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Chicago Power Women: 5 Questions With Free Market Ventures' Lauren Mead

This limited series profiles Power Women who have helped shape cities, neighborhoods, businesses and lifestyles in the cities where they work. These women will be honored at Bisnow's Chicago Power Women event Dec. 4.

Lauren Mead is one of the top officials of Free Market Ventures, a value-add firm begun seven years ago by longtime Chicago real estate developer Jack Buck, formerly of The John Buck Co. He hired Mead in 2016, allowing her to indulge in one of her true passions, redeveloping old buildings and helping them live again. The firm recently bought 820 Davis in downtown Evanston, and is raising its second fund with a final close in February.

Lauren Mead with her son

Bisnow: What drew you to a career in real estate?

Mead: My career began in banking at JPMorgan. I gained a strong financial foundation, but quickly realized that I would rather be a bank client than a banker. In 2008, I earned my full-time MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business where I studied economics and entrepreneurship. While there, I took a career test; my only “high-level” career matches were entrepreneurship and commodities trading. So basically, I’m creative and enjoy calculated gambling, which bodes well in CRE. I spent a number of years testing the startup world but didn’t find my true passion until making the impulsive decision to buy and renovate an entire building. I LOVED every minute of it. I loved not only the creative and strategic process of determining how to economically and aesthetically enhance the space, but also the fact that it was a sound investment that was all mine. From that point forward, I was determined to fight my way into real estate. Jack Buck eventually hired me after convincing me that the real money is in commercial real estate. And here I am, still working with Jack and learning everything I can about CRE investment and development. 

Bisnow: How has the treatment of women in the industry changed since your career began?

Mead: Having played competitive golf throughout college, then working in banking, technology and now commercial real estate, I’m no stranger to male-dominated environments. However, I can honestly say that CRE is the most difficult environment I have ever had to navigate. Luckily, the women on top are extraordinarily smart, tough, interesting and respectful of other like-minded women. In this industry, the women on top stick together, which is very different from other industries. The problem in CRE is there are so few women on top!    

Bisnow: Who are your role models and why?

Mead: My role models have always been my grandma and my mom. My grandma lost her husband when she was 32 years old. She raised her four children as a single mom on a nurse’s salary. For as long as I can remember, she advised me to focus on education and my career to ensure that I could always take care of myself. My mom reiterated that same message and was one of the most intelligent, beautiful and savvy women I have ever known. She passed away at age 56 so I didn’t have a chance to know her while I was an adult. However, I credit everything I achieve and accomplish to her encouragement and unwavering belief in me. These two intelligent, strong, independent women gave me the confidence to take on an industry like CRE.

Bisnow: What was your greatest professional mistake, and what did you learn from it?

Mead: Not listening to my grandma’s advice. There was a time in my life when I gave up my career and wanted only to focus on my family. I will forever cherish those special years I had with my son. But when my personal life came to an unexpected halt and I was left without a career and a 1.5-year-old child to raise, it was terrifying. It was in that moment when I transformed from an idealistic dreamer trying to change the world to a determined woman searching for a career that would allow me to single-handedly raise my child. For me, CRE provides the earning potential as well as a creative outlet for my entrepreneurial brain.  

Bisnow: What are the most important things women just starting careers need to know?

Mead: I would tell a woman starting out to be smart and professional and set boundaries. Your career will be much brighter if you focus on your technical skills rather than trying to party and be one of the boys. That being said, find mentors (male or female) you like and respect in the industry and learn from them. Find other women you enjoy being with and watch out for each other. At the end of the day, CRE is a relationship business so make sure to align yourself with good people.

See Lauren Mead and other women shaping real estate at Chicago's Power Women event Dec. 4.