Q&A with Alison Agley, co-founder and partner at Ali & Shea Property & Design
Alison Agley (MBA 1998) co-founded Ali & Shea Property & Design in December 2020. Agley has more than 20 years of architecture experience, which she has combined with her business partner, Carrera Shea’s, interior design skills to launch a multi-faceted home design and servicing company.
Ali & Shea is a full-service interior design and architecture firm based in Aspen, Colorado, primarily working on new construction and renovation projects.
The E@DU team sat down with Agley to discuss previous business ventures, growing up with entrepreneurial parents and her ongoing efforts to maintain work-life separation.
How did you and your business partner connect?
Carrera Shea and I are both from southern California. We always bonded over that. She has lived in Aspen for around 20 years, and I have been there 30 years now. She and I were working at an architecture firm together with 40 people when the COVID shutdowns happened. We all had to shift what we were doing. At the time, Shea and I would go on hikes all the time and talk about our situations—we both had children in middle school—and we discussed how nice it would be to have more flexibility as working mothers.
Had the pandemic not happened, I do not know that we would have taken that leap. I think it gave us the opportunity to change paths. I think entrepreneurial types, or creative types, responded to the pandemic in unique ways. Instead of shutting down with a response like, “Oh no, this is horrible,” many of us said, “Maybe this is a chance to reassess everything.”
Do you come from an entrepreneurial family?
My parents were both super entrepreneurial. They owned their own businesses when I was growing up. We got to travel and do everything on their schedule. At the same time, they were often working and traveling as well. But I liked the concept of not having to request vacation time, or to ask for time off from work—that sort of thing was non-existent in my family. They were able to do what they wanted, whenever they wanted. Growing up with that was very influential on me.
What brought you to DU’s MBA program?
I went to [the University of Southern California for] undergrad and got my bachelor’s degree in architecture. Right after graduation, I moved out to Aspen and started working for an architecture firm. I lasted about four years. It was difficult for me to sit at a desk job and work for someone else. But when you want to become an architect, you have to record hours as an intern so you can sit for your licensing exam. After I received all my hours, that’s when I applied to get my MBA. I was like, “I’m not going to be an architect. This is ridiculous!” I wanted to go into development and be the client. And after DU, I played around with some of that, but ended up getting married back in Aspen, and there was kind of a pause on my career.
Before Ali & Shea, had you pursued other startups? What have you learned through your entrepreneurial experiences?
In 1999, my college roommate, Sally Nichols, and I started GirlVentures while I was still at DU. It was a venture firm by two young women, and we wanted to help other young women’s startups. One of the ventures we worked on was a company called Treat It. It was a web-based product for occupational and physical therapists. It would capture data while treating patients, then help with billing, authorizations, and other practical things. This was 2000 or 2001, when patients still had to fill everything out on paper—long before iPads. So, Treat It was a handheld device that served the same purpose. What we did not realize was we were about 20 years too early. Health care is a very slow-moving industry.
My mom was actually the reason GirlVentures took on that project. She is an occupational therapist, and she was very forward thinking. She knew that if occupational therapists could tie their treatments to their outcomes, they could determine better treatments for their patients. At the time, the industry wasn’t tying the treatments to the outcomes because it was all on paper which made it impossible to track.
That was a big project that we worked on. Unfortunately, it never entirely took off—we really needed insurance companies to buy in, and they were reticent. So that was interesting. I learned a few things from all of that experience. I was a 28-year-old woman, and I did not realize there was a bias against women acquiring venture capital. If you look at statistics, it’s shocking—even now. Female-founded companies make up less than 3% of all venture capital investments.
What obstacles have you overcome in your time running Ali & Shea?
We have only been in business for two years and, knock on wood, we have not had any huge hiccups. One of the things I did not anticipate was this: Once you start an architecture and design firm, all the projects start and stop at different times. So, you are never finished with anything. So, we have had to learn how to create breaks for ourselves. The first year, we just worked all the time, and that was not sustainable. So, we are learning to create boundaries and take time for ourselves. One of the important things about being an entrepreneur is having flexibility. The work has the potential to invade your whole life. You enjoy it, so you are fine with this reality, but it is important to not get burnt out.
When Shea and I started the business, we thought to ourselves, “Oh, this will be amazing—we can work when we want, we can take our daughters on big trips.” So in January, we achieved that goal we made for ourselves. We took our daughters to Paris for the Paris Deco Off and Maison & Objet Design Show. We had an amazing time! It felt great to manifest a dream.
What advice would you give to an entrepreneur who is just starting out?
Just ask questions and reach out to anyone you admire. Many professionals love helping younger people find their way. Really think about how you spend your time, and who you spend your time with. And finally: Save your energy for things that are important to you.