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Chicago Power Women: 5 Questions With WBS Equities' Wendy Berger

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.

Wendy Berger has been a pioneer throughout her professional life. In the mid-'90s, before most people had heard of the internet, she helped start one of the first website development firms, and later became the 11th employee of travel website giant Orbitz.

Berger also founded WBS Equities, a real estate development firm that  specializes in ground-up construction, renovation, development and sale-leaseback transactions, including environmentally sensitive properties such as the LEED-Platinum Testa Produce facility in Chicago's Stockyards Industrial Corridor.

Given her history as an innovator, it is not surprising she would become an evangelist for the commercial real estate possibilities of cannabis.

WBS Equities CEO Wendy Berger

A board member of Chicago-based Green Thumb Industries, which promotes the safe, effective and therapeutic use of medical cannabis nationwide, Berger now spends part of her time educating municipal officials and community residents that legal marijuana is a business like any other.

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

Berger: My first job was at American National Bank, a middle-market bank which is now part of JPMorgan Chase & Co. I was a commercial lender and dealt with real estate related to many of my clients’ businesses. Additionally, my family was in the real estate business, so I grew up surrounded by real estate conversation and spent many weekends in the back seat of a car visiting construction sites, existing assets and driving Chicago-area neighborhoods.

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

Berger: Unfortunately, not much has changed except that I now understand that I have an obligation to talk more about it and encourage more women to come into the industry. I am one of very few female industrial real estate developers in the U.S. I still am asked to make coffee when I walk into a construction meeting.

Bisnow: Who are your role models and why?

Berger: My uncle Miles Berger has been a mentor and role model to me. He has been a successful entrepreneur, developer, leader of teams and has been deeply involved in various volunteer leadership roles such as chairing the Chicago Plan Commission. He has shown the importance of giving back to civic and governmental agencies.

I look to women such as Sheli Rosenberg and Goldie Wolfe Miller as pioneers who helped pave the way for me.

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

Berger: I spent too many years fearing making big and bold decisions. I did not believe in myself enough or have the confidence in my abilities — including my ability to assess risk (which is among my strengths), to lead and to make bold and courageous decisions. I was happy to take a back seat to the men I was working with and for.

Maybe the hardest lesson of all is that you can’t do a good deal with a bad partner. That was the hardest and most painful lesson and completely transformational for me. I keep a sign on the wall in my office with this reminder. 

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

Berger: Be courageous. Be fearless. Think BIG, unbounded thinking with no limits. Think about who you want to be in business, how you want to see yourself and how you want others to see you. Think about what you want to achieve and start acting like you are already on your way.