In January, PennPraxis, the applied research, engagement, and practice arm of the Weitzman School, welcomed alum Thabo Lenneiye (MArch’10, MSE:IPD’10) as its new managing director. For many years, Lenneiye worked on complex mixed-use development, airport, product design, and urban planning projects at Gensler, an international design and architecture firm. During that time, she also played an instrumental role in setting up Gensler’s Africa practice and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work. She holds an MBA from the University of Cambridge (UK), has started several businesses, and taught several design studios.
You are an alum of the school. Can you tell us the story of how you came to Penn?
When I finished my undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto, I planned to move back to either Kenya or Zimbabwe, where I grew up. So much of my understanding of the world and my place in it was shaped by my family’s strong commitment to working and improving the respective communities they came from. My background combined with an education in fine arts meant that I was excited about architecture and design because of the potential to create tangible outcomes, but I wasn’t necessarily sure about how or where my voice would fit in the profession.
Before accepting the offer to study at Penn, I was contacted by the School’s Black Student Alliance, which was unusual at a time when issues of belonging and inclusivity were not necessarily at the forefront. In a lot of ways, joining that community of active and engaged students encouraged me to start finding my voice. It was a defining part of my experience here.
I also had a strong interest in finding opportunities for cross-disciplinary study. Some of the cross-listed classes weren’t easily accessible at the time, but the dual degree options created an avenue for this. On a practical level, it was challenging to figure out a schedule of classes from different departments, and how these fit with my larger educational goals. It taught me a valuable lesson about finding the right advisors and allies who have walked the same path or can at least help envision it.
Not long after graduating from Penn, you led a studio with Associate Professor of Practice David Gouverneur that focused on Harare, Zimbabwe, alongside a local university. Can you tell us about the significance of that site, how the students responded to it, and what you learned from that experience? What were the key issues the studio aimed to solve?
Following independence in 1980, Zimbabwe experienced a golden age, when there was a strong desire to build a less racially and economically segregated country. The capital city, formerly known as Salisbury, was renamed Harare, heralding a new dawn. A series of events over 30-plus years led to a city struggling to provide basic services and opportunities for the rapidly growing urban population. By the time we began work on the Harare studio, the juxtaposition between the rising number of informal settlements and trade, against the unique and delicate ecology of the region, were at the forefront of discussions about the development of a more inclusive city. Socio-economic and political tensions had reached a fever pitch.
Cities, and particularly African cities, are really facing a crisis. It became clear that the challenges that Harare is dealing with, as a result of rapid urbanization, are not entirely unique. Many cities around the world are dealing with this phenomenon. However, what we learned is that cities in the African context are often dealing with these issues in combination with complex spatial histories, nuanced by legacies of colonial design that aren’t always tailored to the local ecological and cultural contexts.
David and our team of lecturers were very thoughtful in setting up the studio in a way that allowed the students to put aside any preconceived notions about the place, withhold judgement, and approach the challenge with a level of respectful curiosity. The students rose to the challenge with an incredible level of kindness and humanity, which translated into trust with local communities, and resulted in deeply thoughtful design proposals.
"The idea of a true platform for collaboration between students, faculty and external partners, under the ethos of leveraging design and education to positively impact and transform communities, is something that deeply resonated with me."
What attracted you to PennPraxis?
As a student, I was vaguely aware of PennPraxis and briefly interacted with the organization during the Harare studio in 2012. That project allowed us to truly partner with a community starting from problem definition through to potential solutions. We scratched the surface on implementation of these concepts, and I always wondered how an organization like PennPraxis might begin to bridge the divide from classroom academic exercise to real world impact. Since then, I learned about the organization’s new focus on increased student involvement, community engagement, and partnerships with clients and organizations to begin to implement projects.
The idea of a true platform for collaboration between students, faculty and external partners, under the ethos of leveraging design and education to positively impact and transform communities, is something that deeply resonated with me.
In my view, PennPraxis has the right elements to be a connector – within the Weitzman School of Design, and across the university – that fosters meaningful cross-disciplinary collaboration and scholarship to truly start to explore ideas and solutions to some of the most pressing problems humanity faces, all with a dedication to bringing a diversity of experiences, backgrounds and perspectives to the table.
PennPraxis has the opportunity to help prepare students to meet today’s challenges, and prepare them to bring their knowledge, enthusiasm and education to be part of tomorrow’s solutions. I am excited to work with the Weitzman community and the broader university to bring this to fruition.
You worked for many years with the global design and architecture firm Gensler. Some of your work included planning for the firm’s diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. Can you talk some about the process that went into planning this work?
At the time that I started working with the leadership team, there was an understanding that a strategic framework would be foundational in engaging the right experts and professionals to support this work.
We came to the table with a realization that there was a need to surface current and historic issues faced by black and underrepresented minority professionals. As a Black African woman, there are things that I can relate to in terms of people’s experiences of discrimination and the pain of injustice, but there is also a lot of specific socio-cultural background knowledge and systemic challenges that aren’t my firsthand experience. The development of an inclusive approach necessitated a period of reflective learning and incorporation of experiences from across the organization and beyond.
The other area of focus was making the work an integral part of the firm’s culture. The team focused on creating a five-part strategy to channel feedback, grassroots efforts from the different offices, as well as the multitude of initiatives from across the firm, into actionable, measurable objectives and impact. The strategies ranged from growing diversity in the firm and the pipeline of people that come into the industry, through to shifting the way the industry and clients engage in topics of equity in the communities we as an industry work in.
The ultimate goal was to begin to effect meaningful change in the sphere of the organizations core competency – the A&D industry – to normalize dialogue about some of the unspoken boundaries that exist and start to catalyze progress towards more equity.
You’ve taken on a number of entrepreneurial projects. How did you come to start your first business?
Tatusi started as a solution to something I cared about and became a way to support a burgeoning group of young seamstresses in Zimbabwe. Before the days when African prints and fabrics were a trend, I had clothing tailored every time I traveled to Zimbabwe or Kenya. We began hosting pop-up shops in the US and attending small-scale trade shows to solve an age-old supply and demand problem with a social angle – linking small-scale local seamstresses to an international audience. The garments were sold in the US, Europe, and Japan, with features in major publications. Our biggest hurdles were supply chain and quality control, and we were since halted by the pandemic. Maybe naively, which might be the only way to sustain the entrepreneurial spirit, I still believe we can resolve these issues in the future.
Now that you’re back in Philly what are you most excited to do again here?
Reading Terminal Market is one of my favorite places in Philadelphia: I could spend an entire weekend there. I’m also looking forward to rediscovering the music, food, cultural and art scenes of the city. I welcome any and all recommendations!