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Leading with empathy

Empathy calls for us to go beyond ourselves. At Shepley Bulfinch, we value integrating empathy in efforts from the projects we design to the thought leaders who inspire our culture.  

Uma Ramanathan, FAIA, LEED AP, has demonstrated throughout her pediatric design experience the importance of listening to others and how this fundamentally measures the impact of what we do. Uma’s connection with pediatrics started on a personal note when her daughter spent the first month of her life in the NICU. Through this experience, Uma saw the value of building communities for those in need – specifically for children who can’t make decisions for themselves. Uma identified that in order to understand a space and its design, you first need to understand the people within the space.  


What inspires your design approach for pediatric spaces?  

For me, it’s all about personal experience. My daughter being in NICU opened my eyes to what these spaces should be or need to be rather than what we want them to be. I’ve been in and out of the hospital a few times. The long stays are when you really learn how you can better the environment and what you can improve. 

What I do now and what informs the story is when I spend time as an observer at a hospital, not a patient. When I start a project, I like to go and spend a whole day to see what happens in a unit. I take the time to do that. It helps me understand not just the space but also the process so we can come up with solutions for better outcomes. 


Is there a project that stands out as a pivotal moment for when you first felt you were driving impactful change in pediatrics? 

Once I began working on Boston Children’s Hospital, I was able to really see what I could bring in design and this helped me move to the next level. Previously, I had been working on smaller efforts. Once I began working with Boston Children’s Hospital, that was the true starting point in pediatric work. The clients believed I added value and brought something different to the table. There is an uphill to get into that type of setting – understanding the difference between clinic and facility work. It’s not necessarily a struggle but a great lesson.  

Another project that really ticked for me was the John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital. It was after the 2008 recession and seen as a risk to pursue a project where we didn’t have a prior relationship. I advocated that we had to take risks and that this would be a fundamental project. We ended up leading the design work for this project. This was a turning point for me on how I could strategize work in this field. 


What has been the biggest challenge you faced on a pediatric project?  

Mentoring people can be challenging. Healthcare is healthcare. You have to be able to speak the language, get the questions answered. I am not much of a talker, I’m a listener. If you talk, you don’t hear other people talk. It’s only when other people share, you understand what others are going through. Trying to teach that to someone is difficult. How do you lead by listening? That’s key. People think because they can draw it, they can design it. Your design should help others live better lives. If you listen to people – how they want to live, practice – you can design better.

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