Wonder Women: Dana Nalbantian, Principal, Gensler

Wonder Women: Dana Nalbantian, Principal, Gensler

By Jill Vitiello

Dana Nalbantian, Principal, Gensler

At Vitiello Communications Group, we believe everyone’s story is worth telling. Wonder Women is a blog series that lets me introduce you to amazing businesswomen doing remarkable work. In this series, we amplify the success stories of women who live and work in New Jersey. Their contributions to the Garden State include professional, civic and personal endeavors that enrich our community. Meet Dana Nalbantian, Principal, Gensler, a global design and architecture firm with offices in Morristown, New Jersey. Be sure to catch our new lightning round at the end of the Q&A.

Q: What’s the one leadership lesson that has helped you shape your career?

A: No one knows everything. There is always room to learn and to be better. No matter who you’re working with at any given moment —a peer, senior leader, or someone who’s new to the profession, more often than not, it’s a learning moment. At Gensler, the “team” concept is a very strong belief. Because we work as one team, it’s about all of us—never me.  It’s we. This spirit of comradery has helped me be a strong leader.

I currently run a studio of 22 professionals in Morristown. Gensler is a global firm of approximately 6200. Our firm is run first by regions, then offices, and then studios. Our studios act as their own successful profit center with P&L responsibility driving business for the Firm. The studio that I lead focuses on professional services, financial services, and tech companies. We also work with developers to reposition aging buildings in New Jersey. It’s more authentic and sustainable to take a building with good bones and breathe new life into it rather than simply tear it down and build something new.

Q: What would you advise women aspiring to achieve your level of success?

A: Not just for women but everyone, I say don’t be afraid to stretch yourself beyond your comfort boundaries of everyday life. Learn from every new experience. Always remember to bring an optimistic perspective to every new challenge. Don’t be afraid to experience everything life has to offer.  For decades, my motto has been “things happen for a reason”, it helps to bring perspective to each new challenge.

Q: What are the three vital traits to be a Wonder Woman in your industry?

A: In the past, my profession in the past was mostly male dominated. I completed my architectural degree back in the late 80s from Lawrence Technological University, it is much like NJIT. Back then, there were only about five women in a graduate class of 35 architects. But a lot has changed over the years. For example, the great thing about Gensler is the number of woman and men professionals in the firm is about equal. As a woman working in the field of architecture, design, and construction, being seen as hardworking and confident, while still being gracious and thoughtful is what I strive for every day.

Q: What gave you the courage to pursue your dream?

A: There are generations of engineers in my family. My father was a mechanical engineer when he worked for Buick after college. He then followed his entrepreneurial aspirations and started a successful computer company when “small” computers were as big as refrigerators! In high school, while I enjoyed art, I was also good at math and science and I initially thought engineering would be my direction also. In college, I had the good fortune to have a great instructor who was retired architect. Everything clicked for me when he said, “Architecture is the marriage of math, science, and art,” I realized at that moment that architecture was my new path.

Q: How do you use communication to lead and grow your career and the work you’re doing in your business? 

A: I believe listening is the foundation communication. Listen carefully to whomever is speaking before you. Formulate a meaningful response. Then speak clearly and succinctly. Everyone appreciates being heard and listening commands respect.

Q: Tell me about a time when you used communication to turn a challenging situation into success.

A: At Gensler, clients come first. When faces with a challenging situation, we listen. We rely on the facts and reserve our emotions. Sometimes that’s hard to do, and we’ll need to take a breath, always staying professional. For me, it’s a powerful formula to help turn around a tough situation.

Q: What personal quality fuels your most significant accomplishment?

A: I’ve parachuted out of an airplane, and I’ll be the first to say, “I’ll take the front row of the rollercoaster with my hands in the air!” So clearly, I am not risk adverse! Part of how I’m inspired and fueled to do good things is by saying “yes” to a challenge. Gensler is all about entrepreneurship and being comfortable when the stakes are high. “Failing fast” is also about learning from difficult challenges. Embracing every challenge gives me the high that makes me love my job.

Q: What woman inspires you and why?

A: There are a lot of remarkable women. First, my mother continues to inspire me every day. There are also several Gensler women leaders on our Board of Directors who inspire me, including Robin Klehr Avia, Julia Simet, Diane Hoskins. There was a Diane Sawyer’s Women of the US Senate interview was memorable because of the way she cast the Senators as formidable, persevering woman who fought to win very tough races. During the interviews, three statements shared that stood out to me: Number 1: “Knowledge is power. No matter what your dream is, you have a really good chance at achieving it.” Number 2: “Wake up and assume you are the person who will change the world.” Number 3: “Our secret weapon is joy and persistence. It’s 95% of our success.” The last statement was made by Barbara Mikulski, who at the time, was Senator of Maryland for 27 years. She said, “Square your shoulders, put on your lipstick, and fight the revolution!” I still smile when I remember that!

New Jersey Lightning Round

From one Jersey girl to another, answer these questions:

Q: Taylor Ham or Pork Roll?

A: Taylor Ham.

Q: Wildwood or Seaside Heights?

A: I can’t choose.

Q: Yankees or Mets?

A: Yankees.

Q: Giants or Jets?

A: Giants — but University of Michigan for college football.

Q: Giants or Eagles?

A: Giants

Q: Does Central Jersey really exist?

A: I live in Bergen County and work in Morris County, with clients in Princeton, so yes,
Central NJ does exist.

Do you have a question for Dana or me about the power of teamwork? Ask it here in our comments or reach us on LinkedIn at Dana Nalbantian or Jill Vitiello.

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