REjournals.com and Midwest Real Estate News have been holding Women in Real Estate summits across the Midwest this year – albeit virtually – to share the stories of the industry’s top female real estate pros. And the message is similar at all of them: Women are becoming an ever-greater force in commercial real estate, but the industry still has a long way to go to achieve true diversity.
The Milwaukee Women in Real Estate Summit held in late September was no exception. Panelists at the virtual event said that there are plenty of opportunities for women in commercial real estate. But they also said that more work has to be done to encourage women to enter the field.
“I have not experienced any challenges just because I am a woman,” said Alissa Peeters, assistant vice president for commercial lending with Milwaukee’s TriCity National Bank. “I have not experienced anything that pointed. But there is still that initial shellshocked feeling you sometimes get when you walk into a room full of men and you realize that you are the only woman there.”
Michele Raysich, senior project manager with the Milwaukee office of JLL, agreed that it can be challenging to work in an industry that is still largely dominated by men. But she said that the industry is changing as more women enter it.
“I have always felt like I have had to work four times or five times harder to prove myself in this industry,” Raysich said. “I have had to work harder to get where I am. I do feel that this is changing and that we are going in the right direction. But there are still some obstacles with being a woman in commercial real estate.”
The women speaking during the event agreed that mentors are important. They can help women navigate the ups and downs of commercial real estate.
The problem? It can be hard for women to find female mentors.
“In a male-dominated field, it’s not always easy to find mentors,” Raysich said. “I didn’t have any women in leadership whom I could go to. I had to go outside the industry to find my female mentors.”
Raysich, then, recommended that women look for their mentors in a wide variety of careers. A successful businesswoman can serve as a strong mentor, even if that woman doesn’t work in commercial real estate, she said.
Raysich also recommended that women find peers whom they can share their experiences with. A mentor doesn’t always have to be someone with years of experience in the business world or someone who holds a senior-level position, she said.
“I think having peer mentors is a solid way to go about learning about yourself,” Raysich said. “It’s helpful to connect with people going through the same experiences that you are going through.”
Finally, Raysich said that mentors don’t have to be women. She said that she has received plenty of career help from male mentors.
“Anyone who understands and can listen to what you are going through in your career can be a help,” she said.
Peeters agreed that women can benefit from a variety of mentors. She said that at her bank, she is able to ask for help from anyone and receive it. Peeters also praised Heather Nelson, senior vice president of Spring Bank in Brookfield, Wisconsin, and president of the Wisconsin Commercial Real Estate Women, for the help that she has provided Peeters, and several other women in commercial real estate, during her career.
“You don’t have to go up to someone and say, ‘Do you want to be my mentor?’,” Peeters said. “That sounds heavy. Instead, you can ask people for advice on what you should do about a particular situation. Those are easy asks. It starts by meeting people in the industry. These kind of mentor relationships develop organically.”
Raysich said that women shouldn’t be afraid to ask others for help. Everyone needs guidance at times, she said.
“Look for women or men who are in the positions you want to be in,” she said. “When you ask someone to be a mentor, it is very flattering for them. Don’t be afraid to ask anyone. You can ask them to have a coffee and talk about a specific situation you are dealing with. That’s the best way to go about it. Don’t be afraid. Put yourself outside your comfort zone.”
Leah Wyant, moderator of the Emerging Women in Commercial Real Estate panel and a shareholder at Wyant Law Offices in Racine, Wisconsin, said that there are numerous opportunities for women to develop mentorship relationships at the many events and networking gatherings held by groups such as WCREW.
“I personally think it is very important to find those mentors,” Wyant said. “During that first week I became a real estate attorney, it was terrifying. I didn’t know anyone in the industry. My advice? Have the confidence and start showing up at these events.”
Wyant said that one of the biggest challenges for anyone working in commercial real estate is to build a list of clients. Building a book of business can take a long time. One of the ways to speed this process is to network with other people in the commercial real estate world, Wyant said.
“People have this mentality sometimes that all they have to do is get a coffee with someone and that person will be their client,” Wyant said. “But it takes a lot of time and a lot of consistency. Talking to people at these events can be challenging when you first get started. You don’t know anyone and you don’t know anything about the industry yet. But meeting people and networking helps grow your career more quickly.”
Once women do strike up a conversation with a possible mentor? It’s important to follow-up, Peeters said.
“If you have a nice conversation with someone, you have to do the follow-through,” Peeters said. “You have to email them. You have to schedule a time to get coffee. You have to keep that relationship going. When I look for a mentor, I want that relationship to stick. You have to be genuine. I don’t care about sports, so I don’t try to talk sports with people. Be who you genuinely are. And ask people questions. People are flattered when you ask them questions about their lives.”
Raysich said that certain events lend themselves more easily to networking and building a relationship with potential mentors.
“The events that I find the most beneficial are those where I can have a long conversation one-on-one with someone,” Raysich said. “I prefer events that I know I am able to talk with a person for a longer time and have a good quality conversation with them. Finding events where you know you can have conversations and connect with people, where you can make personal connections are the ones to gravitate to.”
Wyant helped close out this panel by reminding viewers that they have the power to make an impact in the commercial real estate industry.
It’s true that commercial real estate is still dominated by men, with Wyant saying that 97 percent of her clients are male. But she also said that for these clients it doesn’t matter that she is a woman.
“They just want to work with a good attorney,” Wyant said.
Her message? Women need to make their voices heard in commercial real estate. They can’t be content to remain in the background during meetings. And they must aggressively seek out new business.
“Be more assertive,” Wyant said. “You might feel that you don’t have enough experience or that you are too young. Get those doubts out of your head. Get out there and do it.”