Natalie Voland

Founder, Gestion Immobilière Quo Vadis

TELUS Trailblazer Award Finalist

 

With a background in social work, Natalie Voland created a unique vision using real estate projects as a tool of economic development and urban regeneration, leading to the creation of over 3,000 new jobs. A Quebec leader in social innovation, Natalie works collaboratively with strategic partners to redevelop communities — earning her B Corp Certification based on her triple bottom line practices. A faculty professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, she has developed a new paradigm of real estate called Yield Development.

 

My first job ever was… my first official job was working at a video store where they also sold ice cream at a mall that was close to where I grew up.  I had many smaller jobs like babysitting and childcare since I was 11 years old. I wanted to work at the video store as I wanted to learn how to sell and be part of a vibrant community- everyone wanted to hang out at the video/ice cream store and I was in the full action.  I got to understand the preferences of the customers, and have suggestions for them when they came in. I learned the ropes on the paperwork, ordering, profit margins and “up sales”. I was 16, I was in a car accident that severely damaged my leg- my employers and the staff were super supportive during my surgeries and held my position for me until I was ready to come back to work.  I learned what loyalty was in business even in such an entry position, that when I came back to work early on crutches as I wanted to show the team my dedication to them. These valuable lessons helped me to become the leader that I am today- my team and their wellbeing is at the core of our company.

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… entrepreneurship chose me.  I was a social worker in the health system for trauma and critical care, and my father fell ill and asked me to come to work in his Real Estate company. I agreed to come for one year “to help out”, as long as my social values would not change because I was going into Real Estate Development.  I had a pencil, calculator, and a stubborn will not give up. With zero training. I was not aware that companies I just took over were actually in precarious condition financially, that we had difficult staff and a negative partner, matched with being severely underfunded. So I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.  The school of hard knocks almost knocked me out so many times, yet the loyalty of the staff and our growing client base made me get up every morning to show that socially responsible entrepreneurship is the solution to growing social and environmental crises. I chose to use my social values to push forward “re-inventing” that Real Estate and demonstrate that you can make a profit while serving the communities that we work in.

My proudest accomplishment is… hard to say what my proudest moment is; because there are many.  I have dedicated the last 23 years of my business life to lead by example and to make decisions that if reported back to my daughters, I would be proud of. I am proud that I choose to give my staff the room to be their own leaders and entrepreneurs in our company so we together that create a meaningful life in and out of the office.  However, when I teach or give speeches on my work, and someone comes up to me and says that my road has inspired them to work differently, or create their own company, or that in a dark moment, something I said to them made them get up and keep going to the path that they have chosen for themselves.  I could also add that I am proud when my two daughters see my example that life is not fair, that it’s hard but worth to stick what you believe in as my greatest accomplishment.

I surprise people when I tell them… that, even today, after all these years and leading a successful business that creates inclusive communities and new jobs, I count my accomplishment how many “no’s” I have turned into “yes’s”.  It always seems that people think you are an overnight success; that took 23 years in the making. It never becomes easy to be an entrepreneur; the very nature of being a business leader is that you must continue to innovate, adapt to continuing market conditions, so you are never “done”.

My best advice to people looking to disrupt the status quo is… to understand your responsibility as a trailblazer or a disrupter.  You must understand the “why” of what you wish to use business to solve and then figure out the “how” along the way.  However, this concept that it’s ok to fail is a fallacy: pivot, don’t fail- one road does not work, try another. To compliment this point, my follow up advice is- “never disrupt without replacing a solution to what you have disrupted”.  When you disrupt and walk, you have left a vacuum to showing what does not work in an industry that can lead to instability. As an entrepreneur, it is our job to find other ways and solutions.

My best advice from a mentor was… Nelson Mandela said many amazing things, however, my favourite advises from him is the saying “ It always seems impossible until it’s done”.  When you think of that for a moment, you can realize that looking back some of the best solutions to challenges are obvious. However, when you are in the thick of a huge new innovation or disruption of an industry, many traditional forces will push back at you.  The more successful you are at moving the ticker a little, the more you will get push back from the industry leaders that stand to lose market share because of your ideals. Like for us in Real Estate, we are proving that you can make market-rate returns and have a triple bottom mandate that includes social and environmental leadership.  Traditional forces in Real Estate often would see the concept of “profit now” as their rule of thumb. Then they would set up a foundation to funnel tax credits to donate to the very causes that they have been partially responsible for creating through their industry decisions. Mission alignment in investment strategies are now bearing the time of day- market-driven consumer and employee choices are making many industries realize the impact that they could have that could be positive and lucrative.

 

“You must understand the ‘why’ of what you wish to use business to solve and then figure out the ‘how’ along the way.”

 

My biggest setback was… oh gosh, there are so many!  I would say access to capital and finance our Real Estate projects were my biggest setbacks in realizing our projects.  We do not fit in the box of “Mr. Credit” in underwriting, and if our projects don’t get funded, we cannot make the impact that we can make.  The biggest recurring challenge is to convince people that doing right in business is actually a lower risk than traditional industries. The social values we hold will also not allow us to fail.  So over time banks and lenders are starting to realize the value of the B Corp movement as an asset to reducing their risk to be paid back their loan.

I overcame it by… I had a three-tiered approach. At first, I used many awards to demonstrate the ability of my company to be a credible leader in the industry. Over time we were awarded accolades in building reconversions, to community development, to sustainable leadership strategies, to entrepreneurship awards to show that we are making a difference. These awards we won continued to grow in stature and scope and helped the bankers to realize that we were moving forward and would not go away. I also chose to have private investments, even ones that were aggressive because an interest-only, non-recourse loan is better than closing my company. The last approach was to be the best in the industry and get our occupancy rates to speak for themselves. We are currently holding a 165,000 square feet waiting list, all our 1.5 million square feet of our current portfolio are rented and we are in final stages to launch three new projects that are another 1 million square feet of socially inclusive, environmentally responsive constructions.

I never go a day without… having great conversations with my daughters.  They are my inspiration and my grounding force. They guide me with their world views and make me realize why I do what I do.

If I had an extra hour in the day I would… funny enough, if I had an extra hour in a day I would sleep!

I stay inspired by… teaching our work to others.  I teach in universities, speak to community groups, work with urban planners, and entrepreneurs.  These experiences often always teach me more just by forcing myself to stay current and challenged.  My speeches also allow me to see many other cities and I use those opportunities to learn new best practices in our field of Impact Real Estate that I can apply to my own work in my company.

The future excites me because… as we finally see the momentum of “Using Business As A Force of Good” as the motto of the B Corp movement.  We are finally not “crazy” but “inspirational”. We have an amazing and growing team, bankers and investors that have seen our success and are working with us to scale our work.  The phone is ringing off the hook for new projects and we can apply our knowledge to new challenges while our prior projects continue to prove through the test of time that our type of Real Estate makes great returns, loyal clients and staff and moves the ticker for social inclusion and making a statement to attack the growing climate crisis.  It’s a win-win-win-win proposition we are offering. We hope that our hard work for all these years will trailblaze the road for others to follow and inspire others to make their own way without having to leave their values at the door to their office. It’s a very exciting time for us!


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