An Interview With Erica Ostendorf Mullins
Director of Interior Design, Erica Ostendorf Mullins is always ready to take a seat at the table. Erica started her interior design career in a paint supply store. She joined Strang’s board of directors this year and is the firm’s first female principal.
We recently sat down with Erica, hoping to hear the story of her professional career and industry advice.
Erica’s work. National Guardian Life Headquarters, Eurofins Food Solutions, Frank Productions (left to right).
What is the biggest challenge that you've had to overcome in your professional career?
I have always been a self-starter and am quick to volunteer to assist with tasks or projects outside of my expertise. I attribute a lot of my career progression to this. With growth and new responsibilities come new challenges and one of those challenges has been feelings of imposter syndrome. When I’ve been overwhelmed with new duties it’s easy to sink into the feeling that I might not be the right person for the job. My mentors and those who supported me always recognized my potential and encouraged me not to doubt myself. At this point, I’ve persevered through enough professional challenges that I know I can accomplish anything I put my mind to and some bumps along the road are ok.
Another challenge I’ve overcome was starting my career at the tail end of the recession. The opportunities for inexperienced designers were slim which meant that I needed to take opportunities wherever they were. Having graduated with a couple of internship experiences under my belt, the first professional job I was able to find was as an associate at a paint store. Unexpectedly, it ended up being a job that I loved; I learned a lot about coatings and color during this experience that I still use daily. I eventually found my way into the architectural and interiors industry, and am thankful for the unexpected route that got me here.
I’m extremely proud that these challenges have led me to a leadership position at Strang—the Director of Interior Design and as the first female board member. I enjoy mentoring others in their career to help them reach their goals while continuing to push myself. All the challenges in my career have led me to always take the opportunity offered and do what I can with it. We are more capable than we know.
Strang’s Interiors team at the IIDA awards
What are you most proud of so far in your professional career?
I am most proud of who I am today and that I continue to push myself to be the best version of myself that I can be. I am proud that my hard work and dedication led me to a principal position at Strang, but I am even more proud that I recently made the decision to go back to school part-time for my MBA.
Becoming a principal was a huge milestone in my career. There have been people along the way that told me an Interior Designer would never be a Principal or more recently that I would only be given this opportunity because I’m a woman. There are always going to be people who try to knock you down and the only thing you can do is persevere and prove them wrong. To be recognized for my efforts and be given the opportunity to direct and influence our organization is such a reward.
I also hope that this will continue to inspire other women and interior designers at our company to work towards leadership positions. However, it is important to recognize that this is not the end goal for me. I will always look for new challenges and improvements so that I can lead and grow with the company.
What was your very first job? What did the experience teach you?
The very first job I had was as a sales associate at the Packers Pro Shop at Lambeau Field. I worked this job from the time I turned 16 until my sophomore year in college.
This was a great first job, and I have so many fond memories of the people I worked with and the customers I served. Working game weekends, where everything was turned up to 100, taught me how to handle pressure and provide customer service during stressful times. During these busy weekends, I especially learned the skill of triage—how to assess and prioritize my tasks when being pulled in multiple directions.
Working at the Pro Shop also taught me how to work with a variety of people (yes that includes Bears and Vikings fans) and handle stressful situations in a professional way. A huge component of my job is problem-solving and resolution. I truly believe my first job helped me build a foundation in these essential skills.
A small thing I also learned from my first job was that if you want to be promoted or move up in your career you need to be an advocate for yourself and say something to your manager. You can’t expect people to know what you want without telling them.
My first time asking for a raise was nerve-wracking. I did not have my yearly review because I was away at college, when I returned for the summer, I quickly realized that my hourly wage was the same as the previous year. I had carefully considered the skills and experience I brought to the job and made the determination that I was worth more than I was being paid for. I raised the issue to my supervisor, and she quickly realized it was an oversight and gave me a raise. Looking back, it’s also a good lesson that some mistakes are just oversights, and it’s always good practice to ask questions before getting upset.
The skills and experience from this job are what helped me build my professional and client service experience and will continue to benefit me throughout my career.
Hana Altabbaa and Erica at Habitat for Humanity
What is the best piece of business advice that you've ever received?
The best piece of business advice I ever received was from Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In. The title itself was the key point that I’ve used throughout my career—to not just sit at the table but to lean in. If you’re in a meeting there is a reason for you to be there, so don’t be afraid to act like it. Most importantly, don’t make yourself small.
The advice from this book has influenced how I hold myself in meetings, how I make my voice heard, and how I lean into my work. I attribute this mentality to why I was able to grow in my career and achieve my current leadership role.
Lastly, do you have any hobbies?
I tend to seek out hobbies that spark my creativity and bring me joy. My hobby of thrifting and refinishing furniture also has the added benefit of saving money. I’m always on the hunt for good pieces. There’s nothing like seeing the potential in a piece of “junk” at a flea market and being able to turn it into a new, unique piece. My house is filled with my own DIY projects and it’s such a good feeling to surround yourself with pieces that you’ve had a hand in creating.
If you’d like to chat with Erica, get in touch with her on LinkedIn.