Stephanie Edwards is an Architect, a mentor, a template for the kind of friend you want in your corner, and a co-founder of Urban Symbiotics, a boutique start-up company offering architectural, master planning and regeneration services. Discussing her route to entrepreneurship, I asked if she had been scared to quit a well-paid, dependable job to start this new venture. Stephanie responded with a quick “No. How weird is that? I just thought if it doesn’t work I’ll get another job”.
This is not weird for Stephanie, it’s normal who also says “Sometimes You Just Need to Jump”.
Who is a strong woman?
“A strong woman to me is a woman who is true to themselves; who can understand how they are feeling, why they are feeling that way and be comfortable in those spaces. She expresses herself authentically, is kind to others, sure of herself and isn’t concerned about what other people think about her”.
Stephanie reconciles this description with her younger self who she thinks was more bold.
“When everyone else was studying and applying for degrees, I applied to do an art foundation course and you can imagine the reactions. The amount of prayers that were happening for me in Grenada, in Trinidad, in Ghana…It was a hard year but people kept referring to it as a gap year as though it was a joke. Even when I was doing Art A levels, there were elders who thought it was a shame that I wasn’t doing a real subject but it didn’t bother me at all. Instead it propelled me. I think it would bother me more now.”
The then and now demarcation in time leads us nicely into a discussion on how and when Stephanie stepped into womanhood.
“I would say I am in the transition. I probably have one step in that direction but I don’t think I am quite there yet. Today I don’t feel strong.”
I note an irony in the fact that Stephanie’s understanding and articulation of how she is feeling in the moment, whilst summarised by her as a lack of strength, is actually very much in line with the authenticity demanded by her definition of strength. It’s a reminder of how often what we feel is not reality, however deeply we may feel it in the moment. We jump into the idea of transition, the fact that since we are always becoming, the thrust of the question here is when did you step into yourself in a way that became the springboard for all the other things you will become? Given the uncertainty with the previous answer, we both burst out laughing when without any hesitation, she says 22.
“My mum used to say you need to live by yourself to really know who you are and at 22, I fulfilled that prophecy. I lived in Holland and it was probably the most personal freedom I’ve had. I was in a place I hadn’t been before, in my dream job at OMA, away from family or friends, alone but I could focus on my own aspirations. That was a great moment. I was faced with myself essentially and I’d say through the course of that year I became a woman”.
Who are some of the women who have widened the sphere of possibility for who you think can be in the world?
“My mum — to see how far she has come, the risks she took and her lack of fear or at least that’s how it seems from my perspective. She came to the UK from a small village in Trinidad to study accounting. The family including eight brothers and sisters lived in a one-bedroom house but as far as she was concerned those were some of the happiest times. Moving to London to study accountancy was not easy and she used to say the best time she had in London was when her ceiling collapsed so that she didn’t have to pay rent. She did cleaning jobs with whilst studying with women who came from all the professions, engineers, accountants, other students, women trying to work out ways to survive in a new country.
Even though she had nothing, it didn’t really stop her from aspiring to anything she wanted to be. As a child we would walk around and she’d say I wanted to work here, so I worked here, I said I wanted to work there so I worked there, so for me it became normal. I just thought that’s what you need to do, decide what you want and go for it.”
Are there other women?
My cousin and godmother Dreda Say Mitchell, who started as a teacher and then became a writer, broadcaster, columnist, she has been a great support. My friend’s mum also comes to mind. She showed me that life doesn’t need to be in concrete, you don’t even need to know where you want to go or even where you want to be. There are so many different paths and you can follow them all. But you do need to grasp that it is possible.
Baroness Doreen Lawrence has to be in that list too. I met her a year after I was awarded the Stephen Lawrence Scholarship to study at the AA. When I think about what she has been through and how she has managed to turn that around to such positivity, the support she gives, her consistency in holding people to account and not being fearful about how it looks or how it appears, but just having morals and not being scared to say something. She is such a special person. It’s hard to explain my admiration for her. She didn’t need to do anything she has done.”
Stephanie is too modest to bring up the fact that Baroness Lawrence chose her as protégé for the Leaders and Protégés British Vogue spread in the September 2019 edition that Meghan Markle edited. I bring it up and we laugh about how she didn’t open the email from Vogue immediately because she didn’t think it was real, how she allowed herself to enjoy every part of the experience including the lady who was applying clear nail varnish to her fingers for a very long time and then Stephanie remembers another lesson from Baroness Lawrence:
“At the interview for my first job, the interviewer saw me and said I didn’t expect you to be Black. No one prepares you for that. The man then said we were expecting a part 2 in Architecture but they had my CV, I didn’t lie, so I was baffled; and even more so when they asked if I could start straight away. I spoke to Baroness Lawrence about it and the advice that she gave me was ‘you don’t need to say no to the job, but you need to let him know that what he did was inappropriate and he needs to know the impact it has.’ I expected her to say ‘whatever you do, do not go for the job, that person is racist’, so this helped me start looking closer at the nuance in things”.
It isn’t lost on me that these inspirational women are individuals who have chosen not to be defined by circumstance and who have reinvented themselves numerous times.
I am curious to know if she has stumbled on this same strength of character in moments of her life that didn’t at first seem favourable. Stephanie mentions attending the Architectural Association School of Architecture, which is probably one of the most famous schools of architecture in the world.
“I remember looking at the prospectus. It was £14,000 per year to go to university for a 5 year course. I decided to apply and one of my teachers told me it was very unlikely that I would get in, but even if I did, that I won’t get a scholarship. I found out that she told all the students who could afford the tuition to meet her at the university where she would sign their personal statement forms. I have this real memory of sitting on top of the stairs at my parent’s house thinking, I’m going to go. I got there and had a moment of fright, like why am I doing this, she already told me I won’t get in. My dad found out what was happening and said you are going to do it and you are going to get in. When I arrived, she looked at me like why are you here, I didn’t invite you, but she signed. I went for the interview, I got a place and it was them who suggested I apply for a full scholarship with the Stephen Lawrence Trust, which his mum set up because he wanted to be an architect.
Applying and getting the offer was a real moment of learning that sometimes you just need to jump”.
What is sisterhood for you?
“Sisterhood is like a safe space. A place where there is a sense of freedom, where you can let down your armour down, a space that builds you up. It’s a place of joy, inspiration and power. Definitely power”.
The emphasis on power is emphatic and so I request for an elaboration.
“Just that collective aspiration. For example at the end of the year I like asking people their plans for the New Year. It’s the one time that people really open up it becomes a space of shared vision and aspiration because you now have a pool of people who are there to support you in your dreams We are all invested once you’ve shared it. Even if it doesn’t happen I feel like you start to build and strengthen connections.”
I know first-hand what she means when she says we are all invested. Stephanie’s husband is one of my dearest friends and supporters of my work. Stephanie’s the same. When my play Ilé La Wà was staged in 2018, they had both planned to come but last minute she had to be out of the country on work. Her husband showed up flanked by about 7 people from Stephanie’s family including her mother whose birthday it was, and whom I have since learnt is a tough theatre critique so it was a risky birthday present. The fact that her support was not dependent on her presence, that I didn’t have to ask for it, that she saw me and my need — that was huge. So when she says ‘we are all invested once the dream is shared’ I fully understand.
This way of being is probably also integral to why she mentors young people especially with the Stephen Lawrence Foundation and the Amos Bursary. Speaking of mentoring and why she thinks it is important, Stephanie says
“There is just so much knowledge you can impart to stop pain or at least join someone who is in a space they have never traversed or where they feel out of their depth and encourage them in a way that says this is normal, it’s fine or it will pass, or sometimes you just need someone to bounce ideas off of. I also think of Elsie Owusu, a prominent Architect in the UK and the way she mentors me. Besides the fact that it is always good to have someone to look up to and see that your dream is possible, she is constantly championing me. She has reviewed designs and bids, she has challenged my expectations of myself, invited me to participate in aspects of the profession I didn’t know about or hadn’t considered, and to events where she has made useful introductions. If I missed out her name earlier she is definitely one of the inspirational women in my life. To see someone do that for me, instantly makes it clear that I need to be doing that for several other people. I feel like we all grow into privilege, which we must share.”
I always ask people about their names but so far none of those names have been English, so I am hesitant but I ask anyway whether Stephanie knows the meaning of her name or why she was christened as such. She can't recall the meaning but she does know that her parents were expecting a boy who they would have christened Stephen. She surprised them. I wonder if that’s the meaning I’m looking for — not the actual meaning but this idea of greatness that you don’t see coming.
Since we are talking about names, it is not lost on me that Stephanie still uses her maiden name so I probe a little and we joke about getting her husband to join us for this part of the conversation because he wants her to admit that she is never going to change it.
“But I say maybe one day. I think in my mind, Stephanie Asante is a beautiful name. It wasn’t ever that I made a decision not to change it, but there was a block when the time came. It felt very strange. Who is Stephanie Asante? For 30 years I’ve been Stephanie Edwards and then in an instant, I am Stephanie Asante. Who is this person? I found it really hard to comprehend or to bridge that gap. It felt to me like that was becoming a new person and so I thought maybe when I have become, or if I need an identity change then I can change my name. That feels more logical to me than I found someone I want to spend the rest of my life with so now I have changed my name, history and identity. I find it really odd but I didn’t realise until I had to change it plus it is a really long process.”
What armour do you put on to go out in the world?
“A veneer that I am fine and nothing can affect me. It isn’t an affirmation as such. It is an outward thing only. If I could wear that as an internal armour as well, that would be fantastic”
What scares you?
“Being vulnerable. I don’t like this idea that I am open enough for people to damage me or affect me in a way. Also being alone in the quiet can be a not nice place maybe because there is too much room for interpretation, thought and rumination. So keeping it moving is better. This strong woman thing isn’t going well is it?”
When the interviewee starts asking the questions, sometimes you oblige; I contrast these fears with the reality that Stephanie credits isolation for leading her to herself and feels empowered in friendships where she allows herself to be vulnerable and encourages others to do the same . Also, in as much as her armour presents like the Strong woman trope, she knows when it’s safe to drop it. She knows it is only a mask. The wisdom that presents is one that says the things that will build you up may also scare you but you must first sit in the discomfort to push through it.
What drives you?
“An ability to make a real difference. Curiosity also drives me. I am constantly asking questions like an investigator because I am intrigued about what drives other people”.
What brings you joy?
“Being in a space to create gives me joy and that requires time and psychological space to reflect, then I start seeing opportunities everywhere.”
I see this joy when Stephanie talks about her work. I also see how the answers to what drives, scares and gives her joy feed into how the company came into being. She cant remember how she got back in touch with her business partner but they used to work for the same firm at some point and didn’t speak to each other back then. Years later they found themselves meeting for lunch and discussing what needed to change in the built environment sector and how to revitalise the field by basing architecture on research and insight from the people who use the space instead of continuously erecting buildings in the same way it has happened for centuries. They both saw how this would empower communities and in her words ‘we just thought, let’s try it. Let’s take the plunge”. A few years later and they have huge contracts locally and internationally including with UN Habitat for the Global Future Cities Programme, a regeneration plan in Croydon and with the Black Cultural Archives to reimagine their iconic building. Stephanie is unable to tell me which project she is most proud of, instead she says I see each project as an opportunity to really make a change.
This answer lends itself to the question: Do you ever think of legacy and what do you want yours to be?
I would like to know that I made a difference but also it would be great if I could be the facilitator to other people feeling like they’ve made a difference in their environments. I think that is more the legacy that I would want to have; help people feel like they are more empowered and are actually changing their environments and lives and that it isn’t just happening to them”.
As I listen to Stephanie’s philosophy of life which is both risk averse and cautious, always pouring life into others, I can’t help but smile at the image of strength forming— a woman who is actively living out the legacy she wants to have in the world; Strongwoman.