Commercial Real Estate: Preparing the Next Generation of Leaders Through Education
By Blithe Wiley
Photography by David Teran
The field of commercial real estate has long been a highly male-dominated field.
In fact, data from the Commercial Real Estate Women Network shows that in 2020 women accounted for just under 37% of the workforce in the nation’s commercial real estate industry, a percentage that has not changed much since 1985.
But organizations such as CREW (Commercial Real Estate Women) are committed to driving change and inspiring more women to enter the commercial real estate field and move into leadership positions. According to the CREW San Antonio mission statement, the organization paves the way, breaking barriers for women to enter and excel as leaders in commercial real estate. It provides unsurpassed connections, innovative resources, and education to enhance the real estate community.
On another front, commercial real estate college degree programs, such as the Embrey Real Estate Finance and Development Program at the University of Texas at San Antonio, are actively facilitating their women students’ career success through hands-on real estate class projects, challenging and relevant curricula, and college internships.
Laurie Griffith, San Antonio Market President for Independent Financial, currently serves as Co-Chair of the Embrey Founders Council and is a Past President of CREW San Antonio.
“When I first joined the Founders Council, I served as the Curriculum Chair,” she said. “We put the program’s curriculum together with the group of commercial real estate professionals. Our goal was to produce graduates able to go right into the industry and start working with developers, investors, commercial bankers, brokers, appraisers, contractors, attorneys, etc. They would have a thorough understanding of complex projects from start to finish.”
Griffith is actively involved with the Embrey Program in additional ways, including judging class project competitions, guest lecturing, and serving as a mentor to women students. “The goal of the Embrey Program and the Founders Council is to prepare the next generation of leaders in commercial real estate. Council members provide internships to students with the goal for them to come out of the program with a job. We have an incredible lineup of local commercial real estate leaders on the council who are very involved with the students’ career preparation,” she noted.
“I think the Embrey Program is one of the best commercial real estate programs in the country,” Griffith continued. “It is very unique. In addition to a rigorous curriculum and a focus on hands-on, real-world projects, the Embrey program’s faculty provide career advising to students as well as bringing in a lot of local industry leaders as guest lecturers.”
Griffith explained one of the key ways that CREW San Antonio supports local commercial real estate students is UCREW, a program designed to introduce college women to the many diverse commercial real estate career opportunities.
“The UCREW Program has evolved over time. Today we emphasize a lot more mentoring of women college members. We also provide the financing for the CREW Scholars to attend the CREW Network Convention, where they have the opportunity to be exposed to thousands of commercial real estate leaders from across the U.S., Canada, and even several European countries.
“When college women get involved with CREW, they find the networking opportunities are so valuable. With CREW, they have a network of professional women whom they can talk to, can confide in, and who will mentor them. Involvement with CREW also teaches them leadership skills.”
Sarah Esserlieu Khalil, Economic Development Director at Centro San Antonio, earned her real estate finance and development certificate at UTSA’s Embrey Real Estate Finance and Development Program in 2020. She is the only two-time recipient of CREW San Antonio’s Scholar Award (2019 and 2020).
Esserlieu Khalil, who holds a master’s degree in urban and regional planning, began her career working for the City of San Antonio in downtown revitalization. While working on the public sector side of downtown commercial development, she became intrigued by the private sector side of the industry and enrolled in the Embrey graduate certificate program to gain a deeper understanding of real estate finance and development and how deals are put together.
“The Embrey Program at UTSA is one of the few academic programs I’ve seen that really puts the students out in front of the commercial real estate community,” she explained. “The Embrey Program’s Executive Director, Dr. Tony Ciochetti, Assistant Director Laura Gilliland, and faculty all provide opportunities for the students to shine in front of industry leaders.”
Esserlieu Khalil noted that Gilliland also encouraged her to become involved with CREW San Antonio, and this year she was elected Programs Director for the chapter. “CREW is such a valuable organization for young women in commercial real estate. It provides role models for them. It is really encouraging to see women thriving and succeeding in this industry.”
Esserlieu Khalil offered some advice to young women who aspire to a career in commercial real estate. “First, lean into your career. As with all things in life, you get out what you put into your career, and people notice. Second, find good mentors who can guide you in different ways. These mentors can be men or women in leadership positions that excel in different areas of your profession. Make an effort to get to know these professionals. You never know when that connection will lead to your next career opportunity,” she said.
Isabelle Spjut Hansebo is a senior in the Embrey Program. After graduation, she plans to go into the development of commercial sales and investment vehicles. Originally from Sweden, she always planned to go into residential real estate as a career. But after her first semester at UTSA, she switched her focus to commercial real estate. She was recently named the 2022 CREW Endowed Scholarship Recipient.
Hansebo noted that it was the Embrey Program’s Assistant Director, Laura Gilliland, who introduced her to the CREW San Antonio organization and encouraged her to apply for the CREW Endowed Scholarship. “I’m so impressed by how Laura and the Embrey professors work so closely with the program’s students in identifying professional opportunities,” she said. “They truly believe in our potential.”
Hansebo became involved with the local CREW organization last spring and immediately was struck by the extensive networking opportunities with the organization’s members. “In just a few months, I have met so many women who are leaders in the local commercial real estate field,” she said. “The members are so supportive of women students in the Embrey program, and they want to see us succeed professionally.”
She readily acknowledges that commercial real estate is a male-dominated field but stresses that there is huge career potential for women going into the field. “As a woman, you will definitely stand out. I believe it’s really important for companies to get a women’s perspective on its projects.”
As for the most valuable advice Hansebo has received from Gilliland, her professors, and CREW members, she emphasized they all have encouraged her to be open-minded, to always keep educating herself, and to “put herself out there and take advantage of opportunities.”
Veronica Bailey is a graduate student in the Embrey Program and also works full-time as an accounting auditor at Ernst & Young. After graduation, she plans to work on the financial side of commercial real estate.
“The Embrey Program is truly a wonderful program. UTSA has done a terrific job of putting outstanding faculty in place. They genuinely care about helping us succeed and emphasize giving us opportunities to work on real-world commercial projects here in San Antonio,” she said.
Bailey was awarded the Embrey CREW Endowment Scholarship for the 2022-2023 academic year. “It was amazing to be presented this award by Trey Embrey, who is a member of the Embrey Real Estate Finance and Development Founders Council,” she said.
Bailey has been involved with CREW San Antonio since last April. “Dr. Tony Ciochetti, the Embrey Program’s Executive Director, told me about CREW San Antonio and encouraged me to get involved with the organization,” she explained. “Becoming a member of CREW and attending CREW events has truly changed my life. It’s opened my eyes to what women are doing in the industry and shown me that women do indeed have a seat at the table.”
She emphasized that CREW offers women in commercial real estate unparalleled networking opportunities. “CREW members are women coming together to help elevate each other in their careers. It offers women amazing resources and connections. These are women who truly want to see other women succeed and thrive in the industry,” she said.
Bailey emphasized that she has learned valuable career lessons from both her graduate studies and from her involvement with CREW San Antonio. “I’ve learned that you should not be afraid to take risks or to speak out. You need to take the leap because you can succeed at anything you set your mind to.”
Griffith has some specific advice for young women wanting to pursue a career in commercial real estate. “You should definitely get involved with CREW early. Seek out a mentor in CREW who can guide you through the career options. Also, going into a degree program such as Embrey provides women students with professors and administrators who actively take an interest in their success. They help them navigate through the huge and diverse industry that is commercial real estate. Both CREW and the Embrey Program are actively involved with helping young women develop the leadership skills they will need to succeed in the industry.”
About CREW San Antonio
With over 12,000 members in 75 markets worldwide, CREW (Commercial Real Estate Women) Network is a premier business network dedicated to transforming the commercial real estate industry by advancing women globally. CREW San Antonio furthers the mission by creating opportunities for women through education. CREW San Antonio has been a supporter and community partner of the Embrey Real Estate Finance and Development (REFD) Program at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) since its inception in 2007. CREW has been actively involved with UTSA through the creation of its endowed scholarship for women pursuing degrees in real estate, as well as the UCREW Program and the CREW Scholars Program for graduate students. CREW San Antonio’s dedication to advancing women through education is bridging the gap for women in the industry, which is illustrated in the four women’s stories in this article.