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Bay Area Power Women Talk About Breaking Into The Industry And Making Their Mark

San Francisco

Commercial real estate has its challenges, and some of those challenges are heightened when the person moving up in the company is a woman in what remains a male-dominated industry. We caught up with some of our 2017 Bay Area Power Women to have them share with us their own experiences in CRE, their movement into leadership positions and their desire to help young women entering the industry to thrive.

Ivy Greaner, chief operating officer and regional vice president, FivePoint


When I began my career in the commercial real estate industry, women were either leasing agents, property managers or marketing/administrators, not investors, developers or senior executives. I started as a leasing agent, since I was tired of working weekends and holidays in retail sales, and then residential home sales. Little did I know that I would work what seemed like 24/7, so that plan went out the window. But there was nothing like commercial real estate to keep me engaged and interested throughout my career. There are so many facets in every type of discipline. No two deals, companies or investments are ever the same, so the learning never ceases.

While I didn’t set out to be in this business, when I did I was fully engaged, curious about everything and willing to do anything from the most minute task to the most complicated project. Of course, when I evolved to developer, one of only two women in my state at the time, it took years to be recognized by some peers as developer rather than an assistant to my partner. While at times this was disheartening since I had to work harder, smarter and “talk louder” to make progress in the all-important relationships and projects, navigating through this taught me so much in how to go through, around or over obstacles.

There is so much more opportunity for women at every level in this field today outside of the traditional roles I mentioned above. That being said, there are not enough of our young women being encouraged to take up real estate or finance in college and/or graduate school, which is necessary to help change the face of the industry that still has closed doors to upward mobility. There are markets that are ahead of the curve, like San Francisco, which is more gender-blind than many places I have operated in. But it does still have its challenges and still is very much a “man’s world” in our industry. Mentorship, by both female and male executives, is important to grow the next generation of young women into great leaders.  

Elaine Forbes, executive director, Port of San Francisco 


The Port of San Francisco manages land and commercial property along seven and a half miles of world-class San Francisco waterfront. Women are underrepresented in the commercial real estate industry, but I don’t see this as a challenge, I see this as an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to make sure that our San Francisco values of inclusiveness, diversity, collaboration and compassion for one another remain our priority and are reflected in the commercial real estate industry.

I started my career in social justice and I will not relent on this vision. When I was appointed as the executive director, I immediately set out a plan that focuses on connecting minorities and communities of color to every real estate project and activity. We will do this with more outreach and engagement, through our contracting services, which exceeded $44.1M last fiscal year, and through workforce development partnerships. City and Port staff and I are already creating a real estate work plan to ensure a vibrant southern waterfront that supports surrounding neighborhood residents with jobs, more open space and a thriving maritime-industrial center.

When you are a minority in an industry, it gives you the opportunity to understand others and work well with diverse communities, to practice hard work and lead with a purpose of equity and collaboration. I’m proud to be one of eight women port directors in the United States during a time when women and minorities in our nation have experienced a setback. I hope my appointment inspires other women, including minority women and women in the LGBTQ community like myself, to not lose hope and continue to be represented in diverse industries.

Cheryl Hayes, SBA lender, Bank of the West

Bank of the West's Cheryl Hayes

I have been an SBA lender since 2003, and I love doing SBA lending because I get to work with small- and medium-size business owners to help them grow their business by providing them the financing they need. It is fun for me to learn about their business and help them achieve their goals. For me this was a great utilization of my financial skills to help people and it often involves real estate, which I have always had a passion for.

Since graduating college, I have found myself working in a few different industries that are fairly male-dominated. While this has never deterred me, I am cognizant that I needed to figure out how to navigate in this world. I decided that I would become a technical expert and provide top-notch service as a way to differentiate myself. So instead of using some typical sales tools like golfing, I try to be the person people call because they know I will do everything in my power to ensure a successful outcome. For me that means being available, quickly sizing up a transaction and providing candid feedback, and then being the quarterback of the transaction to make sure we progress from beginning to end smoothly.

A lot of what I end up doing is anticipating what needs to be done and making sure we have the resources lined [up] ahead of time and all the while keeping the stakeholders up to speed with frequent updates. I would say that each year I see progress to a more balanced team of co-workers in my field (lending), but there are still areas in commercial real estate that are heavily male-dominated. Commercial real estate brokerage is a good example and particularly with industrial brokers who I work with all the time.

Over the years I have been very involved in CREW (Commercial Real Estate Women), which is a national organization with the purpose to support the success of women in commercial real estate. CREW has been a great source of encouragement, learning and business opportunity.

Anna Mcquillan Rose, vice president, Transwestern


I began my career in CRE as a general contractor and partner on a retail strip center in Pittsburg, California. In that capacity, I hired a commercial leasing agent to represent this project. Cyndi was the first commercial agent I had ever met, and at the time, she was the first woman specializing in land development. We eventually became very good friends and when she decided to open her own commercial brokerage she invited me to join her as the business manager. I had taken my RE classes many years before, and she encouraged me to get my license and take over the leasing for the company so she could focus on development projects.

As my first introduction into CRE was working with a successful woman, I didn’t initially give much thought to gender until I started doing deals on my own. There were a few other women in the county but the majority were men, and it was suggested that I should act tough, and not show any hesitation or uncertainty as it made negotiating a challenge. I certainly didn’t feel as I do now that for the most part all brokers will do what we can cooperatively to achieve the best outcome for our clients.

The hardest thing I’ve had to do in my career was start over. I moved to the Silicon Valley midway into my career, and in my late 40s, with no business or personal contacts at all, except for my husband. I realized right away that I needed to make my own way in Santa Clara County and meet whomever I could, which could only be done by networking whenever and wherever possible. It meant spending quite a few evenings per week out, but I wasn’t sure at that time which ones would be best. It was through networking that I made the connections, both professionally and personally, that helped me grow my business.

Helping encourage the next generation of young women into the industry is a dilemma we’re seeing in all aspects of CRE, whether it be brokerage, property or facility management. More emphasis is being placed on mentoring and having panels of speakers at the colleges to introduce young women to CRE. I recently became a mentor, and it is such a great honor. I know I am getting as much, if not more, out of this relationship.

Anne Torney, partner, Mithun

Mithun partner Anne Torney

I originally came to architecture via a humanities background. It fascinated me that you could talk about buildings as cultural objects, the same way you could talk about art or books, as repositories of cultural meaning. When I began practicing, I realized what a complex and far-reaching endeavor architecture is, and how good design can address a whole host of issues.

I didn’t experience gender discrimination in my career, as so many others have, but as I began to hold more leadership positions, female colleagues reflected back to me that it was highly meaningful to have a woman in those roles. The Equity by Design initiative is a terrific resource, with great metrics and action tools for both understanding and addressing diversity in architecture. In addition to gender diversity, cultural and ethnic diversity is crucial for design, as in much of the real estate industry. A recent report demonstrated that the top 10 high-performing, innovative architecture firms have a significantly higher rate of women in leadership than in the field as a whole. That’s powerful.

The twin challenges of our time are income inequality and climate change, and design has the power to address both. At Mithun, I focus on affordable and market-rate housing, and work with other teams designing office and educational space. We are always addressing these key issues — what we call design for positive change. We’re thrilled to be working with clients who are addressing climate change, for example, such as our Seattle office’s net-zero campus at Chatham University, where undergrads study sustainability and ecology. Our project for Mercy Housing at 1180 4th St. in Mission Bay houses 150 low-income families, many of them formerly homeless, in a building that signals that they are valued and important citizens.

We are also working on three affordable housing projects in the Mission District, designing housing that’s rooted in neighborhood and culture. Architecture has the capacity to address and remediate inequity, and my passion for design work is rooted in its ability to respond to contemporary challenges.

To celebrate strong female leadership in the industry, join us for Bisnow's Bay Area Power Women 2017 event May 31 at The Sir Francis Drake in San Francisco.