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Chicago Power Women: 5 Questions With Michelle Mills Clement

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 on Dec. 4.

When Chicago Association of Realtors CEO Michelle Mills Clement began her commercial real estate career six years ago, she was frequently the only person of color in meetings, as well as the only woman. But in that short span of time, the Chicago native has noticed growing diversity in the industry, and is determined to help open its ranks to the widest range of talent available.

Chicago Association of Realtors CEO Michelle Mills Clement

Her efforts include ensuring all association members can take part in its activities. Instead of holding events downtown or at CAR’s River North headquarters, she makes sure staff members fan out across the city and into all of its neighborhoods, and Mills Clement herself launched a listening tour that hit numerous points around Chicago.    

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

Mills Clement: My background is in association management. When I started as the executive director of NAIOP: Commercial Real Estate & Development Association for the Washington State chapter, I immediately fell in love with real estate. I was living on Amazon’s campus and watching new developments go up all around me. Then, to see how transit-oriented development came into play was even more fascinating. I earned a certificate in commercial real estate from the University of Washington, and I was then recruited to be the CEO of the Commercial Brokers Association — the largest broker-owned commercial MLS. Working there deepened my passion for the industry. I’m so proud to be the CEO of the Chicago Association of Realtors, where I get to work alongside those who help shape our communities and make an impact on where we work, live and play.

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

Mills Clement: I just started in this industry six years ago, and since then I’ve seen such an incredible, positive change. When I started, I was often the “only” one in the room — the only woman, the only person of color or the only young professional. Now, I’m seeing so much more diversity in leadership, especially in Chicago. Not only are there more women at the table, but we’re also doing a great job empowering the next generation and helping them pave their paths to success. However, there is still a lot of work to do. While we may be in the rooms and at the table, it isn’t always in large or adequate numbers. There’s always room for improvement.

Bisnow: Who are your role models and why?

Mills Clement: Michelle Obama. I see myself in her, personally and professionally. We are both wives, mothers and from the south side of Chicago and literally traveled the same streets. I love how she leads while being down-to-earth and showing that she’s a real person. I try to embody that in my leadership. I hope in any leadership position I have, I am approachable and bring a sense of comfort to my teams.

Congresswoman Robin Kelly of Illinois' 2nd Congressional District is another role model. She is the definition of a servant leader. In all she does, she puts her constituents before herself and is truly for the betterment of Chicago. I share her passion for each of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods.

The third is architect Jeanne Gang. She designed some of Chicago’s most notable buildings, including the Aqua Tower and Vista Tower — which will become Chicago’s third-largest building. She’s a trailblazer in a male-dominated industry. When I am the “only” in a room, I look at what she has created, and I’m inspired every time.

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

Mills Clement: In my previous role with the Commercial Brokers Association, our team decided to build a commercial multiple listing service from scratch to replace the existing one. This was a big decision and undertaking. For several reasons, we had to launch the product a little prematurely from it being in the best possible space for a hard launch. Our members weren’t happy, because while our team took the time to be innovative and develop the new system, we didn’t take the time to market it to our members in a way that fully encompassed the members’ expectations and needs. There were misconceptions about why we replaced the old system and lots of learning curves that could have been avoided. I’m happy to report that today, the system is successful and fully integrated, and the team is growing because of the service. However, that mishap is when I learned the true value of marketing new initiatives and communicating changes to members in advance to address any concerns.  

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

Mills Clement: I always drive home the importance of mentorship and sponsorship — for everyone, but for women in particular. It’s so important to have someone you can turn to for professional advice and someone who will support you and help with your advancement. Be intentional about building those relationships — early in your career and beyond.

Also, get involved. There are trade associations, seminars and networking opportunities that can help you develop your career. In these rooms, there are also lots of opportunities. Industry leaders are always keeping their eyes out for new talent. Attend those events — you never know where you’ll meet your next boss, colleague or business partner.

Most importantly, I want young women to know their value. You deserve to be in every room you’re in, and your presence at the table is needed. Be confident in who you are and what you bring to your teams.

See Michelle Mills Clement and other women shaping real estate at Chicago's Power Women event on Dec. 4.