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How Houston's Power Women Use Diversity And Mentorship To Change The Real Estate Landscape

If you ask the most powerful women in commercial real estate if they ever imagined they would work in such an industry, most say not in their wildest dreams. We know, we asked. Honorees at Bisnow’s Inaugural Houston Power Women event may not have planned to end up working in real estate, but they have helped evolve an old school industry into one that is attracting new talent from every walk of life.

Transwestern Executive Managing Director Jan Sparks, JLL Senior Managing Director Susan Hill, city of Houston Deputy Director of Economic Development Gwen Tillotson, The Richland Cos. CEO Edna Meyer-Nelson, Veritex Bank Senior Vice President Rhonda Sands, Laughlin Consulting Group CEO Elke Laughlin

“It boils down to building a team of individuals that are culturally different in race, gender and age,” JLL Senior Managing Director Susan Hill said. “Real estate is no longer owned by a high net worth private family. Commercial real estate looks different; your team needs to look different.” 

That diversity can lead to business success. Commercial Real Estate Women’s recent white paper backs up what women in Houston are seeing locally. Companies in the top 25% for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have returns above industry median, according to CREW. Women now occupy 43% of commercial real estate positions industry-wide. 

“Diversity is more than race or gender, it’s ideas, it’s background. You need a team with different ideas and different ways of communicating to make sure you’re getting the best from everybody,” Veritex Bank Senior Vice President Rhonda Sands said. 

Bisnow Houston Power Women: The Richland Cos.' Edna Meyer-Nelson and JLL's Susan Hill surrounded by the Richland Cos. team — Nancy Baugher, Jody Merritt, Clay Steadman, Josephine Duncan, Angie Steadman, Jennifer Theriot and Raven Burleson

In design, financing, investment, construction, management and research, women are making progress as firms continue to diversify, but with that progress comes a new set of challenges.

“From the city’s perspective, the definition of diversity has evolved,” city of Houston Deputy Director of Economic Development Gwen Tillotson said. “It used to mean different representations. I think it’s really important to add inclusion. Everyone needs to feel like they belong. It’s one thing to have people who look and sound different, but they have to feel like what they say and do is meaningful.” 

City of Houston Deputy Director of Economic Development Gwen Tillotson, The Richland Cos. CEO Edna Meyer-Nelson, Veritex Bank Senior Vice President Rhonda Sands

Inclusion means taking steps beyond merely talking about diversity into using leadership roles to enact change. 

“Diversity has to be enacted from the top level, so that people know it’s not just words and a mission statement,” Tillotson said. “It’s important to talk about these things, but it’s more important to enact them.” 

One way each honoree is acting on her commitment to diversity and inclusion is by actively promoting mentorship and serving as mentors themselves. None of the panelists expected to end up in commercial real estate, but with the help of a mentor, each has created a space for herself and her firm. 

“We all love to expound on our knowledge, give us a call!” The Richland Cos. CEO Edna Meyer-Nelson said. 

Networking at Bisnow's Inaugural Houston Power Women event

Hill said JLL has a robust mentorship and training program, including leadership councils, women’s summits, diversity training and advocacy programs. Tranwestern operates a formal national mentorship program of its own, according to Transwestern Executive Managing Director Jan Sparks. Meyer-Nelson takes a more personal approach, hiring an intern from the University of Houston’s Bauer School of Real Estate each year. 

“The avenues for preparing a commercial real estate career these days are so advanced,” Sparks said. 

Today, for the most part women are playing on the same field as men in Houston’s commercial real estate sector. Many women and some of Bisnow's honorees are outearning their male counterparts. As heavy-hitters and C-suite executives, Houston’s power women have not only changed the landscape of one of the most male-dominated industries, they are leaving a lasting legacy for the next generation. 

Bisnow's 2019 Houston Power Women

Congratulations to Bisnow's 2019 Houston Power Women:

Lori Alford, Avanti Senior Living
Laurie Baker, Camden Property Trust
Laura Bellows, W.S. Bellows Construction
Lori Bryant, CBRE
Stephanie Burritt, Gensler
Lynn Davis, Fidelis Realty
Diana Davis, Perkins & Will
Lilly Golden, Evergreen Commercial Realty
Susan Hill, JLL
Lispah Hogan, Newmark Knight Frank
Kellie Jenks, TRC Capital Partners
Edna Meyer-Nelson, The Richland Cos.
Diane Osan, CannonDesign
Jane Page, Lionstone Investments
Susan Pohl, Barvin
Lisa Pope Westerman, LUCID
Sue Rogers, CRESA
Lauren Rottet, Rottet Studio
Rhonda Sands, Veritex Bank
Connie Simmons Taylor, Baker Botts
Jan Sparks, Transwestern
Gwen Tillotson, city of Houston
Patricia Will, Belmont Village Senior Living
Chrissy Wilson, JLL
Michelle Wogan, Transwestern