I wish someone told me that almost every mistake could be fixed. When I first started, I was hard on myself when I made an error. In the beginning, I felt like the world was going to end. If someone I admired would have told me, “Don’t worry, every mistake can be fixed, don’t be so hard on yourself,” it would have relieved me.

We are living in the Renaissance of Work. Just like great artists know that an empty canvas can become anything, great leaders understand that an entire organization — and the people inside it — can become anything, too. Master Artists and Mastering the Art of Leadership draw from the same source: creation. In this series, well meet masters who are creating the future of work and painting a portrait of lasting leadership. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Stephanie D. Halfen.

Stephanie D. Halfen is the founder of SDH Studio Architecture + Design, a leading Miami architecture firm. SDH has developed a stellar reputation for design excellence in Miami, South Florida, and the Caribbean. Stephanie is a licensed architect in the State of Florida and holds a National Council of Architecture Board Certification (NCARB). She serves on several Architectural Review Boards, and is an active member of the Miami chapter of The American Institute of Architects (AIA).

Thank you for joining us. Our readers would enjoy discovering something interesting about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My father is an architect, and I grew up on job sites, visiting his work, and he was highly passionate about his work. He was a fantastic architect, and I loved to watch him work. I would wake up early in the morning, go to his study, and he was there working. I would sit with him, and he would show me what he was working on. I love it. From a young age, I knew that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

I think the hardest thing has basically been relocating from Caracas to Miami. The hard times were really reinventing not only myself but ourselves as a family. In Venezuela, I worked as an architect and taught in Architecture School while my husband ran a construction company. Little by little, our country Venezuela started to go under, and I really felt the need to step up and help our family figure out a way out of the country. When we arrived in Miami, we had to reinvent ourselves. I had to figure out how to make it as an architect in this country and also help my husband figure out how to create and run a construction firm in America. The most challenging parts of becoming an architect here in the States were the tests and re-validating my degree. I would wake up at 5:00 AM to study because I had three kids and was already working. In the long run, it was a blessing in disguise. What we didn’t realize at the time was we were setting out on an amazing journey for both of us.

Where did you get the drive to continue during hard times?

My drive came from making it work for my family in the States. We had to make it here; there was no other choice. We couldn’t go back to Venezuela. We had no choice but to make it here, and that motivated me during all the tough times.

So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Things are going amazing! I started our company by myself, and now I have an unbelievable team of sixteen full-time employees who are incredibly talented. We have our own office building. We create spectacular projects. Our company story is a story about resilience. It’s a story about working hard, doing the right things, and collaborating with our clients with their best interests in our hearts. Our approach to clients has led to word-of-mouth, which has created our reputation as a reliable, honest luxury architecture and interior design firm that clients can trust.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first started working I would still think in meters as opposed to feet and inches. In Venezuela, we use the metric system, not the imperial system. So on one of my first projects I completely messed up and mixed some measurements so when I calculated the total area of the computer it gave me an insane number. But since it was the computer that calculated it I did not question it. When I presented it to the client they asked me about the size of the house and when I answered they almost had a heart attack! It was then when I realized my mistake. It was so embarrassing! Thank god they were also from Venezuela so they understood why it had happened.

But that lesson taught me to always use common sense and double-check numbers. Don’t trust computer software blindly, if you type something wrong it can completely throw everything off!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What makes us really stand out is the passion we bring to not only design but the whole process and our relationship with clients. We go above and beyond to really understand what they want. I think a lot of architects have a huge ego, but we truly don’t. The most important thing about the way that we work is that we truly, genuinely want to make our clients extremely happy with the end result. It has to feel like theirs, not ours. So basically, it’s bringing their vision to life and making it extraordinary–it really makes us stand out.

One way we stand out is by using top-of-the-line everything, from top-of-the-line software to ensuring our construction partners use top-of-the-line material. We coordinate between all disciplines, which differs from many architects. We spend a lot of time integrating all the different disciplines, structural, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing into a coordination model; it’s beautiful if you see it. It’s extraordinary, and it really helps builders build a project. We are friendly, we are not snobbish–ego is not our thing.

Clients know they’re getting a quality project but also a quality process. After clients move in, I always ask, “How do you feel in the house?” I get the most extraordinary answers. Truly, I got goosebumps over the latest one. I asked a client, “How’s the house?” He texted, “Every time I wake up, I feel I’m living in a dream.” This is what makes it all worthwhile.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

They have to spend on creating a fantastic team. There’s no way of growing and making it really work in this industry without really hiring correctly, and spending the time to create an amazing team because if you try to do it all by yourself, you’re going to get burned out.

You have to be humble, own your mistakes and learn from them.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

My first client set me on the path to where I am today. When I was still in school, a friend hired me to design his house in one of Venezuela’s National Parks. He came to me after he had hired one of my professors, who could not work within the restrictions of the national park. So the friend came to me.

At the time, I didn’t really realize what this would mean to my career, but this first job set the stage for everything I do today. It was the bump, the push, the break I truly needed.

What set me on the path for the rest of my career was that I was heavily involved in the building, along with designing it.

The project was located on the top of El Avila National Park, about 1000 meters above 1,000 meters above the level of the city. So I had to drive 40 minutes in a 4-by-4 to go up to the project. Almost every day for a year, I drove up a huge mountain and directed workers.

This client changed the course of my career. Today, he’s incredibly successful in Silicon Valley. I asked him at some point, “Why? Why did you hire me? He goes, “I made my business out of spotting talent, and that’s what I did with you.” It was a very unique answer for me. It meant a lot.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I love this question. Many of our employees are immigrants from many different countries who have come to the Stated looking for a better life just like we did. We actually have helped quite a few of them to get their working visas. We love to work with them to build their careers here. It’s been amazing to see them go from entry-level employees to leading development projects.

Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?

I believe founders must have a therapist or someone you really trust to bounce ideas off. Someone who is unbiased and knowledgeable and also can guide you through the ups and downs. Running a business is stressful, and the idea is to be able to enjoy the process.

For me, it’s my husband. He knows my work upside down and out. I bounce ideas with him and frustrations with him, and he always gives stellar advice.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’m working towards starting a project to help underprivileged women turn their business ideas into reality. They need mentors, and it’s a spectacular project in development. I’m excited to get it off the ground in Miami.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first launched my business” and why? Please share a story or example for each

  1. I wish someone told me that almost every mistake could be fixed. When I first started, I was hard on myself when I made an error. In the beginning, I felt like the world was going to end. If someone I admired would have told me, “Don’t worry, every mistake can be fixed, don’t be so hard on yourself,” it would have relieved me.
  2. Another thing I wish someone would have told me is: “People will surprise you.” The nicest person could end up being not lovely at all, and the not-so-nice could be amazing. So don’t be so fast to trust or judge.
  3. Anyone starting a business should take a business class. As architects, we focus on art, and I wish someone had made me take a business class. When you’re running your own firm, you’re dealing with operations and management as much as the home’s design. I wish someone told me this. Today, I know the business, but a class would have saved me headaches and time.
  4. Someone should have warned me that it’s harder for women. The balance between personal life and work it’s just harder. But it makes it worthwhile so much more. So, I think that with the knowledge that I’ve gained by establishing my own business and going through the ups and downs and understanding what needs to be done and things like that, I can help other women. And I think I have the responsibility to help them.
  5. The last thing I wish someone told me along the way is that everything is temporary. Having those words in mind is super important because highs are temporary, and lows are temporary. Everything is temporary. You have to be extremely careful with the highs, and you have to be very careful with your thoughts on the lows as well. The phrase has been very valuable. So if you’re suddenly running through a problem, keep in mind that it will pass!

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!