“Confessions of CEOs” is a series on how business owners are changing the service landscape. Today, we’re chatting with Valerie Thiel, founder of SAGE Architectural Alliance LLC, a Seattle-based architecture firm. She shares her secrets on driving design innovation for the most critical stages of life as a woman leader.
At the age of 55, I opened Sage Architectural Alliance, a reasonably daring venture leaving steady employment as a working mother. This was after graduating from MIT, 30 years of working in the architectural industry and having kids in my 40’s. I believe that more women and senior-led projects help create a unique working environment with experienced viewpoints. Creating a diverse team helps remove the limitations set by society. The door opens up for so many different outcomes, and so the richer our projects become from planning and spaces, to connections and support.
What’s your design philosophy?
Celebrate life in all of its stages; each stage brings its challenges and beauty.
As a baby boomer, I feel the last stage of life is paramount. My grandparents had died in pretty abysmal nursing facilities. Because of this, I focused on transforming senior living design so that my mother could enjoy more attractive, more enriching options. Many nursing homes have to struggle with the support of limited Medicaid funds.
However, these facilities need warm, welcoming, and elegant main entries and gathering areas, so that family and friends enjoy visitations; these factors are vital to the well-being of families. Just as Starbucks has capitalized on the corner coffee shop, the presence of a bistro-cafe (even with self-serve coffee), is the first step toward creating community vitality.
Residents come for the coffee but also enjoy comfortable seating, a variety of lighting levels, and lots of people-watching. They’re incentivized to leave their apartments and enjoy hanging out in the commons to connect with other people, and that is a major driver of residents’ health. Even staff retention improves with more aesthetically, pleasing surroundings.
Do not let limitations set by others withhold you from accomplishing your own goals and aspirations. Women in their 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s have such different expectations handed upon them compared to when I was their age. Growing up in Bellingham, I had never known any professional woman (let alone what a professional woman in architecture) could accomplish. When I attended the University of Washington, I was the only woman in my engineering classes. For generations, society restricted women by stereotypical gender roles that limited their opportunities and contributions. I experienced this quite a bit within the architectural industry. Working for others, I felt like a backroom technician who had no voice. I needed to express my ideas, and I felt severely repressed working for others. It was as if my male bosses had all the ideas; my role was only to implement them. Starting my firm was the right choice for me.
Who are your biggest advocates?
While most of our clients are non-profits, we focus on finding projects that are mission-driven and will have a positive impact on the community. Some of our favorite architectural projects supported senior citizens. We’ve built numerous senior living residential projects to help both seniors and their families. We’ve also worked with the State of Washington, various community centers and grass-roots community organizations fighting high resident displacement from gentrification. Currently, we’ve started working on homeless and behavioral health projects also.
How do you give back to its community?
Giving back to our community is one of the pillars of SAGE. We recently sponsored a community event that was aimed at showcasing how fearful high school students were about losing their homes. We prioritize supporting the younger generations in order to help them realize their potential.
What’s been your greatest life lesson?
Opportunities may present themselves; while they may not be what you wanted at the time, they may be the most impactful and rewarding.
When I first started the firm, I thought focusing my expertise in senior housing projects alone was the best way to help the community. Instead, I was able to take elder-care expertise and principles to other vulnerable populations (like to low-income families) which benefited our firm’s architectural outputs and the community even more than my initial efforts with the elderly. Women and minority architectural leaders should be designing more of the affordable housing and shared spaces; the city would achieve more economic balance and diverse self-expression.
When all is said and done, what do you hope for SAGE to achieve?
To inspire and support women and others of diversity to find their voices and pursue their passions.
SAGE Architectural Alliance LLC is a preferred partner on Beaze.