Challenges. But progress. Lots of progress. That was the theme of the North Texas Women in Real Estate Summit held Oct. 28 by REDnews at The Clubs of Prestonwood in Dallas.
It’s no secret that commercial real estate remains an industry dominated by men. And the CRE professionals speaking at last month’s summit weren’t shy about addressing the challenges they faced working in such a business.
Female CRE brokers, owners and developers spoke about being called “sweetie” or “honey” by their colleagues and clients. Others spoke about company rules dictating that they always had to wear skirts to show off their legs. Others talked about being the only woman in a conference room or on a job site.
But speakers at the summit spoke, too, about the progress that they have made. Yes, commercial real estate is still mostly made up of men. But more women are not only entering the industry, they’re rising through the ranks and filling leadership roles. Women are common today in meeting rooms and on job sites.
The big takeaway from the four panels at the summit then? Progress and hope. Speakers shared their stories of success, of thriving in a competitive industry. And they shared their hope that even more women will be attracted to a business in which there are no limits on their earning potential.
The summit’s first panel, Path to Success: Overcoming Workplace Obstacles, featured several women who have built successful careers in commercial real estate.
Panelists included moderator Cally Miltenberger, managing director of client solutions for CBRE; Jennifer Pierson, managing partner of Strive Real Estate; Chelby Sanders, executive vice president of advisory and transaction services for CBRE; Liz Trocchio Smith, founder and chief executive officer of The Trocchio Advantage; Beth Lambert, executive managing director with Cushman & Wakefield — Dallas; Madhvi Patel, attorney and counselor at law with Cohen Villegas Patel, PLLC; and Rachel Yockey, director of culture and engagement, Texas regional director and national client manager with AEI Consultants.
Trocchio has logged 35 years in commercial real estate, getting her start in this industry in the early 1980s. Back then, she showed clients through industrial warehouses, a job held by very few women.
“Clients would tell me that if I shortened my skirt, they’d sign the lease,” Trocchio said. “We didn’t really know back then that sexual harassment was a thing. The few women that were in the industry bonded, but I bonded more with the men. I was one of the guys. I didn’t make gender an issue. There were a lot of obstacles. But it was something we all had to go through. We had to let a lot of things roll off our backs. That didn’t make it right.”
Trocchio told the story of sitting in a conference room in the evening with six men. The men had binoculars and looked at the women getting undressed in the condo building across the street.
“It wasn’t right, but it happened,” Trocchio said. “Unfortunately, it still happens. We can’t be blind to that.”
Lambert, also an industry veteran, said that it’s important to realize how far the industry has come for women. It’s important, too, to recognize the work that those women who joined the industry decades ago have done to pave the way for those choosing a career in commercial real estate today.
“Back in the day, we were always the ones getting coffee,” Lambert said. “I didn’t even drink coffee, but they wanted me to make it. You do have to push back, sometimes overtly and sometimes covertly. We made sure not to let those slights beat us. It was an obstacle, but we didn’t let it stop us. We had to be creative.”
“You have to be confident in who you are and what your values are,” Lambert said. “Don’t let someone make you feel less than you are.”
Pierson said that those women who succeed in commercial real estate often use slights as motivation.
She told the story of a fellow broker who, after Pierson consistently made top-producer lists, complimented her on her sales abilities. The broker told Pierson that she should sell houses.
“He was trying to be sweet,” Pierson said. “But I remember thinking, ‘Dude, there will never be a world in which I don’t have bigger numbers than you.’ And I always did get those bigger numbers.”
Sanders has long had a history of succeeding in industries dominated by men. Before working in commercial real estate, Sanders logged time as a stockbroker.
“I went into that industry and this one for the same reason: I didn’t want anyone to tell me how much money I could make or how much I was worth,” Sanders said.
But succeeding in these male-dominated industries does pose challenges, Sanders said. She said that women could, and still largely can’t, show any weakness or vulnerability. When she was ready to start a family, Sanders kept the information private.
Today, Sanders said, women have more allies in the industry. There are more women to share triumphs and challenges with. And it’s important for women to support each other, she said.
“It was difficult to do, but I’d do it all over again,” Sanders said. “It made me what I am today. You have to become comfortable at pushing back and standing up for yourself. Don’t compromise yourself.”
Patel said that it’s important for women to be assertive, too. Women must push back if others are trying to limit their roles or keep them away from important deals, Patel said.
“Creating a place for yourself is very important,” Patel said. “Usually, I’m the only woman in a transaction. If you are pushed into a box, you need to resist. You need to remind people what your role is.”
Patel said that is important, too, for women to find mentors in the business, and for veteran CRE pros to serve as mentors to women just entering the business.
Yockey said that while overt sexism might not be as common today as it was years ago, women still face micro-aggressions.
“As an industry, we need to call those out,” Yockey said. “We need to bring awareness to it. We have to be allies to those who are being subjected to this oppression. I want to believe that people want to be good people. Sometimes they just need to hear what they are doing wrong.”
And women need to be especially supportive to women of color who are building careers in commercial real estate, Yockey said. They face even greater challenges.
“That is the next big hurdle,” Yockey said. “Women of color need to be supported.”
The second panel, Women Real Estate Industry Leaders and Owners, was guided by moderator Nora Hogan, principal with Transwestern, and featured Alexis Jackson, director of economic development with Celina EDC; Maschera Usrey, senior vice president with Cresa; Kathy Permenter, co-managing partner with Younger Partners; and Pamela Goodwin, chief executive officer with Goodwin Commercial Properties.
Hogan kicked off the panel with her remembrances of the commercial real estate industry in 1984, when she got her start in the business. Back then, Hogan said, her employer did not allow her to wear pantsuits. She, too, had to wear skirts.
“I could count the number of women in commercial real estate on my hand,” Hogan said. “There just weren’t any women in the business.”
The women on this panel, though, said that they couldn’t imagine working in a different industry. Commercial real estate offers challenges, unlimited earning potential and a relief from the repetition prevalent in other careers.
Goodwin addressed this, telling audience members that if they dreaded Monday mornings, they needed to find a new career.
Goodwin said that her career took a dramatic turn two years ago, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Since that diagnosis, Goodwin has become even more invested in living her best life, and that includes thriving in her career.
“I was kind of coasting in my career,” Goodwin said. “But when you are diagnosed, it changes your life. Now everything is on fast-forward speed. I’m trying to get more things done every day. Life is so short. I don’t waste time anymore. My advice is to never think small. Reach out to other women in this business. Collaborate with them. Do something big.”
Jackson spent the first 15 years of her career in the private sector. This was satisfying, but something was missing. Jackson found that missing piece when she made the switch to the public sector, taking a position with the Celina Economic Development Corporation.
But Jackson says she wouldn’t give up the time she spent in the private sector. It was here, in the rough-and-tumble world of commercial real estate, that Jackson developed the toughness she needed to survive in this business.
“I wish I had gone to the public sector faster,” Jackson said. “But working in the private sector gave me the muscle I needed to be at the table. All those little comments I experienced in the private sector made me who I am today.”
When asked whether she’d change anything about the career path she took, Usrey said she wouldn’t. Every mistake someone makes, Usrey said, helps turn them into the person they are today.
“It’s from the biggest mistakes that you see the most growth,” Usrey said. “I do wish I had worked more on developing my confidence earlier in my career. But I am happy with the mistakes I made along the way. They made me what I am today.”
Permenter spoke about the big change she made in her career in 2012. Back then, she was working with Grubb & Ellis, which was declaring bankruptcy. When the company’s new owners spoke to her, they weren’t overly interested in keeping Permenter on staff. Why? Because Permenter had been working at the leadership level at Grubb & Ellis and the new owners were more interested in keeping brokers.
Permenter and a partner, Moody Younger, decided to form their own company, Younger Partners. At the company’s founding, Younger Partners had a staff consisting of just its two original partners. Today, Younger Partners has more than 80 employees who are responsible for more than 8 million square feet of properties in the Dallas/Fort Worth market.
“It was a big jump for me,” Permenter said. “But it’s been wonderful. To not have to deal with a lot of noise and to not have to deal with worrying about the corporate ladder has been wonderful. We are running an entrepreneurial company. It’s been quite a journey.”
The summit’s third panel, Current State of Affairs: Property Operations and Leasing, focused on the changes that have hit the industry because of COVID-19 and on the path back to normalcy.
Liz Trocchio Smith, founder and chief executive officer of The Trocchio Advantage, served as moderator of this panel. Panelists were Kathy Mulgrew, chief executive officer of Spencer Consulting; Maranda Auzenne, vice president of property management with Trademark Property Company; and Michelle Donaldson, senior vice president of transactions with Colliers.
Mulgrew, the panel’s moderator, kicked off the discussion by talking about how different parts of the country continue to react to the COVID-19 pandemic in different ways.
“We are so varied in different parts of the country,” Mulgrew said. “I have a client in Portland. That city is still largely shut down. In Las Vegas you see masks everywhere. If you tell people you are from Texas, they’ll assume that you never wear a mask and that you are doing business as normal. It is very varied across the country.”
That variance matters to commercial real estate, especially with the office market. In many parts of the country, employers still haven’t called their workers back to the office. That leaves plenty of empty office space, especially in the downtown cores of major cities.
This also impacts retail. In some parts of the country, people are still hesitant to eat indoors or shop in busy malls and stores.
Auzenne has seen this. Her company specializes in retail real estate. She said that retailers have gotten creative to get through the pandemic, but that those in certain parts of the country have had to deal with more COVID restrictions.
“Our shopping centers are everywhere from Maryland to New Jersey to Atlanta and Missouri,” Auzenne said. “The reaction to COVID is very different depending on where you go. Our East Coast folks are still very guarded. In the Midwest, it is mostly open. But overall, we see that people are ready to get out there again.”
Donaldson emphasized this, too. She said that in much of Texas, the office market has steadily gained strength throughout 2021.
“Traffic is almost back to normal,” Donaldson said. “Companies are still coming to Texas. People are hanging out again. Technology is playing a huge role in this. Companies from across the country are looking at space through the Internet so that they don’t have to travel all the way here to tour it. Locally, we don’t have mask mandates. It’s pretty much, ‘Let’s go’ here.”
The last panel of the day, the Real Estate Development and Construction Market Outlook, focused on the current construction boom in North Texas and opportunities for redevelopment in the area.
Sitting on this panel were moderator Nicole Little, deputy operations manager and project executive with Turner Construction Company; Aarica Mims, senior vice president and director of leasing with KDC Real Estate Development & Investments; Kyla Sadau, superintendent with Scott & Reid General Contractors Inc.; Amanda Major, business development manager with McCarthy Building Companies; Robin Jenkins, project manager and owner with RJ Consulting LLC; and Ashley Tinsley, vice president with Evans Consulting and Construction.
Mims started off the conversation with a look at the strong office construction business in North Texas. Mims said that this market has long been a strong spec one, and that even with COVID, construction of new office space continues here.
And those office buildings being built today tend to be more luxurious and feature more amenities, she said.
Developers in this space are fortunate, too, because there are plenty of opportunities for redevelopment, Mims said.
“I would love to see a lot of the Class-B 1980s office buildings be completely redone,” Mims said. “Take away those square windows and put in floor-to-ground glass. Put in ground-floor retail. I’d love to see that.”
Major pointed to other sectors that are seeing a boom in new construction, particularly higher education and ecommerce distribution centers.
Projects focusing on alternative energy sources are popular today, too, Major said.
“Just 15 years ago, an average solar project was 20 to 50 megawatts. The average today is 200 to 400 megawatts,” Major said. “In North Texas alone, there are three solar fields being built on 5,000 acres of land right now.”
Tinsley said that COVID-19 did affect the North Texas development and construction businesses, albeit briefly. At the beginning of the pandemic, construction did shut down. But that brief shutdown only resulted in pent-up demand for new projects, Tinsley said.
The challenge today is finding enough labor and raw materials to build new warehouses, office buildings, retail centers and multifamily towers, Tinsley said.
“If you are in construction and trying to hire, skilled laborers are hard to find,” Tinsley said. “Then there is the shortage of raw material. The Texas freeze. Hurricanes. Wildfires. They all affect raw materials. This culmination of craziness in the world is making it difficult for construction. But demand is still high. We need to wait a little bit to give our labor some time to catch up.”
Sadau agreed that life is stressful in the construction and development businesses today.
“We are seeing shortages everywhere,” Sadau said. “The labor shortage is especially challenging. Thankfully, the contractors we work with have an established employee base. The larger companies, though, are really struggling to meet the needs of their clients.”
Jenkins, who started in the commercial real estate business in the 1990s, said that she sees positive signs when it comes to the impact that women are making in the construction and development businesses.
“More and more women are showing up on job sites,” Jenkins said. “Too many of us keep to ourselves the parental things that we do. We are afraid of getting judged. But the opposite should be true. We are multi-taskers. We are problem-solvers. If we can work full-time and raise kids, we should not be thought of as less-than. It should be the opposite.”