Realizing her American dream

srygley-anna-castro-webAna Maria Castro was inspired to co-found her business, JRS Architects, because of her entrepreneur father Camillo.

“Ever since I was a little girl, he was always saying ‘If you want control over your life and control over your destiny, have your own company’,” she recalls.

The family moved the United States from Mexico City when Castro was in first grade. Camillo would go on to found a telecommunications business buying obsolete technology in America, reselling the items and providing support in Latin and South American countries where the electronics were unknown. He would tell Castro and her siblings that they could achieve the ‘American Dream’ through hard work. Castro recalls him saying “Business is based on trust and in order for people to want to do business with you, they need to trust you. In order for people to trust you, you have to be trustworthy.”

Growing up, Castro was fascinated by the whole process of making things, but she didn’t feel she had strong enough math skills to go into architecture. She earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in English from Auburn University. While teaching freshman English at North Carolina State University, the campus building next door offered a graduate architecture program that students could enter with varying degrees. “It was something I always wanted to do,” she said.

Her first job at an architectural firm was not as an architect. She was hired to work in the marketing department because they saw her writing talent. But the experience, she notes, helped teach her how to land projects and clients.

After working as an architect at several different firms, Castro with her partner John Srygley, founded the Baltimore-based JRS Architects in 1993. At the time, the country was still feeling the effects of a recession from 1990 to 1991. Starting a business during this timeframe, Castro believes, helped contribute to her company’s success because they have been able to survive difficult economic upheavals including the Great Recession (2007-2009) and now during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The firm started by taking on small projects like handicap access ramps from clients that owned multiple large properties in the Baltimore area. They were able to gradually increase the size and scope of their projects by making connections and positive referrals.

“The way you get work is by knowing people,” she said. “You don’t get work on paper. You get work because you know people and the best way to get to know people is to do things you love. Volunteer, (be active in the community), do what you love and meet as many people as you can because it really is about building a network.”

In 27 years, the firm has never laid anyone off as they have strived to make sure a good, steady workflow is always coming in. Their portfolio focuses on educational, worship, commercial and historic preservation/restoration properties. Their work may be seen throughout Charm City including ventures at the Western District Police Station, Baltimore Library Project and the Archdiocese of Baltimore headquarters.

Architecture is a collaborative endeavor with staff working together face-to-face toward a common goal, sharing ideas with back and forth communication. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the firm pivoting into a digital remote work environment, but Castro has been pleased by the way her team has handled the change.

Before the pandemic, Castro had not been as open to a flexible work environment and instead preferred staff in the office and having daily contact with her and the team.

“I think what I have learned from this (pandemic) is that people are going to work just as hard, probably harder and just as efficiently,” she said. “People are committed to their job. Flexibility is a good thing. … My staff really does care very much about what they do. They have done everything they need to do to make sure to keep all projects alive and everything moving forward with the same care and standard that we are used to providing our clients.”

If quarantine has taught folks anything, it is that a person’s space, whether home or office, matters and can have a positive transformative effect on an individual’s mood. When taking on projects, Castro and her staff aim to not only change the physical environment but also provide their best work.

“I really believe in what we do,” she said. “I think architecture can make a huge difference.”

Minority Business/Expanding Opportunities 2020 cover

Expanding Opportunities

This article is featured in the 2020 edition of The Daily Record’s Expanding Opportunities Resource Guide for Small, Minority and Women Businesses. Published in conjunction with the Governor’s Office of Small, Minority & Women Business Affairs, Expanding Opportunities explores diversity, entrepreneurship and innovation in Maryland’s small business community. Read more from Expanding Opportunities on this website or read the digital edition.

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