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Q&A with AAA: Creating Community and Asking for Help with AAA Board Chair Paula Collins

Paula Collins Headshot

WASHINGTON, DC (December 6, 2023) – If there’s one word Paula Collins lives by, it’s community. The San Francisco-based real estate developer, executive coach, and new AAA Board Chair is passionate about creating community, both professionally and personally. Collins sat down with AAA to discuss the childhood that shaped her, the career that’s fulfilled her, and the wisdom she’s passing on to young professionals.

You were born in Washington, DC – the daughter of a schoolteacher and a young lawyer. What do you remember about those childhood days?

It was an era in Washington right on the dawn of integration. It was a time of many people fleeing the city because they were afraid to live in an integrated city. And a lot of young hopeful people like my parents coming to Washington from elsewhere thinking “we’re going to change the world.” And that’s the world I grew up in. I am told my first demonstration was my mom wheeling a baby carriage around a park that was still segregated. She and all the moms in our apartment building got their little babies and kids, and it was a demonstration around this park. I obviously don’t remember it because I was in the stroller. But my family gave me an upbringing which focused on re-imagining and creating an inclusive community.

How did that sense of community guide your career in real estate and urban planning?

My orientation has always been: how does what we build not only generate a profit for our investors but also how does it benefit the community in which we are building? One of the main reasons our real estate developments have been successful is because we incorporated community input. Rather than just coming to build a large-scale mixed-use project, hotel, or retail entertainment center, we always worked with people who lived in the surrounding neighborhood. We asked community groups: what is your vision for your neighborhood and how can we make our development a part of that vision? Their responses ranged from: please include a flower store in your retail because we don’t have one to make sure we get the first opportunity for construction jobs to look at your building profile and make sure it doesn’t shadow our park. All kinds of physical elements and economic benefits that translated to better community acceptance and support.

To what do you attribute your success?

I heard the best saying the other day: “Success is measured by joy … and I’m really happy!” I think staying connected, curious, and doing work you’re proud of is key. For me, that success is contingent on being part of a loving family.  I marvel daily at the fact that my husband of 53 years is still incredible, my daughters have become precisely the sort of women whom I enjoy and admire, I have two wonderful sons-in-law, and my grandchildren are just delightful.

You coach young professional women who are starting their careers. What’s your advice to them?

Make sure you are doing something in the professional world that matters and make sure it matters to you. And if it doesn’t matter to you, segue way to something that does matter to you. Also learn to listen and be aware of what’s going around you. Help is everywhere, and it comes from the strangest places sometimes. Help can come in the form of someone who is at a higher rung than you in the corporate ladder that you might get a little mentoring from. It can be from a colleague that says “Okay, let’s go in and nail this together.” It can be from that kind person at Starbucks that knows how you need your coffee because you chatted that this is going to be a big day and says, “I got your latte for you.”It’s everywhere. And certainly, your family.

You’ve been working with AAA for many years, and now you step into this role of board chair with the goal of broadening the AAA community and introducing AAA to a new generation. What do you like most about working across the association to make that happen?

What I like doing at AAA is seeing the intersection of “the way we’ve always done it” with “how we need to do it” to build a stronger, more diverse community of members for the future. There is that moment in the boardroom, particularly after difficult decisions, when everyone around the table is on the same wavelength.  We get consensus on a new approach. Then later that idea returns fully executed. That’s magic.

And your earliest memory of AAA is actually from your childhood!

My first AAA experience was as a safety patrol in DC in a public elementary school. It was a very big deal in the 1960s to have this little group of Black safety patrollers march in the annual AAA School Safety Patrol Parade past the White House. We didn’t understand the significance at the time. We just thought how cool it was to get to be in the parade. It was my first AAA experience!

About AAA  

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