Danielle Wyss, MS ’15, woke up and lifted her wrist to look at the buzzing smartwatch. Its small screen lit up with a message: “Congratulations, you’ve improved your sleep average from 3 hours and 52 minutes to 4 hours and 2 minutes.”
Wyss laughed as she got out of bed. It was the week before finals during her Sloan Fellowship at Stanford GSB. She was also in the midst of co-creating an architecture firm and working on seven design projects.
“I kept saying yes to every opportunity, maybe to a fault,” Wyss says. “But here I was, going to business school, and people were passing my name around as an architect more than they ever had before.”
An Architect Drafts a Business Plan
Wyss came to Stanford GSB by way of the mountains. After studying architecture at the University of Washington, Wyss lived in Aspen, Colorado, where she fit in powder runs between drawing plans for high-end houses. When she realized that the clients she worked for were selling the homes for a hefty profit, a light went off.
“I thought, ‘I’m on the wrong end of this thing. I should be on the development side,’” Wyss says. “At 22, I built up my first-ever business plan. I didn't know what I was doing — architecture school doesn’t teach you business. It was the first time the thought of business school entered my mind.”
Wyss headed to the Bay Area, where she launched an online marketplace for sustainable building materials before becoming lead project architect at Fergus Garber Young Architects in Palo Alto at the age of 29. Wyss’s work included the design for a net zero passive house, which uses the minimal amount of energy to heat or cool the structure, and designs for executives’ homes, such as Steve Jobs. Wyss spent many meetings sitting across the table from Silicon Valley tech magnates, acting as designer and consultant when it came to their family home. This time in her life, Wyss says, solidified her desire to leverage these skills she had that reached beyond just the service-industry side of architecture.
During her years at Fergus Garber Young, Wyss’s days consisted of two shifts: designing custom residences during the day and cramming for the GMAT at night. She drafted an application to the Stanford MSx program, but told only one person — the friend who helped proofread her essays. “I didn’t think Stanford GSB would be interested in an architect,” Wyss recalls. But Wyss deliberately headed to Bass Library at the Knight Management Center each evening to study. “I felt like I was shooting for the moon, but figured ‘put yourself in the space where you want to be.’”
Wyss was accepted and started as a Sloan Fellow in 2014, but she still had to complete one last design project. Having left her former firm to attend Stanford GSB, Wyss formed her own – Shift Collaborative, an architectural design studio focused on sustainable design, building technology, and real estate development, with Kelly Kopelson, SU ’98. Wyss tackled the project with a singular focus: “This will help me pay for business school; I’ll do just this one.” But the natural course of networking with classmates and alumni brought more work her way.
By the end of that one year at Stanford GSB, Shift Collaborative had seven projects, including heading the team for the Hyperloop One in Los Angeles. “It was interesting to see that I was validated more as an architect because of the step I took to move away from architecture,” Wyss says.
Question the Social Narrative
Wyss wears tall work boots when reviewing plans with builders on site, and she realizes she’s not the sight they expect. “A construction site is generally filled with men, so if a woman walks on, they assume she’s either the homeowner or the interior designer,” Wyss says. “But I can speak the speak, I can ask the right questions, and I come armed ready to solve problems.”
Drawing Inspiration from Home
Growing up in Nevada, Wyss remembers watching her mother constantly deploy an entrepreneur’s mindset. Judy Wyss paid for her three daughters to go to daycare at a neighbor’s house for a few months before asking herself, “Why am I paying someone else? I can do this.” Her daycare, which she started out of her home 35 years ago, has grown to four locations in Northern Nevada and has seen thousands of children pass through its doors over the years.
“My mom paid for our family the way most people see their dad do it,” Wyss says. “‘Do whatever you want to do to make the life you want happen’ is what was modeled for me from a young age. There were no boundaries; there were no barriers.”
Last year, Wyss had her first child, a daughter, and now tries to work out of her house as much as possible. “I don’t want my daughter to ever feel that there’s a double standard,” Wyss says. “Question everything. And … just go after it. Question the social narrative that suggests that you can’t do something.”
— Jenny Luna