Social entrepreneurship as a tool for sustainable economic development – spotlight on Natalie Voland, president of Quo Vadis Property Management Company, whose dynamic and committed vision has transformed Montreal’s Le Sud-Ouest neighbourhood for the past 20 years.
Natalie Voland is a social worker at heart. After earning two bachelor's degrees, one in political science and one in social work, she honed her skills and gained work experience at the YMCA and at the intensive care unit of the Montreal General Hospital. In 1996, her father fell sick and asked her to join the family business - a real estate development company. Thus began a fascinating dive into the real estate world – one so far from her area of expertise.
Mrs. Voland has built her career by combining these "two worlds" with very different values and competences and creating bridges between the two. "This has been a big challenge because real estate developers are looking at immediate profit while social workers are looking at the community around as well as the long-term consequences." she tells us during a telephone interview.
Developing an economical and sustainable city
For more than 20 years, Mrs Voland has helped revitalized Le Sud-Ouest with the mission of preserving its rich urban heritage while creating jobs. For her, it’s possible to "make money responsibly and collectively. It’s a realistic goal to take care of our community to create values and wealth that will benefit everyone. For me, that’s what innovation is about!"
Today, she oversees 1.5 million square feet of real estate amongst a dozen of buildings. Located along the Lachine Canal and in the Quartier de l’innovation (QI) these renovated properties house 500 tenants. Most are self-employed or small businesses that she has “helped grow”. 20 years into the business, two findings emerge: firstly, that Mrs. Voland has contributed to the creation of more than 3000 jobs and secondly, that 90% of her tenants have remained loyal to her for the past 10 years. Her secret? Offering shorter leases at a below-the-market price. This is the key, according to Mrs. Voland, to a sustainable economic development.
The transformation of Saint Joseph's Church
Beyond the social impact of her work, Mrs. Voland holds environmental responsibility at the heart of her concerns. "History and urban development are closely linked." She has a passion for projects that aim to restore the glory of heritage buildings. How can we make use of them? How can we integrate the wealth of their history within our present-day society?
The renovation of Saint Joseph's Church, located in the heart of the Quartier de l'innovation, into Salon 1861, is Mrs. Voland’s latest passion project. "The “birthing” of this project proved rather difficult," she confesses, laughing. This building had been abandoned for several years and nobody knew what to do with it.
"It took several years to figure out what to do with this church. But working with the QI, ÉTS, McGill and Concordia, we found new purposes to it in a very integrated way with the community. Historically, a church was a gathering place for the community. So we decided to keep that vocation, but to modernize it in an inclusive and cost-effective way." It should be noted that the project received no government funding.
The Salon 1861 is a multi-purpose space that houses a restaurant, offices, an event space and the McGill Urban Culture Lab. "The QI was our road map to build the values of the Salon. We have included the various audiences that make up our society: universities, entrepreneurs, local citizens, community organizations and private companies. If we can include all of these groups on all of our projects, we know that we are moving in the right direction."
Building the Future
For Mrs. Voland, the social or environmental impact is not a substitute for financial returns. We should be rethinking our definition of "success", says Mrs. Voland. "Is the money I’ve earned the only way to measure my accomplishments? Shouldn’t my accomplishments rather be measured by the amount of pride I hope my daughters will feel when looking back on what I’ve done?”
By observing the differences between Generation X and Y, for example, this question is quite legitimate. Today, new generations are looking for more than a paycheck. They seek a quality of life at work in order to balance that part of their life with another all-consuming part: their family life. According to Mrs Voland "things are changing and it is an opportunity to do them differently; this is not a challenge. "
She would also like Montréal to be a model in sustainable development. If the city wants to be innovative, "we must also do things differently while preserving the well-known values of Montreal’s society: a friendly, integrated and cultural city that encourages differences." But in order to achieve this, she emphasises the need to transform the regulations of the city’s districts so that they’ll also value this way of thinking.
In her wildest dreams, tomorrow's QI would be "a very cool WiFi area where as soon as I walk inside, I know there’s this kind of company here that does that, or that this person has lived here for 5 generations." She imagines a technology capable of linking all of the neighbourhood’s components: industrial, urban, training and research, social and cultural.