Mustapha Williams is a technical designer in the Chicago office of Gensler, where he has supported workplace projects and client relationships for companies like Linkedin and Tishman Speyer.
Tell us about your background. Where did you grow up, where did you go to school?
I was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee. Growing up during the development explosion of downtown Nashville, I experienced how city growth and economic development can have a variety of impacts on the urban environment. I knew then that I wanted to get involved and positively influence my community. Joining the ACE (Architecture, Construction, Engineering) Mentorship program in high school formalized my resolve—I wanted to be an architect. I proceeded to attend the University of Tennessee Knoxville, where I graduated Summa Cum Laude with my professional bachelor of architecture.
When you were young, what did you aspire to be?
There was a brief period when I wanted to be a meteorologist, but outside of that, I always enjoyed drawing and looking at buildings. I would draw the Nashville skyline repeatedly until I started adding in my own buildings to my sketches. A family member told me about the field of architecture when I was in middle school, and I honestly haven’t thought about doing anything else since.
How did you get your start in the industry?
During my time in the ACE Mentorship program, I developed connections within the local design community, which led to an internship at the Nashville Civic Design Center. Throughout college, I took advantage of summer internships, gaining experience in the industry each summer break. In 2017, I won 1st place in Gensler’s National Diversity Scholarship Competition, leading to a summer internship in Gensler’s Chicago office. Since returning to Gensler after graduation, I have worked on multiple projects across workplace, headquarters buildings, critical facilities and adaptive reuse.
Did you have a mentor who helped you get on your feet, or is there someone you turn to now for support?
I am lucky to have multiple mentors for all facets of my life. One of my ACE mentors, Joseph Cole, continues to be my go-to mentor for many aspects of my architecture career. He assisted me throughout college to balance academia, studio and college life. In my professional career, I have developed mentorship relationships within Gensler as well as within the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) that encourage, educate and inspire me every day.
What does a day in the life of Mustapha Williams look like?
The typical day starts off with some sort of exercise—whether running, cycling or working out. Before quarantine began, I would take the CTA bus or the Metra Line into work, catching up on emails or studying for my next ARE (Architect Registration Exam). Getting into the office was typical—saying hello to coworkers and friends, grabbing a coffee and prepping for the day. Since mid-March, the routine has obviously been altered. I still reserve time for working out in the morning, but the commute time is replaced by fixing a hearty breakfast.
I’m currently a technical designer at Gensler, so a lot of the day-to-day tasks involve conceptual production and visualization, as well as technical production and construction administration activities. I stay involved in client meetings as well, so each day is a balance of heads-down production mixed with collaboration with clients and our internal teams.
My evenings are filled with hanging out with friends (virtually, as needed), studying for my next ARE, or watching a good movie.
What do you like most about your job?
The best part about my job is having the knowledge that the design I am sketching on paper, or modeling on the computer, is going to better people’s lives. Whether it’s a commercial space in an urban area, a community center in a neighborhood or a critical facility located outside the city, I know that the work I am doing is benefiting the community in which I live. I get to work with a team of experts in many different fields, all collectively strategizing how to address the client and the community’s needs.
Looking to the future, what do you hope to achieve/work on that you haven’t already?
I look forward to working on even more projects that involve the community directly. Many communities feel overlooked in the development of cities; here in Chicago, we’ve seen Mayor Lightfoot put specific emphasis on partnering with those on the South and West Sides of the city to support and enliven those neighborhoods in a positive, inclusive way.
I am going to be a part of the push to reach out to these communities, engaging them in the strategy process before design begins. The goal is to involve them early so that the community has ownership in the process. This will create environments that are more supportive to the people who interact with them.
How do you spend your time away from the office?
I sit on the executive board and am the university liaison for the Illinois Chapter of NOMA. This organization has been a cornerstone of my professional career. The immense network, friendships and allies that I have developed in Chicago is primarily due to my involvement with this group. The plethora of initiatives, volunteers and industry partners continue to be beneficial to the community and our mission.
As an ACE student, I knew that I wanted to become a mentor once I was a professional. The amount of education and inspiration I received during those years propelled me into the architecture profession. I am now an ACE Mentor in the Chicago chapter, working with students and educating them on the architecture, construction and engineering fields.
During times of summer respite, I spend a lot of my free time on the lakefront trail, running, cycling or sitting by the water. Sometimes I miss the outdoor lifestyle that came with growing up in Tennessee—hiking, canoeing, etc.—but Chicago gives a great balance of big-city life and access to nature.
What is your favorite place that you have traveled to? Where do you hope to go next?
During my semester abroad, my friends and I began the trip by spending a week in Iceland. We drove around the southern part of the island, staying in a different Airbnb every night. Each day, we admired the unique landscapes, black sands and majestic waterfalls. It felt like being on another planet. The next place I plan to visit is somewhere in Central or South America.
Who would you like to see answer these questions?
I would like to see Cordaroe Oscar of Moody Nolan answer these questions.