Arthur Gensler, founder of the world's largest architecture firm, Gensler, gave the New York School of Interior Design’s 97th commencement address last month, urging graduates to always take advantage of unanticipated opportunities. He spoke to 167 graduating students hailing from 19 countries—the largest graduating class in NYSID history—at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts.
“Today I would like to share with you how I built my life and business career and how unanticipated opportunities have given me the chance to lead a large architectural design firm and at the same time have a wonderful life,” said Gensler as he began his speech.
“Too often we try to plan out everything in our life to make sure that we accomplish our goals,” he continued. “Well, in my case I guess I must admit I didn’t have any plan to start with. I just wanted to make enough money to satisfy my family’s needs and to design a few exciting projects…so don’t panic if you don’t have your life all planned out.”
Gensler shared that after graduating from college he enlisted in the Army and was released six months later. After flying to San Francisco where no jobs were available, he flew back to New York and went to 52 firms before he was finally hired for $100 a week ($2.50 an hour) to support his wife and child.
He continued by sharing stories about various architecture jobs he took on in New York City that he described as boring. Gensler wanted to work on more exciting and modern buildings and got his first big break by working on tenant development for the new Alcoa Building in 1965. With only two other firms in the area working on competitive projects, Gensler decided to start his own firm and take the project on.
NYSID graduating class
“As I’m sure you can expect, [I had] no business plan, no money, but [I had] a dream,” he said. “Here I am 49 years later the founder of the largest design firm in the world and ultimately we did it without borrowing any money or merging with other firms. Another unanticipated opportunity.”
As his firm grew, he ran into CEOs on the beach and on airplanes, ultimately landing him jobs with Gap (Gensler has designed over 3,000 Gap stores) and designing terminals for Jet Blue airlines.
“So the old adage is correct for my career,” he said. “I would rather be lucky than smart. But the trick is when opportunity arrives, you need to accept the opportunity and go for it. As you can see I have had an amazing life. Remember you only go around once, work hard, play hard, have fun and give back. Remember you can’t change the past so only look forward.”
“So realize that you have to find what you love to do,” he continued. “And that is true for both your work and the other parts of your life. If you love your work, it won’t be work. If you haven’t found it yet just keep looking. As with all matters of the heart, if you haven’t found it, just keep looking because you will know it when you find it. So follow your heart and your intuition. The single biggest risk you take is not to take a risk. Smart risk-taking and unanticipated opportunity will give you a great chance for a positive life with unbelievable opportunities.”
Rosalyn Cama, Patricia M. Sovern, David Sprouls, Arthur Gensler, Christopher Hyland
At the commencement ceremony, Gensler received an honorary doctorate degree, along with Rosalyn Cama and Christopher Hyland.
The ceremony also included the presentation of awards to outstanding students and faculty. The Chairman’s Award was given to John McHenry (MFA-2) and Hyemi Kang (MFA-1); the Ana Blanc Verna Award for Excellence in Interior Design was presented to Anne Aristya (BFA); and the Alumni Award was given to Yu Jin Oh (MPS-S). The Robert Herring Travel Prizes were awarded to Tania Medina (BFA) and Caitlin Acampa (MFA-1); and the William Breger Faculty Achievement Award was awarded to Valerie Mead, a longtime faculty member and alumna of the College.
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