Vineland High School graduate Richard Olaya, a Philadelphia architect, recently received the AL DÍA News Media Pioneer Award and will be recognized at its 2023 Top Entrepreneurs Forum and Reception on February 24.
AL DÍA News Media is a media company based in Philadelphia that challenges mainstream media stereotypes of the Latino experience in the United States.
Olaya’s entrepreneurial spirit is something that’s been in him from his time growing up in Vineland. He arrived in the U.S. in 1977, and almost immediately moved from Queens to Vineland where he would grow up.
He first discovered his interest for architecture while at Vineland High School, which had an architecture program that developed his early artistic inclination and desire to put things together—whether Lincoln Logs or action figures—into a full-blown passion.
When he got his first job as an architect during a co-op while at Drexel University, he was 19. It was the early 1990s, and he walked into an office as a new, Latino face on Philadelphia’s architecture scene. He was one of the only ones.
As Olaya told AL DÍA in a recent interview, there was “very little diversity”—both in Drexel’s architecture program and in the workplaces he would call home early in his burgeoning career as an architect. One let him go during the nine-month recession between July 1990 and March 1991, but he didn’t let that deter him, and eventually found another co-op and more work in his field of choice.
These days—in 2023—there are still plenty of challenges as a Latino in architecture, but some of the faces in leadership have changed forever.
“There’s a couple old Latino guys now,” Olaya said. “Myself included.”
This year marks Olaya’s 30th year as an architect in Philadelphia.
In those years, he’s worked at big firms, small boutique firms, and on the entrepreneurial side, ran his own firm, Olaya Studio, for 13 years in Philly before merging it with another local studio to create The O Z Collaborative. There, he’s led as one of three principal architects for the last four years.
But before that, he lived the first seven years of his life in the Bogotá neighborhood of Kennedy—named after U.S President John F. Kennedy, who visited the Colombian capital in 1961 and supported the neighborhood’s urbanization movement. It was initially called Ciudad Techo, but was renamed following Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.
It was a “pretty scrappy place,” as described by Olaya, who was raised alongside his three older brothers by his aunt and uncle. Beyond them, the extended family that lived nearby was their early village.
Olaya’s parents left at very early points in his life for the U.S. to create a pathway there for their kids. His dad left when he was two months old, and his mom when he was a year and a half. They set up a base in Queens and took up a number of jobs to save money. His mom was eventually the one who would be sponsored when she worked at a clothing factory. It allowed her to bring Olaya and his brothers to the States.
But there was more to being an architect than met the eye for a young Olaya. For example, when he graduated from Vineland High and wanted to go to school for architecture, he knew nothing about needing a portfolio of work to be accepted.
“We learned the hard way,” said Olaya of one fateful trip he took with his parents to the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, where he was initially hoping to be accepted into its architecture program.
When asked for his portfolio, he didn’t have one.
Olaya’s solution to not having a portfolio was to find a back way in at Drexel, where he applied and first got in to pursue an engineering degree. He followed that for a little more than two years before switching to its architecture program, and eventually graduated in 1998.
During school, he completed a number of co-ops, and they eventually helped him land his first job at Dagit Saylor Architects, the firm of storied Philadelphia architect Charles Dagit Jr., who designed a number of buildings for universities big and small in Philly, and beyond.
Over 30 years, he became a pioneer in Philly architecture by AL DÍA’s standards. His advice for the next generation?
“Empower yourself with the skill sets to be able to do what you enjoy and always network.”
A version of this story first appeared on aldianews.com