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Women in Business Q&A: Paula Kavolius, Founder and President, House of Possibilities

04/17/2015 06:07 am ET | Updated Jun 17, 2015

Paula Kavolius is the Founder and President of the House of Possibilities, the non-profit grassroots organization that is changing the paradigm for families who are in critical need of respite care. As President, Paula is leading the organization in its vision, ultimately creating a footprint for a higher standard care for children and adults living with developmental challenges. She is an advocate and a pioneer in respite care for families, building the first multi in-house respite facility on a college campus; residing on Stonehill College campus in the United States. Serving as a supportive voice for those in need, she is a published blogger, featured in publications that span Eastern Massachusetts and beyond. Paula has been inspired by her son who has special needs. She is constantly challenging herself and others to look at the possibilities, not disabilities within each individual. Paula received her Bachelor of Science from the Carroll School of Management at Boston College. She is involved in a number of civic associations and has recently been awarded Person of The Year, by Walpole's town organization, The Friends of St. Patrick. Kavolius resides in Walpole, MA with her husband and three sons, and next to the House of Possibilities.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
There are many people and experiences that have all contributed to the person I am and what I try to accomplish each day. My father believed in me and told me I could be anything I wanted to be in this world, and that was the greatest gift he could have given me. My mother taught me to laugh in the face of adversity and the ability to do that has been my secret weapon in life. My husband has been my partner and my pillar of strength, he has taught me to move on from the things I can't change and to always remain steadfast in our mission to help as many struggling families as possible. My experiences in competitive sports taught me that you need to make peace with your wins and losses, and that it isn't important how many times you get knocked down, what really matters is how quickly you get back up.

All these life experiences helped prepare me for what was unexpectedly to come. When my son Timmy turned one, my husband and I learned that he had severe special needs. I went through all five phases of loss and grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Eighteen years later, I realize that Timmy was the catalyst that put me on my life-long journey to help others who are going through what we had, as a family, experienced. I was determined to build a place that didn't exist in our area when we raised our son--a place for children with significant challenges to experience fun, excitement, and enriching opportunities with other children while also offering their families much needed respite from 24/7 caregiving. My toughest days turned out to be the foundation and the springboard for all that I have accomplished for others.
We are all on a journey and every experience prepares us for where we need to go. I have learned that for every door that closes there is something better just around the corner. Once you embrace that way of thinking, you are open to finding a better solution. Many of the outcomes I have achieved are better than anything I could have envisioned.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure as an executive?
Each one of my careers has taught me critically important skills that have been vital in my establishment and sustainment of a non-profit organization.

My work experience spans from working in a startup technology firm, to working at a small business, and then in a national training position. I have learned to protect the organization's assets and/or intellectual property and to pay close attention to my instincts. I learned how every penny matters, and that being a good steward of money meant keeping tight financial controls on both the revenue and expense sides of the business. If carelessness or complacency existed on either side, unnecessary waste would jeopardize jobs and the efficient and effective delivery of services.

In the Development office of Massachusetts General Hospital, I learned how to finesse often-times extremely challenging situations with high profile people from leaders to consumers. Today, I advocate for the needs of others as quietly and decisively as possible, while also preserving professionalism and dignity in the face of challenges. I also had the benefit of a wonderful boss and mentor who made me want to come to work every day. My boss was the embodiment of compassion, kindness and generosity of spirit, and I try to emulate that in my own work.
As CEO of House of Possibilities, I learned the importance of laser focused task completion and constant mindfulness of the bigger mission. With a start up in the non-profit sector, you can quickly become overwhelmed and end up like a hummingbird flapping your wings getting nowhere. I had to set realistic goals and deadlines, and I had to adjust the pace from how quickly I wanted to succeed to one that would enable me to be effective in all areas of my life.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure as an executive?
There are on-going highlights and challenges, and they vary in degree and scope. Highlights have clearly included the day we opened our doors and continue each time we help a new family. The challenges we have encountered range from late transportation services, to meltdowns during routine fire drills, to one of our family's dealing with significant hardships. I know that each day there will be at least three or four issues of varying degree but I also know that at the end of the day the good almost always outweighs any challenges. Challenges can also lose their significance immediately, when you juxtapose it with a heartfelt note of gratitude or kind word from someone that understands our mission and what we are working to achieve.

Most of my highlights relate to two major themes - gratitude and kindness from others for what we do, and from us to those who support us and our vision. One of our greatest highlights was the receipt of land on the campus of Stonehill College to build the first facility of its kind on a college campus. Another significant highlight is the support we have received from esteemed foundations, which has been a watershed event for this organization. Foundation grants have enabled us to create innovative programming and to maximize our impact by reaching those families most desperately in need of respite.

Some of our greatest challenges have included working with the many state licensing agencies, and working to attract and maintain high quality staff for a startup organization. Today, we are licensed and accredited to the highest degree possible for the services we provide, and families in our area benefit every day from our services.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
Each day I strive to master the personal awareness needed to fully execute the intertwined mission and vision of my life and my job. I am from a long line of family with an extremely strong work ethic and knowing when to be happy with a less than perfect outcome everyday wasn't easy for me. At an early age, I was taught, "Do it right or don't do it at all." In a startup non-profit, serving children with significant disabilities, there is so much that needs to be done and so much flexibility that needs to be present that the 110% work rule needs to be adjusted to 80% so that the outcomes are solid but not perfect. I have learned that if I expected everything I did to be flawless as I was taught, I would have no time for life, family, or other experiences. I strive every day to mentally turn off work at a certain time so I can tend to my family and myself. Mental discipline of knowing when you have given enough in a day is an important strategy in my life.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Knowing what my priorities are- God, family, and work helps me to maintain a balance in my life. I am a CEO, a caretaker, a mother of three children and a wife. All these roles are major priorities. It is a pie plate twirling contest--sometimes a pie plate will come down crashing. Then you have to pick it up the pieces and fix it. I believe that we all need to constantly assess our own lives, and recognize what the priority is at a particular point in time, and be able to switch gears at a moment's notice to address what requires our immediate attention.

I try not to over-schedule the professional or personal side of my life. I've learned from years of experience how many meetings or evening events I can happily do in a given week, and work hard not exceed that number.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Being a woman in a male dominated field has its challenges, and I've had to prove myself time and time again. Not only are most of the CEO's in non-profit sector men, but also, most of the largest donors are men. In order to succeed, I've had to learn the all aspects of this dynamic world and become a master communicator. The best advice I ever received was for me to get to know the person I would be meeting with prior to the meeting. With this sound advice, I've been able to effectively overcome some of the barriers that exist from for a woman seeking funds for a grassroots organization. My advice for success is to know your business well and be able to talk confidently and passionately with anyone you encounter.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
While there is no blueprint for success in starting a non-profit, I have had the benefit of incredible mentors who have served as a sounding board and supportive resource for me. As Founder and CEO of a charity that has existed for over 25 years, my colleague and friend Jim, has helped me maneuver difficult situations relating to running a non-profit--especially when fundraising or running the day-to-day operations of a charity. He has taught me organizational strategies that have allowed me to cultivate an organization from nothing, to growing into the largest provider of children's overnight respite in Massachusetts.

My brother is both family and a trusted mentor. As a successful businessman, he is someone I trust implicitly for sound advice and honest feedback. He helps me stay cognizant that I am running a business, and that needs to be paramount since I tend to instinctively operate from the heart.

While both of these people have given valuable life advice and support in my business, there is one more person who has made this organization possible. My husband has been my number one supporter throughout this effort. He has helped me fill in the gaps in our family, when I am consumed with work. He brings perspective to my life when I need it the most, he believes in me more than anyone else in this world, and he believes I am capable of achieving wonderful things for families like our own.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
We are very fortunate to have the female role models of the past and present who have come through our lives to teach us so many lessons. The amazingly full of life, Oprah Winfrey, is trying to heal our world, one person at a time. I respect her as I watch her use her power and wealth to heal the world. Mother Theresa taught me selflessness and to act without judgment. Maya Angelou was an inspiring individual who embodied, the American Dream, wisdom, forgiveness, and above all, perseverance and love.

My father's sister in law, Sister Peggy Loftus, impacted my life personally. She was a translator for the Pope and at one time had a leadership role in the missions. Every time I saw her, she had a radiant smile and shared fascinating and moving stories about her travels.

What do you want to personally and professionally accomplish in the next year?
Now that the House of Possibilities has been built, and we are serving hundreds of children, I need to focus my energies on figuring out how we can sustain this model for years to come. Its one thing to envision a better world for families and quite another to sustain such a vision. Once I feel confident, we are in solid standing, I would like to focus my efforts on bringing our service to other areas in the United States.

I look at the blueprint and growth of organizations like the Ronald McDonald Houses, which was started by gracious and generous people, and are now serving children all over the world. Organizations like these are making an important difference in the world today and improving countless lives on a real time daily basis. I know in my heart we can do what we have been doing well for the last five years on a much larger scale and help significantly more families. Families with children who have special needs have physical and emotional challenges that are incomprehensible to most others. They need a place to take their child, where they know they will be well cared for and happy, and get a break for themselves and sort out how to manage their current and future lives with these children better. We need more HOPe houses - It is a critical need for this drastically increasing population, and respite care saves the whole family unit.