring Conference

by Susan Brain


Succinctly summarizing the AIA Women’s Leadership Summit experience is challenging.  This conference, otherwise known as WLS, is like no other.  It’s open unedited conversation about the female perspective on architecture.  It inspires the best in oneself and fuels one to inspire the best in other women.  The Summit lasts two days.  The network built here lasts a lifetime.



“Great leaders do not simply create followers – rather they create more leaders.” – Tom Peters



WLS 2017 featured a large cast of accomplished speakers – four whom are featured here.  Each a great leader in their own regard – sharing stories of personal triumph and challenge in conjunction with the conference theme ‘Create Tailwinds’.

Leadership expert Susan L. Colantuono – CEO of Leading Women, described the challenges women face with professional recognition and advancement.  Many women believe ‘work hard and reward will come.’  Unfortunately this rarely happens. Studies show men, much more than women, tend to be promoted more on potential thereby gaining recognition and advancement ahead of their female peers.  To achieve top leadership positions, women must demonstrate strong understanding of finance and business strategy.  Hard work and leadership skill is not enough.  The road to the executive level requires mastery of business, strategy and finance.

Rosa Sheng AIA – Founder of Equity by Design and President-Elect for AIA San Francisco, encouraged annual personal inventory of accomplishments.  Develop this list well in advance of performance reviews. Share it annually with management ahead of reviews and corporate promotion decisions.  Understand your value. Define your career path.  Drive your success.

Susan Klump Williams AIA – Managing Principal of HOK’s DC and Atlanta office, led an insightful small group discussion her perspective on 2016 Equity in Architecture survey (Survey detail here   Susan encouraged all women to become educated on leadership gender gap issues –  but NOT victim of such restraints.  According to Susan, growth happens when uncomfortable – so seek “stretch’ assignments and excel in their execution.  Susan attributes such pivotal growth moments to her executive leadership path at HOK.  Her message – be aggressive in ambition, lead by example and most of all – be serious and purposeful about your career.

Dina Griffin AIA – AIAWLS Keynote Speaker and President of Interactive Design Architects of Chicago, emphasized the value of volunteerism – for both professional growth and spirit of community. An active volunteer since early in her career, Dina inspires others to ‘give back’ with service to the profession.  During her keynote address, Dina stressed the importance of engagement and involvement at the leadership level “You cannot kick dents out of a can from the outside.” – To make a difference you must be on the inside.  Dina’s message – more women must pursue board positions.  “You don’t have a voice if you don’t have a seat at the table.”

WLS is held biannually in major cities across the country.  What started in 2007 by the Women Principals Group of the Boston Society of Architects has ignited conversations on professional diversity, equity, and leadership across the architectural profession for ten years running.  With 400 attendees and more than 300 waitlisted, 2017 marks a summit attendance record.   Based on past experience, those interested should begin searching for Summit details in early 2019.  The conference is not highly publicized, so those interested must actively pursue this opportunity.  Secure your seat at the table by joining the next AIA Women’s Leadership Summit.

Until then, Let’s KEEP THE CONVERSATION GOING.  Spread the Summit spirit by challenging one another to push beyond our comfort zone, to lead thru example and inspire others to achieve their highest potential.  Connect with women Architects within your community.  Promote recognition and nominate other deserving women leaders for awards.  Develop and strengthen business acumen.  Pursue professional growth opportunities.  Share the Equity by Design mission.  Know that each and every day YOU ARE A LEADER.


Susan is a Senior Interior Project Manager with Perkins+Will and volunteers as Chicago Women in Architecture’s Membership Committee Chair.


Photography credit Wanda Lau / ARCHITECT Magazine.