Women are thriving in male-dominated commercial real estate.
Columbus architect Monica Wangler had long enjoyed designing buildings, beginning with creating homes as a child in a home with STEM career parents. “I would draw layouts of dream homes,” Wangler recalls. “I can't remember ever wanting to do anything else.”
While one architectural school adviser tried to steer her into interior design rather than architecture, Wangler instead went to the University of Cincinnati where half of her classmates were other aspiring women architects.
“It was strange,” she recalls, “as many of the women would choose to leave architecture, especially after that first year.”
Wangler graduated and jumped into the profession about 15 years ago. She has worked as an interior architect and project manager.
Now a project executive and architect for the Columbus office of Hammes Co., Wangler has notched a solid record in the male-dominated design industry and the broader commercial real estate arena where men also still rule.
Of course, many women thrive in commercial real estate, from designing apartment buildings and office towers to selling and leasing space. Property management is a notable corner of the business where women now typically outrank men.
But it's not an easy road.
“Often women (architects) are geared toward management or an interior design focus,” Wangler says, even when it's not necessarily overt.
“But you get directed in certain ways,” she adds, in part because mentorships often get formed along gender lines. “There's definitely a boys' club kind of mentality,” she adds. “I think it's harder to identify inequality.”
Laura Miller, a 30-year veteran of the commercial real estate brokerage industry, says at least 90 percent of the leasing and sales professionals were men when she jumped from business telephone sales into commercial real estate. “I could count on one hand the number of women in my office.”
It has improved, she says, but not dramatically. “I wouldn't be surprised if it's still 80 percent.”
Miller says she quickly saw and experienced “the good ol' boy” network in action as deals took place within their networks, similar to what she witnessed in the business telephone industry. “I will tell you, early on, of being somewhat intimidated. But I never let that deter me.”
She says networking became a major focus as she learned the ropes of commercial brokerage. Among the few women in what was then the Coldwell Banker Commercial office (now CBRE) in Columbus was Deborah Daly, whom Miller says got her interested in retail brokerage rather than investment sales of apartments, another option she had considered.
Daly “was more experienced and knowledgeable on the mechanics of the business and understanding the terminology,” Miller says. “She was already established and was really helpful.”
She adds, “I never felt out of place or uncomfortable or that people weren't taking me seriously. I was confident in my people skills and sales ability.”
Miller, now with the boutique R.S. Garek Associates brokerage, also has resisted becoming aggressive as she competes against and negotiates deals with male colleagues. “You have to assert yourself, though, or you don't get anywhere in sales. And you can't be thin-skinned.”
Networking also helped build the professional foundation for real estate developer Melanie Wollenberg, who began exploring development as a career about 40 years ago. Wollenberg began her real estate career as a residential agent before deciding to pursue commercial real estate. After a brief time on the leasing side, she yearned for the creation process in developing and building properties. “I decided brokerage was a little too boring,” she says. “I wanted to solve the puzzle of development.”
Following her introduction to the business at Columbus-based Taggart Marryott Reardon, Wollenberg in 1981 joined the Columbus office of St. Louis-based Linclay Corp., which became a major Class A office developer in the 1980s, as a leasing agent before getting into the actual planning and construction of projects.
There, too, she had few female role models in management and front-line development, with women peers comprising perhaps 5 percent of her colleagues in the various offices.
“But I learned so much from everybody and every company I worked with,” says Wollenberg.
Because of her willingness to learn, she says a few men—such as Columbus developer Don M. Casto III, for whom she worked through the 1990s and into the early 2000s—supported her professional development. “I think it's because I was always working hard,” Wollenberg says of her good fortune to find willing role models, “and because I have good values that I live by.”
She also has networked with women in other fields and other commercial real estate companies through the Columbus chapter of Commercial Real Estate Women, or CREW, an interdisciplinary association of professionals, not only those working for brokerages and developers, but also mortgage bankers, attorneys, engineers, architects, property managers and industry vendors and suppliers.
“It's given me a network of women who struggle with some of the same things I have struggled with,” says Wollenberg, now an executive vice president for the Brexton LLC development and construction firm in Columbus after working 11 years at the Hilliard-based Equity Inc., development firm. “We're always willing to help each other, and that's a wonderful thing.”
She says women have combined strength in supporting each other's professional needs. “Men aren't as tuned into, or heightened to, the people issues; women are better tuned into that.”
Martha Hubbell, the Huntington National Bank vice president and real estate manager who serves as CREW Columbus' president, says women go well beyond referring business among each other. They also will help each other find resources or research a problem outside their formal professional roles.
“Many of the women have been generous with their expertise and answering questions about CRE topics,” she says. A CREW member recently had her team research an environmental issue. “That saved me a lot of time.”
Continental Realty Vice President Cory Kooperman says she also has found support from women business owners for whom she has completed real estate leases.
“They can be a good sounding board and someone you can relate to as women,” she says. She also credits Brenda Evans, one of just four CBRE women colleagues when Kooperman first went into commercial real estate, for helping launch her career.
But Kooperman, like Wollenberg, also has found support among male colleagues. She cites brokerage veterans Tom McGarity and Jim Corbett, then at CBRE, as among those instrumental in getting her started in the business.
“They took me on (property) showings and meetings with clients. I was taught the business by them.” She adds, “This is a hands-on learning experience doing the deal.”
Kooperman graduated from Ohio State University with a bachelor's degree in finance but says she didn't really enjoy her initial job at the Easton operations of the BISYS Group funds management firm, which later sold to Citigroup.
Her interest in commercial real estate came natural as her father bought homes, renovated and flipped them. He later moved into commercial real estate development. “So I've been around it my whole life.”
Yanitza Brongers-Merrero of Moody Nolan Ltd. says she has had more than a few awkward moments as a design architect and project manager, both at construction sites and meetings in conference rooms.
“I've received some strange looks,” she says. “It's unfortunate, but at times I've been in situations where I walk into a conference room with all men.”
She has learned to take it in stride. “It forces me to introduce myself as well as my role in a project.”
Brongers-Merrero says her upbringing in Puerto Rico has assisted her leadership development. While the culture has elements of machismo, that's balanced by a matriarchal undertone of the family.
“In the professional world, women wouldn't be pushed into a corner,” she says. Her training also boosted her confidence. “You need to be confident with the skillset you have.”
That growing collective confidence, Brongers-Merrero says, has allowed women such as her and Hammes' Wangler to get better design assignments and manage higher profile projects in the region.
“And the makeup of the clients (now) isn't as heavily male,” she adds, including the attorneys and other professionals that put together commercial real estate projects. “I think we'll see even more of that.”
Wangler also expresses optimism, even as she confesses to wearing high heels on the job as something more than a fashion statement. “I want to be at their eye level.”
Women passionate about architecture or other areas of commercial real estate should gain courage from the strides women have already made, Wangler says.
“I've always felt the path was there. It was just harder to find.”
Brian Ball is a freelance writer.