Evolution and Leaning In: Jenny Peysin on the Making of a Firm, in Real Time
By Julia Gamolina After just seven years in the industry, two of which were spent managing the high profile renovation of Carnegie Hall, Jenny Peysin is the founder and principal of a brand-new Brooklyn-based boutique firm, Jenny Peysin Architecture. In this interview, Jenny speaks to Julia Gamolina, friend and fellow Cornell architecture alumna, about her preparation and evolution—from discovering she wanted to be an architect and starting a firm by staying flexible, to embracing things out of her control, and reaching beyond her abilities. We are thrilled that Jenny is sharing her experiences with sub_teXXt and hope that her reflections help other women thinking about making the same leap.
JG: When did you realize you wanted to be an architect?
JP: It was an evolution rather than a realization. I went to an art and performing arts high school, and my photography teacher’s husband was an architect. I guess she recognized something in me that she saw in him, and on her recommendation I sought out an internship and decided to apply to architecture school. However, the goal to be a practicing architect really solidified once I started to intern and see real projects.
What was it about seeing real projects that solidified your goal?
I was lucky to have many varied internship experiences, from working for SOM, to working for tiny firms, like Stephanie Goto Design Group. Working with Stephanie was especially formative. I worked on a restaurant called Aldea and she had me talking to the client, sitting in on meetings, and visiting the site. I think being involved at that level and seeing things inside out was what solidified that I wanted to practice and the type of firm I belonged in: the smaller, boutique firms, where I didn’t feel like I or my voice was getting lost. I think, also, those firms give you so much to do right away and I loved the exposure and going beyond my perceived abilities.
What was your first job out of school?
I graduated in 2009, in the very depths of the recession. I taught Cornell first-years for a year until a colleague of mine pointed me towards Iu+Bibliowicz Architects. It was also a very small firm—there were about four people working there other than the two partners. They were in the middle of an incredible project: the Carnegie Hall Studio Towers renovation. It was a significant undertaking for a firm of their size, so they put me on it and right away trusted me with a lot of responsibility. After a year, the project manager left, and they asked me to take her place. Two years out of school, I was managing this really high-profile job. I felt out of my depth, but at the same time I thought, if I can do this, I can do anything.
Then you had a change of scene working for Blaze Makoid in Long Island. How did this come about?
Long Island truly was a completely different architecture scene than urban New York; a lot of small, high-end, boutique residential companies who build ground-up homes. We moved to Long Island because my husband, Konstantin, got his residency placement there. I was still working on Carnegie Hall and I remember FaceTiming with him on Match Day. He got matched with Stony Brook Hospital, and I just broke down crying. I remember thinking, is there even architecture on Long Island?!
I commuted for about a year to finish up the Carnegie Hall project. Once the project was done, I found Blaze Makoid Architecture in Bridgehampton and was hired as a project manager. At Blaze’s, it was so great to be able to take a project straight from schematic design through construction administration, and to have a thorough relationship with the client. That is where I really started to appreciate the whole process and thought that I could do it, from start to finish, on my own.
How did you finally make the decision to go off on your own?
We ended up moving out of Long Island because of Konstantin’s job, too—he got his post-residency fellowship for gastroenterology at a hospital in Brooklyn. Each time we’ve moved, I’ve panicked a little over what I’m going to do, but actually it has always led to something positive. I’ve learned to embrace being flexible and open about things that are out of my control.
Getting out of the New York City rat race for a few years really gave me perspective. In Long Island, a lot of people go out on their own, all for different and personal reasons. Also, the bar for success in establishing yourself on your own there was easier to clear. Over time it rubbed off on me, and I started thinking that I could do it too, especially given my varied experiences in roles of high responsibility. I also felt like I was hitting my stride with these small, ground up projects I was doing at Blaze’s. Layered on top of that, we were talking about having a baby, so I thought to myself: does it make sense to look for another office job? With all these factors converging, I decided that moving back to Brooklyn was the right time to open my firm, and as soon as I’d decided, I starting working towards it.
Where did you start?
I read blogs of people’s experiences, put together a website, came up with a company name and incorporated Jenny Peysin Architecture (JPA) as a real legal business. All of these seemingly little things are projects in themselves, and once you have your own commissions, you don’t want to be spending time doing these things. So for six months before we moved, while I was still working for Blaze, I allocated all my energy in the evening towards establishing the entity of Jenny Peysin Architecture.
What were some challenges that you expected to encounter and how did you prepare for them?
The biggest challenge that I was expecting is finding work. I think this challenge will be ongoing for the entire life of the business, especially when it’s so project-based. You prepare for it as much as you can—when I was just starting, I made a really detailed list of all my past clients, made sure they knew that I’d established my own firm, and followed up with them every so often. I’ve had a client that we designed a house for in the Hamptons with Blaze, and I ended up designing their New York City apartment as my own firm. Then I got referrals from a friend of a relative who needed a house renovation. So far, the work has been previous clients and word of mouth.
Another challenge is learning how to work alone! I’m working out of my home, and don’t have the constant idea-sharing that I had previously with coworkers. I think that you have to establish a few people that you are comfortable enough with that you can call, like my mentor Carol, if you are unsure how to proceed with a situation or how to address a client request. Having people who can answer stupid questions is nice.
What were some challenges that you didn’t anticipate, and how are you handling them?
The biggest challenge by far is the insecurity and uncertainty when you don’t have a project lined up. I did anticipate this, but it’s different to experience it. There are times when you are super busy, and everything is going great, and you have work and a plan for the next three weeks, and then all of the sudden you find yourself without a project for a while. Thankfully, I’ve been doing a mix of my own projects and freelancing to ease into the business. However, when I don’t have a project on the horizon, it becomes a question of how to reassure myself that I have the skills and the tools to determine the next step and make this work.
How do you reassure yourself?
My husband has been a great sounding board whenever I wonder what to do next. We talk through my options and I’ve found that once you break it down and say it out loud, you find actual physical steps you can take to go forward.
Also, my family has been extraordinarily supportive- me being on my own appeals to their definition of success. I think coming from Russia to America in pursuit of the American dream has made them and me feel like having your own company is the ultimate goal.
Speaking of family, you recently announced that you’re expecting! Can you talk about what you’re doing with JPA to prepare for motherhood?
In the words of Sheryl Sandberg, I’m really trying to “lean in” at the moment. I’ve been making an effort to attend more networking events. I've also been continuously reaching out to potential clients and following up on leads. Finally, I’ve been assembling a small team of talented people who can help out with some business management tasks like marketing and bookkeeping—this will be especially important when I have the baby and will have limited time to work. JPA is really young and I want to make sure it has a solid foundation before I have to expand my focus.
How has your career trajectory been affected by your desire to be a mother?
My desire to be a mom accelerated my career, being that one last nudge I needed to go off on my own so that I could have a flexible schedule and integrate my work with motherhood.
Another point I want to make is that my mom has always been the main breadwinner in our family, and that was always a huge source of pride for me—that she was this strong woman with a great career. I’ve always loved my work and it’s added a lot to my identity, so I want to set the same example for my daughter.
Which other life experiences, outside of the field of architecture, have influenced your vision for your firm and have helped you grow?
My husband is a doctor, and seeing how much more integrated and respected women are in the medical profession is shocking. The way he talks about his experiences and observations, there seems to be something much closer to complete equality. In our field, I do feel that it’s still a struggle for women. Every site visit, new contractor, or new consultant, I feel like I have to reestablish my credentials.
Literally every woman I’ve interviewed has touched on that.
Yes, it’s still an issue. Another part of my life that helped me develop new skills is that I learned presentation from dance. For many years before and throughout college, I practiced competitive ballroom dance and the biggest challenge for me in competing was to go out onto the stage against other dancers and present myself as somebody who is the best. Learning the technique of dance was nothing compared to projecting this confidence. Learning the fake-it-till-you-make-it approach on the dance floor helped me a lot, first in school, when we were presenting our projects to critics, and now with clients and GCs, especially when I have my own business and have to, yet again, convince someone to hire me instead of someone else.
What have you learned so far, post–Jenny Peysin Architecture?
Learning how not to panic and use downtime properly when I don’t have a project lined up. Online marketing has been a big challenge, so I’m trying to push myself to do that. Thankfully, I’ve found ways to advertise strategically—you don’t want to be spending too much money advertising as a small company, so you need to find your target market. For me it was Brownstoner, a Brooklyn site where people find professionals for local construction projects. They’ve been great and have reached out to me several times with leads.
The other thing I keep in mind with this business is what success means and how to redefine it for myself. Obviously, I want my firm to grow and succeed, but if there ever comes a time that I decide to go back to working for someone else, I’ll have to see the time I worked on my own as a learning process and an additive stepping stone for my career as a whole.
What have you enjoyed the most about having your own practice?
The accountability to myself and knowing that every task, no matter how small, affects this thing that I am trying to build. It’s very exciting.
Do you have any advice for those who’d like to start their own business?
I don’t think you’re ever really ready to do it, so you just should when you can. I saw an opportunity, and thought, if not now, then when. And why not now? It’s a cliché, but I think it’s true.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Ideally outside of my spare bedroom, in an actual office [laughs], with a clear definition of my business identity, some great people who are working with me, and established clients that come back to us for more work. It’s kind of a foggy vision but I do see myself staying in New York and hopefully being able to contribute to the urban fabric here.
Julia Gamolina is a New York City-based architectural designer. Her academic and professional work focuses on branding and identity, with a current focus on workplace design. She is a designer and communications coordinator at A+I and interviews women in architecture on their career development.