ULI Chicago had two local members awarded the 2018 WLI Prologis Fall Meeting Scholarship. Navi Sandhu, Assistant Vice President, Fifield Companies and Meghan Webster, Senior Associate, Gensler, competed in a nation-wide application process and were two of the ten recipients, receiving complimentary registration to the Fall Meeting, participation on a National Product Council, as well as a WLI mentor and access to WLI Fall Meeting events.
Navi and Meghan, who recently returned from the ULI Fall Meeting in Boston, share more about their experience below.
As one of ULI’s WLI Prologis Scholarship winners, the 2018 ULI Fall Meeting in Boston was an exceptional experience and a great reminder of the impact that diversity in thought and ingenuity in problem solving has in creating sustainable real estate. Each of the panels I attended included established executives and experts from all sectors of real estate, ranging from investors to urban planners, which provided a wholistic view of the industry. I also had the opportunity to attend the Urban Development Mixed-Use (Bronze Flight) Council with my WLI host, Kelly Nagel. The ULI National Product Councils are unique since real estate professionals from a variety of firms openly discuss “real deals” and their views on the market in an intimate setting. We heard perspectives that may not have been shared by everyone in the room, but triggered interesting discussions – Though we are in one of the the longest running bull markets in history, market fundamentals continue to support this trend and may continue to do so for the next 18 to 24 months; New technology and new trends such as driverless cars may not affect real estate development as quickly as we commonly assume since real estate generally adapts when broad infrastructure & policy changes have been implemented. Being a part of these discussions allowed me to appreciate the value of the network and perspectives one gains as part of a ULI National Council.
Developing for the common good, forming public-private partnerships and embracing functional, open space were also some of the themes reiterated during the conference. These themes continued to be evident during my council day through our tours of Boston’s Seaport and Kendall Square in Cambridge, districts which have undergone major transformations. The Seaport was historically several acres of industrial land serviced by a freight rail station in South Boston which is now home to waterfront multifamily, condominium and office buildings all including ground floor retail to ensure the walkability of the neighborhood. Developers, such as Boston Global Investors, worked with the city to provide public transit via a light rail system and created a public coworking space called District Hall to support entrepreneurship and innovation. Likewise, Kendall Square in Cambridge has become a strong biotech and life sciences office market due to its proximity to M.I.T and ease of access to downtown Boston, which has resulted in increased multifamily and retail development. Developers, such as Boston Properties, have created efficient housing solutions through furnished micro-units and have encouraged outdoor entertainment & retail spaces.
In addition to unique perspectives and fascinating mixed-use development, I valued the focus on leadership and inclusivity that was prevalent through the conference. Qualities that shaped some of the leaders that we heard from included collaboration, building trust with both internal & external teams and resilience, all while stepping outside the boundaries of one’s comfort zone. Furthermore, we heard that successful teams included not only gender and ethnic diversity, but also diversity of thought and experiences. To take this one step further, inclusivity of these diverse individuals when working on a project, transaction or deal was the key to great performance and outcomes. The ULI Fall Meeting was a brilliant representation of the industry and one that I hope to attend for the rest of my career.
Thanks to ULI’s WLI Prologis Scholarship, I had the opportunity to attend the ULI Fall Meeting in Boston. WLI’s mission and progress were palpable throughout the conference, and with a renewed focus across many industries on diversity and inclusion, this is an apt time for WLI to dramatically shape the future of the commercial real estate industry.
As part of WLI’s View From The Top series, B+E’s CEO and Co-Founder, Camille Renshaw noted that 23% of leadership positions in CRE are held by women. As an architect and practice leader at Gensler, I come from the related field of design where – although the number of women in design have surpassed the number of men – only 17 percent of principals and partners at American architecture firms are women. Looking more broadly at leadership across industries, only 6.4% of Fortune 500 companies are run by a female CEO.
“Putting aside the social agenda stuff and thinking of this as a business decision”, Ms. Renshaw titled her talk Diverse Companies Produce More Revenue. Outlining a 4-step process, she framed an approach to diversity as a business strategy, “like any other revenue initiative”: (1) Acknowledge the revenue risk; (2) Hit the topic of diversity head-on; (3) Give your team a plan and the power to make change; and (4) Measure the results in KPIs. One of the most striking statistics she cited: Companies with the highest percentage of female boards outperformed those without women by 53%.
As a female leader in my industry, I have struggled to find productive ways to move the needle, which is why the approach Ms. Renshaw proposed is compelling. As we look for ways to fuel the pipeline of women leaders in the design industry, what if we took a similar business-minded approach? In a world of rapid disruption and multidimensional challenges, a background in design has become almost a prerequisite for entering a growing number of industries. Increasingly, companies are seeking talent who can do things that in fact are core skills of a designer: define vision, overcome complexity, communicate ideas, and inspire change. Thus, as the number of women entering the workforce with the skill-sets of designers outnumber men, I would argue that this is an invaluable opportunity to position women to lead–not just in design, but in every industry.
So, what next? To build on the playbook of WLI and those of female industry giants like Camille Renshaw, I offer a simple framework as a start to strategy:
Put the fundamentals in place: ULI started the Women’s Leadership Initiative in 2011, and each year the initiative has gained strength, exposure and support. What are the fundamentals organizations must have in place in order to set the stage for a workforce that is truly diverse?
Frame the vision: WLI’s mission has shaped its role within ULI and its contributions to the broader CRE industry, the first objective, “promote the advancement of women, throughout their careers, as leaders in the real estate industry”. How might an organization clearly envision a desired future for diversity, one that galvanizes people to come together and implement?
Leverage the vehicles: At the conference this year, WLI unveiled its current strategic plan, which includes WLI’s University Outreach Program, intended to provide women at the undergraduate level with exposure to the many career paths in the CRE industry. What vehicles are most effective for implementing and communicating the vision?
Focus on the value proposition: I believe that WLI’s success as an initiative is in part due to recognition at ULI and in the CRE industry that a diverse workforce brings value. What are the metrics that matter to an organization and industry, and how does diversity positively impact these metrics?
To be clear, we’ve made great strides. Many of our industry leaders are women, some of whom I had the honor to meet at ULI’s Fall Meeting. But there’s still progress to be made, and my experience at the ULI Fall Meeting fueled my passion for reframing the dialogue to focus on how women bring value, why it matters for business, and how each of us can do something to move the needle forward.
Senior women at Prologis created the grassroots group Breakthrough that supports the retention of women and identifies and removes barriers to advancement for Prologis across the globe. Breakthrough’s goals resonate with those of WLI in that Breakthrough strives to create a work environment where women feel connected and empowered, while creating a business culture that offers opportunities for success and recognizes the value of a gender-diverse workforce.