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Digital Networking And Virtual Galas: How One Nonprofit Is Supporting Women In CRE During The Pandemic

Recent Goldie Scholar Graduate Olga Olejniczak (right) with her mentor, Heidi McClenahan, in 2019.

As economic downturns often negatively affect the diversity of commercial real estate, it has perhaps never been a more crucial time to support women and minorities who are hoping to break into the CRE industry. But when the coronavirus pandemic struck, organizations that are focused on advancing underrepresented groups found themselves unable to host the networking events and in-person gatherings that help people make the connections they need to succeed in real estate.

So what can nonprofits do to continue supporting female CRE talent during the coronavirus? Go digital. 

“Given the upheaval in today’s business environment caused by the global pandemic, it’s more important than ever to support organizations that empower female leaders,” said Megan Abraham, executive director of The Goldie Initiative, a group that works to advance the careers of women in real estate through scholarships, mentoring programs, leadership development and networking opportunities.

“We must ensure that the important gains made by The Goldie Initiative continue to strengthen the commercial real estate industry, which is why we worked overtime to quickly transition our programmings to virtual platforms,” she added. 

For the participants and employees of The Goldie Initiative, which was founded by CRE broker and entrepreneur Goldie B. Wolfe Miller, their equality-driven mission is more important than ever, as the industry continues to search for ways to encourage more women — especially women of color — to consider a career in CRE.

The Goldie Initiative has been able to put together numerous virtual events and content to keep advancing the interests of women in CRE, even without in-person meetings. So far, the group has held an “elevator pitch” session for its scholars with former U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, a virtual Goldie Scholar Luncheon featuring a presentation by Goldie B. Wolfe Miller and 2018 Goldie Gala Shero award-winner Sheli Rosenberg and has established a new “E-Meet and Mentor” series for Goldie Scholars and alumnae. The organization also expanded its Mentorship Rocket platform to provide additional relationship-building opportunities to young women.

Bisnow spoke with Abraham and several Goldie Initiative mentors and scholars to learn more about how the organization has been continuing its efforts to advance and support women in commercial real estate during these difficult times. 

Bisnow: How have you managed to stay connected during the pandemic? 

Karin Kraai, principal at Kraai Advisors LLC, Goldie Mentor and past president of The Goldie Initiative Board of Directors: The Goldie Initiative smoothly moved all of our group communication to an online platform, including board meetings, scholar interviews and networking events for current scholars and alumni. One priority was our annual gala, which is the group’s main source of funding. We elected to go online early, and the support from the industry has been tremendous. We can usually host about 750 people at a physical gala, but with our virtual gala on Sept. 17, we’re expecting thousands of guests.

Former Goldie Scholar Sheila Loberg and I have remained in touch during the shelter in place. She recently started her own construction firm, and I was able to connect her to a local source of equity capital to discuss her creative ideas.

Bisnow: Has the pandemic impacted interest in The Goldie Initiative among young people and students?

Abraham: We typically take on 20-25 students per year in our scholarship program. Given the timing of our scholarship application period, March 15 to June 15, and the fact that many universities moved to virtual platforms in the spring, we were uncertain about the number of applications we would get. We were surprised to receive an unprecedented number of scholarship applications, many of which came from new schools. We look forward to welcoming a record-breaking class of Goldie Scholars this fall and will be adding several new universities to our ranks.

Goldie Mentor Laura Havel (right) with her mentee, Sue Taghabon, in 2019.

Bisnow: How has the organization been supporting Goldie Scholars and mentors during the pandemic?

Rebecca Palmer, Architectural Designer at EPOCH and recent Goldie Scholar Graduate: In addition to finding ways to hold pre-planned events virtually, The Goldie Initiative provided scholars with more Q&A sessions with mentors throughout the industry, allowing us to hear perspectives from different professionals, understand how they were handling the situation and provide a platform for scholars and mentors to feel connected and heard.

The team also reached out to each scholar individually during the pandemic to make sure each person was doing OK and had the resources they needed. I am so grateful to have had this support system during this unprecedented time.

Olga Olejniczak, real estate representative, The Opus Group and recent Goldie Scholar Graduate: The pandemic has made me feel isolated, but The Goldie Initiative as always was there to help me through. My mentor has been reaching out consistently to check in on me and catch up, and even sent me a graduation present in the mail since we weren’t able to celebrate in person. 

Sheila Loberg, founder and CEO, SheCon Development and Construction and Goldie Scholar 2018-2020: I’ve been trying to launch a business since January, and my Goldie network has gone above and beyond to get me in front of people who could add value to my efforts. When I graduated from my online graduation ceremony from DePaul, I made sure to send communication about The Goldie Initiative on my personal social media channels.

Laura A. Havel, senior manager, real estate, valuation and business analytics, BDO and Goldie Mentor: We gave virtual support to scholars who found their worlds going sideways as internships were canceled and classes went remote. From texts and phone calls to Zoom meetings, mentors have continued to check in on their mentees to make sure they understand that although we have all lived through cycles in the real estate industry, there has never been anything quite like this. In every situation, there are opportunities. Perseverance through this difficult phase will only serve to strengthen all our resolve.

Bisnow: What are the current plans for the annual Goldie Gala?

Abraham: The gala will be held virtually on its originally scheduled date of Thursday, Sept. 17. Along with recognizing our sponsors, we will honor our 2020 Shero award winner, Lynn Reich of Colliers International, and our 2020-2021 cohort of Goldie Scholars. 

Because the Goldie Gala is known for its unique networking experience, we will of course be offering a networking opportunity as part of our virtual gala through the use of breakout rooms. Many of our Goldie Gala Vice Chairs, who are leaders in Chicago’s Commercial Real Estate industry, will host breakout rooms. Registration at this year’s Goldie Gala will be complimentary, but we are asking all participants to consider an individual gift in lieu of a ticket to this year’s event.

This feature was produced in collaboration between Bisnow Branded Content and The Goldie Initiative. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.