Disruptors. They are the few and the fierce. In our series, Leading between the Lines, I have the opportunity, and the pleasure, of meeting with some of South Florida’s most dynamic female business leaders, ones who are disrupting their industry, approaching things in a new way, solving new problems, and effectively pushing the status quo into a new frontier. I want to know what it really takes, what they’re actually up against, and how it feels each step along the way. Meet Andrea Virgin, President of the Board for the Boca Raton Center for Arts & Innovation.
A rare breed, Andrea is a professional ballerina turned civil engineer. After years in commercial real estate and the performing arts, she decided to combine both passions with love of community to spearhead the Boca Raton Center for Arts & Innovation, a world class, state-of-the-art event space set to be located at the north end of Mizner Park, in the heart of downtown Boca Raton.
Raised and educated in Boca, Andrea also trained at Boca Ballet Theatre and Harid Conservatory to become a professional ballerina, dancing with Houston Ballet II and Ballet Florida. Amidst her full schedule, Andrea also attended college full-time for civil engineering. Upon graduation from FAU and Cornell, she swapped pointe shoes for a hard hat and began designing landscape-changing projects in South Florida.
In 2018, Andrea started her firm, Virgin Design, while simultaneously joining the Board at Boca Ballet Theatre. There, the concept of envisioning and developing the Center was born and the combination of her experience, relationships, and connections have enabled over $10 million to be donated, major stakeholders to gather, world-renowned consultants to be engaged, a ground lease with the City to be nearly complete and promising discussions for major philanthropic support to begin. Andrea sits as President of the non-profit behind the project and looks forward to making this vision a reality, filling a decades-long cultural gap in Boca Raton.
Nicole: What motivated you to get into your industry? What lead to the decision? What was going through your mind on that day?
Andrea: My journey to becoming a Land Development Civil Engineer was not a traditional “get-inspired, move towards your goal” scenario. Since I was a child, I dreamed of becoming a professional ballerina and after a lot of hard work and sacrifice, I was able to achieve that dream, dancing for both Houston Ballet II and Ballet Florida. Simultaneous to that career, thanks to very tenacious parents, I also pursued my degree in Civil Engineering. I did so not because I loved engineering, but rather I was simply good at math and science, and as a dancer, I figured it was a career I could go into later in life.
In 2008, the recession hit a lot of art organizations hard. Ballet Florida took a major hit in funding alongside the Bernie Madoff scandal. The company folded and I was without a job. But thankfully, I wasn’t without an option.
With a degree in engineering, I was able to pivot my career. It was a hard transition for me, leaving the colorful world of the arts for what, at the time I felt was a black and white world. Soon after though, I found creativity in design, allowing myself to think outside the box in all aspects of my work. In turn, that made my clients very happy and allowed my projects to stand out.
Today, I’m able to apply both of my career expertise into the development of the Boca Raton Center for Arts and Innovation. My passion and experience of performing in centers across the country combined with my knowledge of what it takes to make a large-scale commercial project happen have been advantageous in the shaping of the Center. And it has been a dream come true to do this all in my own hometown.
Nicole: What is the challenge, the problem The Boca Raton Center for Arts & Innovation will solve? What is unique about this facility?
Andrea: The Center solves many problems:
Locally, it fills a 60-mile gap in major cultural infrastructure. Straddled by the Kravis Center to the north and The Broward Center to the south, those in Boca Raton and north Broward County must 1) choose between subpar infrastructure that in no way mirrors this area or its organizations and 2) lose those economic dollars to other adjacent cities or counties. In addition to patrons who desire an elevated experience, our tremendously talented local organizations lack the proper infrastructure they need to thrive. This Center finally solves that problem.
Set to be located at the north end of Mizner Park, this Center will be unique to all but two in the state and less than a dozen in the country through its next-century multi-form/flexible architecture. With attention to untraditional spaces and the use of cutting-edge technology, the Center, will be able to adjust its layouts, seating, and host capabilities with the push of a button.
Traditional cultural infrastructure is fixed, and the programming has to fit into that space, or it can’t perform. Not at the Center. Here, a traditional performing arts organization will have as much capability as a convention, or a product launch, or a pop-up festival, or a fashion show, or Saturday morning yoga, or a wedding.
This versatility will allow us to curate a broad array of experiences and programming indoors or outdoors (or both), public or private, free or ticketed, for the student or patron, for the business or organization, day or night, weekday or weekend, and all year long – this Center is truly a Center for All.
This level of flexibility not only allows the imagination to run wild, but it promotes sustainability, ensuring the Center has a wide range of revenue streams, which will allow the non-profit cultural organizations to continue to enjoy affordable rental rates. It also helps the Center ensure it meets the demands of both today’s modern expectations as well as the demands of future performers and audiences.
Nicole: What is a common misconception about this project?
Andrea: That this project will compete with the Kravis Center or Broward Center. The Center’s largest venue is our Main Theatre at 1,100 seats. This is about half to a third of the other two venues, preventing it from being an attractive option for Broadway touring shows. This was intentional. We are not seeking to displace that activity from those tremendous roadshow houses. There is an unbelievable amount of exciting nationally and internationally recognized programming that cannot and would not come to this area as they do not require or desire the amount of seating in those larger venues. The Center, in addition to being right sized for the resident organizations in Boca Raton, allows a space that will attract those smaller and mid-level touring organizations or presenters.
However, though our main theater is not large by comparison to the other venues, the Center will still be able to accommodate large crowds for other rentals. All six spaces in the Center can function simultaneously for events like major conferences, expos, festivals, or summits for 6,000 people. Imagine Mizner Park during the holidays, with the Nutcracker performing inside while being broadcasted outside for an additional 3,500 people. The experiences we can curate will be limited only by the imagination.
Nicole: What does the future of South Florida and Boca Raton look like? Talk about some of the major trends happening in this region. Describe the landscape in 10 years.
Andrea: I love this question. It speaks my love language: Progress, Advancement, and Vision for the future.
The future of South Florida and Boca Raton is a bright one. We were always on that path as a community, but Covid accelerated us nearly overnight. In my opinion, the growth and opportunity of South Florida can be attributed to the following:
1. Focus on Technology & Innovation
2. Business and Wealth Relocation
3. Greater Desire for Improved Culture
We have all seen the boom in tech migration to Miami and South Florida, the accelerated relocations of financial firms, high net worth individuals making vacation homes permanent ones, and headquarters deciding to opt for a state with lower taxes and better weather. South Florida has never seen such a renaissance since Flagler developed it in the late 1800’s.
With all this attention on South Florida, it begs the question, “How will Boca compete?”
Over the next 10 years, Boca Raton specifically will see not only the Center come to full fruition (within the next 5 years), but other landscape changing projects: Brookfield, who owns and manages the rest of Mizner Park will drive tremendous improvements through this downtown crown jewel, the Mandarin Oriental will come online, The Boca Raton will see its full transformation, BRIC will reinvent itself, and the Brightline station will create easy access to it all.
Development and redevelopment means Boca Raton will realize itself as a true destination along the Gold Coast, one that attracts the tourist – even if just from the next county – and one that is attractive for new transplants who desire a place that not only has great schools and beaches, but a place that has great culture and a vibrant downtown. This is how we will retain these newcomers!
Many of the transplants are coming from areas where this is a major focus: New York City, Chicago, LA, San Francisco as examples. Those who relocate here may realize, if they haven’t already, that South Florida doesn’t yet have the infrastructure they left behind, and they may decide to return. It’s imperative that we up our game in this regard, and do so region-wide, to ensure our new residents grow their roots in what we all hope will be a culturally exciting and vibrant place to live, work and play.
Nicole: What has surprised you most on this journey?
Andrea: I’m most surprised by how much our past plays into our future. For example, I could have never imagined my experience in the performing arts would serve me so well with my work in land development.
Had I not known what a backstage was like; Had I not embraced my new career in engineering; Had I not known how to oversee a large-scale project; Had I not started my own business and experienced the process of starting something from nothing; Had I not understood the political process for City approval of a land development project, I would have never been able to do what I’m doing today for the Center.
It goes to show you that no matter what crosses your path, good or bad, embrace it! Because odds are it will be useful to you in a future chapter. Like tools being added to your tool belt, you’ll likely use them in ways you could have never anticipated when you acquired them.
Nicole: What have been some of your failures and challenges along the way? What have you learned from them?
Andrea: I think my challenges or failures stemmed/stem a great deal from my inability to say “No”. By saying yes to everything, I in turn, arrive late to meetings, sacrifice time with my family (or for myself), and in general spread myself so thin that no one ends up getting the best of me.
Over the years, I’ve tried to slow down, prioritize things, say no when the request doesn’t align with those priorities, and have a discipline over time, drawing a line between work time and family time. I don’t yet have it completely perfect, but it’s far better than what it was. And in the meantime, I set my meetings 15 minutes prior to their actual start time to trick myself into being there on time. 😊
Nicole: What has been your proudest achievement thus far? Why?
Andrea: I’d have to say my proudest achievement has been peeling myself off the ground to begin anew after my husband suddenly passed away at the age of 31 and finding the courage and strength to care for my 4-month-old baby completely on my own.
This did not happen overnight. It took time to say, “get through the next few minutes”, then “the next few days”, and so on. An allowance to feel all the emotions and not mask them. Having patience with myself to know there would be good days and bad days. The grace to take new opportunities as they presented themselves.
Years later, after all that work to keep moving forward, life has presented a new and beautiful chapter to our story.
Nicole: What influences and inspires you?
Andrea: Quite a few things. First and foremost, my late husband, who was a commercial real estate developer. It was his dream to develop projects that would have a transformational impact on the area, like his grandfather who had a profound impact on Boca Raton. Passing at such a young age, he didn’t have that opportunity. My passion for the creation of The Center is, in part, to help carry that torch for him. I know he looks down on what we’re doing here with a smile knowing the impact this project will have both directly and indirectly for local constituents like businesses, residents, visitors, students, children, and future generations, etc. So many will be positively impacted by this project and that was always his dream.
In that same theme, the passing of my husband reminded me that our time here is short, and we should do whatever we can as soon as we can to make a positive impact. Most people wait until much later in their life to get involved in volunteerism, thinking they need to have more fiscal means or time to do so. The truth is we may never get to that point in our lives and there’s so much we can still do today that doesn’t require large amounts of money or time.
Another influence for this project is something my dad would always say to me: “Leave everything better than you found it.” Having the great fortune of growing up in beautiful Boca Raton and organizations like Boca Ballet Theatre, I wanted to do what I could to leave them better than I found them. The Center will elevate both, and so many others and it’s an honor to be a part of their next chapter.
Nicole: What scares you? And how do you deal with it?
Andrea: I think we’re all scared by the risk of failure. “What happens if we don’t raise the money?” “What happens if something unexpected derails our efforts?” These types of questions haunt the best of us. But we can’t make great things happen if we allow failure to be an option. We must be 100% convinced that this is happening, that failure is not an option. It’s not to say that failure is impossible, but the conviction in yourself, in your ideas, and in your inevitable success will be palpable to those inside and outside of your project, company, or idea, and that will serve you in your journey. Conviction prevents setbacks from becoming deal killers.
Nicole: What are your goals currently? What is next on the immediate horizon for you and The Boca Raton Center for Arts & Innovation?
Andrea: My immediate goals are to finalize the ground lease with the City of Boca Raton, lock in our design team for the next phase of the project and finalize discussions with major philanthropists looking to anchor the project at the inception of its campaign. Simultaneous to that work will be commencing program verification and schematic design to take the current conceptual design and put pen to paper to finalize the shaping of this iconic Center. A project of this scale can take years longer if you don’t keep the peddle to the metal, and we intend to get this done and online for our community as quickly as possible.
Nicole: What steps or advice would you give to others seeking to take on an initiative like this? A project that requires the vision, collaboration and strategic alignment of community stakeholders, local government, the business community, and the philanthropic community- what does it take to gain buy in? What are 1-3 keys to making a vision like this real?
Andrea: Ooh. That is a great question. I’d say there are three major things that helped me and our organization get this project to where it is today:
A major undertaking can be extremely overwhelming if you overthink it at the beginning. Trying to understand everything it’ll involve, trying to think of all the hurdles you’ll face, or being consumed with the number of hours/days/years it’ll take will destroy a great idea before it’s even had a chance.
When I set out to do this project, I had an inkling of what it would take, but I could have NEVER imagined exactly what we’d encounter. If I had, I’m pretty sure I would have scared myself out of it. So, when you have an idea, sure, think about it and devise a plan in general terms, but don’t get so caught up in the details that you give up before taking that first step.
When you’re starting out on an idea, vision, ambition, you’re going to have to wear a lot of hats and do a lot of the work yourself before others can buy into your vision or until you can receive funding to have others help shoulder the brunt. Things like running to the post office, getting office supplies, etc. may seem mundane, but having passion enables you to see how all those small, seemingly mundane tasks further you and your goal.
Passion will also be palpable to those you speak with about your project/vision. People don’t back ideas, they back people so having passion behind what you’re doing will enable others to not only back you but also speak about you and what you’re doing within their circles, exponentially increasing your reach.
Lastly, passion gives you endurance. At the beginning of an idea, we have lots of excitement and energy for what we’re doing. But great ideas can take years, and in those stretches of time, fatigue, setbacks, and changing variables can begin to creep in. Having passion will ensure you have the emotional stamina you need to keep up the fight, to keep going, to keep reaching. Without it, the towel becomes easier to throw in.
This project is not about me. It is about others.
It’s about the organizations who have high school auditoriums with chairs that smell and bathrooms that are anything but pleasant, causing them to struggle to entice audience members to come see their exceptional programming.
It’s about the underserved child who currently doesn’t have access to an exceptional performance that could inspire him or her to think about their future in a different and brighter way.
It’s about the local restaurant that needs and depends on foot traffic to stay in business.
It’s about the local university student who finds a reason to stay in Boca Raton as opposed to searching for work in a city or state with better infrastructure.
It’s about the City losing significant economic dollars to neighboring cities, and wanting to realize its true potential through securing this essential infrastructure.
It’s about the youth who could be inspired by the Center through programming we create with local K-12 schools, enabling them access to art of the future with technology of tomorrow, perhaps changing the trajectory of their future.
It’s about the local hotels that need to attract visitors to stay in their wonderful properties.
It’s about the philanthropist seeking to leave a legacy for generations and generation to come.
By thinking about those who you are trying to serve, your project will succeed because the focus is in the right place. Sure, great ideas beget great success, but that’s not why we do it. The best success any of us can have is the impact we make on others and on our community while we are here.
Nicole: For those just learning about the Center, what is the one takeaway you want residents and members of the community to walk away with?
Andrea: I would say the main take away is that the Center is unlike any cultural infrastructure that they know of today, and that it is theirs.
Aside from the advanced design and functionality we’ve already discussed, this Center is designed with the intention to invite the public in. We wanted the public to feel that this is their Center. That it is a destination for enjoyment, connection, inspiration, and enrichment.
For too long, cultural infrastructure was opaque and uninviting from the outside, requiring a ticket to enter and then finally be inspired by the art. That is not only a terrible model to keep the arts alive, but it’s also not equitable. Everyone should have access to inspiring art and it’s our mission to ensure that the architecture and programming address that problem.