Yiselle Santos Rivera is a trailblazer.
She boldly left her native Puerto Rico 16 years ago to study architecture around the globe, from Mexico to China, before earning her master’s degree from Syracuse University in 2005.
Two years ago, Yiselle learned of AIA’s 2016 Equity by Design survey results and she realized that more should be done to support women who pursue leadership roles within the field of architecture. To do this, she launched WIELD: Women Inspiring Emerging Leaders in Design. WIELD provides women in leadership positions a platform for visibility and engagement through a series of events.
Infused with Yiselle’s own passion and leadership, WIELD encourages professionals — regardless of gender — the opportunity to build community by sharing their own stories and participating in networking opportunities.
Now she’ll be able to use that passion in yet another pioneering role as she becomes the first Director of Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) for HKS. Not only is the new position a dream come true for the lifelong diversity advocate, but she also believes the move is just good business.
“We want to be able to provide the best value to our clients and our community,” Yiselle said. “And if we don’t look like our communities and our clients, we will not be able to provide them the best quality product.
“Current studies show higher diversity and more diverse teams equate to better profit,” she added, noting that a more diverse workplace can increase a company’s profitability by 30 percent.
Yiselle said she’s ready for the challenge this new role will bring. For one thing, she’ll maintain her current job as a senior medical planner on projects in the HKS Washington office that she has held since 2015. But she said she believes that will help her in her new JEDI role.
“To me, these are opportunities that are complementary to each other,” she said. “I love being a medical planner, creating environments for people to heal and thrive. JEDI engages in very similar issues. It is a means to provide everyone in the workplace a space to be at their best, an opportunity to succeed.”
Yiselle will also continue to serve as a board member on the AIA DC Chapter, as AIA Strategic Council Associate Director and an AIA Equity and Future of Architecture Committee member. The load might be overwhelming for some, but not for Yiselle, whose parents — Jaime and Yilda — taught her to speak up and fight on behalf of herself and others with truth and integrity.
She said she believes the passion, transparency and authenticity that guide her everyday life will ultimately lead to success as HKS’ first JEDI director.
“I’m a firm believer that if you are genuine and bring your whole self to the table, and are visible, you will encourage other people to see in you, things that they have in themselves,” she said. “If you don’t bring your whole self to the table, you can’t shine, and you can’t share who you really are; share your best ideas.
“I think a lot of people are hesitant to do those things, and that’s going to be the big hurdle,” she said. “You can’t tackle equity and diversity without being truly inclusive. And you can’t be inclusive if you don’t bring everybody, as they are, to the table.”
Although her role at HKS is new, this is not Yiselle’s first foray into dealing with diversity issues in the workplace. In 2008, she was selected to serve as a diversity task force office champion at HOK when that firm launched a similar corporatewide initiative.
She went on to become a co-founder of the Latin American Interior Designers, Engineers and Architects Committee for AIA DC. That led to her becoming a National Associate’s Committee Regional Director for the AIA’s Mid-Atlantic Region, where she became affiliated with the association’s Women Leadership Summit.
Yiselle said that one of her first steps as JEDI director will be to learn as much as she can about areas of diversity and equity already in place at HKS and see how those areas might be enhanced. She praised her home office in Washington and said that it’s always been a source of comfort, diversity and inclusion that has helped nurture and support her. She hopes that she’ll be able to spread that atmosphere of inclusiveness throughout HKS, adding that the new JEDI role is a positive step in that direction. She said it will help HKS reach its stated goal of being the most influential architecture firm in the industry, an industry where she said women account for less than 17 percent of managing partners at firms, figures that drop even lower for minorities.
She offered words of thanks to HKS leadership for recognizing the need for a position like hers and making it a part of the company’s new Strategic Plan. She said that kind of backing from the top will be integral to the success of her and others.
“I think that leaders are those with the ability to create the greatest impact. Yiselle said. ” We are the ones to ignite the fire. When we show there’s value in pursuing equity, diversity and inclusion, when we make sure that everyone is accountable and engaged in the conversation, then there’s no space for failure.”
The Universe Opened
HKS President and CEO, Dan Noble, showed his support in an email to the staff announcing Yiselle’s appointment.
“We recognize the need to invest in a formal champion to lead this effort and equip us with a better understanding of how diversity of thought, background, and perspective create limitless thinking and lasting influence,” Noble said.
Yiselle often speaks to groups across the country about the importance of a diverse workforce and just a few days before she was named JEDI director at HKS, she moderated a panel on that topic. Immediately after that event, she told a colleague that she wished she had more opportunities like that.
“Then, within weeks, the universe answered,” she said, and HKS gave her a role that she hopes will “create a platform for people to be more visible.”
She can’t wait to get started.
“My view of this role is to create a culture that will always have justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion as paramount in decision-making and team-building,” she said. “Ideally, my position will not exist in five or 10 years. This will be embedded in our way of thinking. Justice, equity, diversity and inclusion will be our goal for the future of our firm and our workplace.”