Lakisha Woods assumed the role of executive vice president and chief executive officer of The American Institute of Architects at the end of January. She formerly served as president and chief executive officer of the National Institute of Building Sciences and is the author of Never Get Their Coffee: Empowering Fearless Leadership. We talked with Woods about where the profession is headed and how she hopes to lead AIA in the next decade and beyond.

On what most excites her about this role

It was always my dream to one day work for AIA, and now it’s my honor to lead it alongside the board and the strategic council. A love of architecture has always been a part of who I am. It’s the area that I appreciate the most about the built environment, and why I stayed in this space. I’m often the only person that looks like me in the room, or at least I was until recently. I love the people in this industry, and I love that I can look up and see the product of the people I represent. That’s what excites me every day about being in this space.

On the biggest challenges currently facing the profession

I hear people use all the different words— justice, belonging, access. To me, what really matters is that we take action and that we truly create an inclusive environment. Women represent 47% of the general working population, but women in architecture still do not represent the percentage that they need to within this industry. Not until 2014 was a woman [Julia Morgan] even presented with a top award. There’s so much work for us to do to provide an environment where women and minorities feel that they have a place. The data shows that when an industry or company has a diverse set of people in leadership roles, and within the organization as a whole, it is more profitable and more innovative. It is paramount that we address this issue head on.

We all know that climate action and sustainability are areas where we must take the lead. I have often heard from people in the industry space in general, “How are we going to convince owners to pay for that component, even if it’s the right thing to do?” I think the part of the story we need to tell is that there’s an intersection between equity and sustainability. It’s our job to make sure that we are telling our story in a way that connects.

On where the profession will be in 10 years

The new strategic plan is the reason why I’m here. The bold goals designed and approved by AIA leadership can transform the industry. In 10 years, we must address climate action. It is our responsibility to design solutions to create a better tomorrow. In addition, racial and gender equity is the key to innovation and the growth and development of our workforce.

We must encourage people to have the important conversations about embracing the technology that can help us be more innovative. We, as an association, must do our part to convene key stakeholders and show them why there’s a real benefit to diversifying our leadership. According to recent studies, the percentage of men and women graduating from architecture school is near a 50/50 split. We must take the next steps to keep that gender balance in licensure, leadership, and awards. We know that it’s going to take some time.

On how AIA can best support pay equity, gender equity, and racial equity among architects

I think what is great about what AIA has done is put pen to paper; it put an action plan in place. But a lot of it is about continually aiming to have discussions recognizing the changes that are needed in culture, as well as looking at the data and then making tangible, trackable goals so that you can see change in your industry.

I’ve listened to many thought leaders on this topic, as well. [President of Ariel Investments] Mellody Hobson said that you can’t be color blind—you have to be color brave, because it’s not just about saying that you don’t see the differences in people. Embracing those differences makes our profession that much better, but we have to talk about them. We must recognize those differences, and then we also have to make sure that we’re putting equitable steps in place. It doesn’t just happen with a statement. If people are willing to listen and try, that is how we’re going to get there.

On how AIA can support emerging professionals and anticipate what’s next

We have work to do to increase salaries, not just for the young professionals coming in but for the profession as a whole. It’s important for us to develop tools and resources to support the needs of our members. I know that when I was starting my career, I learned a lot from seasoned industry experts, but I also had a lot to share with them. Sometimes experienced professionals don’t recognize what they can learn from those with fresh ideas.

A phrase that’s said all the time at associations is, “We’ve always done it that way.” And I tell my team all the time, that can’t be the reason we ever do anything. So often a major innovation was not that innovative, but leaders were not listening to new voices—if Blockbuster had just paid attention to what was happening, they already had the network, and they could have owned that space and crushed Netflix before it ever started. I love learning from failures of major corporations and finding ways to adapt our own services and resources to avoid falling into the same traps.

On how architects are positioned to tackle sustainability and climate change

The leaders in this industry recognize that there’s a need for change. They’ve put a plan in place. So often, especially in the built environment, the struggle is to just start the conversation. I believe architects are ahead of the game because they have not just had the conversation, but they brought in the experts to help outline a plan to make the necessary changes.

On how architects can best advocate for sustainable design

It is important to understand your customer. My best analogy is the expansion of Starbucks. If someone had asked me if I wanted to spend $6 on coffee, I would have said “no.” But creating a space where I could have my triple shot, grande skinny cinnamon dolce latte, add caramel—yes, $6. Scan my app and give me my stars. It’s changing the experience of something you’ve always done but making it so you don’t mind the added expense, because you feel better about the end product.

On her favorite buildings

If I have to just give one and it’s anywhere in the world, I’m going to say Casa Batlló in Barcelona. I’m a Gaudí fan. In the U.S., I’m obsessed with Chicago architecture and specifically the Tribune Tower.