She Fled Ukraine As Bombs Fell. Now Hanna Karpenko Is Rebuilding Her CRE Career With Jamestown
Hanna Karpenko was a successful real estate executive, a self-made woman who rose from secretary at a firm that produced uniforms for Ukraine’s emergency services to running the leasing strategy of one of the country’s most successful shopping malls. She had a job she loved, a house, a family and a 10-year-old son who loves basketball and soccer.
Overnight, everything changed.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Karpenko’s home city of Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine, just 19 miles from the Russian border, was one of the first locations to be targeted. For Karpenko, her friends, family, colleagues and fellow Ukrainians, normal life was shattered.
“We spent a full week underground in a basement, and my son was so frightened, I knew we had to leave,” she told Bisnow. “As we ran from Kharkiv, bombs were dropping all around us. We jumped in the car and my husband drove us to safety, where he then said goodbye, and we started our journey here. We learned that just after we drove along the road, it had been bombed.”
Karpenko and her son went first to the west of Ukraine, which was not directly affected by the invasion. Then, via a friend, she found a host family in Basildon, Essex, to the east of London in the UK.
She has been living there with her son since last spring. Her elderly parents remained in Ukraine, unable to leave the country, and her husband remains there caring for them.
Karpenko and her son were safe. But she essentially found herself a single parent in a country where she couldn’t speak the language and didn’t have a job.
Like millions of people displaced by war around the world every year, Karpenko was a skilled professional facing the challenge of how to start again in a new country. Like so many others, she has begun to forge a new life and career through grit, intelligence and new contacts in the UK, European and U.S. real estate worlds.
Before the invasion, Karpenko was deputy leasing director at the Mall of Ukraine in Kharkiv, a 270K SF mall with more than 150 tenants, primarily European and international fashion brands and retailers.
She didn’t start her career in real estate but worked her way up via a route that was far from standard.
In 2004, she began work as a secretary at a company that manufactured uniforms for Ukrainian public services like the fire and police departments before moving to Euroset, Russia’s largest mobile phone operator, which had a presence in Ukraine. There, she was responsible for finding new premises, eventually becoming leasing director and negotiating all new Ukrainian leases for the company.
That role was a bridgehead into the real estate world.
Karpenko worked as a leasing manager for a Ukrainian property services firm for two years before taking her role at Mall of Ukraine, owned by a local private investor. Despite the title, she was essentially responsible for the mall’s leasing strategy.
“It’s the best job I could imagine,” she said. “It was like my own personal house. I got to decide which areas I wanted to upgrade or if I wanted to replace a brand. I got to create something. It was like my home.”
Every new tenant or upgrade to the centre had to justify itself by increasing revenue, Karpenko said.
Her responsibilities included making sure the centre was fully occupied and footfall was increasing along with rent and service charge, and she identified new brands to take space. It was a task she relished, especially as a full shopping centre was not as out of the question in Ukraine as in the UK and U.S.
“In Ukraine, you would have brands coming to you, asking to take space in your centre,” she said. “In England, you have a lot more centres, so you are going to the brands and asking them.”
Karpenko wanted to continue with her career in commercial real estate after arriving in the UK, but she knew she would first have to learn English. She did so, starting from scratch with the help of her host family.
They also helped her write to senior figures in the UK real estate industry, and her letter caught the eye of Nina Zeilerbauer, co-founder of real estate recruiter Madison Berkeley. Zeilerbauer helped Karpenko secure a two-month role shadowing some of the retail asset managers at Landsec, the UK’s second-largest real estate investment trust.
“Hanna is incredibly talented and a powerhouse of knowledge,” Zeilerbauer said, adding that the firm has an ethos of seeking to work with people facing barriers to entering the real estate profession. “Back in Ukraine, she was incredibly successful and managed a big site. Here, she has had to start again, but we are so thrilled that she is on her way, and we know we can keep helping her.”
At Landsec, she gained insight into the leasing strategies used by the REIT’s team, touring the company’s different retail assets and learning the technical and legal differences between UK retail real estate and the system used in Ukraine, such as differences in service charges.
From there, she gained a role working one day a week as a research analyst for Jamestown, the U.S. investor and developer that also has a significant portfolio in Europe. She is responsible for managing the tenant mix for the retail element of an office scheme the company owns in Warsaw, Poland, which occupies the two lower floors of the scheme.
“I’m responsible for finding the tenants — something unusual rather than famous brands, companies that will step up and provide something interesting for the scheme,” she said. “It’s very exciting. It’s like my previous role at the shopping centre, and I’ve found a lot of interesting startups.”
Karpenko’s son has settled in a new school, making friends, joining local football and basketball clubs. He wants to stay, and she is hoping that her husband and parents can soon join them. She hopes the family can create a permanent home in the UK — one that includes her career in commercial real estate.
She has worked her way up before, and she wants to do it again.
“Of course, I would like a full-time role, and, of course, I would like to do the same as I did in Ukraine,” she said. “I understand that I need to improve my English and my knowledge of local laws and legislation. But I would love to start at a big company and step-by-step improve my knowledge until one day I’m managing a shopping centre again.”