With 140 women currently pursuing a degree in its real estate programs, the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy has a long and proud record of launching women into careers in real estate. During the 5th annual Women in Real Estate luncheon – held on March 1, the first day of Women’s History Month – the focus was on women entrepreneurs in commercial real estate.
The panel of graduates of the USC Dollinger Master of Real Estate Development (MRED) program was introduced by Richard K. Green, Director of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate and Chair of the Wilbur H. Smith III Department of Real Estate Development at the USC Price School. The panel was moderated by Mary Lynne Boorn, Associate Professor (Teaching) at the USC Price School and program director of the Real Estate Development Programs.
Panelists described their unexpected career trajectories and encouraged the audience to take risks, find balance between work and family, and seek joy in a demanding but ultimately rewarding career in real estate. Here are their stories:
“This was not my chosen career. I grew up in a working-class family in the Boyle Heights area. My dad has a kindergarten education, and my mom has a 5th grade education. Education for me was a big deal to them. I went to Stanford and then to USC for my master’s. At first, I thought politics was the way to transform communities. I worked for three cities in five years and that was the red flag that I didn’t like what I was doing. At age 25, with a young daughter, I got a divorce. I quit my job to become a real estate developer. I went through the USC Ross Program in Real Estate and I got additional training.
“I’ve been a developer for 20 years and I absolutely love what I do, which today is tackling the lack of affordable housing for working families. I started my company in my garage seven years ago using my daughter’s tuition money, which I spent buying properties. Now I get to work in the communities I grew up in and use the experiences I’ve been afforded in life to help others, including housing for the homeless in Boyle Heights. It’s not the glamor piece you may hear about, but I feel like I’m making an impact for families which makes it worthwhile.”
“I didn’t know I was going to end up in real estate. My grandfather started the company I work for, which owns and manages multifamily assets throughout the Los Angeles area. There was never pressure to join the company but it’s been part of my life since I was born. Early in my career, I found an ad in the newspaper, which turned out to be for a job at Fairfield Residential. I became an analyst there and learned what I didn’t like doing – namely sitting in front of a computer. I eventually came to USC for my MBA and my MRED. It wasn’t until I was in school at USC that it dawned on me that I had an incredible opportunity with the family business.
“When I joined the family business I started from the ground up – first as a leasing agent, then I moved to the maintenance side and oversaw installation of 5,000 low-flow toilets. That gave me some street cred with even long-term employees. Now, after 10 years, I’m overseeing the company along with my mom – which includes 100 employees. I’m taking care of the day-to-day while my mom looks for opportunities to buy buildings. I also have a 7-year-old and 4-year-old triplets and I’m lucky to have a supportive husband. I joke that my job is to not mess up – I am the third generation, after all – but really, my job is to make it better.”
“I was an international relations major at USC. In my sophomore year 9/11 happened and the entire world changed – and so did the classes. ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ and ‘History of War’ were not exactly what I wanted to think about every day. At a USC career fair, I found the company I started working for, a real estate developer in Century City. I spent 13 years with them.
“My dad, who had started a real estate company in the 1990’s, was turning 70 and decided he was done. It was good timing. The company I had been working for sold their self-storage portfolio. I returned with my growing family to Seattle. Now, we own and operate self-storage in the suburbs of Seattle. I’ve been there five years; I’m kicking the company back into growth mode. We currently have four facilities; one of those I purchased in the last year, and we remodeled one. We bought some land to build another. I’m trying to make the company my own.”
“I am a reluctant entrepreneur. Both my parents are public servants and thought I should work for the government and get a pension. In New York City, I worked in investment banking covering real estate companies. I didn’t like investment banking but loved real estate. In one of those fortuitous moments, I saw an ad in The Wall Street Journal for the USC MRED program and met with alumni who happened to be in New York. I was so blown away by the curriculum, I quit my job and moved to L.A.
“I ended up getting a series of jobs in real estate private equity. I started to love the fact that development is community engagement, it’s political – sometimes I felt like I was running a political campaign! I started focusing on opportunities in public/private because my personal thesis is housing is a major issue in California and the public sector can’t solve it alone. If we can come up with models that garner the trust of the public side, there is infinite private capital that wants to be in housing. I started my own company a year ago. We’re backed by a handful of pension funds and our objective is to be a private market solution to our affordable housing crisis.”
“In the world of real estate there are many entrepreneurs, including many of our USC Price School graduates, but still, not enough of them are women,” said Sonia Savoulian, senior advisor for real estate and alumni relations at the USC Price School. “This conversation will inspire our female students and alumni that it is possible to navigate the personal and professional challenges of being an entrepreneur in commercial real estate.”
“The narrative around women’s leadership is changing,” agreed MRED graduate Jenny Rocci, who attended the event. “I liked hearing from the panelists from families without a lot of wealth who are giving back to the community – I also want to work in affordable housing.”
Monica Hamra, who will graduate with a bachelor’s in real estate development in Fall ‘23, appreciated the discussion of the “more personal aspects” of being a woman in real estate and that the panelists described the positive side of having served in a caretaker role. “Women can bring value to more formalized procedures that are otherwise quite rigid and don’t keep in mind the aspects of humanity that real estate was meant to serve,” Hamra said.
Event moderator Mary Lynne Boorn hoped audience members would absorb the lesson that “success is not a straight path.”
“You will get rejected from time to time and that’s okay; it’s actually part of the process,” she said. “You will face unexpected challenges – especially when you add motherhood to the mix. Feel encouraged that you are part of a sisterhood of women who have achieved great things.
To watch highlights of the Women in Real Estate Luncheon: Pathways to Entrepreneurship visit: https://youtu.be/rOK7C7uiA70 and for the full event recording, visit: https://youtu.be/uqCRRR90_-8 . Link to full set of images of the event.