For almost three decades, architect Anda Andrei was best known as Ian Schrager’s design whisperer, shaping the aesthetic of the hotelier’s high-profile properties such as the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York City and the Delano in Miami.
That longtime gig ended two years ago when Andrei, then 60 years old, decided to leave Scharger’s eponymous company to establish her own firm, Anda Andrei Design. “Being in the shadow of a great man is great, but I wanted to prove to that I could succeed by myself,” she says of the move.
Today, with three high-profile projects in the works, she appears to be well on her way to doing just that. She is creative director of 11 Howard, the Scandinavian-inspired hotel in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood from real-estate mogul Aby Rosen, which opened on April 1. She is also lead designer on the soon-to-open restaurant at the Brooklyn Museum. And she is about to reveal the first stage of her largest endeavor yet: creative lead on the multi-billion dollar revitalization of 1.25 miles of waterfront in the New Jersey Shore town of Asbury Park. While the full project is planned to unfold over a 10-year period, the debut project, The Asbury Hotel, will open this coming Memorial Day weekend.
Her achievements may be the epitome of the American dream. Andrei and her late husband, Lucian Andrei, left the then-communist regime in Romania in 1981 and eventually ended up in New York City. Three days into her new life, she walked into the Manhattan offices of the prestigious architecture firm Gruzen Samton Steinglass and talked her way into a job.
Andrei spoke to Fortune recently about her career ambitions, her latest projects and the biggest hurdle she has faced because of her gender.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you end up picking a career in architecture?
My father was an architect in Romania so I grew up immersed in the field. My bedtime reading was architecture magazines, and it’s always what I wanted to do. I went to architect school in Bucharest at the Ion Mincu University and studied there for six years to get a Master’s.
When did you decide to leave Romania?
We knew in 1978 that we wanted to leave, but it took three years to get out. I’m Jewish and that helped me because there was an agreement between Israel and Romania that Israel would pay Romania to let a small number of Jewish residents leave the country. We had to apply to the government to be accepted, and it took more than three years before we were finally approved to leave. We first moved to Rome and lived there for nine months. Friends there connected us with the Tolstoy Foundation, a non-profit that helps refugees, and with their help, we headed to New York.
What were those first few months of life like in Manhattan?
We arrived with $200 and were set up by the Tolstoy Foundation at a hotel for the homeless in the Flatiron District. We could stay there only a few weeks, and I knew we had to find a way to survive so I immediately started applying for jobs at architecture firms. On my third day, I decided to walk into Gruzen Samton Steinglass with my portfolio of work from Romania and asked for an interview. In the lobby, I bumped into Peter Gumpel, an associate partner who ran the hotel division. He seemed amused by my determination and agreed to look at my portfolio. Wouldn’t you know it—he offered me a job on the spot.
The twist with this story is that several years later, he ended up leaving to start his own firm, and I hired him when I was working with Ian to be the architect of the Delano in Miami.
How did you end up working with Ian Schrager?
At Gruzen Sampton Steinglass, I was quickly promoted to senior designer associate, working on primarily on Hyatt but also other hotel brands and condominiums. Since I was European and spoke fluent French, I was assigned to work on the Royalton hotel for Ian along with Philippe Starck . Midway into the project, Ian asked me to join his company and work directly for him. It was the beginning of an amazing series of projects, one better than the other like the The Mondrian hotel in Los Angeles, Gramercy Park Hotel in Manhattan, Public hotel in Chicago, Clift Hotel in San Francisco, the London Edition hotel and many more.
After working with Ian for so long, how did you decide to finally venture off on your own?
I was almost 60 years old and knew I wouldn’t have forever to start my own company. My current partner, William Ghitis, really encouraged me because he knew it was what I really wanted to do. I thought about it for a while and woke up one day and decided to just do it.
What were the immediate challenges when you left?
I was overwhelmed by the administrative work that I had to do to set up a business such as finding the right office space and dealing with piles of paperwork. The other challenge was choosing the right projects to take on. For the first time in so many years, I had to really think about how I wanted to apply my creative skills. But, there was an excitement to that as well.
The Asbury Park revitalization is a departure from the sexy and glamorous projects you typically work on. How did you get involved?
The project is the brainchild of Jay Sugarman, the CEO of the real-estate development company iStar. I’ve known him for many years, and he asked me to take it on. He drove me down to Asbury Park two years ago on an incredibly cold day in February and walked me around and shared his vision of reviving this once lively city. His passion was infectious—it was hard not to buy into it. It was a new challenge for me because it’s not just a hotel—it’s a whole area—and my job was to help recapture its soul. I said yes to him right then and there, all bundled up in a winter parka, hat, and gloves.
Hotel openings these days are an everyday event. How is 11 Howard different?
The property has the mix of feeling very relevant yet classic. The design is Scandinavian—there’s lots of light, high ceilings, and light colors. But this clean look is infused with the essence of New York. There’s a spiral staircase inspired by the fire escapes in so many buildings in New York City and a graffiti wall outside designed by Jeff Koons that’s 14 stories high.
There’s not much that’s public about the new restaurant at the Brooklyn Museum. What can you tell us about it?
All I can say for now is that it should open by the end of May and will have a farm-to-table food concept. Design wise, it will look nothing like a restaurant.
You’ve been on your own for two years now. How is your day-to-day work life different than it was when you were with Ian?
I work the same hours, about 50 hours a week, but the biggest change is that I set the agenda and the pace. I choose the projects I want to take on. When I left Ian, I was overseeing 12 projects. Now I manage six but expend more creative energy on each one.
For more about the hotel industry, check out this Fortune video:
Generally speaking, what is the architecture field like for women?
Tough. There are a lot of women in the industry, but not many are well known or get recognition for their skills compared to men. Zaha Hadid is one of the rare exceptions. Like so many other fields, it’s dominated by men.
Have you faced any hurdles because of your gender?
In the beginning, yes. I remember that any time I tried to voice an opinion when I was dealing with the heads of the construction companies that were in charge of building the hotels I was designing, it wasn’t taken seriously. I had to work doubly hard to prove myself.