Growing up in an age where most women had one place—the home—didn’t stop entrepreneur Patrica Will, Belmont Village Senior Living’s founder and chief executive officer, who saw her mother straddle the professional and personal worlds and was inspired to do the same.
The idea of being a woman, a wife, a mother, may have been inconsistent with being a business woman during her childhood, Will says, but she growing up she hadn’t seen any inconsistency thanks to role models such as her mother and her mother’s friends whom she described as “other female professionals in New York City in executive positions in business way before their time.”
A native New Yorker, Will headed west for an undergraduate degree in French and history at Portland, Oregon’s Reed College before returning to the Northeast to attend Harvard Business School. In the three years between her undergraduate and graduate studies, Will’s parents had moved to Houston, Texas, where she lived for three years before deciding to “round out” her liberal arts education.
After Harvard, Will returned to Houston and began working as a real estate developer. Then, spurred by an economic recession, she embarked on a career focusing on needs-based development (think medical office buildings or campuses) rather than opportunistic real estate.
Around that time, in the early- to mid-90s, Will’s mother-in-law developed Alzheimer’s, and the family began exploring care options. Advice from hospital discharge planners was to place Will’s mother-in-law in some sort of community rather than take care of her at home, she recalls, but they couldn’t find a facility they felt good about.
“There are times in your life when your personal traumas and your professional pursuits cross,” she says. “I began to think about creating some place better that would be suited to people like her.”
The assisted living model, which emerged in the late 1980s, was still very new at the time and was catching on quickly. However, it didn’t have any capacity at that point dedicated for people with memory impairments.
Will began to think about a model that could work, and eventually her interest widened beyond simply cognitive care to also creating a broader environment for a spectrum of frail elderly seniors.
“That quest is what launched me,” she says. And so Belmont Village Senior Living—which now has 21 locations (and counting) as the 34th-largest for-profit senior living provider—came to be.
Senior Housing News: Does the industry need to do anything to change the gender imbalance at the corporate level, considering that just three of 36 CEOs among ALFA’s top 50 senior living providers are women? What are some ways to achieve a better balance?
Patricia Will: I do think it needs to be changed. I don’t think our industry is any worse than most other industries, but I certainly don’t think it’s good enough. Here’s why: I think we (females) are at least as capable as males, so we ought to have a more even playing field with respect to leadership.
Looking at the proportion of customers and employees that are female, and to then be lacking in female leadership, is certainly a place where we have our work cut out for us.
I think the pipeline of female leaders is likely already there. We just have to learn how to cultivate it. At least half of it is things that we, as companies, male or female, can do to better train, educate, and incentivize women to stay in, and rise to the top.
The other half is us women. Sheryl [Sandberg, COO of Facebook, in a 60 Minutes interview on her recent book] made comments apposite to senior housing:
Women have a tendency to not ask for the next job, for leadership roles. We self-edit. We tend to be perfectionists. We oftentimes don’t assume that we have every right to be in charge. That’s controversial, but, to a degree, it’s true.
SHN: Do you think that women in the senior living industry offer any additional perspective compared to their male counterparts?
PW: We do. It helps to have a balance in every company, no matter what the company is.
Ours is an industry where, in the main, our customers are females. An overwhelming number, probably two-thirds, of those who live in senior housing and assisted living are female, and our employees are overwhelmingly females—probably in the same proportion, if not more.
If you think about the power of that in terms of first encounter with your customer, female executives have some advantage. Many of us have a shared experience; everything from the physical real estate—we women are very attentive to kitchens and bathrooms—to the psychological and emotional side of making the decision to move to a community. That gives you an advantage.
When you’re looking at employees, the [senior living industry] workforce, it’s overwhelmingly female and mostly working mothers. If you yourself and a good bit of your executive team are in the same place and understand the balancing act, that’s very helpful as you work to be a good employer.
Female executives and leaders in this industry have a bit of a leg up. I’ve spent my whole career saying we’re all equal, man or woman. But in terms of understanding both the needs and the issues of our workforce—largely working moms—and understanding the needs and issues of our customers—who are still in the majority female—it helps to approach the business through the eyes of a woman.
SHN: Has the senior living industry seen progress already in terms of having both men and women represented in leadership positions?
PW: I think it’s improved somewhat. I don’t see a sea change out there. I think women in charge of companies today are more entrepreneurs, the founders and owners of the companies.
There are certainly women in the c-suites of national or public companies, and it’s certainly no worse than it was 10 years ago, and better to the extent that you have leadership representation, but it’s more entrepreneurs.
Guys in leadership roles often came from other industries and got plunked into our industry at fairly high level. That’s less true today than it was 10 years ago, and I think it will be less true over time.
It’s true for both men and women that our industry needs to be very proactive in attracting people with the kinds of backgrounds that can run companies.
This is a great industry to enter if you are a young person now, because it only gets better over time. As a young woman, there’s a lot of promise in this business, because you do have a certain advantage, I think, with respect to how you approach the customer and the employees.
People don’t typically wake up in the morning and say, ‘I’d like to be in charge of a senior housing company some day.’ We need to create excitement over an industry that’s arguably the best career path over the next however many years.
SHN: Are there less women at a corporate level simply because fewer are qualified?
PW: I would challenge that. You have men and women in equal measure who are qualified, but nobody comes with a perfect score.
What you have to do is take people—nobody has a perfect background—and supplement and round out that background with the pieces that are missing. For the guys, there are a lot that come to the role from outside the industry altogether. They have to get content knowledge in the industry.
For females, more come at it from within the industry, but they may not have backgrounds in finance or accounting. They need training, perhaps in those areas. Either way, you have to give them something—it’s rare people come fully-cooked.
SHN: What advice would you have for women looking to break into the senior living c-suite?
PW: Especially those of us who are women need to do a better job of mentoring the women that are coming behind us, both in our companies, at schools, all over.
We need to speak out, find potential candidates, male and female, and then nurture them in slightly different ways.
At Belmont, we have a Future Leaders Council where we identify people with high potential, both male and female. The way we mentor [up-and-coming] females is different, though. We often have a whole different set of issues as mothers, wives, adult children to our own seniors and we tend to bear all those burdens in addition to being professionals. Learning how to balance that is part of what it means to be a successful executive.
Those of us who are there already and have done it, should be willing to give of ourselves, as mentors.
The flip side of it is, take a company like Belmont, and my general counsel—the CIO and CFO—now and since the founding of the company, are all females; they’re immensely talented individuals. It’s not because we don’t like the boys.
I have found that available talent in the workplace, at the executive level, who likely would not have made it to the next level for companies not like mine, were there for the taking. They were topped out by a glass ceiling, by companies far larger than mine.
In the companies they were in, I think they were being held back for whatever reason—maybe because they were women, or because they were mothers—and that creates an opportunity for those of us who are out there in a position to hire, to find some extraordinary talent.
SHN: What’s your personal philosophy in life, and is it different from your business philosophy?
PW: My personal philosophy has grown into my business philosophy. I am very excited about continuing to enjoy life, learn, grow, and influence those around me to have the best experiences that they can. Being in this business, where you have the opportunity to create environments, to make the experiences of aging not a problem but an opportunity, is all that I could ever want in a career. It matches so well with how I think about life.
It’s very rare to have an opportunity to earn a great rate of return for your investors, but also have the opportunity to give back to those around you. I feel like this business satisfies that need that I have, that’s integral to how I think about life. Yes, do as well as you can out there in the marketplace, but also take the skills and knowledge you have and handle them to the best of your ability.
This is the first in a series of profiles on three women who hold executive leadership positions in the senior living industry. Click here to read “Women Aiming for New Gains in Senior Living Leadership” to get more information about Senior Housing News’ analysis of female representation in the c-suite among the top for-profit and not-for-profit organizations.