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'Lead By Example': Mentorship And Tenacity Led Houston’s Women CRE Leaders To Success


There are many more women in the C-suites of Houston’s commercial real estate industry than two decades ago, and the executives and leaders filling the big seats say they are there because of the tenacity, perseverance and guidance of mentors.

Fritsche Anderson Realty Partners' Emily Howard-Wilson, PDR Corp.'s Lauri Goodman Lampson, Savills' Lesa Nickelson French, SVN J. Beard Real Estate's Brandi McDonald Sikes, NewQuest Properties' Heather Nguyen and Alara Ventures' Alison Malkhassian at the Houston Women Leading Real Estate event on Dec. 8, 2022.

Now they hope to do the same for the next generation of industry leaders, hoping that 20 years on, women will fill far more of them.

“Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something,” Savills Corporate Managing Director Lesa Nickelson French said at Bisnow’s Houston Women Leading Real Estate event Thursday at The Westin Houston, Memorial City.

French was one of 27 top-level leaders and executives honored at the event, which celebrated women across all sectors of the industry, several of whom shared how important a helping hand had been early in their careers and the desire to extend one to those coming up behind them.

NewQuest Properties Development Partner Heather Nguyen recalled how at a crucial point in her career, NewQuest co-founder and Managing Partner Jay Sears both opened doors for her and held her to account.

After securing a shopping center in Carrollton, Texas, and an Asian market, 99 Ranch, as its anchor tenant, Nguyen had a vision to fill it with more businesses that would attract younger Asian residents as well as those interested in Asian food and culture.

But Nguyen struggled to convince potential tenants there was enough of an Asian market in Texas, finally telling Sears she could just fill it with typical strip center clients like Quiznos and Supercuts.

“He said ‘No, I’m holding you to your vision … I’m going to be patient on this and I want you to go through with your vision,’” Nguyen said. “The belief that he had in me to complete this was really a stellar point in my career.” 

Nguyen stuck with it, and now that shopping center is highly trafficked and one of the company's highest sales centers for restaurants — so much so, there is now an Asia-Pacific retail division at NewQuest.

Brandi McDonald Sikes also had a mentor early on who gave her some prudent advice: Always have six months’ supply of living expenses.

“Now I know why,” the SVN J. Beard Real Estate principal and senior advisor said, referencing the three recessions she has been through in her career and what may soon be a fourth.

“The reason that it’s so important to have that safety net is so that you can be the best service provider to your clients,” Sikes said. “When you’re stressed and you can’t make decisions for your client … if you’re worried about your own financial situation, people will see it. You will lose your momentum and you will lose your clients.” 

Part of being a good leader is empowering others, Alara Ventures CEO Alison Malkhassian said, adding that includes hiring great people and also knowing when to let them move on. Leaders have to be bold, courageous and vulnerable to empower others, she said.

“Courage is necessary to support yourself, to stand up for yourself, to take care of your employees and make sure everyone feels confident in their job and their opportunities,” Malkhassian said. “But I also think in order to achieve … an empowered operation, completely, you have to have compassion.”


Lesa Nickleson French and Brandi McDonald Sikes at Bisnow's Houston Women Leading Real Estate event Dec. 8.

French joked that she was floored when her 22-year-old son, who never compliments her, told her the reasons he looked up to her: Because she grew up in Beaumont, went to public schools and was the first in her family to go to college, yet has become successful in Houston’s commercial real estate industry.

But it was no joke when her son used that same perseverance to get into the Air Force Academy, where he now attends school, she said.

“You have to lead by example,” French said.

French said when she got into brokerage 17 years ago, there were maybe 10 women in the city doing what she was doing, adding she was thrilled to look over the room at the event and see so many female faces.

“We need to continue to have junior broker programs,” PDR Corp. President and CEO Lauri Goodman Lampson said. “Just reaching out, being diverse, and supporting the young people who are out there. When they ask you to go to lunch because they want to know about commercial real estate, go. Tell them, and also tailor the message to them.” 

It’s important to articulate when you see something special in a young person, Lampson said.

“To have somebody you respect say ‘I believe you are extraordinary and I think you are capable of things you may not see.' There’s nothing more inspiring, motivating than that.”