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New Voices: With Disrupt Symposium Founder Sara Kolata

This industry is complex, demanding, risky, and economically under-performative. Parts of education also mislead it. Sara Kolata has lived it and works on bringing positive change.

ARCHITECTURE AS A PROFESSION IS FACING A CRISIS. In truth, it’s a series of related crises. On the one hand, the youngest members of the profession are taking a stand on what they perceive as the economic injustices of the discipline. This has manifested itself in an architectural unionization movement. On the related hand, looking inward at itself, the architectural profession has a serious gender issue. The profession has made little progress in advancing women to the upper echelons of the field. It is not that women architects don’t get there; too few of them get there. 

It is against this present context that my recent conversation with Disrupt Symposium creator and founder Sara Kolata took place. And after speaking with her for nearly 90 minutes, I realized that Ms. Kolata has a passionate fire inside her for change—intending to make things better for architects. And at a critical time like now, the industry should welcome every such voice. What matters is panning everybody who wants to help for nuggets of insight that can make things better. 

Positive Change Through Dialogue

Sara Kolata’s voice aims to improve architects’ lives and happiness—especially AEC firm owners and business-minded entrepreneurs. 

She does this by talking to architects, experts, and thought leaders and sharing these conversations live and through her podcast called Arch Talk: Tank. But the most attended event is the Disrupt Symposium, where she brings architecture firm leaders and C-level executives to talk about what makes them successful in their careers and what decision-making stands behind their day-to-day firm operations. 

This year her efforts with event organizing culminated in a launch of a digital magazine called Disrupt MAG, which will go to print this summer. 

The magazine is a collection of outstanding interviews, case studies, and never-spoken strategies that big practices and successful architects implemented to find themselves where they are today. The platform is unique in allowing the audience to interact with well-known personalities in an intimate setting. Stories are heartfelt, inspirational, and human-centered, often impressing with their relatability to attendees. 

Sara often hears feedback to the likes of: “At first attending the event felt intimidating because of the availability and disposition of all these amazing speakers that often are not available for private questioning, but soon it turned out to be the most inspiring, connected and humanized experience I have ever had as an architect. I remain inspired and feel less controlled by my imposter syndrome, knowing that there are more people in my shoes.”

Introducing Sara Kolata

What follows are highlights from our extensive conversation. Sara Kolata was educated at the University of the Arts, London, and spent much time off-campus at the nearby Bartlett School of Architecture and at the Architectural Association. After graduation, she interned at a large architecture firm in China. And from there, she ended up in Central America, first working for a charity servicing indigenous communities and then later starting her business tapping relief aid funds to design and build housing and public projects for indigenous populations.

Sara Kolata is the founder of Disrupt Symposium. Her primary mission is to enhance the financial well-being of architects—a well-overdue mission for somebody to take up in the global architectural profession. You can learn more about her here at her website and at Disrupt.

After several years in Guatemala, making very little income, she desired to shift gears. She turned toward business education, digital marketing, and overall wellness thought leadership—taking courses and attending conferences in the United States. Today she culminated her journey into a mission of “Raising the financial well-being of architects.” Her online event, Disrupt Symposium, takes place three times a year: 1-3rd May and 1-3rd Nov, and a special Women edition on the 8th March. Her speaker and panel lineup for the upcoming May 2023 event is excellent; this editor plans to tune in, as I did for the recent Women’s edition event.

The Conversation: Part One (UK and China)

The following are selections from our long convo. We begin at university with a question about life in architecture school and how it forms our expectations and culture.

(AFR) How did the proximity to The Bartlett and the AA shape you as a young architect?

(Sara Kolata) I studied in Central St. Martins and would always attend lectures there, especially if architects such as Rem Koolhaas or Zaha Hadid visited to give talks. I would work in their library and get lunch in their cafeteria because I liked the environment. The thing about these schools is you can see how outstanding the student work is, which always looks extremely impressive. Everyone is coached to be the next prominent designer. In some ways, it’s amazing; in others, many of the students fall into “sameness” with their projects as each of these schools has a style it ingrains in the students’ psyche. 

And after graduation, where did you go?

I moved to Shanghai, China, for a year and did an architectural internship, which I didn’t like. The senior architects in the firm were unhappy; everyone worked like a “CAD-monkey,” and all the Chinese staff stayed at their desks at all times, even outside of working hours. The office culture was competitive and vicious. I was disheartened by how people above me behaved, and I promised never to be like them. At the same time, I had no idea this was my entrepreneurial spirit talking. 

You never thought you might want to run your own architecture firm?

Yes, of course. I had dreams I would like to have my own practice—all young architects do. But I didn’t think of myself as a business owner. 

That distinction matters to you. Tell me about that. 

I hadn’t yet tapped into that way of thinking about creating my own reality. 

Yes, it is because the reality formed in architecture school about practice and what practice is really like can be very unaligned. 

When I went to work for that internship in China, I hated it. I felt like I was in some hospitality job where they were monitoring and controlling my time, where you are not encouraged to have a voice, and where you are separated from other parts of the design process that were interesting to me. I was required to work on CAD day in and day out, and it felt soulless, which is the definition of being a “CAD monkey.”

That term—CAD monkey—is like an aphorism for the undesirable grunt work of the business. 

Architectural education was free-spirited, inspirational, and focused on famous architects and their success and the possibilities they reached. Suddenly my reality was different and turned out quite harsh. I realized that what I thought I would be doing as an architect wasn’t part of the “real world,” and what I was doing in the firm I hated. And then I thought, ‘Oh my God, where do I go from here?’ 

What did that experience actually teach you?

At first, I internalized the experience, feeling like I wasn’t a good worker or had difficulty fitting in. So my way of navigating around this—and it came from a place of fear of having to live this reality forever—was to really ask myself: “What do I actually want to do, and what can I do?”

Part One Commentary

At this point, it is fair to lay some criticism on the culture of architecture schools that routinely endorse a model of a compulsive work culture serving at the quasi alter of inspirational design leading to success and fame. What is happening is that inadequately performing firms rebalance their poor economics by leveraging a young labor pool willing to put in long hours as a routine matter. 

The introspection of Ms. Kolata’s dual questions also tells an interesting story about architecture school. Do schools provide enough instruction on all the types of things their graduates can do? 

The Conversation: Part Two (Guatemala)

(AFR) Sara, in reaction to the China internship, you realized something about labor in architecture firms, roles, duties, and possibilities. It needed to match the holistic nature of the architecture school’s promise.

(Sara) That’s right, And that promise to me was that I could align my values with my work. In China, the firm I worked for was involved with big-scale urban development projects, many of which involved community misplacement and mass environmental devastation. There was also a fair amount of “smoke and mirrors” around the design and servicing of clients. 

I was disheartened by that and understood that I wanted to put my efforts somewhere to advocate for local communities and their natural habitat, not be a part of the devastation. 

Another important part of the puzzle was that I wanted the whole architecture experience, and as I mentioned previously, I wasn’t getting it. I wanted to build. And so I thought I would have more opportunity to do that in a developing country with far fewer regulations but with growth and building opportunities. I decided to move to a Latin-American country that was fast developing but rich in over 90% indigenous population. I hoped that I could tap into the local community’s wisdom of utilizing nature for shelter and work with that to enhance it with clever design solutions, ultimately promoting and preserving a human connection to natural resources. Being unlicensed, I aligned myself with a senior architect and an engineer who monitored my progress and ensured the designs were fit for construction. 

So your ambition was to work innovatively with nature and natural materials and solve building challenges for these indigenous populations? 

Yes. I was interested in building with their natural materials but in a way that felt luxurious and addressed their housing and building challenges. 

You eventually broke off on your own and started a business to address better building for indigenous peoples. 

I was interested in finding ways we can technologically advance natural construction. I thought everyone was entitled to a better way of living, and if we could develop better solutions to their traditional way of building through architecture—that was our mission. 

So I began working with some fantastic charities aimed at raising living conditions. They would give the people things like food and clothes and provide them with economized concrete houses. In particular, in these homes, they would provide them with modern stoves for cooking. But the local women needed to learn how to cook indoors and use a stove. So they would make these provided ovens into a table. And then, they would set an open fire inside their built kitchen and still cook in their old ways. As the places lacked proper exhaust, the families would get exposed to cancer-causing fumes. Many women—especially grandmothers—began to develop lung cancer because the architectural solutions lacked customization and design thinking. 

Why did they do such a thing? 

Their traditional way of cooking is open cooking outside. I would tell the charity you can’t simply give them a modern kitchen. There needs to be a massive cultural shift for the local community to change their ways of cooking and adapt to an indoor environment. Why not design around their traditions, providing amazing open kitchens and adapting a stove design around the open fire they are used to?

Unfortunately, much like in China, the organization had its own ways of doing things, and nobody cared to spend a penny on improving something that was getting them the praise and money they ran on. 



And this is something that only hustle-rich entrepreneurs will understand. If you are committed to creating your reality and attach your happiness to values beyond the comfort of a 9-5, there is no way back for you.



So this is when I broke off and created my business. At this point, I felt I invested too much into what I would now call “following my heart” and values to compromise and once again be forced to provide a service that did not align with mine. I created TribeLAB. All the projects we built adapted traditional mud house architecture, used bamboo and wood for structural reinforcement, and experimented with various earthen building styles. In shelter buildings, we always kept open kitchens. 

We did a Women’s center for traditional Mayan handcrafts. We built semi-concrete septic tanks and community toilets, and we did a few disaster relief projects. 

What did you learn through this work in Guatemala?

I learned in working with indigenous people that even small changes were hard for them to adapt to. For example, we did a project in an area where coastal flooding affected their living a few times a year. All they needed to do was to elevate their floor a half a meter, and even if the area flooded, they would be dry. 

But the ask for that seemed ludicrous to them. There was this white man’s complex where they saw certain things like this as telling them how to live—”this isn’t how we build.” I had to stand back, be grateful for these building opportunities, and remember that telling them how and what to build actually goes against a designer’s role. 

But I learned other life skills from these experiences, despite all the frustrations and setbacks. The reality is working in the humanitarian sector is challenging. 

Your last key lesson during your Guatemala phase seems very pointed at what you decide to do next. So it took a lot of work to make money as an architect in this sector. 

I had to run two restaurants alongside these design activities because I had two architects working in-house and 40 builders. I had to pay an engineer to sign plans and ensure everything was structurally sound on our projects. So I always needed money in the office; we were just not making enough for myself to have a solid salary. 

Part Two Commentary

Anybody who started a firm very young in life from the ground up would surely recognize that early firm economics can be challenging. But try doing that on projects receiving limited funding through US-based non-profits. Sara told me these houses could be built for as low as USD 5,000, but what kind of fees could be extracted for herself and her firm? 

The Conversation: Part Three (Disrupt)

(AFR) You didn’t get to fly home to see your family in Poland very often because, as you say, “you couldn’t justify your salary.” That must have been super frustrating because you had a good-intending mission to help people and were solving real problems. 

I was in my twenties and still very young and mission-driven. My parents and peers building their careers in London and other European metropolises were indirectly putting pressure on me. “Why don’t you just get a job” is what I often heard from people trying to give me advice from care. 

And this is something that only hustle-rich entrepreneurs will understand. If you are committed to creating your reality and attach your happiness to values beyond the comfort of a 9-5, there is no way back for you.

Part of me thought that if I came back to Europe, I would be seen as someone who wasted their 20s. Because of what I was doing, I didn’t have an incredible portfolio that I would have if I had worked for noted European architects. Let’s be frank: I was working on mud huts. 

As you can imagine, I was really stuck at this point.

(AFR) So in the case of the China experience, the gap between A-school and actual architecture firms made you question whether you were a good worker. Now you were working so hard to run a practice; you were running two restaurants on the side to sustain that business. 

(Sara Kolata) I couldn’t figure out how to do better business—to make the financials work. And I was 29 years old and couldn’t imagine not making good money in my 30s.

I made so little I couldn’t justify spending $300 for a flight to visit my parents. It’s crazy looking back at it. 

Well, you were likely not taught anything about business in architecture school. It was trial by fire. This led to you finding this different mission in architecture and how your journey keeps taking you around turns. 

It can be tough to relinquish these attachments to who you think you are. But looking back five years into this latest leg of my journey, I don’t think I’ll ever want to practice again. 

I went to the US after realizing how important it was to learn how to run a business. I started by learning marketing, digital marketing, and business mastery. I attended many conferences that opened my eyes to technology in business. 

I’ve come quite far into realizing what is authentic to me, and that is where my passion is. I am authentic pro-business around things that come from the heart. 



They have to ask big-picture questions: Do I care more about money, or do I care more about personal time with my family? Or am I overworked because I don’t know how to manage my team correctly, so I tend to micromanage them, which burns me out?



Being where I stood at the time, I couldn’t stop but relate to all those architects out there hustling daily to run their businesses, much like me- without any business acumen. I thought to myself: we need a place, a community that can support everyone in growing just that. 

Learning business was about realizing who I am at the core and embracing my individuality. I enjoyed traveling and decided to start an online business to support the interests that centered me as a person and made me confident. 

Once again, I embarked on a new business venture, this time with a grand idea of hosting virtual and physical business-minded events in Architecture, and there have been good people like Martyn Day who have helped me. Though I needed to learn the ins and outs of hosting events, I learned a lot along the way. Entrepreneurship, for me, is creating your own reality through business. And social media has only enabled us to create those realities.

The architecture industry seems ripe for disruption. Why did you choose that exact word for your vision of a symposium on business in architecture? 

It didn’t start like that. I had different words—many words to describe what I was trying to do. As I worked on organizing this event, I spoke to many prominent and successful architects who were are first Disrupt Symposium speakers. Folks like Patrik Schumacher, Filippo Lodi- associate director of UN Studio, Harry Ibbs- (at the time), director at Gensler UK, Chris Mulvey and Sean Scensor, Managing Partners at Safdie Architects, Jette Cathrin Hopp, Director at Snøhetta, Yehia Madkour- director of Innovation at Perkins&Will, and Daria Pahhota, BIG Partner, Global Brand & Communications and many more. 

These prominent personalities gave me a unique outlook on the state of the industry and their point of view. In weeks, even months of communication, we discussed many ideas that I always took notes on. Over time, in my work diary, a trend emerged, and I noticed a repetition of the word “Disrupt.” From there, it was a no-brainer to name the project Disrupt, which this year is growing into a full-blown publication platform.

There are established “businesses of practice” people in design and architecture, but you are a new alternative brand with a very different angle forged from personal experience. Why is it working for people, and what are you doing?

So I have worked with many business owners at different career stages. Our work starts by asking the person to envision their ideal life. We focus on emotions and balance between work and personal experiences. We focus on what makes one a great partner and parent. 

So often, a way to extract objectives for the work ahead has nothing to do with the firm they run but more with what truly matters to them. From there, we begin to dive deep into the firm. 

We look at current dynamics, the financials, at employee satisfaction and interview all partners and leaders. This information helps us craft a strategic plan for the objectives set and plan for execution. The objectives can be income related, focus on ownership transition, principals and leadership training, and general business growth. 

So how do you bring that vision down to the ground? 

So it means you own and manage something, but you are not slaving away for it. Do you have an incredible set of leaders, so you don’t have to stress and micromanage them?

What does freedom really look like for you? That’s where we start with clients. And when we get to clarity about what that truly is for you, it becomes clearer where the work needs to be put into the business to move towards materializing that vision. 

Do you find that part hard for clients?

People need to do the work to define the big picture to make it easier to determine the steps to get there. 

They have to ask big-picture questions: Do I care more about money, or do I care more about personal time with my family? Or am I overworked because I don’t know how to manage my team correctly, so I tend to micromanage them, which burns me out?



Schools encourage us on the design side by setting our creative flames on fire, but it doesn’t teach us the things needed to run a business successfully.



If that last part is true, maybe in the meantime—if that wasn’t the case—they could be laying the seeds for new growth, projects, and clients. But they may have to say to themselves: “I am here because I can’t let go of responsibilities because I don’t trust my team.”

Maybe this goes back to school and the often extreme egoism attracted to the industry. And the cowboy-ism. In school, we tend to go it alone, leaving us bereft of specific skills. 

When you draw comparisons, studying architecture and designing projects instill in us similar skills needed to start a business: time management, communication, finance management, people skills, and more. 

Some of those skills, certainly, more than others. Maybe architects, as a type, are intrinsically entrepreneurs, but our education teaches us only halfway—spiritually nurturing our egos on the creative design side—but the rest of architecture school doesn’t look like the rest of what entrepreneurs need. Does that sound right? 

One hundred percent! And that is the most shocking bit about it.

Schools encourage us on the design side by setting our creative flames on fire, but it doesn’t teach us the things needed to run a business successfully. And it also doesn’t fully prepare us to run projects and understand how construction and real project execution work (especially from the financial and team management perspective)

Architecture school encourages us to want things we will not be prepared to tackle well. Running firms is hard, and the economics are so bad that young people feel discouraged. So they don’t do it. 

It is ironic because if you break it down, the design process is exactly like the process needed to start a business. But there is so much fear. And another problem in the industry is that when you work for others, you are no longer entitled to say those projects are yours once you leave a firm. 

Even if you work for a firm for 15 years and have a senior role, and then you decide that you are fit to start a firm, it is challenging because you need to have your own portfolio. If your portfolio is filled with projects you did for other firms, you can not claim them as your own, so you start from scratch, And that is terrifying for a lot of people.

So, on the one hand, university indoctrinates us or spiritually encourages our dream of having our own firm but doesn’t prepare us well, so we are “unfit.” And then, once we become “fit” to start our own practice, we face the portfolio problem. That’s an interesting but sobering way of putting it. 

The earlier you start, the better off you are. That is what I think. 

Many architectural mothers are birthing the design of buildings, but only the firm owners truly have custody of the children—sort of speak. Put that way, it sounds so patriarchial and pre-20th century. It definitely lags behind other creative industries—like the film industry—that also has protected IP but better democratization of authorship and public communication of roles. 

No credits are scrolling at the end of an architectural project. 

We live in this world where we have to be broadcasting to the masses and prospecting and funneling in the few leads that this process gets us to communicate with about our business and then to have that exclusive opportunity to sit down with someone. And that’s the marketing process, and for that marketing, you need to be able to communicate what you have done. And you can’t legally do that with work you have critically done as part of other firms. 



We live in this world where we have to be broadcasting to the masses and prospecting and funneling in the few leads that this process gets us to communicate with about our business and then to have that exclusive opportunity to sit down with someone.



That’s terrifying for many people in senior-level positions who already have families, mortgages, and lives to pay for—it’s really hard to start anew.

So the industry encourages this idea of mentorship, so one finishes becoming an architect after working for an experienced one for years. That is because mistakes can be very costly. But even veteran architects make huge mistakes. It happens. 

So fit or not fit to lead a firm, where do you stand? 

So starting practice the earlier, the better, and it won’t be easy, mainly because we need more business education in architecture school. But that has changed so much because you can get that business education on the Internet, and experts in these areas will help you. 

Thinking back to the possibilities, if you’re missing out on opportunities, you’re missing out on important lessons and truly understanding yourself as an entrepreneur. And once you have an idea, you design your life backward. 

So that lets architecture schools keep the status quo. So I’ll ask a related question. 

So the Disrupt Symposium is very much in the spirit of “getting the business answers out there on the Internet.” Is Disrupt Symposium a virtual or real venue? 

We did a physical event last year in Greece for the first time. Before that, everything was virtual. It was terrific because we invited great architectural practices, and people came from the islands and mainland Europe for the event. 

And the first sessions were all just practice leaders, and then we had panels on stage. And it was incredible to watch the interaction between the two. It was actually the leaders of other practices primarily interested in listening to what the other leaders in practices were doing and asking questions, and creating a debate. 

Isn’t it amazing when people talk about stuff they rarely get to talk about?

So these folks told me, “We have known each other for years and have attended numerous events together, have dinners together, and we have never had these types of conversations about how you make money.” 

For centuries money was a dirty word in the field of architecture. 

They thought it was incredible. They were saying, “We don’t ever ask those questions. And here at Disrupt, we were allowed to, encouraged even.” 

This is a welcome step in the profession. Who is invited to Disrupt Symposium? Who do you want to attend? 

We cater to leaders of architecture practices (principals, directors, founders, partners, owners, heads, chiefs, and the like) that hire over 50 employees. We get a high attendance from business-minded individuals: solo practitioners, smaller business owners, and even students, all looking for education and inspiration and wanting to be a part of our community. 

I told you earlier I would return to the education of architects issue. So here is my final question. If you were creating the industry from scratch and I said Sara, I want you to create a new architecture school, what would that school look like?

Oh my God, I would definitely start from the business side of things. 

You know, you have these field schools—the AA has that—where you go into the field where you can learn how to build projects from the ground up. I would love to focus on teaching students the fundamentals of building projects, and design education comes later. I wouldn’t also miss personal development. Mindset, exploring your belief system, understanding what stops you from believing in yourself. This is a life skill you can take anywhere, and I wish I had gotten that from school. Teaching people about their value and ordering them as “worthy” for life would result in more innovation and business opportunities in the AEC industry. 

Many people have said such a thing before. I don’t disagree, but that is a very long education. 

If you, over the three years of doing a master’s or even a BA, if you started with practice and started with that—and again, not everyone has to be a practice owner—but perhaps such a school could be a school explicitly catering to individuals who want to be practice owners. Or people that want to understand the full scope of the business side of our industry. 



So starting practice the earlier, the better, and it won’t be easy, mainly because we need more business education in architecture school.  



Alternatively, after a BA or BArch, where you usually learn about design, you come into that kind of education at a master’s level—do a practice master’s degree.  

A good practice ensures a cohesive brand message from all employees and leaders in the firm. This is only possible when the team works as a unit and honors the firm’s narrative. Through Disrupt, I have learned the importance of a unified business approach. 

I like the idea of a master’s degree aimed at practice. That is an industry-specific business, operations, and—in my view—a perhaps technology degree. 

Sara, it was wonderful talking to you about your fascinating career journey. And best of luck at the next Disrupt. 

It was my pleasure. 

More Details

You can learn more about Sara Kolata and register for her Disrupt Symposium here and her newsletter here and follow her video conversations with industry movers and shakers here and here on her social media channels. 

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