As a newcomer to Convene, I can attest that Joyce Bromberg, Convene’s Chief Strategy Officer, carries an aura of expertise that is impossible to miss. With over 38 years of design experience (and a bevy of awards to go with them), she’s earned every right to be boastful, yet she remains intensely humble and approachable. She’s quick to offer praise, but it’s always sincere and specific. Her feedback is so simple, yet impactful, that you want to write down every sentence on a sticky note and plaster your ceiling with them, so you can be sure to see them first thing in the morning.
Beyond Joyce’s wisdom and expertise, her evolving experience as a woman in the workplace offers a valuable perspective for younger workers—myself included. Having entered the working world at a time where opportunities for women were extremely limited, she’s carved a career path that would’ve been unthinkable not that long ago—essentially inventing roles for herself that allowed her to profoundly impact the world of workspace design.
It would be selfish to keep that wisdom all to ourselves. I sat down with Joyce recently to talk about career paths, advice, and why you shouldn’t rush your progress and development as a professional.
Andrew Littlefield: How did you find work that you love?
Joyce Bromberg: Trial and error. One finds it by trying on new things. But also, by listening to my intuition.
When I was 12, which was a very long time ago, I had a feeling come over me, while I was with my mother in a furniture showroom, about wanting to work with furniture.
This is 1959, when there was no such profession, really, as a commercial interior designer. There were people, I guess, who decorated homes, but designing for the office was not something that, at least, was part of my vocabulary or something that I even knew about. But I just had this feeling and it resonated with me.
And then I had the opportunity to go to the High School of Music in New York, which was one of the five special high schools in New York. One of the art teachers gave us a taste test, and I scored really high on this taste test. This was another hint as to what I should be.
By the time I was 18, I learned that there was such a thing called design. And when I reached out to find out about it, I asked my brother, who’s 10 years older than me, and he said, “Oh, my friend Charlie’s girlfriend is a designer and she went to community college to learn to be a designer.” And it was like, “That’s not intellectual enough for me.” So again, I put it out of my mind.
After that, I went to college, graduated with an art history degree, got married, and had twins. This is all before 1971.
I was brought up to be a wife and a mother, and so at this point, my husband’s a graduate student. We have two children. We’re living on $3,000 a year. There was no money.
AL: Were you living in New York?
JB: No, living in Rochester. Carl was getting his PhD at the University of Rochester. And staying home and being a mom wasn’t enough for me. I was confused and I knew there needed to be more. And again, I started to think about a life for me and that I needed a career too. My father always wanted me to be a teacher.
You know, there were two careers for women back then, a teacher or a secretary. But I decided I wanted to be a designer. We moved to California, Carl (my husband) went to Caltech and I finally went back to school for design at the local community college.
AL: So you ended up there after all.
JB: I took all the design courses they had to offer and declared myself a designer. And my life since that point, work-wise, has been incredibly fulfilling because design as a tool is very useful.
We moved to Michigan and I got work at a company called Steelcase. At Steelcase, I really learned how to be a designer. I had some tools and I did some very cool things and won awards, but it wasn’t enough for me. I wanted more control and I didn’t want to follow other people’s agendas. I wanted to set the agenda.
So I took other roles—I headed up surface materials, I headed up architectural design community relations, got more involved in marketing things. And then I did this award-winning show for Steelcase called “Breaking Patterns,” which was about what the future of work could be.
AL: When was this?
JB: I think it was 1991 or 1992. It was really groundbreaking. We defined what a knowledge-worker was in the exhibit. We announced to the world that with the miniaturization and portability of technology, people could work anywhere. And my husband had a prototype Apple laptop, and we took his laptop and made a video of people working in a bed to illustrate that work could go anywhere.
AL: Nailed it.
JB: We nailed it. Part of the exhibit was an ethnographic video of people working in an airport to study how the physical environment was helping or hindering (this was put together by an anthropologist at Xerox PARC named Lucy Suchman). These were people that worked in the bowels of an airport and their job was to load a plane, check the fuel, check the weight distribution, things like that. Critical work, but nothing about the physical environment was helping what they were doing.
We showed the workplace isn’t meeting people’s needs. As a designer, this caused a lightbulb to go off in my head. I began to realize that my work had a bigger effect on people than I realized, and that design should support the work process of what people were doing in order for it to be effective.
Anyway, I stayed at Steelcase for 28 years, retired, then got bored of retirement after one month and started my own consultancy.
AL: After one month?!
JB: One month! I started my own company with a friend, Ric Vangelderen, in 2009. And in 2010, (Convene co-founders) Ryan and Chris went to Steelcase, walked into a building that Ric and I had been responsible for and said, “This is what we want.” And they called and we started consulting. And then Carl and I moved back to New York. So in many ways, it feels like I’ve been in training for this job my whole life.
It hasn’t always been great. Work has been, at times, difficult and hurtful, so for me, doing exciting work at Convene is important, helping to build the company is important, but helping to create a culture of love and joy here at the company and making sure that I have a happy day and everybody has a happy day is really important to me.
AL: I’m so impressed that at 12 you had an understanding of what you want to do.
JB: Can I tell you something? I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know why I had that feeling. But it took me until I was 35 to realize it. My husband knew in the 6th grade that he wanted to be a physicist. But it took me until I was 35.
I think the message that I really want to get out is that today, work is going to be about continuously learning new things and being curious and trying different things on, and to expect that you’re going to have one career in this very long life anymore is unrealistic and, I think, boring, right? I mean, if you’re a doctor, you might want to have one career. But I know physicists who have decided to become biologists at 50, 60 years old because their interest in life has taken them in another direction.
AL: What would you say was a lesson you learned the hard way?
JB: The first one is a lesson for everybody, which is to always be as honest and fair in your dealings because if you try to protect other people’s feelings, it just doesn’t work. You need to offer information, offer feedback, offer help always coming from a good place. And whether it’s good feedback or bad feedback, if it’s honest and comes from a good place, then it’s going be okay.
And that was the hardest thing I had to learn about being a leader is that if I hid things, because I didn’t want to hurt somebody, their performance suffered and the relationship would sour because I would be disappointed in them. But then it wasn’t fair to them because I’d never given them the help to get better.
And the other thing is, as a woman, you have to stand your ground. It’s still tough. To this day, it’s tough. I’ve reached the C-Suite now in my career, and there are still men who are willing to say, you know, “You go set this up and I’ll take care of it myself later.” So women have to have, as early as possible, confidence in themselves. They have to trust their own competency and they have to learn that women have intuitive understandings and gut feelings that are actionable and that they shouldn’t hesitate to act on them.
AL: You kind of hit on this a little bit already, but what do you know now that you wish you knew at 25?
AL: Hah! That’s fair.
JB: I was a mother. I was too young to be a mother. I had no idea about who I was as a person. I was green, you know, and I had a lot of responsibility. But you know what? You can’t hurry that up. It’s like yeah, of course, I would have liked to know everything, but I think people learn in their own time. And it’s never too late. If you learn at 30, you’re lucky. If you learn at 50, you’re not so lucky. If you learn at 70, okay, you still learned, right?
AL: That’s hard these days. It feels like you’re supposed to know so much so quickly, you know? At least I feel like that sometimes.
JB: But you know what? This is the crux of it, Andrew. I read this book once about… The guy’s name was Carl Rogers, he’s a well-known psychologist, and he talked about developing in your children an internal locus of evaluation, which was the ability to value yourself without that valuation coming from the outside world. And so whether you mature at one age or a little bit later age, it shouldn’t matter. It should be about you, your growth, you are learning at the appropriate time for you.
Who cares if somebody else who learned it before you? The important thing is that you’re on a journey and that the journey is about learning and becoming a better human being in every way.
Find work that you love, because then work will always be a joy.