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Beyond The Bio: 16 Questions With Okapi CEO And Co-Founder Iris Cedon

This series profiles men and women in commercial real estate who have profoundly transformed our neighborhoods and reshaped our cities, businesses and lifestyles.

Iris Cedon is CEO of Okapi, an artificial intelligence-based tool to increase net operating income and efficiencies through data. Though Okapi is used in multiple other industries, especially overseas, it is primarily known in the U.S. as a commercial real estate platform for property managers and asset managers. She co-founded the company in 2017 with Maya Gal, raising $4.3M in seed funding that year and then $5.5M in Series A funding last year.

Cedon's background is in business intelligence, including stints at Ness Technologies and Gilon BI. She is also co-author of the bestselling book Six Steps To Operational Excellence.

Though it means she is often battling jet lag, the former Army commander loves traveling and does it regularly for work and for pleasure.

Okapi co-founders Maya Gal and Iris Cedon

Bisnow: What is your favorite part of your job?

Cedon: More than anything, I love to innovate. In every industry, there are problems and inefficiencies that people face, and looking at things from a new perspective and finding a better approach is really something I relish. 

Bisnow: What is the worst job you ever had?

Cedon: I was 16, I spent the summer taking care of a group of small children. I was trying to do activities with them, but they just wanted freedom from adult supervision. That was definitely not my favorite summer vacation. As I found out later, taking care of your own kids is much more enjoyable.

But I would say my worst professional experience took place about 10 years ago. At the time, I was the COO of a 200-person company, and we were acquired by a global 2,500-person firm. Any time you’re part of a merger or acquisition, there is the potential for a culture clash, but in conversations with the larger firm, I became confident that we would be able to move from a commodity offering to a more differentiated product.

As things progressed, I began to realize that the cultural gap between the two companies was too great, and that — despite the assurances I had received — the global company that was acquiring us would never be able to adopt the entrepreneurial approach of my company. Seeing this all unfold when it was too late to turn back was a very unpleasant experience, and I left the company shortly thereafter. 

Bisnow: If you weren’t in commercial real estate, what would you do? 

Cedon: I’d be the CEO of an artificial intelligence platform for the manufacturing industry.

In the United States, Okapi AI is known as a commercial real estate AI platform, but we were actually founded as an AI platform designed to drive efficiencies in other industries — and we have a thriving business in Europe and the Middle East with many manufacturing clients. So, I suppose you could say that I am the CEO of an artificial intelligence platform for the manufacturing industry.

Bisnow: What deal are you proudest of? 

Cedon: While we had organizational infrastructure in place, we only started as a real estate platform in late 2017, but we quickly gained a lot of traction. We began working with one of Canada’s largest landlords, and they saw near-immediate, tangible results working with Okapi AI. As we quickly rolled out our platform across their 40M SF portfolio, they became major ambassadors for Okapi and have helped us gain recognition in the industry by sharing their success with Okapi AI through word-of-mouth. The fact that we had clients speaking so highly about our technology on our behalf enabled us to build traction very quickly, which attracted interest from investors.

Specifically, we got inbound interest from Marius Nacht, the co-founder of an $18B tech company. He has about as much expertise at building a software company as anybody on this side of Bill Gates, so we were very excited to have him lead our Series A.

Bisnow: What deal do you consider to be your biggest failure?

Cedon: I mentioned the acquisition I was involved in earlier, and that was probably my biggest failure. As a member of the C-suite in a relatively small company, I thought that joining forces with a larger organization could be an incredible opportunity for my team members individually, and for the company as a whole. It turned out that, while the leadership of the company acquiring us was fully invested in making sure the transition worked, the organization as a whole was not willing to put in the same effort to adapt and grow together.  

That’s really a lesson I’ve taken to heart, and to a large extent, my philosophy of technology extends from it. Something can “make sense” logically, but if the transition isn’t smooth, then it won’t work. When it comes to software, I can create the most powerful platform in the world, but if it’s not easy to use, there won’t be buy-in. When we developed the user interface for Okapi, we tried to make it extremely straightforward. Not because our users are unable to use complicated technology — trust me, they’re some of the most skilled professionals in commercial real estate — but it’s our job as software developers to make our artificial intelligence and machine learning solutions be grasped and implemented easily because, realistically, the more cumbersome adoption is, the fewer people will use the platform.

Okapi CEO Iris Cedon at the Skydeck Chicago.

Bisnow: What is your biggest pet peeve?

Cedon: Too many passwords. 

Bisnow: What is your greatest extravagance?

Cedon: Traveling. Whenever I have some time, I fly off to the farthest and most exotic place I can find.

Bisnow: What motivates you? 

Cedon: I’m always up for a challenge. I’m generally running around with a ton of energy trying to move things ahead. People who know me will tell you that I’m an optimistic ball of energy that is always in movement. 

Commercial and multifamily properties generate a tremendous amount of data, from tenant experience apps, sensors, HVAC systems, etc. But it is rare to see that data utilized to its full potential — not because the data has no value or because people are lazy, but because the size and disjointed nature of these datasets makes it extremely challenging to derive actionable insights without an extensive background in data science and analytics. That’s the reality in much of the industry, and it’s been that way for too long. 

We realized that if we were able to find “hidden links” between different data streams, we’d be able to produce insights that actually improved portfolio operations — but putting that into action wasn’t easy. Many people doubted that it could be done, but through diligence and creativity, we were able to develop machine learning algorithms that essentially connect these data streams and tell our clients how they can improve their building or portfolio operations.

One interesting thing we’ve found is that the insights that our platform generated related to “improvements” are often improvements on multiple levels. When looking at a CRE organization, people usually think asset managers and property managers operate on different planes, with asset managers focused on financial returns and property managers dedicated to ensuring that the physical work environment is in good condition. It was surprising to see how closely those two objectives aligned, and how the same analysis that can understand and improve one side of the business can also understand related inefficiencies and uncover similar insights for separate, yet related, teams. 

Bisnow: What advice do you wish you got when you started in CRE? 

Cedon: To shadow different people across the industry — following around a property manager or an asset manager for a few days is a great way to learn more about the common pain points that these professionals face daily. 

When building business technology, you always have to focus on the end user, and as much as I know about real estate and about technology, I simply don’t have a background as an asset manager. Over the years, we’ve received a tremendous amount of input from our clients (and advisers) and have fine-tuned our solution to better serve the precise needs of professionals across the real estate spectrum. But several years ago, my job would have been made a lot easier if I had spent a week or two shadowing people working directly in the field every day.

Okapi CEO Iris Cedon with her brothers on a hot air balloon in Israel.

Bisnow: What is the biggest risk you have ever taken?

Cedon: Founding Okapi. Creating a startup is always a risk, but a lot of people do it when they’re fresh out of school. I was in the C-suite of a 200-person company, but my co-founder Maya Gal and I saw an opportunity to build a powerful platform that could activate and maximize the valuable data being collected at different types of companies, first in manufacturing and now in commercial real estate.

I went from a C-suite position to bootstrapping a startup, but it was worth the risk. There’s nothing that compares with seeing something you built from the ground up begin to gain momentum and become a true business success.  

Bisnow: What keeps you up at night?

Cedon: There are two things: One, my brain is usually full of ideas that are churning around and don’t let me rest. And, two, jet lag :-)

I’m constantly traveling between our outposts in New York, Toronto, San Francisco and Israel, so getting a good night’s sleep is a challenge. 

Bisnow: What is your favorite place to visit?

Cedon: Iguazu Falls, which is the biggest falls in the world. I can’t overstate how awe-inspiring it was to experience that firsthand. I was dumbfounded by its grandeur — it must have taken me a full 30 seconds to close my mouth after I saw it for the first time. I came back a few years later and felt the same way. 

Bisnow: Outside of work, what are you most passionate about?

Cedon: I love hosting gatherings for family and friends. My husband does the cooking, but somehow I’m always the one who is pushing people to eat. There’s a lot of hustle and bustle, talking and laughing, but I find it very calming. 

Bisnow: What CRE trend do you think will have the most impact over the next few years?

Cedon: One trend is tenant comfort. Deloitte recently put out a report that focuses largely on this topic, and it’s something we’re hearing about a lot in conversations with owner-operators.

It seems like office space is being perceived as less of a commodity than in years past — the landlord is no longer just the building owner, but is also expected to provide an ideal work environment for tenants. 

When I say “ideal work environment,” that basically consists of two things. There is “tenant experience,” which is making sure tenants are connected to building programming and amenities — a service offered by several real estate technology platforms. And secondly, what Okapi provides — which is more focused on “tenant comfort,” or making sure every service and system at the property is fully functional and optimized for tenant use. Maintenance requests will never be eliminated by technology, but if they can be reduced and/or dealt with more quickly, that improves tenant comfort — and satisfaction — dramatically.

In both of these areas, data is a powerful tool that can give engaged landlords the ability to learn more about the needs and habits of their commercial tenants, which enables property management teams to better serve them and forge stronger, longer-lasting relationships. 

Bisnow: What would people be surprised to learn about you?

Cedon: I was an Army commander in my early 20s. 

Bisnow: What do you want your legacy to be?

Cedon: Take a chance, you just might succeed.