Gina Emmanuel, the subject of this story, is a member of the Catholic Charities Board of Trustees.
It's as if Gina Emmanuel was born to do two things: be an architect and travel the world. She's been drawing since she could hold a pencil and now is a top principal at Centric Architecture, one of Nashville's oldest architecture firms, specializing in projects that give fresh life to churches, warehouses and old buildings. One of her current projects has work and family ties: She's helping her father overhaul a 10-acre site in West Nashville into a combined 335 condos, townhomes and single-family homes. Her parents are the reason she's in Nashville, after the family escaped apartheid in South Africa when she was 5 years old. She returns often to South Africa, which is why she can't help but find zoos to be a little bit ... boring.
Why did your family come to the U.S.? When we moved from there in 1985, full-on apartheid was still in South Africa. There is a lot of violent crime there now, but it had really started to get more noticeable then. With all that going on, it was not something my parents ever really wanted us to grow up in. They just didn't want us in that environment - and we thank them very much. ... We moved here when I was 5: my parents, brother, sister and I. My whole extended family is still in South Africa. It's a great place to visit; we go often to see my family.
Do you have childhood memories from there? Oh yeah, I remember a lot. And we never were gone long enough to really forget it, because we keep going back so much. We were there not this Christmas, but the one before, for several weeks.
Have you taken safaris there? The preserves are awesome. When we were younger, we wouldn't drive in an open vehicle, because it's pretty wild. I saw in the news the other week that a lion jumped into a vehicle. We were once in an open Jeep, and a leopard came right up to one of my cousins. You just freeze: "Nobody move." All you can do is just sit there and wait until they leave. ... The landscape is amazing. You can't describe it until you've been there. It makes it pretty hard to go to a zoo. Zoos are great, but it's very different.
What was your first paying job? I remember helping my mom stuff envelopes with invoices, and one summer my brother and I painted machinery on-site. After that, I got into the restaurant world.
Did you learn lessons you still apply today? Absolutely. Most especially, in the restaurant world, you just learn to have a lot more respect for people. I think everybody should work in a restaurant. You're dealing with people all the time. You always have to come prepared to deal with any situation. You have to be nice and respond to people in a kind way, even if you don't always want to.
What's the most recent book you've read? I read quite a bit, but I don't get through an entire novel as fast as I used to. What's interesting is that my grandfather collected 50 years' worth of National Geographics and gave them all to my aunt. She recently decided to gift them to my 8-year-old. We're getting them in installments. We're on 1954. It's fascinating.
What shows are you binge-watching? The two I most recently binge-watched were "Stranger Things" and "The Handmaid's Tale," which is very unsettling. Very good acting, but a very unsettling story.
What's your favorite vacation spot? I do have one favorite, where my aunt and uncle live in South Africa. It's a lagoon to the ocean. You walk right out their back door and take the boat out all day. It's almost like paradise. Traveling is the best education you can get. ... We have a sabbatical program here at the office. I'm slated for next summer, so I've been throwing around ideas. We've thrown out Iceland, or somewhere along the Amazon. We'll see where we end up landing.
What's your best celebrity sighting? You would think you would have a lot in Nashville. But all I can remember is filling up at a gas station in Green Hills, next to Keith Urban. Way back, The Cooker used to be on West End [Avenue], and one time we sat next to the Judds when I was a kid.
What's the best piece of advice you've ever received? One thing I pass on as advice all the time is, nobody ever wants to hear as much as you want to say. The point is, be concise and be respectful of people's time.
If you couldn't be an architect, what would you be? When I was a kid, I wanted to be an archaeologist. I always very much admire these people who come up with these great ideas and invent the next-best thing. I don't really know what that job title is: a paid thinker, maybe? Is that a thing?
Company: Centric Architecture
Address: 35 Peabody St., Nashville 37210
Hometown: Johannesburg, South Africa
Education: University of Tennessee, bachelor's of architecture