LEADING BY DESIGN
By: Jen Levisen, Communications Director, Mortarr
An award-winning designer, responsible for transforming companies and strengthening corporate cultures across the country, Gensler’s Meena Krenek recently sat down with the Forum to talk through the growth of her career, the importance of personal brand, and what helps her sleep comfortably at night.
Meena worked in Gensler’s Washington D.C. office before joining Perkins+Will, where she worked as an interior designer and design director for 14 years. She returned to Gensler in 2017 as design director for the firm’s Atlanta office.
Meena, what sparked your interest in design?
This is probably every designer’s answer, but there are pictures of me as a child with Legos and oversized landscapes — it’s true. My parents were constantly buying me bins so I could organize and color code. At the same time, I grew up going to Montessori where they teach design thinking, even if they don’t define it as that. I’ve always been really fascinated with graphics and books, and I’ve always been interested in the arts in some capacity, so when it came to going to architecture school it really was a no brainer for me.
" ... THERE ARE PICTURES OF ME AS A CHILD WITH LEGOS AND OVERSIZED LANDSCAPES - IT'S TRUE. MY PARENTS WERE CONSTANTLY BUYING ME BINS SO I COULD ORGANIZE AND COLOR CODE."
Who have your mentors been throughout your career?
I’ve been really fortunate to have some amazing people in the industry support me. One would be Tama Duffy Day from Gensler’s D.C. office. She leads our health and wellness practice, and we worked together at Perkins+Will. I’ve been close to her for a long time. I feel like I have a few people who I say are on Meena Krenek’s Executive Board and Tama Duffy Day is one of them. She’s made an amazing impact on health care design and is very human-centric in her approach.
And then Joan Blumenfeld, the global head of interiors for Perkins+Will. She is a dear friend and I text her often to ask her any challenging questions I’m dealing with. I worked with her at Perkins+Will and we are still dear friends to this day. She taught me how to defend, how to talk to clients, how to support design ideas, how to make sure we, designers, have a platform, and how to find new ways to influence clients. She’s a big influence on my life.
Most of the designers here at Gensler, and we talk about a lot about this, need to be exposed to a project from A to Z so they learn how to talk to clients, how to talk to general contractors, etc. When they first come into the industry, they need time to shadow senior designers to be successful. We do a good job of pairing junior and senior level designers here at Gensler, so that individuals overhear the conversations, so they can see people’s mannerisms and read the room. That level of emotional intelligence is necessary for any designer to learn how to get their thoughts across.
Within Gensler, there are several individuals. Todd Heiser, the co-managing director for our Chicago office, he was a big part of me coming to Gensler. He's one of the most amazing designers at Gensler, and I'm thrilled to have him as a colleague and friend.
And Paul Eagle, managing director for Perkins+Will in their New York office. To me it is all about partnerships and finding those people who get you, who understand your drive and allow you to be your best self. Paul taught me how to be a partner.
Take us through the progression of your career. What were your biggest growth opportunities?
I'm always seeking growth opportunities, and I feel very fortunate. I think it comes down to people seeing your talents and understanding your larger aspirations. One of the significant moments of my career was being selected for the Design Leadership Council at Perkins+Will. Out of an office of 2,300 people at the time, they chose 50 designers from across the country. You had to be selected and your portfolio had to be at such a high level. We’d meet in different cities every year and talk about the city's growth, impact and placemaking. To be in a firm of that size and to be selected as a designer at that level, was exhilarating.
Another was the first time someone called me a leader. I was two years out of college when it happened, and I thought it was just the coolest thing. It was fantastic. I always thought of myself as one, but until you are defined as one, it’s hard to fathom it. That was a really a cool moment. There was another program at Perkins + Will, called the Leadership Institute and I was selected to be a part of that, which was another great honor. And most recently, becoming a design director. To lead and help designers get to their solutions was a major career milestone for me. I love inspiring others.
As designers we have the ability to affect the way people behave in a space. You can design a space, and no one will come to it or no one will partake in it, or you can design a space where amazing things happen, and people interact with each other. A space where people want to be. As designers it is our duty to create spaces that allow for whatever that bigger mission is that we are designing for.
Every project of ours at Gensler has to have a purpose statement. For example, we have a community project we're working on here in Atlanta. It’s an organization that brings young entrepreneurs together in an environment where they can help them grow their businesses. It was important for our client to create an environment that was welcoming, where people could visit and want to return, because the interactions between people were so meaningful. When we started designing the space, we thought about what makes people feel comfortable? What makes people feel welcome? What is the moment where people talk about the experience they have in the space? I talk about it in a very general way, but I want designers to be more mindful of it, because before you can even put a line on a paper or pick up a finish and think you are going to put this in a space, everything needs to come back to the purpose of the project.
Have you found in your career that this is something that really sets Gensler apart or is this common practice?
I think what really sets Gensler apart is that in today’s society, everyone needs the metrics and the benchmarking, and what Gensler is amazing about, and the real reason I came to Gensler, is that the research arm here is just over the top. We recently released our 2019 US Workplace Survey which has some amazing nuggets on what we are seeing in the industry and how people are working. One of the highlights from the survey comes down to not necessarily creating effective work environments, but really creating great experiences at work. And providing a huge amount of choice in whatever you are creating, including the types of amenities. A lot of what our new survey talks about is different types of spaces — incubator spaces, maker spaces, outdoor spaces, spaces without technology. We’re all about getting that recipe correct at Gensler and without that research arm we wouldn’t be able to get there.
In Contract Magazine’s March issue (congrats by the way!), you mention that you have a strong personal brand. Why was it important to you to create one and how does it guide what you do?
I work with a lot of designers and I want everyone I work with to have a strong personal brand. As a designer you can influence people with the way you think about the world and your point of view. If you don’t have a strong personal brand, if you don’t stand for something, if you don’t believe in something, then it is very likely that you won’t be remembered, or people might not necessarily be drawn to you. People want to do business with those they have an emotional connection with. I think personal brand helps people feel connected to our staff and to our designers. I’m a big advocate of that. I’ve always wanted to stand out in the design work that I’ve been able to touch in my career. I’ve always wanted my work to create a buzz; even the spaces I’ve been a part of are highly branded. Brand creates a level of captivation, a level of loyalty. Once I start working with designers, I ask what they stand for. What do they want to be known for? How will they deliver whatever they are doing in a way that supports their personal brand? I want to help others get to where they want, and need, to go and personal brand has a huge role in that.
How has your personal brand evolved over the years?
I think personal brands are always evolving, just as we as people and what we focus on are always evolving. Earlier in my career, I really wanted to lead projects as a senior designer and make a name for myself and now it’s about the teams that I work with and elevating everyone else. As you evolve in your career you always want to be seen as someone very creative, and now I get joy in inspiring others versus just the inspiration that I used to get by doing project work.
What are some of your goals for this year and going into 2020, some dream projects that you’d like to tackle that you haven’t had an opportunity to yet?
I really am fascinated with brands that are trying to develop, and once they are in that stage creating a space or a presence for their brand to live in. I’m always looking for young entrepreneur organizations that really want to create a statement or something really iconic for themselves. I just had coffee with someone this morning who wants to do something in here in Atlanta that is pretty significant for the arts community. I can’t talk much about it, but something about being a part of the arts here and that community outreach aspect, gets me really excited. I love those connections and increasing and encouraging an appreciation of the arts and design at a local level. I guess I’m always looking for the next client or community that wants to make an impact.
What does a typical day look like for you? Do you have typical days?
This is such a great question, because we always pose this to our clients. I like my job because it is always different. I love what we do because I work with some amazingly talented people. There is a balance of my day that involves meeting with clients and getting them really excited about the amazing visioning that our team is doing here. I also spend a lot of time with perspective clients and bringing them to Gensler. Learning more about them and understanding what their needs are and being able to have that journey with them. Really the biggest thing I’d say about my day is that I want to inspire others and I want to be inspired. At the end of the day when I’m lying in bed, I always ask myself who inspired you today and who did you inspire? That gives me the ability to sleep comfortably at night.
Where do you draw your inspiration?
From everywhere and everything.
I’m consistently connecting patterns, ideas, visuals, and words together in unique ways. It is just how things align in whatever you are experiencing. If you keep your mind open, and think about alignments and connections, you always seem to find inspirational moments — in people, places, and your general surroundings.