The F Word with Sarah Gould, KKT Architects

KKT Architects, one of Tulsa’s top architecture firms, is responsible for designing many of the city’s landmarks. Over time, the company has proven itself to be resilient through both internal and external trials and changes. Under the current leadership of Andy Kinslow and Sarah Gould, the firm continues to grow and take on some of Tulsa’s biggest projects. But what many don’t know is that one of the co-owners almost didn’t become an architect at all. Listen as Sarah shares her story of overcoming personal failure and unexpected hurdles to land her dream job.

[TRANSCRIPT]

Sarah: There's, I would say, hundreds of mistakes that I have just had to learn how to deal with on a daily and weekly basis.

Lauren: This week on The F Word.

Sarah: I don't remember exactly what I had left out of the drawings, but it was like 3,000 and something dollars that our company had to end up paying to fix the problem.

Lauren: The co-owner of KKT Architects, Sarah Gould.

Sarah: When I applied and did not get in, I was devastated.

Lauren: The Broken Arrow High School Field House, St. Francis Cancer Center, the Downtown YMCA, Emerson Montessori, which is the first public montessori in the whole state of Oklahoma, The Center For Individuals with Physical Challenges at 11th and Utica, and the brand-new Valley National Bank building downtown, these are all Tulsa landmarks that exists because of KKT architecture. Our guest today, Sarah Gould, is a co-owner and principal architect for KKT. She's had a wonderful career and is really taking the company to new heights, but it's taken her a lot to get to this point. She actually almost didn't even become an architect. Sarah, thanks for coming in to share your story.

Sarah: Thank you Lauren.

Lauren: I love how your journey began. You're a native Tulsan, and your love of architecture was actually sparked at a really, really young age by seeing the Art Deco buildings downtown.

Sarah: Absolutely. I went on a tour when I was in fifth grade, and I always loved school first of all, and people would ask me, "What do you want to do when you grow up?" And I would oscillate between math, science, art, but really I thought, "Well I'll probably be a teacher." Just because that's what I knew, but it was when we went and toured the buildings downtown and we got a personalized tour of Boston Avenue and were able to walk all around the building, and it was amazing. I just was inspired to see the beauty but also the rhythm and the rigor of the buildings themselves was ... I didn't really know what it meant to be an architect, but I did fall in love with the architecture, absolutely.

Lauren: Architecture really mixes all these passions you said you like, the art, the science, the math.

Sarah: Absolutely. It was a lot later when I was in high school that my father actually gave me a magazine article. He's notorious for cutting out articles and giving them to all the family members and friends that he thinks might interest them, and he cut out an article for me about the field of architecture and how it mixes science and math and art and creativity, and is really kind of the perfect career for people who want to do all of those things in their daily life, and as soon as I read that I was like, "Yes. That's for me."

Lauren: So this dream sparked, you knew you wanted to become an architect, and I just want to play out your story a little bit for people who might not know. So you started your undergrad at OU, fell in love, got married, ended up moving to California, finished your undergrad at UCLA, and you were brilliant. You're a National Merit Scholar, you graduated summa cum laude, then you applied for the Master's of Architecture programs at both UCLA and Berkeley, and really surprisingly got rejected from both.

Sarah: Yeah.

Lauren: Tell me about your journey after that.

Sarah: Well it was a shock to me. I had never failed in anything academically. I really felt like if I tried to do something, at least academically, that I would succeed, and it was never a question to me. I was ... What's the word? I'm gonna say hottie, but I was very-

Lauren: You were sure of yourself.

Sarah: I was really confident. I was overly confident, and I had taken every class that I could in preparation for grad school. When I applied and did not get in, I was devastated. I just felt like I didn't know what I was going to do in life. I didn't know my direction. One of the professors that I had taken an independent study with said, "You shouldn't be surprised, don't give up. This is normal because we really want people with life experiences. We want people who've been out of their undergraduate program for several years, have been working, and that's important to the graduate program." But I didn't really believe him I guess. It was not an excuse to me. If I tried and I failed I just kind of put that dream aside and I just was resigned to the fact that I wouldn't be an architect.

Lauren: So what'd you do after that? What was that gap between the rejection and now obviously you are an architect? What happened in that in-between time?

Sarah: Well, I moved back to Tulsa, and my husband and I had our first daughter, and that was great. That gave me a purpose and it kept me busy for a few months. She was about three months old when I was like, "Okay, what's next?" So I started thinking about architecture, not that I'd ever stopped thinking about it, but started thinking about how I could get there. So I enrolled for a semester at OSU in Stillwater in the undergraduate architecture program, and it was very interesting to be as a new mom in my 20s with a bunch of 17 year-olds that-

Lauren: You didn't love that?

Sarah: And they were just young. They were there to party. They were there to be 17-year-olds away from home for the first time, and I knew immediately. I loved what I was studying but I just couldn't do it, plus it was an hour-and-a-half commute and Maya was still a very small baby and nursing. I had to go pump in the women's bathroom between classes. So I realized after one semester I was like, "This is not working." I did talk to some of the professors there and that was actually where I first started thinking about the University of Texas, because one of the professors mentioned that UT was a great school and that if I had been looking at UCLA and UC Berkeley that UT was a lot like UC Berkeley and that it was very much focusing on the creative an abstract, but still training you for the technical skills that you need to actually be successful in the profession of architecture. I was kind of done with California. It was so far away and the culture was so different from who I am really.

Lauren: You're Okie?

Sarah: I am an Okie through and through. I started looking at UT as a possibility, and then started thinking, "How am I going to build a portfolio that's going to get me into that school that I want to go to?" And the professor actually kind of challenged me, not purposefully I don't think, but she said, "Oh, UT is a great school but don't get your hopes up, it's really hard to get in." And of course having gone through not getting into the school I wanted to before I just took that as a challenge and decided I was going to do it. I was really lucky, I don't know how I stumbled onto the OU master's program for urban studies. Someone mentioned that there might be a program in Tulsa that had architecture, and I started looking into it. It does not have a first professional degree for architecture, but I went and met with the director, Sean Shaffer, and he said, "Look, this is going to be great for you. We've got evening classes so you can stay home with your daughter, and we do lots of things that will help you build your portfolio and then you can take this as a stepping stone to go to UT." And so that's what I did. That was a two-year program and was really a great opportunity, not just to build my portfolio but really to learn about being engaged in the community and what architecture and design can do for community development. So we worked on real projects, we worked on the Schusterman campus project. We worked on projects in Sapulpa and Okmulgee, and then my thesis project was the redevelopment of the Brady district-

Lauren: Which now is amazing.

Sarah: Which is now the Tulsa Arts District, and is amazing. And at the time, this is before the ball field, this is before really anything was going on downtown, and I'll admit I was a little skeptical at the time that Tulsa was ever going to get there, and it wasn't until we came back from Texas and I saw all of these ideas and things that people had been talking about previously start to really become reality that I thought, "This is so exciting to be a part of this community," and I felt like I had a little piece in that development, small one, very small one, but a little.

Lauren: I love that. So you went to UT, got your master's in architecture, and then you went kind of to the mecca of architecture, you went to Paris for a while.

Sarah: Yes.

Lauren: And built up your career there, and then it was time to come home.

Sarah: It was. My daughter was seven when we moved to Paris, and that's a big city, and that's a tough place to live with a small child, so I loved every moment. It was a great opportunity. My daughter was able to be in a bilingual school. We traveled all throughout Europe, there's such great transportation. It was really an enriching time but it also was really tiring. I just most of all felt worn out all the time, just running to pick her up from school and just getting groceries, everything just was harder. It was more exciting and more energizing but also more depleting. So I really thought I might stay in Paris, and I had to come back to the US in order to fill out my paperwork and apply for a long-term visa, and once I came home I was like, "I'm so happy to be home. I'm ready to stay."

Lauren: I think it's interesting you really launched your career stateside during the Depression.

Sarah: Yes.

Lauren: And the crash that happened in 2008 is actually the reason you found KKT.

Sarah: That's right. When I came back from Paris we were still living in Austin, and all the sectors of the economy were falling, but architecture especially because of the housing crisis.

Lauren: No one builds during a recession.

Sarah: No one builds, and I would call different firms and they said, "We just laid off one third or one half of our office." And that was time after time after time. And so kind of on a whim, we came to Tulsa for Thanksgiving, and I said I'm just going to call a couple of firms and just see if maybe there's an opportunity in Tulsa. So we were here for really an extended weekend and I had several interviews, and when I left the interview at KKT I actually got a phone call as I was walking back to my car, and they said, "We want you to be part of the team." And I was super excited, and I've never looked back since.

Lauren: So about a year and a half ago, you became a co-owner of the company, talk about that transition. Your co-owner, Andy Kinslow, founded the company in '89, surely he had this vision. If your company is your baby, I'm sure that was hard for him to bring someone else in on that, and it led to a lot of restructuring, and a lot of I'm sure chaos at points. Will you talk about the transition of going from being an employee to being an owner of this company with Andy?

Sarah: Sure. So KKT, when I started, there were three business partners, and as you mentioned, Andy had founded the partner, but then he teamed up with two architects, the Keith and the Todd. And they were very successful and had a great partnership. And the three of them, each of them were very different in the way that they approached business, but they all had their different roles within the company. It was really just before I stepped into the leadership role that first Todd decided to take a different direction and go with a smaller firm and stay more involved in the design aspect of architecture. And then my mentor, the other partner, Pat Keith, had been talking about retirement for many years, but it was always kind of off in the distance. I always joke that it was always five years, so it was five years, and then three years later, it was five years. And then one day, it was actually over Christmas break and he and his wife went to visit their son and daughter in law and brand new grandson in Brooklyn, and he came back and said, "We're going to move. We're ready, and we want to be near the baby and be part of his life." So that was in December, and he was gone by the end of February. So that was really quick, and obviously a little bit chaotic. Those last two months we spent going to all of our different clients and explaining to them that there was going to be a transition. And then once he was gone, it was really time for Andy and I to get to know each other, because Andy's focus has always been the interiors department, and so he and I had never worked closely together. What Andy and I both found during that first six months is that he and I have a lot more in common than either of us would have guessed. So you talk about his vision and goals for the company, but really his and my vision align I think a lot more closely than his vision aligned with the other two partners. So it's been a surprisingly easy transition as far as the relationship with Andy and getting on the same page to set the direction for the company going forward.

Lauren: It is probably such a relief.

Sarah: I think it was. I don't want to speak for Andy, but he has mentioned several times that he was very happily surprised to get to know me, because he really thought that I would be a lot more like my mentor had been, just in kind of use of the company and deciding to keep the interiors and architecture separate. That's one of the things that Andy and I have really strived to do is bring the whole company together and to work more closely across the disciplines, because we've always had great collaboration within each department, but there was a little bit of a divide between what was an interiors project or what was an architecture project, and now they're just KKT projects.

Lauren: Employees, usually overall, do not like change. How did you guys navigate that?

Sarah: Well, it was a very fun and interesting challenge for me, mostly to get to know the people in the interior design department after the six months when Andy and I had kind of gotten things figured out. I was finally feeling like I was getting my feet beneath me, and Andy said, "Sarah, I think I'm going to be less involved in the office. So how would you like to kind of be more involved in managing the interior department as well?" And that's a lot of people. When I started at KKT, we were at 32, by that time we had grown to over 60. And 60 people is just a lot of people to try to make sure that they've got what they need to do their job, to make sure that the culture stays positive and that the atmosphere stays productive and fun. And so it was really just a lot of me being willing to listen. I went through and did reviews for the entire company, took several months for me to get through all of them. But it was an opportunity to have real discussions with people and to get to know where they're coming from.

Lauren: It sounds like there's this common thread in your business, both with your clients and your employees, of building relationships. That seems to be a big cracks for you.

Sarah: Absolutely, I feel like it's one of my strengths. I really enjoy about any interaction with people is getting to know them, and being able to learn from them. So I feel like there's an opportunity with every client, and with every employee to make myself better, to make our company better, and to have better products in the end.

Lauren: It sounds like you've done a lot really well, and you've done a lot right, but our podcast is called The F Word, so talk about failure. Since becoming an owner, what are some pretty big mistakes you've made that you've had to face and own up to and deal with?

Sarah: Well, I'll start by saying that I was really surprised. When I went to architecture school, it's kind of brutal. They encourage you to pour your heart and soul into these projects, and then they have you stand up for a critique and then they just tear you apart. They purposefully try to make it as raw as possible, not to sugarcoat anything, and that was hard for me. It was really hard for me to make myself so vulnerable, and then get such, sometimes scathing criticism from professors that I didn't even know. I didn't have a relationship with them, but they would come in from other classes or guest critiques. It was great training for the field of architecture that you practice day to day, because you put your heart and soul into these documents, into these buildings, and there's always something that's wrong, always.

Sarah: It's kind of the nature of the field. It's a very complicated thing to design and build a building, and to expect that it's going to be perfect is like expecting myself to be perfect. It's never going to happen.

Lauren: Can you give me an example of a big mistake?

Sarah: Well, there's mistakes every day. I can remember really clearly the first time that I made a mistake that cost the company money, and I was livid. I don't remember exactly what I'd left out of the drawings, but it was like 3,000 and something dollars that our company had to end up paying to fix the problem, and I didn't know if I was going to have to pay for it out of my own paycheck. I didn't know, I just was horrified. Of course now I look back at that, and I'm like, "That's no problem at all." $3,000 is relatively small in the world of possible mistakes that you could make in designing a building. But we've had projects where you specify the wrong hand dryer, or you forget to have an accessible doorway or hardware. There's, I would say, hundreds of mistakes that I have just had to learn how to deal with on a daily and weekly basis. I don't know that there's any one big mistake that stands out other than learning that you better be ready for failure every minute, because when you're not ready, that's when it's going to take you off guard and really set you back.

Lauren: So bracing yourself.

Sarah: Bracing yourself and being ready to stand up and not be defensive. That's the biggest thing I think when a client says, "We talked about that. Don't you remember when I said I wanted XYZ." And rather than saying, "No, that's not what I had in my notes," you have to say, "Okay, great, how can we make it right?" And always focusing on the way to turn that into an opportunity to have great customer service and not worry about whose failure it really was. Traditionally in the field of architecture, the architect and the contractor are constantly pointing fingers at each other, because every time a little issue comes up, the architect says, "You did it wrong." And the contractor says, "No, it says this in the drawings," and the architect says, "No, but it says this in the specifications." And it can really taint the atmosphere of the project, the camaraderie, but most importantly it really taints the outcome, because nobody does their best work when they're fighting. That's one thing that I learned early on, and Pat always told me in my very early days at KKT, "Just look for the solution, we'll figure out the cause later. If you focus on the solution, then you can move forward." and I think of those words a lot, because it does. It's a daily occurrence, and you just have to smile and move forward and take it in stride.

Lauren: You work in a male dominated industry. Have you faced any challenges being a woman in architecture?

Sarah: I am really lucky to be of the generation that I am. If I were one generation older, I look at architects that are now at retirement age, and they really had to fight their way for every step that they got, and I don't feel like I've had to do that. But there have been instances where I felt uncomfortable and could really feel that kind of male domination within ... not so much within the industry. One example that stands out specifically is with a client group and a contractor group, and it was myself and then another architectural designer who was a male, and the comments that were made in that meeting were so rude and degrading to women in general. He wouldn't look at me or talk to me directly. He would only talk to the architectural designer, and it was extremely uncomfortable. And I remember feeling how lucky I was that this was the first time I had ever really felt that in my career. So there haven't been a lot of those instances, but I will say being a female and being a mother, I think it's made my job harder, both in school and in my profession than it would typically be for a man in our society today.

Lauren: Why do you think that is? Just trying to juggle everything?

Sarah: Just trying to juggle everything, and it's one of the biggest things that drew me to KKT originally was the fact that they talked openly, even in the interview, about being very flexible with office hours and with family commitments, and I knew immediately that that was something I wanted, because I want to be able to go to my kids school performance or pick up my kid if they get sick at school and not have to worry about getting permission from my boss. And we've kept that culture and hold on to it really closely, because we do have so many females and I think it's a big reason that we've been so successful.

Lauren: On a shift a little bit, a big focus of KKT lately has been projects for education, like you've done the montessori, you've done things for Broken Arrow, and I think Jenks maybe.

Sarah: Yes, absolutely.

Lauren: I'm curious how all the recent budget cuts and talking about funding around schools, how that impacts your business?

Sarah: Well, the funding structure for facilities in schools is different than the funding structure for curriculum and all of the operating expenses that schools need. So the funding for the infrastructure is the bonds that the public vote on every couple of years depending on the district, and it's one thing that actually was the reason that we were able to stay successful fall and thrive during the recession was our work with schools, because people knew that we needed to invest in that. And so even while there wasn't money to hire teachers, there was kind of a different pot of money to make those facility upgrades. And sometimes it's not about building new schools, it's about going in and rearranging the classrooms, or repurposing a building into something else. So I won't say that the education funding has negatively or positively impacted our business, but I will say that the amount of education work that we do is really a symbol of my love for education. My family are all teachers, so we talk about education and education funding a lot, it's something that comes up at family gatherings and things like that. It's hard sometimes for the public to understand, "Why are they building new schools when they can't pay the teachers enough?" But I always try to remind them that where you're learning is also really important, and it is important for the students and the teachers to love where they are if we're going to want them to stay and to continue to do a great job for kids.

Lauren: That's a great point. Are there any upcoming projects you're really excited about?

Sarah: Well, I'm always excited about all of our projects-

Lauren: Of course.

Sarah: But one of the most exciting is part of phase two for the gathering place. We are the designers for the new discovery lab, formerly Tulsa Children's Museum, that is going to be located on the south side of the park. The schedule is still a little bit being determined, but we're hoping to start construction early next year, and it's been a really fun process. Of course, children's museum, you can't get more fun than that. And being part of the gathering place, we were able to go to some of the design meetings several years ago, early on in the design of phase one.

Lauren: That's so fun.

Sarah: And it's been really exciting to see that come together. I took the kids for the first time on my birthday, last weekend, and it was really hot that day, so they kept saying, "We're ready to go home." And so I said, "Okay, let's go." We'd start walking and then they'd see something else and say, "Mom, can we play on that?" And I said, "Sure." So they'd go play and-

Lauren: Couldn't get enough.

Sarah: ... could not get enough. It is amazing, and we're excited to be a part of that, and really excited about the inspiration that phase one of the gathering place has been able to have on the building itself. We actually have gone through three different designs, three totally different buildings on three different sites at the gathering place, because a lot was just being figured out as we're working through it. But where we've landed is absolutely the best site, and absolutely the best building design, and everybody's really excited and the momentum is amazing for Tulsa. I can't wait.

Lauren: I can't wait to see it. So my final question. In light of your story of the failures you've overcome, how would you then turn to someone who maybe is at the beginning, is working really hard to make whatever their big dream is happen, how would you encourage courage that person who might be experiencing failure of their own?

Sarah: I think I would just tell them that my failures, the hardest times in my life, are really the things that made me into who I am today, and I would never change one single thing about the very long path that I took to get to where I am and very sometimes difficult path. It's easy to look at those mistakes and those failures and say, "I wish I would have done that differently." But I would much rather look at those mistakes and failures and say, "Wow, look at all that I learned, and what a stronger person I am today because of it." So my encouragement would be learn from this and let it make you stronger and happier in the long run.

Lauren: Great advice. Sarah, thank you so much for coming in to share your story with us.

Sarah: Thank you Lauren.

Lauren: Next week on The F Word.

Dr. Meshri: I have seen lives on both sides. I've seen very, very rich, wealthy, healthy life. At the same, I have seen the poor, poverty that not too many people have seen yet.

Lauren: Dr. Dayal Meshri talks about his experience as a refugee and overcoming adversity to chase the American dream and build one of the most successful chemical companies in the world.

Dustin Curzon: The F word is brought to you by 36 Degrees North, Tulsa's base camp for entrepreneurs. To learn more about our workspace, community and resources, visit 36in.co. The F word Season Two was recorded in the KOSU studio and produced by Lauren King.