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Weekend Interview: Colliers' Diana Perez On Mastering English, Decoding The Industry And Rising To The Top

This series goes deep with some of the most compelling figures in commercial real estate: the deal-makers, the game-changers, the city-shapers and the larger-than-life personalities who keep CRE interesting.

When Diana Perez came to the U.S. from Ecuador as a 17-year-old exchange student, she didn’t know any English. She planned to spend a year learning the language and return home.

But somehow she never left. 

Over the years, Perez navigated American culture shock, worked at Olive Garden and as a cleaner, and put herself through college — all leading up to her current role as the director of industrial research for Colliers' Chicago office, where she is the first woman to fill that position.

“It's been a constant learning experience for me from the beginning,” Perez said. “I didn't know any vocabulary about real estate. I didn't know what stocks were, I didn't know what deal sheets were, I didn't even know what a broker was.”

Perez spoke to Bisnow about her unusual pathway to breaking through in commercial real estate, conquering a new language and setting an example for her two young daughters.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Diana Perez receives a Latinos 40 under 40 award.

Bisnow: Tell us about your story and how it led to you entering commercial real estate. 

Perez: Throughout my college years I was working two jobs and then going to school. When I was about to graduate, I knew my student loans were going to start kicking in within six months after I graduated, so I looked for another job, and one of those jobs was with an agency and they sent me to clean offices.

One of the offices that we were cleaning was Darwin Realty. One night at like 8:30 at night, I was grabbing the garbage from the offices. There was this lady that was still in her office, and I knocked on her door and I was like, “Excuse me, can I take out your garbage?” I left the door open and she was complaining and, me being nosy, I was like, “Are you OK?”  She said no. She explained to me that the research analyst was on maternity leave and they didn't have anyone to fill that position, and she was the manager of the office and was going to have to do the analyst position and her regular work. 

I told her I just graduated from college. “If you need help, I'm available.” Her eyes lit up. She said, “Just bring me your resume and then we'll figure it out.” I always had a resume in my car. I went to grab it and gave it to her. Within two days, they gave me an interview. They hired me. They told me that this was just a temp job until she comes back from maternity leave. Then she decided to be a stay-at-home mom, and they offered me the full-time job in 2010, right in the middle of the recession. I took the job at Darwin Realty as a research analyst, and that's how I ended up in commercial real estate.

I was with Darwin Realty for three years and then they laid some people off, including me. So I sent an email to all the other research analysts asking if people are looking for anyone, just let me know. Within three months, [JLL Director of Industrial Research] George Cutro called me and said, “Hey, my research analyst is not working out for me, do you want to come work for us?” That’s how I ended up at Colliers from 2013 to 2016. Then I got recruited to Lee & Associates in 2016 and worked there for seven years. I came back to Colliers as the director of research after that.  

Bisnow: The path that you took to enter commercial real estate is quite different from many people. What has kept you in commercial real estate for all these years? What has motivated you to stay in the industry?

Perez: It's been a constant learning experience for me from the beginning. I didn't know any vocabulary about real estate. I didn't know what stocks were, I didn't know what deal sheets were, I didn't even know what a broker was. Everything has been a learning experience since I started. Now, I have more exposure. I’m doing presentations to clients, learning more about them. In research, we’re the first ones to know about the state of the market. We know what's going to happen. We're the ones that keep the brokers informed about what’s coming. I like that I’m the one that has all the information [and] I know that I’m essential in industrial real estate.

Diana Perez and her family

Bisnow: How difficult was it to not only continue to learn English, but also have to incorporate some of these dense CRE terms or complicated concepts? 

Perez: Back in the day, there were these dictionaries that looked like cell phones that were portable. I used to carry that with me all the time so when my team emailed something that I didn’t understand, I would type the word in and translate it to Spanish.

The most difficult part, and sometimes I still struggle, is learning new words. The pronunciation, making sure people understand me when I'm speaking. I'm self-conscious of my accent, and I don't know how bad it is. It’s me thinking more about my accent and just making sure everyone understands me. When I do presentations, I practice multiple times, and I record myself. It’s a little extra work when English is not your first language. Networking as well, trying to get out there. I used to be shy, and I'm still a little shy. But I have to get out there. A lot of people know who I am.

Bisnow: In 2022, you won a Latinos 40 under 40 award from Negocios Now. Can you tell us what that felt like? 

​​Perez: I felt proud of myself. Since I have two little girls, I felt like I could tell them, “Look, you can do it.” We speak Spanish at home, and my 4-year-old, she has a little bit of an accent. And kids are mean. Some kids tell her you cannot play with us because you speak Spanish. And she cries, and I tell her, “You're going to be fine. Mom came to the U.S. without knowing English and you're going to be fine. You're strong, and you're going to be as strong as mom and go out and do anything and be the best at it.”

I feel proud that I could show my girls that they're going to be just fine and I'm going to be next to them. Also, my parents, making them proud. For them to see me graduating from college, becoming a citizen in 2012 and now getting an award for the Chicago area. They were very, very proud.

Diana Perez at an open house for a warehouse under construction in Wisconsin in 2022

Bisnow: Who has been your mentor in the CRE industry?

Perez: My mentor is George Cutro. He taught me a lot. When I was a research analyst that was just putting in data, that could get boring. He taught me how you calculate vacancies, how you calculate net absorption. All that information that I was learning, he taught me how to understand it. Even now, sometimes I call him, we have lunch, we've become really close friends. He's very well-known in the industry. So I really, really like having that connection with him, and I just want to keep it as long as we can. 

Bisnow:  When you came to the States in high school, some of the kids weren’t as inclusive. Throughout your career, how inclusive has the commercial real estate community been?

Perez:  When I started, I was ignored a lot. I don't know if it was because I wasn’t from the United States or because I was a woman. Even by my own brokers. I would send emails and nobody would respond. When I came to Colliers, George Cutro took me to open houses. He took me to networking events. He said, “We're going to go out, people are going to know who you are because I need your help, so I need them to share with you.” He's the one that brought me out and people were more accepting. 

Now, I think it’s changed. It’s not totally equal between women and men, but they’re more accepting. I'm the first director of industrial research here at the Collier’s Chicago office that is a female. It's always been a male. I think they're more accepting of that, that it’s not a guy sitting at the director's office.

Diana Perez and family

Bisnow: When you got the call to come back to Colliers to work as the director of industrial research for Chicago, how did that feel for you? 

Perez: I was not expecting it because I was sure they were going to look for another male. I wasn't even looking for a job, I didn’t think about coming back to Colliers. I didn't even say, “If you want me, I’m available.” When they called me, it took me by surprise. But then I was like, now they think I'm ready. It's my chance to come back and show them that I am capable of running this department. I am capable of being the director of research.

Bisnow: Give us a bold prediction for the rest of the year.

Perez: For the rest of the year in Chicago industrial CRE, there will be a balance between supply and demand. Construction starts are continuing to slow, so a lot of what has been built will get absorbed throughout the year. And I think construction will start to pick up again by mid-2025.  

Bisnow: What's your favorite weekend routine or activity?

Perez: It always changes, because I have a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old, and they're unpredictable. In summertime, there's a community pool. So usually in the morning, if it’s nice outside, we’ll take them to the pool and have lunch there. It’s usually outdoors in the summertime. We'll go out to a park. We like to visit different parks in the city.