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CRE’s Most Powerful Women On Facing Bias And Reshaping The C-Suite

Every year, more and more women are added to the ranks of New York's commercial real estate world. They are running firms, brokering big-ticket deals and having a major influence on the future of the city through design, construction, government policy and law.

Bisnow Power Women 2018 honorees Anna Zarro, Whitney Arcaro and Alicia Goldstein

Still, despite the significant achievements made by so many women, setbacks, challenges and obstacles persist. Like so many industries, males still outnumber women in leadership roles and the pay gap has not yet been closed. 

But for many women in the industry, there is a sense of excitement about the strides that have already been made — and the future that lies ahead. This year, Bisnow is honoring 54 Power Women at a networking reception at Brookfield Place this Wednesday, July 17.

In the lead-up to event — which aims to showcase some of the most influential women in CRE — we heard from female industry leaders. Here they speak about the state of the market, politics, the bias women in the industry still face, mentorship and how women can reach the upper echelons of the field.

Compass Vice Chair Adelaide Polsinelli

What is the biggest issue the commercial real estate industry is facing right now?

Adelaide Polsinelli, Compass Commercial vice chair: The biggest issue we are facing right now is the government taking control of private property by instituting regulations that restrict owners from making prudent business decisions on their property. This is a slippery slope. As more regulations are forced upon owners, the more owners will retreat and not invest in the city. This will lead to a huge decline in tax revenue, which will lead to the government raising taxes on everyone.

Leslie Himmel, Himmel + Meringoff Properties co-managing partner: New Yorkers are facing headwinds like we’ve never seen, [including the] combination of the elimination of federal tax reform change to SALT and recent state rent regulation reforms, as well as Amazon’s about-face on its decision to locate its HQ2 in Long Island City. Even with these latest setbacks, I'm still hugely optimistic for New York. The city is making incredible inroads attracting really exciting growth industries like life sciences and cybersecurity, and that's positive for our industry. Just this year, we leased our landmark property 462 Broadway as the U.S. headquarters to Israel’s premier venture capital firm, Jerusalem Venture Partners, which was recently selected as a partner by the New York Economic Development Corp. in establishing New York City as a global cybersecurity center ... There are always going to be issues of one kind or another, but we're in the best city to meet them head on and rise to the top

Andrea Olshan, Olshan Properties CEO: The biggest issue we are seeing is the continued divergence between fundamentals and pricing. Commercial, residential, retail and hospitality are oversupplied in many core markets, including the New York metro, but low interest rates and the amount of money raised for real estate investment keeps cap rates low and cheap debt plentiful.

Leslie Himmel (center), shown with her daughter Andrea and Rachel Brook, is a Bisnow 2019 honoree.

Janet Delpozzo, SL Green director of marketing and communications: With the stock market at an all-time high and a 10-year bull run, and the potential of a global economic slowdown lurking in the news, people are concerned with a bear market around the corner, which could certainly impact job growth. Having said that, any shift in the real estate markets, whether good or bad, creates worry and doubt. I feel very confident that our economy is very healthy and will continue to stay strong into 2020, and look forward to the completion of several new developments in the pipeline.

Rachel Loeb, New York City Economic Development Corp. chief operating officer: In today’s political climate, “growth” and “development” have become hot topics. New Yorkers are deeply skeptical that real estate leaders are acting in the best interest of their communities.This makes it increasingly difficult to execute on bold ideas. Yet thinking big is the only way we can move the city forward — it’s ingrained in New York’s DNA. It’s our job to make sure the community’s concerns are incorporated into planning and adjust our efforts accordingly. Inclusive growth and smart development have to work for everyone in order to make this city even stronger.

Allison Berman, managing director and general counsel of Greystone EB-5 at Greystone & Co.: Determining where we are in the current cycle is likely one of the biggest issues for the commercial real estate industry right now. This dictates property values and the amount of risk that investors are willing to accept for a deal. There has been a level of uncertainty for a year or two that we’re now at the top, and that the market is starting to turn, and everyone is looking for signs of this, such as the inverted yield curve. This uncertainty may have kept some real estate investors on the sidelines, in addition to the “wait-and-see” periods of receiving and understanding final rules on opportunity zones and EB-5.

Olshan Properties CEO Andrea Olshan at Bisnow's National Retail Series East Coast, April 4, 2017

Samantha Rudin Earls, Rudin Management senior vice president: The gender imbalance in commercial real estate continues to be a problem, as well as the pay gap. While improvements are being made, there is still a lot of work to do.

Lindsay Ornstein, Transwestern partner: The rate of change stemming from the rapidly evolving PropTech industry is creating a challenge for companies ill-equipped to adjust. While this can be an obstacle, tools that make brokers more efficient and effective are welcome additions, as they enable us to spend more time and focus on our clients’ needs.

Laurie Grasso, Hunton Andrews Kurth partner: The biggest challenge for the industry is changing people’s perception of the industry. Real estate has always been known as an industry where money reigns supreme, and we haven’t been known for our social conscience and community outreach. But I know a lot of real estate players who are really trying to make a difference and are working on amazing projects that are profitable — but also serve the needs of lower-income individuals and the whole community. One thing I would love to see the industry do is better align themselves with regulators and politicians in a way that is beneficial to the industry but also society at large.

Cynthia Wasserberger, JLL vice chairman: The rise of coworking spaces is one of the largest challenges in the industry right now. From a landlord’s perspective, they need to understand how this shift in the market demand will compete with leasing up their own direct spaces, as well as the credit of the coworking firms and long-term prognosis. With tenants, they need to dissect the difference in costs associated with a coworking transaction, as compared to the costs for a traditional stand-alone direct or sublease space.

Nicole Kushner Meyer, Kushner Cos. principal: Landlords have to work to adapt quickly enough to the changing needs of tenants. They require more flexibility than ever in terms of timing and floor plate, but also expect a higher level of amenity and lifestyle experience.

Equiem's Gabrielle McMillan

Marion Jones, Ackman-Ziff managing director: Polarization. Public perception of our industry is at an all-time low, and that perception is being politicized. The tone of public discourse has become combative and hyperbolic, and there is a sense that the industry as a whole needs to be punished. I don’t think this polarization (i.e. public vs. private, community vs. corporate, tenant vs. landlord) is productive for New York City, as these “opposing” sides are actually quite interdependent. I care most about the long-term health, livability and competitiveness of the city. If the city is successful in these respects, the real estate industry will thrive. It’s a good time for self-reflection in the NYC real estate world, as well as for some serious outreach and meaningful dialogue at the community level.

Kate Bicknell, Oxford Properties Group head of New York development: The growth in demand for flexible workspace and lease terms, and the rapid increase in how technology is being used to disrupt every aspect of our business, are two of the biggest challenges facing our industry and driving its evolution.

Bill Rudin, David Earls and Samantha Rudin Earls

Sabrina Kanner, Brookfield Properties executive vice president, design and construction:

I’ll play my Design and Construction card and point to rising construction costs. The costs of materials, combined with burdensome regulations in many places, continue to drive costs up year after year. Demand for new product continues to be strong and development projects of all sizes continue to move ahead, but the rising costs of construction will make building even more difficult over time unless more attention is paid to the issue and it is addressed.

Melissa Burch, Lendlease Development executive general manager: Economic growth. Simply put: Is New York poised to retain its dominance as a magnet for talent and business investment? Right now this is unclear. Persistent issues like NYCHA, affordable housing, workforce readiness, education and transit infrastructure are weighing on NYC's growth and competitiveness. We need leadership, an investment mindset and strong public-private partnership to make meaningful progress on these pressing civic needs. The real estate industry can and should be part of the solution, but will need to be willing to innovate and foster a productive relationship with government and community to get the right results.

Gail Donovan, Avison Young Tri-State senior director of marketing: Many years ago, I worked in economic development in Brooklyn. The goal of the organizations with which I worked was to encourage small-business development, attract retailers to the outer boroughs and bring investment to low- and moderate-income communities. When Muss Development opened the New York Marriott at Brooklyn Bridge in 1998, I nearly cried because it was the first new hotel in Brooklyn in 50 years. Other new developments and retail followed, bringing jobs, services and investments to Brooklyn, which had been ignored by investors for decades. Our elected officials and civic leaders supported new developments and job creation because they remembered that the city had lost nearly 20% of its private sector jobs between 1969 and 1976, and with it a big chunk of its tax base, population and housing stock.

It’s disappointing that the city’s young leaders today are hostile to private property ownership and free enterprise in general, which is challenging for the commercial real estate industry as well as small-business community.

Sarah Berman, The Berman Group president: One of the biggest issues in commercial real estate is staying innovative and creative in the face of rapidly changing technological advancements. From VR, AI and augmented reality to blockchain, tokenization, big data and process automation — technology continues to upend every market segment of the commercial real estate industry … The real challenge has become deciphering which trends are fleeting and which technologies present long-term, sustainable solutions so that you can remain at the forefront of industry progress.

Brookfield's Sabrina Kanner

What is the biggest challenge for women working in real estate in New York City?

Himmel: I've been in the real estate business around 40 years and can tell you when I started out — and for quite a few years after — it was lonely being one of the only female commercial property owners in the city. I'd still argue there aren't enough women leaders in the industry, but I can also tell you that is changing. My recommendation for women is to continually educate themselves and network in the industry.

Olshan: I never think of myself as a woman in real estate with unique struggles because of my gender. I have dealt with many men who have issues with strong women in positions of authority, but often in business there are people who are more challenging to relate to and you learn to deal with them.

Delpozzo: Women are dominating the real estate industry, however women continue to face many challenges in the industry. Real estate demands require a great deal of personal sacrifice. Late nights, long hours and weekends are all part of the job. Trying to manage family obligations, children's schedules and the demands of the job becomes a unique balancing act. Some reports show women professionals face gender pay gaps in favor of men.

Allison Berman: The business environment for women has certainly changed over the years, regardless of industry, and we have more opportunities than ever to get a seat at the table. That said, we can still sometimes face resistance in getting an assumed level of authority or respect in a meeting simply because of our gender. We still need to work hard at having our voice heard in many parts of the industry.

Lendlease's Melissa Burch

Gabrielle McMillan, Equiem CEO: The uneven sidewalks?! New York, and the real estate industry at large, remain a male-dominated and highly competitive space in which to be successful. The challenge for women is to create powerful networks, build relationships, obtain high-profile sponsorships and be comfortable enough in their own skin to have a voice, whilst remaining authentic to their own style.

Ornstein: New York’s commercial real estate industry is highly competitive and very challenging, regardless of a broker’s gender. While there are certainly some added challenges for women navigating career paths, commercial real estate in N.Y. is a fairly progressive-minded community. By and large, we are judged just like anyone else — on our capabilities, intellect, work ethic and ultimately, the results. Throughout my career, I have had the good fortune of working with men who have been supportive and encouraging and I have not found my gender to be an obstacle. In many ways, it has been an asset, something that has differentiated me.

Sonia Bain, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner partner: The biggest challenge continues to be that there are not enough women in top leadership roles. More equal opportunities need to be created ... The more women we have in leadership roles, with a seat at the decision-making table, the more likely the younger generation of bright, talented women will stay in the industry and model such leaders.

Megumi Brod, Senior Vice President, Regional Development Officer, Northeast Region at Rockefeller Group

Wasserberger: Balancing home life with a full-time professional career, and at the same time ensuring that you are fully committed to both. The balance is not shortchanging either one, and in my opinion continues to be the biggest challenge for women in real estate in New York.

Anna Zarro, AnnaZarro& principal: Doing it all, and often in heels ... For many the constant struggle of a work life balance is very real, and women aren't the only ones who feel that way. NYC is a 24/7 city, where the consumers and clients are global, the effort can never slide on delivering if one wants to rise or maintain their position. For many of us, we have had to do double or triple time to catch up or surpass our male counterparts. But it seems there truly has never been a greater time to be a woman in this business — or any business for that matter, in this country — let alone in Manhattan.

Kushner: For me personally, it’s working on my golf game and wearing high heels on construction sites.

Transwestern partner Lindsay Ornstein

Raizy Haas, Extell Development senior vice president: As more women become successful in our industry, the work-life balance can be a challenge to maneuver. A strong team, along with good time management, can help ensure that women can — and should — have it all. I’m fortunate to have an amazing team and unwavering support from my family, which allows me to feel accomplished at home and work.

Megumi Brod, Rockefeller Group senior vice president of development: I don’t think that the challenge is specific to real estate or NYC, but it has to do with close-minded people we sometimes encounter. Women and men can say the same exact thing, but often the woman gets ignored or is less heard. This has to do with who is listening, and their conscious or subconscious bias towards women. So the challenge for women is to come up with creative ways to have our voices heard when we are in an audience of people with these biases. It may be that we have to say something twice, or a different way, or seek people in the audience who are less biased. It will require us to be more tenacious and strategic. But once we are able to build a reputation as someone with something of value to say, then I think it gets easier.

Kanner: A major challenge continues to be the pressure for women to leave their careers when they have children. In many instances, that is a completely voluntary and healthy decision, but in far too many cases, it is a result of the gender pay gap and a lack of support in the workplace and at home ... I wouldn’t trade my role as a mom for anything, but I was fortunate enough to spend most of my career in a supportive and merit-based environment, and even then it wasn’t easy. However, that is not the norm, and the dynamic in our industry and others needs to change.

Invesco's Lesley Lisser with her husband and daughters

Cara Marino Gentile, Marino executive vice president: I think the biggest challenge for women working in commercial real estate in New York City, and by extension, a challenge for us as an industry PR firm, is the dearth of female representation in the commercial real estate industry in general, and especially in the C-suite. While an encouraging report out this month found that public real estate companies, specifically real estate investment trusts, are adding more women to their boards, there is still more work to be done. At one Manhattan-based investment sales firm, for example, the company head recently indicated that only a quarter of the applicants to the firm are women ... This is a shame because while fewer in number, women in the business are some of the most skilled real estate professionals nationwide.

Robin Topol, Meister Seelig & Fein partner: Women face several challenges in New York real estate, but fortunately far fewer than they used to. The real estate industry is still predominantly male-run, but there are now many more women developers, landlords, asset managers, brokers and attorneys. The biggest challenge is doing a great job for your clients and developing business, but that applies to anyone in the industry.

Sarah Berman: With the real estate industry being historically male-dominated, many women feel that achieving a successful career means working harder than their male counterparts and making sacrifices in other areas of their lives. However, real estate is like any competitive field and when a woman (or a man) is smart, driven and hardworking, I believe any woman can make a career in real estate.

Oxford's Kate Bicknell, then a senior vice president at Forest City Ratner, touring the Cornell Tech construction site in 2015

What’s the most exciting element for women in the industry?

Wasserberger: There is now a heightened demand for women to be at the table advising clients, and there are significantly more female decision-makers in the field. More importantly, there are definitely more opportunities for women to succeed today than previously, and that's why it's so exciting to be a part of this evolving industry.

Grasso: Sisterhood and solidarity. It's been great to see an increase in support over the last few years. Women are less afraid or ashamed to support each other. I am so proud of my female colleagues in the industry. They are smart, ambitious and have been steadfast in growing their careers — despite the challenges. It’s our shared experiences that bring us together and allow us to grow, succeed and support each other in meaningful ways. People are noticing and watching as we become game-changers.

Ornstein: I am particularly excited about the groundswell of new talent entering the commercial real estate industry. There remains an imbalance at the higher ranks within firms, but the best way to create more balance at the top is to start with a balanced employee mix at the bottom. Over the past few years, I’ve seen an increase in diversity at the entry and middle levels of the industry. We are positioned better than ever to nurture that increasingly more diverse talent pool into leadership positions.

Rudin Earls: I love seeing strong women continue to pave the way and encourage others to do the same. I have been so fortunate to have strong mentors and role models in my life. From my mom to Mary Ann Tighe, to my aunt Beth and cousin Madeleine and the women within our company, I am continually inspired by all the women around me rising up. Nothing feels better than sitting in a room and looking around and seeing just as many women as men — and sometimes more.

Polsinelli: There are more opportunities today than ever before for women to succeed in this industry. The biggest element is the power of unity. It’s exciting to see women in so many positions of power reaching out and mentoring, supporting and collaborating. The stronger we become, the more we will be able to do to better the landscape for everyone.

JLL's Marion Jones

Belinda Schwartz, Herrick, Feinstein LLP Real Estate Department chair: Things have certainly improved, even if they aren’t perfect. There are more women decision-makers, revenue generators and role models. I also love the fact that women of all ages are more inclined to share their stories honestly and give real advice. Women need to help each other. We want the women coming up the ranks to succeed!

Lisa Kiell, JLL vice chair: Through the early part of my career, there were only a few senior women I could look up to as role models and mentors. Having achieved a level of success after 23 years in the business, I am inspired to being one of those role models to the women in my office and within the industry, encouraging them to excel in real estate. Women are ideal for this business, as they tend to be detail-oriented and generally have excellent people skills enabling them to relate well with clients.

Lisa Knee, EisnerAmper tax partner: It’s an especially exciting time for women right now as we continue to take on larger roles in real estate industry leadership and decision-making in the sector. With the strong and growing network of women mentors and peers we have to tap into, as well as changing trends, there are so many more development opportunities out there for women at every stage of their careers. I love the progress we’ve made and the strong relationships we have built in this industry that continue to support the advancement of women. It’s a great time to be a woman in real estate!

Extell Development Senior Vice President Raizy Haas

Allison Berman: As I work in various parts of the industry, locally in New York City, nationally throughout the U.S. and internationally in Asia and South America, it is exciting to see how many women are popping up in positions of leadership and decision-making. The numbers have increased exponentially since I graduated from law school in 1990... I look forward to the time when seeing a boardroom dominated by women is no longer worth mentioning and is instead commonplace.

McMillan: The changes taking place in commercial real estate provide a real opportunity for women to make a significant difference. As the "power broker" transactional model gives way to a more relationship-driven, customer-centric approach, we will see more of the roles that women have traditionally excelled in being promoted to the executive team. Things like marketing, communication, brand, customer engagement, loyalty, digital transformation and data are all part of the new landscape. Women will need strong skill sets to achieve success in this hyper-competitive era.

Bain: While we have a ways to go, it is exciting to see more women being placed at the helm of some of the biggest real estate companies and learning that REITs are filling board seats with more women than ever before. The growth of this network for future generations is what makes me hopeful that the industry is moving in the right direction and I am excited to see how the commercial real estate industry will grow and thrive with a more diverse and dynamic makeup.

Hunton Andrews Kurth partner Laurie Grasso

Loeb: Today, women are working in every aspect of real estate. We’re developers and designers, lenders and agents, contractors and property managers. And we are having a real, permanent impact on the built environment. After all these years, I still get such a thrill from walking by one of my projects with my two boys and saying, “hey, I built that.” They are now living in a city where much of their surroundings has been influenced and developed by women. That’s real change.

Bicknell: Women are getting more opportunities now than ever, and more companies are both recognizing the value that women bring to the table and are actively seeking to increase the number of women on their teams. Nine of our last 11 hires here in New York have been women, and that’s across investments, development, accounting and marketing functions. With more women in the industry, it will be less common for a woman to be the only woman in the room, and the greater our representation, the less gender should be a factor for women in the future.

Lesley Lisser, Invesco Real Estate Senior Director, Asset Management: Women seem to be penetrating all roles in real estate and growing their careers after having children. When my children were younger, it was harder to do both due to limitations with technology and a lack of focus on work-life balance.  It is great to see that women can move forward with their careers no matter where they are working from. Being always connected is a mixed blessing, but I embrace it.

JLL Vice Chairman Cynthia Wasserberger

Kanner: Despite ongoing challenges, opportunities for women are growing as more organizations become aware of the benefits — not merely to reputation but to the core of the business and to results — of gender diversity. I credit the example of leading women in our business — many featured here — and impactful organizations like WX (New York Women Executives in Real Estate) and Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, both of which I take time to support and encourage others to do the same, as well as Commercial Real Estate Women New York and Nontraditional Employment for Women.

Topol: The most exciting element for women in the real estate industry is the improving opportunity to be a developer, a broker or any other role so desired. The ability to follow a career path of one’s choosing has become easier and the ability to get better training is vastly improved. Women have many more opportunities than ever before, and hopefully, they will have the same opportunities as men.

Marino Gentile: Women are speaking out against the old boys’ club, and more commercial real estate companies are taking notice. Such firms have started to realize that the status quo doesn’t cut it anymore. While there still is a long way to go, such companies provide hope that an industry that has been slow to change, has truly turned a corner.

Come see New York City real estate's most powerful women receive their honors Wednesday, July 17, at Brookfield Place.