When some people think of real estate and women, there’s a certain image that may come to mind.
It’s not the one of a woman discussing lease terms for a class A office suite or examining a development site or sitting in a glass conference room reviewing the financial details of a major deal.
It’s the image of a woman running to a showing for a home in the suburbs.
While there are lots of women in the region who have built successful businesses working in residential real estate – and could care less about clichés or preconceived notions – there are also plenty of women in the Milwaukee area forging a path in commercial real estate.
Slowly, but surely, they’re bucking stereotypes that the commercial real estate game is one that only men can find success in.
The last few years, in fact, have seen developers like Juli Kaufmann, JoAnne Johnson-Sabir, Melissa Nicole Allen and Cindy Shaffer make names for themselves through high-profile developments in the city and the suburbs.[gallery columns="1" size="full" td_select_gallery_slide="slide" ids="554443,554439,554432,554442"]
But it’s not just developers.
Women have long played key roles in the marketplace as investors, bankers, brokers, lawyers, architects, designers and construction workers, said Jacqueline Hrovat, a shareholder and executive officer at Milwaukee-based law firm Mallery s.c., which works on commercial real estate and finance transactions, including the Sherman Phoenix entrepreneurial hub, developed by Kaufmann and Johnson-Sabir.
“There are women in commercial real estate. They are intelligent and respected. They may not be the face of the company, but they are in the background doing it,” Hrovat said.
Some women in the industry – like emerging developers Obiageli ‘Oby’ Nwabuzor and Shar Borg – came to real estate on their own. Sisters Caroline and Abby Brzezinski found their way into the field because they were inspired by the work of their father, Francis Brzezinski, chief executive officer and partner at Waukesha-based Interstate Partners LLC.
After separately attending the University of Wisconsin School of Business’ Real Estate program, the sisters each worked in commercial lending in Chicago for a few years before deciding to return home. Caroline joined Interstate Partners in 2008. With the industrial real estate market still recovering in 2012, Abby struck out on her own upon returning home, eventually partnering with a college friend to form Waukesha-based Red Sky Partners, which owns, manages and develops multi-family properties across the region.
Recently, the sisters have gotten to work on some projects together, like Breeze Terrace, a 213-unit apartment building in Pleasant Prairie.
For both sisters, having the support of their father has been key to their success, but so have the relationships they’ve formed with other women in the industry.
Women occupied less than 37% of the jobs in the commercial real estate industry in 2020, according to a study by the Commercial Real Estate Women Network. But to Caroline, “the narrative that CRE is “an old boys club is a little bit tired.”
“There may not be a ton of women in the top positions, but I think that is true in almost any industry. And we have great relationships with a lot of really smart, successful women in (CRE) here,” she said.
Nwabuzor and Borg were both buoyed in their efforts to become developers by partners and mentors.
Borg started working in residential real estate in 2006. This year she began her very first project as a developer, working with Ryan Pattee on a 53-unit mixed-use apartment complex planned for the 1500 block of East North Avenue in Milwaukee.
“It is not as easy for women. It’s a very-small, tight-knit, male-dominated community,” Borg said of commercial development in Milwaukee. “I had to partner with men who are ensconced in that world, and they were happy to partner with me, but not everybody has those relationships.”
For Nwabuzor, mentors and partners have also played a key role in encouraging and helping her to realize her development goals.
The director for diversity, equity and inclusion at Landmark Credit Union, Nwabuzor is currently working on a major redevelopment of Milky Way Tech Hub’s space at 3803 W. Fond du Lac Ave. in Milwaukee, thanks to her relationship with hub co-founder and CEO Nadiyah Johnson.
A life-long Milwaukee resident who grew up in some of the city’s most challenged neighborhoods, Nwabuzor – who’s development firm Envision Growth was founded in 2019 – said leaders should be looking at people like her to help reimagine those spaces.
“I think there is truly a lack of investment into the vision of Black and brown women who can make these changes,” she said.