Two-Hundred Percent: Sandra Madison on Flexibility, Camaraderie, and Passion
By Julia Gamolina
Sandra Madison is the CEO & Chairperson of RPMI, the first African American-owned architecture firm in the State of Ohio and only the tenth in the United States. During Sandra’s 29-year tenure, RPMI has had significant roles on an array of signature projects including the Cleveland Convention Center, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Cleveland Public Library Main Branch Historic Restoration.
Sandra was recognized for the 2018 Progressive Woman Award, as a 2018 Smart Business Honoree, and as the top CEO by Crain’s Cleveland Business in 2017. She graduated from the University of Maryland-College Park School of Architecture and attended Harvard University Graduate School of Design’s Career Discovery Program for Urban Design. In her conversation with Julia Gamolina, Sandra speaks about firm ownership and the flexibility that mothers need, advising young architects to take it easy on themselves and to find what is fun for them.
JG: How did your interest in architecture first develop?
SM: I grew up in Baltimore, in a low rent area. The houses always needed something, and I remember always looking for ways to make the place better. I would get subsidized paint and we would try to make something out of nothing.
I also remember designing my sister’s doll houses out of cardboard boxes. I would design the steps and furniture for her barbie dolls. That’s where it started before I ever knew about the profession.
How did you then decide to go to architecture school?
In our neighborhood, we didn’t hire or know any architects. I only found out about the profession because of my high school counselor. She asked, “Well, what do you want to be one day?” I said I didn’t know. She asked what I liked. “I love math and I love art.” She said, “Did you ever try architecture?”
My mom was a community organizer. She would get grants to beautify the neighborhood - we actually won a block competition and that’s how I got started early on. My mom was also in a group that sent kids to internships, so I got an internship in Boston with Stull Associates (now Stull and Lee Incorporated). I was there for the full summer and I just loved it. I said this is what I want to do.
What did you learn in architecture school?
I had applied to the University of Maryland, but you couldn’t get into the architecture program during the first year. You had to take general university requirement classes and then apply with a portfolio. Because of the work I did with Stull Associates, I had a few architectural drawings for my portfolio but I included other things - I used to sew making clothes for my neighbors to make money on the side, so I included that and artwork from high school, and I was accepted into the program.
It’s funny because I wasn’t sure about architecture after taking general courses. I fell in love with so many different subjects. I thought, “If I don’t get in I’ll major in one of those.” When I finally got to the program though, I was very happy with what I was doing. I stuck with it and did very well.
What was your first job out of school?
I got out in five years and that was the last year University of Maryland offered a five-year program. The next year they started the six-year program where you received a Masters Degree. The school asked if I wanted to stay but because of my situation, I said no, my situation being that I had five siblings and I needed to get out and get to work to help out. At the time, you got your Masters if you were going to teach, and I knew I wasn’t, so I got out and found a job.
In 1980 though, there weren't a lot of jobs. It was very difficult and it was all about who you knew. My mother knew everybody in the neighborhood and thankfully she knew someone whose uncle or cousin was an architect. That’s how I got my first job. I worked there for four years. The only reason I left was because their work had slowed down and I couldn’t afford to stay there. It was the hardest decision I ever made leaving that firm because I loved working there.
What did you do next?
I didn’t last very long at the next firm that I went to - I didn't see that they were using my talents, so I stayed nine months at most and moved on. I then worked for a firm everyone said not to work for [laughs]. Everyone said the owner was eccentric, but I’m my own person and I’m eccentric and different too, so I went for an interview. The Owner of the firm gave interviewees a handwriting test and analyzed whether or not he thought you could work there. He hired me, so I guess he liked my handwriting [laughs].
I worked very closely with him, on various large multi-million dollar homes. I moved up quickly and was made associate in a year. I also had my son a year after I was hired and their work schedule was very flexible. I loved it because of that. As long as you got your 40 hours in and got your work done, they were happy. There were times I could work on the weekend if I needed to because of childcare conflicts, or come in in the mornings. This arrangement back then was almost unheard of. He was very progressive in that way and it was a wonderful place to work.
Why did you leave?
I was afraid of leaving that firm because I didn’t think I would find that type of environment again. The previous two work environments were nice, but not as flexible - this Owner was very trusting. The only reason I left was because my husband Kevin, who is also an architect, got a call from his uncle, who is also an architect. He called and he just said, “I need architects.”
My husband’s father was also an architect in Baltimore, and his uncle was a civil engineer. My husband’s father and two uncles formed the firm Madison Madison Madison in the late 1950’s in Cleveland. Then Kevin’s dad peeled off and formed a firm in Baltimore, so the name changed to Madison and Madison. Then the engineer formed a firm in Detroit and then it became Robert P. Madison International which is where I am now. They became very successful when it was Madison Madison Madison. Three Black brothers. Robert was the first registered black architect in Ohio. There is that history that people remember. They still call the firm Madison and Madison.
We said, let’s just do it. If we are going to do it, let’s do it while our son is young and we are still young. We can always come back to Baltimore if it doesn’t work out. At the end of ‘89, we packed up everything, sold the house, and went for it.
How was working there?
When we first moved, only my husband was hired. I asked why my uncle-in-law wouldn’t hire me. He said married couples don’t work well together and he didn’t want work to break us up. My husband and I had worked together before, that’s how we met. I told my uncle-in-law that he needed to hire me too. I told him we had already worked together for four years and we work on projects at home together. He hired me but he never put us on the same project together. It worked out [laughs].
The interesting thing was that Cleveland was light years behind Baltimore at the time. When I first started working, women there couldn’t wear pants to work. That was crazy - in Baltimore, we wore pants all the time! In Cleveland, we couldn’t wear pants unless we were going to the job site and then we had to come back and change. After a while we could convince people that there are sharp pant suits that are very professional and women can wear something other than skirts to work. Other than that, I loved Cleveland. The people were hospitable and I loved where I lived. There was also so much culture here. The art museums and theaters here are great and it wasn’t a hard move in that way at all.
What have been the most significant moments and milestones for you during your time at RPMI?
When Robert started to trust me. It took a while. He was very cognizant of the fact that I had children and he didn’t want to overload me. It wasn’t so much the time. It was the flexibility with the time. You don’t know how many times I was chastised because I had to drop my kids off at school before work and got there at 9:00 instead of 8:30. I wrote a letter and expressed what I thought.
I finally said to him, “If you want me to go, tell me. But I get my work done. You don’t have a complaint with that. The fact that the complaint is that I come in a half hour later than everyone else is ridiculous.” I never got to that flex time under my uncle. He was old school. You get there at 8:30 and you leave at 5:30. Those were the working hours. Period.
Where do you feel like you are in your career today?
This moment is sweet in that I am at a point where I can make decisions that will be best for the workforce: more flexibility, more openness, less competition. Competition can sometimes be good - but it can be a cancer. When people feel like they have to compete against each other in a firm, that’s not good. People should be able to work together and share ideas. You should only be competitive with yourself to make yourself better and not feel as though you are competing against someone else. That makes a contentious environment. Who wants to work in that environment every day? Work against yourself, not another person. We have a firm that welcomes camaraderie, welcomes design collaboration, welcomes research - not being combative.
I learned of this approach from the company I worked for in Baltimore with the owner who was known to be eccentric. We would have these dinners - a chef would come in and cook for us - and we would talk about what wasn’t working in the office and how to make it better. We could implement what we had talked about, and then in a month or two months we would come back together and talk again. People may have called him eccentric, but instead I call him forward thinking - that’s really what he was. He was great to work for because he welcomed ideas - anybody’s ideas. Your ideas mattered. Your thoughts mattered. If something’s not working - call us out on it. Everyone’s ideas were game. Let’s see how we can make it work for everybody.
What have been the biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge has been getting over the hurdle of being a woman and a mother, and being taken seriously. I combatted that by giving 200%. I put in many nights, days, and weekends. I would bring the kids to the office with and they would play under my desk. But those were the things I would do to show that I could do it, with my kids, and be successful. And now, my daughter is an architectural designer studying for the ARE’s in New York and my son is a personal trainer.
What have been some of the biggest highlights?
Knowing your daughter is following in your footsteps is one. Firm ownership is also a highlight - my husband’s uncle decided at the age of 92 to retire, and we were the ones Robert looked to, to carry the firm. That was scary because he didn't really prepare us for this - until then, we just worked on projects. Running a business is a whole different set of skills - marketing, finding new work, press. This is exciting though - I always wanted to own my own firm, so the transition was a highlight.
All the ribbon cuttings are also highlights - you see the expression on the clients’ and the users’ faces. We design a lot of schools and to see the kids run through their schools and smile, that’s always a highlight for me.
What would you say has been your general approach to your career?
In terms of my work, if I have a decision to make, I always try to do what’s best for the client - I take myself out of it. I try to teach younger people that it’s not about them. You can make anything work well but you have to take yourself out of it - take your ego out of it. Sometimes young designers treat projects like school studio assignments and it’s all about them and their design.
In general, my approach has been to have fun. If you aren’t going to have fun, or if you’re going to dread doing something, it's not for you. I’m at the stage of life where I know how to say, “No, thank you.” I turn down things that aren’t going to be fun for me - I don’t know if that’s selfish, but you aren’t going to put 100 percent into it if you don’t want to do it. I don't want to do anything that I can't put 200 percent in. That’s my philosophy at this stage of my life. I haven’t always had that opportunity, but I’ve come to that point in my life where if it’s something I’m not going to enjoy, I pass on it.
Finally, what advice do you have for those who are just starting their career in architecture?
You have to work hard, but don’t beat yourself up about things. Sometimes you get designer’s block, and that’s normal. The next day you’ll say, “What was I thinking? Why did I do that?” But you’ll have another idea and its okay. Also, keep your mind open - listen, research. There are 110 ways to do any project, and you have to find in yourself what works best for you or works for your client. Have fun with it.
There will be those nights that are going to be hard, but looking back on it, it’ll be worth the work. I look back at all those late nights and that agonizing over stuff, and the reason you agonize is because you feel that passion. If you don’t agonize over it, it means you don’t care, so the agony is a good thing. There will be those moments when you are agonizing but know it's because of the love of it. You won’t always have fun, but just remember that the reason you got into it is because you wanted to.