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Origin Stories: Cohesion CEO Thru Shivakumar's Journey In CRE, Where The Product Is Easy But The Processes Are Not

This series delves into the myriad ways people enter the commercial real estate industry and what contributes to their success.

Thru Shivakumar spent about 13 years working on the capital side of real estate. Figuring out the processes and personalities of real estate was a challenge, as was often being the only female in the room when she worked for or with funds — at one point, she even left the industry.

But good mentors brought her back, though now with a whole new focus: Two years ago, she founded proptech company Cohesion, which provides an app owners and managers can use to do everything from manage smart building technologies to offer tenant experiences and perks like calling an elevator from your phone.

Cohesion CEO Thru Shivakumar walking through a market in Jerusalem.

Though she began her professional life as a financial analyst for a pharmaceutical and medical device company, Shivakumar had always prepared for a career in real estate. Her undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was in finance, accounting and real estate. She received an MBA from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management in 2014 with a focus on finance and innovation and entrepreneurship.

She has worked in a variety of specialties within CRE finance, including stints at Hyatt Hotels, InterPark, Green Course Partners and World Business Chicago.

Bisnow: How did you get introduced to CRE?

Shivakumar: A recruiter reached out to me when I was at Baxter Healthcare and diligently pitched me on joining a wholly owned subsidiary of Hyatt Hotels, Select Hotels Group. Hyatt had bought a hotel chain called AmeriSuites, and their idea was to reposition, recapitalize and rebrand the chain. We turned AmeriSuites into Hyatt Place and Hyatt House. That was my first immersive experience in real estate. Since that project was successful, Select Hotels Group officially merged into Global Hyatt.

Bisnow: What was your first job in CRE? 

Shivakumar: My first job in CRE was in corporate finance at Select Hotels Group in 2005. I was a financial analyst at Select Hotels Group. I was responsible for managing all the field sales bonuses and budgets of 400-plus hotels. 

Bisnow: What kind of education, certification or official training do you have in CRE? How critical was it to landing your first big role?

Shivakumar: Since I had taken on a corporate finance role, my undergraduate education in finance was critical. In 2005, it was also critical that I knew how to use Excel to run budgets and conduct financial analyses. Thankfully for today’s generation, technology has progressed quite a bit since 2005! 

Cohesion co-founder and CEO Thru Shivakumar, second from the right, with her family at her sister's 40th birthday party.

Bisnow: What is one skill you wish you had coming into CRE?

Shivakumar: Understanding how financials of all asset classes worked at the property level would have been helpful. I was always on the corporate side, so I knew how financials rolled up but I didn’t fully grasp the property level specifics. 

Bisnow: What were you doing before you got into CRE? 

Shivakumar: I was in a corporate finance development program at a pharmaceutical and medical device company. I only did that for a year before I entered CRE. While I spent 13-plus years of my career on the corporate and capital side, I have switched over to proptech as there is so much opportunity on the data side of properties. 

Bisnow: Can you remember a moment where you felt in over your head or you worried this industry wasn’t for you? Did you ever think about quitting? What changed? 

Shivakumar: Yes, many times in my 20s. No doubt about it, it was very tough for a woman to be in a male-dominated industry. I was on the fund side, and I was often the only female in the room full of males. I did leave CRE for three years but eventually made my way back into the tech side of CRE.

Bisnow: What were your early impressions of the industry, good and bad? How has your impression changed?

Shivakumar: Good: An easy-to-understand “product” because we all get to experience, see and feel it. I’m always in awe of tall buildings — the architecture and construction are just amazing!

Bad: Assets were not technologically advanced and there were not a lot of females from a human capital standpoint.

Changing Impression: The industry is finally at an inflection point and looking at technology as a way to solve real problems and not just something that has to be dealt with. Integrated building technologies are now more important than ever and smart technologies are driving data-driven decisions on making buildings more resilient and sustainable.

Cohesion CEO Thru Shivakumar, front left, with friends in Kyoto, Japan.

Bisnow: Have you had a mentor or sponsor? How did that person shape your future in CRE? 

Shivakumar: Yes — Raj Gupta. He is the executive chairman of ESD Global. When I was at GCM Grosvenor in 2018, I met Raj at a civic event and we started talking about the future of Intelligent Buildings and technology. We spent the next six months studying the market fit for a technology that we ultimately spun out of ESD and turned into Cohesion. He believed that I could lead this new proptech firm, and he invested in our early success. He is the main reason that I am where I am today. 

Bisnow: What is a key lesson someone taught you, either kindly or the hard way?

Shivakumar: One of my mentors taught me that in order to be a good leader, I still had to work hard at my job and add 30% more to my plate in order to manage my employees well. So if I was working 50 hours a week for my deliverables, I was working at least another 15 hours for my employees. They taught me that anyone can manage people, but the best “management” occurs when your team is inspired, so show them through your actions that you care and are dedicated to helping them grow and succeed in business.

Bisnow: What do you warn people about when they join the industry?

Shivakumar: I tell people that the product is easy to understand but the processes and culture in real estate are not! Things in real estate are complicated, haha. I also tell people that real estate is a very relationship-based industry — so if that’s not something you can deal with, then you should reconsider. 

Bisnow: If you could do your career all over again, what would you change?

Shivakumar: I wouldn’t change anything. I am where I am because I had failures and successes throughout my career — I never gave up. Through the hardships, I learned my most valuable lessons.