Women Leaders of Real Estate: “It’s important to maintain an awareness of gender balance, and not take for granted that it will simply happen”, with Lissa So, of Marvel Architects

Jason Hartman
Authority Magazine
Published in
7 min readFeb 18, 2020


I believe there is a stereotype that women executives make decisions based on their emotions rather than on what’s good for business. If a woman executive uses her voice, it’s often interpreted as over-reacting. If men use their voice, they are asserting their power. Everyone should have an equal voice.

I had the pleasure to interview Lissa So. Lissa is a founding Partner of Marvel Architects. She is driven to build innovative architecture that effortlessly accommodates the user and creates uniquely beautiful spaces. Lissa honed her expertise in theatre design renovating St. Ann’s Warehouse, a project that brought multiple awards and prestige to the Marvel office, and has led to additional theatrical and cultural work. She recently completed the Lyric Theatre, the new home of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and is leading the design team for Theater Squared, a new regional theatre in the burgeoning cultural hub of Fayetteville, AR. In addition, Lissa is currently spearheading 1 Clinton, a 36-story residential tower that will also house the new Brooklyn Public Library, and the new Northeast Bronx YMCA. This work in the Bronx has led to a collaboration with Phipps Neighborhoods to provide afterschool programs to underserved communities in efforts to promote women and minorities in architecture. Lissa attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where she studied architecture.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Real Estate industry?

I’m an architect, and I’ve been practicing in New York for over 20 years. Seven years ago, I became a founding partner at Marvel Architects, where half of our practice is focused on large scale mixed-use development. This directly connects us to the Real Estate industry.

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

Five years into my professional career, I was approached by architect Gordon Kipping, a former colleague from Davis Brody Bond. Gordon was teaching a semester at Yale with Frank Gehry, and Gehry wanted Gordon to collaborate with him on the new headquarters and retail store for Issey Miyake in Tribeca. Gordon asked if I’d help, and of course, I said yes. Gehry did one of his famous sketches and we had to go figure out how to build it. We gathered a group of our friends and literally built a Gehry sculpture with our hands, bending 4’ x 8’ titanium sheets and attaching them to a steel armature. It was incredibly imprecise but truly captured the original design intent. I learned that the most interesting projects are often the ones where the solutions are not obvious. [Note: Twenty years later Issey Miyake is still in Tribeca and so is Gehry’s titanium sculpture.]

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are currently building 1 Clinton, the new mixed-use development in Brooklyn Heights. It’s a 36-story condominium building with a state-of-the-art Brooklyn Public Library on the ground floor. This branch library will be a wonderful resource for Brooklyn Heights and Downtown Brooklyn.

We are also working on the Northeast Bronx YMCA in Edenwald, an architecturally unique facility. The YMCA is a remarkable organization that impacts thousands of lives, and we’re proud to be a part of the enormous investment they’re making in this under-served community.

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

Marvel strives for true diversity in our work and on our team. Our projects range from large mixed-use developments to schools, theaters, community centers, animal care facilities, institutional and landscape projects.

One thing that makes us truly unique is that our offices in New York and San Juan have a strong commitment to community issues, working on projects both locally and nationally to improve lives. When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico two years ago it was remarkable to see the two offices come together to support each other. My partner Jonathan Marvel started Resilient Power Puerto Rico (RPPR), a not-for-profit organization affiliated with Marvel Architects — initially to help bring power back to those most in need by installing solar panels on the roofs of community centers across the island, and later working to establish energy resilience island-wide. When the earthquakes hit a few weeks ago Marvel and RPPR initiated an effort to build domes as temporary classroom structures to house students and teachers who have lost their school buildings. Marvel is a unique organization that is committed to helping our communities through innovation and design.

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 about that?

Frances Bronet has been my mentor throughout my career. She was my professor and thesis advisor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and has always been a true inspiration for me. She taught me that the only way to achieve success is to have passion for what you do and to always put in the hard work. Last year she became the first female president of Pratt, and at her inauguration, she was led into the ceremony by a local high school marching band, dancing her way onto the stage and into academic history.

Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. The Real Estate industry, like the Veterinarian, Nursing and Public Relations fields, is a women dominated industry. Yet despite this, less than 20 percent of senior positions in Real Estate companies are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what do you think is the cause of this imbalance?

We do our best to preserve a gender balance at all levels. The women at our Director level make a huge contribution to the success of our company, but we struggle to strike a balance at the Associate and Senior levels. There are simply fewer candidates for these positions. We find at a certain point in their career women architects search for an opportunity that provides them more flexibility. We have therefore made a conscious decision to provide flexibility for all our architects and designers.

What things can be done by individuals and companies to support greater gender balance going forward?

As an individual, you can mentor the next generation. I spend a lot of time speaking with my teams helping to guide them through the day-to-day and in their long-term career choices.

As a company, it’s important to maintain an awareness of gender balance, and not take for granted that it will simply happen. We will always hire the right person for the job, but we need to make sure we are speaking equally to all candidates. Marvel works with several non-profit organizations to promote women and minorities in architecture. We also collaborated with Phipps Neighborhoods to teach an afterschool program in the Bronx near the site for the Northeast Bronx YMCA.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

I believe there is a stereotype that women executives make decisions based on their emotions rather than on what’s good for business. If a woman executive uses her voice, it’s often interpreted as over-reacting. If men use their voice, they are asserting their power. Everyone should have an equal voice.

Can you share the things that most excite you about the Real Estate industry?

I’m excited about the variety of design that is transforming our city and having an impact on peoples lives. Neighborhoods throughout New York have changed drastically in the past ten years. Places like Industry City in Sunset Park, where we are currently working on an event space, are generating a new working economy for a creative community. I live in the Lower East Side and have enjoyed the transformation brought by the development of Essex Crossing. It’s not only provided a great local market and amenities for the community but also affordable housing that is allowing the Lower East Side to remain a diverse neighborhood.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

I recently read an article in the Harvard Business Review called Nimble Leadership by three women: Deborah Ancona, Elaine Backman, and Kate Isaacs. They talked about all types of leaders in business, including “Enabling leaders [who] often act more like coaches or mentors than a traditional boss would (and they might not be the formal manager of the person they are coaching). They tend to ask questions rather than offer explicit direction.” I have found in my practice that the more responsibility I give my team, and the more time I invest in them, the more they thrive. I also believe that this type of leadership promotes a positive, supportive environment where people enjoy their work, and continue to grow and learn.

Because of your position, you are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Our mission statement is: Marvel Architects designs transformative spaces that inspire and connect us, addressing today’s needs and anticipating tomorrow’s challenges. ALL design should focus on connecting our communities and must intelligently address resiliency and make sustainability the primary objective.

How can our readers follow you online?

Twitter: @marvelarch

Facebook: @MarvelArch

Instagram: @marvelarchitects

LinkedIn: Marvel Architects

Website: www.marvelarchitects.com

Thank you for your time, and your excellent insights!



Jason Hartman
Authority Magazine

Author | Speaker | Financial Guru | Podcast Rockstar