This year Dr Joyce F. Brown celebrates her 20th year as president of New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, the SUNY arts and business school whose high-profile alumni include Calvin Klein, Carolina Herrera, Joel Schumacher, Frankie Knuckles, Nina Garcia and Michael Kors. Before becoming the first woman and the first African-American to serve as president of FIT, she was vice chancellor of the City University of New York, New York City deputy mayor for public and community affairs, and a professor of clinical psychology.
We talked to Dr Brown about how she got here, how she works, and how to make decisions in an academic environment.
Location: New York, NY
Current Gig: President, Fashion Institute of Technology
Current mobile device: iPhone and iPad
Tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I grew up in a home where reading was encouraged and education was paramount. My parents did not have the opportunity to attend university but that my sister and I would was without question.
I grew up next to the City College of New York campus and was inspired by the hundreds of students I saw walking from the train to class all day, every day. I could look into their laboratory windows from our apartment. The campus was our playground. I wanted to be just like them.
At the same time, I was equally influenced by my grandmother, an amazing seamstress who sewed for many well-known designers. My mother could sew as well. So life was filled with fabrics, finishings, gorgeous textiles, hand embroidery, mannequins, three-way mirrors, pins and bobbins on the floor, interlinings and peplums.
When I got to FIT, it was a bit like coming home. I never learned to sew but having pursued that education my parents wanted for me, I now find myself surrounded by dynamic creative people – students and faculty – changing the world by making beautiful things. I understand and appreciate the passion and the muse that motivates them. Coming to FIT was karmic.
Take us through a recent workday.
- 8:30: Breakfast with Board of Trustees and FIT Foundation members.
- 9:45: Quarterly Board of Trustees meeting.
- Lunch meeting immediately after with architects to plan for groundbreaking for our new academic building.
- In the afternoon: An interview with a potential faculty member in the field of material science and a meeting with our corporate partners in our FIT/Infor Design and Tech Lab.
- Between meetings, answer emails, make phone calls, catch up with desk work.
- In the evening, host a tour of the Norman Norell exhibition at The Museum at FIT for the Women’s Forum followed by a reception.
What apps, gadgets or tools can’t you live without?
My iPhone, for sure; iPad; email and texts.
What’s your workspace setup like?
I work between my desk and my large conference table. I have a lot of meetings in my office so we sit around the conference table. If I do interviews in the office, I have two wing chairs that are good to use for conversation.
I try to keep my desk out of any pictures because it appears to be messy. I happen to know where to find everything that is on it – but it is not a good look! I have many reminders of special occasions at the university – photos, a ceremonial shovel from a groundbreaking to build a new student dining hall a few years ago, faculty publications and illustrations.
But my favourites are the toys produced by our toy design students. Almost all of the key character toys that your children or grandchildren play with have come from our toy design graduates. When I am not using my wing chairs for interviews, Eeyore is perched in one and surveys the room.
What’s your best shortcut or life hack?
I am not very good at shortcuts. If I can manage some quiet time to think a project through on a step by step basis, I can usually consolidate some steps and save some time. Writing helps me to conceptualise the project so I make a lot of lists (sometimes for the sheer joy of crossing them off!). Once I know the details, I can enlist the best team members to get it done.
Take us through an interesting or unusual process you have in place at work.
The academic model is very different from the corporate model. It is far less hierarchical and requires an appreciation for what is known as “shared governance”. At the end of the day, I have the responsibility for the decisions and their outcomes, but I find the process of consultation a valuable one.
At FIT, we have engaged in a series of strategic planning projects over the years. In each iteration, I have begun with a planning council made up of a cross section of the constituent groups from the community where, with a facilitator, we identify aspirational goals, discuss strategies for reaching them, and outline the initiatives that will move us forward.
We then organise a series of roundtable discussions populated by an even broader cross section of the community, where we present the plan that has emerged from the work of the planning council – and each table, in turn, responds.
By the end of the process, at least 200 people have had a voice in establishing our goals and the methods we should use to achieve them. We then post our preliminary results and invite input from the rest of the community.
The real value of the process is that we develop a shared vision about our future. If people see their ideas reflected in the plan, they can “own” a piece of it and so there will be a greater investment on their part to further our shared goals and even surpass our aspirations.
Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?
On a workaday level, I have my own staff and on an operational level, I have a cabinet comprised of vice presidents with their own areas of expertise and who help implement the university’s strategic plan, a document built collaboratively by the entire FIT community and that is the lifeblood of the university.
How do you keep track of what you have to do?
This is like running a little city; it is definitely 24/7. I make a lot of lists and, as they say, it takes a village – my team keeps track of me so I can stay on track. And of course, there is my phone. One of the great things about the technology is I can send messages in the middle of the night and not disturb anyone, and I will have my answer first thing in the morning.
How do you recharge or take a break?
I love the theatre. I love flowers and gardening. I love to travel; it’s great to be in another time zone so I can play during sleep time in New York and still get work done during my night hours (so maybe that doesn’t count as a break). I like quiet casual dinners with my husband and friends.
What’s your favourite side project?
I like to decorate and I like to shop and I have convinced myself – and even my husband – that it is all research and part of the job.
Who else would you like to see answer these questions?
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Pay attention. Listen carefully. Incorporate good ideas when you hear them. Respect the lines of communication and responsibility in your organisation. Let others see their contribution so they can own a piece of the project.
What’s a problem you’re still trying to solve?
Getting it all done and getting a reasonable amount of sleep.
We’ve asked heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? [contact text=”Let us know.”]