Networking is everything. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Bring your own hard hat.
That was some of the advice imparted to students by a panel that brought together 10 alumnae who are leaders in commercial real estate to discuss the advantages and challenges they’ve encountered.
Sponsored by the Stacom Family Speaker series, the Nov. 8 event at Rauch Business Center was held to provide students with an understanding of the various jobs available within the real estate industry, to help them best position themselves to line up an internship or job, and to answer questions curious students might have.
“The impetus for this event is that, despite real estate being a really interesting and rewarding industry to work in, women are still significantly underrepresented,” moderator Kelsey Bodenstab ’10, vice president, real estate acquisitions for Garrison Investment Group, told the audience of about 40 women, most of whom are students in Lehigh’s real estate program. “The latest research from CREW (Commercial Real Estate Women, a professional organization) indicates we’re only about one-third of the commercial real estate workforce nationwide.”
The various fields of the real estate industry that the panelists represented included brokerage, development, acquisitions, asset management, lending, architecture, legal and consulting. Panelists introduced themselves and gave a brief description of their current jobs and what they involve.
“It’s not ‘one size fits all,’” Bodenstab summarized. “There are a lot of transferrable skills within real estate, so once you have the foundation, if you ever feel the need for a change or a desire to try something different, there is always opportunity to pivot from one field to another.”
Panelist Amy Piccinich ’10, investment associate, Greystar Real Estate Partners, recommended internships as an opportunity to explore various sides of the business.
“The real estate program at Lehigh really helped create that foundation and level of knowledge of real estate and what paths there are to pursue. It’s great to explore—the combination of classes and summer internships really helped me narrow my focus,” she said.
Lehigh’s real estate program offers students an opportunity to minor in real estate or follow a finance curriculum track where they learn key elements in commercial real estate. The program allows students to graduate with real estate knowledge and experience, giving them a competitive advantage when applying for internships and jobs.
A large part of the real estate industry is networking, something that panelist Allison Melichar ’12, associate vice president, NY consulting and advisory group at JLL, recommended students begin as soon as possible—even while still at Lehigh.
“Keep in contact with people you meet. Don’t just reach out when you’re looking for a job,” said Melichar.
The varied nature of real estate is something many of the panelists said they enjoyed most about their jobs.
“There’s really never a dull moment,” said Scarlett Nawrocki ’15, associate, Procida Development Group.
Allie Zamfir ’13, assistant vice president, value add investments at PGIM Real Estate, concurred.
“Every day is a new challenge, but it’s a great group of people you’re learning from and working with, in a team-oriented business.”
Kristi Mazejy ’08, director of asset management, Garrison Investment Group, said her team was excited about a rewarding deal she’d closed just the day before.
“My firm purchased two office buildings in 2016 for $35 million. They were in really tired shape—they hadn’t been upgraded since they were first built, and were only 50 percent occupied. We upgraded them, leased them to 97 percent occupancy, and just sold them for $74 million. That was a really fun one—we were all high-fiving in the office!”
Panelists agreed that being a woman in a male-dominated industry can be challenging, but Casey Noble ’12, real estate specialist, Air Products, hasn’t found it to be a disadvantage.
“If you’re interested in what you’re doing and you’re confident, everyone will jump in to help. Ask questions!” she advised.
Finding mentors is a strategy the panelists recommended and one that helped many of them find internships and jobs.
“As women in the industry, I think we really need to leverage each other. Never be shy about reaching out to someone to find out what they do,” said Mayra Juarez Gutierrez ’15, financial analyst, commercial real estate for Wells Fargo.
Asked if there was anything the panelists wished they’d known as undergraduates, Ivy Ochieng ’14, associate architect, HNTB, said, “Don’t be afraid to explore all different kinds of classes and experiences. Being a leader means having a diverse mind.”
During a Q&A session following the panel discussion, Kiera Damon ’21, a psychology major planning to minor in real estate, asked if she would be at a disadvantage because she wasn’t a business major and had no connections in the industry.
“Not at all!” answered Kelsey Nakamura ’12, director, Cushman & Wakefield. “I was an art history major!”
Bodenstab agreed and urged all the students in the audience to “use all of the resources and support available at Lehigh. Not just real estate events—meet people who are going to go out in the world and be connections for you.”
Shannon Smith, assistant director, Goodman Center for Real Estate at Lehigh, said the panelists left a strong imprint on attendees. “The take-away—that women should be willing to take risks, ask questions, and put themselves out there to network—was a powerful message. The industry is a wonderful tapestry of people and communities, and these women are a part of that, working hard to make a name for themselves and clearly enjoying every moment of it!”
The panelists made an impression on attendee Grace Hoover ’19, an economics and real estate major. “It was great to see so many of these women comfortable in their career path and that they view being a woman in the industry as an advantage rather than a disadvantage.”
Story by Cynthia Tintorri
Photos by Maddie Sheifer, The Brown and White