Noura Bishay NPB Design Studio
My story is different but built over a series of chapters. These chapters show my evolution, revolution, and power. It is filled with ups and downs but if I could sum it up, I’d say my life represents taking chances and going outside of my comfort zone. Allow me to share just a brief excerpt of my life in four chapters, starting with how I fell in love with architecture, became an architect in Egypt, took the trip to the US and ended up with my second Masters in Social Innovation which woke me up to my social entrepreneurship spirit. My story will show how I found my power and voice, overcame my culture and financial burden, and still have the audacity to dream big.
Chapter one: Falling in Love with Architecture
When I first dreamed of attending architecture school in Egypt, my father flat out told me no. He believed as a woman, I should get married and have children. After fiery negotiations and consistent encouragement of my mother, I entered school, made it on the honor roll and fell in love with architecture. It was here that I learned how architecture creates a positive impact through sustainability, human-centered practice, public interest, and identity. Since day one, I have associated architecture with empowerment and social impact because it freed me from the cultural expectation that my worth comes from being a married woman with children. Architecture is my personal revolution to be a successful, single, woman who changes the narrative and expands the story of what I can be.
Chapter Two: A Female Architect in Egypt
While working at my first firm, Egypt suffered not one, but two revolutions in 2 years. I stayed with my starting salary for 3 years due to a deteriorating economy. I was lucky to keep my job and have a chance to design over 60 projects in 5 years. I lived and thrived when I saw the hidden power of the people shake my nation. I watched as Egypt built its social capital by the people, for the people, and in the name of social justice. I learned that communities heal from designing space customized for their well-being.
Chapter three: My Trip to the US and Visa Issues
I never wanted to leave Egypt, but I was offered $15,000 in scholarship to study my Master’s in Architecture at NewSchool of Architecture and Design in San Diego. My mother pushed me to go outside my comfort zone with a vision to transform and empower communities. During the two-year masters, I studied, worked part-time and found time to volunteer with the American Association of University Women (AAUW), homeless shelters, AIA San Diego and other organizations. I made the dean’s list and received three other scholarships including the AAUW International Fellowship to reduce my financial burden. Shortly before graduation, the doctor found a tumor and the surgery was scheduled for the day, I was meant to present my thesis. I remember the 2-week waiting period to know if it is cancer or benign. Luckily, it wasn’t cancer. Just two weeks after the surgery I presented my thesis. It was here that I decided, I will not leave San Diego until I make it better than when I arrived.
One year ago, I received my Extraordinary Talent Visa for my work in architecture, giving me the freedom to work and start my business in the United States. Before that, my student visa left me with very few and low-income opportunities to support me and my family, and the first firm I worked for laid me off within the first 6 months due to the fees associated with sponsoring a visa. While having a visa is a big issue here in the US that affects thousands of people, nobody speaks about the challenges international students face. We are limited to find work in 2 months and if we don’t, we have to leave the country. If we were lucky to find a job, we are allowed to work for 1 year until we need to be sponsored which is expensive and time-consuming. When I got laid off, I lost everything; my income, medical insurance, visa status, and driving license. If it was not for my dad, I would be homeless. The trauma from getting laid off didn’t stop me but made me unstoppable, fierce, and stronger.
Chapter 4: My Second Master’s in Social Innovation
With a heart focused on social impact, I started my second Masters in Social Innovation. I needed to explore Social Entrepreneurship. The space between where I am and where I want to be is the scariest with no money to feel secure. It felt dangerous, terrifying and confusing until I found my inner voice to tell me “sweetheart, you can do this”.
I knew that San Diego was in the middle of a housing crisis, it took me a while to realize my role in fixing it. According to the City of San Diego, we need more than 15,000 residential units by 2020. Rent is extremely high due to a low rental vacancy rate. When the new housing bill AB68 passed I knew I wanted to open a business designing granny flats / Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), with the knowledge that this extra space could be rented out by families to provide additional income and solve the housing problem. My designs prioritize landscaping to include trees and vegetation, and I always consider the community identity in it. As an immigrant and a woman, however, I was still afraid of the risks. It took me 2 years to believe in myself and one credit card for $5,000 to be a proud owner to NPB Design Studio. I found my voice, the courage to start and walk the talk. My life is mine and I can't be great without empowering others.
In a turn of events, my neighbor asked me to design her an ADU and I accepted. I immediately remembered my passion for design, and I put faith in myself, deciding to jump in and start my business NPB Design Studio in January 2020. Since leaving my comfort zone, a number of opportunities have come my way. My neighbor loved her designs and since then I have shown others my creative, community-centric designs and empowered people to believe that the space we design can promote financial self-sufficiency, environmental sustainability, and community unity. Our social media base continues to grow as homeowners become empowered to reclaim their property for community impact and financial stability. I am in talks with the County of San Diego and multiple town halls such as the City of La Mesa and Lemon Grove.
Opening NPB Design Studio has been a test to put faith in myself and find my calling, but it has absolutely transformed my life. There have been many challenges along the way. Because homeowners are unaware of the long-term benefits of renting, marketing is a must to compete with larger incumbent architecture firms. Three weeks after I began my business, my car was totaled by a reckless driver making it incredibly difficult to conduct necessary inspections for clients. Right now, I am relying on rides to inspect client premises. Despite all of this, San Diego is learning little by little about the power of social impact design within the community. My current goal is to build 100 ADUs in a year for low-income families, making it as affordable and cost-beneficial for them as possible. Through this goal, we will uphold our business vision to leverage physical space where life happens, and create memories utilizing multi-cultural, multi-regional, and international experience.
My life is different, and it might seem extremely hard, but I overcame these challenges and I am now ready for a new chapter in my life. I like myself more as a successful sustainable businesswoman.