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Environ's Willetta McCulloh | A Positive Impact by Design

Updated: Apr 6, 2018

Her business card says “Vice President and Director of Design,” but that only begins to tell the story of who Willetta McCulloh is to her co-workers at Environ—and to the community beyond. Ever since coming on board in 1995, “Wil” (as she’s known around the office) has striven to give all the projects and lives she’s touched the chance to be all they can be. It’s a trait that Environ founder Alan Burks spotted when their paths first crossed in 1995. During the next year, they partnered on several successful projects. Realizing that their personalities and skill sets were a natural fit, Alan offered her a stake in the company, which he founded three years earlier with a plan to make community service part of its mission. “Environ would not exist as it is today without Willetta,” he says. “She is an integral component of the Environ brand and ethos.” Wil did not take a direct path to get here. She was close to earning a degree in psychology from Southern Illinois University when she shifted her studies from mental to physical interiors. It was shortly after she changed her major that the idea of living a life of service was first introduced to her—and it did not go over well. She was speaking with one of her professors about how she would eventually implement the knowledge and skills resulting from her studies, and the professor remarked that she was “born to serve.” He meant it as a compliment about her nature, but for an undergrad regularly tending bar until 2 a.m. while earning her degree, Wil was up to her ears with serving.

Alan Burks and Willetta McCulloh of Environ Architecture.
Wil and Alan working session.

As she embarked on her career, she quickly grasped the power that thoughtful and conscious interior design has to make people’s lives better, a consideration more important to her than aesthetics, an aspect she feels is too often the industry’s first—and sometimes only—priority. “Designers have the opportunity to affect the ways people live and interact,” she says. “Focusing solely on making things beautiful can be superficial.”

It was right around the time Wil joined Environ that her professor’s compliment about service began to resonate, and before long she was exploring side roads of service. One of those led her onto the board of the Los Angeles County Community Development Foundation, which works to end generational poverty. With such a bent toward giving, as way leads to way, it was probably only a matter of time before Wil found Rotary International, the national nonprofit whose motto is “Service Above Self.” As it happens, about five years ago Wil was working on a project with Lee & Associates' President Greg Gill. “’Willetta,’” she recalls his saying, “’you need to be involved in the Rotary Club.’ So I went to a few meetings, and pretty quickly I realized, ‘Yeah, I like these people.’” Gill says he made the suggestion because Wil’s combination of talent and community generosity meant she and Rotary Club would both benefit from the match. “She’s smart and talented, and easy to work with,” Gill says. “She has a good sense for the economics of a design as well at the creative aspect—which is not always the case with artists—and she’s also active and involved in the community.”

As a member of the Long Beach Rotary (which is celebrating its centennial this year), Wil serves as Director of International Service and is on the Board of Directors for the Community Development Foundation, positions she modestly characterized as “overseeing the people who are really doing the work. I’ve always been a feeder, a facilitator. I don’t want to get out there and be the center of attention. If somebody’s doing something, I will make sure they have the tools to do it.” While Wil may not be directly involved with some of the Rotary projects, she’s particularly proud of facilitating  projects indirectly - such as drilling wells in Mozambique “so women and girls don’t have to walk for 20 miles to get water every day, and so they can stay in school." Each year she is part of a team that goes to Caborca, Mexico, to assist in the administration of polio vaccines. And then there’s Camp Enterprise, a three-day Big Bear getaway for 60 high-school juniors and seniors featuring a variety of activities to help them learn what it takes to be successful in starting and running their own business. “Being a Rotarian just increases the chances of finding opportunities to improve the quality of life, people’s health and their well being, and making someone safer or less hungry or thirsty,” Wil says. “We feel it's pretty important to help others get an education so they can support themselves and have a family and the opportunity have a great life.”

Environ's Willetta McCulloh mentoring children.
Wil teaches Long Beach youth how to sketch at AIA's "Kids Draw Architecture" event.

But none of this might have happened if all those years ago she had not understood her own psyche well enough to give up psychology as her major, and to approach her subsequent career from the angle of service. “Interior designers affect the way people work: whether they’re gong to be productive or unproductive, whether they’re going to enjoy their life, whether they’re going to sit and look at a wall or at a view—or if they have to sit and look at a wall, how can we improve that,” she says. “Everything we do affects how people feel about what they’re doing and how they behave. I could make money doing something else, but I chose this because it can affect people in a positive way.”

Environ's Willetta McCulloh donates time in Caborca, Mexico administering vaccines.
Wil in Caborca, Mexico where she assists Long Beach Rotary administer polio vaccines.

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