Forging a Unique Path: How This VP Grew a Career in Sustainable Real Estate by Staying Curious

Sponsored by Howard Hughes

Gautami Palanki

Photo courtesy of The Howard Hughes Corporation.

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Fairygodboss
April 13, 2024 at 9:19AM UTC

“Staying curious has advanced my career.”

Gautami Palanki’s journey in sustainable real estate started “with curiosity about how buildings respond to time and extreme weather,” she says. “When I was an undergraduate architecture student in India, I saw that century-old architecture withstood higher temperatures better than some of the newer buildings. It was intriguing to learn how architecture has evolved and responds to the climate. This was really the first question that I asked myself. From there, I wrote a thesis on cyclone-prone areas, an annual phenomenon on the coast of India.”

This curiosity and desire to learn is of the utmost importance in sustainable real estate, an area where Palanki emphasizes the need to stay “updated on what’s happening in the industry and what’s coming next. The nontraditional career is growing with you, and you’re establishing a new path that’s evolving globally. You must be in the know and understand what’s happening next. Read, build a network and share resources.”

Such curiosity is fostered at The Howard Hughes Corporation (HHC), a real estate development company that owns, manages and develops commercial, residential and mixed-use property. “One of the core principles of HHC is a dedication to exploration, and to encouraging those in our communities to continuously discover new ways of doing things — and in a nontraditional career field that’s continually developing, that principle is one I’ve used personally in my career when forging my own path,” says Palanki.

As Vice President of Sustainability at HHC, Palanki is responsible for leading sustainability strategy and advancing HHC’s commitment to innovative placemaking, design excellence and operational high performance. Her passion for community-based climate action, green architecture and sustainability is evident throughout her 15 years of working in both private and nonprofit environments and is infused in her personal life, too.

We spoke with Palanki about her work in sustainable architecture, how she advanced in her career and the role of volunteering and mentorship in her journey.

Tell us about your job. 

I joined HHC to serve as the VP of Sustainability in May 2021. This role is across our master planned communities with an emphasis on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) initiatives in our national portfolio.

I’ve been a “green nerd” all my life, and the sustainable real estate industry is the only one I know and love. Prior to HHC, my career navigated a few years of architectural design, sustainability consulting and technology consulting related to sustainability. From there, I moved onto a position at the U.S Green Building Council, which is responsible for developing the green building certification system LEED. 

My new role gives me the opportunity to bring together industry-leading ideas to develop new buildings, improving our operational buildings and enhancing the amenities available to resident communities. 

Can you identify anything you said or did that earmarked you as someone ready for advancement? 

More than anything else, I said yes, even when I was nervous and excited — or “nervously excited” — as I like to say. I want to explore and learn. When bringing a new product to life, I may not know everything about all the pieces, but I make a point to go out and educate myself.

For those looking to advance in their career, I encourage volunteering, something that helped prepare me for a senior leadership position. Finding a mission that you’re passionate about and looking for ways to volunteer and support an organization will help train you to think and speak in ways that help you work with others to advance a cause and deliver an objective.  Volunteering can lead to joining a committee within the organization and then to being asked to take on more leadership rules within your committee—which can then point the way to being asked to join the board. Having access to these platforms can prove invaluable, if you remain curious at each juncture.

Earlier on in my career, I used to volunteer with various green building groups and associations. For example, the Green Apple Day of service, which occurs once a year in September and helps students implement green projects in their schools. Most recently, I’ve been elected to the board of the Kenya Green Building Society, the green building community in Kenya. We’re advocating for green buildings in the region and nation.

What was the best quality of the best boss you’ve ever had? 

Trust is the biggest morale booster and teambuilder. The leaders I’ve really enjoyed working with and learned from have had a vision. They shared that vision with me and trusted me to make it a reality. It works both ways. You have to work toward building that trust — it won't happen on day one. It's not based on your resume. It's something both people nurture over time.

What were your initial thoughts when you learned you were moving into a leadership role? 

I looked at it as an opportunity to say yes and do more. Sustainable real estate is change management and consensus building. People in this role have always had to be a leader in the room, even in their personal lives. We convince people to not use a plastic straw or to build a green building. I was also excited, perhaps unconsciously at first, that I was building myself up for this moment of leadership—and I am thrilled that it arrived. 

How has having or being a mentor or sponsor enriched your own work experience? 

I often think back to what defined the most memorable collaborative projects — and it is always people that make a project memorable. A mentor or sponsor relationship is beautiful when it forms organically. It could be someone you work with, met at an event or came across on social media. Building relationships over time — and nurturing those relationships — has enriched my work experience. 

What are you trying to improve on? 

I’ve learned that everyone is not equally driven by the same criteria. Sustainability and climate action are important to me, professionally and personally, but someone else might not think about it as much as I do. I am working on approaching such moments not with frustration but with a sense of opportunity.

I’m trying to improve how I might best share the things that are important to me with others — understanding the right context and the right words to use so others will share my excitement for sustainability and climate action 

What’s been your most valuable career mistake?

In my early years, it was hard to balance the Asian culture I grew up with and the North American culture I was working in. It was helpful to become aware of the right time for each perspective.

What’s your go-to stress-relief activity or routine?

I enjoy cooking Indian food. There’s something about rhythmically cutting vegetables that clears my mind. Or perhaps it’s the connection to my home country that’s calming.

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