Daring Women: Joslyn Balzarini, Principal at B+H Architects

Seattle-based interior designer believes that as a leader, ‘if you’re comfortable, you’re not learning’

Joslyn Balzarini is a senior interior designer and principal with the global design and consulting firm B+H Architects. She brings to her work a passion for solving puzzles and a desire to make spaces reflect the culture of an organization and respond to human needs, including feelings and experiences, according to a description of her on the B+H website.

Balzarini, who joined B+H nearly six years ago as one of the founders of the firm’s Seattle studio, was named a principal this past December. She has done interior-design for Microsoft projects and helped to build the Seattle studio's hospitality interior-design portfolio. In the latest Daring Women interview, Balzarini reflects on her career successes and the challenges she’s faced, her mentors and views on leadership, and shares some advice for women starting out in their careers.

Tell us about the high point of your career. What do you love about your work? Describe your proudest moment.

The high point of my career so far is co-founding the B+H Seattle Studio. The Seattle marketplace has a large pool of very talented architecture and design firms. We have this opportunity to differentiate ourselves from all of these well-respected competitors. We took our favorite and most successful items from our past experiences and combined them with new and fresh ideas. My proudest moments have been watching our firm grow from four people (without a server, no less) to this mature firm where we’re delivering large and complex projects to our favorite clients.

What challenges have you faced as a woman in your industry? How have you addressed them?

I don’t know what it’s like to be a man, so I can’t say what challenges I’ve had that they haven’t. It used to be that you needed to be a credentialled expert as a woman to get a seat at the table, but the nature of the problems we have to solve today has evolved. Expertise based on what’s happened in the past can be a disadvantage. What we need is fresh perspectives and as many of them as possible. I have the confidence to be myself and know that my perspective matters.

Tell us about a person who has inspired or mentored you. What key lesson did you learn from them?

The person who’s inspired me the most is my mother. She was the first to graduate from college, and she put herself through school. When I look back at it now, she was feminist, but when I was young, my mom was just my mom, and she took responsibility for her life path. She is a really good example of a strong woman who did what she wanted to do with pride and who always took what she thought was the best route, no matter how hard it was.

What advice would you give to a woman getting started in her career?

Learn all the rules well, so you can figure out the best way to break them. If you break things for the sake of breaking things, that’s not disruptive. You’re just being a jerk.

What can women do to improve gender equity in the workplace? What can men do?

Women can support and mentor other women. Take (and make) the time. It will never be forgotten. If you have influence or control of compensation, make sure that everyone is getting paid based on their position, experience and skillsets, regardless of gender.

For men, the best thing they can do is be an ally. Listen, and realize that respect doesn’t require agreement.

Tell us about a favorite book/show/podcast and why/how it inspires you.

I’ve been told I’m the smartest, least well-read person there is. I’m visual, and I thrive off of community, so I’m inspired in other ways. 

I’ll attend community events and seek out varying perspectives or just listen to the people in my network. Being able to hear people is something that’s helped me build relationships and learn a lot in my career. I like to be very knowledgeable on things I speak about. If I have interest in something, I spend a ton of time researching it. Many things are interconnected if you take the time to dig and look at their community and history. I always say, If I wasn’t a designer, I would become a forensic scientist.

I’m inspired by collections of visual things, so on Instagram I follow a wide variety of people ― chefs, floral designers, fringe artists, dancers and other creatives. If I get stuck, I’ll roll out a 20-foot-long piece of butcher paper in my dining room and draw or write down my goal, and story-board my path to success, identify road blocks, and brainstorm how to get around (or remove) them.

Pinterest has also been a good outlet for me to curate inspiration. [My style page there] has a good collection of my favorites.

Where do you find support and inspiration? How important is networking, and how do you expand your contacts?

Building and maintaining relationships is one of the most important things that’s helped propel my career. Relationships are how I’ve found my jobs, how I’ve found my clients, and how I’ve maintained my network. Except for my very first position, I’ve never had to show my portfolio to get a job. Sometimes the person you met over cocktails 10 years ago will become your next client. You never know what’s going to happen. Whenever you are with someone at an industry event and they say, “Hey, you want to go grab a drink or lunch?” The answer is always, “Yes!”

What are the most important characteristics of a good leader? What leadership traits are overrated?

The best skillsets can’t be put on a resume. Empathy is an underrated leadership trait, so is ability to give direct feedback. Great leadership is not only being competent (or even excelling) in your functional role. That’s the minimum requirement. You must lead a team that grows, feels valued, delivers the project and who would sign up to work together again. 

Leaders need to keep growing. If you are comfortable, you aren’t learning, and if you aren’t learning, you are irrelevant.

What would you do differently in your career if you had a do-over.

I wouldn’t do anything over again, but if I had the chance to give my younger self some advice, I’d say, “You know what you’re doing. This is okay. Push back, go find a mentor, find someone who will listen. You’ve got this!”

What would be the title of your autobiography?

"Balz!" It's an old nickname.

We’d love to hear from more women across all industries who are challenging the status quo. Does it sound like you? If it does, click here and fill out our questionnaire. Feel inspired? Join us for our second Daring Women event on May 21, 2019.

Daring Women Q&A responses have been edited and condensed.

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