Between Submissiveness and Defensiveness: How To Walk The Middle Path Of Confidence

Have you ever worked with someone whose personality turned you into a yesman? Whether they meant to or not, they came on so strong that you felt bowled over, your boundaries evaporating?

I once found myself with a client with one of those personalities. A visionary, high on confidence but low on time he would swoop in to hand over a vision and then peace out. His employees struggled– I’d watch them do backwards flip flops to stay true to his vision–one that needed to adjust to the realities of implementation.

A few weeks into my contract with this client I was feeling a sense of unease deep in my gut. The 50,000 foot view I’d been handed didn’t suit the reality on the ground, and even more troubling, I’d leave every meeting with him feeling like I’d been run over.

Taking A Calm, Confident Stand

At our next call I took a deep breath and told myself, “You may have more years of experience than me, and be an expert in your field. I may not know as much as you but I am your intellectual equal.”

I knew if we didn’t adjust the project’s big aim we wouldn’t achieve our goals. So I steeled myself and confidently proposed how I thought we should do it differently and laid out my argument for why. There was no trepidation, no persuasion, just a calm explanation of why I thought his organization should use his resources differently to achieve his stated goal.

And you know what? It was a game-changing moment in our working relationship. To my surprise the client considered and then agreed with my suggestions. Even more importantly, from that day forward our relationship changed. Gone was the nervous, people-pleaser energy I’d brought into our interactions, and in its place was new mutual respect.

As I’ve written about previously, we’re often in situations in which we may not have the status, experience or prestige of those we interact with, but it’s essential that we go into these interactions with confidence and grace.

The Middle Path of Confidence

A lot of women struggle both with answering to authority–and with owning their own authority. We flip flop between submissiveness and defensiveness, as if waiting for someone to unmask us and prove that we shouldn’t have been invited to the table.

The thing is–whether we’re in a powerful position or not in any given situation, whether we’re insiders or outsiders, we can remind ourselves that what we do have is our sense of intelligence and inquiry, and we are entering into the conversation as full intellectual ‘citizens.’

In that way, we come to every conversation and subtle negotiation in emotional “neutral.” We come, not to defend our position or to people-please, but curious and ready to solve problems.

We may not know everything, we may not have the years of experience or specialized insight, but we come ready to participate and to grow by showing up fully.

I wrote this post originally for the Build Yourself+ workshop, a challenge-based empowerment workshop for women I founded and teach. For more on the workshop visit


Farmers Markets and Fluff: MaryCat Chaikin of Relish Placemaking Consultancy

A few weeks ago, the Creative Somerville Series welcomed MaryCat Chaikin, co-founder of Relish, a project management and consulting practice for placemaking through food-based and creative economy initiatives. While Relish itself is still in its infancy, Chaikin, along with her partner Mimi Graney, have been doing their work in the Somerville community for more than a decade. They’ve established several local farmers markets, founded Union Square’s renowned Fluff Festival (a celebration of Marshmallow Fluff, which was invented in Union Square), and were instrumental in transforming the neighborhood through creativity and inventiveness. On a lovely night at Aeronaut Brewing Company, Chaikin took us back and told the story of how she came to co-found a placemaking consultancy and what it’s like to run one.

From Food and Science To Farmers Markets

With an undergraduate degree in geology and a strong interest in local food, Chaikin’s early career was a collection of jobs—for restaurants including the acclaimed Craigie Street Bistro (now Craigie on Main) and The Blue Room, in exhibitions and natural history for Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, and eventually through her own catering and personal chef business. The common thread, she said, was an ability to organize and a desire to curate.

She connected with Mimi Graney, who at the time was Founder and Executive Director of Union Square Main Streets, and they began to work together to run the Union Square Farmers Market—a proving ground for Chaikin and Graney to develop their working relationship and their unique approach to placemaking, events and economic development. Chaikin and Graney—who was organizing events like the Fluff Festival at the time—sought out local talent—musicians, school groups and businesses to participate in their events.

Chaikin and Graney were attuned to dynamics of social equity—they developed a token payment system so that farmers market patrons receiving food assistance were not singled out and received matching funds for more purchasing power. They took a proactive approach to their market’s socioeconomic diversity, by marketing its food assistance program through promotional materials that asked, “If you know anyone who can use this service, please help us spread the word.”

Relish: From Storefront to Consultancy

While Chaikin and Graney worked together on the farmers market, a short-term storefront rental in the neighborhood opened up and Relish (version one) was born. The venture was a seven-month urban agriculture pop-up where the team hosted a retail store and classes in home-based food production including beekeeping, chicken-keeping, gardening, canning, pickling and more. Chaikin said, “We started with no money and ended with a little bit of money … that gave us the confidence to move forward.” Although Chaikin and Graney ultimately decided against the storefront business model, it raised their level of ambition and solidified their vision for Relish.

In the spring of 2014, with the Relish Storefront behind them, Chaikin and Graney decided to team up and form Relish 2.0. The approach: Provide consulting and project management services for placemaking and creative economy initiatives, with a special focus on food. Why food? Chaikin explained, “so many local businesses are are food-oriented, so it’s a great place to start.”

The Relish Model

Farmer’s markets are still Relish’s bread and butter—Chaikin described them as the “flywheel” of their practice, providing the base income for their business. In addition to the Union Square Farmers Market and the Somerville Winter Farmers Market, Relish helped establish and runs a market at Assembly Row and nearby Watertown’s first farmers market. (Want to visit Relish’s Somerville farmers markets? Here’s the schedule.)

Relish also provides consultancy services both for clients and to cities in Massachusetts as MassDevelopment’s placemaking “house doctor.” The cities Relish works with are struggling with economic decline and urban disinvestment, and are looking for “their Fluff Festival.” Chaikin loves the process of getting to know each the city, the local players and discovering the city’s unique opportunities and story. “A community’s perceived weakness can actually be their greatest strength,” she said.

Although Relish focuses on urban placemaking, cities are often not Relish’s direct clients. “We see the city as an ally, rarely as a client,” said Chaikin, noting that the municipalities infrequently have the funding for placemaking projects. Instead, Relish is most often hired by nonprofits and developers. This means he “consultant life” involves a lot of time spent looking for and responding to requests for proposals.

The proposal process led to an early lesson learned for Relish. Chaikin showed us a Relish project she loves—”Kite Day Happy Full” is a zigzagging vending machine temporary installation for a vacant site in Kendall Square that dispenses local food. Yet the client, the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority, ultimately didn’t bite on the proposal that Relish had spent months working on. Chaikin says that the experience spurred them to learn to move more quickly on proposals, and also to wait before enlisting their vast network of collaborators, avoiding “burning out all our contacts immediately.”

It’s All About the Data

Since the range of experiences Relish can ultimately deliver to their clients is so diverse, the team has had to define the value they add in a sophisticated way. Chaikin said, “the level of community involvement and social capital” is the difference between event planning and placemaking.

Chaikin and Graney are always looking at the relationship between urban vibrancy tactics and their larger social and economic impact. They regularly collect data on their markets and have developed survey methods for customers and vendors that reveal the deep impact they have on the community.

The Union Square Farmers Market, for example, plays a pivotal role in the local economy—a study found that it generates $2.5 million dollars in economic impact per season. Chaikin cites data that says that farmers market customers on average spend $1 in surrounding businesses for every $1 they spend at the market—provided there are surrounding businesses to spend money in, of course. This data makes the vital connection between interventions that can seem Fluff-y (pardon the pun) and their role as urban investments. “If you have the data, you have the advantage,” Chaikin said.

When Chaikin looks ahead to the future of Relish, she hopes for longer-term projects and relationships, but their smaller scale projects and tests, and even foibles (like the sponsored chairs that they installed in Union Square that disappeared, “because they were really cool chairs,” she adds) have helped them build Relish’s expertise and point of view.

Her advice to both cities and creative placemakers? “The fun of experimentation is the flexibility with trying things on a smaller scale before moving forward.”

photo credits: Somerville Beat

The Creative Somerville Series is a series of ‘fireside chats’ with local creatives & entrepreneurs in design, tech, food, social impact, and other fields–celebrating the creative and entrepreneurial energy that makes Somerville great. The Creative Somerville Series is not your typical power point and Q&A. Our fireside chats are about getting to hear someone’s story, learning about how they think and create, and sharing ideas in an intimate setting. Cosponsored by Somerville Local First and The Somerville Beat.

Mia Scharphie in August’s Landscape Architecture Magazine

This month I’m the subject of Landscape Architecture Magazine’s Backstory. The profile does a fantastic job of holistically covering the linkage between my social impact, design and research consultancy and Build Yourself+, as well as the linkage between social convictions and a professional life of meaning.

From the profile:

“There are ways that designers and artists can think about impact that isn’t necessarily qualitative or quantitative but that recognizes that scale matters. We need to be precise in our language, but if we only try to capture things that can be boiled down and verified, we’ll miss a lot of how change happens.”

Read the profile in the August issue, in print and on Zinio.

Say No To Say Yes and Accelerate Your Career

Last week, right I got a surprise in my inbox. I had just finished my recent post on how to set playful but rigorous personal goals when I got an email from Brittney Prest, one of the participants in my most recent workshop in Boston. I have women set personal challenge goals for themselves when they leave the workshop. Sometimes these goals are to take an action (speak up at the next board meeting,) and sometimes they’re outcomes that we’re working towards but don’t have direct control over.

Brittney reached her six month outcome goal–in a little over two months.

Brittney scheming world domination and women’s empowerment.

Brittney hit the ground running in the workshop. She didn’t come in with a specific agenda per se, but she was in that transition space in her career, between racking up early experience and the beginnings of leadership and management. Early in the workshop, the concept of “saying no to say yes” to the things we really want resonated with her. Instead of saying yes to all the projects that came her way, she realized that although no one has perfect control of their workload and responsibilities, she had more agency than she thought in deciding what to accept on her plate.

She laughs that her colleagues at first commented on hearing “no” from her more often as she proactively took on responsibilities that aligned with her professional goals, and declined others that drew away from that focus when she was able to. When Brittney left the workshop, she left with a dual agenda: She set her sights on becoming a project manager, and decided to keep the workshop experience going by starting a women’s group with the other BY+W grads in her office. The group kept the challenge-based model going, but they kept it fun and playful. “We enjoy having the chance to catch up with each other when it’s outside of a work setting or social gathering. The tone is still professional but not formal,” she says

A few weeks ago, Brittney was informed by the firm’s leadership that she was going to be recognized for a promotion. “They noticed my professional growth from the way in which I handled myself with clients and colleagues, and even the manner in which I was communicating in my emails,” she says.  After working at Dyer Brown Architects for almost three years, and months ahead of the firm’s traditional year-end promotion season, Brittney was promoted to Assistant Project Manager–the professional track she had set as her goal. “Our firm is committed to supporting the professional growth of its staff,” says Brittney, “so they recognized that my confidence was building to take on new challenges and more responsibilities.  And by doing so, I was provided more opportunities to grow professionally at the firm.” Of course, her at-work Build Yourself+ crew “were the first people I told I was promoted,” she says, “and when this happens for them, I’ll be just as supportive.”

We’re often taught, through both school and socialization, that pleasing people is the only way to succeed.

We often unconsciously pour our energy into making other people happy, intuiting what they want and need and working to deliver it. This is not bad–empathy is an incredible force for both good in the world, and for successfully understanding the needs of clients, employers and coworkers, but it needs to have limits. Leadership means increased responsibility, and one of those responsibilities is sifting through the demands on your time and taking greater ownership of directing that resource intelligently. Brittney’s promotion was earned because she found an effective way to demonstrate that she can achieve her personal goals through measureable results in a way that’s both beneficial to the firm and her career.

The real world is not school, and if you’re not in the driver’s seat, defining your priorities and directing your own valuable resources to create value, someone else will be driving them you.

“I finally found my voice and am growing in more ways than I ever thought possible,” says Brittney, “I want to have an incredible career. I want to continue working in the architecture field and getting these tips early on is the best investment I can do to make that happen.”

I wrote this post originally for the Build Yourself+ workshop, a challenge-based empowerment workshop for women I founded and teach. For more on the workshop visit

Setting Goals with Kindness, Play And A Hint Of Rigor

I recently went out for a reunion meetup with my spring 2015 class of the Build Yourself+ workshop. I didn’t initiate the night. When I got an email from a former participant suggesting a reunion I felt a thrill. She was meeting my personal challenge goal.

How will you know you’ve been successful?

It’s a question I ask all the time to my workshop participants and my social change clients. When we talk about the change we want to see in our lives or the impact we want to make, we often unconsciously default into vagueness. “I want to be more empowered in six months,” my workshop participants tell me, or “I want to be a better speaker.” Well, how  will you know you’ve been successful?

It’s not that complicated of a question, but it takes thinking, and what I call the ‘personal challenge’ mindset. Sometimes it’s as simple as “I will make eye contact and smile at least ten times in my next presentation” or even “I’m going to grab three coworkers to critique my presentations over the next 3 months, to give me feedback and track my performance.” We are all works in progress. We don’t arrive at empowerment and being strong self-advocates by willing it or thinking it. We do it by approaching our own growth with a hint of rigor and a lot of playfulness and kindness.

I sat down a few months before the spring session of Build Yourself+ and checked in on my goals for the workshop. I wanted to do more than teach six weeks of content. I wanted to introduce participants to a new way of thinking about themselves and their goals, and kick off a process that is so powerful and meaningful that they leave Build Yourself+ building their own communities and taking that process into their own hands. “How will I know if I am successful in achieving this?” I asked, “If some of my participants choose to keep meeting each other or create their own groups.”

That goal changed me.

I made systematic tweaks to my facilitation style and our activities to empower women to take ownership. I increased opportunities for cross pollination and spoke about the workshop community as a the start of a lifelong ‘old girls’ club.’ My goal changed how I thought and acted because I knew what success looked like and went for it in every way I knew how.

I showed up at the reunion and learned about women taking the principles of the workshop forward in their own lives, whether switching jobs to better align with professional goals (and negotiating for an ambitious yet realistic salary goal, yes!) coming into their own power by stepping up into new leadership roles at work, or starting their own weekly discussion and personal challenge group at work (yes! yes! yes!)

We can’t control all the outcomes, but we can control our actions.

Thanks to my spring 2015 workshop class to helping me meet my goals.

I wrote this post originally for the Build Yourself+ workshop, a challenge-based empowerment workshop for women I founded and teach. For more on the workshop visit

NEA Webinar Now Online: Women in Social Impact Design

A few weeks ago I helped organize and participated in a webinar on Women in Social Impact Design with Katie Swenson, VP of Enterprise Community Partners. My co-panelists were rock stars–Dawn Hancock of Firebelly Design, Liz Ogbu of Studio O, Lakshmi Ramarajan of Harvard Business School.

The webinar is up for viewing, check it out here.

So many great issues to get into and so little time. The NEA is going to continue with this topic and broaden it out to look at women in the arts in the fall.

Interested in more on these issues? I work both on issues of social impact design through my research–more on that coming to the blog thanks to a research grant from the NEA—and Build Yourself+, my challenge-based empowerment workshop for women. Sign up for the workshop’s newsletter for more inspiration, strategies and tactics.

Opportunity: Rose Fellowship Now Accepting Applications

The Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellowship, which places early-career architectural designers in community development centers is now accepting applications. I know the Enterprise Design Initiatives office which runs the fellowship well and I can’t speak more highly about the caliber of people involved in this program, and the level of thoughtfulness, intelligent thinking and care that goes into this program. Highly recommended for folks who care about real community change through design impact.

Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellowship – APPLICATIONS DUE JULY 10.

The Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellowship, an initiative of Enterprise Community Partners Inc., partners early-career architectural designers with local community development organizations, where they facilitate an inclusive approach to development to create green, sustainable, and affordable communities. As an integral staff member of the organization, the fellow will focus on advancing the organization’s practices in community engagement, sustainability and design excellence. Rose Fellows also gain a national network of colleagues who share their passion for public interest architecture and community development.

The Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellowship is actively seeking exceptional candidates through July 10, 2015. The four organizations hosting fellows in 2016-2018 are Capitol Hill Housing in Seattle, Denver Housing Authority in Denver, Hudson River Housing in Poughkeepsie, NY, and Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation in Porcupine, SD.

DEADLINE: July 10, 2014 at 11:59pm EST.

Sitting at the Table. Sometimes Literally.

“Sit at the table.”

I heard Sheryl Sandberg’s words echo in my head as I glided into the chilly conference room. I had been invited as an afterthought. I was the first (and only) research fellow of a university architecture department, in a position the dean had created for me to pursue my research. Few people knew who I was or that the position even existed. I was invited to the department’s board meeting in which I’d present my research if we had extra time. (We didn’t.)

The conference room was your standard–long sleek table ringed with chairs, with a second ring hugging the wall. I did the quick alpha-dog status check: One of my project’s advisers was already parked on the outside ring. I wasn’t board member, I wasn’t a professor, I wasn’t half the age of half of the people there–of course I should sit on the outside, but then I heard those words–a chapter title even, from Sandberg’s Lean In, which I had recently read: “Sit at the Table.”

Sandberg talks about sitting at the table when she relays a story of Tim Geithner’s female staff sitting along the outside ring even though there were seats at the table, politely demurring even when invited specifically to the table by Sandberg herself. Sitting at the table means putting ourselves in positions of power from the get-go and not disqualifying our own power before we even open our mouths.

But in that conference room, I thought, surely Sandberg meant sitting at the table metaphorically, not as a literal command for that very room and situation, where, at the bottom of the totem pole, my place was surely along the sidelines.

The thing is, it almost always feels presumptuous to sit at the table. Or let me restate, it feels presumptuous to sit at the table, unless you are already in a context in which the pecking order is clear and someone else has told you you’re in charge.

But in the real world? Not many people get signed and stamped letters asserting that they are in charge. The real world is ambiguous and messy, and the person who puts forth useful insight is the person people look to for useful insight.

I work hard to walk my talk, so at the last minute I veered right and headed to the table. And you know what? No one told me to leave (that would have been extra awkward for everyone, right?) And I contributed useful insight. I walked out of that room with key relationships started, relationships that have helped me get to where I’m trying to go.

So yes, sit at the table. Metaphorically and physically. And don’t wait for someone to give you permission, because by the time they finally give it to you, it was yours already.

I wrote this post originally for the Build Yourself+ workshop, a challenge-based empowerment workshop for women I founded and teach. For more on the workshop visit

Event: NEA Women in Social Impact Design Webinar

Tomorrow afternoon I’m going to be on a panel on women in social impact design run by the NEA and hosted by Katie Swenson of Enterprise Community Partners.

It’s going to be a great conversation–the panelists include Dawn Hancock of Firebelly Design, Liz Ogbu, urbanist and social innovator, Lakshmi Ramarajan of Harvard Business School and myself. We’re going to look at the larger issue of mission as a key component in the lives and practices of female design practitioners, but also how the social impact design field can do a better job at demonstrating and pushing for equity–especially gender equity–in practice.

“What women want and what the profession and society needs should not be in conflict.”

-Katie Swenson

Katie wrote a great blog post previewing the conversation here and I wrote a piece on the view from architecture’s two equity-based movements here.

RSVP for the webinar here.