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Q&A 4Her – Laura Thul Penza, Partner at Penza Bailey Architects

Laura Thul Penza is one of three partners at the award-winning mid-sized architectural firm of Penza Bailey Architects.  Penza Bailey Architects was formed in 2007 when two successful, mature architectural practices, Amos Bailey Arnold + Associates and Penza Associates Architects, merged.

Laura has been acknowledged for her commitment to her work and community many times throughout the years. In 2009, she was inducted into the Circle of Excellence, an annual award program that recognizes 100 of Maryland’s leading women who are making an impact on our state through their leadership, community service and mentoring, after being selected as one of Maryland’s Top 100 Women by The Daily Record three times.

Laura shared her ideas on business in our latest Q&A 4Her interview.  She tells us how she defines success, gives advice to other women in business and more. Read on for her interview!

Did you ever imagine yourself achieving what you have?

I never imagined myself to be a partner in an architectural firm, or that I’d be so involved in community work. I knew early in life that I wanted to be an architect– my Dad is a design/builder/developer– so that choice seemed pretty natural. I truly enjoyed being an employee and had wonderful employers/mentors, but the journey we take through life can be pretty amazing, as we all respond differently to opportunities we are presented with or that we deliberately make happen.

My interest in non-profit organizations and community involvement stems from my commitment to give back to my community. I generally work with smaller groups that really need passionate volunteers – where I can make a difference.

I had imagined a family life that included a terrific husband and amazing children and I am truly blessed that I have Jeff, Brian and Leah in my life, as well as my parents and siblings. I’m grateful that my family’s support and the support of many others over the years, helped me become the person I am today. I’m also grateful that I’m still supported in my growth today.

What, in hindsight, would you say you underestimated about your industry or business, and why?

In hindsight, I didn’t realize that the ‘business and marketing’ of architecture was so important to learn about, understand and be involved with. I’ve learned that a valued architect is an advocate for his/her firm, regardless of ownership. Understanding the many requirements of a business is important for having an appreciation of the architectural profession, or any industry for that matter. I wish I could spend more time ‘on the boards,’ instead of working on business and networking responsibilities, but those responsibilities are critical to being a successful architect. Everything we do, whether it’s work or play, can be an opportunity for marketing.

What is the best business advice you have ever been given?

My dad always said, “A job worth doing, is a job worth doing well.” This advice applies to business practice as well as cleaning out a closet and I take this advice to heart. Doing our very best, however great or small a task, brings a rewarding sense of accomplishment and knowledge that there is value in whatever we do.

What do you love most about what you do, and why?

I love the diversity of each day and the learning opportunities. Each project and client is unique and it’s humbling to realize that every day brings new learning opportunities and challenges, such as increasing an awareness of the importance of sustainability in architecture. Years ago, while I was studying architecture, energy conservation was a focus. I’m glad that the market is finally focused on that, moving our industry in a positive direction.

Penza Bailey Architects prides itself on having very diverse project base and we strive to maintain that diversity. Each project also has many phases, from early programming and schematic design through construction administration, which allows daily tasks to be quite different. I enjoy working with a talented team, including staff, consultants and contractors.

What if you knew then what you know now – would you do anything differently, and why?

I would have taken more business classes at the University of Cincinnati (Go Bearcats)! I learned later how important it was to have an understanding of business. Our daughter is currently in her third year of architecture, and thankfully, she is heeding our advice about taking business and marketing classes.

When you are not working, how do you like to spend your time?

Ideally, with family and friends, or in artistic endeavors. We spend many weekends boating on the beautiful Chesapeake Bay. Also, since becoming an ‘empty-nester,’ I have been enjoying time at Baltimore Clayworks, taking classes and creating functional ceramic items.

Each year, as a sort of New Year’s Resolution, I focus on educating myself with some long-term project. In past years, it is sometimes business-related, such as taking lighting design courses at MICA, or becoming a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) accredited architect. Some years, it’s community-related, such as taking Main Streets Management training, or heading up our local Govanstowne Business Association. I especially enjoy improving my artistic side, though. Artistic endeavors have included stained glass, watercolor and oil painting, and I’m currently learning about clay. I’ve realized that there is so much to learn about working with clay, so this will take many years of focus.

How do you define success?

Good question – there is no single definition for all. We must all define ‘success’ for ourselves (so we’ll recognize it when we get there!), and it’s best when we can be specific about tangible results such as reasonable deadlines, budgets, scope of work, satisfaction by client or staff, etc. Setting reasonable goals is key and it is very important to always strive for excellence, not perfection– otherwise we set ourselves up for failure.

I base my personal success upon maintaining what I call a ‘Life Balance’ between my commitments with family, work, church, community and play (keeping to five-fingers) but I must admit that I’m not always as successfully balanced as I’d like to be. That balancing act is always a work in progress. Success for me really comes down to this: As long as I am doing whatever I can personally do to make this world a better place and adding value to projects I work on, and working toward improving as a person, while maintaining a sense of my Life Balance and (most importantly) enjoying a happy and healthy family, I feel pretty successful and am grateful for my blessings.

If you had to share one final thought with our audience of thousands of women in business – what would it be?

To journey through life focused on achieving both professional skill and personal integrity can be very rewarding. This world would be a better place if everyone made it a priority to be an example for others and live daily by these rules:

1. Family is most important.
2. Act with fairness and honesty – always.
3. Work with good people and seek the best in others.
4. A job worth doing, is a job worth doing well.
5. It does take a village! Teamwork is important.

Following these basic guidelines or your own set of guidelines, I encourage everyone to do your part, in your own way.


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