On the evening of Thursday, September 23, The Goldie Initiative celebrated Chicago women in commercial real estate by hosting its annual Goldie Gala. The organization, which provides scholarships, executive-level mentoring, real world training, and networking opportunities to women seeking education and careers in the commercial real estate world, can boast to the success of the dozens of professionals among its alumni ranks. And for this year, the organization has its largest cohort yet, providing scholarship funding and professional support to 28 women.
Karin Kraai is the executive director of The Goldie Initiative, having taken on the role earlier in 2021. Before taking helm of the organization, Kraai spent 25 years in the Chicago commercial real estate world, managing office leasing for the likes of Vornado, Jones Lang LaSalle, and Newmark. While managing portfolios worth upwards of $7 billion, Karin would work on her own deals while volunteering as a mentor to young upstarts in the CRE field through The Goldie Initiative.
Kraai spoke with REjournals to discuss why her new role is so significant and how The Goldie Initiative is working to change the industry.
On her early years in Chicago commercial real estate and weathering development cycles…
I started with developer Lincoln Property Company and we built the last speculative office building in the city [during the development cycle from the late ’80s through the early ’90s], 311 South Wacker, which was 1.2 million of vacant office space. And then in the early ’90s, there was a crash, where everyone thought that corporate America was going to start hoteling space and shrinking their footprints, and there was a severe, severe downturn. So within the space of six years, it went from virtually doubling the office space that existed prior to 1980, to doubling it during the ’80s. I still remember the the topping out party in 1990, because you could go to a party every other night, that’s how many new buildings were breaking ground and finishing up. That was a really fun time.
On her connection to The Goldie Initiative and experience as a mentor…
I’ve been volunteering for The Goldie Initiative since 2010. I was a board member, then I was president of the board for three years. I ran and headed up different committees, including scholar selection, which is how we pick the scholars that apply for sponsorship. So, I had left Newmark and started a consulting practice and then our executive director left The Goldie Initiative. The board asked if I would serve as the interim [executive director] in October of last year and I said yes, because I really have always tremendously believed in our mission, which is why I’ve volunteered for so long.
Then three weeks into this job, I realized how much my true passion lies within what we’re doing at The Goldie Initiative. So I’d like to say that my timing was planned and perfect to make the switch, but still staying connected to the commercial real estate community — it’s not like I had a crystal ball, it just happened to work out that way. And I served as interim and then I threw my hat in the ring and I was lucky enough to be awarded the position.
On the programming and opportunities offered by The Goldie Initiative…
So the nature of our program is four-pronged. We provide scholarship funds of $15,000 to women getting their advanced degree in commercial real estate. That could be an MBA, it could be a JD, it could be an MSRE, or it could be a master’s in architecture construction. We have several scholars this year who are interested in social justice type developments, for instance. So that’s one component.
The second component is executive-level mentorship where our scholars get mentoring from an extremely seasoned real estate professional. Most times it’s a woman, however, we’ve started to include men, and sometimes we pair scholars up with two mentors depending on their needs and the mentors’ schedules and other commitments.
The third prong is networking training. People think that [networking] is easy, but it’s not. How do you walk into a room full of people and decide who to talk to and what to say? How do you make a connection and then how do you stay in touch? How do you foster that initial meeting and foster a true relationship? And then the fourth piece is the career development and leadership training we provide.
On the importance of real-world practice in preparing for a career in commercial real estate…
The scholars also get to network above their pay grade, which is the hardest kind of networking to do. It’s easy to network among your peers but it’s really hard to network with someone that’s a CEO or a board member and you don’t know how to reach out to them. And so every year, Penny Pritzker, reviews our scholars’ elevator speeches. They practice — and we put we put a lot of time into the practice — because we want them to look good, and we want Penny to be impressed. And they pitch themselves.
So it’s less than a minute: here’s who I am, here’s where I’m headed, here’s what I’d like to achieve. And then some of them asked for a favor. So it’s a great exercise to go through, because an elevator speech is much harder to put together than we give it credit for — to just simply tell somebody about yourself in an engaging and energizing way.
Again, these really seasoned real estate people. What we do in our training is more real life. We have people who will help them advocate for themselves and negotiate for themselves. How are they seen in their work? What do they need to do to be seen a different way? How do they get promoted? How do they negotiate politics? This is all really tough stuff but it’s integral to being able to maneuver through to reach senior-level leadership, or C-suite positions, which is ultimately our goal.
Why we need more women in commercial real estate and in leadership positions…
It’s a really exciting time where companies are truly embracing DEI and ESG and they’re trying to hire more women and become more diverse, but what they’re finding is that the pipeline isn’t very robust. So that’s how I view what we do, which is helping the commercial real estate community as a whole by filling that pipeline with really talented, smart, ambitious women that can help these companies and get them to the senior leadership and C-suite level.
There’s study after study from Harvard, and many others, that prove that once you have more than 30% women in your senior leadership and C-suite, profitability goes up 15%, employee retention is higher, collaboration grows, and it’s a different decision-making model. All these things are true, so why haven’t we embraced this before?