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A Coffee with Zeineb Sellami, Senior Associate

We grabbed coffee with Zeineb Sellami to discuss stakeholder outreach, community engagement, and international travel. She also gave us some great recommendations for our next read!

Zeineb is an architect and urban planner. She leverages multiple approaches—spatial, human-centered, and data-focused—to support her passion for cities. As a Senior Associate at Karp Strategies, she leads teams through community and stakeholder engagement, workforce and economic development analyses, and urban policy strategizing across the firm's real estate, infrastructure, and renewable energy projects.

How do you like your coffee?

Black—no milk, no sugar. That’s what six years of architecture school will have you drinking.

Why did you join Karp Strategies? What has made you stay?

I first met Rebecca during grad school—she was my professor for my project management class. The course introduced me to what consulting looks like, concretely, in a professional setting. I found the class assignment—putting together a proposal and budget for a real past RFP—really interesting. I particularly appreciated the different facets of project management and delivery, including an understanding of multiple stakeholders’ involvement. So, I developed an interest, and when the Graduate Analyst position opened up, I applied. I started part-time as a GA here, got to know the work, and have been here ever since. 

In terms of why I’ve stayed—when I started, we were a much smaller team, which allowed me to dive straight into things and quickly take on more responsibilities. I like to get my hands dirty and learn by doing. That opportunity to take on new challenges, combined with a really great team, is a key driver in me staying, as well as the continued opportunities for professional growth. 

What do you enjoy most about being a Senior Associate?

As much as I enjoyed working as an Analyst and getting deep into details, I also enjoy the birds-eye view and leading teams—being a Senior Associate also allows me to have my hands in multiple projects at once. I’m a curious person by nature. Consulting fulfills that curiosity because I’m learning something new every day, digging into different subject matters, and collaborating with team members, project partners, and clients with such a broad range of expertise. 

What sparked your interest in urban planning and public sector-oriented work more broadly?

It started while I was still an undergrad in architecture. I have always been interested in the larger scale—the city scale more than the building scale—and I was lucky to go to a school where the program allowed us more flexibility than other “traditional” programs in France. My professors were architects and urban designers or architects and urban planners, and I gravitated toward the studios that focused holistically on cities. After earning my degree, I started working as an architect in a typical design firm—which confirmed and solidified my understanding of myself and my desire to be a planner, which is what brought me back to grad school. 

What does it look like to center equity in stakeholder outreach and development?

It’s a combination of many things. It’s always being able to take a step back and understand the places and people that you’re aiming to engage with. It’s going in without preconceptions and really trying to have a holistic lens as you’re thinking about planning for engagement. In terms of outreach itself, it’s about making sure that you’re reaching as broad a range of stakeholders as you can, intentionally focusing on those not engaged in the past in an equitable way, and making sure their voices are included in the conversation. When you’re in a room, it’s giving everyone a chance to speak, making sure that you’re extending the opportunity to provide feedback. Overall, it’s about meeting people where they are and offering different forms of—and opportunities for—engagement, whether that’s in-person workshops, surveys, online formats, etc. 

One example of this is the work that we’ve been doing in New Rochelle. I led the stakeholder engagement for the LINC project when they were in the early stages of developing programming for that. All the partners involved went into it very intentionally and were able to engage with almost 100 people of all ages at some of the workshops. We had kids participating and providing their ideas and feedback, people from across the entire New Rochelle community. One of the participants said they’d never been engaged like that before and hoped that kind of work would continue, which, in my mind, is one of the highest forms of praise. It’s great to hear that what you’re doing is working and that people are feeling included. 

Why is building relationships such an important part of being a successful planner?

Planning comes down to people at the end of the day—it’s about who you are planning for. You’re planning for people, for a community, for a city. I can’t dissociate planning from that trust and relationship building. For me, planning is inherently about people and the way they navigate a city, what makes them feel safe, what gets them excited, and what is productive for the greater economy. 

What is your favorite place you’ve traveled to?

Istanbul is one of my favorite places. The city is beautiful from an architectural standpoint and culturally rich. It’s one of the few cities I’ve traveled to where I don’t know the language. I didn’t know anyone who lived there, but I thought to myself, “I would move here. I could live in this city.” And then I think more recently, Madrid has made it to the top five. The people are friendly and the museums are stunning. Dalí is one of my favorite painters, so I felt very spoiled. The food is amazing, and it felt less touristy than, for example, Paris. 

You’ve worked all over the world—how does architecture and planning differ across different regions? Are there key similarities?

I see a lot of similarities in the way architects and planners approach their work, but the obstacles that we face are different. There are different modes of bureaucracy and administrative systems to navigate, and different cultural expectations mean that engagement looks different in France than in the U.S., for example. 

What has been a highlight of working at Karp Strategies?

The highlight of working here is the team. I do feel that I'm constantly learning, which to me, is the thing I appreciate the most. We all come from different professional and personal backgrounds, and being in that environment day-to-day is motivating and refreshing. We support each other. 

Tell me a life-changing moment that helped shape who you are today

I moved to Tunisia when I was 15 and lived with my aunt and uncle for a year. And my life would look completely different had I not made that move. I would have probably finished high school and gone to undergrad in the U.S. I may or may not have gone to school in France, and everything would be different. I was able to connect with the place that I’m from, and now I have a much closer bond with Tunisia and, importantly, my family. I think it’s the most beautiful country in North Africa, but I could be biased. 

What are your top three urban planning book or podcast channel suggestions, if any?

I really like the 99% Invisible podcast. Some of us on the team are doing a Power Broker book club, listening to their series, and discussing it over lunch. In terms of books, I recommend Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. It’s a fictional novel about imaginary cities and it's very interesting how the urban systems are described and how people navigate their different peculiarities. It’s one of my favorite books related to architecture and planning. 

Fast Facts:

Last TV show I binge-watched: Formula 1: Drive to Survive

Restaurant I’d recommend to close friends: Cafe Luxembourg – it’s a cute little French bistrot, and the manager is Tunisian. 

Book that changed me: The Disoriented by Amin Maalouf

Best concert I’ve ever experienced: At one of the music festivals in New York, The XX was playing. They are one of my favorite bands, and they played at sunset, which was so beautiful. 

Movie I’d pay to see again and again: Big Fish

Someone who inspires me: My godmother. She is just a very emotionally and overall intelligent person and the way she approaches challenges is very inspiring to me. She’s very calm, asks the right questions, and encourages you to think about the bigger picture. You feel at ease when you talk to her.


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