Shalou Dhamija Barth, BHP ’01, MBA ’09, has recently embarked upon a new adventure as a commercial real estate developer and owner of Unit-D Pizzeria in Austin. She is the President, Managing Partner and one of the Owners of 2406 Manor Road LLC. Shalou went into marketing after BHP, working for Ford Motor Company, North Bay Investment Group and EHDD Architecture. She then held multiple roles at 3M.
You faced some challenges buying your first property. Talk about what those were and how you succeeded in purchasing the property.
This property had been sitting on the market for more than a year. It needed a lot of work. You had to have a creative vision to see the potential, so I think it had been overlooked. Two weeks into the feasibility period, I came across deed restrictions. The first said you could never sell any liquor that was not this one style of beer. The second was a race restriction. No one other than a Caucasian could work, live or own the property unless they were a servant.
The deed restriction affected the entire subdivision, so that affected the property next door as well as many others. The Black Sheep Lodge owners had just signed a lease on the lot next door to create Haymaker, restaurant/bar, and they had not known about the restriction. We all went to the table and I was the only female, non-Caucasian there with 10 men to discuss the alcohol deed restriction that had the potential to destroy revenue streams for everyone at the table. It became clear in that meeting that the only way to change the deed was to get 100 percent of property owners in the area to sign a notarized petition. The owner gave me 30 days to get this done. I knew it would be very difficult, if not impossible to get 100 percent in this amount of time. I was almost ready to give up, but I decided to see what I could do. I started meeting with other property owners in the area. Through conversations, I found legislation that illuminated a different path that allowed me to change the deed with less than 100 percent. It was a big breakthrough. I got another 14 days and changed the deed with all the votes I needed from neighboring property owners.
A lot of people probably would have thrown in the towel when faced with so many challenges, especially when doing something for the first time. Why did you persist?
I hate hearing no, but more so, I was really committed to the vision. I started marketing the property for lease when I was under contract. In that process, a lot of people wanted to buy it or partner with me on it. Being a resident in the neighborhood, I felt like I knew what the community needed and what would work well there. I could tell these other investors would not stay true to the vision I had. I knew my team and I could create something really great, and I wanted to see that vision through.
What made you want to jump into real estate development and how did you learn the skills necessary to be successful in that field?
I have always really appreciated built spaces and creating places that the community could engage in. In California, I started in real estate brokerage and it gave me a glimpse of what buildings could be. My passion grew for spaces and I happened to marry an architect. I just became very interested in developing my own property. My experience in brokerage helped me understand the economic models behind investment properties. Through my jobs in architecture, I knew the value of beautiful spaces and how people are drawn to spaces with good design. The development side is a skill I am learning. I like operating outside my comfort zone, so it is exciting for me to learn something new. I am using my skills from BHP and MBA as well as my network. I consulted with my MBA classmates who took jobs in real estate development and brought my financial models and ideas to them. They helped me build the confidence and skills needed to execute what I planned. When I was trying to find a path to overcome the deed restrictions, I actually found an attorney in Houston, who is a BHP alum, who specialized in the specific legislation I surfaced. I called him and used the BHP connection to start a conversation. BHP helped me gain immediate credibility with him and he helped me with the documentation required.
You worked in the male-dominated car sales field for Ford and now you are working in another male-dominated field – real estate development. Have you faced any challenges being in the minority and do you operate any differently to account for this?
I think it is an advantage to be a female in a male-dominated field. I think I have had the ability to bring a fresh perspective. As an example, I walked into City Planning & Development office in Austin, which is a bunch of veteran good ‘ole boys, similar to the guys at Ford dealerships. I took the same approach I did with Ford. I let them know I am smart and a quick study, but I am not a know-it-all. Being assertive, but humble has taken me far. I need to make sure my voice is heard and that I am prepared. I don’t just hope it will work out, I come prepared. I am competitive and love challenges, so being in the minority fires me up to rise above the crowd.
Your previous work includes stints in marketing, product management, venture capital, real estate investing, and operations consulting. Do you feel this broad base of experience prepared you well for owning your own business?
Absolutely, it started from BHP, where I felt like I was obtaining a mini-MBA. The case-based method and broad academic focus was the first step in arming me with skills that would enable me to start my own business. I wish I had started a company while in school, but instead I chose to explore hands-on opportunities and varying roles to extend my education. I love being out of my comfort zone, and that is evident in my career path. I have about a 12 ½ month clock where I start to get antsy and want to try something new. All of the roles prepared me for a long-term career in entrepreneurship.
You opened Unit-D Pizzeria around the same time as having your first child. What have been the challenges of juggling motherhood with owning a restaurant for the first time?
My son was born six days after the restaurant opened. Because I had a ticking time bomb in my belly, I am pretty confident I opened Unit-D in record time. I was extremely motivated to open quickly. I knew once the baby came it would unfeasible to get it open. It forced my chef and team to learn a lot very quickly and to get to know each other very well during that time of duress. There are so many distractions with the new baby and trying to operate at a functional level has been hard. It has been an exceptional lesson in time management, prioritization, and delegation.
What are you most focused on right now and what are your plans from here?
I am focused on being a present mom. I am not a full-time mom. I still run the restaurant, but I have a great team in place. I have a property manager, so I am able to keep my high level hat on and continue to drive the property forward. My hope is by the one-year-mark for both my son and the restaurant, I will start pursuing some new projects in the real estate development realm. Being an entrepreneur is in my DNA. On the two to five year horizon, I would like to bring to market at least one of the product ideas that I have in the hopper. While Austin feels quite saturated with restaurants right now, I’ve had a concept in mind that I believe would fill a gap in the market in a big way so that may be in the cards, as well.
What advice do you have for current students?
Take advantage of the time while you are in school to take risks. It is a time you will never get back and a unique time when you have very little to lose. Your peer set is so strong and capable. The professors are there to offer advice. There are so many resources. It is the perfect environment for pursuing entrepreneurial dreams. If I could rewind, I would not hesitate to follow through on my business ideas. Be comfortable with the idea of failing and realize that failing is just as helpful and powerful as succeeding.