Avanti Senior Living co-founder Lori Alford is making the senior living industry sexy- and shares how you can do the same in this week’s episode!
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Lucas: Welcome to Bridge the Gap Podcast with Josh and Lucas, the senior living podcast. We are continuing our thought leadership discussion here in California amongst this beautiful backdrop. You can hear the waves crashing and we have the lady, the woman of the hour that is bringing sexy back into senior living, Lori Alford. She is the co-founder and COO of Avante Senior Living. It is exciting to see you. Thank you so much for being here.
Lori: Oh, thank you guys for having me.
Josh: It’s awesome.
Lucas: We’re gonna touch on a very important topic that needs to be discussed more. And we’ve had a lot of discussions just even before we hit record here about we are in kind of a male dominant panel discussions. Where are all the women? Why aren’t they up there? And so we’re gonna talk about women in the workforce and we’re going to talk about your background and your thoughts and your heart, and then we’re going to get raw about it. And let’s just go there. But before we go there, Lori, tell our listeners about your background and what has gotten you to this point and why senior living.
Lori: Yeah, so I wish I had some really cool story like my grandma or my mom or I worked in a community when I was in high school and I don’t. I got out of college and I needed a job and I just so happened to stumble into a market research feasibility assistant job making like $8.50 an hour at a senior living company that was developing. So I started there and from there became, became an actual market feasibility analyst. So approving markets to where they would build. Then development stopped and got into the lobbying side. So I was their in house lobbyists. So I help to license all of the buildings that were under construction and opening, had 32 buildings in 10 states.
Also did some lobbying at the state level, federal level. Helped to write the rules in Texas that they’re currently governed under. Did a lot of advocating for senior housing and other states because that was becoming very important at that time. And then 9/11 happened. Seniors were not sexy to legislators anymore. It was more about homeland security and it should be. And so our focus really switched and the CEO asked me to take marketing in house. At that time, it was kind of fragmented at all the community levels, and so we took it in house and built a really good foundation so that we would deploy marketing efforts from the home office level versus the field level and really streamlined and make the brand.
From there, became a sales regional, and was kind of the person that if there was some trouble buildings, I would get them, build them up and then I would turn them back over to someone else and I’d start the cycle all over again.
Josh: The tough work.
Lori: Yes, yes. But it’s fun. That’s the fun work, right? And then from there, I crossed over to what some people call the dark side and got into operations and did operations and sales and then a VP and then COO and then transitioned out of that with my partner Tim. We created Avanti. And so from ground up development, five buildings now that have all been purposely built for us. Two under construction and three more in development.
Josh: What an interesting trajectory. I mean, so that’s a very diverse background that has obviously equipped you to do what you’re doing today for the feasibility licensing, marketing ops. So I think that in itself, Lori, it’s been really interesting a year in to the podcast, a little more than a year in, there’s so many now of our audience that really don’t know anything about senior housing. And when they hear from folks like you and just thinking what all she just said has anything to do with senior housing. So that story alone is very informative for a lot of our listeners. We’re finding out in the feedback we’re getting is, well we thought all there was to, it was like the caregiver role.
Josh: And so that’s really fascinating. So I’m glad that you gave that kind of perspective of where you know, you can not know anything about it and you get in and at one level and you talk about career pathways and the ability to find your passion and apply it to senior housing and services. That’s really cool. So, let’s talk about where you are now.
Josh: Avanti through the years, I’ve only been doing this 13, 14 years and I was always just amazed at the stories, all the press, all the development. So where are you guys at as a company now with as far as communities and region and kind of what’s your acuity focus?
Lori: So, yeah, so we’ve been going out at this from ground up for five years. And so our portfolio is, we haven’t done any acquisitions yet, I always say yet, so always want to leave the opportunity open. Our fun has really been in building them from scratch, I guess, which I like because it’s like building something new and, you know, building your own playground every single time and having fun with it. And so we have five open communities in Texas and Louisiana. And then we have two more under construction, one in Arizona and another one in Louisiana. And then we have three more in development that are in, south Virginia and in Florida. And so our primary focus is assisted living and memory care.
We are based in Texas where aging in place is there kind of what they’re very, very proud of, especially in the regulatory front. So taking an aging population, we’re very comfortable with. But on the flip side, our buildings are designed and really run like an independent building. So we have a gamut of people that live with us from, very low functioning to very high functioning.
Josh: Yeah. So tell us a little bit, for those of you that haven’t heard you speak, one of the things that always stuck out when I would go to your sessions and different things like that, you’re all over the place, was you’re always talked about bringing sexy back and what does that mean for our listeners?
Lori: So, you know, we’re making senior housing sexy. I’m not sure it’s ever been sexy, but we’re trying.
Josh: Maybe you’re not bringing it back, bringing it, inventing it.
Lori: Right? But everyone does know us as, you know, bringing back the Justin Timberlake song and was like, if there’s a song that defines Avanti, that’s what comes on. I’ll take that.
But for us, sexy doesn’t mean, you know, this like bedrooms, sultry, sexy, that everyone like the bubble in your head everyone pops into it. For us, it’s, you know, as a female, and I know a lot of females and work with a lot of females and a lot of females reside with us, I haven’t met one that doesn’t want to feel sexy and sexy, meaning they walk a little taller, they feel confident, they get up, they get dressed, they brush their hair. They just feel good about who they are. And I correlate that over into our residents. And I’ve really appreciated seeing that come true because our residents, when they are walking around our building, they’re proud to be there. And you can tell. They all get dressed. They put on their lipstick. And these are things that, I mean, I’ve been into a lot of other communities and I think at the end of the day everyone says, yeah, my residents do that.
But if you really tour them, no, they don’t. You know, and I can say, not everyone, but in our communities, the residents are really proud to be there and they feel good. And so, same thing correlates over with our team members. You know, we’re very strict on what we call our Avanti swag. They don’t wear polo shirts and khaki pants. They’re not in scrubs. They look like a Ritz Carlton worker, you know, and everyone is branded and they’re given what to wear. And so we really preach to them, dress for success, look good when you come to work, because we feel when they start their day like that and feel sexy, they’re going to project that. When they project that, it’s this projection of confidence and they enjoy what they’re doing. And that just rolls over into really good satisfaction and care for our residents.
Josh: Love that. So that makes me think, Lucas, you know, a few weeks back we had an awesome guest on, The Glama Project, and that’ll be airing at some point soon.
Josh: But the whole focus there was to take the residents, the women in particular, and make them feel sexy.
Lori: I follow them.
Josh: So is that not the coolest thing? So we had to allow them to share that story on our show. It’s just a cool story of how that all came to be. But that, I so believe in what you said. So let’s switch gears here a little bit and let’s talk about females in the workforce. So when I first was introduced to senior housing, kind of like you, I didn’t know anything about it and it was like, what am I getting myself into? But I was at the local community level, just learning how to run a community and open a community. And I thought at that time, and I told people, I work in a female-dominated industry. Like, you know, it’s like all around me, all my team members are women.
But as I went through regional ops and development and started owning companies, you go to these conferences and you realize once you get past kind of that caregiver role and you get to management and above it is a male dominated industry. Lucas and I joke many times about going to Chicago and different conferences and we’re like, oh, look at all the blue suits, you know. So tell us a little bit about from your perspective as a woman coming up through the ranks earning your way and what kind of challenges, obstacles and what does that look like and what does it look like from a woman to be kind of in that space and be a leader?
Lori: Yeah. So, here’s the really funny story. A lot of people ask, you know, how did the saying sexy start? Not necessarily mean, I told you what it means to us, but there’s a correlating over to the introduction of switching gears into, this is a funny story that I’ll relate to it. I was at a conference, thousands of men and they were in blue, black and gray suits. So Tim and I found it was a lot easier to say, hey, find Lori then find me, find him. Because I just stood out. But in these meetings, and I have a male partner and I’ve been really, really very, very blessed to have Tim, you know, he’s been a mentor my entire career. Everyone moves up by having a mentor. And I have several. He’s been one of them and I’m very grateful for that.
So we go to meetings quite often and very early on we were starting Avanti. This is more of the picture because now it’s very different. But we would go to these meetings, speed dating meetings is what they feel like, right? And the guys at the other side of the table would talk to him and there was hardly any eye contact with me. And then they would ask him a question and he would redirect them to me and then they would ask him another question and he would redirect them to me and then they would ask another question. And it was never, the question was questions when never be asked to me, especially about operations, right?
And so one day in a meeting I was feeling a little froggy, feisty. I know that’s probably shocking to everybody, and the meeting was going on and it was I think like four or five men and the two of us. And so obviously I was the only female at the table and it was a typical kind of, you know, capital meeting, what’s this and all these numbers and what’s your census and what’s your projections and you know, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And they were just like a firing range.
And of course they weren’t at me. They were, you know, to Tim. And that’s fine. And finally I just said, you know what. What? And I said, we’re just trying to make senior housing sexy. And the room went silent.
Josh: You said the s-word.
Lori: I said the s-word. And they didn’t know what to do at that point. It was like, huh? Well all of a sudden, well tell me more about that. And then I was able to share our story because as you know, as an operator, the numbers are great and that’s our job. But the story creates the numbers, right?
Josh: That’s right.
Lori: And so from that point forward, that’s where we really kind of, in that space, we always were known as, oh, we’re making senior housing sexy. Obviously now it has taken on a whole new meaning of defining it for us. But it was because we would attend these meetings and these men would just, it was almost like I should be taking notes and there have been meetings that I’ve been asked to get coffee and I’m just like, well, why don’t you get me a cup? Thank you. So glad you know, or take notes.
I’m not the only female that has, you know, had these problems and it’s okay. Unfortunately it’s just society and there’s definitely a shifting of it. But, yeah, so that’s probably a really good experience and it kind of dovetailed into how the sexy really kind of started.
Josh: That’s fascinating. So, you know, it’s kind of, I think, you know, on the one hand, I kind of believe that and then I see you and the strong leader you are. And it’s kind of also in the times that we live, it’s kind of also hard to believe that. Do you feel like in our industry that it’s a positive change and that you feel like we’re headed in the right direction?
Lori: I think we’re heading, I wish we were heading there faster. I wish we could hit the fast forward button a little more. There’s a lot of good female groups out there. Argentumm has recently created one, Women in Leadership, and it’s comprised of 20 women, myself and 19 other of women that are on all spectrums, very legacy women that you’re just so honored to be in the room with. And then women that are just trailblazers trying to it happy or happen. And it’s what I call my lifelines of women. So those, the more mature women that have been in the business for so much longer and they’re in a male world, whether it’s construction or capital, and really leaning into their experiences as a woman in the workforce.
‘Cause it’s not just the workforce, it’s as a female business woman, it’s surviving the business world, but it’s also how do you balance that and be a good mom?
Josh: Yeah, absolutely.
Lori: You know, and those are real life struggles. And how do you take those and dovetail them into, you know, being very successful at everything. At Avanti, we’re very open about that. We are very open that we expect a lot of you in the company. And we know you expect and we expect you to be a really good mom as well or wife and friend. And with that comes struggles because you can’t be great at everything. And so we try to have open dialogue of, you know, don’t be guilty if you had to miss your daughter’s track meet last week. True story for me. It’s okay because you can make up for it in different ways.
Josh: That’s awesome.
Lori: Having legacy women tell you, I’ve been there, that feeling of disappointment or guilt is real and validating it and then having them at the same time saying, look at my children and who they are, they’re very successful and they love me for what I did for them. You know, it made them who they are.
So, to go back to the question, I think the industry is shifting, but I definitely think we could do better at talking about the struggles that are really kind of there. And, I love men, don’t get me wrong. There is no doubt about that. I can tell you, I can assure you that.
Josh: Thank goodness.
Lori: But it’s just, you know, really having the area to say, I have to get home to see my kids or I have to take a late flight because, you know, I couldn’t figure out someone to stay with my kids. I’m a single mom and so I have a lot of logistics that I have to bear with. I don’t have someone that I can rely on all the time. So I even have a little bit of a different, you know, obstacles to overcome when I do travel or have a late meeting or you know, touring around people and you know, I can’t, I remember one day I was sitting in a meeting and I looked up and I said, oh my gosh, I need to go to my daughter’s lunch.
And when I went to my desk to grab my keys, I wanted to verify the time. And her lunch had passed. I missed her lunch and I am not a crier. I am a tough cookie. Let me make that very clear. I haul butt to her school. I got to the front desk because she knew I was coming right? And I said, I need you to get my daughter. She was in elementary school. I need, I need to get my daughter in front of me now. They’re like, why? And I’m like, none of your business and mom fail. But I don’t need to tell everybody I had a mom fail. And I call her out and I just start bawling and I am not a crier. I am bawling because I felt, oh my gosh, I disappointed her. She thought I was coming, my meeting ran over. I couldn’t walk out of that meeting. I messed up the time because I’m juggling so many different things and she just looks up at me and she’s like, why are you crying? And I’m like well, because I disappointed you. She’s like, I know you work. Like it’s not a big deal. Well, if you’re really sad, you know, there’s this candy and teddy bear that you can buy me. And I’m like, oh, you little turd. No, you’re not getting it.
But it’s just things like that happen I think sometimes on the workforce and it doesn’t matter, men or women, we both face it. Both genders face it. It’s that guilt of disappointing your children and then we don’t realize, I think that sometimes those unintentional disappointments actually make them stronger. But if we talked about them openly, I think people would be like, oh that’s happened to me too. Oh my gosh, I’m so glad to know I’m not the only one.
Josh: Well, I think the fact that we’re having this conversation today, it’s going to touch a lot of people just to be talking about the issue. And I think in today’s society that’s how culture shift starts, right? Is having the conversation. So, we didn’t get a lot of time before, because we’re here to show and things like that and so I’m kind of throwing questions at you, which you’re awesome at, just like running with. So thank you for doing that.
Lucas: The stories are great.
Josh: They are great. So address, you know, I think Lucas and I, we really believe there’s so much positive happening happening in our industry. Now granted we have problems just like any other industry, but there’s gaps. We choose to see the positive and when there is negative we choose to believe that the people that we’re interacting with in our listeners, they really wanting to improve.
So kind of as we start wrapping this up, cause we know you’ve got a busy day ahead of you, address a couple of different groups that address that young woman that may be going through some of the challenges that you’ve experienced to get you where you are and leave them with kind of that closing word of encouragement. But then also on the flip side address the males out there that are literally, they’re brought up in a culture and, and you just kind of fall into the status quo, but what are some cultural things that they can do to be more sensitive, to not fall into some of the just norms that we, we grow up with that kind of create a culture that’s maybe not the healthiest in the world.
Lori: So, I’ll address my advice to all the males out there and we’re all guilty of it. It’s unintentional discrimination, right? So we make assumptions, oh, she has a kid so she probably doesn’t want to travel. Don’t make that assumption. Ask her. Respect it if she can’t, but ask her first versus making an assumption. It’s kinda like a memory care resident. Let’s not assume they always want tea. Let’s continue to give them a choice and ask because maybe one day the resident says, well, I want milk even though they like tea everyday, right? So don’t make assumptions that they can’t based upon what their home life looks like and talk to her about it.
A lot of, well, you know, when I talked to a lot of women, they’re afraid to tell their male boss, I’m really stressed right now because my daughter’s home sick with a fever. But I feel like I have to be here. Have a relationship that says, you know, that has that really good open door policy and give empathy to her because it is stressful. You know, females we’re naturally wired to be the caregiver and nurturer. That’s what makes women awesome. And what makes men awesome is they’re wired to be fixers and providers. But we need both to really be successful. And sometimes women are afraid to share their stresses that they’re stressed because of all the nurturing care giving because maybe the man or a male boss won’t understand that because he doesn’t have to deal with it. So she makes an assumption on her side too.
And so if we could just break down those walls and create a safe zone to talk about, it doesn’t mean she, you know, has to always miss things and stuff that sometimes it’s just hearing like, I know you’re stressed, it’s okay. You know, but sorry. And so I think just doing that will really help bridge the gap in that area.
Josh: That’s so awesome. And you think about today with all the labor demands and the growth of our industry, and if our listeners are not in an environment where they feel safe to talk about it, there’s a, well there’s another place right down the street that the culture may be a lot better. So what an awesome conversation. I think this is something that probably a lot of people are even afraid to talk about still.
Josh: Thank you for just being open and candid and transparent. Our listeners are very engaging. We love to connect them to you through our show notes, through our social media. Thank you for being available and just sharing your knowledge. And it’s really a mentorship and that’s what we need more of.
Lucas: And this mentorship aspect of it I think is really, really powerful. You know, for me, starting my company, my first three hires have been women. And when I talked to them, I said, I didn’t hire you because you’re a woman, I hired you because you were the best person for this job. I’ll send an untraditional roles. Actually a director of construction: female. I’m very excited about it. And so let’s, let’s end with that admonition. Talk to the young females out there to give them some encouragement.
Lori: Yeah. So I always say who we sell to, that adult daughter, who we serve, the resident and who we employ are all women. And so in our industry, we have such a great platform to tap into the history of women that are now entering into our buildings that were apart of the working woman force, right? And then such a great platform that we as strong women can build other strong women. And then women having children, like myself, I have a daughter and a son. And so we have such a great platform with our industry to touch many women.
And so I always say, you’re not alone and most likely your story is your own unique story. But it’s the message is the same. You know, you feel guilty, you’re not sure how you can juggle it all. You’re trying to be great at everything and sometimes it’s okay just to be good at stuff and be great at other things. And that’s okay.
Lori: And it’s okay to fail and just put your big girl panties back on and keep on marching, you know? And you’re not perfect and we’re not wired to be perfect. We’re not designed to be perfect. Our imperfections are really what make us unique and it’s okay to be unique in your own way and just go out there and be the best and be you.
Josh: And that’s not only great advice for the females. That’s great advice for mankind.
Josh: So, that’s awesome.
Lucas: Be the bridge. That’s a part of our culture here and what we’re trying to inspire people in the workplace, in senior living, to be the bridge. Yeah, there’s gaps, but there’s bridges that can bridge those gaps. And that’s what we’re all about here.
Great conversation, Lori. We’re so thankful for you to come and give your thoughts and your heart behind the work that you’re doing. It’s really important. So we’ll connect. Btgvoice.com, please, you know, engage with us. I’m sure you have questions. Tell us your story. Reach out to us on our website or on LinkedIn. We’ll connect to Lori in the notes and thank you, one and all for listening to another great episode of Bridge the Gap.