The commercial real estate industry remains largely dominated by men. That doesn’t mean, though, that women aren’t making a big impact in Detroit’s CRE market. And it doesn’t mean, either, that the future isn’t bright for women in this career.
That was made clear during the Aug. 20 Detroit Women in Commercial Real Estate Summit virtual event held Aug. 20 by Midwest Real Estate News and REjournals.com.
Three panels filled with some of the most successful women in Detroit’s CRE industry shared their secrets for succeeding in a male-dominated industry. They also provided hope: There is room for women in commercial real estate, they said, and they can be every bit as successful as their male peers.
Last week’s event was unusual, of course, in that it was held virtually. That was a concession to the COVID-19 pandemic that is still hitting the Midwest and the entire country. Fortunately, the remote nature of the event didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of its participants.
During the event’s first session, moderated by Jennifer Chambers, partner with Plante Moran; Tarolyn Buckles, chief executive officer of Onyx Enterprise; Saundra Little, principal of Quinn Evans; and Melinda Clemons, vice president and market leader with Enterprise Community Partners, shared stories of what led them to commercial real estate and the steps they’ve taken to succeed in this business.
Clemons told viewers that she long dreamed of a career in real estate and business. Her goal? She thought she’d be able to rebuild all the neighborhoods in Detroit.
Clemons hasn’t been able to rebuild all of Detroit, of course. But she has made a difference in her community, helping to revitalize real estate throughout the Detroit area.
“You can point to something tangible in this business, something tangible that you worked on,” Clemons said. “You can point to something that wasn’t there before or was in terrible shape. You helped bring it back to life. I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I’m still working on neighborhoods in the city of Detroit. We still have a long way to go, but this has always been my passion.”
Buckles’ path to real estate was a bit of a winding one. As a 10-year-old, she said, she always wanted to be an engineer. Architecture was long a passion, too.
When Buckles attended the University of Michigan, though, she earned her college degree in engineering. She knew that once she graduated, she wanted to work in Detroit’s inner-city neighborhoods. She wasn’t exactly sure what form that work would take. She did, though, consider that working in real estate might help her make a difference in Detroit.
Buckles did work in civil engineering. But five years into this profession, she decided to take the big step and become a developer.
“I wanted to help improve our neighborhoods,” Buckles said. “Young people need to see that women, minority women, can be developers. It can be challenging, as we know. It is challenging in many ways. But through partnerships and strong relationships in the banking industry, I’ve been able to make it as a developer.”
Little, too, didn’t jump straight to commercial real estate. She started her career interested in art. Her mother, though, persuaded Little to consider a career that was more stable. Little researched her options and discovered architecture, a career that would allow her to be creative while satisfying her mother’s wishes.
“The merger of creativity and design together with the technical side intrigued me,” Little said. “I learned a lot about architecture and drafting. It started a love for me for the built environment. The more I find out about architecture, the more I am intrigued. I can’t believe that I’ve spent 20 years in this profession.”
Little, too, said that she treasures the opportunity to help rebuild Detroit’s neighborhoods.
“It is such a joy to revitalize buildings that you’ve driven by for years,” Little said. “You’ve seen their lifecycle play out. To focus on adaptive reuse and come up with new ideas for the existing building stock is a joy. Some of the buildings here can’t be replaced. It’s just amazing the caliber of architecture we have here.”
What steps did these women take to succeed in commercial real estate?
Clemons spoke about the importance of finding a mentor to help guide her as she built her career.
“Finding a mentor was the most important thing I did,” Clemons said. “And it isn’t just one mentor. I found more than one. Finding women that I connected with was such a help for me.”
Buckles agreed that finding a mentor is key. She pointed to to a civil engineer she met at the Michigan Department of Transportation. This professional served as an inspiration to Buckles. And when Buckles faced challenges, she knew that she could turn to this mentor for practical advice.
“I knew when I saw her that I could do this, too,” Buckles said. “As we have mentioned, this is a male-dominated field. Anything that deals with engineering, science and real estate skews heavily toward males. So having a mentor in these areas is so important for women.”
Buckles said that not all of her mentors have been female. Buckles, who is African American, said that she has also sought out mentors who aren’t women and are of different races.
“It is important to have that diversity,” she said. “Seeking out different mentors has helped the growth of my firm.”
Little pointed to some stark numbers to highlight the challenges that women face in real estate and related fields. She said that only 18 percent of architects in the United States are women. Less than .3 percent of these women are African American.
Little said that she found her first female mentor when she was a sophomore at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan, a professor. Once Little entered the workplace, she found more mentors, many of whom have been women, in the business world. These mentors didn’t work in architecture, but they were business owners and real estate professionals.
“They gave me advice that helped me build my business,” Little said. “We could talk and not be in competition with each other.”
Clemons focused on the importance of networking. Every time Clemons attends an industry event, she pledges to pass out three business cards. If she knows of a key professional who is going to be at the event, someone who can help her grow her business? She’ll be sure to introduce herself.
“People are really receptive, especially women,” she said.
Buckles said that getting involved in the profession can also pay off when it comes to generating business contacts. She is the chair of the civil engineering advisory board at the University of Michigan. Being active on this board has helped Buckles meet many key players in her field, something that has led to an increase in business.
“Make sure you become active in your industry,” Buckles said. “Ensure that your voice is heard. You’d be surprised at how that can lead to opportunities. Follow your passion. My passion is for the city of Detroit. I’ll do anything I can for the city of Detroit. I am always open to help the mayor’s office. By following that passion, I have met so many people.”
Little agreed that casting a wider net and volunteering your time can lead to a significant boost in business.
“You can’t even fathom what you might get by walking into a room and introducing yourself to someone you haven’t met before,” Little said. “You have to be comfortable walking into a room and having a conversation that doesn’t start out immediately focused on business. You might start out talking about food. But the next thing you know, you are having a conversation about business. Take it step by step. It’s just a conversation.”
Clemons helped close out this panel by encouraging women to take steps to encourage more of their peers to enter the profession. She said that women should seek out female vendors and partners when they are putting together project teams, and that they should seek out women of color.
“In a male-dominated field, it is easy to go with folks who are at the top of the field,” she said. “It is more work to seek out women, but it is more rewarding to do so. That partnership can be lifelong.”
In the event’s second panel, a team of Detroit CRE stars focused on the property management issues facing the city during the COVID-19 pandemic. Jumana Judeh, president and chief executive officer of Judeh & Associates, served as the panel’s moderator. Speakers on the panel were Anne Knopke, vice president with JLL; Diane Batayeh, chief executive officer of Village Green; and Krista Capp, senior vice president of property management with Beanstalk Real Estate Solutions.
The speakers on this panel agreed that the multifamily market in Detroit and Southeast Michigan has been strong, even during the pandemic.
“Apartments are essential,” said Batayeh. “Everyone needs a roof over their head. We have properteis as far east as Rhode Island and as far west as Texas. We have consistent strong occupancies in these properties. That has remained strong.”
This doesn’t mean that the apartment industry hasn’t been impacted by COVID-19. Batayeh said that in many markets across the country, owners have had to offer concessions or some form of rent relief to keep their occupancies high.
Batayeh also said that the workforce housing end of the market has been hit harder. Unemployment is higher among those who rent workforce housing. This has resulted in higher occupancy rates, too, in this end of the market, she said.
Capp said that she is seeing a small shift in the rental market. Before the pandemic hit, renters were flocking to the urban centers of cities. Today, that trend has slowed, and some renters are heading the opposite way, moving from the tight, crowded centers of cities to the wide-open spaces of the suburbs.
Beanstalk oversees retail properties, too, and this slice of the commercial real estate industry has taken an especially hard hit from the pandemic, Capp said.
“You just listen to the stories in this sector and you realize that there is no money coming in,” Capp said. “There are no people coming into the stores. There is no traffic. Retail has been the hardest hit.”
Capp said that the industrial side of the market, though, remains strong in Southeast Michigan. That’s not surprising: The demand for online shopping has only increased during the pandemic. That has similarly boosted the demand for new warehouses and distribution centers.
Then there is the office sector, which is facing plenty of uncertainty today. When will employees return to their offices? Will companies reduce their office space or will they boost it to make it easier for workers to social distance?
“Everybody wants to see how much space companies are going to need in the future,” Capp said.
Knopke specializes in office. She said that 2019 was a big year for the office sector in the Detroit market. Just in the city of Detroit alone, there was more than 700,000 square feet of office absorption, she said.
As of the end of the second quarter of 2020, though? The Detroit office market had only seen about 70,000 square feet of absorption, Knopke said.
The Detroit office market is also seeing an increase in sublease vacancy hitting the market, Knopke said.
“Companies are not having employees come in every day. They are now starting to ask why they are paying for all that space,” Knopke said. “It is a fluid and evolving market. People have a wait-and-see attitude. There are not a lot of large transactions. People who were considering larger expansions have put those plans on hold. Everyone is waiting to see what the next two months will bring. We will see. It has been a little quiet in the office market.”