Catherine CorbinIt’s a story as old as time for those in the architecture profession: Girl meets LEGO. Girl falls in love with the art and science of building and designing things in her living room. What starts as a hobby, a favorite playtime activity, becomes the only logical choice for a career path — which, if you are Catherine Corbin, you start thinking about in middle school.

A lot has happened since then. Catherine, who leads our 65+ person healthcare practice in Chicago, helped prepare the country of Qatar to provide health services to its rapidly growing population. She spent six months in India building a health design practice in Mumbai. She worked as an employee at three different health systems. She was featured on the cover of Building Design + Construction’s “40 under 40” issue. And she was recently elected to our firm’s board of directors.

Oh, and she’s only 34.

Read on to learn more about Catherine’s career path, her global experiences, and her advice to aspiring designers.

You were a boomerang CannonDesigner, beginning your career with the firm, leaving to get your MBA, working in hospital administration, and then returning to CannonDesign. Explain that journey a bit.

Why leave CannonDesign? I had finished my IDP hours and needed to go to grad school in order to become a registered architect, so it was time to leave work no matter where I was off to next.

Why business instead of architecture for grad school? I had quickly grown to love working with our clients and was enamored with the problems they were trying to solve through us. I wanted to get closer to those problems and felt that changing careers to get into healthcare administration was the way to do that.

Why healthcare administration? I wanted to more directly impact health outcomes from an administrative role in a hospital setting. Working on the “other side of the table” really helped me develop a greater appreciation for the rewarding and challenging nature of the healthcare industry, and a renewed sense of empathy for how we take care of people.

Why return to CannonDesign? Ultimately, missing the collaborative studio environment and the culture of innovation in the design profession, I knew I needed to come back. The bigger reason was the people. I’ve loved working with everyone here since 2005 and I wanted to come back to work alongside them again.

If you had to classify your “type” of design, how would you describe it?

I’m the first to admit that I’m not the archetypal architect — the hero in the black cape, a designer with a capital D. Though my aesthetic sensibilities are intact and I have a strong appreciation for well-designed spaces, I’m more of a problem solver and builder of teams. In my day-to-day, I bring the right people to the table so together we can create meaningful healthcare spaces. And in the healthcare world, that means not only spaces that are functional and visually pleasing, but spaces that improve access to care, aid in the healing process, grow market share, manage population health, attract top physicians, and that list goes on.

You’ve spent quite a bit of time working abroad. Can you talk a bit about your experiences working with global healthcare clients?

Since 2012, I’ve traveled pretty regularly to the Middle East and India for project work, and also to help build our health practice in Mumbai. One of my most profound experiences happened during a six-week stay in India when I visited a “premier” hospital in Delhi — only to be greeted by a crumbling facility surrounded by dozens of patients from outlying communities, some who had traveled hours or even days just to spend 20 minutes with a physician. It was very sobering to see the segregation and cultural barriers firsthand. As soon as you arrive, I noticed separate lines for men and women, for people who could and could not pay. It brings the concept of access to care to a whole new level compared to what we see here in the U.S. This experience, and really all of my experiences internationally, has reinforced my belief that good design can greatly influence health and well being. We may not be able to solve for every inherent cultural challenge in the places we design and build, but we can moderate those experiences in a sensitive, respectful manner. There is great power and responsibility in that.

Also, I suppose I should mention that my international experience has taught me to be much more flexible and patient than I had historically been. Just ask anyone who’s been to India what the real time frame is when someone local tells you, “Just two minutes, Madam!” and you’ll know what I mean.

In 2016, you were elected to our company’s Board of Directors. What have been some of the challenges and opportunities of this position?

I’m so new to it that perhaps the “newness” factor is, in and of itself, a challenge. The opportunities lie within the expectations of others, I believe. I am comparatively junior, I am a woman, I work in our biggest office, I practice in our biggest market, I have worked on the client side. All of these characteristics do not play a direct role in my contributions to the Board, but they are a part of me, intrinsically, and I am grateful to be a representative voice across each of those factors.

What advice would you give other young women in the firm who want to grow and advance to where you are today?

It doesn’t matter if you’re young or if you’re a woman or if you’re both. You’ve got just as much potential as the person sitting beside you, so you may as well go do something with it!

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