Cara Houser, Founder, Cara Houser
Cara Houser spent 20 years learning how to survive and ultimately thrive in the ultra male pressure cooker real estate development business, first as Director of Development at Panoramic Interests, and later as founder of her own development consultancy. During that time, her teams produced over 3,000 homes in the San Francisco Bay Area, creating over $1.5B in value. Now she is a career strategist, empowerment coach, and speaker, helping women in commercial real estate tap into their own innate power, creativity, and purpose to go from Chaos to Clarity and Burned Out to Lit Up.
What's your industry?
Career Strategy for Women in Commerical Real Estate
For those who don't know anything about you or your work, can you provide a bit of background?
I spent 20 years learning how to survive and ultimately thrive in the ultra-male, 24/7, meat grinder field of real estate development. It’s an “always on” business, in which it is a peculiar badge of honor to be so “busy” as to have few, if any, other priorities in life.
During that time, my teams produced over 3,000 homes in the San Francisco Bay Area, creating over $1.5B in value. If you can develop housing in the Bay Area, you can smash just about any hurdle in your path.
After slogging away for the first 15 years, doing all (most? some?) of the things working parents are “supposed” to do, with two kids and a crushing set of expectations from work, home, and beyond, I hit a wall.
I remember sobbing at our friends’ home one day after a scary ambulance visit to the hospital for my son the night before.
I had no idea how I got so burned out and even less of a clue how to come back to life, and my friend suggested a sabbatical as a place to start. At first I doubted I “deserved” this or could do it without “permission” from others in my life, and indeed many folks loudly (and uninvitedly!) voiced their fears and warnings about the demise of my career. But my mental and physical state at the time demanded it, so I pushed forward and made a plan to reclaim my life.
I learned that the more I nourished myself, the more I had to give. (I also learned that playing your first instrument after 40 is a slow road, but who cares - being horrible at first builds character!)
I got my mojo back, and with it plenty of motivation to get back in the game of work. By shifting my perspective, strategy, and approach, I rebuilt my career with far more autonomy and purpose. Learning that I had the power to set my own rules of engagement with the world was a watershed moment. I just had to learn how to use it.
Bursting with ideas and inspiration, I started a consulting business in my field five years ago and have worked on many exciting projects with terrific clients, chosen based on shared purpose and mutual benefit.
Now I'm a career strategist + empowerment coach for women in real estate development, design, engineering, construction, and management, helping clients tap into their own innate power, possibility, and purpose.
What does an average day look like for you?
Our home is me, my husband, and two amazing teenagers who are finding their voices and way in the world. My day starts with getting them off to school, and is followed by a habit stack of morning activities that help keep me centered and strengthen my mental and physical foundation so I can enter the day nourished inside and out. The basics of these include running outside near my house most mornings, and spending 10 mins either journaling or mindfulness practice.
Then I settle into my schedule, which varies by day, but is pretty consistent week to week. I'm writing a book called Burned out to Lit Up, which I expect to publish in 2024, and dedicated time M-F to this effort.
I also have time set aside each week for meet+greets with new clients and 1:1 and group coaching with existing clients. I enjoy interacting with interesting folks on Linkedin and do so a few times a week.
In the late afternoon / evening I turn my attention back to domestic tasks, family time, friends, and solo down time. I love sleeping, maybe more than the average bear, and to the consternation of my teens, am pretty early to bed unless there's an extremely exciting and compelling reason not to do so.
On the weekends, we love traveling and doing outdoor stuff and I play my guitar, make chocolate pancakes and hang out with loved ones.
How do you balance the needs of your business with the needs of your personal life?
I've come to loathe the notion of “work-life balance,” as it has become a torture chamber for people trying in vain to get that “balance right,” as though that elusive state is but one class, habit, or massage away.
There's no way to get that work-life balance right between parenthood and career. It's a trap to even think it's possible by being even more efficient, sacrificing even more of ourselves and our basic human needs, and is a recipe for so much stress and pain.
It's a con. And we must reject it in order to reclaim our power and our lives - body, mind, and spirit. For me this realization was astonishingly liberating. It allowed me to rebuild my life without the pressure and shame of feeling like a failure so I could set priorities, set boundaries, and show up more freely, authentically, and joyfully in all realms of life.
It is why I now refer to this lovely balancing act as life-work balance, a simple reordering that makes all the difference.
The way to power, possibility, and purpose lies in crafting a lifestyle meant for actual human living and thriving, one where *life* comes before *work.* When ordered properly, both the life and the work are so much better for it.
This lifestyle can take many forms, and can exist within organizations as well as among solopreneurs. With hybrid work arrangements and 4-day workweeks becoming more prevalent, there are more opportunities than ever to get creative with ordering our habits, days, and lives in service of crafting a life we love.
Many "9-5ers" work far more than 8 hours a day, and are essentially on call 24/7 thanks to the wonders of technology. Even if their work is not literally "saving lives," which let's face it, most of us are not. Even surgeons get days off.
It's still deeply ingrained in American work culture that if you don't give 100%++ to your paid work (thereby abdicating responsibility for yourself and your loved ones), you are not actually committed.
It's horrendous. And the chief explanation for that increasingly dirty and universal “B” word - Burnout.
The bottom line is that it's not possible to maintain a healthy lifestyle or relationships when activities related to your well-being are nowhere to be found on our to-do list.
I have learned (the hard way) to put myself and my loved ones on my to-do list like we actually matter. And then keep my commitments to myself and them. I've learned to create protective guardrails around them and not let them slip off or get overwritten every time an "urgent" external demand makes its way onto my radar.
What's the best advice anyone ever gave you on your journey in business?
When I was just starting out in real estate development at 25 years old, my very first boss said: "Cara, if you're going to make it in development, you better have 2 things: a thick skin and and short memory."
After 20 years in housing development and launching two businesses of my own, I'd say that's extremely good advice.
I'd add a 3rd as well - a sense of humor.
Lots of barbs get thrown about in the pressure cooker development business, and 95% percent of the time, they are not personal, and must be allowed to fly on by. Otherwise they are distracting and draining and deter us from our purpose.
If they are personal, deal with them directly and right in the face - do not let them simmer or grow into resentment. Do not gossip or tattle. If you can deal with things head on, with integrity, and with a degree of diplomacy, you'll go far.
I sometimes would joke with my developer clients that our business was like waking up each day and getting punched in the face. New barriers pop up all the time that threaten the survival of projects (government, NIMBY, economy, pandemic, etc.).
Even if you are a natural "meerkat" (as my husband says I am) on the lookout for threats on the horizon, you sometimes get taken by surprise with ridiculousness you never saw coming.
Your job is not to lament these, but to remain nimble, adaptable, and endlessly creative when finding a pathway out/ around/ through.
Once you've worked with your awesome network and team to figure out a way to be even better than before, forget about the hurdle and move on. Another will arrive soon enough and you'll need your energy for that.
SENSE OF HUMOR
Isn't this just a prerequisite of living?
Most of the challenges we face are not actually life or death, and if we can retain a bit of levity, we are in a much better headspace to solve problems without getting bogged down in the depths of frustration and despair.
We're also a lot more pleasant to be around, and folks on all sides of the aisle are more likely to want to collaborate with us on a crafty win-win solution.
At the end of the day, we're here to create something beautiful, useful, and lasting, and we need to put our best energy into it for it to thrive.
Everything passes, the good, bad, and ugly.
If we can remember that, and know that in a few weeks or months this issue will be a distant memory, but the people we work with and the work we create will endure, we can remain focused on the long game.
And our relentless commitment to excellence, shared success, and what "really matters" will be our legacy.
What's been the hardest part about the path you've taken and how would you advise someone facing a similar situation to overcome it?
Getting off the hamster wheel of conventional dictates of what is a "successful" career and life path look like, and forging my own. And ignoring all the (sometimes well meaning) bad advice that flooded my ears the minute I did it.
I got so burned out that I needed to engage in a period of self restoration before getting back in the game. And once I did I had plenty of setbacks - we all do when doing something new. That's where a growth mindset is indispensable in keeping us going. Each setback is a lesson to learn and incorporate into our strategy and approach.
We must be willing to iterate many many times and still stay focused on the big picture goal and dream. There are a thousand ways to get there - if we're lucky we many only have to experiment with a few hundred!
Are there any well-known Books, Podcasts, or Courses that you credit your current success to?
Must reads: Mindset by Carol Dweck, Seat of the Soul by Gary Zukav, The Artists' Way by Julia Cameron, Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo, Set Boundaries Find Peace by Nedra Tawwab, Devotions by Mary OIiver.
What do you think are the most important qualities for a successful business owner or executive to have?
Entrepreneurship is exciting, creative, challenging, sometimes isolating, and always filled with uncertainty and change.
In addition to the experience specific to your industry, I've found the following list of skills and qualities to be essential for success as an entrepreneur. The great news is that these can all be practiced and learned!
Resourcefulness + creativity and imagination in problem solving:
Doing so creatively is the #1 skill of a successful entrepreneur.
No one is coming to save you or give you direction (unless you actively seek it out), and there's no one to blame when things don't go as planned. Figure out what needs doing next, and tackle it, one step at a time. If it doesn’t work as hoped, try something else.
Ability to form strong trust-based networks / relationships: trust is the basis of ANY kind of relationship, including business connections.
You'll get knocked down - just keep dusting yourself off, evaluating what you can learn, releasing the rest, and moving forward.
Why are you doing what you are doing? If you know your deeper "why" and what inner values are driving your thoughts, choices, and actions, then each day has purpose, clarity, and joy.
Persuasiveness / connection / communication with ease with wide variety of people from various backgrounds and with varying perspectives:
Entrepreneurs offer products or services that help people solve their problems. Being able to connect with potential clients, understand their needs, and tailor your services accordingly is key to having a successful business (and not just an expensive hobby!)
Self-belief and faith to stick it out and keep learning and iterating along the way:
Businesses take time to grow - sometimes years, and we need to maintain faith in ourselves and our purpose. Becoming comfortable with uncertainty and change makes this so much less stressful. I’ve found that necessity is truly the mother of invention - when I’ve needed to figure out a solution and approach the issue with openness, I find a way through.
Flexibility, adaptability, growth mindset:
Last but definitely not least - all of the above don't work very well if you are stuck trying the same things over and over, even when they are not working as hoped, or getting trapped in rabbit holes of limiting beliefs. There's always another way, another perspective, another strategy, another person you can ask for help. We can always learn and grow, and can even learn to cultivate a growth mindset. Carol Dweck's book Mindset is essential reading for this.
What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out as a business owner?
If you have solid experience in your field, including operations-type skills, that’s an excellent start, since solopreneneurs and small business owners often do it all, at least for a little while as they get established.
A few initial thoughts:
Try to start with some smaller projects or clients on the side of your FT job to practice business development and start to build momentum.
Make sure you have your back end covered before you start (business insurance, legal contracts, billing procedures, IT basics).
Make sure you have some savings set aside to allow yourself time to ramp up your new business revenue.
Start talking with trusted folks in your network about your plans so they can help send resources and potential clients your way.
What are the top three things you think are essential for business success?
Resourcefulness + creativity
Ability to communicate and connect authentically
Resilience + growth mindset
Do you think someone can be a great business owner without having many years of experience first?
Depends - you can start with the school of books, but you're going to need some hard knocks from the school of life to put your knowledge to the test. If you're willing to be learn lots of lessons the hard way, and still keep going, sure.
In general, do you think the world is producing better business owners in 2023 than it was fifty years ago?
In some ways yes. The notion that there are other outcomes that matter aside from shareholder short term gain is building momentum. More folks are coming to realize that they have within them the potential and power to create something new and unique, if they're willing to invest the effort and endure the inevitable challenges (and revel in the joys).
As in any era of time, there are folks looking to get rich quick or do something because they heard there a market for it, rather than them actually giving a sh*t about the work and the impact it has on the world. People can smell a fraud a mile away, so that never works, not for long anyway.