How Susan Swanezy Advanced As A Single Mother In A Male-Dominated Industry
When she was working her way up in the commercial real estate finance industry, Susan Swanezy said the further she advanced, the fewer women she saw.
Many women would enter the industry and then leave when they had children, she said. But as a single mother of two, she didn't have that option.
"It was, and it still is, a male-dominated industry," Swanezy said. "One thing that ironically made it easier for me was that I was a single mom, and I was head of household and couldn’t afford to be on what was considered the ‘mommy track’ back in the days, where women in two-career families had the luxury of working or not working. I didn’t."
Swanezy has spent the last decade as a partner at Hodes Weill & Associates, a New York-based capital advisory firm focused on the real estate investment industry. In 2016, she was appointed to the board of directors of Arlington, Virginia-based AvalonBay Communities, one of the nation's largest apartment REITs.
The two children she raised as a single mother are now 33 and 30, and she has a 17-year-old from her second marriage. She said the experience of raising children helped motivate her to move up in the industry.
"The best way I could be a provider for my family and also be fulfilled as a person was to keep advancing and taking on new challenges, but also making sure I had a support system for my family," Swanezy said. "I really think the fact that I didn’t have a choice, I didn’t have the option, sort of kept me going."
While she has succeeded in advancing to the highest levels of the industry, Swanezy said commercial real estate still has too few women at the top. She said this is in part because companies don't support women who become mothers. During past downturns, Swanezy said she saw companies choose to lay off women whose husbands had jobs that could support their family.
"Even back then there were a fair number of women coming into the industry, the challenge is keeping them in the industry," Swanezy said. "And that is still a challenge that remains today. There’s not a simple solution for that. It’s really each firm has to address their needs and their objectives and create a situation where it can work."
A Georgetown University graduate, Swanezy began her career at Chase Manhattan Bank. In 1986, she joined Banker's Trust, where she worked in the bank's real estate group. Banker's Trust was the eighth-largest U.S. bank when it was bought by Deutsche Bank in 1998 for $9.7B, creating the world's largest financial services firm, the Wall Street Journal reported at the time.
She stayed on through the acquisition and served as managing director of DB Real Estate, the bank's real estate banking and investment arm. In 2002, she worked on Deutsche Bank's $490M acquisition of real estate investment management firm RREEF.
After navigating that acquisition, which kept RREEF as its own business unit under the Deutsche Bank umbrella, Swanezy became a partner in capital raising at RREEF. She said the switch from working in banking to the investment management side of the business was an important moment in her career.
"It kind of breathed life into my real estate career," Swanezy said. "Because I had real estate underwriting skills and knew a lot of people in the industry, I could convert from banking to investment management. While I didn’t have a Rolodex of institutional investors to call on, I knew how to underwrite real estate, I had a lot of connectivity and a good network, and so I was able to make the switch, and I have not looked back."
In 2008, Swanezy was hired by veteran bankers David Hodes and Doug Weill at Credit Suisse, where she served as head of distribution for the real estate products group.
"Susan has over 23 years of real estate investment experience and has demonstrated success in developing investment vehicles and marketing strategies that appeal to a wide range of global investors," Weill said in a September 2008 release. "We are thrilled to have her as part of the team."
In July 2009, Hodes and Weill announced they were leaving Credit Suisse to launch their own firm, Hodes Weill & Associates. Swanezy joined them at the new firm and became a partner.
"I jumped at the opportunity to join David and Doug to leverage both my legacy banking skills and also the capital raising that I had done," Swanezy said.
In 2016, Swanezy was appointed to the board of directors for a large, publicly traded real estate company, AvalonBay Communities. She is one of two women on the 10-member board of the company, which owns more than 86,000 apartment units across 11 states and D.C.
Women hold roughly 20% of board seats across the 3,000 largest public companies, according to a 2020 Women on Boards report. Swanezy said she has seen gender diversity on commercial real estate boards improve in recent years as companies widen the net of potential appointees.
"In years past, it was if you were a CEO you’d get on a board, and there are very few women that are CEOs of public companies," Swanezy said. "So the fact that they’ve widened the aperture to include senior women that have experience that is additive to the board's diversity, not just in terms of gender but also skill set that is brought to bear is additive, so I think I’ve been a beneficiary of that."
Shareholder pressure has led more public companies to appoint women to their boards, Swanezy said, and she hopes to see more of this. But she doesn't support legislative efforts to mandate gender diversity on boards, such as the law California passed in 2018.
"The mandate makes me uncomfortable, and I think it puts women that are on the board in a tough spot because they may not be viewed with [the] same legitimacy as everyone else on the board," Swanezy said. "It’s a subtle difference, but I think it’s an important difference."
When she was rising in the industry, Swanezy said there weren't many senior-level women at her companies that she could turn to for advice. She said she became a member of WX, a New York group for women executives in real estate, that offered programming and networking support. Now that she is a partner of a firm and a board member, she said she is working to help younger women advance in the industry.
"I didn't have that, as there were fewer senior women and a lot of them were looking upward and trying to hold onto the gains they made," Swanezy said. "Because there are more now, I think our orientation is to help the women coming up."