Zeba Iqbal: Hi, welcome to the first of what we hope will be many episodes of the Builder's Patch podcast. My name is Zeba Iqbal and I head up marketing at Builders Patch and I'm with Kanan Ajmera, the founder of Builders Patch.
For those of you who are not familiar with our company, Builders Patch, it's a modern day technology solution to the many challenges of affordable housing development. What's our goal? To help developers build more housing faster. As you get to know us, you will learn a lot more about our company and our product.
Today we wanted to tell you a little bit more about our origin story, or more specifically Kanan's journey to Builders Patch. To put things in perspective, ten years ago, Kanan was developing affordable housing and today she's the founder of a prop tech startup. Thanks for joining us everyone.
Zeba Iqbal: I can't wait to talk to you about your experience as a female founder and a working mom and Builder's Patch; and we're going to talk about all of that. But today we wanted to focus on your journey to your company, which you founded in 2017.
So Kanan you're an architect. Can you tell us a little bit about what led you to architecture?
Kanan Ajmera: Oh wow. That was probably a lifetime ago, I feel at this point. But when I was in sixth or seventh grade, I was absolutely fascinated by a documentary I watched on Santiago Calatrava's work. I think it was on BBC and they were showing all his creating moving buildings and using human anatomy as a reference point, and as an inspiration. I was just hooked and yeah, I think nothing that I did was half as sexy and cool, but I was very immediately drawn to housing and urban development and our professor who was actually very fundamental in sort of guiding us on a path about talking about urban development led me to think more about housing and Frank Lloyd Wright and Calatrava.
Zeba Iqbal: So you studied architecture in India and then you came to the US for your masters in architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Could you tell us, what do you remember most about grad school and where did you work when you first graduated?
Kanan Ajmera: Wow. So yeah, grad school was awesome, especially coming from India, you know, you're 22, and I lived at home before then. And so you’re in a different country, different continent and studying here was just absolutely fun, riveting, you know, meeting different peoples, studying the same courses and producing work with completely different sensibilities was fantastic.
I mean I remember one of the big things for me was we were excellent at seminar classes. A lot of us from more South Eastern culture were not so good at building with our hands, but we were more sort of conceptual and be able to put together like history and research and use different ways to do it. While our colleagues built these physical models with different materials and they, it was just very tactile. And so that's one of the things that I learned; and I don't think I caught up with them, but I did a pretty good job trying to pick up those skills.
After I finished architecture, I actually went to work for Stanley Tigerman. It was my one and only brush with starchitects. He was in Chicago and working with him was just marvelous because Peter Eisenman would walk in and talk about the World Trade Center Memorial; and I had deep philosophical conversations about Jhumpa Lahiri, the author of Interpreter of Maladies.
It was just a fun time working for someone like Stanley; and we were designing this Jewish museum and the Masonry Institute where all the tiles are centered and lights were at perfect symmetry. And so yeah, symmetry and perfection and just working long hours.
Zeba Iqbal: Kanan, as a former architect myself, I'm always interested in the answer to this question, why did you leave architecture? Was there one critical event or turning point?
Kanan Ajmera: Yeah, absolutely. There was definitely one critical point, but of course it was a bunch of different ideas and thoughts before that. I think there were multiple things.
One is I was working in Seattle and Chicago and doing a lot of housing and mixed use, which was where I was closer to designing, building within a short timeframe. And when I moved to New York, a lot of the projects were very, they were big, but they were much more conceptual getting towards urban design more than architecture.
And so when I came to New York, I was working with clients like Midwest Waco and MGM Grand. And you know, we were basically coming up with giant conceptualizations of projects. This required a lot of analytical thinking, putting together what would be programming as well as conceptual thinking behind it. And that really appealed to me and it also sort of moved me from what I was doing earlier in terms of design and construction towards what a developer does. That was the first part of it.
The second was I was working on a project for MGM Grand. I spent a lot of time putting, you know, two or three months putting together a very elaborate conceptual plan for green and eco-friendly construction and development design. And it sort of got relegated to a very small role in the final presentation. And it just sort of re-iterated to me that I wanted to be more on the development side, on the side where decisions were made. And so that sort of pushed me towards the development side. And I was very interested in housing always, and affordable housing always. And then I met a terrific mentor. And so that's what got me started.
Zeba Iqbal: So it sounds like the decision to move away from architecture was kind of more a natural progression of your career and also, the fact that you've moved from Seattle to New York where you were working on very different projects with, you know, very different kinds of clients and things like that. Yeah. So, once you made the decision to pursue a career in real estate development, you know, how did you find that first job in commercial real estate?
Kanan Ajmera: So at that point I was seeing a couple of things, right? One I was looking at getting to business school, doing real estate finance and just moving into main street real estate finance and working on that side of things because I felt like I needed to get closer and closer to where the money decisions were made. And I just happened to be in a situation where I was between admission cycles and had a surgery and things like that. And I met this terrific mentor that I just mentioned.
I was doing a lot of these events where, you know, I heard this guy talking about affordable housing and his strategy of building affordable housing in Westchester, which is where I was living at the time.
And, it just fundamentally changed the conversation. So I literally walked up to him and said, I can handle the architecture and construction side and I'd love to learn the financing side of it. And he invited me in and you know, I spent a fair bit of time working for him as an intern, basically an unpaid intern and then he hired me. And so that was the changing point. That was where I switched over from architecture to affordable housing development.
Zeba Iqbal: That's pretty amazing. So how long were you with that first firm? I don't know if you mentioned the name.
Kanan Ajmera: Yeah, I worked with, it was called POKO and it was headed by an awesome person called Ken Olsen. Unfortunately, he's not anymore. You know, he built a great legacy around affordable housing. He really believed that it changed lives and he was very committed to it as a houser, as a developer.
And it was extremely inspiring because he was one of the sharpest guys in the room, had a heart of gold and just was willing to take a chance with intelligent people; with people who could make a difference. And it was just amazing to start there. I worked with him for two years, but it was a very interesting time to work with him because we had just come out of the 2008 crisis. There was a real huge pent up demand to close deals. He had three or four in his pipeline that he was literally working hard to get done and I got to be there at the right place, right time. So within a year we closed three deals. I was fundamental to that.
One of them was building an affordable housing development in Connecticut. There was, you know, the other was a rehab of a large cinema complex, which is a hundred year old laws cinema in Brooklyn, which we converted to a charter school, which was, you know, it was a dream come true for me to see that. And then I worked on several projects, which did not get financed even after I moved on. But then I saw the completion when I started working for Citi. So I saw it come full circle from where I started. And then, you know, although I was working for a different company, I saw him close that deal after I was working for Citi on the debt side.
Zeba Iqbal: And so between that time and 2017 when you founded Builders Patch, um, what were some of the other roles you had? Like what kind of roles did your experience with POKO lead you to?
Kanan Ajmera: So what I did was obviously with POKO I was doing development, so it was everything, right? Whether it was talking to the architect or the contractor, putting together the financing packages, or filling out applications for the HFA to get loans. And once I had seen that whole cycle, you just don't see as many deals because you have a certain pipeline. And for a small development firm to actually see those projects through, it takes a significant amount of time.
He was coming out of this crazy recession and there was only that many deals that you could do quickly. I just wanted to see more. I just wanted to learn the financing side of it more. And so I actually jumped to work with PNC doing underwriting for affordable housing on the equity side. And so this was again me trying to really work on the financing side after which I worked for Richman Housing; also a very large syndicator doing acquisition and underwriting. And then I moved to Citibank doing the debt side of the same sort of deal.
So really from an affordable housing development sector, I worked on the architect side, then the developer side, and then worked on both the equity and the debt financing. I had a full idea of how a project gets built, all the way from start to finish.
Zeba Iqbal: That's amazing. So you've got the whole experience across the whole continuum of development essentially. And, you know, I can understand from what you said that each of these roles in their own way led you to the development of your company Builders Patch.
Kanan Ajmera: Yes. Yes. So, you know, one of the things that you realize right away is that there are pain points across the board. So I've seen the pain points when it comes to a small developer trying to put together a deal, the same sort of deal trying to be underwritten at a smaller equity shop, a large equity shop giant like Citibank is doing, you know, the largest affordable lender.
So you sort of see the whole picture and you realize that the problems are one in the same no matter what the scale is, it only gets more and more acute as you get to a larger scale. And you see the amount of work that’s getting done using phone calls, and just trying to basically slap together a lot of existing tools to get the job done.
It's a complex operation to close financing for an affordable housing project. And, you just see that there is nothing that brings together all parties on board. Bringing it together in a digital platform actually saves a lot of time, saves a lot of money and yeah that's what I saw out of it and I was able to sort of constantly apply my knowledge from one to the other and even solve problems.
When I was on the debt side, I could see what the equity side needed; and why are we doing this again? You know, there's so much overlapping information that you just realize that you can make a difference. That's one. And then the second is you also realize that it's not that easy whether it's a small organization like a developer or a large bank to actually solve this and create a digital product. You literally need somebody who understands the system and then has the ability to go out and actually collaborate with the digital, the technology folks and actually put together a product.
Zeba Iqbal: I'd like to take a step back because we really haven't gotten into the product yet and we're going to do that in our next episode. But you know, you've given us a good idea of all the pain points and different things that you saw, the challenges of housing development. So just in a couple of lines, could you just tell me what your initial vision for the company was?
Kanan Ajmera: Yeah. What we wanted to do with Builder's Patch was to really bring efficiency to the closing process, the closing process of multifamily housing. And I was most interested in really solving a problem for affordable housing because you know, you're looking at a problem where you need 20 million units by 2030, and you're already 7.4 million units short and there's a critical need for affordable housing. And I just felt like to be part of the solution, you have to really make the underwriting and the closing process faster and quicker and more efficient.
Zeba Iqbal: And so, you know, we're going to talk about this in more detail in the next episode, but can you give us a 10,000 foot view of where Builders Patch is today?
Kanan Ajmera: Yeah, sure. So, you know, we spend a lot of time on the drawing board. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what a technology solution is. Does it really start with being a marketplace where funds are moved from financing authorities or are you solving the problem for the developer? Or are you solving a problem for the developer? And so we've done a little bit of testing and you know, building, testing, building, talking to a lot of different folks. And, um, I think where we are right now is that it's an online platform really focused on the four to five months, sometimes six months, process of closing and financing a multifamily housing project.
So we are a platform where literally everybody can get on board and, or it could just be one authority that is just using this as a, as a way to collect all the information and underwrite the project really quickly and close on the financing so that the developer can go build a project. So that's where we are right now.
Zeba Iqbal: Sure. And it's a very, very exciting time for the company. Before we go, I wanted to ask you a personal question. So much of where we go and what we do is a reflection of us and our personal experiences. I know your dad was a very formative figure in your life and I wanted to ask if you could tell us a little bit about your dad as an engineer's engineer, and if you could talk a little bit about your formative years.
Kanan Ajmera: Yeah, yeah. I think one of the most important lessons I learned early on is the ability to sort of tinker and build and grow on your own. You know, I remember very clearly when I was in sixth or seventh grade and my dad had just found AutoCAD 10, which was meant for architects to design buildings.
And he was just fascinated by it. And he found a one-on-one print for the side of the friezes of Indian temples. And he generated this big 3d model using that. And, I remember rolling out that 40 foot wide scroll that he had managed to get from an architect. And in India with temple architects the information is passed on generation to generation. So it's almost codified in the family of the architects. And so he managed to get this blueprint and I remember helping him sort of trace that out. And I guess the reason I get into the story is because, you know, his day job was completely different. This was just one of those things that he took on and took it to a scale where he could literally go up and offer it to the person who's building that particular temple; and here's how it's gonna look and here's how you can make changes.
And this was just his hobby or just his one time interest in learning something. He was very technology focused. And so that was sort of in my DNA and, and the ability to just go in and dive in something you absolutely don't know anything about and just dig in and figure it out is something that I've learned from him. I'm not half the person he was, but I try and I think that's the endeavor constantly.
Zeba Iqbal: Yeah, no, that's wonderful, and where is that 40 foot frieze?
Kanan Ajmera: The scroll! I am pretty sure he had to return it to that temple architect. I don't know if you know, but there is literally a group of people called Sompura. That’s their last name and they're architects and all they do is build temples. The temples with those very exquisite friezes on the outside. And it's not really about the carvings, but it's like what does that frieze look like and how do you build it? What part is the, is where the deity is, where do people congregate? And all of that is apparently codified. And it's very interesting to me that this whole traditional sort of architecture is codified in a way that has passed on generators generation to generation. So he just befriended somebody and decided to go find a way to build it, you know, build this model.
Zeba Iqbal: Sure. I mean, and the other thing that's interesting in the story that you're mentioning is kind of the intersection of design and technology, right? There's a lot of different pursuits of technology, but like specifically with regards to architecture and technology, your dad wasn't an architect, he was a technologist; and you're an architect who's delving into technology.
Kanan Ajmera: Yeah, yeah. And then, you know, I would say about the same time, you know, I was watching Calatrava on BBC about moving buildings and how his design was inspired by human skeletons because his brother was a doctor; and just learning how things, how buildings can move. And it was just fascinating. Just the idea that you could dream and draw and you know, make it move. And then there's technology to actually create and see what it will look like. So this was, this was 3D what my father was doing and creating. I mean, it used to take entire nights to create and render, which now happens in seconds.
Zeba Iqbal: Sure, sure. It's amazing. I think it's interesting in the course of our conversation that what I have realized is that your move away from architecture towards real estate development, still staying in the same kind of spectrum of the built environment because you felt like you wanted to be where the decisions were being made. You know, my path is similar to that. So I can, I can relate to that.
But now with your move to technology, I'm seeing again that a lot of what is going to impact the built environment now and in the future is going to be technology. And your having gone on this path from architecture to real estate into technology is invaluable I feel because you're moving along with the industry and the larger environment.
We know that technology is transforming industries everywhere. Right? And it just seems from what you said, you know about your dad and about your experience that there seems to be this movement along a continuum for you and for the industry.
Kanan Ajmera: Yeah, I would hope so. I mean I think it's really connecting the dots. My father always kept sort of saying that technology is the way to go. And he didn't really think that going down the architecture path was the best way to embrace technology back then. And I was actually very good at coding and programming and things like that when I was in high school; and so I sort of left that to go into architecture. So that to him was a little mind boggling.
But I feel like I found my place’ and I found my calling and technology is just sort of the tool to make a difference. And I think I've been very conscious of just one thing as I made these transitions that I was never completely abandoning what I had learned. So it was always sort of growing on that and it stayed in the same industry. And so that's what kept me super focused and able to find a real problem to solve as opposed to trying to making a clean break and moving away to something else, not that it's a bad thing. I just feel like that this has worked out really well for me. And so that's what I think you're observing as a continuum.
Zeba Iqbal: Sure. Yeah. I mean, I think these are building blocks. I mean we've talked about before, you know, we have very similar backgrounds.
I wanted to thank you for your time and I think it's always good to get insights and we've learned a lot about your professional journey and also about some of your personal experiences. So you know, I'm going to end here, but we will pick this conversation up next time and we will talk more at length and go in depth into your journey from the founding of Builder's Patch to today.
Kanan Ajmera: Great. I'm looking forward to it. Thank you.