Hard Work, Risk-Taking, Humility And A Little Flash: How To Be A Power Woman
Local legend Goldie Wolfe Miller kicked off Bisnow’s Chicago Power Women event yesterday by quoting former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright: “There should be a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”
It was a message the overflow crowd of 500 was ready to hear. In her morning keynote speech, Wolfe Miller, who once ran the largest woman-owned commercial brokerage in the nation, praised the successful women of real estate who feel a responsibility to mentor the younger generation.
Few if any women have done as much as Wolfe Miller to educate and train others to make it in the male-dominated world of commercial real estate. Some of the best lessons come from her own life story. In her 40-year career, she was frequently the only woman in the room, especially in the early days. As the daughter of Holocaust survivors, born in a displaced persons camp in the aftermath of World War II, the ability to surmount challenges may have deep roots.
“We came over on a boat, as immigrants, with nothing,” she said. Her parents instilled values such as strength, determination and a belief in education. Along with hard work and a willingness to take a few risks, those qualities should serve anyone in any field, she said.
“It’s not magic. In fact, it’s pretty boring. But at least it works.”
Wolfe Miller started her career with the legendary Arthur Rubloff, the developer of Chicago’s Carl Sandburg Village, and learned the importance of attitude.
“I never thought of myself as a woman in real estate,” she said. Instead, she was a real estate professional who happened to be a woman. When she became the firm’s top producer, “I wasn’t the top woman producer.”
The importance of humility was another lesson. Throughout her career, Wolfe Miller sometimes felt like the smartest person in the room. However, if someone feels that way, frequently “there are going to be other people in the room even smarter,” and their voices should be heard.
“That doesn’t mean you can’t have a little flash,” according to Wolfe Miller, who also proudly calls herself an “attention hog.”
It also doesn’t mean you can’t be assertive. An audience member asked Wolfe Miller to recall her first great deal, and she told a story about pre-leasing 600K SF for 3 First National Plaza, a downtown Chicago tower finished in 1981. These deals allowed developer Hines to break ground, and Gerald Hines told her, “'You know Blondie, you did a great job.’” To that she replied, “I just leased 600K SF for you, so you should know my name is Goldie. He never forgot it.”
The next generation of female leaders in Chicago real estate then took the stage for a panel on how they succeeded and what others could do to raise up even younger executives.
“For me, it’s about being courageous,” WBS Equities founder and CEO Wendy Berger said. The serial entrepreneur has started several firms and is still looking for cutting-edge business opportunities, most recently as a co-founder of Illinois Women in Cannabis.
She also advised everyone not to underestimate the power of knowledge. Berger is an industrial real estate specialist, a sector many ignore because the properties seem less spectacular than gleaming office towers.
“I think that means great opportunities for women.” In her career, she decided “to be an expert on really sexy things like refrigeration.”
Berger said she is always mentoring four or five women of different ages and levels of experience.
Conor Commercial Chief Investment Officer Molly McShane said she does likewise. "It’s our duty to give back. There’s an honesty in returning the favor to others.”
Women should have a set of mentors rather than just one, she said. McShane learned about tactics from one mentor, for example, and leadership from another.
“It’s good to have a kitchen cabinet of mentors,” said Collete English Dixon, executive director of the Marshall Bennett Institute of Real Estate at Roosevelt University. She didn’t have mentors at the beginning of her career, and feels that may have caused a few missteps. After a set of midcareer mentors took an interest in her success, “things became much smoother.”
Fifield Realty Chairwoman Randy Fifield echoed all these sentiments, but also reminded audience members that mentors can’t do everything.
“You are your own best advocate. It starts with the person you see in the mirror. I am always looking for ways to be creative and stand out.”