La Catedral Metropolitana is a masterpiece. Built over a period of about 250 years, the church towers over the Plaza del Zócalo in Mexico City. With two bell towers and sixteen chapels, the landmark is an architectural marvel. Most tourists remember gilded altars and ornate sculptures. Isabel Fermoso Thompson remembers smaller details: the feel of a cool limestone wall, and the contrast of crimson and oak.
As a young girl, Fermoso Thompson attended mass at the Cathedral and spent many afternoons wandering through ancient buildings nearby. When her family relocated to Northern California, a growing interest in art and architecture took her to places like San Francisco’s de Young museum. “I grew up in beautiful cities full of amazing spaces to discover,” she says. “I not only saw remarkable buildings but also noticed how each detail made me feel.”
Today, Fermoso Thompson unites those experiences in her efforts to create modern workspaces for her colleagues at Uber. In many ways, the role as a global program manager of space and design is a dream job that fuses her passion and personality—but landing the influential position at America’s top rideshare company took drive and perseverance.
Art classes gave the young Fermoso Thompson an outlet and helped her bridge a language gap after her family returned to the United States in her adolescent years. Her talent grew, and by the time she was entering her senior year at an all-girls school, she wanted to study design and architecture. There was just one problem—traditional gender roles stood in her way. “Everyone told me that architecture was for boys and interior design was for girls,” says Fermoso Thompson, who notes that, even today, studies such as the CREW Network Benchmark Study have found that women comprise less than 37 percent of the workforce in the commercial real estate industry.
That’s when she made an important discovery. The local all-boys school offered architecture courses and accepted female students through a tri-school program. She enrolled without telling her parents.
Heads turned as the budding architect, a tall volleyball player, entered the school in her uniform skirt and took her place as one of two girls in a class of thirty-five. Despite the looks she received, she remained undeterred. “I realized then that sometimes, women working in a man’s world just have to block out the noise and keep moving forward,” she says.
As Fermoso Thompson continued to pursue her interest, social pressures and a lack of mentors threatened to deter her. She took the “safe” route and entered UC Santa Barbara as a business major before making the late switch to art history and architecture, with a minor in communications, during her junior year. She needed to catch up and build experience in her field quickly, so she printed a stack of résumés and visited local firms to ask for a job in person. “Most of the receptionists and directors, if I even got a chance to meet with them, didn’t exactly laugh, but nobody wanted to hire me without any experience,” she recalls.
Fermoso Thompson had resigned herself to working for an on-campus catering and food service company when her phone rang. One of the firms she visited offered her a summer internship. She ultimately stayed on to work full-time with one of the firm’s top designers and gained invaluable experience with well-known hospitality clients.
Life and work took off from there. The young professional graduated, kept her job at the firm, and started a master’s program. Soon, at just twenty-four years old, she was coordinating with vendors and municipalities to manage $5 million-dollar budgets as a project manager for a Bay Area construction company, gaining great insight into the architecture and construction industry as a whole and making a name for herself in a field where only 27 percent of workers are women and 8.7 percent are Latino, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
She then spent a year gaining retail experience as a global store designer for Levi Strauss & Co. There, Fermoso Thompson developed furniture standards, revised floor plans, and helped create designs to standardize retail stores. Next, she decided to become fully licensed as an architect. As she did back in college, Fermoso Thompson printed out her résumé to drop off in person. This time, however, she approached companies armed with deep experience and a broad portfolio. A firm in the East Bay hired her on the spot.
When the young executive eventually joined Uber in 2016, the red-hot company was struggling to accommodate its rapidly growing workforce. Annual revenues were up from $1.5 billion to $6.5 billion. In just one quarter, gross bookings skyrocketed 28 percent. With office space at a premium, some employees were sitting on folding chairs and working out of hastily rented space in local strip malls. Uber needed a new and cohesive employee experience.
Previous work in commercial, real estate, and retail projects—combined with a minor in communications—helped the global program manager hit the ground running. She stepped into the Workplace Design and Experience team to establish global build standards for all corporate and public-facing spaces.
Five years later, the team at Uber has developed a 150-page document to guide its global space and design program. The executive and her team are hard at work figuring out how to transition Uber back to the workplace after the COVID-19 pandemic. Some insiders think the corporate workplace is dead. Modern workers accustomed to working from home are too scared to return, they say. Fermoso Thompson disagrees. Workers will come back if designers provide the right space.
“After the year we have all had, we need connection more than ever, and I want to give my colleagues spaces they are going to feel safe in—but also experiences that they will remember,” she says. Memorable spaces are full of small, interesting details, the Uber executive explains. Details that linger in the mind—like the feel of a cool limestone wall—and details that promise a different future in the years to come.