Commercial real estate has long been a male-dominated field, described by one female manager in Houston as “a sea of white men in blue blazers.” But the demographics are changing, not in landslide fashion, but in a slow and gradual progression. Women now account for 43 percent of CRE professionals in the field, according to advocacy group CREW Network, but the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics reports those women are still making 78.2 percent of their male counterparts.
“I think that now there is a much higher level of awareness of the importance of diversity in the industry,” says Susan Hill, a lead producer at HFF who has financed Houston landmarks, such as the Bank of America building. “There are plenty of studies showing that when you have a higher level of senior women in leadership, not just in your company but on your board, your company is more productive.”
Their paths may be quite different, but get to know Texas’s female leaders in commercial real estate and you’ll find they share some striking similarities. From brokers to lawyers to engineers, their success is due in no small part to their drive, initiative, outlook, risks and support.
‘Work a little harder’
“My story is a little unique,” starts Debra Gilbreath, partner at Dow Golub Remels & Beverly, LLP. The late-in-life attorney spent 13 years working and taking night classes to earn her undergraduate degree, then quit her full-time job to attend law school.
“When I was in high school, I wrote in my yearbook that I wanted to be an attorney. It just took me a whole lot longer to get there,” Gilbreath says. “I never lost sight of what it was that I wanted and what I felt inspired me, but I just had to work a little harder to get there.”
Once she received her law degree from Tulane University, Gilbreath accepted a job in Houston. Her first case was a large multi-portfolio purchase that ignited her passion for real estate.
“I really didn’t think I wanted to be a real estate lawyer,” says Gilbreath. “But once I was exposed to it, it was really a great fit.”
‘Actions speak for themselves’
Hill also stumbled into real estate. Seeking a job right out of college, she accepted a position as receptionist at HFF. Twenty-eight years later, she’s now the company’s senior managing director, having completed more than $6 billion in transactions.
“Any time there was anything extra or someone needed help on another team, I always said, ‘Yes, I will take on more,’” says Hill. “That’s how I really got there.”
“I have learned that actions speak for themselves and that hard work and perseverance do pay off,” says Gayle Brand. The 25-year real estate veteran started her career answering phones at a small title company, eventually working her way up to president of Chicago Title Houston.
“When opportunities present themselves, you have to put yourself in the spotlight, particularly for assignments that are tough and challenging,” points out Laurie Baker, senior vice president of fund and asset management for Camden Property Trust. “A lot of times, the best time to do it is when no one else wants it, which is even scarier. But you’re in a win-win situation because [your coworkers] are rooting for you because they didn’t want that role.”
“I know for a fact that I’ve taken on a number of responsibilities that no one else wanted because they found them to be messy,” Baker says. “I, in turn, found them to be tremendously rewarding.”
‘Focus on myself’
Viewing a challenging assignment as a new opportunity is another key to success for Baker and her peers. When the real estate market started its downward slide in 2007, what could have been viewed as a career-ending recession was instead recategorized as a chance to learn and grow.
In Baker’s case, she had just changed roles within Camden, raising capital for a private equity fund. With the recession deepening, that meant slowing down and being patient.
“That couple of years, for me, were extremely challenging. It’s not in my nature to not be doing,” says Baker. “I did a lot of self-reflecting.”
By the time the market turned around, Baker had received her sales and broker licenses and was actively involved in Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW), a women’s networking group devoted to achievements in commercial real estate.
“I threw myself into committees and got on the board, was president of CREW Houston last year and this year I’m president-elect for the CREW Network,” Baker says. “All of that happened while I had probably the greatest obstacle of my career because the market had crashed and we were at a standstill, patiently waiting for things to turn. I could have just sat there and waited and missed out on growing in other ways.”
Continued growth, whether personal or professional, is also stressed by Stephanie Anderson, partner at Ward, Getz and Associates, LLP.
“I’ve always made it a priority to focus on myself in every aspect of my life,” she says. “I’ve learned that maintaining the focus on yourself and keeping it off your peers is the best way to excel in your goals and aspirations.”
Though that kind of spotlight can dredge up negatives, such as shortcomings or failures, using it to highlight successes is another principle that sets these women apart.
“I always focused on my advantages instead of my disadvantages,” Hill says. “I think as a women in real estate or a woman in any career, you really have to focus on that.”
“Surrounding yourself with positive influences and like-minded people is key,” says Brand. She says she intentionally avoids negative people and makes an effort to learn and improve herself by “reading, attending worthwhile conferences and learning from successful people I want to emulate.”
‘With that risk comes great reward’
Along with that optimism, CRE leaders credit confidence with their success. They admit, though, that it can sometimes be difficult for women to take the risks needed to advance.
“Men will say, ‘Hey, I want this position,’ knowing they’re missing some skills that are necessary to be successful in that position, but knowing they’ll learn them along the way,” Hill points out. “I think women need to be more comfortable doing that because I think we hold ourselves back when we don’t take that next career step thinking we may not necessarily have all the skills.”
It may be a challenge, but Hill says it’s one worth accepting: “Don’t limit your own career because you’re not willing to take that risk. With that risk comes great reward. We just have to educate women and get them comfortable to take those risks.”
Gilbreath, who quit her full-time job to go to law school at age 34, admits it took courage to make the leap.
“That was a huge risk,” she says. “But it’s one that’s paid off mightily for me in so many ways because I’m really very happy with what I do. It’s being able to trust yourself enough to take that chance.”
‘All about being supportive’
Perhaps the greatest source of the confidence needed to take risks is the support network these women have built for themselves, in which mentors play a huge role.
“[They] allow you to make mistakes in a safe environment, then pull you aside to tell you how to improve and do better the next time, but they want you to make those mistakes,” explains Baker. “It’s all about being supportive, being a guiding light for those who sometimes need someone to fall back on, to check in and make sure they’re going in the right direction.”
Many of the women, including Gilbreath, cite multiple mentors who helped guide them at various times in their lives.
“I think as you grow and evolve professionally and personally from a mentor is different,” she says. “So it’s important to be very aware of what it is you need at that particular time in your career.”
Ultimately, those mentors are woven into a network that includes clients, peers and friends — a resource that can provide guidance, encouragement, inspiration and support. Anderson says CREW helps add to that network, building professional relationships and personal connections.
“There is a certain camaraderie found by sharing female perspective in a professional environment. We are able to relate to one another by sharing similarities through our careers,” she explains.
“[CREW] has a very unique culture and all the members are really supportive of one another,” says Hill. “That allows for a very safe environment in which to practice your skills, whether that’s getting up and speaking publicly, building your business or learning how to become a better networker.”
“From scholarships, to mentoring, to educational opportunities and more, [CREW members] work every day to make commercial real estate a better platform and career for women,” says Brand.
‘Different perspectives, differing opinions’
And so the field of commercial real estate will continue its evolution, adding more diversity to its ranks to answer the need created by the community.
“It’s more women, more Asians, more Hispanics, more African Americans,” Baker explains. “Commercial real estate needs that diversity to enrich our organizations with different perspectives and differing opinions. Unless you hire those individuals, it’s going to be really hard for our companies to understand our customers’ needs.”