As part of my series about strong women leaders of the Real Estate industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tara Hovey, President of Optima, Inc.
For more than four decades, Optima has been developing, designing, building and managing the most striking urban and suburban luxury residential communities in the United States. Since its inception, as a family-owned and -operated company Optima has reinvented housing by integrating all the functions involved in new construction within one company by controlling and executing every aspect of the process. The result has been the creation of over 40 award-winning developments in Arizona and Illinois that have been locally and nationally recognized. Tara is responsible for setting and implementing the strategic vision of the company, directing all pre-development planning and deal evaluation as well as the capitalization of the firm and its new developments. She has led the capitalization and financing of over $1.5 billion in real estate, including construction financing for new developments, recapitalizations and building dispositions.
Iam an architect’s daughter and our home growing up was my dad’s experimental lab, so my experience of home has always been alive with the creativity inherent in how he imagined and built our home. I internalized living in a space that was at one time just in his imagination as encouragement to dream. I felt excited to express creatively and I loved to paint and dance. As I grew up, I was always aware of how spaces made me feel and how much better I felt in spaces with more natural light, open floorplans and a connection to nature and the world around me. I remain fascinated with how we choose to live as human beings and the many different expressions of those choices. Architecture is art and science, and both have unique abilities to connect and inspire. What most excites me about the real estate industry today is my interest in how we can intentionally cultivate connection and community, inspire the people who live in and around those communities, and ultimately, how we coexist with nature and the natural world in a way that is sustaining and enhancing of all life. There is so much we can still learn from nature.
I lived, studied and worked in New Zealand after college and when I moved back to the United States there was a shortage of construction superintendents and Optima, our family business, needed more people in that position to meet construction deadlines. I raised my hand and offered to go to the construction site to help. I had a great mentor on the construction site, Mike Schwerzler who leads construction in our Illinois office. Optima is unique in that we serve as the architect, developer, general contractor, sales agent, and property manager for all the developments we do. My early career in real estate was driven by me working where I saw the greatest need for the business. I cared about my family and the people and wanted to help and contribute wherever I could.
Because the team at Optima wears many different hats and those early years were marked by the great recession where it was all hands-on deck, I had the opportunity to contribute to countless areas of the business. My experiences in construction, sales and marketing, development, corporate finance, executive management, as well as my coursework and experience in real estate finance and capital markets outside of the firm all gave me a greater appreciation for the important work done by everyone in each of those areas and a more complete understanding for how the business as a whole operates. These experiences were important to me because they gave me greater empathy for how challenging the responsibilities in each area can be as well as an awareness of what I don’t know if I am not in the trenches of any one of those areas daily. Connecting directly with those doing a job every day is the best way to understand what is working or not working and what can be improved. My experiences outside the firm at large corporations also guided my belief that it is important for everyone to understand how their job relates to the company’s goals and to make sure our team knew how their day-to-day work was directly contributing to our larger purpose. The great recession shaped me as a leader and furthered my belief in the importance of the work we were doing at Optima and, importantly, how we were doing it.
That is why after completing my MBA and working in capital markets in New York City, I returned to the business in 2014 to lead it with my brother, David. I believe in what we are doing at Optima and why we are doing it. I care deeply about people and the environment so that is where I put my attention.
Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occured to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
A group of our team was gathered in Arizona sitting around a large table a day and a half into working on clearly articulating our core values and purpose statement. We were debating the nuance between words and we were a bit tired. One person had his head down and his brows furrowed. Then inspired by a comment someone made and in the moment of silence that followed, he lifted his head and broke into singing the refrain ‘Heal the World…’ by Michael Jackson. His singing tone was reminiscent of family road trips growing up. Everything in me wanted to join in the song and we all laughed.
Ideas and creativity often flow when we are relaxed, comfortable being ourselves, and having fun. That was a much-needed micro break that lightened the energy, increased our endorphins, and got us back in the flow. There have been many times in my career when a negotiation or a situation has felt really tense. Sometimes with a few close colleagues we’d debrief on the experience and while doing so more fully express our inner thoughts and emotions around the situation. The release of that energy and the laughter that often followed felt amazing (good for our health too). What I have found over the years is that high vibrations leads to more creative ideation.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, we are currently working on three new multi-family developments. Optima Lakeview in Chicago is exciting to me because we have designed extensive private and public landscaped terraces, an atrium, and a large rooftop sky-deck with the goal of making this outdoor space usable year-round. It will also be a pet lover’s heaven. I’m thrilled that Optima Verdana in Chicago’s North Shore will be the first time we bring our evolved signature Optima vertical landscaping systems from Arizona to Chicago. The adaptation of using this system to bring more plants and landscaping throughout the community is exciting. Finally, I’m eager to start on 7190 Optima Kierland, the fifth building in our Optima Kierland Center development in Arizona where we will be using lean construction. At Optima, we build communities that improve the way people live by creating homes that are inspiring, vibrant and focused on wellness. We envision home as a place that enables people to feel supported and connected with themselves, their family and community. Home should not only inspire people to live their most authentic lives but should stimulate the senses and foster well-being. We focus on art and ambiance, open greenspace, natural light and carefully curating a collection of lifestyle-enhancing amenities that replenish and rejuvenate our residents when they come home. These spaces promote an active lifestyle, integration of the outdoors and indoors, and deeper social connection.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are a company founded on the belief in being bold. Since our inception in 1978, our business model has exemplified this because unlike the traditional model where the architect, general contractor, and developer are each different companies with different interests, we have controlled and executed on every aspect of the real estate development process in-house as the architect, general contractor, developer, sales broker and property manager. Even today when companies see the benefits of this model and alignment of interest an acquisition of another company that plays a different role in this process does not replicate the inherent way we think. Because at Optima we are all of those roles in the process so that is innate in how we think and work together which, creates a dynamic system that offers greater focus and fluidity. We constantly take risks, question conventions and push the boundaries of what’s possible. We are incredibly driven and are constantly seeking out solutions that raise the bar. We have an entrepreneurial spirt with a long, proven track record of great design and a high-quality product that is aligned with our values and fulfills our purpose. We can make decisions efficiently and take calculated risks to achieve greater success.
An example of this is with 7160 Optima Kierland, the first apartment tower in our Optima Kierland development in Scottsdale, Ariz. Our vertical integration enabled us to capitalize on a new market opportunity by quickly adjusting the unit mix in the development during construction. Our team decisively added three-bedroom units, even though concrete had already been poured through the top floor, and fifth-floor framing was in process. As project architect, we modified plans and ensured no adverse cost impact resulted by our design team maintaining bathrooms and shafts in its original location. As general contractor, we coordinated quick responses from our subcontractors without adversely affecting project delivery. We obtained the approval of our equity partner and construction lender within one week. The result was 12 new units, additional rentable square feet, and a more desirable unit mix. The building leased up in three months and has remained one of our most successful projects.
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?
I am grateful for the women of Optima.
Jennifer Oppenheimer is incredibly smart, hardworking has a keen ability to sense what others are thinking, feeling and needing. Jennifer makes people, me included, feel seen, and she is an exceptional team player.
Ali Burnham is analytical, she speaks her mind clearly and supports her case, and she brings fresh ideas to all areas of the business. Ali eagerly raises her hand to jump in and implement new ideas and she does so with remarkable efficiency. She has a strong desire to learn, and everyone benefits when she is in the room.
My mom, Eileen Hovey, co-founder of Optima, has always encouraged me to see the strong women in the world, to know their stories from history, how they made the world a better place, and ultimately to be one. That encouragement started when she would read to my little sister and me every night before bed. I was curious to learn, and she reminded me how lucky we are to have the privilege to read and learn in this way.
So, when my own passions and desire to learn took me oversees to take masters courses in international relations and human rights, or to travel to Rwanda with a class to understand the peace and reconciliation process after the genocide, I am now aware of how I have benefited from her honoring my love of learning and sharing with me her own. My mother has also always valued girlfriends and prioritized showing up for the friends in her life through all of life’s challenges.
My life is so much richer because of the women I am blessed to share in friendship. I can’t imagine getting through the most challenging experiences of my life without the women who held space for me and my journey, walked beside me, opened their arms and homes, and dropped what they were doing to be there in times of need. One of my mom’s greatest gifts to me has been her example of how to show up, give back, and help others on the journey. Nobody can walk our paths for us but there is something beautiful in sharing those experiences together. I am grateful for those women and all the women at Optima who are helping forge our path forward.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. The Real Estate industry, like the Veterinarian, Nursing and Public Relations fields, is a women dominated industry. Yet despite this, less than 20 percent of senior positions in Real Estate companies are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what do you think is the cause of this imbalance?
Some of the key areas of the real estate industry where our business is focused include architecture, construction, and development and these fields are traditionally, and still today, male dominated. For example, only 4% of construction labor is female, while approximately 50% of manufacturing labor is female. Women, based on each of their own lived experiences, bring a different perspective to the table in any conversation and as we innovate, the time has never been more important for the shared ideas, new perspectives, and leadership that women bring to these critical areas shaping both our industry and how we live.
I value questioning the status quo. I know from my own experience, there is a way we can, with care, honor the past and incorporate the aspects of that which are still serving us well while also evolving and innovating in a way that is impactful and benefits everyone. To me, it is not about whether there are qualified, capable people for these leadership positions, there are, but through what lens do we see inherent skills, capabilities, etc. in others? How aware are we of our own bias? How comfortable are we with the discomfort, change, or challenge we may feel when presented with a new perspective or idea for how we could move forward? How comfortable are we feeling challenged? I wanted to hire people who would disagree with me, who would see things differently than I did and expose my own blind spots. It was one way I was striving to create accountability for myself as a leader.
During the pandemic this past year people in the hospitality, leisure and retail industries were among the hardest hit and the majority of the jobs were lost by women — particularly Black and Hispanic women. The “shecession” as it has been called by The New York Times and others has set women back significantly compared with where we were pre-pandemic. The impact of the virus has been especially severe for millions of single mothers. In the real estate industry, whether it is in real estate finance, capital markets, property management, with no alternative childcare during the pandemic, even women who may have had the ability to work remotely quit their jobs because much of the responsibility of remote schooling fell on their shoulders. This could increase the gender pay gap, and lead to an even wider gender wealth gap.
52% of men have jobs with remote working options, , compared with only 39% of employed women. As companies and families plan for the return to the office and hybrid in-person, plus remote work solutions, it is imperative that we take this opportunity to create solutions that will encourage women to stay in or return to the workforce, if that is what they desire, and will allow the flexibility for families to thrive. I am confident that we can leverage this opportunity that we have.
What 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support greater gender balance going forward?
Prioritizing caregiving, workplace flexibility, leadership training and mentorship programs would all support greater gender balance going forward. As Melinda Gates shared in her book The Moment of Lift and in her May 7, 2020 opinion piece in The Washington Post, ‘the data tells us that the unpaid caregiving work done by women in their households is, in fact, one of the biggest barriers they face to equal opportunity in the workforce.
Paid leave has been shown to improve the health of women and children, boost men’s participation in caregiving and keep women in the workforce. We need to make caregiving a priority. Paid maternity and paternity leave are opportunities to align values with actions. If as a society or company we say that we value family and the wellbeing of our people, and if we understand the critical early period of bonding and childhood development, then it is important to create structures that support those values. Flexible working arrangements are also imperative to supporting greater gender balance going forward and doing so will improve recruitment and retention.
Finally, female leadership, training and mentoring programs are all important, especially in fields where women are underrepresented. Instead of looking for a bigger piece of the pie, women often look to grow the pie, they are likely to look for ways to benefit all the stakeholders, those ideas and perspectives benefit everyone. It is critical that the focus around gender equity becomes more purposeful and intentional — that we start recognizing the value in having women in all different areas of the industry and a more balanced representation of women in senior and leadership roles.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Unconscious gender bias (even by well-meaning people). Societal internalization of how women ‘should be’ often within a masculine paradigm for how things ‘are done’. The confluence of those things can feel, at times, disconnecting. And it’s another reason we’d benefit from having more women in leadership roles. There is a big difference between a loud voice and a strong voice. There are many women, and men, with strong voices that need to be heard and it is in all our highest good to create environments with trust and safety so that those voices are heard. It is also important to let ourselves be seen and to ask for what we want. That takes courage and in my own experience, practice.
Women are often still seen as unable to balance their family life and their professional life due to the perception, and often the reality, that there are different requirements of mothers than fathers. Instead of using that against women, let’s create cultures, norms and structures that allow families to divide work outside the office based on their family’s needs.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Real Estate industry?
- It is incredibly rewarding to create beautiful and innovative spaces that enhance people’s lives, and we are in a unique position where we can see, touch, feel and live in a physical structure that we’ve built.
- The urban built environment is responsible for 75% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. Our industry is in a position to change that — to work toward more sustainable solutions to help mitigate climate change. It is exciting to know you have an opportunity to implement solutions to make such an impact on the world.
- Finally, at Optima, it is exciting to be part of the entire process of bringing housing to life — something that is so important to people. Our communities are where people come home, their safe space, the place they celebrate life’s day-to-day as well as holidays and milestones, where they go to be most comfortable. It is amazing to create communities that provide diversity of experiences and vitality.
Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?
- I am concerned about the lack of affordable housing. There are over 560,000 people in the United States who are homeless, and we have a shortage of affordable and workforce housing. Our ability to provide well designed affordable housing solutions to a greater population of people in this country is critical. As a family we are committed to finding ways to create beautiful and innovative spaces that are affordable.
- COVID-19 introduced a slew of new concerns for the industry and the importance of evolving the built environment to provide a quality of life for people in a manner that reflects these new challenges — challenges related to health and safety, mental health, space, the need for social connection, the importance of outdoor space and connection to nature. One area of particular focus for us has been on creating an outdoor space in our Chicago developments that is usable year-round.
- The urban built environment is responsible for 75% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. Our industry is in a position to change that — we need to work toward more sustainable solutions to help mitigate climate change. We are constantly thinking about how we are designing our buildings so that sustainability is assured through design, as well as strategies to implement to reduce emissions and the amount of carbon dioxide the building industry contributes into the atmosphere. We are exploring new technology, new sources of energy, new materials, and ways to operate our buildings more efficiently.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Be true to who you are. I’m a believer in the power of reflection, knowing yourself and what makes you tick. Understanding yourself and being able to articulate that to those you work with throughout your life will help create meaningful connections and growth that will help you truly leverage your unique strengths. One way to do this is to take the time to pause and journal. Share a few insights on what you discover with your team. In sharing and being vulnerable you set an example and help create a safe space for them to communicate openly with you.
Ok, here is the main question of our interview. You are a “Real Estate Insider”. If you had to advise someone about 5 non intuitive things one should know to succeed in the Real Estate industry, what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each?
- Lead to learn. You don’t have to have all the answers to lead. Regardless of your title or responsibilities, if you approach leadership with the mindset of learning and you are there to learn, the people you lead will teach you a lot and you’ll certainly grow a great deal through the experience. There were times in my career when I was managing people with more experience or technical knowledge (in architecture, construction, development, law etc.) than I had. I had the benefit of knowing they knew more than me so I tried to understand what was needed so they could thrive. I asked questions about what was working and not working, what they needed, what would make things more efficient, what motivated them. I met with people one-on-one for a walk or a lunch and then I worked to collaboratively make changes and to continue to evolve our teams and organization for the better.
- Know what motivates you. I deeply care about people. So even when I was thinking about cash flow or focused on my vision for the company and strategy for how to achieve that vision, what I felt most emotionally connected with was uplifting people. How to develop, support and encourage leaders, how to motivate and inspire, and connect the day-to-day to meaning in a fulfilling way.. I felt a lot of joy in that part, so I gravitated there. You will have achievements that you feel more emotionally connected to and proud of, and it is usually because they are connected to your own personal values and it feeds your energy… keep pursuing those.
- Don’t assume the current way is the only way. There are areas of the industry that are ripe for innovation. When you have ideas or see areas to improve a process, a culture, a connection of the company brand to its values, an aspect of the industry that could leverage work already being done in other industries to innovate, speak up and pursue it. I learn a lot attending non-industry related conferences on subjects that resonate with me and bringing what I learn back to our business.
- Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast. To quote my friend Matthew Griffin, “Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.” The adage comes from the US Navy Seals and was used by Matt as an Army Ranger. In our business, as hard as it may feel, it is often better to slow down and make sure you have a plan before jumping into action and take the time to brainstorm and review the lessons learned. It will likely save time in the long run. In a world that values speed and efficiency, it is helpful to define what that means for you and those you work with. We set aside time after each project to sit down with our subcontractors, sales and property management teams, architects, and others, to discuss the lessons learned from that project so we can incorporate into the next project.
- Teams hold the key to avoiding burnout at work. Burnout is different than stress and there is still some stigma around burnout in the workplace. While both internal and external factors contribute to it, the research points to very specific causes in the workplace that can be identified and addressed through teams and culture. When we understand this, we can continue to make positive changes for more sustainable work lives. In Paula Davis’ new book she lays out the key signs of burnout and the building blocks for creating resilient teams.
Because of your position, you are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
It would be to help people see how truly interconnected we are.
How can our readers follow you online?
I do not have any public social media accounts. I set clear boundaries for myself with technology and I very intentionally carve out opportunities to be offline completely. While there is so much good that comes from our ability to communicate and connect online, I value the depth of connection I experience in person and in the world around me offline, so that is what I prioritize. As a result, I do not spend a lot of my time online — when I am not working, I am reading, writing, creating art, or actively adventuring in nature. The best way to keep up would be to follow Optima (@optimainc).
Thank you for your time, and your excellent insights!