It's been seven years since I left Wall Street to become an architectural designer which has been one of the most impactful decisions of my life. It was definitely a risky change, but since then I have worked on architectural projects ranging in scope from residential interiors in Manhattan to building a community center for women in Rwanda. The project in Rwanda was -- without doubt -- a life changing experience for me. Working on the Women's Opportunity Center reaffirmed my belief that around the world, strong communities can thrive with the help of purposeful and meaningful design inclusive of infrastructure such as composting toilets and rain water collection.
Of course my friends were surprised when I left my banking job to pursue my Masters of Architecture from Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture. New York City's famous skyline was a large inspiration for me to shift careers and I set out to devote my time to becoming a voice in New York's public architectural space. Through embracing the professional ideal of positively changing the way people live, I began to see the need for design of this kind to be present not just in a big city like this - but in rural and remote areas around the globe, too.
In 2010 I had the opportunity to put these beliefs into action while working on my first project in a remote area; the small 3 story building was located in the war torn country of Kosovo. The second project that afforded me the same opportunity was in the East African country of Rwanda. Both projects were for an incredible organization, "Women for Women International," which help women rebuild their lives through economic empowerment after the horror of war.
Being asked to design the Women's Opportunity Center in Rwanda was a truly incredible moment for me. Rwanda is a breathtakingly beautiful country, but also a country still recovering from a brutal genocide which killed nearly 800,000 people. So many men were killed during the years of fighting, that women were left with the daunting task of picking up the pieces and rebuilding their lives. These women are strong, loving, caring and have vision. They are mothers, daughters, sisters, and aunts. While progress has been made -- and the fact that an incredible 56 percent of Rwanda's parliament is now made up of women -- there is still the need for so much more opportunity.
I felt a central aspect of the design should be the women who would call the center their own, so we decided to incorporate a traditional Rwandan feel and to include the women in the construction process. In order to accomplish the latter half of this goal, I asked the women to help me make the half million mud bricks which provide all the walls of the eco-friendly center. We created a new brick-making process which the women learned and utilized. Through creating the bricks for the Women's Opportunity Center, the women have developed a skill that will give them the ability to be financially independent and successful, even beyond its completion. The hope and joy in their faces as they were learning and creating was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
In addition to a strong focus on the women and Rwandan culture it was of great importance to me that the center, which consists of approximately 20,000 square feet, be designed in an eco-friendly way. For instance, the roof of the buildings not only provide much needed shade, but the corrugated steel roofing also captures and saves much needed rain water. Saving those cherished rain drops is crucial as it is used to irrigate the crops that the women are growing. Working through the design process and construction of the center made me see that through multi-disciplinary rigor, team work, caring and understanding people can work together with compassion for the earth and for mankind.
It was the experience of building the Women's Opportunity Center which led me to form a nonprofit organization named "Big Future Group," which offers sustainable solutions for communities in need. "Big Future Group," operates with the philosophy of being thoughtful, and responsible, by integrating the real requirements of the communities we serve. Our first project, a school for Himalayan children located in the Kathmandu valley in Nepal, allowed us to put our philosophy into practice. The main school was designed without the necessary regard for the valley's high risk of seismic activity or the needs of an educational center. In order to create a school that would meet the needs of the community we plan to find a new parcel of land outside of the earthquake prone Kathmandu valley. We then will ensure that infrastructure such as roads, agricultural systems and renewable resources like solar energy, water and recycling systems are being planned in the area. Just as important, of course, we seek to ensure that our work upholds a deep consideration for the student's Buddhist heritage.
In the time that I have spent in the architectural world since I left Wall Street I have learned that where previous top-down, drop-in architectural programs have sometimes proven irrelevant, wasteful and unsustainable, international humanitarian architecture projects are seeing a new face - one that is thoughtful, meaningful and helping transform lives along the way. Often cultural and social distinctions create unexpected opportunities for innovation which is a core value of all we do. In my current career, I often find myself considering a sentiment expressed by the famous Arab poet Khalil Gibran, "You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give." I have discovered that by practicing architecture in a thoughtful, humanitarian way that I am able to give of myself to others in a way that I have found more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.