Jessica Fougner’s dynamic career in architecture has taken her from brand to brand and industry to industry. However, architecture was not the first path she had in mind.
“From an early age, art was my escape and true joy in life,” Fougner recalls. “But my mother, who was born in Puerto Rico, grew up with nothing and tried to instill in us the idea that we always needed to be able to take care of ourselves. So she was not very excited about her youngest daughter considering an art career.”
Fortunately, a high school internship with local architect introduced Fougner to the field that allowed her to express her creativity and honor her mother’s teachings at the same time. That early role set Fougner on a trajectory that has seen her build brands and physical spaces alike, all while honing her skills as a female leader in the male-dominated world of design and construction.
After discovering her passion in high school, Fougner went on to study architecture in college. She quickly realized that being a woman—and a Latina—was not the norm in her program. “There were probably 10 females for every 35 males,” she says. “Architecture school was so competitive, especially as a female, but it gave me this feeling like I wanted to prove myself.”
Fougner didn’t hesitate to act on that sentiment. She took a job with architect Martin Vahtra that brought her into contact with big-name hospitality clients like chef and restaurateurs Charlie Palmer and Wolfgang Puck.
Having caught the hospitality bug, Fougner went on to join international restaurant chain Le Pain Quotidien. Amid the brand’s expansion, she put together and submitted a successful bid to convert a former hotdog and hamburger stand in a New York City landmark into a new Le Pain location.
“I got the chance to put a restaurant in the middle of Central Park, which is phenomenal to say out loud,” she explains. And, since the park touches numerous neighborhoods, she was able to interact with community boards all around the city—another first for her.
Fougner’s time at Le Pain was formative in more ways than one. “I was lucky to have an amazing mentor there in Tracy McIntosh, who helped me realize that women have the opportunity to do whatever we hope to accomplish in our careers,” Fougner elaborates. “I saw that my gender and cultural upbringing were not limitations, but assets.”
As she moved on to subsequent roles in the restaurant and fitness industries, Fougner developed a leadership model that combined delegation with a willingness to get her hands dirty. “Although I have high expectations on deliverables, I firmly believe that it is only through mistakes that team members are able to learn and grow,” she adds. “I try to empower my team members to think independently and feel confident in their decision making,”
Today, Fougner relies on her diverse architecture experience to mentor internal team members. Her hands-on leadership style extends to external partners as well. “I’ve worked with startups where I’m the only one on the team internally,” she says. “But I have consultants and other people who still constitute a team that I’m able to leverage. When I’m dealing with external teams, I really try to make sure they understand that they are part of a team.”
Fougner’s vendor relationships proved invaluable at Fithouse, a fitness startup where she was responsible for all things related to the brand. “I created everything, from the logo to the branding statement,” she says. “I was involved in every single aspect of that brand’s creation, and as an architect, I couldn’t have imagined getting that kind of opportunity.”
On a short timeframe and a tight budget, Fougner was able to open multiple Fithouse locations in New York City. Difficult as it was, the experience helped prepare her for an even greater challenge: the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Working through COVID in the design and construction world has been completely different from anything else I’ve experienced in my career,” Fougner emphasizes. Even so, she managed to complete 12 sites for fitness brand [solidcore] in 2020, despite being the sole internal team member on the projects.
As COVID pressures ease, Fougner plans to put lessons from both the pandemic and her career at large to good use by tackling ground-up developments in the construction arena. She also plans to share her story through speaking engagements, in the hope of inspiring others and fostering a sense of community among women in the field.
For her own inspiration, Fougner need look no further than her work. “It still drives me to be able to look at a space, think about what it could be, and then see the project through to the end,” she says. “That’s what is so lovely about design, construction, and architecture.”