Rebecca Plaza, the 27-year-old founder and managing director of architectural firm Plaza + Partners, Inc., was about to move to Hong Kong from U.K. to apprentice under her “idol,” starchitect Rem Koolhas in 2014.
Plaza, then 24, just resigned from her first job as a junior architect at U.K.-based architectural firm John McAslan and Partners, where she worked on projects such as the development of British Columbia Museum in Canada, The National History Museum in London, and other high end residential buildings.
But Plaza had to forego this opportunity to accept a business proposal from a Filipino businessman who happens to be her father’s friend.
“He kept calling me and I thought that if a big time businessman keeps calling a then-24 year-old to move home and set up a company, it must mean something,” she told SparkUp. “So I took a leap of faith though I didn’t even know what I would be working on exactly.”
For a young talent like Plaza, jumping into a new venture may be easy. After all, she finished her degree in architecture on top of her class at University of Bath, which is considered to be among the foremost schools for architecture and engineering in the U.K. There, she received awards like the Sir Basil Spence Prize by Prince Edward.
At a time where “girl boss” has turned into a buzzword, sensationalized by the rise of celebrity entrepreneurs in the likes of Sophia Amoruso, it might be tempting to believe that the proverbial glass ceiling no longer exists.
But Plaza struggled just the same. Her accolades and experience did not guarantee her an easy journey when she accepted the proposal and began running her own architectural firm Plaza + Partners upon her return to the Philippines in 2015.
“I didn’t know how to run a business,” she said. “I didn’t know what I was doing. There were so many times that I cried because I was just 25 years old then and I just moved home, how would I convince people to believe in me, how they will work with a 25-year-old?”
Her struggle in building her credibility also reflected when she began employing people to work at her company.
“It was really hard convincing people to work with me because I had a startup, so people were like, ‘why would I leave my job at a big firm to work for you?” she said.
She recalled that some would even call her “hija” during meetings.
But Plaza let her company’s accomplishments do all the talking.
Plaza + Partners’ maiden project were supermarkets, town centers, and community malls for Philippine Primark Properties. She was also introduced to Herbert Sy, whom she recalled meeting abruptly after landing back home.
Satisfied with the company’s output, Sy, who hails from the family that owns and operates SM Investments Corporation, contracted Plaza + Partners to do more projects, including his house and hotels for SM Hotel Group. Her company was also behind the redevelopment of SM’s supermarket chain Savemore.
“We did really well. In the first year we were profitable right away,” she said.
Today, Plaza + Partners has grown into a team of over 40 architects, engineers, and designers who all holds wide experiences from leading designs firms in Manila.
Plaza is also promoting sustainable projects through Plaza + Partners.
Among her advocacies is the use of bamboo to replace common materials like steels and concrete. The company is currently re-developing local markets across the province of Cavite using sustainable materials. It is also in the completion stage of a resort in El Nido, where buildings are made mostly from bamboos.
“It’s hard to make people to switch their mindset on building with materials you would not usually use like bamboo, so not a lot people realize that bamboo is such a great material and that it has the properties of steel and compressive property of concrete,” she said. “Everywhere else in the world bamboos are celebrated, but here sometime people think you’re poor to build something with bamboo because it’s associated with the bahay kubo.”
Plaza attributes a chunk of the company’s early success to the trust of their initial clients and to the fresh and creative ideas of her team.
“I asked some of our clients, ‘what made you decide to work with us?’ And they said, ’to be honest we had few architects before and all the designs that they were showing us were really old—nothing new, nothing special. When we saw your works we were so refreshed with your youth and your ideas to do things differently.’”