How to make gravy, Ep. 4

SDAF is held together by an amazing team of volunteers, supported by just a few part-time staff members. The majority of our programs are organized & curated over many months’ worth of late night collaborative sessions, long email chains, and so on. Every now and then, in the mayhem of it all, we make the odd mistake and I’ll be the first to put my hand up and admit it, and then go about making it right.

During the chaos of COVID-19 & our 2020 Orchids & Onions program (which otherwise was a wonderful success & much kudos to the whole team who put that on!), we forgot to thank one of our valued annual partners, which included us leaving off their logo as well as verbal recognition which all other partners received. Not only was that annual partner, The Lighting Element, a long-time partner of SDAF, it is also the company of SDAF’s Treasurer, Maddy Kent MacElwee.

Maddy has been with SDAF for several years as a volunteer, Director and Treasurer and I wanted to use this week’s blog post to share some love for Maddy & the team at The Lighting Element for being part of SDAF and for standing with us as we all do our very best.

So this week I tasked a former SDAF volunteer & Designer at DBRDS, Mikaela Rosvall with interviewing Maddy to find out what makes her tick & what The Lighting Element is up to. Here is that interview…


(MR): Why lighting? What attracted you to the lighting industry?


(MM): That’s a good question. I actually stumbled into it. I was a single Mom—I had my daughter when I was seventeen—and I had been working restaurant jobs. I went to a job placement agency and they put me in the position of helping with the warehouse and doing office assistant work for a lighting agency in Seattle when I lived up there. Then I just worked my way up in that company and got promoted to inside sales and then I moved to San Diego, back home—I’m from here…Once you get into it, that’s what you start to know. Then I learned a lot about lighting; I went into quotations and then I went into specification sales. I’ve just been doing it since I was a wee lass. I actually didn’t go to college. Since I was a single Mom, I just worked my way up in the industry.


(MR): When you first began your career in lighting in 1990, did you envision that you would one day be the CEO of your own company? Was this a career goal of yours?


(MM): No. It’s funny because when I was working in the restaurant industry and I wanted to get an office position—when I would see people in office positions, even just warehouse managers—I thought “I’m smarter than these people, and I know I can do this and that if I just get a chance to show myself…not to belittle other people…but I’m just as smart and I can do that”. I did not picture myself, I thought maybe outside sales, but I never thought that I would be a CEO. I always knew that I would make my own money and I always knew I would be successful. I always thought “I’m not going to depend on a man for my money.” I always pictured myself at this age, making my own money and doing really well. I just knew that I would, but I just never saw myself as being CEO of my own lighting company.


(MR): What challenges do you face as a woman and as a CEO in this industry (if any)?


(MM): Yes. I do face challenges. It is a male dominated industry and I am more on the construction side. I have faced a lot of sexism. When I was an inside sales person and quotes manager I wrote a letter to one of my managers explaining and detailing all the things I had done, how I had taken projects and made them more profitable, and the manager in my one-on-one meeting said “Nice letter your husband wrote for you”. So that is one example, but just in general as CEO there are things that I face that a man would never face. Putting my foot down and being assertive, I’m often told that I’m flying off the handle—when I’m not, I’m just being a strong CEO.

I’ve been called a bulldog, I’ve had my face on dart boards and I’ve put up with a lot of “man-club” stuff that has been difficult, but I believe that if you just keep your head down and move forward and take the high road that eventually that will be nonsense. A couple years after I started the Lighting Element, my husband joined the company. He was working in LA as a salesman and now I have him deal with all of the contractors and distributors. Why do I need to fight that fight if they want to hear it from a man, I don’t need to fight it, he [my husband] can just…Sometimes we strategize on when he calls somebody and when I call somebody.

Even though I would love to change the world and would love to change that, you know…One thing that I do with companies that we represent is that when they are speaking about a project, and they say things like “so, when the contractor…”, “he does this” and “he does that”, “mister owner does this” and “mister this does that” and always referring to the male gender. Now that I’m CEO, I say “…are there any women contractors?”, “If there is a woman, could they install it?” I encourage people to use the term “folks” and “they” instead of “he” and “she” and “mister owner” and “mister engineer” because we can’t leave fifty percent of the population out, you know.    

(MR): What would you say is the most important thing to think about when designing with and specifying lighting?


(MM): I would say the most important thing is how the lighting makes everything else look. Unless you’re looking for a decorative fixture that is a piece that you’re going to look at, I think the lighting is often more important when you don’t see the lighting and you just notice how great everything else looks. I also think it’s important to layer lighting: If everything is lit with the same amount of illumination, that’s a target, or a 7/11. If you layer the lighting where you have bright spots and dark spots and more contrast, it looks much richer—Imagine a landscape where the palm trees are brightly lit and there’s a lot more varied levels of illumination—I think that is very important. My biggest thing is that you don’t see where the lighting is coming from, you just see the impact that it makes.

…Just putting the lighting in the right place is important…what is the surface? You would never want to graze a drywall wall, because if the drywall is not perfect you would see every imperfection. So what kind of surface are you lighting, and then spacing [the lighting] properly is important in lighting design.

(MR): What advice would you give young professionals who are considering a career in lighting consultation and lighting design?


(MM): I would say to study people who have won awards for their work. To study placement and product. I would also say to focus on the budget—often when people think of lighting designers they think that the project is going to be more expensive. They don’t think of the amazing value that can be added [to a project] just by moving a light fixture to the right spot. There are really amazing products that are affordable… Just focusing on budget and using your knowledge of where to place lights and optics—the difference between a spot optic and a wash and where to put what can make an enormous difference. Not just focusing on the highest end product always and not forgetting about the lower end product that might be very well performing. AND, take as many factory tours as you can, because seeing how it’s built, seeing the manufacturer and what their process is, is a really great way to learn. Most factories will do free factory tours and you’ll get to go on fun trips too.

(MR): What is your favorite project in San Diego that you and your team at The Lighting Element worked on? What about that project inspires you and what did you take away from it?


(MM): We were invited to look at the Immaculata Church at USD. It’s a big Catholic church, and it was really poorly lit. It is BEAUTIFUL. The architecture is gorgeous. I worked with Ron Neal Lighting Design. This is a perfect example of what I was talking about where you don’t see the light fixtures at all, you just see the space. What went from a dim, dark, vast space is now unbelievable. One of the cool tricks [Ron Neal] did was to install a theatrical light fixture with a stained glass gobo on it. So it made it look like the cross at the back of the church always had light shining through a stained glass window on it. It was always lit as if God shone a light through the stained glass window at the perfect spot. That was something Ron came up with on his own and I thought that is brilliant, just amazing. So that’s probably one of my favorite projects. [Ron] actually won a national award for lighting design for that.

The brand that we used for that is Color Kinetics…We pretty much used all white lighting in that project. Just hiding the lights, finding the right size to hide everything, trying to integrate it into existing voltages…—we were doing a retrofit and had to use the wiring that was there. That taught me a lot. We’ve had some really fun projects like the convention center sails that are all lit and colored now…

(MR): How did you get involved with SDAF and what is your view on the importance of good design in the built environment?


(MM): Margit, the former president [of SDAF], invited me to join back in 2016 and I was thrilled to be part of it because I had moved to San Diego in 77’ when I was 7 years old—so I’m kind of a native and I’ve been here a long time—back when I was a kid, my parents did puppet shows at the Puppet Theater in Balboa Park. There’s just so much history in San Diego. I really love the focus on San Diego and all of the little neighborhoods and the impact that good architecture brings to the community and the awareness that SDAF brings to the public about the built environment. Because it is our city.

And then Orchids and Onions is just fun. Having that event [and it] being very well respected in San Diego, so being part of that—and as a sales person—being closer to architects is beneficial for my business and building relationships, and as an owner of the company now I believe that your reputation is the most important thing and keeping your word. So building those strong relationships is really important. I love what SDAF does to promote awareness of the built environment in San Diego.

(MR): What inspires you on a day-to-day basis?


(MM): …I always get out of bed trying to have the best day. I’m very optimistic.  I push really hard to be the best that I can be every day. I believe that we’re here because everything we did up to [this point] got us here…

My employees—being a good advocate to my team, the people that work for me, mentoring, being kind, keeping your word. If people are struggling, trying to make an impact and help people. And my wonderful husband and my family.


Maddy’s words of wisdom:

I grew up very poor. I grew up without realizing that as a poor kid and as an intelligent poor kid that drove pretty hard…I’ve always had ADHD so I didn’t excel in school…My grades were a 3.2 in school but I was always in the honors classes. I didn’t think I could go to college. As I was helping my daughter apply for college and I realized how simple it actually was and how I could have got in and I wept for my youthful self that I didn’t even know I could do that. I just started volunteering for Just In Time Youth, which is a foster agency that helps kids that are aging out of foster care…I am hopeful by joining this organization that I can help make an impact on somebody that maybe didn’t think that they could go to college or pave the way for themselves…and that [they] can do it.

“Our biggest obstacle is our own self doubt.”

My sister used to say—my sister passed away—but she used to say:

If you have two choices to make and you’re struggling on which thing to choose. Remove the fear from both of them and imagine both of those choices without having any fear and then decide which you would do. Because usually the reason why you wouldn’t want to do something is because you’re afraid of something. If you can remove the fear from it, you will make the right choice.

Find out more about The Lighting Element here:

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