Architect Nidhi John is a principal at PCA. She came to the U.S. from India to study architecture at Kent State University, where she earned both a B.A. and a M. Arch in architecture and urban design. She moved to Boston in 2004 and joined PCA a short time later. In addition to her creative work for clients over the years, Nidhi became increasingly connected to another important mission: mentoring and nurturing new employees while developing and expanding the firm’s JEDI activities.

To gain an inside perspective on this work, we talked with Nidhi about what she and her PCA colleagues do to create a learning and sharing culture – and how firmwide mentoring and community action impact the company’s employees, clients, and collaborators.

Tell us about the mentoring program and how it works at PCA. Does everybody participate in it?

Yes, everybody participates, from someone who just joined the firm to David Chilinski and the principals. The experience is impactful for both the mentee and the mentor because it truly is two-way in the learning and discussions taking place.

Our younger staff members see it as an open conversation where, for example, a mentee can raise the question about how much control they will have over what they want to do, and who is listening to them. It is a natural feeling as a mentee to wonder who is listening to you. Most young people in any workplace feel like many things are not in their control. I remember that feeling. PCA is a place where the leaders understand how important it is for young professionals to state what they want in their career and for the mentors to help make that happen. Part of that process is talking about career development and goals, including both short-term and long-term career goals.

You have experienced both the mentor mentee roles at PCA. How has it helped you?

Mentorship helped me chart my course here, to set goals that have me doing the kind of work I love to do, and to learn from both mentors and mentees. I worked at a couple of other design firms prior to PCA that didn’t have nearly the same emphasis on mentoring and helping younger staff succeed. I was ecstatic that there was a plan here, an intention around employee development.

I still have a PCA mentor, and currently have four or five mentees. I love that we can talk about challenges and overcoming the problems we all encounter. It is not solely focused on career issues. There’s a personal aspect to it, an emotional aspect. I have somebody to go to when something is bothering me, or when I need a second opinion from a trusted listener and advisor. It is building that relationship and mutual trust that stands out for me. It sets the tone for the firm’s open culture.

What else should people know about PCA’s culture?

As the firm has evolved, we’ve continuously grown the opportunity for learning. There are so many things we discuss actively as a team. We recommend books, videos, webinars, and articles to read and share. We talk about emotional intelligence and self-awareness. We talk about working with clients, how you need to be listening, and drawing on your ability to be empathetic in all our conversations. These are all part of our client service that stresses shared values, who we are, and these qualities play a big part in our culture.

Still true to say the industry does not have too many people of color. I know PCA’s Foundation is working on that and other social change issues. Can you tell us what is current with the Foundation?

The Foundation work is a great example of applying our shared values as a firm. Through conversations as a group, we committed to do more and advance the impact of our JEDI work and priorities. Our approach is to focus on actions rather than words. The best and most direct way to do this is to build active partnerships and support community organizations working in arts, education, food insecurity, and housing.

From a project perspective, we all agreed we wanted to do more in the affordable housing world. With the Boston and Cambridge region one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country, it’s a huge challenge all around. A group of us at PCA took this on as a priority some time ago. We now partner with several nonprofit clients, including The Community Builders and the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation to develop affordable housing opportunities.


Beyond project-related work, one of the things we are doing through the PCA Foundation is volunteering together. In addition to funding several nonprofits, the Foundation provides hands-on opportunities for staff to get personally involved. A group of us were recently with the Essex County Habitat for Humanity, volunteering on the construction of a house for a needy family.

We also have a robust partnership with the ACE Mentor program. ACE is an afterschool program that provides high school students the opportunity to explore careers in architecture, construction, and engineering. PCA began supporting ACE Mentor Boston four years ago and our staff really enjoys working and mentoring these students. We had two ACE program graduates working as interns in our office this summer, and several staff are involved as teachers and mentors in the program.

NOTE: For more on the work of the PCA Foundation, see “Taking Action: PCA Updates…”

Here is a two-part question. First, can you tell us how a culture as you’ve described it today helps the company in tangible ways? Second, how does PCA’s culture benefit clients?

The most obvious benefit we see is the way it helps inspire and motivate newer and younger employees. I asked a few people who joined us in the last year about this. Because I think folks in my generation are more focused on the career growth benefits. I see a lot more focus now in younger professionals on finding their purpose, on connecting what they are doing every day to a greater good beyond themselves. I’m encouraged by how people working here see what they are bringing to the table is more qualitative. The conversation has definitely changed.

On the client side or the question, I see a few things that make a difference. The most tangible benefit is how our conversations and constant learning improve the client experience. I have the famous Maya Angela quote posted in my workspace. She said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” That idea really stuck with me and made me think more about how I approach client relationships. Whether you are designing their new space or just conversing with a client about food, the human aspect of it is what builds trust and relationships. As mentors and colleagues at PCA, we talk about the mindset of how we work with clients and how we approach the work. I believe the high percentage of repeat clients, many of them coming to us for decades, is because of this shared, human approach we believe in and practice.

The other intangible with clients is that they see our commitment to improving the community and respecting the views and challenges that are part of what we work on together. The best clients are the ones who want to improve their community and neighborhoods. These clients respect the way we strive to be genuine and authentic, and how we think about helping them by taking a local, grass roots approach to planning and design.

If you’d like to continue this conversation, reach out to Nidhi. She’d love to hear from you!