The commercial real estate industry remains dominated by men. Need proof? Go to any industry function. Sure, some women will fill the seats in the room, and some might even speak on industry panels. But for the most part? The vast majority of people crowding the room will be men.
That doesn’t mean, though, that women aren’t making gains in this industry. Midwest Real Estate News recently spoke to two leaders with Minneapolis-based The Opus Group about what it means to be a woman in an industry still largely dominated by men. Beth Duyvejonck is director of project management for Opus Design Build, while Stephanie Chitwood is director of real estate development with Opus Development Company.
Both of these women steadily built their real estate careers, and both have achieved great success. Chitwood focuses on industrial properties but also works in the multifamily, student housing and seniors healthcare sectors. She boasts more than 20 years of commercial real estate experience, including a 13-year stint as a director at House Investments.
Duyvejonck leads teams of architects, engineers and subcontractors on some of the biggest construction projects in the region. Most recently, she played a key role in the development of 365 Nicollet, a 30-story, high-rise luxury multifamily and retail development in downtown Minneapolis.
Midwest Real Estate News interviewed Duyvejonck and Chitwood about what attracted them to commercial real estate, what they enjoy about the business, the steps they took to build their careers and the challenges they’ve faced.
Here is some of what they had to say.
What led you to commercial real estate?
Duyvejonck: Coming out of high school, I had an interest in both architecture and engineering. I went to Iowa State University, which has a construction engineering program. It was this wonderful blend of architecture and life skills in math, science and engineering. It blended those together. I found that working in commercial real estate could be a wonderful career. A lot of people, especially women, don’t realize that this is a career option. I hope one of the messages that we can get out there is that there are wonderfully satisfying careers in construction and real estate. One of the challenges is getting that message out, bringing some visibility to these careers.
Chitwood: Landing in commercial real estate involved a little bit of luck. I was in the right place at the right time. I worked my way through college as an assistant to a residential real estate broker. I earned my real estate license when I was in college. I loved working in real estate so much, I changed my major to real estate finance. I remember being fascinated by the way real estate shapes our communities and cultures. Every piece of land and every building has a story. That’s what I have found so fascinating about this business.
What kind of impact have you been able to make in this career?
Chitwood: One of my favorite projects has been the 75 Logistics Center in Middletown, Ohio, just north of Cincinnati. Middletown is a typical Midwest steel town. It saw a big employment drop-off in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The community’s leadership has since been working hard to bring jobs back to the area. Opus has been a part of that. We worked with the mayor, the city, EDC officers. We are now working on a spec warehouse building that is currently under construction. The project will bring at least 150 jobs to the city. It’s a great story. One of my favorite moments, one I’ll remember for the rest of my career, was the last city council meeting for this project. We were ready to get final approval when one of the council members described this project as a dream come true for the city. That’s a great thing to hear. Hearing that is what brings me back day after day.
Why is it so difficult to attract more women to commercial real estate?
Duyvejonck: Visibility is a big piece of it. One of the challenges is that there aren’t many women who are in leadership positions in this industry who can serve as role models or mentors. But we do need to start somewhere. The small percentage of women who are in leadership positions in commercial real estate, whether it’s 1 percent or 10 percent or 15 percent, our job is to get the word out. We must give back and serve as role models. We must show not only women but other groups that are underrepresented in commercial real estate and construction, such as professionals of color, that there are people like them who are doing this job and succeeding. It’s about helping that next generation along.
Chitwood: There is a gap. Walk into any CRE event, and you can see the gap. Being in the business for as long as I have been, though, I have seen that the gap has shrunk. It all goes to education. It is proven that having women in leadership roles in a company translates to increased productivity and better decision-making. Companies are getting a little smarter and realize this. They understand the positive benefits of having women on their team.
Opus is a great example. When I first started, there were one or two women working along with me. Now I am one of many in the development company. A lot of that comes down to educating our younger women who are coming into the workforce, too. You can’t just tell women that there are opportunities in commercial real estate. You must show them what those opportunities are. I am on a committee called UCREW through Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW). We put together programs and presentations at local universities. We invite women in all disciplines – architecture, engineering, real estate, accounting and law – to help us create programs that break down the potential careers women can have in commercial real estate. We show college women what these career paths might look like. At every university I have been to, there has been a young woman who comes up to me and says, ‘I had no idea you could do all these things in commercial real estate.’
Are you seeing a positive change? Are you seeing more women entering this industry?
Duyvejonck: I am. It is slow, but it is changing. Maybe the next time you go to an industry conference and take photos you’ll see that 5 percent of the people in the crowd are women. The next year, maybe it will be 10 percent. It’s about increasing those numbers year after year.
I was part of a group that co-founded the Opus Women’s Network, OWN. That’s a networking and support group for women to bounce ideas off of one another and support each other as we all try to develop our careers. We now have four female project managers in our office in Minnetonka, and there are a number of others in our other offices. There was a time when I was the only one. Any time you can create a supportive environment in which you are lifting everyone up, it helps. It doesn’t just help the women in an office, either. It creates stronger teams and lifts all of Opus up.
Chitwood: I am seeing a gender split that is closing. More younger women are entering the field from college. I also sit on a steering committee for WLI, the Women’s leadership Initiative, which is a part of the Urban Land Institute. The goals for the WLI steering committee are to promote the advancement of women in real estate careers, to increase the number of women serving in leadership, to increase the visibility of women in real estate. One of our first big initiatives was to develop a women’s speaker bureau. It’s a directory of women in leadership positions in our market. This directory has become a source for multiple organizations within our market. When industry groups or companies are putting together the panels and educational programs, they can now tap into this directory and bring more diversity to their panels. It’s about getting women more involved, getting more of them front and center in real estate. That is the key. When women see more women in the field it is easier for them to be drawn to it.
How challenging was it during the earlier years of your career when you were the only woman in the room?
Duyvejonck: I do want to give Opus credit. I have always had the support and encouragement of all my male colleagues. Opus has very much created a supportive environment that respects a work and home-life balance. There was a culture here that helped me succeed. But I did need to build up my confidence. There were many times when I was the only woman at the table or the only woman at a construction job site. It is important in those situations to be confident. I had to work on my personality to build up that confidence. But generally, I followed the same path as most of my peers, whether they were male or female. I had a lot to learn. You come out of college so green. I started with building up my technical skills. I asked a lot of questions. I took advantage of the project teams that were around me, soaking up their experience and knowledge.
I was also willing to take on challenging projects. That would be one bit of advice I would give: Be willing to get out of your comfort zone and take on that challenging project. A few years out of college, I moved to California to work with the Opus office in San Francisco. I also worked on some of the larger projects in the Twin Cities. It’s important to push yourself out of your comfort zone. A lot of that is the same whether you are a new female or male college grad. You need to be confident in your own skills and build trust with your teammates. And you need to take the initiative in your career. It might be a little more challenging if you look around and don’t see anyone who looks like you. But I’ve always taken the approach that there are more similarities between us than there are differences.
Chitwood: The first few years are crucial. That’s the foundation of your career. A lot goes back to finding a good mentor. But I take that a step further. You don’t necessarily need only a mentor, but a sponsor. You need to find someone who will champion you, will promote you and the work you do and invite you to the table. You need to find someone who will introduce you to clients and isn’t hesitant to give you the work and provide you the feedback you need. Constructive criticism and feedback is essential.
You also need a positive attitude. You need to be confident. You need to have an opinion and share it, without being afraid to make a mistake and say something that might be wrong.
Why do you think you are seeing more women entering commercial real estate today?
Duyvejonck: There are simply more women in the workplace overall. That is one factor. You are seeing more women in every workplace, whether it is medicine or science or construction or real estate. I’ve worked now on four high-rise projects in downtown Minneapolis for Opus. When I was working on 365 Nicollet, we had a number of females who were leading the trades on that job site. When we had our weekly construction meeting, I wasn’t the only woman at the table anymore. I didn’t see that 10 or 15 years ago. It strengthens project teams to have a wider variety of skills and strengths at the table.
What do you enjoy so much about this business?
Duyvejonck: I like the energy and excitement of working with clients to imagine these future spaces. I get to lead a team. It’s a very creative process. I’m there with the clients when they are moving into their new spaces. It is incredibly satisfying to bring the client’s vision to reality. Then the process restarts with a new project. Whether it is every six months or, if I’m working on these downtown office towers, every two to three years, this creative process restarts with a new client. That is what keeps me excited and recharged about my career.