As part of our series, CRE Future Leaders, we caught up with Diana Wright, associate at Dubin Singer, P.C., where she specializes in facilitating commercial real estate transactions with a focus on single- and multi-parcel assemblage acquisitions, dispositions, financing and leasing for national retail developers. She has extensive project experience in the Midwest and has consummated millions of square feet of retrofit and build-to-suit transactions throughout the country.
Tell us about your background. Where did you grow up, where did you go to school?
I was born and raised in Bulgaria, an ancient country in the heart of the Balkan Peninsula, which gave the world the Cyrillic alphabet, yogurt and so much more. After earning a scholarship for my proficiency in English at the age of seventeen, I came to the U.S. in order to participate in an exchange student program in a small high school in Northern California. Thereafter, I decided to continue my higher education in the U.S. in order to become an attorney. I attended UCLA where I earned my bachelor’s degree in philosophy, conferred cum laude. After living in what seemed like eternal summer for a number of years, I needed a change of scenery, which lead me to accept a scholarship to attend DePaul University College of Law in Chicago. Having now spent the majority of my adult life here in the U.S. away from my entire family back in Bulgaria, and a large portion of it in Chicago, becoming a part of Chicago’s commercial real estate community was instrumental in creating a sense that I finally “belong” despite being a foreigner.
When you were young, what did you aspire to be?
Growing up, I was rather shy, always with my nose in the books or filling out my sketchpad with drawings, so while the idea never quite materialized, in another life I would have liked to be a writer or an artist. As I entered my teens, I became quite “argumentative” about my curfew, which my father interpreted as having “lawyer potential,” with which I did not disagree. In hindsight, I am probably a better lawyer today than I would have been as a writer or an artist, but I still try to sketch here and there and definitely indulge in being verbose in my storytelling.
How did you get your start in the industry?
Early on during law school, I realized that I had no desire to be in a courtroom setting and that I enjoyed transactional drafting, so I sought out internships in the real estate legal field. While there were many opportunities out there, in my case they were quite limited due to the immigration restrictions on working as an international student. Thus, while going through the interview process was always a breeze, finding a firm willing to jump through the extra hoops just to let me work there for free was a challenge. Luckily, a wonderful lady at DePaul’s Field Placement Program put me in touch with the principal of a boutique firm called Dubin Singer P.C. which specializes in real estate and immigration, which was a perfect fit and where I continue to practice to this day. I began clerking there during law school and was able to continue full time after getting sworn in. As any real estate attorney can attest, aside from a couple of real estate courses and an affordable housing legal clinic, practically everything I know today about real estate is something I learned once out in the “real world.”
Did you have a mentor who helped you get on your feet, or is there someone you turn to now for support?
One of the greatest benefits of starting my legal career in a boutique firm was that practically all of my colleagues served as my mentors at one point or another. (In no particular order.) Kalisa Gary, who was always generous with her time, taught me the value of being thorough in reviewing and analyzing complex title, survey and zoning matters which sometimes requires one’s inner investigator and/or historian to come out. She was also my first role model as female attorney whom, to this day, I look up to and the first to encourage me to broaden my horizons by engaging with the commercial real estate community, which led me to participate in organizations such as CREW Chicago. Mitch Phillips, who I admire for his pragmatism and ability to lay out a course of action with perfect clarity, taught me that if you act confident even in the middle of a sticky situation, others will perceive you as such, which in turn makes you internalize that confidence and act on it. Last but not least, Richard Dubin, who gave me my start in the industry, taught me the importance of a well-placed comma and a well-drafted document, whether a simple email, a purchase and sale agreement or a shopping center lease.
What does a day in the life of Diana Wright look like?
Given that by default I spend a majority of my day sitting at a desk, I try to start every day with some sort of physical activity, whether it is yoga, a run through Museum Campus or just going up and down the stairs of my condo building. Rain or shine (or the occasional blizzard), I prefer to walk to work and use that time to think through my goals for the day. Some days are filled with communicating back and forth with clients (developers, landlords, tenants) and any number of other key players in each deal, whether it is a municipality, broker, general contractor, architect or engineer. Others are heavy on drafting various transnational documents, preparing for or conducting closings, but most are an unexpected mix of all of the above, which I love as it keeps me on my toes. Once a day, I try to pause the paper chase and go outside for some air and a Skype-session with my family back in Bulgaria. A well-spent work day would also include socializing with my peers, whether that is a happy hour with a CRE friend or making new acquaintances at various events that the vast Chicago CRE landscape has to offer.
What do you like most about your job?
I enjoy the unexpected challenges that each day can bring, being able to make something out of nothing, to pull a deal from the brink of termination, or to make a deal close as smoothly and as quickly as possible. At the heart of it all, I love that every day presents an opportunity to grow and improve: to discover a new facet of commercial real estate deal-making, figure out the peculiarities of real estate law in a different state, or strive to execute my day-to-day duties even better than the day before. Looking back, I realize that my job has been transformative for me on a personal level—it turned a shy girl into a woman who is not afraid to speak her mind even if that means challenging the positions of men who may be much more senior or experienced than me (but wrong, nevertheless). Working in a male-dominated industry such as law, compounded by my specialty in commercial real estate, I have learned to appreciate the unique perspective I can bring to the table and ultimately make that work to my client’s advantage.
Looking to the future, what do you hope to achieve/work on that you haven’t already?
Over the past couple of years, I have enjoyed expanding my expertise from retail development, land use and acquisitions/dispositions on a national scale to shopping center leasing, tax incremental financing, and the occasional 1031 Like-Kind Exchange, one deal at a time. I have also stepped out of my comfort zone by becoming involved in the CRE community by putting on and participating in networking and leadership events through CREW Chicago’s Membership Committee and Leadership and Professional Development Committee. I hope to continue growing my CRE network and get new and exciting deals under my belt, each of which presents the opportunity to meet other industry leaders and work through a new set of facts and issues.
How do you spend your time away from the office?
When I am not at the office, I can be found at the race track, where my husband and I like to take out our sport cars, at various craft breweries that we frequent throughout the city or discover during out travels, or simply at home working on DIY projects on our condo which is situated in a 100+ year old Burnham-designed former paper factory turned loft building. I also deeply enjoy dedicating my free time to causes such as Dress for Success, the Lincoln Park Conservatory and other volunteering opportunities offered through Chicago Cares.
What is your favorite place that you have traveled to? Where do hope to go next?
I’ve been lucky enough to have traveled quite a bit, but of all places visited so far, a tiny seaside place at the foot of a glacier located in Búðir, Iceland will always have a special place in my heart as the site where my husband and I got married, having never even set foot in Iceland until we embarked on that journey. While I appreciate the unique attributes of each place we visit, whether it is a low-key camp site or a small Midwest town, an ancient European city or a luxury ski or beach resort, I have my sights sets on Baku, Azerbaijan in order to attend a Formula 1 race (followed by basically any of the cities that host F1 races or Grand Slam tennis tournaments).
Who would you like to see answer these questions?
I would love to see Anna Dobreva answer these questions as she is a true inspiration for me, being a fellow Bulgarian immigrant who came to the U.S. on her own at a young age, very much like myself, and who through her integrity, professionalism and kindness has built her very own successful CRE brokerage company in Chicago.