"I'm so sorry I'm late," Pamela Abalu exclaims as she walks in the MetLife headquarters cafeteria with a beaming smile. She's younger-looking than one might expect of the person who oversees all building projects for the insurance giant's global empire of offices. And she's impossibly tall thanks to the platform stiletto pumps that peek out beneath her white trousers. She apologizes for getting held up in a meeting then sits next to me at the lunch table with rapt attention.
Abalu has the sort of magnetism that transforms a room, and as one of less than 300 female African- American licensed architects in the United States, she's used to catching people off guard.
"There's not a lot of people like me in the industry," she notes. "I come in and a lot of people don't expect it. It's kind of like stepping outside the box." Fortuitously, she says, convincing people to embrace the unexpected is part of her job. She serves as the company's representative in new building projects. Abalu acts as liaison between executives and architects -- she oversees the designers and makes their plans clear to MetLife's leaders. But she's also there to challenge her bosses' notions of what an office building should look like.
"Don't go with the status quo because it's the easy thing to do," she says of her mission. "We should really think about the people who are going to really be here in 10 years. What are they going to be doing?"
Abalu says she imagines employees born in 2001 when she considers a workplace under construction today. But how do you know what they'll want? I ask her.
"We know," she answers quickly with a grin.
"I think the whole concept of an office and a workstation is going away," she says. She wants to establish workplaces where people can work from any location throughout the building. Abalu highlights touches like raised floor systems that allow outlets to be moved to various locations throughout the room and movable glass-panel walls that permit easy re-partitioning of space.
"Let's be sure," she says of her future office denizens, "if they choose to work in a garden adjacent to the building, that there's WiFi capability and comfortable informal seating. If they choose to work at the cafe, that they have USB ports there. If they choose to work in a conference room versus an office, that there's no restriction if they want to get up and write something really quickly on a wall."
Abalu became head of global design and construction at MetLife two years ago after representing corporate clients in construction projects at Perkins+Will, a global architecture firm.
"What I've been very successful at doing," she acknowledges, "is communicating to [executives] that it's not about me or my idea, it's about you. It's about saving money, flexibility, adaptability and doing the right thing for your business."
Abalu credits her nomadic childhood for her ability to drop in to any situation and win people over. As the daughter of a Nigerian diplomat, she and her family moved countries nearly every two years. "I am one of those people with no childhood friends," she says. "And I didn't really enjoy it growing up. But [now I see] it was really a gift. Because I grew up everywhere, I can really fit in everywhere."
She particularly remembers frustration over her curriculum options as an 11-year-old student in a Nigerian boarding school.
"What happened was if you got really good grades you would be put in a science class. You were supposed to become an engineer or a doctor, that's just how it worked. And if you got like medium grades or bad grades you were put in an art class. And I was kind of like, 'I am not okay with this! I want to do science and I want to do art.'"
Do I sense that she was a rebellious child? "No," she laughs. "I was actually a nerd, I still am. But I would be like, 'But I don't understand, it doesn't make sense to me.' And I just kept asking all these questions. And other people started asking questions. And ultimately they let us take our science and art classes."
Soon after, Abalu discovered the field of architecture, which also allowed her to incorporate art and science. She finished her education in boarding schools in Ethiopia and London while penciling floor plans in her sketchbooks. At Iowa State, her father's alma mater, she received her bachelor's degree in architecture.
After stints as an architect in a civil engineering firm and as a project manager at Callison, another large architecture firm, Abalu says she had no qualms moving away from the drawing pad and into the more client-oriented, real estate-focused side of architecture she's done for Perkins+Will and MetLife.
"I'm not getting to do the grunt work," she says, "but I'm directing the work. At the end of the day, I have a vision and I'm trying to direct it for others to put it together. It allows me to work on two dozen projects at once versus dedicating two years to one building."
Abalu's work now takes her from Mexico City to Seoul, to Dubai, to Riyadh, to Dublin. And while she admits she's become a bit travel-weary, she says she enjoys arriving at new places with her colleagues. Given the prevalence of men of a certain color and a certain age in corporate real estate, her team at MetLife bucks that norm. "You have this African girl," she says referencing herself, "you have this Indian girl, this woman in her 50s, this guy from Brazil. It's such an unexpected group, and I have to tell you, it's so exciting.
"I always say to my team," she says, "we want people to walk into a workplace and say, 'I love coming here.' That's the goal. It's not about building it and leaving, it's about having the inhabitants of the space enjoy it."
"I try not to take myself seriously," she says. "And with my profession and what I do I feel like I've been called to serve. It's kind of like, how can I make your life better by building a better space for you? And that keeps me grounded. Because it's not about me or a space for me. I'm here to serve you so I need to make sure I have everything I need to serve you."
The fact that she gets to do this all around the globe provides another reference to her multinational childhood, she says. "It's come full circle," she says, nodding triumphantly.