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Growing Your Business Your Way: Insights from Five Women in Design

To celebrate women’s history month, we share the stories of the female founders of 5 award winning firms in the interior design space.

Houzz Pro

MARCH 12, 2024

The history of women leaders is filled with stories like that of Emily Warren Roebling who was first recognized for her construction talents only through the work of her husband, Washington Augustus Roebling. When he became too ill to continue a little project called the Brooklyn Bridge, his wife quietly stepped in to manage it. 

So proficient were her skills when she served as a liaison on the project during her husband’s illness, some assumed that she was the chief engineer, a title her husband retained. When the 1.1 mile span opened in May 1883, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world and she was the first person to walk across it.

Thankfully, female leaders today are in the shadows no more. To celebrate women’s history month, we bring you the stories of the female founders of five award winning firms in the interior design and construction space. These leaders share how a thirst for learning, strength in numbers and a determination to let their uniqueness shine through has helped them flourish in the industry.

Seek Out Women Who Inspire

For Nicole Arnold, the seed of her phenomenally successful design business started in her home, and it was another female designer who helped her bloom. Arnold started as a “solopreneur” taking on small jobs. Then, she befriended an established pro who had been working as an interior designer in the Dallas area for several years.

“She said, ‘Hey, you can shadow me whenever you want, or let's partner up on some jobs together so that I don't have to do it by myself.’” It was the break Arnold needed. “We did that for a little while, and pretty soon it was off to the races.”

Now, 15 years later, she is solo no more. Arnold is an award winning designer in the Dallas area with a team of 7 employees. She decided to take a non-traditional approach to growing her firm by forming a design collaborative. Collaboration, she says, was the answer to running her firm more efficiently, and building the volume she needed to gain respect and more advantageous pricing from vendors.

The recipient of 13 consecutive Best of Houzz awards also never forgot what it was like to work alone in her early days. “A lot of designers can be very isolated, especially when they're just working on their own,”she says. “I want camaraderie, so I don't feel like I'm going to be out there on my own all the time and lonely and devoid of ideas,” says Arnold.

Enter the North Texas Design Group. In 2013, Arnold partnered with a group of other designers/business owners to start the group, along with an 11,000-square-foot building with a vast resource library. “Our staff can come here to work every day,” she says. “We can collaborate as we want, but we all operate our businesses autonomously,”she says.“We are technically competition, but we come together and leverage our volumes,”she says. 

Avoid Stereotypes

Rosa Santiago Zimmerman, who was born and raised in Ponce, Puerto Rico, believes that one key to navigating the male-centric industry of construction as a female business owner is to avoid falling into the trap of stereotypes. “I don't come from the school of thought of the division of gender,” she says. Within the last two years, she has made a huge shift in her firm, adding housing developments to her portfolio. RSZ Design & Development, takes on dozens of projects annually, and its expansion to the home development space is in multiple states. Her experience as a woman in the home renovation arena has been a good one, she says. “I have been, honestly, very welcomed by the male-centric industry,” she says.

“The minute you identify it as a stereotype or the minute you identify it as a problem, then it becomes a problem,” she says. There will be times when she walks into a room and a man will judge her by her gender, she says. “Maybe he doesn't want me talking about my development that I'm working on right now. But I'm sure that I'm going to walk into a similar room where there's going to be a female that is not going to like the fact that I'm very assertive about talking about my development,” she says.

“You're going to have people who love you and you're going to have people who don't necessarily like you. Don't focus on the ones who don't like you,”she advises. She views those who discriminate as missing out on the richness of diversity. “That's so sad for you that you would close your eyes to the beauty that everything has to offer,”she says.

Her Houzz Pro Favs: Houzz Pro software is Santiago Zimmerman’s go-to for project collaboration.

Understand the Language and Build The Culture

Learning the language of the construction world has given interior designer and Etch Design Group co-founder Jessica Nelson the edge when collaborating with general contractors, she says. And everything she learns, she brings back to her team of 12, gifting them with a whole new skill set beyond design. 

“I think that that's something that sets me apart,” she says. “I try to instill that into the team as well in educating them on a lot of the things that I've learned,” Nelson says. 

The other thing that sets Etch Design Group apart from its competitors is the culture Nelson and co-founder Stephanie Lindsey create at their high-revenue firm. The future founders met while working as designers at another company. It was there they learned what they wanted their business model not to be. 

The company they worked for had little respect for their employees’ life outside of work. “It didn't really matter how burnt out we were, how stressed we were. It's like more, more, more, more, more,” Nelson says. “Etch was founded as being really centered around people and what is best for ourselves – having a work-life balance – what's best for our employees, and then also having special relationships with the vendors we work with,”she says.  

Putting people first remains a priority. “Anytime we hire an employee, we're like, ‘we don't want you to work weekends. We don't want you to work evenings. We don't want you to work overtime.’" she says. 

How Etch Design Uses Houzz Pro: The firm uses the Financial Reporting  features and utilize Houzz Pro to collaborate and manage leads. Houzz Pro software saves the team 30-35 hours a week!

Seek Out Transferable Skills

Vanessa Smith started in the women’s clothing business before founding Flourish Interiors in Indiana. Working in the fashion retail space provided her skills that she was able to apply to her future venture.

"Financial management, that's probably the number one thing that I credit as being completely transferable and a skill that I've continued to hone and refine over time, understanding my metrics, knowing when we need to scale, knowing when we need to invest in technology,’" she says.

Learning to manage teams took some trial and error. “When I started off in the fashion boutique, I was extremely young,” she says. “I was managing people that were older than me. I had never managed a team before,” she says. Looking back now, she realizes she had more to learn such as how to challenge team members and overcome her fear of confrontation. At first, she worried that by helping her team flourish, they would grow out of her business and move on. 

“Over time, what I've learned is that the more you pour into those relationships, the more loyal people are, and the more your team grows, and the more excellence you achieve,” she says. “I've completely, over time, flipped the dime on that,” she says. “There's a certain amount of creative skills that transfer as well, whether it's the way I used to work on, and study how to create displays in my store as far as balance, and color distribution, and engaging the senses when people walk in a store,” she says. 

How Houzz Pro Helps: “We use Houzz Pro to manage our client relationships, and our business transactions.”

Build Something For You

Susan Wintersteen never envisioned herself as an interior designer, much less a wildly successful owner of a design-build firm. Being a “stay at home mom” to her kids was the most important thing to her. But with four children, and another on the way, her mother in law gave her some advice one day.

“She's like, ‘You can't just keep having babies. Having something of your own might be important for you, something that's just yours that you don't have to share.’" Wintersteen recalls her mother-in-law telling her.

“I just decided one day that I just wanted to do design on the side, just as a little side thing that would just pay enough for a small, little convertible.” That was about two decades ago. Her side gig is now a well-established firm, Savvy Interiors, serving the San Diego area. Looking back, she is grateful to have built a rewarding and successful career despite having to juggle the demands of a business and a growing family of five children. “It really gave me something to default into, where I didn’t have this feeling of ‘Oh my gosh, I’m an empty nester; there’s nothing to do. I’m so bored.’”

Her Favorite Houzz Pro Feature: “Houzz Pro allows me to give clients clarity around what to expect,” plus I “can track purchases and purchase orders and be able to reconcile them.”

Read more about how other women who own design and build businesses define their success and learn how Houzz Pro software helps interior designers scale their businesses more efficiently.

Houzz Pro is the all-in-one tool for marketing, project and client management built specifically for remodeling, build, and design professionals.

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