As the leader of Ethos, a design and build and luxury remodeling and real estate business, Sarah Cunningham understands the challenges with Boise’s housing inventory that impact community development potential homebuyers. She is the founder of the Boise Bench Dwellers and was born, raised and educated (Go Broncos!) in the community she calls home. Cunningham is among IBR’s Women of the Year 2021 honorees.
As the founder and CEO of Ethos, Cunningham views herself as the principal catalyst and dreamweaver, helping clients’ visions for their homes become reality. She’s also a realtor. “What we do is very much in line with what people’s dreams are,” said Cunningham. “Our homes are important. We need to come home and feel like we belong. It really goes to the core of our health and wellbeing.”
Cunningham remains an exception on the design and build side of her business, noting that just 13% of construction companies nationwide are owned by women, a 64% jump between 2014-2019.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
What would you like me and others to know about yourself and your passions?
For as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve had a passion for design across many disciplines: fashion design, costume design, lighting and set design. I think a lot of my study of art and theater history informs my approach to designing homes, because it’s really kind of a study of anthropology and culture in a time and place, which ties into the definition of ethos as a manifestation of the character of a place, era or culture. Personally and professionally, I believe in living with integrity.
And how did you decide to become an entrepreneur? I think the shared consensus is that’s not an easy route.
Ever since I was a little girl, I always had envisioned myself as the queen of my own empire, quite frankly. As a young adult, I was terrified of that – the world I grew up in didn’t exactly reward female ambition. I didn’t know where to start, and ended up going to school for way too long, and then I worked in the food and beverage industry and then finally was like, ‘OK, my life is sort of spinning…’ One of my friends suggested I try my hand at interior design, so I went back to Boise State, but there was no interior design program, so I crafted my own drawing from engineering courses and pre-architecture and design to theater and all the design courses offered through the art program. I studied urban sociology, psychology and I have a minor in leadership. When I graduated, a prominent construction company owner hired me as a design consultant. I was kind of flabbergasted because I had no experience, and she took a chance on me. When you see somebody that has a creative talent you really want to nurture that, and then you can teach them the skills. Then, during the Great Recession, I was laid off. There’s an old line basically about a steady paycheck being like an addiction; it kind of keeps you from fulfilling your bigger self if you have that security blanket. Being laid off gave me that sort of kick in the butt to do my own thing, which is what I’d always wanted. So I started my company 11 years ago, and it has been one step after another…growing and evolving, while keeping my original vision in mind. Being an entrepreneur is challenging, but it’s so rewarding, and I could never go back to working for someone else
Since you are a leader in what can be said is a male-dominated field, did that impact you going in? And (if) that realization came about, how did that impact you?
Home remodeling is full of women, but the design + build side, the construction side, is not. We joke that we don’t fluff your pillows, we build your home, or in some cases, your addition or ADU. We can fluff your pillows too, but that’s not our main purpose. I’m happy to inspire more women to go into the design + build field. I remember when I first started out being simultaneously excited and intimidated. I would constantly second guess what I had to bring to the table, and I had to learn my own communication style within the dynamic of the field. However, I had a lot of amazing male mentors who were other remodelers and I was on a board of directors for the Idaho chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. Those experiences really kind of informed my professional lens in this industry and helped people begin to perceive me as a general contractor (GC) as a woman. It took a number of years for people to understand that I’m capable of being a designer, a GC, and a realtor, because people are comfortable putting others into boxes. But getting over that hump, I think there’s been enough traction and visibility and enough recognition of what Ethos has accomplished that people are starting to see the big picture of who we are and what we offer.
What are your reflections on the current housing market situation? And how are you approaching what’s happening?
Most of our business is on the design remodel side, in part because of the Treasure Valley housing situation where some people have a lot of equity in their home and are able to tap that and improve the home. I find with clients that want to sell and put that t equity into something else, that they can’t because there’s not a lot of inventory — and the cost of bare ground is really high. Boise has this opportunity to do infill projects instead of sprawling out to the suburbs and continuing to consume all the bare land. I like density done right because humans want to be social; we’re not meant to be isolated. That’s where I see our role — building and helping with housing developments in that more creative way.
How are you approaching that?
My approach is to look at multifamily opportunities that are close to downtown and services, and to re-imagine some of these commercial corridors and spaces that are underutilized. Take Orchard (Street), which is kind of a long-time dream of mine; I’d love to play a role in redesigning it. When you look at corridors like that where you could bring in more residential and mixed-use along the corridor that puts people on bike lanes close to the freeway, close to downtown, close to the river, close to the airport. And there’s lots of opportunity here, and then also in Garden City, where we’re not pushing people toward the outskirts and developing farmland, but just making better use of existing but underutilized commercial space.
What advice do you have for those who want to enter the field?
Find mentors and build a trusted network. Women are familiar with imposter syndrome and the term speaks to that insecurity we are conditioned to have and questioning our value. Having men and women mentors is important; we do communicate differently. I have some amazing male mentors. It’s great to find women who are doing what you’re doing or are a couple steps ahead of you in business so you can learn from them. Men can further educate themselves about the demographics of their industry and look at what they can do to promote or encourage more women to apply.
I wish I could speak in a more inclusive, non-binary way because I want to acknowledge and recognize that there’s a lot of LGBTQ and non-binary people who bring a lot to our business community as well. And, lastly, trust your intuition. Sometimes we know more than we give ourselves credit for.
What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?
It goes back to finding that mentorship and knowing your strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes when I’m hiring, as I am right now, I find people who are amazing technicians, but then they started their own company because they thought that they wanted to do their own thing. Then they found out that the actual running of the business is a whole different ball game and maybe not what they signed up for. Entrepreneurship may not be for everyone, but I am enjoying the ride.
Editor’s note: This Q&A was updated Aug. 30. Follow the subject in our Sept. 17 edition for a look at the construction side of Ethos Design+Build | Remodel.