Career Innovators: Building a New Way

JANUARY 12, 2014

Welcome to the second installment of Career Innovators: a series of stories, curated and brought to life by Jes Jarvis, about inspiring women who made bold changes in the early years of their careers to follow a dream. We hope these stories of women propelling their careers in unconventional ways will inspire other quarterlettes out there.

Do you know someone who would make a great Career Innovator story? Tell us about them in the Comments section!

Anita Sellers had completed a rigorous training program at a global financial firm when she had an awakening. She wanted to be an architect.

“I have a natural ‘architect’s mind’ that has been with me since childhood, but I just never pursued it until now. As a child, I loved anything that I could put together: puzzles, Legos, building blocks. I even still enjoy those things today.”

This fall, Anita landed at Harvard to attend its top-ranked graduate architecture program. Here is her story:

What did you decide to study while in college?

I decided to study economics because there are numbers and math involved, but it also has a real-world application. I tried it out as a freshman and enjoyed the classes, so I stuck with it. As for French, I had studied it since fifth grade and decided to continue in college simply because I loved it. Looking back, I think my French courses were a bit of an introduction to architecture for me. I knew I loved the linguistic aspect of the subject because of the straightforward, math-like quality of learning a language. But, I was especially interested in the artistic aspects of the French language and culture. I studied abroad in Paris my junior year and took a class on museums. It was one of my favorite courses because we got to learn about how museums are laid out for the visitor experience—a very architectural concept.

When did you start to think about going into architecture instead?

The idea of architecture first crossed my mind in college when I heard about other people majoring in it, but I never wanted to take a course on it because it seemed like a strong art background was needed.

I also think I was always too wrapped up in what I was doing in the moment to think outside the box about what I really wanted to do for the longer term. I was playing squash, fulfilling my major and core liberal arts requirements, and active in a sorority and other student groups. I did internships in wealth management over the summers, so I applied to jobs in that area by default when it came time to look for a full-time position. I don’t regret any of this because I enjoyed it and am a well-rounded person as a result. I gained a lot of valuable skills through these experiences that will apply to any career. Also, this background helped me stand out in my architecture school applications.

At what point did you realize it was time for a career innovation?

I had been at my previous job for about a year, and before that I had been in a rotational training program for two years, so I was starting to think about what I wanted to do next. I knew there were lots of opportunities within the company, but there wasn’t really one particular path that I could see myself pursuing for the longer term.

My goal has always been to find a job I liked so much that it didn’t feel like work. I did not feel that the path I was on was what I was “meant” to be doing. I started to have ideas outside of the industry, for example “I love food – why not become a chef? Or open a restaurant?” but none of them stuck. Then I learned that a friend of my roommate was pursuing her Masters in Architecture at Columbia University. It was an “a-ha” moment for me, and from that point on I couldn’t let go of the idea. I wasn’t 100% convinced yet that I should leave my previous career path, but I knew it had to mean something that I was so excited about this idea. It felt more “me.” I knew I had to explore it further.

How did you begin to explore this potential new path? 

I met with my friend who was at Columbia and learned more about what a M. Arch program entails. She told me that the program centers around studio, where you are given a design problem and get feedback on your proposed solution. I was unsure if I would thrive in this creative atmosphere, since it seemed very unstructured compared to what I was used to at my job, but that wasn’t enough to deter me from trying it.

As she told me about her projects for school, I was immediately inspired and knew that was the type of work I wanted to be doing. Architecture seemed to encompass everything I love: problem solving, working on something tangible, cities, having lived in Philadelphia, Paris, and New York, and creativity. Art seemed to be what had held me back in the past on this, but I realized after working that everybody has their strengths and weaknesses, and that I have skills to bring to architecture that make up for my lack of an art background. Plus, I saw it as an opportunity to build on my creativity and artistic talent that had been forgotten over the years.

What did you do next? What steps did you take to get where you wanted to be?

There were a few things I would need for my application, and the biggest one was a portfolio. At the time, I did not have any content that I could think to use for a portfolio and did not even know what one looked like. My friend introduced me to someone she had worked with on a portfolio, and I ended up working with him for a whole year to put together mine. There were a lot of ups and downs throughout that year, but it paid off in the end. I learned a lot about myself in the process.

The hardest part was that I was still not sure that architecture was right for me for the first six months I was working with him, so it was difficult to commit to the level of work that was required to create a good portfolio. Finally, I reached a point in the summer before the applications were due and decided that I needed to commit one way or the other. I realized that I would regret it if I didn’t give it my all and apply, and from that point on, the portfolio just fell into place.

I had another moment of doubt after I submitted my applications and realized the magnitude of the decision that was ahead of me if I got in somewhere. But I was happy that I had put my all into the applications and knew I still had time to think about it. Throughout that year, I also spoke to any other contacts I could find in the architecture world, and I always came out of these meetings completely inspired. It was helpful to keep these moments in mind when I was feeling frustrated about my portfolio.

Where are you in your journey now?

When I started hearing back from the schools, my nerves were overcome by hope. I knew I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to pursue this new path. A large part of why I was hesitant in making the change was that it was unknown territory. I wasn’t sure if I would actually enjoy it as much as I thought I would, but I knew that I would never know unless I tried it.

Being accepted into my top three programs was a huge confidence boost and helped reaffirm that it was the right decision to pursue this career path. I am now halfway through the first semester of the program and absolutely love it so far. Everything I was worried about has turned out fine, not because it’s not difficult, but because my entire class is in it with me. I learn something new with every project, and even though I feel a bit lost sometimes, I know that I not supposed to know everything right away and that that’s what I‘m here for – to learn! If it weren’t challenging, I wouldn’t be learning anything.

What advice do you have for Quarterlettes who may be thinking about innovating their careers?

Like any decision in life, I think you need to follow your heart and if it feels right, go for it! I think too many people stay on whatever path they are on because it is easier than making a change, but you spend a lot of your life working, so you might as well do something you enjoy. I was fortunate to hear the same thing from the first few people I told about my “crazy” idea to apply to architecture school. It helped to keep that big picture in mind when I was having a tough time with my decision.

I would also say that you should take it step-by-step. It may be scary at first, but with each step you take towards making the change, it becomes more and more a part of you and the decision becomes clear.

Finally, it is never too late to try something new, and everything that you have been doing up until that point can only distinguish you more in the new field. The skills I learned in college and in my four years in business will help me as an architect. Anything you do outside of your ultimate career path is only broadening your skill set and helping formulate your unique style.