Today we’d like to introduce you to Karen Burton.
Hi Karen, can you start by introducing yourself? We’d love to learn more about how you got to where you are today?
I decided that I wanted to be an architect when I was in the fourth grade. My friend’s dad worked in architecture. He came to my class for career day and brought his sketches of African American leaders and business people. I figured he liked to draw and so did I. Combine that with my Dad taking my brother and me exploring through houses under construction in my neighborhood, my good grades in math, and stories of an uncle who was an architect (he died when I was much younger, but my family made the connection), I knew I would make designing buildings my career.
At that young age, I didn’t know that architecture wasn’t considered a popular profession for girls. Although both of my parents were in the medical field, they encouraged me to be whatever I dreamed of being, and they opened a world of possibilities for me. I had no idea that there weren’t any Black women who were licensed architects in Michigan at the time – I’m sure my parents didn’t know either.
In middle school, my counselor discouraged me from taking drafting. Girls weren’t as good in math as boys were, she explained. When I took drafting the following year, I was the best in my class.
While attending architecture school at the University of Michigan, there were a couple of African American professors, and I made it a point to take a community design-related course with one. There were four Black students in my undergraduate class of about 100. In my summer jobs during the college years and at my first few jobs out of college, I was always the only woman and/or the only Black person; usually both. Although I grew up in a diverse environment, I felt alone in my chosen profession.
Mentorship from the men I worked for was nearly non-existent. It seemed that they couldn’t see me as a peer. I didn’t receive career guidance or encouragement to follow the steps needed for licensure. I felt nonessential and expendable to them. But I knew I was destined for greater things in the profession, so I was determined to make it happen by forging my own path.
In 1998, I took the leap into entrepreneurship, offering architectural design, computer-aided drafting (CAD) and technical consulting services as a freelancer in metro Detroit. I designed a couple of single-family homes and worked on small projects for developers and small business owners. I worked with architecture firms that varied in size from six people to staff of hundreds to provide services for such projects Ford Field and the Detroit Lions Headquarters and Training Facility, Compuware Headquarters (now One Woodward), City Center in Las Vegas, and several multi-family and mixed-use developments. I began to work with, and for, more professionals who looked like me and who shared similar experiences.
I realized that the barriers to entry for firm ownership and financial success in architecture and construction were many for most women and people of color – long hours took a toll on family life, the equipment and software needed were difficult to acquire because of high costs, and the people who financed the big projects – the high-net-worth individuals – were white men. If you didn’t have friends and family in the “right” circles, sizable projects that could bring in the revenue to grow your firm, maintain staff, and keep the doors open may be few and far between. Traditionally, successful firms owned by people of color subsisted with work from churches, municipalities, and schools.
My mission grew to help smaller firms grow their businesses by offering my technical services along with business development and marketing consulting. I also kept thinking that there should be a way for small firms to collaborate and share resources to win bigger projects. They could co-locate in a space in a premier location, with professionally designed meeting rooms, and all the amenities that found in a large firm’s office. It’s not cool to have to spread construction drawings out on a small table at a coffeehouse.
In 2015, my husband Bobby and I partnered to open SpaceLab Detroit, a shared office and coworking space in downtown Detroit, and this year marks the 5th anniversary of the grand opening of our physical space. We surveyed design, construction, and real estate professionals to find out what they wanted in an office space and where they wanted to be located. We offer turnkey space for companies of all sizes – they can grow from mailbox to desk to a private office. A receptionist greets their guests, and they can work and meet with their clients an award-winning designed office. Our view of the Detroit River is breathtaking. We’re helping to level the facility “playing field” for entrepreneurs, and small, women- and minority-owned businesses – offering an executive office to help build their brand. And, now it’s not just for architects and contractors – our virtual office business grew exponentially during the COVID-19 pandemic. People really want an office-away-from-home for their home-based businesses.
I read many trade magazines, and early in my career, I was really frustrated that I hardly saw any Black people whose work was being featured. My colleague Saundra Little would often hear people comment that they didn’t know any Black architects when she is one herself. She and I conceived of a project called Noir Design Parti to document the careers and projects of Detroit’s (and now Michigan’s) Black architects. We were awarded a grand by the Knight Foundation in 2016. We’ve done lectures and presentations and tours through Midtown and downtown Detroit. We’re now interviewing architects and their families for a podcast and book. Representation matters. We want students and young professionals to see the success of Black architects and know that they do belong in the profession.
Along with four other women in the commercial real estate (CRE) industry, I recently started a new nonprofit organization, the Women’s Sustainable Development Initiative (WSDI), to help emerging women developers get their projects built. Our primary focus is BIPOC women and projects in low-income communities. Again, access to capital is difficult for women and people of color. Most of the women in our focus group have been working in the industry for 10, 15 years or more, and they are still finding it difficult to make connections with the power players and to get access to capital. The founding board members of WSDI collectively have about 150 years experience in CRE. We are pooling our resources and sharing what we know to get women’s projects funded and to rebuild communities.
Early on, I knew I’d be a serial entrepreneur. In my early 20’s, I’d listed several businesses I wanted under my “conglomerate” umbrella. The list has changed but I know I’ve found my purpose: to advocate for diversity in the built environment professions. In particular, I want to make the path a little smoother for women and people of color.
One of the businesses I’d listed back then was an architecture firm. Through my career journey, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever formally get back into the architecture space, but a couple of years ago, I started A/E Collaborative with a colleague who is an engineer. We provide design delivery, engineering, and project management services. Our mission is to bring together smaller minority-owned firms that collaborate to win and perform on large-scale projects to be a more integral part of urban design and development.
Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall, and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Being the only and not feeling like I belonged was lonely. There are so many instances where I felt the need to prove myself – my credentials, my skill, my knowledge – when I know that others would not face the same scrutiny.
I taught architecture, interior design, and construction courses for several years. At my first adjunct faculty position, I was given two days notice to teach Blueprint Reading and Sketching. I was 30 years old and by then had many years of hands-on experience in the subject. On the first day as I walked to the front of the class, I heard, “That’s the teacher?!”
Before class, I’d looked at the list of students registered, and knew they were a majority men. As I looked into the sea of faces, I realized all of these men (and one woman) were older than I was, and only one was Black. They were all in training for skilled trades positions in the automotive industry, the prominent employer in town. The one female student dropped the course after the first session. It was just me and the guys.
They tested my skills and knowledge every class. I don’t remember what the outcome of the students’ written evaluations were of me, but I don’t think they were too great. One student even told me to my face that I shouldn’t be teaching. (Of course, he had not gotten a favorable grade in the course.)
I was secure in what I’d taught. I’m patient; I was, and still am, very knowledgeable of the subject. Plus, the college asked me back to teach Blueprint reading and another course. Subsequent courses and student and department head feedback confirmed that I was a great instructor.
I still get the “are you sure you belong here” looks, even at my own business. I’ve had people nosily inquire how my husband and I paid for the build-out of SpaceLab. Some people are surprised that I’m the owner (some happily surprised, some taken aback), and some even find it difficult to say I own the business; they rather use the term “manage.” I doubt Adam Neumann (founder of WeWork) ever experienced that.
Thanks – so what else should our readers know about Space Lab Development, Inc./ SpaceLab Detroit?
SpaceLab is a shared office and coworking space for creators, builders, and urban innovators. Located in downtown Detroit, we offer flexible workspace solutions, including desks-on-demand, dedicated desks, private offices, well-equipped meeting rooms, and mailing addresses. Our turnkey solutions enable you to just bring your laptop or device and get to work. We’re here to support you.
We have a diverse membership of startups and well-established businesses who are creating smart solutions for our neighbors and our city. Our model incorporates and programs innovation, tech, creativity, and disruption in practice and helps businesses grow in a welcoming, collaborative environment.
At SpaceLab, we’ve intentionally built a community of designers, artists, builders, planners, and developers who share a love for cities and the urban environment. We’ve grown to support all nearly all business types, providing a virtual and in-person community where entrepreneurs can compete and grow their businesses affordably.
Within the next 3-5 years, we’re planning to grow in Detroit and Florida.
What were you like growing up?
Growing up, I was a smart and curious, but shy kid. I loved to draw – my school notebook was full of doodles. I took an after-school art class in the third grade. When I’d walk into class, the teacher would be sketching models in magazine ads. I was in awe – his sketches looked just like the photo, except in black and white. I wanted to be able to draw like that, so I practiced and sketched almost daily, and by the time I was 12 or 13, I was was nearly as good as him. I’m sorry to say I’m out of practice, so I’m probably not nearly as good of an artist as I was then,
I loved to explore museums and cities. My parents took us on long road-trip vacations, and we traveled to visit family mainly on the east coast and in the south. I loved to see different cultures and experience big cities like New York and Toronto. Being from Flint, MI, automobiles were the main mode of transportation. I loved riding the subway.
- Day Pass; $20/day
- Virtual office: $70/month
- Flex or Desk: $250 – 350/month
- Offices: Starting at $650 per month
- Meeting Rooms: Start at $35/hour
- Website: spacelabdetroit.com, womendevelop.org, noirdesignparti.com, aecollaborative.net
- Instagram: @spacelabdetroit, @wsdiwomendevelop, @noirdesignparti
- Facebook: @spacelabdetroit, @wsdiwomendevelop, @noirdesignparti
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