Amy Cara brings a woman’s touch to Denver’s building boom, operating as a leader in a field still dominated by men. In September, Cara stepped fully into her new role as managing partner of the Denver office of East West Partners. The firm developed 25 acres in Denver’s Central Platte Valley into Riverfront Park and spearheaded development of the Union Station neighborhood. Since 1986, the company has developed and sold more than $3 billion in residential and commercial real estate.
Cara’s skill set runs the gamut. “I’m active in construction processes underway and prospective projects we’re chasing. I work with the sales team on strategy. I attend meetings on strategic levels, making sure the big picture and long run are considered in construction meetings. I’m out scouting for new opportunities, negotiating opportunities to develop new places.”
On any given day, Cara interacts with architects, contractors, and construction managers. “I work with men 90 percent of the time,” says Cara. “Women have been a significant part of real estate as agents and brokers, but development and construction are not historically women’s roles. It’s still a man’s world to some degree, but our construction manager is a woman,” Cara says.
Cara served two years as vice chair and two years as chair of the Colorado chapter of the Urban Land Institute. “The percentage of women in ULI gives a sense of women moving through the ranks,” she says. “It’s about 25 percent women now, and that’s incredible. It’s up.”
Cara understands that, like concrete, the strongest development and construction teams require the proper mix. “One problem I’ve seen with organizations to help women succeed is the idea of just continuing to surround yourself with strong women. It doesn’t help women move up in the larger world. I don’t think it functions that way in the real world. Women and men need to work adjacent to each other.”
Cara emphasizes the many benefits females add to the development mix. Women bring a lot to conceptualizing and carrying through on a vision, mission and concept, bringing it to life. Women spend time thinking about the personality of an idea. Women tend to think about that softer side of it—not to say men don’t, but it’s a great skill women have. Women make sure we’re not shortcutting as a building comes to life, and they come back to mission all the way through design. It’s an area where women can really add something.”
Above all, Cara understands her role as a negotiator. There’s a lot of negotiation whether an office lease, a large penthouse, a new development. It comes back to principles,” she says, “and being able to approach negotiation with win-win as opposed to someone has to win and someone has to lose. Women are good at that.”
For Cara, the trick to thriving in a traditionally male arena is not becoming one of the guys. “Don’t be afraid to assert yourself and advocate for yourself, but do in way that’s authentically you. Don’t behave like the guys do,” she says. “Women bring a different spirit and culture. Trying to emulate the men won’t come off as authentic and can work against you.”
Cara also urges women to make career leaps of faith. “Like the Sheryl Sandbergs of the world say, you have to remember that most of the time when there’s a new opportunity in front of you, you won’t know how to do it and can’t possibly know until you’ve done it—but that’s not a reason not to jump for your next role,” Cara says.
“Go for it if you’re interested. This is across the board—not just real estate. Many opportunities involve doing very different things that create growth and help you move up, so jump for what excites you.” Cara names Harry Frampton as one of her main mentors. Reflecting on her career trajectory, Cara also credits her success, in part, to influences from her middle school and high school art teacher. He was great in helping me build a voice from the very beginning,” says Cara. “My senior year, art was my last class of the day, and this teacher allowed me to stay in the art room, and gave me permission to stay as long as I wanted and trusted me to care for the space.”
Cara still paints occasionally, enjoys photography as a hobby and is taking guitar lessons. “Guitar is an opportunity to bring my brain to the other side, the right brain, which helps with problem solving, out-of-the-box thinking, coming around from different angles for the right solutions,” she says. “This ties in with why I raise money for the arts.”
Cara grew up in Minnesota, on Lake Minnetonka. “The culture in Minneapolis had many charitable organizations giving to make things happen. The Walker Art Museum with their amazing sculpture garden, the incredible theater and music venues: I could see all these great organizations making things possible. I wanted to be able to do that, too.” Cara came to Colorado to attend the University of Colorado Boulder, where she studied finance and accounting. After graduation, she worked in public accounting with clients in the software industry, health care and manufacturing before landing in real estate 18 years ago.
“I’ve always liked the physical environment and a sense of place, she says. “I enjoy the process of thinking through space—interior and exterior—how people move through space. In the design aspect, we’re creating something meaningful for people inside and people who experience it from the outside.” Cara appreciates the places between buildings: the fountains, for example, in front of Union Station. “I get really excited about these spaces because that’s where people convene. That’s where community happens.”
Now 46, Cara balances her community involvement and demanding career with a yoga practice, strength training and in summer, stand-up paddleboarding. Her balancing act also includes working in her garden in the Berkeley neighborhood where she lives with her husband, whom she met at a Colorado Business Community for the Arts luncheon. Cara says, “I love getting my hands in the dirt, so gardening is important for my sanity, too.” The microcosm of her garden inspires her to safeguard the macrocosm.
“Water is obviously a big issue in Colorado. Affordable housing is a big issue for Colorado, and so is sustainability, healthy building, responsible design,” she says. “We’re in a huge building boom. There are places we’re doing a great job and places where we can continue to improve,” she says.
“The conversation about good design does not mean more expensive materials. You can make a beautiful building using thoughtful materials. We can’t be lazy and keep slapping up the same building because we already built it once. I’m providing input wherever I can on responsible land use and development.”
She’s also providing input as a philanthropist, primarily involved with the award-winning PlatteForum, which connects underserved youths in Denver with master artists-in-residence from around the world.
“Some kids come from really tough environments, and PlatteForum provides a place where they are valued, find a voice of their own, solve problems, build confidence. It’s so intensive that we don’t deal with a ton of kids, but we touch a few more deeply, a smaller cohort,” she says.
“We’re not necessarily trying to create future artists, but to create life skills for kids. It might be confidence and expression that really resonates, and they have to solve problems that naturally occur when trying to create art.”
Cara also supports the Riverfront Park Community Foundation created by East West Partners to give back to the arts and local youths. Another current project, The Coloradan, will establish a foundation to fund Union Hall. “It will be a place to bring in artists and performers and create a little art locus right there,” Cara says. She takes a twofold approach to supporting arts: “Part of what I give is my time. It’s important for business people not only to open the checkbook to make programming possible. Charitable organizations need business expertise. I’m engaged as a board member or committee member to help organizations with governance,” she says.
“My engagement is a hybrid of leveraging my relationships toward assisting organizations by connecting them with donors that share their mission,” she says. “I talk to folks at banks, title companies, and architecture firms to understand what they care about. I foster relationships, and an executive director can take it from there.”
Philanthropy is critical to Cara’s personal blueprint for living. “It’s been important to me to be charitably engaged my whole life. For those of us moving up through careers and having some success, it’s very important to give back. There are a lot of ways to come at that,” she says.
“You don’t have to be an artist to be involved with arts. You don’t have to have kids to be involved with youths. Creativity is part of my life, part of how I process larger decisions and relax. I want kids to have access to that same outlet.”
East West Partners—Denver Office
1610 Little Raven St., Ste. 115, Denver, CO 80202
East West Partners—Headquarters
P.O. Drawer 2770
126 Riverfront Lane, 5th Fl., Avon, CO 81620
Colleen Smith, a longtime contributor to the magazine, also writes for The Denver Post, Fine Books & Collections, Faerie Magazine, Coastal Living, Sunset and other publications. She’s the author of the novel Glass Halo and the gift book Laid-Back Skier.
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