After the successful launch of Women@Work in March 2021—our interview series focused on bringing together and learning from remarkable women in the fields of real estate, workplace strategy, and architecture—we had the pleasure of talking to Jennifer Celesia.
Jennifer is a Workplace Strategist on Haworth’s Ideation Team based in London. With 15 years of international experience in the architecture and design industry, Jennifer brings with her a unique perspective. Highlighting the global workplace experience and the challenges facing multinational organizations, here’s a peek at our conversation with Jennifer.
Women@Work: Who inspired you to get into architecture and interior design?
Jennifer: My aunt was an interior designer in the US, and she inspired me to find work in a creative field. My work experience began when I spent a summer in San Francisco working in marketing at a design firm. When I look back, I'd say everything I've done has largely been because of that work—it actually led me to another opportunity.
Women@Work: What sort of mindset do you think is needed to take the leap into a new opportunity at the moment it presents itself?
Jennifer: There is a certain element of “right place, right time” for everybody in their life—whether it's your career or your family. I think the opportunities that arise are not what we expect—and the surprise makes us pause. Sometimes new experiences feel like they come out of left field, but even then, they are still worth exploring. Some people let these opportunities go because they're too afraid to take a risk. Be someone who is willing to push past your comfort zone.
Women@Work: What has been your best professional decision?
Jennifer: The biggest catalyst for my career was relocating to China. It changed the trajectory of my life. I was in my mid-20s and ready to join the Peace Corps in North Africa when I was offered a full-time job. It was one of those moments that sticks out as a huge crossroads in my life. I remember thinking, on one hand I can do a noble thing with the Peace Corps, and on the other, I could make a difference, but in the corporate world. The reason I chose the job opportunity and big move to China was that it felt like an exciting and challenging door opened for me at that particular moment in time—I needed to go through it. That experience was amazing and set everything in my career in motion—working in China, then Singapore, and later in the UK.
Women@Work: What is your biggest takeaway from having the opportunity to work in so many countries?
Jennifer: When I moved to China, I was immersed in a new cultural experience. On top of learning the cultural norms on a personal level, I was asked to manage people who had different backgrounds, life experiences, and personalities. Those initial years were tough, but I got through them. When I moved to the UK, I thought the learning curve would be a bit easier, but that was until I realized that you can speak the same language and still completely misunderstand someone!
Most people do not follow a linear career path. You need to educate and push yourself to find what the next iteration is. In a new role, it will take you a solid 6 months to find your footing, an additional 6 months to fully understand the team dynamics, and then at least another year to make a significant difference and feel like you made the right choice.
To stay engaged in your work after the initial onboarding, learning, and getting comfortable period that takes at least 2 years, you really should be pursuing what you are most passionate about. Even if it is not your actual role or job title, you can find tangential ways to learn things that can impact your job or benefit your growth. For example, if you are interested in a more client-facing experience, ask to sit in on sales meetings. Learn by absorption!
Women@Work: People argue that women have to put in more effort to be noticed in the workplace. Do you agree? Do you have any examples of this reality in action?
Jennifer: It's not just at work, women in general face a lot of judgement. We are judged by our looks, how we dress, how successful we are, and if we are stay-at-home moms or if we go back to work. There is a systemic issue that needs to be addressed.
In the workplace, women can be penalized in their careers for making decisions with their family in mind in a way that men are not. Women often struggle because we're trying to do it all. The conversation about balance is important—we need women who will advocate for other women. And not just younger women, but also experienced professionals—those of us who are further along in our careers and may be overlooked. Of course, there are times when women face uncomfortable situations or conversations at work—scenarios that don't always hold the same meaning or concern for men. We all need to be advocates for women in those situations. If we don’t speak out, everyone loses.
A great deal of companies today measure an employee’s value by how much money they bring in or what projects they complete. Sadly, there is less of a focus on how you manage people or if you are a great asset to the organizational culture. I am fortunate to have worked in several values-driven companies that give equal importance to both. Shifting how a company defines individual success is one way to begin to rebalance the scales.
Women@Work: Why do you think it is important to have a mentor and how do you find one?
Jennifer: In my experience, men and women offer different perspectives in the role of mentor. They are equally valuable, so ideally you want to find several mentors to help you through various stages throughout your career. For example, if you are considering a job promotion that you are not certain about, a self-identified female mentor might focus the conversation on how you feel about the overall opportunity and its challenges, whereas a self-identified male mentor might talk you through the risk-reward balance of the position.
Additionally, peer groups offer guidance and support when you need a fresh perspective. In a safe setting with those you trust, share your experiences candidly and know you are not going to be chastised for expressing your concerns, questions, and needs. Ultimately, any career-decision related conversation is an important one.
Women@Work: If and when a woman wants to start a family, her career often takes a hit. Do you know or have ideas of positive measures that companies or governments have implemented to support women returning to work?
Jennifer: When women leave the workforce, they create a big knowledge gap. Shared parental leave is becoming more common, but that is not enough to bring mothers back after time focused on family. If the cost of child care is roughly the same as your income, what is the incentive of going back to work—especially if you are spending time bringing in dollars just to lose out on valuable time with your child?
Companies like Deloitte have a Return-to-Work Retraining program meant to keep in touch with people who leave the company. Their goal is to help people brush up on their skills or gain new skills—betting that this support will entice them back to work after an extended leave. Additionally, engaging and upskilling women who choose to return following maternity leave is one of the biggest opportunities a company has for the retention of women in the workplace.
Women@Work: What advice would you give to your younger self?
Jennifer: Be patient! I have realized over the years that things have a way of working themselves out—of course, that is largely due to continued hard work and not just sitting on the sofa waiting for something to happen! Happiness comes from enjoying what you are doing and adding value—professionally and personally—along the way.
There you have it—our latest Women@Work interview. We are honored to be able to share our findings with you and hope you are as inspired by Jennifer’s globe-trotting career as we are.
If you know of any other women with interesting journeys in the fields of real estate, workplace strategy, or architecture at any stage of their career, connect with Adithi Khandadi and Nishtha Bali on LinkedIn.