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No Magic Required: Building A CRE Career Is About Patience, Hard Work And Finding Allies

Goldie B. Wolfe Miller may now be as well-known for her passionate efforts to mentor young women seeking to join the ranks of commercial real estate executives as for her own pioneering work as a broker. After a decades-long career, she launched The Goldie Initiative and began guiding female rookies to corner offices, a calling inspired by her own struggle to reach the top.

“I’m sure the word ‘mentorship’ existed 50 years ago, but it didn’t exist for me,” she said Thursday during Bisnow’s Mentoring, Continuing Education and Diversity webinar.

Goldie B. Wolfe Miller with some of the honorees at the Chicago Power Women event on Dec. 4, 2018.

At the time, Miller was a broker for Arthur Rubloff, the legendary developer of Chicago’s Carl Sandburg Village. He supported her career and was genuinely helpful, but in other ways, Miller, frequently the only woman in any business meeting, was alone.

“In terms of a real mentor, I didn’t have one, at least as we understand the term today,” she told Avison Young principal and legal counsel Nicole White.

It took her a long time to realize she was meant for a career in real estate.

“I was no different than most people in college, I had no idea what I was going to do,” she said.

Someone suggested Miller try advertising, and she gave it a go, largely because the field had so many different types of work, including management, research and sales, that she could sample to see what fit her personality.

“I loved what I did, but it wasn’t something I felt passionate about,” she said. “I saw people who had been there 30 or 40 years who lost their jobs simply because they lost an account.”

She took three months off and went on about 60 job interviews, casting a net over many kinds of fields and possible career paths. After getting advice to choose work that provided financial rewards equal to the amount of work she put in, she chose sales. Her talent was noticed, and soon she got the life-changing advice to try real estate brokerage — but there was a catch.

“I was told, ‘You can be a broker if you’re a man, but you can’t be a broker if you’re a woman, because there are no women brokers in commercial real estate,’” she recalled.

One option was to become a lead-getter, someone who knocked on doors, made cold calls and performed other grunt work, then handed the leads to brokers who would end up reaping the rewards.

“I said, ‘That’s not right.’”

The Goldie Initiative founder Goldie B. Wolfe Miller and Avison Young principal and legal counsel Nicole White.

But Rubloff gave her a chance, and she spent around 20 years with the firm, frequently winning awards as its top national broker.

“There’s no magic to it,” Miller added. "You’re making phone calls and going door to door.”

Rubloff died in 1986, and his firm decided to focus on development rather than brokerage. That left Miller with a choice, and she decided to take on some risk.

“I was sitting in my office, I had a corner office, and wasn’t sure what to do," she said. "I could certainly go to another firm, but after 20 years, I didn’t want to regret something I could have done and been successful.”

She founded Goldie B. Wolfe & Co. in 1989, and her work ethic fueled its rise. Its client roster came to include IBM, Xerox and Sara Lee Corp. She also helped Oprah Winfrey find her studio on Randolph Street in the West Loop, now the site of McDonald’s Corp.’s world headquarters.

“It wasn’t a job, a career," she said. "My clients became my friends, and my friends became my clients.”

Starting The Goldie Initiative was a way to ensure young women today have a helping hand as they climb the corporate ladder. The organization now has relationships with about a dozen schools, including DePaul University, the University of Notre Dame, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan and others, and takes on selected graduate students, giving them opportunities to network and receive mentorship from top industry leaders such as Colliers International’s Lynn Reich, CIBC’s Karen Case and Sheli Rosenberg.

“I can proudly say that after 13 years, we have about 100 scholars," Miller said. "They call themselves Goldie Scholars, and it keeps me young.”