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Origin Stories: CBRE's Elizabeth Birch On Entering Real Estate After Leading A Major Nonprofit

This series delves into the myriad ways people enter the commercial real estate industry and what contributes to their success.

Before Elizabeth Birch closed her first commercial real estate deal, she had already served as a top attorney for Apple and spent a decade leading a major civil rights organization.

Birch joined CBRE in 2017 as a D.C.-based vice president representing office occupiers. She had previously spent a dozen years running her own consulting company, and before that she spent a decade as president and executive director of the Human Rights Campaign. 

While at HRC, the largest LGBTQ advocacy group in the U.S., Birch pushed presidents and lawmakers to support more inclusive policies. She also dipped her toes in commercial real estate, as she helped the nonprofit establish a new headquarters in Downtown D.C. 

She began her career as a lawyer, working in San Francisco at global law firm Bingham McCutchen. In 1989, she became chief of litigation and human resources counsel at Apple Computer Inc. 

Elizabeth Birch with former President Barack Obama in 2016.

Bisnow: How did you get introduced to CRE? 

Birch: After a legal and corporate career, I came to Washington at a critical period of the LGBTQ movement for equality to head a major nonprofit, the Human Rights Campaign.

Our team saw the organization through a decade of tremendous growth and visibility. One of our major initiatives was to establish HRC’s new headquarters building at 17th and Rhode Island. This taught me that under the right circumstances, there is extraordinary value — especially in the Greater D.C. market — to a nonprofit owning its own building. In the case of HRC, it helped ignite a period of major inspiration, visibility and growth. It also created what I call a "legacy" opportunity for donors: that special moment when donors are motivated to go above and beyond to help realize a dream. The building was paid for through a highly successful capital campaign, Building Equality. That freed up more resources to be invested into advocacy and programs. I could not have imagined the incredible benefits HRC received because of their real estate decision.

Bisnow: What was your first job in CRE?

Birch: Because I had a long career before coming to CRE, I was fortunate to enter the industry in a lateral position as vice president at CBRE. I was persuaded to take this step by James Dennin, a consummate real estate expert, who would become my primary business partner. We both saw the benefit of combining his deep real estate experience and savvy with my management experience to provide clients with a holistic approach. 

Bisnow: What kind of education, certification or official training do you have in CRE? How critical was it to landing your first big role? 

Birch: I had no formal CRE training. On the other hand, I am a lawyer and had vast experience in negotiating lawsuits and contracts both at a major San Francisco law firm and while running litigation at Apple Computer Inc. And, I also gained a working knowledge of commercial construction when Peris Construction, a Greater Washington general contractor, hired my consulting firm to do business development. Peris allowed me the flexibility while my twins completed high school and I will forever be grateful.

Bisnow: What is one skill you wish you had coming into CRE?

Birch: Anyone can learn on the job, but it is a complex industry where the scenarios you develop for your client must be analyzed with financial precision as to every variable. Fortunately, CBRE has a deep bench of exceptional talent.

Elizabeth Birch speaking at a rally in 2002.

Bisnow: What were you doing before you got into CRE?

Birch: I left home at 17 and set off on an odyssey. I finished high school performing in an educational troupe in Europe, North Africa and the United States. I then took off from Canada, where I was raised, and headed to Hawaii, where I studied oceanography and political science. I attended law school in California and after my time at a major firm, went to Apple Computer Inc., where I was chief of litigation and HR counsel for the company. I was also general counsel of Claris, the wholly-owned subsidiary of Apple. I came to Washington, D.C., to head the Human Rights Campaign, seeing it through a period of tremendous growth and visibility over the course of a decade. While heading HRC, I became a student of what impact a smart and inspiring design can have on any enterprise.

After almost a decade in that position, I ran a consulting and management firm, Birch & Co., until I came to CBRE in 2017.

Bisnow: 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?

Birch: I was a corporate litigator at a major San Francisco-based law firm and went on to head litigation at a Fortune 100 company. A negotiation is a negotiation. My legal skills, which I honed during my early legal career, have been invaluable, not only in the raw real estate transaction, but in understanding real estate policy issues. Having grown and run a major nonprofit, our CBRE team is able to bring those insights to every transaction. We put as much effort into dissecting the organizational vision and goals (including timely culture concepts such as diversity, inclusion and equity and how that informs function and design), as we do to the transaction and negotiating the very best outcome for our clients.

Bisnow: Can you remember a moment where you felt in over your head or you worried this industry wasn’t for you?

Birch: No.

Bisnow: Did you ever think about quitting? What changed? 

Birch: No. But young people should know the competition is fierce. I believe that anyone who puts their client first with laser focus on the details can succeed.

Former President Bill Clinton with Elizabeth Birch, then the executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, in 1998.

Bisnow: What were your early impressions of the industry, good and bad? How has your impression changed?

Birch: It is no secret that our industry has work to do when it comes to diversity and inclusion efforts. However, companies like CBRE are committed to change. It will take time to authentically build a CRE industry that reflects the diversity of our nation. We will need new approaches to cracking open access and opportunity.

Bisnow: Have you had a mentor or sponsor? How did that person shape your future in CRE?   

Birch: I am fortunate to have a business partner that shares my values, and we strive to bring thorough and smart representation to every client. We come from different backgrounds, but we complement each other perfectly.

Bisnow: What is a key lesson someone taught you, either kindly or the hard way? What do you warn people about when they join the industry?

Birch: A very sage and experienced real estate leader told me during my first week: “Most of the good deals are in your backyard.” While I have extensive untapped relationships all over the country, his advice was stay close to home, so you can thoroughly manage the real estate journey.

Bisnow: If you could do your career all over again, what would you change?

Birch: I wanted to be a member of Parliament when I was growing up in Canada. But, as a young woman, I knew I was different (as it turns out, gay) and that I probably did not have a snowball’s chance in Canada of achieving this dream. I do love serving people and, in my own way in each career setting, I have tried to do my part to make the world better.