Origin Stories: From Construction And Development To Oil Spill Cleanup, Sara Maffey Has Done It All. Now She's On To Tech
This series delves into the myriad ways people enter the commercial real estate industry and what contributes to their success.
Sara Maffey has been immersed in commercial real estate her entire life, starting from breaking ground on her first project, constructed with a wooden block set crafted by her architect father, when she was a toddler.
Maffey always knew she wanted to be in the industry, but her specialty within the space has shifted quite a few times over her career. After getting a bachelor's in architecture and urban design, her first job out of school was in construction. Then she dove into mechanical engineering. She received a Presidential Management Fellowship with the U.S. Department of Commerce and developed projects with the Economic Development Administration, including its response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and post-Hurricane Sandy recovery in New York. She served as a site selection expert at Cushman & Wakefield and a placemaking expert for Transwestern. Now she serves as head of industry relations at Local Logic, a data and analytics firm for the real estate industry.
Why land in tech after all that? Maffey said platforms like Local Logic, which looks at property-level data and comps, as well as neighborhood-level data like noise levels, pet-friendliness and nightlife, can help developers and investors make better decisions that can craft more equitable cities.
Bisnow: How did you get introduced to CRE?
Maffey: My father is an architect by training, so I’ve been around real estate, in some form or another, my entire life. When I was a toddler, he handmade me a wooden block set with different arches and columns and I immediately broke ground, right there in my childhood living room, on my first real estate project. My dad also bought and sold historic homes around the area where I grew up, and I was able to help with design decisions and some of the work it took to remodel them.
My professional introduction into the broader field of commercial real estate, however, came with internships and my first job after college as a mechanical superintendent in construction.
Bisnow: What was your first job in CRE?
Maffey: My first job after college, with Turner Construction Co. in New York City, was in CRE. I started off wanting to work in real estate development — not construction per se, but my experience there ended up being invaluable.
My first project was managing the Memorial Sloan Kettering Mortimer B. Zuckerman Research Center in New York. I loved being deeply involved in the process of designing and actually building something so massive and impactful.
In that job, I was a day-to-day construction superintendent in the field, managing everything from drawing to execution, contracts and contractors, managing the installation and commissioning of complex lab equipment and mechanical systems, collaborating with engineers and tradespeople to troubleshoot design issues, and overseeing other projects on the site, including residential and office facilities.
That job was also a learning experience for me because I was the first woman many of these men would have as their superintendent of the mechanical trades. Some of them started from a place of “I can’t believe this 21-year-old girl is telling me what to do,” but everyone quickly got on the same page thanks to our shared commitment to the project at hand and my ability to network and navigate these complex and crucial relationships. I approached learning about mechanical, electrical and plumbing installation and nuance with genuine curiosity and respect (aka a deep level of nerdiness) and it helped me build bridges and solve issues later when I really needed their investment.
Thanks to that curiosity, I quickly understood how these intricate mechanical systems worked, cared about project success and valued the well-being of everyone on-site. My employer saw the merit in my holistic approach to construction management and relationships, and I began work as the mechanical engineer for Columbia University’s Inter Science Lab Building. There, I got to experience coordinating the start of a major development project. I managed $70M of base building and $15M of campus utility connection scope; developed contracts, led bid reviews with contractors and negotiated changes; and was engineer on a separate $10M project to retrofit an adjacent lab.
Another huge bonus: This experience with mechanical systems — including complex air filtration systems used in research laboratories — wasn’t a hot topic back then, but since the pandemic, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time talking about their value.
Bisnow: What kind of education, certification or official training do you have in CRE? How critical was it to landing your first big role?
Maffey: I have a bachelor's in architecture and urban design from NYU. In 2008, I left my job in construction management to continue my education at Yale University’s School of Management, from which I received my MBA. I wanted to hone my strategic and analytical skills to make the transition into real estate development; however, three weeks into that program, the market crashed and suddenly that path seemed less immediately viable. Since economic development is relevant, particularly in a down economy, I began to focus my energies on that public side of real estate.
Yale’s integrated curriculum took me to China, with additional consulting work in India, Brazil and Tanzania, including work on a housing microfinance loan program and the development of safari camps. The skill set I’d built through my time in construction, as well as what I learned during those two years at Yale, had proven invaluable and led directly to me receiving a Presidential Management Fellowship with the U.S. Department of Commerce, through which I began managing and developing the Economic Development Administration’s projects throughout the Southwest.
I focused on entrepreneurship, cleantech and public-private partnerships. I also developed the EDA's response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill by creating the region's investment plan and collaborating locally to understand context and impact.
That work led directly to post-Hurricane Sandy recovery work with the state of New Jersey, first leading the federal economic effort and then beginning a new department at NJEDA. My network of economic developers around the country prepared me for a senior site selection gig with Cushman & Wakefield, and then starting the placemaking service line and joining the board of Transwestern.
Bisnow: What is one skill you wish you had coming into CRE?
Maffey: Before entering the CRE industry, I had a solid background in architectural design, public-private partnerships and feedback processes, and relationship-building that have all helped me progress in my career. One area where I needed to sharpen my skills, however, was financial analysis, and I ultimately went to business school at Yale to build that foundation. Those skills have grown and served me well over the years, as I’ve had hands-on experience with many different deal structures, pro formas and modeling approaches.
Bisnow: 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?
Maffey: My career has always been centered on my passion for placemaking and asset strategy. With each role, I have had an opportunity to become more well-versed in the process and value drivers. My time with the EDA, closely interfacing with government entities and relying on data, provided an invaluable perspective on public accountability and decision-making. That’s something I’ve pulled into my work on site selection, asset strategies and even today’s proptech data-driven real estate investments.
At Local Logic, I’m beholden to my clients, providing them a deep understanding of the data points they need to present to their investors and end users, and ultimately enabling the use of data to make places that better serve our communities. The importance of proximity to things like grocery stores, restaurants and transit in quantifying a sense of place, for example, is paramount. We harness technology and data to start robust conversations about vibrancy, population density and social connectivity to deliver a better product for the consumer and create stickiness in assets for residents, tenants and investors.
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?
Maffey: At times I have felt overwhelmed by the otherness of being a woman in commercial real estate. I’ve made a point to constantly build a network by reaching out to women I see doing things that I find inspiring, exciting or brave in CRE and to others I see supporting diversity and meritocracy in the industry. These connections have provided me with a network that allows me and others to feel comfortable and valued in the industry.
Bisnow: What were your early impressions of the industry, good and bad? How has your impression changed?
Maffey: I’ve always loved placemaking and commercial real estate. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been building things since before I could walk. What’s great about the industry now, versus when I started, is that there are myriad roles and a diversity of people occupying them, especially with the growth of proptech and the value and necessity of data in real estate decision-making.
Bisnow: Have you had a mentor or sponsor? How did that person shape your future in CRE?
Maffey: I don’t have just one mentor, I’ve built lasting relationships and friendships with folks who have taught me so much about commercial real estate and navigating my career. For me, my connections across the industry and around the world have been my greatest support and source of information as I shape my future.
Bisnow: What do you warn people about when they join the industry?
Maffey: You’ve got to have some combination of a thick skin and a reliable network. The resiliency will help you keep going and that network brings friendship and propels your career to the next level. Commercial real estate is all about connections.
Bisnow: If you could do your career all over again, what would you change?
Maffey: I honestly think I would do it all the same way. My path to commercial real estate hasn’t been the most traditional, but the things I’ve learned along the way have been invaluable and fascinating. I’ve been in places and situations I never would have expected, I’ve been a part of transformational projects and programs, and I have been intentional about helping others on their own paths to success.