Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, Toi Sullivan had a small inkling of an idea that architecture might be something she would like to pursue as a career.
As a fourth grader, she took part in a week-long career-exploring program. She chose to visit the Joslyn Art Museum, where she brought her camera to record some of the works of art. When she was finished, she realized a strange fact.
She had more pictures of the museum building itself than anything else.
“I had pictures of the building but not the actual art,” Sullivan said recently.
It was there a seed was planted that would grow into a genuine interest, then an academic pursuit and finally, a career that has seen her rise to a leadership position at FEH Design, an architecture and engineering firm with offices in Iowa and Wisconsin that traces its roots back to 1898. She was recently named a vice president with the firm, the first female vice president in the more than 120-year history of the company.
Her journey took her from Omaha to Mitchell, where she moved with her parents Barb and Earl Vandever in 1978. With both parents being Mitchell natives, there was plenty of family nearby to share meals with, and they settled into life in the community. Her parents operated Firesteel Waterbeds in downtown Mitchell, and her mother also worked for what is now Avera Queen of Peace Hospital.
And she was a high school student with an interest in buildings, art and painting.
“I loved art, drawing and painting. I was very passionate about that, but I also loved math. I was in all of the advanced math classes they offered. I guess I decided that architecture would be a good combination of those,” Sullivan said.
She took drafting classes at Mitchell High School, and she enjoyed them, though she noted she was the only girl in those classes of about 15 students. Still, she continued on with her interests and graduated from MHS in 1986. She spent a year at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, where she initially pursued an engineering degree but transferred to North Dakota State University and switched to studying architecture.
And she stuck with it. She earned a bachelors in environmental design as well as a bachelors in architecture. She enjoyed college and the Fargo community in general, but she encountered a bit of bad luck as graduation neared.
“Shortly before I graduated college, they told us that this was the biggest architecture class ever, and 'We’re kind of in a slump out there, so good luck finding a job,'” Sullivan said. “In those days, you didn’t hear about the trends or any of that going into that last year, but there it was. There weren’t a lot of jobs available.”
So she took a detour and dived straight into a job working for Helzberg Diamonds, where she served in a number of positions, including store manager. She and her husband, Brad, another Mitchell High School graduate, started a family and soon two daughters joined them. And while she was grateful for her position in retail, the intense responsibilities took her away from her family more than she would have liked.
“I decided I needed to be done. I quit with no job and no prospects,” Sullivan said. “At that time, it was pre-internet, so everybody shopped in person. Thanksgiving would come and I would work every day until Christmas and the day after, no questions asked, from open to close every day.”
It took her a month and a few interviews before she landed an interview at FEH. And while she lacked working experience, she kept an open mind, expressed an interest in learning as she went and a dedication to finally pursuing her original dream. She made a good impression, and a reference from one of her former bosses helped get the deal done, because she carried the reputation as a hard worker.
"If they asked me to do something and I didn’t have any experience, I was never afraid to give it a shot," Sullivan said. "You can’t be, or you're not going to make yourself any better.”
She has since turned that successful interview into more than 20 years with the firm, taking point on the design for many school, libraries and medical clinics, including the Terrace View Events Center in Sioux Center, Iowa and the Warrior Hotel in Sioux City, Iowa.
She said she enjoys working with clients to bring their vision to life, even if those clients don’t always know exactly what their vision is in the first place.
“The thing I enjoy about all the projects I work on is not only the outcome, the end result, but the people I get to meet. The clients. Many that I’ve worked with I consider friends,” Sullivan said. “That’s really rewarding to me, meeting someone who has something in mind for a building they need to create, and me being able to pull that out of their mind and interpret it.”
She also takes pride in the design work she has done for churches. As a center for spiritual and social communities, church members often have a strong bond with their church building, and that can require special care in making sure her design meets the needs of the congregation at large.
“I’ve done a lot of work with churches, and that is incredibly rewarding. You take the needs of a large group of people and find a way to respect their needs and the dollars they have and come up with something that in the end that services them,” Sullivan said. “A church is an extension of their home. Every one of those people owns that building. They have a stake in it.”
And there are more projects on the way. She is currently working on designs for the Telco Triad Community Credit Unit in Sioux City, Iowa, Sioux City Endodontics and Gehlen Catholic School in Le Mars, Iowa.
Sullivan took a circuitous route to achieving her dream, but she thrived when she was given the chance at a time when she needed a change. She has risen to a position that, even as recently as 20 years ago, was not commonly occupied by a woman, and she knows that others, whomever they may be, can achieve similar results by hunkering down and not being afraid to soldier on in the face of the unknown.
“As a woman, I had to come in and prove that I understood that I knew what the guys were talking about. There was nothing malicious about that, you just had to prove that you could stand on the same ground and answer the same questions. It’s really just a matter of not shying away from those challenges. I had to step up and take them, because nobody was going to do it for me. I had to do it for myself.”
She still comes back to Mitchell to visit family and friends on occasion. Two years ago, she was in town and happened to see the demolition of the historic buildings at Third Avenue and Main Street. Long a point of downtown controversy, the buildings came down after a portion of one collapsed and forced a street closure due to the public safety issue it caused.
It was sad to see the buildings, with so much history and having provided so much service to the community of the years, come down, she said.
“It was everything I could do not to crawl up on the rubble and grab a piece of terra cotta,” Sullivan said.
For her, it is now time to build, not demolish. And she plans to keep doing so whenever she and her colleagues and a client can get together with a vision and the will to get the job done.
“I’m very much about the fact that I would not be where I’m at without the people I work with. I 110% believe that. It’s very much about building up everyone around me to make the whole team and company better,” Sullivan said.