Anna Lowder of City Loft Corporation: “Perserverance Is Your Weapon”

Perserverance Is Your Weapon — As women, we have an innate ability to focus on tasks big and small — driving the vision forward no matter how tired or worn down we feel. This is our power — we don’t quit. Use this to your advantage as a Woman Founder. Let others grow tired or bored with a project, let them […]

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Perserverance Is Your Weapon — As women, we have an innate ability to focus on tasks big and small — driving the vision forward no matter how tired or worn down we feel. This is our power — we don’t quit. Use this to your advantage as a Woman Founder. Let others grow tired or bored with a project, let them get distracted by the new shiny penny. Stay focused, keep your head down, and calculate your way to your goals by perseverance. That’s our secret: we never quit.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Anna Lowder, founder of City Loft Corporation, a real estate design and development firm, and Mercer Home, a residential construction company. Together with her husband, Harvi Sahota, she is also co-founder and director of Hampstead, a 416-acre New Urbanist community in Montgomery, Ala., where she leads the town planning, design, construction, and marketing.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My name is Anna Lowder, and I’m founder of a real estate development company that creates mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented communities focused on urbanism, sustainability, and happiness. With my partner and husband, Harvi Sahota, we have developed projects focused in the Southeast that combine homes of all types, retail and office, restaurants, civic spaces, school and learning, and community organizations — all connected with the thread of community and sense of place as the core principle of our design.

After graduating in journalism at Boston University and studying and working in design living in London, my husband and I decided in 2005 to move to Montgomery, Alabama where I was born. We knew firsthand its history of divisiveness and exclusion, paired with its present state of disinvestment in its urban core. We felt that we could help repair and rebuild the city through in-fill projects that brought life and activity to the city center. We focused on responsible, sustainable redevelopment built on interaction, connectivity, and creating spaces where people could meet and get to know one another. Over fifteen years later, we’re still focused on the same principle with our business: Building community through design.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

The most interesting story to me is the story I’m living everyday. When we moved from London to the South all those years ago, the plan was a one-year move. One year, one project and we would decide whether to move back to London or move on to a new city. As fate would have it, that year turned into sixteen as projects were born and grew, and others completed their life cycle. One idea turned into many more, and here we are today at our largest and most complex project to date, Hampstead. We live here, we work here, and we’ve built almost everything in the community. The moral of the story is to expect the unexpected.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I wouldn’t say it’s funny, but it was a mistake! We started our first real estate project like so many entrepreneurs do — with enthusiasm and best intentions, but without an endgame. This is a critical mistake to make in business, one that we learned from and never forget. Always know your exit strategy. Before you even begin a project, state your goals, formulate your plan to reach them, and know your exit strategy. There may be more than one, but always have at least one.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

It is absolutely critical to have a mentor, and in reality, you should rely on a variety of trusted sources as mentors. I’ve had a number of strong-willed, intelligent women and men in various fields and of various ages who have helped shape my path. It’s important to remember that different people with different skills and perspectives play important roles in your life at different times. You need to be open to receiving their influence.

One of the most consequential mentors in my life is Andrés Duany, founder and principal of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company. Andrés is one of the foremost and experienced town planners in the country, with impactful projects all over the world. His example of commitment — total immersion and passion for his work — has been a guide for me since we first met working together in 2005. He is a great friend who always has new ideas and new work underway.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

I believe social norms and outdated expectations continue to hold women back in the professional world. Social constructs such as the female as the child-bearer, the cook, the caretaker — these are full-time requirements in themselves that are placed disproportionately on women even as we work full-time out of the home. Society may have begun to accept women as the majority of the American work force, but we are largely represented at lower-level positions and much less visible in board rooms and executive positions.

The fact remains that the myth of multi-tasking is hindering us. We are expected — and expect ourselves — to work and lead family life, but it’s too much to ask. We don’t demand it of men — why should we expect it of women? The simple fact is, the weight of it all burdens us to the point that our professional lives suffer. We aren’t the majority of business owners or entrepreneurs or CEOs because it is impossible to carry society’s expectations and the weight that success demands. So women must often put family and community and others first, and sacrifice career opportunities for themselves.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

Collectively we can overcome this and shift the mindset into a more expanded, connected view in order to level the playing field. For starters, we can implement simple concepts that exist elsewhere like paid maternal and paternal leave, expanded and affordable pre-school education programs, and structures that reinforce the concept that childcare is not the sole responsibility of the mother. Doing this would free up millions of women to join and lead the work force with confidence that comes from being respected and supported by their employers and co-workers.

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder, but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

We need more women founders because we need the world to be more empathetic. Our society needs the attributes that women offer — empathy, listening, understanding, communication, problem-solving, patience, strength, commitment, connectivity — in leadership roles to spread these into the cultural zeitgeist and make these values take hold as admirable traits others seek to emulate. We need people who care — for future generations, for our planet, for one another, for the big picture — instead of businessmen who might solely focus on quarterly profits and country club golf tournaments.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

There are so many to choose from, where should I start?! Here’s my top list of myths about women founders:

1. “Women lack the instinct to lead a successful business.” This catch-all myth comprises all types of insults and knocks at women leaders. From “women don’t have the skills to negotiate” to “women are too weak” and “women aren’t good at math” — it’s all lies based on no data or statistics. Skills aren’t predetermined by sex, just like outlook and work ethic aren’t either. Leadership and your career is what you make of it.

2. “Women can’t lead in business because they spend too much time on their personal life.” It’s true that women bear a disproportionate weight of childcare, family responsibility, home life, and parental care. Yet despite this, we rise to levels of leadership and imbue values of family and community within our companies. This awareness of balance in life between personal and professional is one of our core strengths.

3. “Women don’t support other women.” Categorically, emphatically untrue. Women support each other, and we support men. We see the value in other people’s perspectives, and we value their lived experiences. We know it is the diversity of voices that gives our businesses strength and the widest possible audiences.

4. “Women already have equality in the work place. It’s how they’re here now.” This condescension is as outdated as it is arrogant. Women have earned their leadership positions through hard work, self-determination, and mentorship from like-minded predecessors. Unlike some men who have a natural pathway to the boardroom based on connections, assumptions, or just being male, women fight for and prove their worth to be in that room.

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

My experience has been that everyone has their own talents, with their own perspectives and their own unique path. Nothing in life is ideal for everyone. That includes professional goals — we’re not all meant to be in one field, just like we’re not all meant to be in one position. Some people work well alone, others enjoy the comfort of being assigned a predictable task, while some of us thrive on risk.

Being a founder is about being a risk taker. It’s being someone who has a new idea for the right time and place, and persevering no matter the cost. It’s about sacrifice, long lonely hours of work, and singularity of focus on your goals. It takes a lot from a person but can also give rewards. So, if you’re open to risk, loss, reward, and tenacity, it can be for you.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need to Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?”

1. Perserverance Is Your Weapon

As women, we have an innate ability to focus on tasks big and small — driving the vision forward no matter how tired or worn down we feel. This is our power — we don’t quit. Use this to your advantage as a Woman Founder. Let others grow tired or bored with a project, let them get distracted by the new shiny penny. Stay focused, keep your head down, and calculate your way to your goals by perseverance. That’s our secret: we never quit.

2. Fail. Mistakes Make Mastery

Each time I make a mistake I memorialize it. Not the everyday trivial ones, but the big ones that matter. How could I have thought differently, what could I do more effectively, how could I envision a situation playing out with a better endgame in the future? Failure is not just acceptable, it’s necessary. We learn most from the mistakes we make — and specifically from the mistakes we own, we analyze, and we commit to memory. I’ve been rejected from jobs before, been overlooked on pitches, been turned down for applications — but each time has been invaluable because it has brought me to the place I am today. Fail, then get up and focus on the next step ahead.

3. Say No. Your Time Is Valuable: Don’t Waste It

No is one of the smallest words and one of the most important. Women leaders are asked for so much — their time, money, involvement, attention — but too much giving can drain you. People will always ask for things — it’s your job to set your boundaries. No is important to preserving your mental and physical health. It reminds others your time and effort has value. Giving everything away signals your time and attention are not worth anything. Prioritizing your attention grants a value to it. Be selective of those organizations, boards, or people that want your time, and make your time work for you.

4. Always Expect The Unexpected

My mentor once said, “You’re ready for the right fist, then the left fist. It’s the third fist that surprises you.” A simple analogy but one true in business: you know to expect your competition, or changes in market demand. But it’s the absolutely unexpected event that catches you off guard. Always be aware of what’s going on — not just in your specific company, but in your city, region, country and world. Absorb information outside of your field and delve into topics outside your generational focus. The world is small and events impact every corner of the globe — COVID has taught us this perhaps more than any event of our lifetime. Lead your company with an adaptive outlook so you can anticipate and respond. Don’t let the Third Fist get you.

5. Be The Person You Needed

Give back to the community and to your industry for the successes you have enjoyed, and for the trials you endured. Help a future generation avoid as many of the roadblocks you encountered as you can. Mentor female students, recruit and train young talent to model the behavior you value, give guidance to those looking for career inspiration or change. Find the individuals or organizations where your voice can be impactful and let it amplify to benefit others. We all needed a leader — be the example who inspires others.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I’ve spent over 15 years creating lasting, community-oriented, sustainable built environments. My husband Harvi and I are most proud of our ongoing development, Hampstead, which is a large-scale urbanist community that combines residential, retail, work, school, civic spaces, wellness, and ongoing learning. Its design and implementation creates an environment where people of all ages, interests, and socio-economic segments can interact as neighbors, local business owners, visitors, and students. We established and lead a 501(c)3 non-profit, The Hampstead Institute, which funds community-based education programs, founded two all-natural urban farms in the city, supports the growth of the Montessori School at Hampstead, and creates youth wellness programs including soccer and other outdoor activities.

Our companies are built with teams of women and men in equal proportion, with women in leadership positions and key decision-making roles. We value the insight our female team members bring, their skills and their work ethic. We are a stronger organization because of the female recruitment and team we assemble.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I believe access to health care and education are the two most important building blocks of society. If both of these were available to people from birth throughout the world, we would see a more equitable, skilled, and understanding world. Critical issues such as hunger, violence towards women, racism, and climate destruction can be combated by offering people a chance at a life with opportunity and connection.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I had the honor of meeting Oprah Winfrey over twenty years ago for a home build we donated through her Angel Network. She is one of the most inspiring and influential Women Founders in the world, and her generosity spirit is authentic and tangible. She truly lives the ethos of “Do Something That Matters.” It would be a joy to sit with Oprah Winfrey again and just listen to her. Her knowledge is powerful, and her power is her knowledge.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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