The Real Deal New York

Making it as a woman in commercial real estate: In their words

Execs at Cushman, RKF, Eastern Consolidated and more talk challenges in male-dominated field

July 02, 2015 12:15PM
By Claire Moses

From left: Joanne Podell, Karen Bellantoni, Adelaide Polsinelli, Faith Hope Consolo, Marion Jones and Robin Abrams

From left: Joanne Podell, Karen Bellantoni, Adelaide Polsinelli, Faith Hope Consolo, Marion Jones and Robin Abrams

To this day, men far outnumber women in commercial real estate, even though more and more women have joined the ranks over the last decades.

On the one hand, this can work in a woman’s favor: Competent female real estate executives often stand out in a room full of men.

The other side of that coin, according to industry sources who asked to remain anonymous, come with flirtatious advances, commentary on appearances and inappropriate behavior at large events such as the International Council of Shopping Centers’ annual conference in Las Vegas.

The Real Deal spoke to several women in senior positions to discuss challenges and how to make it far as a woman in commercial real estate.

On starting out

Adelaide Polsinelli, senior managing director at Eastern Consolidated: When I started, it was unusual to see women in the commercial end of the real estate world. It was hard in those days to be taken as seriously as the men in the industry. However, if you were a smart woman and you knew what you were doing, it was an advantage. You were the unicorn in the room and everyone thought it was interesting.

Joanne Podell, vice chair at Cushman & Wakefield:  Nobody discouraged me because I was a woman. I wasn’t like, “You’re crazy.” I loved the idea that there’s no ceiling on how much money I could make and to be my own boss.

Robin Abrams, executive vice president at the Lansco Corporation: I was often the only woman in the room, but I could hold my own. I’m sure there were times I wasn’t included, but it didn’t really bother me because I had so many opportunities.

Karen Bellantoni, vice chair at RKF: In the beginning there were landlords that wouldn’t return your phone call. There’s a respect in this business that doesn’t translate as much to females as it does to males.

Faith Hope Consolo, chair of the retail group at Douglas Elliman: You just have to know your stuff and think like a team player.

Marion Jones, senior director of investment sales at Ackman-Ziff: Transactional real estate is a very, very intense way to make a living. When I started, I didn’t know it was going to become an all-consuming career with tons of purpose and excitement.

Now vs. Then

Podell: When I was young, I didn’t go to bars and hang out — it sends the wrong message.

Jones: The challenges I face now have more to do with it being very a tough industry, rather than my position as a woman in that industry. The generation of women that came before me, they encountered things on a much more regular basis.

Abrams: I was a bit softer than most of the guys that were working in commercial real estate. I was a young, naïve woman, so I took it all very personal.

Bellantoni: In general I’m treated as an equal, but it has taken a good seven to 10 years of being in the business.

Polsinelli: It has taken me 30 years to become an overnight sensation.

Abrams: I think I’ve come a long way in 35 years. I have certainly learned to enjoy the game and I think I am very good at what I do. Men don’t necessarily question a woman’s ability today.

Consolo: I make the guys my friends, they’re my pals.

On differences between men and women

Polsinelli: We communicate well and our mediation skills are sophisticated.

Podell: Whether you’re a man or a woman, it’s a very hard business. Men have a bigger opportunity to network, which makes it a little easier for them to refer to one and other and get to know each other.

Bellantoni: Women are not as thick skinned as men are. If you look at real estate, the REITs and all the major owners: they’re all men.

Abrams: Women are able to multitask and follow through in a really effective matter.

Podell: If you’re good and you work hard, people will remember you. Because you’re the only woman in the room, they may remember you more readily. It’s a hard business for women, because generally, women aren’t risk takers.

Jones: I don’t totally buy into this notion that women are more risk averse. There are a lot of women who are entrepreneurial, who have a lot of chutzpah and are ready to tackle big, seemingly impossible things.

Bellantoni: More times than not, people will make a comment about what you’re wearing. And it’s not always in a complimentary fashion.

Abrams: When I had my son (now 25) I was working and nursing him in my office. Then I had my daughter (now 22) on a Saturday and I was back in the office the following Thursday. Nursing and childbirth were not thing you wanted to bring up. You didn’t want someone to think that you couldn’t do your job.

Jones: Successful women in the industry have very thick skin, they have an inner drive that doesn’t allow them to sweat the small stuff and they are secure in who they are an in their own intelligence.

On mentors

Polsinelli: If you’re a woman in this business: pick a good mentor. Align yourself with someone in good standing that can help you, give you advice, open doors and make introductions.

Bellantoni: Now there are great female mentors, who have been doing this for a long time. My mentors were (RKF vice chair) Robert Cohen and (RKF chairman and CEO) Robert Futterman. I had to figure out a lot of stuff on my own.

Consolo: My mentor was a man. He came from Wall Street, so that taught me a lot.

Jones: The mentoring thing is not so much based on gender. It’s about cultivating relationships with people who get you.