Change makers: Insights from the seven women elected to lead AIA

Change Makers

There have been more AIA presidents named Robert than women presidents,” Emily Grandstaff-Rice, FAIA, noted hours before her inauguration as AIA’s 99th president.

In the thirty years since Susan Maxman , FAIA, became the first woman elected as AIA’s president, AIA members have elected only six other women to serve as their leader. The legacy and impact of these trailblazing professionals is significant to shaping the future of the profession as a place of inclusion, innovation, and excellence.

Susan Maxman, FAIA (1993)

Even in the early 1990s, Susan Maxman drew the line when it came to practicing climate friendly architecture. “I don’t think every building has to be a state-of-the-art environmental showpiece. But I do think we all have to move toward making our buildings more energy efficient, and we have to stop specifying endangered woods and resource-gobbling materials,” she told Building Green in 1992.

As president, Maxman called on the AIA Board to adopt the protection of the planet as a top issue and established environmental criteria for judging AIA awards. When asked if she believed she could succeed in moving AIA toward environmental awareness, she was quick to say yes. “Now is the time. It is happening. The AIA has to make this a priority and lead the way, or the movement will go on without us. I do believe that we will be successful in this effort.”

Kate Schwennsen, FAIA (2006)

When Kate Schwennsen attended her first AIA Board meeting in 1999, only 13.5 percent of registered architects in the United States were women. The numbers have increased since then to 23.3 percent.

Schwennsen counts her early efforts to change architecture through representation as her most significant contribution as AIA president, as well as “leading our support of and advocating for the then-new 2030 Challenge; Contributing to international agreements that advanced knowledge sharing and reciprocity; And strengthening relationships between the academic, regulatory and practicing communities of our profession.”

“I think all architects can be transformational leaders, leaders who don’t just take people to where they already want to go, but who take people to where only their better selves are willing to tread,” says Schwennsen. “When we advance and balance all ten points of  AIA’s Framework for Design Excellence in every design project, we are being transformational leaders. When we simultaneously advocate for climate action, affordable housing, EDI, and livable communities we are being transformational leaders.  Architects have the responsibility, capability, and privilege to leave the world better than we found it.  We have much to do!”

Helene Combs Dreiling, FAIA (2014)

When offering advice to the next generation of architects, Helene Combs Dreilling says, “Act like what you want to become.”

Before she became AIA president, she served as AIA secretary in 2011 and 2012, and began forming relationships with leaders in Shanghai. “Because of the complex legal, administrative, and structural requirements for creating a foreign-owned business entity in China, our efforts to form and then charter the entity took nearly four years.” When she became president, Dreilling was “thrilled to solidify the Shanghai chapter officially in 2014, a moment celebrated by all involved! Since then, this growing chapter has provided professional, educational, and design support to the numerous AIA members, international associates, and other interested persons seeking a meaningful tie to the United States and to our professional society.”

Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA (2015)

During her time as AIA president, Elizabeth Chu Richter focused efforts on building a more prosperous and economically sustainable future for the profession.

“These efforts are essential to attracting and retaining architects to meet the pressing global challenges of climate change, sustainability, resiliency, and equity,” says Chu Richter, who lists the entrepreneurial summit to discuss expanded market opportunities, federal agencies roundtables to discuss outdated federal limitation on design fees, and a comprehensive Diversity in the Profession report that provided quantifiable data for improvement as highlights from her tenue.

Her advice to future leaders is to hone your skills at each stage, keep an open mind, and meet each opportunity with gusto. “We all know that life is complicated and unpredictable,” she says. “One size does not fit all. Career paths can be circuitous, and there will be many stages.”

Jane Frederick, FAIA (2020)

Jane Fredrick intended to focus on “climate, climate, climate” as AIA president, but instead got COVID, , COVID, COVID.  

What a year I had,” Frederick recalls of 2020: The beginning of the pandemic, its resulting economic recession, and the civil unrest that ensued following George Floyd’s murder.

“I am proud of all that we accomplished in an extremely challenging year. I appointed several task groups to respond to COVID-19. They created the Reopening America Initiative. Due to that initiative, AIA was named as one of the 100 Associations that will save the world by the publication Associations Now,” says Fredrick. “After the murder of George Floyd, we reaffirmed our commitment to advance racial and ethnic justice throughout the entire organization. This included expanding the critical dialogue by adopting a Framework to Address systemic racial injustice and inequity, outreach to HBCUs, evaluating our recognition programs, and promoting justice through design with our revision to the code of ethics to prohibit the design of spaces intended for execution, torture and prolonged solitary confinement.”

Frederick still found time to focus on climate. During her tenure, AIA developed and adopted the Climate Action Plan, created, and adopted the Materials Pledge, and  updated the Framework for Design Excellence and adopted it as the standard for design awards.

Emily Grandstaff-Rice, FAIA (2023)

As Grandstaff-Rice advances in her tenure as AIA president, she carries with her the legacy of all her predecessors. “In leadership, each president is building on to the work of the last,” says Grandstaff-Rice.  “It’s no longer an era of shining new things. It’s about how we can build capacity and go deeper with the work we’ve been continuing over many years.”  And, like the women before them, Grandstaff-Rice and 2024 President-elect Kimberly Nicole Dowdell are still conquering “firsts.” Grandstaff-Rice, Dowdell, and AIA’s EVP/CEO Lakisha Ann Woods are the organizations first all-female leadership team.

As AIA’s youngest female to date President, Grandstaff-Rice has a growing platform to continue advancing equity throughout the profession, as she did during the five years she spent chairing AIA’s Equity in Architecture Commission and the Equity and the Future of Architecture Committee. She counts the development, creation, and launch of the AIA Guides for Equitable Practice as some of the most impactful work she has done through AIA. “It continues to be an important, research-based body of work that is relevant and comprehensive to continue to impact the profession,” she says.

Under Grandstaff-Rice’s tenure, AIA has it’s highest membership level yet, with more than 96,000 members. AIA is also beginning a major renovation of its headquarters during her time in office. In just the first few months as President she has met with elected officials, government agencies, and allied organizations to continue to advance AIA’s important work on climate action.

“I may be number six but I see a large group of female leaders at every level of the organization,” she says. “I think back on my first committee meeting to serving as a chapter president to now. This has been an amazing leadership journey.”

Kimberly Nicole Dowdell, AIA (2024)

“I’m inspired by the tremendous potential within the profession of architecture and the power that the AIA has to help architects prosper and improve their communities,” says Kimberly Dowdell.

When she is  inaugurated at the end of 2023, Dowdell will be the first Black woman to serve as AIA president. “I would like to further catalyze equity at AIA and within the industry by serving as an example of what is possible,” Dowdell says. “My hope is that not only my presence, but also my strong performance in the role, will inspire the next generation to get engaged with making a difference in our profession.”

Written by
Patra Wroten