Surface 678 CEO and President Swati Khimesra hopes to inspire the next generation of female leaders and those seeking a career in landscape architecture
By Morgan Weston | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Born in India and raised in Thailand, Swati Khimesra witnessed her parents’ immigrant experience and ended up following in their footsteps. “It was an interesting time for our family,” Swati says. “I grew up during a large economic recession in Southeast Asia.” She decided to apply to architecture programs in the United States to give herself the best possible options and landed a full scholarship to Louisiana State University. “It was an easy choice from a financial perspective, as I didn’t want to create a burden for my family, but I also had a great experience there,” Swati says. It would prove a formative one, too; she took an introductory landscape architecture class out of curiosity, and immediately fell in love with the field. She graduated in 2002 with a bachelor’s in landscape architecture and attended the University of Michigan for her master’s in urban design.
Along the way, she always felt her family behind her. “There is a strong line of women in my family,” Swati says. “Without them, I don’t think I’d be where I am today.” She is thankful that her parents placed high value on the contributions of women in our world and society, and to have witnessed her own mom paving her way in a new country without a support system.
“My siblings and I were all encouraged to push our own boundaries,” Swati says. “If I didn’t feel I could take that leap, I might have stayed home instead of going to school.”
She took a job after grad school with a large firm in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, before moving back to Thailand. “This was a really special time for me, because I worked with a woman-owned firm called P Landscape,” Swati says. “I was mentored by founder Wannaporn Pui Phornprapha, whose leadership was rare in the profession as a whole, but especially in Thailand.”
Swati grew quickly in her roles, from a young designer to a manager and then project director; after five years at P Landscape, she moved back to the U.S. to continue her career. “It took a lot of traveling and learning and exposure, but my experiences helped me understand not only the importance of the work, but also how to run a business,” Swati says.
Today, she applies those skills to her role as president and CEO of Surface 678, the downtown-based landscape architects behind many recent campus improvements at Duke University, the Wake Technical Community College RTP campus and the North Carolina Museum of Art’s West Building plaza, as well as landscape design for the Boxyard RTP campus and upcoming Hub RTP mixed-use district, to name a few. Founded in 1993, the company’s name is a nod to the United States plant hardiness zones it specializes in (6, 7 and 8).
Swati’s day-to-day involves oversight of the leadership team, business strategy, operations and growth. “There’s rarely a typical day, but I do like to meet weekly with everyone to look ahead,” she says. “These are critical conversations in that we often go a bit deeper, taking an opportunity to share challenges so that we can build off one another’s experiences and continue evolving as a studio.”
There are going to be mistakes, places that we stumble, but what matters is how we use that experience to move forward and better ourselves. There’s always something you can pull out of every experience to make it useful.
Swati also makes time for mentoring students and participating in career development events at local universities. “I firmly believe that the more you can see others who look like you succeed, the better,” she says. “Last year I gave a talk to young professionals targeted at women in the field because we’ve seen that, specifically in landscape architecture programs, we actually have more women graduating than men. However, as you go up the ladder and look at getting licensure, there is a 10% drop. When you get to mid-level positions, there’s another 15% drop. When you look at leadership levels, only about 16% in the industry are female.”
These numbers are concerning, Swati explains, not only in encouraging women to join college programs, but also keeping them in the profession after they graduate. “Although we have a long way to go in catching up, there is a lot of effort being made to give women opportunities to get licensure because that really helps them professionally accelerate within their organizations,” she says. “Early in my career, I didn’t really see any female leaders where I worked, and it was almost discouraging; I often wondered if I would make it in this profession.”
Regardless of one’s gender, Swati says it’s an exciting time to be a landscape architect. “I feel we bring a lot of value to our communities through our work,” she says. “Of course, outdoor spaces have always been something we as landscape architects pay attention to, but the pandemic brought it to the forefront for a lot of the general public, especially when it comes to new projects and developments. People want to embrace the outdoors.”