Kansas City Design Week: Women in Design Panel

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Kansas City Design Week (KCDW), an engaging and thought-provoking experience that celebrates all areas of design, including architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, planning, urban design, graphics, products, and fashion. You can find more information about KCDW here.

On April 11, KCDW convened a multidisciplinary panel who hold leadership positions within their respective firms. Helix principal and shareholder Erika Moody was joined by Cady Beansmith, leader of Barkley’s Experience Design practice; Emily Harrold, associate principal at Gould Evans; Megan Stephens, president and partner at Willoughby Design; and Julie Vinh, director of Hallmark’s Social Content Studio.

The panel, titled “Women in Design: Leaders Shaping the Industry,” covered a range of topics that are front-of-mind for many in the design community — not just women. Below are some key takeaways from the panelists.

Define leadership.

Erika Moody: “A long time ago, I was told that if you hire the right people around you, share with them your vision and empower them to do their job, then you reward the results for all of you, and that truly leads to a great work environment and creates leadership all throughout the team. That summarizes what I try to do: hire good people, tell them what you need out of them, get out of their way and let them do what they do, and then you can all share the reward of what you created.”

What is your company doing to empower women and leaders?

Erika Moody: “I asked one of the founding partners of Helix today why they’ve always had a female partner. Was it purposeful? Did it just organically happen? He said, ‘It was a competitive advantage. We looked at all of the other firms in town, and they didn’t have that. Helix was named after the DNA strand that makes us human. It’s only human that we have a male and female counterpoint at the table. We design spaces for everyone. We need to have that representation.’”

There is a Bloomberg article that reports that mothers are subject to a larger gender pay gap. How can we address this?

Emily Harrold: “It goes back to leadership and ensuring that’s important across the firm, and contesting some of the biases that they’re not necessarily aware of and making informed decisions about that. I do believe that women are not always good at negotiating. We have to challenge ourselves to be better negotiators. We need to be at the table to demand that we be rewarded for our qualifications.”

How have you evolved since you became a leader? What has being a leader made you change?

Julie Vinh: “The hardest part of being a leader is the people. How do you grow and value your people? I’m still learning how to do it, and to do it in my own way. I often look and reflect on who my past leaders were, and then I ask, ‘What’s my style of leadership?’ It’s easy for us to find someone and mold ourselves into that, but it’s hard to find our own voice as a leader.”

How can women stand out and position themselves as leaders to a firm or an all-male leadership team?

Cady Beansmith: “Regardless of the people above you, you have a peer-set next to you. Any coalition-building or collaboration that you can do with the people next to you, the more that we can amplify each other’s voices and voices that are underrepresented. When you’re that amplifier for someone in your peer-set, then they’ll start doing it for you, and that collective voice has greater reach and greater volume than individual, underrepresented voices.”


What do we do when women can often be each other’s worst enemies?

Erika Moody: “Until there’s 50/50 at the table, there needs to be no competition.”

Megan Stephens: “There is a study out there that I think makes a lot of sense, that says that we need to get more than one person at the table – we need to get at least three people at the table, specifically three women. That is when you start building a voice together, and one person can’t do that alone.”


While there is often equal representation between male and female students in school, women are typically the minority in various design professions. Why do you think the career drop-off for women in design is happening?

Megan Stephens: “I’m curious to see what happens as new generations come up, and it’s not so much about ‘mom and the kids’ but ‘parents and the kids,’ and fathers who want to have a bigger role in their kids’ lives. How can we change corporate culture to say, ‘yes, we are pro-family and pro-parent?’”


What sacrifices have you made to be a leader?

Julie Vinh: “My sacrifice is more of not bringing my full self to the table. In certain situations, I’ll evaluate how I may have to change myself to make sure that I have a voice at the table and be a part of the conversation — for me to be seen and heard. I hope that one day I don’t have to do that, but I think it will take time and also for everyone around us to all be their authentic selves.”

Photos courtesy of Kansas City Design Week. Photographer: Jeff Evrard (@thejeffevrard).