Terri Williams can laugh about it now. She perhaps would not call it a last laugh, but…
“I came to Jackson, Miss., straight out of college, didn’t know a soul, no contacts — nothing,” Williams remembered. “I just started knocking on doors. I got a lot of, ‘You want to do what, young lady?’”
And, Williams just howled with laughter, which is not surprising since enjoying life is one of her keys to success.
“If you’re not excited about coming to work in the morning, looking forward to working with your people and your clients, growing from your work each and every day, then you don’t belong in architecture — you need to find a new career,” Williams said. “I just totally enjoy what I do.”
It is an interesting philosophy considering that her career began as anything but enjoyable.
Williams grew up in Birmingham, Ala., the daughter of an electrical project manager. For reasons even Williams does not know, her father pushed her toward the field of architecture.
That seemed like shaky advice. In the mid-1970s when Williams was contemplating going to college, few women were architects. When she got to Auburn University, her architecture class had only 10 females — and half of those did not make it out of the program.
“About half the guys didn’t make it out, either,” Williams quickly added. “It wasn’t that they couldn’t do the work because they were women. The program was just tough — for everybody.”
Graduating in 1978, Williams subsequently came to Jackson looking for someone to take a chance on a young, female architect. She found plenty of doubters and closed doors. The Capital City’s historic 1979 Easter Flood only compounded her challenge to launch a career.
Undeterred, Williams persevered and worked in Jackson briefly before relocating to yet another community to which she had no connections, Meridian. After a brief stay there, she moved to Tupelo where she would finally find a home.
Williams started designing in Tupelo in 1982, and less than a decade later found herself a principal in the firm of Staub & Williams, P.A., whose roots went back to the late 1960s. In 2002 and upon the retirement of the firm’s founder, Williams took over the business, which was rechristened ArchitectureSouth, P.A.
The one-time “young lady” who no one wanted to take a chance on had become a member of what remains a distinct minority group in Mississippi — a female leading an architectural firm.
“I don’t see myself as a female principal. I’m just a principal,” Williams said, downplaying her role as a pioneer of sorts. “Gender has nothing to do with it.”
She points to her female designers at ArchitectureSouth, including one who is also African American, as examples of the opportunities architecture holds for both women and minorities.
Certainly, ArchitectureSouth’s success supports her position. A full-service firm, it specializes in the commercial, educational, student housing, ecclesiastical, health care, civic sectors as well as planning services.
A few of ArchitectureSouth’s projects include the Workforce Regional Training Center at Southwest Mississippi Community College in Summit; Tupelo City Hall; St. Luke Methodist Church in Tupelo; and, the Johnny Hoss Noe Sportsplex and Memorial Park in Smithville.
The firm has won awards from such diverse organizations as the American Institute of Architects, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Associated General Contractors and American School and University.
Williams, who once served on the Mississippi State Board of Architecture and was that body’s youngest member, has observed an evolution in her industry, particularly in the area of sustainability. The challenge today, she said, is not just design something that looks good on opening day. The work needs flexibility and vision, to look into the future so the client is not left with a “facility that is obsolete before they get moved in.”
However, the basic practice of architecture — and the strategy that has made ArchitectureSouth successful — remains unchanged, she said.
“It’s still about meeting the client’s needs, listening, being part of a team, solving a puzzle,” Williams said. “It is all about people — clients as well as those who work for and with you. My main measure of success is the growth of those around me.
“My vision for ArchitectureSouth is to continue to learn, evolve and move forward. If we do that today, we’ll be successful tomorrow.”