DADDY'S LITTLE GIRL
Toni Vasquez-Shawan ’10 was in the sixth grade when she started her architecture career as a telephone receptionist at T.I. Vasquez Architects & Planners, Inc. (TVAP), a Manila-based architecture firm founded in 1993 by her father Topy Vasquez. The design bug bit her while accompanying Topy on a site visit. After graduating from the University of Santo Tomas in 2007 with a B.S. in architecture, she acquired a full-time position at TVAP, working under the supervision of a project architect.
“I didn’t work directly under my father,” says Vasquez-Shawan. “He made sure that I started from the bottom. Nepotism was never his thing. As a matter of fact, he was harder on me than any of his other employees.”
Still, there were skeptics. Vasquez-Shawan quickly learned that being the daughter of the boss has a certain scrutiny attached to it.
“People questioned my decision to follow in my father’s footsteps,” she recalls. “They doubted whether I had any talent at all, as if I was some privileged kid looking for a shortcut, waiting to extract the fruit of his labor.”
This led her to another sobering realization: Being a woman in the male-dominated field of architecture means going above and beyond to prove she deserves a seat at the drafting table.
“Being underestimated had become so common for me,” she admits. “I spent 99 percent of my time with a pack of wolves. Sometimes getting my ideas across was like a boxing match.”
She remembers having to resort to bropropriation (when a man claims credit for a woman’s idea) to outsmart a sexist client. “I pitched an idea to a developer and was immediately shut down — no rhyme, no reason, no explanation,” she says. To seal the deal, she pulled her father to the side and insisted he present her next idea as his own. “Lo and behold,” she adds, “the client went for it. His jaw dropped when my father told him the idea was mine. I’ve never seen anyone look at me in such disbelief.”
This was when she decided to author her professional dreams on her own terms: by breaking free from her father’s influence and resources to prove to everyone — especially herself — that she had the tenacity to pursue a career in architecture.
GOING THE DISTANCE
Vasquez-Shawan decamped to Wayne, N.J., where she lived with a relative while attending graduate school at NJIT, a college she chose because of the “rich technical content” and the ability to engage with “students of diverse backgrounds.” NJIT, some 8,500 miles away from the Philippines, would also provide her with a welcome reprieve from the lack of gender equity back home.
She was a bundle of nerves in the hallway of Weston Hall, home of the College of Architecture and Design, while preparing to present her design work for the first time, when then-Dean Urs Gauchat decided to stop by and listen in. “I left the Philippines to seek training overseas because I wanted the challenge, the advancement,” she says. “I had this perception that my training was inferior and my output would reflect that.”
With Gauchat in the audience, she pushed through her presentation. But before she could finish, he stood up, interrupted her mid-sentence and declared, “This is how it’s supposed to be done! This is the work of a graduate student.”
The validation from Gauchat (which is one of her most cherished memories of NJIT) aimed at the heart of her insecurities, and put to bed any lingering concerns about the legitimacy of her professional development. “I was anticipating the opposite reaction in my head,” she admits. “I was selling myself short. His appreciation of my work came as a pleasant surprise. NJIT is where I found my backbone.”
Empowered, lettered and armed with a master’s degree in architecture from NJIT, Vasquez-Shawan was eager to conquer the world of design and construction. There was just one thing standing in her way: “I graduated from NJIT in 2010 during the peak of the Great Recession,” she laments. “Nobody was hiring in the U.S., so I couldn’t get the external work experience I was looking for.”
Meanwhile, back in Southeast Asia, real estate was booming. Topy urged his daughter to return home to manage TVAP’s Cebu branch. She agreed. “He gave me the liberty to regenerate in the direction I saw fit,” she says. In less than a year, Vasquez-Shawan had tripled the size of the staff and moved the office to a bigger location. By 2015, she was handling most of the firm’s high-rise projects — and had done the impossible: stepped out of her father’s shadow to carve out a career on her own terms. But in June of 2016, Topy died of cancer, leaving the firm in limbo and a grieving daughter’s professional identity intertwined with her father’s once again.
“Obviously losing a founder is a big crisis for any company,” says Vasquez-Shawan. “It took months for TVAP to re-stabilize.” In August 2017, Vasquez-Shawan officially succeeded her father as CEO and principal architect.
Today, Topy’s collaborative work ethic and professional legacy lives on through his daughter, who stands firm in her father’s convictions, often relying on his proven past methods to foster a spirit of community in the workplace and maintain the creativity and technical proficiency for which TVAP is celebrated.
“My father always believed that a good team player makes an excellent leader,” says Vasquez-Shawan. “I sit down daily with my senior designers and technical architects to discuss projects. We maintain quality by combining our expertise and troubleshooting issues together.”
But the majority of her workday is spent maintaining relationships with clients.
“It’s imperative for each one of them to feel secure and to know how much I value our business partnership,” she explains. “Working on a single project takes time. It’s important to maintain mutual trust and confidence to ensure individual visions stay aligned. I keep myself constantly within reach, responsive and hands-on.”
This October, TVAP celebrates 25 years in business. And the firm shows no signs of slowing down, with a healthy streak of projects in the pipeline: a few beach resorts in Batangas and Bohol; two high-rises in Manila and Cebu; and the master development and renovation of Southwestern University, a private institution in Cebu, where Vazquez serves at the first dean of architecture for the School of Design and Communications. (She previously served as chairperson of the department of architecture at Lyceum of the Philippines University for two years.)
“We’re glad to be very busy,” she says. “Running an architectural firm is just like any other business. At the end of the day, if you want to keep at it, you must make a profit.”
ON A PERSONAL NOTE
CEO. Architect. Writer. Teacher. Dean. To say Vasquez-Shawan has her hands full would be a vast understatement. Yet the busy multi-hyphenate just added another title to the list — and it’s her most important role to date: mother. She and her husband, Elias, welcomed their first child, Theo, who recently turned one month old. And although running a business while raising a family is no easy feat, her passion for architecture, rigorous education and knack for self-invention suggests it’s a balancing act she’s destined to master.
“Working under senior architects gave me a deep understanding of structure, training, respect and discipline,” she says. “The years I spent on my own at NJIT were not easy, but that experience combined with my father’s training…I know it molded me into the leader and CEO I am today.”