Origin Stories: Natalie Diaz's Degrees In Art And History Have Been Surprisingly Useful In CRE
This series delves into the myriad ways people enter the commercial real estate industry and what contributes to their success.
Natalie Diaz never expected to end up in commercial real estate.
Diaz graduated from Williams College in 2009 with dual undergraduate degrees in art and history, and her first role out of school was managing the art gallery and planning events at the college’s private alumni club.
She was ready for a change in 2011, but when she saw a job posting as an assistant to a CEO at a real estate company, she initially brushed it off. She didn't want to be someone's assistant, and she had no knowledge of or interest in real estate. But, uncertain what she wanted the next step in her career to be, and intrigued by Time Equities founder Francis Greenburger's philanthropic, business and political interests, she decided to give it a shot.
Nine years later, she has a leadership role at the company, overseeing HR — including strategy, policy and diversity, equity and inclusion efforts — marketing, internal and external communications, and public relations. She also founded the firm’s Change Committee, Women’s Equity Committee and an internal mentorship program.
"My academic background could not be any more different from the career I have found myself in," Diaz said.
Bisnow: How did you get introduced to CRE?
Diaz: I didn’t seek out the industry, but I fell into real estate by accident. I had a mutual connection to one of Francis Greenburger’s assistants. The one-line job description said “assistant to the CEO of a real estate company.” Initially I brushed it off because I was not interested in working as an assistant, nor did I have any interest in or understanding of real estate. But I was young and I wasn’t sure exactly what direction I wanted my career to go in at that time. After learning more about Francis and his various business, philanthropic and political interests, I thought I could learn a lot from him by working so closely with him. So I interviewed for the job and here I am almost nine years later as the firm’s chief of staff.
Bisnow: What was your first job in CRE?
Diaz: My first job in CRE was as one of two executive assistants to Francis Greenburger, founder, chairman and CEO of Time Equities. I was a year and a half out of college. I sort of fell into it by accident (see above), and I did not know anything about the real estate industry or business at that time. But I knew I was smart, capable and could learn a lot by working closely with Francis.
Bisnow: What kind of education, certification or official training do you have in CRE? How critical was it to landing your first big role?
Diaz: My bachelor’s degree from Williams College was a dual degree in art (history and practice) and history. So I did not have any formal background in CRE. When I became chief of staff in 2016, I took two real estate finance classes at Fordham so that I could understand our business better.
But I will say that a liberal arts degree can be surprisingly useful in CRE. How so? Because liberal arts schools teach you how to think, not what to think. They also teach you how to write and communicate clearly. These skills have been core to my success.
Bisnow: What is one skill you wish you had coming into CRE?
Diaz: Even one course on the fundamentals of the business (real estate finance) would have been helpful to me at the start of my journey at Time Equities.
Bisnow: What were you doing before you got into CRE? If you changed careers, did you bring anything with you from your past career that has helped you thrive in CRE, or, on the flip side, anything you had to unlearn in order to succeed here?
Diaz: Prior to Time Equities, I worked at the Williams Club of New York, Williams College’s private alumni club. It was the only non-Ivy to have a physical clubhouse in the city, and I planned events at the club and managed the art gallery. After 98 years of existence, the club then closed during my tenure (right in the midst of the Great Recession) and moved to The Princeton Club. All of our employees were laid off, but I was asked to lead the transition and work as the new director of the Williams Club.
That was an incredibly challenging experience, but one full of learning opportunities. Suddenly I was thrust into a leadership position, operating as the only employee of the club (reporting to the board of directors). I had to advocate for the interests of our members as we took up residence in the Princeton Club. This meant a lot of negotiation between our club’s leadership (oftentimes only me on one side of the table), with the Princeton Club’s leadership on the other side of the table (all of which were decades older than me and male). I had to learn to stand my ground, to negotiate confidently, and to work independently towards our bottom line. I brought all of those skills with me to Time Equities.
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?
Diaz: I think that my lack of an innate or instinctual connection to the analytical work of acquiring investment properties and/or developing real estate has made me question my path in this industry. But a real estate company has so many needs beyond pure real estate deal-making. Executive leadership and management skills, HR and people skills, marketing and communications skills, technology skills, accounting, property management and so on. So it may not be obvious to those outside of the industry, but there are plenty of excellent opportunities for a variety of skill sets to support the engine that drives any real estate company.
Bisnow: What were your early impressions of the industry, good and bad? How has your impression changed?
Diaz: It is impossible not to notice the lack of diversity in the industry, especially at the executive and C-suite level. I’ve also seen that those on the deal-making side of the business are predominately white and predominantly male. But I am pleased to see many more people talking about the issue of diversity in the industry, and more media coverage on the topic. I hope that we can leverage the current movement for racial justice and the examination of systemic racism to develop effective, impactful strategies to bring more diverse talent into the industry, especially into deal-making and decision-making positions.
Bisnow: Have you had a mentor or sponsor? How did that person shape your future in CRE?
Diaz: I have had the incredible privilege of working closely with Francis Greenburger, and in many ways, being mentored and sponsored by him. Francis is the reason why I am still in CRE today, and has provided the pathway of opportunities for me to bring my skills, talents and overall vision to an industry that I otherwise would have no connection with. I could write a whole book on what I’ve learned from him. And the best part is that I am still learning from him every day, nine-plus years later.
Bisnow: What is a key lesson someone taught you, either kindly or the hard way?
Diaz: An important lesson that I’ve learned in my career is that respect is not given, it’s earned. I think as a young woman in a position of influence or authority, you have to work a little harder to earn respect, buy-in and trust. But earning those things is key to success.
Bisnow: What do you warn people about when they join the industry?
Diaz: I can’t say I am full of warnings, but when we bring on new team members at Time Equities, I tell them that they should feel motivated and be bold if they see ways to add value beyond the initial scope of their role. We are open to new ideas and encourage innovative and entrepreneurial thinking. If you have a great idea, don’t be quiet. Pitch it and own it.
Bisnow: If you could do your career all over again, what would you change?
Diaz: I’m just getting started. I have many years of impactful work ahead of me.