A Woman of Substance

A Woman of Substance

During #womenshistorymonth, I’ve been telling stories about women in leadership within the A+D realm. Initially, I focused on the design professions, and then I profiled one of my long-term friends and business partners, Nancy Egan of New Voodou.

Today, I’m shining my spotlight on Gail Gabriel, who has been both a close friend and business partner for more than 50 years. As we have grown up together, she has made a truly remarkable contribution to the design profession, and to her family and community as well.

In the Beginning

Like me, Gail grew up in the world of architecture and design, working initially for the U.S. Postal Service within their A/E/C division. She began working in the design sector in 1968, when she joined the firm of Rockrise Odermatt Mountjoy Amis (now ROMA Design Group) in San Francisco. George T. Rockrise, FAIA, ASLA, AICP was an American architect, landscape architect, and urban planner of Japanese descent who had started the firm after WWII, and he was still very actively involved.

It was a remarkable time in the A/E/C industry, because we were coming out of the 1968 recession, and the entire industry was in expansion mode.

Growth of the Profession

In those days, A+D firms didn’t have much infrastructure — electric computers didn’t have correction features or memory; bookkeeping was still being done with pencils and paper; automated accounting was starting up and automated specifications were in their infancy, so firms were beginning to use “dumb terminals” to access off-site computer servers. Few firms had dedicated marketers, and often, the person doing marketing was a secretary or librarian who maintained the firm’s slide library.

In addition, there had been recent legal decisions that changed the playing field in terms of how architects and engineers got work. (Learn more here.) It was a heady period for A+D and a wonderful time to take on leadership responsibilities in a growing practice.

In 1970, the AIA Chapter in San Francisco had a wonderful executive vice president, Marie Farrell. She was a dynamo, devoting 30 years to the growth and development of the Chapter and its influence. One day, Marie was contacted by Virginia Hansen, an administrative manager at NBBJ in Seattle. Virginia was a member of an organization called the “Architectural Secretaries Association” (ASA) that was loosely affiliated with the AIA, holding their annual conference at the same time as the AIA National Convention. The AIA Convention was coming to San Francisco, and an ASA leadership group wanted to start a chapter there. Marie reached out to a handful of women in administrative management roles with AIA/SF member firms.

The next thing I knew, I had met Gail, and a small group of us began organizing a chapter, with Marie’s support and counsel. We built membership, programs, and advocacy for the organization, both locally and nationally. Gail became National President in 1977, and she championed the idea of creating an official affiliation with the American Institute of Architects (AIA). She presented an initiative to the National AIA Board of Directors, who moved forward by allowing Gail to present the initiative to the Delegates in the opening business session of the 1978 National Convention. Gail and other ASA leaders continued to work with AIA President Elmer E. Botsai FAIA to draft an affiliation agreement between ASA and AIA, which was approved by the AIA Board of Directors in December 1978.

The new organization became the Society for Design Administration (now SDA), which continues to be a resource for education and best practices in management and professional standards of design administration.

SMPS was established in 1974. In 1976, I joined a new organization for C-Suite leaders in the A/E industry, focused on business management and enterprise expansion: PSMA — the Professional Services Management Association (which later became the Association of A/E Business Leaders).

The A/E industry now had three professional organizations, for three different career pathways: SDA for office management, SMPS for marketing, and PSMA for business management.

The Next Chapter

In 1974, after working at SOM San Francisco as an administrative manager, I joined Robinson and Mills as their business manager. In 1978, in their first ownership transition program, I became a partner in the firm, now called Robinson Mills & Williams (RMW).

I had met Weld Coxe in 1977, and of course, I introduced Gail to him as well. The idea of “marketing” was new to the entire industry. Weld literally wrote the book and defined a new role within the A/E/C industry — the “marketing coordinator.”  The role was so new that The Coxe Group developed a “clinic” (workshop) for people who were taking it on.

Gail was ready for a new challenge, and in 1979, she joined me at RMW in our first official marketing position. She attended one of the early Marketing Coordinator Clinics and had the opportunity of working directly with Weld, who had become an advisor to RMW. She joined the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) and subsequently became President of the San Francisco Chapter.

During her eight-year tenure at RMW, Gail became the Marketing Director and was recognized as an Associate in the firm.

Work-Life Balance

Gail has always had clear goals and objectives for herself, both personally and professionally. She had married a wonderful architect (with whom she had worked at ROMA), and he had subsequently joined RMW, too. They were blessed with a daughter, and Gail blended her career with family life. She once more realigned her priorities. She resigned from RMW, intending to begin working part-time.

She initially worked with two of the best marketers in SF — Margaret Spaulding and Sandy D’Elia. In 1987, I left The Coxe Group to start my own consulting practice, with Frank O. Gehry (now Gehry Partners) as a client. I talked her into joining me as a partner, with as much flexibility as she wanted. She agreed — thankfully for me — and we were in business together.

This not only allowed her to work from home (and be home for her family), but also to pursue other dreams. Over the past 30 years, as Gail and I worked together, she was able to travel — sometimes on business, and sometimes for the pure pleasure of it with friends and family.


Gail Gabriel, Taj Mahal, Agra, India

She also developed a career in modeling and acting. We are thrilled to see her in fashion magazines and advertisements, as well as the occasional walk-on in a film or TV show.

Gail Gabriel

Gail has always been actively involved with her church and is currently co-chair of the Social Justice Team, which includes activities such as tutoring young people and helping immigrant families adjust to a new way of life. During the pandemic, she pulled out her sewing machine and “stash” of fabric and produced face masks for front-line workers. Through her church, she also organized food and clothing drives throughout two East Bay counties.


Face masks for front-line workers, crafted by Gail Gabriel during the COVID-19 pandemic

In addition to everything else, Gail enjoys gardening and has been helping with it at her church. Just last week, she shared her guest blog post — Gaining a New Perspective.

The Next Act

Gail is a true woman of substance, in every sense of the word. She retired from the Talentstar practice in 2019, but she is still connected to us in spirit, if not in daily presence.

We have been able to see each other in person a few times during the pandemic, and one day soon, when we are able to get together again, we will once again celebrate the love, affection, admiration, and respect that we share.

Jerry, Gail, and Alene Gabriel

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