Elisa Winter Holben: For the Love of Design

Principal and CEO, Elisa Winter Holben shares five things she’s learned since founding Winter Holben Architecture + Design

This Women's History Month, I find myself admiring the work of talented female design leaders and reflecting on where I am at in this stage of my own career. I am fortunate to have built a flourishing creative business, but the trajectory of our firm has been organic and unplanned in many ways. Initially, I set out to have the freedom to do the design work I love and to do it on my own terms—the idea of a successful multidisciplinary firm was a distant dream. Now, more than ten years later, Winter Holben has won multiple awards, grown our talented team, and our body of work includes varied and notable projects I'm very proud of. While I am so thankful to be here, it was indeed HARD work. There are five valuable lessons I've learned through the ups and downs over the past 10+ years:

Embrace the female leadership role

During my stints at larger firms, I was often the only female in the room and not always given the same attention as my male counterparts. I really had to prove myself before earning the credibility I deserved. While challenging, that experience gave me the strength and confidence to handle the pressures of owning a business. I feel like it’s now my superpower! Despite this, I can still be stereotyped. For example, people often assume that my husband leads the firm and I merely assist. I enjoy listening to Brandon set them straight - he is my biggest advocate.

Have a vision but not a (strict) plan

Strategic plans are important but spending too much time planning far ahead is not effective. Unpredictable opportunities and challenges have had major, unexpected impacts on my career, but I’ve always had a clear, big-picture vision of what I want my professional and personal life to look like (very intertwined in my case). Every time I’ve had to pivot, this overarching vision helps guide my decisions. I trust that my zig-zag path is leading me where I am meant to go.

Understand the difference between work and passion

Although I lead a creative business, the work I do most days is not actually my passion. Art, science and design are my true loves but running a business is definitely work – and yet I love it. I think the idea that work is drudgery and pursuing your passion makes you happy is a false premise. For me, the business of design is a series of experiments and lessons that form the project of my life’s work. This idea makes the tough days bearable and fuels the everyday responsibilities of running our firm with enjoyment.

Relationships are everything

It has really taken me quite some time to come to terms with this since I am somewhat of an introvert and like working independently. But strong, positive relationships built on trust are critical to a happy work and personal life – and they take time to develop. I wouldn’t be where I am today without some of these long-term relationships: my husband and business partner, Brandon; important clients, many of whom I have collaborated with for over 20 years; supportive, female design colleagues and friends; and the dedicated employees/team members I work with every day. 

Always be an advocate for design

This is my mantra and my gut check at every project milestone. Above all else, throughout my career, I have been dedicated to the value of the design process, putting forth the best ideas and generating the highest quality work. The collaboration and communication of the entire team involved, including clients, is critical. Design is for anyone and everyone to be a part of and having many minds in the mix is imperative. Equally important is that extra sweat that goes into the work at the final hour to make it perfect – always worth it!