ULI Chicago Joins the Goldie B. Wolfe Miller Initiative to Promote Women’s Advancement in Commercial Real Estate
April 27, 2016
In Chicago, Goldie Wolfe Miller, a ULI full member and former trustee, cuts a well-known figure in commercial real estate. At the height of her career during the 1980s and 1990s, she was among the first female commercial real estate brokers to establish herself in a field dominated by men. When Miller sold her firm in the late 1990s, she decided to devote herself to philanthropy and causes close to her heart.
Among those causes is expanding leadership opportunities for women within commercial real estate, a topic that is receiving renewed attention. In 2015, ULI’s Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) released Women in Leadership in the Real Estate and Land Use Industry, a ground-breaking study of the current state of women in the real estate and land use fields that identifies actions organizations can take to advance women to positions of seniority and visibility. The study, based on surveys from 1,200 female members of ULI, found that women make up one-quarter of the Institute’s membership, yet they account for only 14 percent of members who are chief executive officers.
In 2007, Miller established the Goldie B. Wolfe Miller Women (GBWM) Leaders in Real Estate Initiative in order to encourage women to aspire to leadership roles within theChicago commercial real estate industry. The initiative offers tuition assistance, one-on-one mentoring, and networking opportunities for women enrolled in graduate-level programs in real estate in the Chicago metropolitan area. Since launching, it has assisted more than 50 women who are completing graduate programs in real estate.
The GBWM Initiative began at Roosevelt University and was offered solely to students enrolled in the master’s of science in real estate program and the master’s of business administration program at the school’s Walter Heller College of Business. The initiative has since spun off as an independent nonprofit entity and now counts Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and the University of Chicago–Booth School of Business as partners.
As the initiative expands its reach, it is seeking new sources of scholars, mentors, sponsors, and supporters through partnerships with companies and like-minded organizations such as ULI. In 2015, it established a formal relationship with ULI Chicago and the district council’s newly formed WLI chapter.
All GBWM Initiative scholars now receive a ULI associate membership for one year and are invited to participate in WLI and ULI Chicago events. Cindy McSherry, ULI Chicago’s executive director, serves on the initiative’s advisory council, while several other council members, including Miller and Karin Kraai, senior managing director at Newmark Grubb Frank Knight, are longtime members of the Institute. Both groups see an alignment of their mission and goals.
“We complement each other,” Miller says. “Once our scholars have been through our program, they are a perfect fit for ULI. You want them to be the heads of your councils and other national groups, [and] serve as speakers on panels and in other positions of leadership within ULI. These are the young people who should be in your pool of talent.”
McSherry sees the alliance as a “two-pronged approach” to transform the real estate industry so that it is more inclusive of women. ULI gives GBWM Initiative scholars opportunities to build their network, while the initiative can serve as a pipeline for recruiting new ULI members. “It keeps our full members accountable,” she says. “All of us have to be more accountable for bringing more women into the industry.”
Mentors and Informal Networks Essential to Launching a Career
For Carolina Avila, a scholar who will graduate with a master’s in business administration from Roosevelt this year, the initiative’s tuition assistance meant the difference between pursuing a graduate degree now or waiting indefinitely. “This alone has been huge,” she says. “I wouldn’t have been able to [attend Roosevelt] if I hadn’t been in the [GBWM Initiative] program.”
While the financial assistance is a critical benefit of the initiative, some say that it is the relationship-building aspects that have longer-term impact. Avila, who has worked full-time in commercial real estate since before she began graduate school, wants to further pursue the asset management field. Her graduate studies alone will not necessarily open doors, but meeting the right people in the field will.
Pairing a scholar with someone who works in her desired specialty is key to helping emerging professionals launch their careers and maintain momentum, according to Kraai, GBWM Initiative council chair.
“People change positions frequently in real estate, and these positions are not necessarily advertised or publicly broadcasted,” she says. “The guidance and training you can get from a seasoned person—not just in terms of setting on a career path, but also in terms of establishing a strong network of contacts—is invaluable.”
Kraai has been in the real estate industry for more than 30 years and says that access to informal networks—essentially, ladders of opportunity—is what differentiates the careers of male and female employees. “There exists a natural camaraderie among men, which allows them to network naturally,” she says. “Women have those opportunities, too, but since there are fewer of us, it requires a more concentrated effort to elevate the careers of young women to where they want to go.”
The importance of informal networks reflects a key finding of the WLI research study. Survey respondents weighted informal approaches—like visible and challenging job assignments, senior-level sponsors or advocates, and an inclusive workplace culture—higher than formal approaches when it comes to career advancement. “If you are going to go into leadership positions, you can’t do it in a vacuum,” she says. “You can’t be sitting in a corner crunching numbers.”
To learn more about the Goldie B. Wolfe Miller Women Leaders in Real Estate Initiative, contact Jean Meilinger, program director, at [email protected] or 847-883-9952 and ULI Chicago’s Women’s Leadership Initiative. Go to womenincre.uli.org to learn about the national WLI research study on women in leadership in the real estate and land use industry