It’s no secret that real estate is a male-dominated industry. As chief financial officer of a vertically integrated, three-generation, family-owned industrial real estate firm, I am part of the 9% of women in commercial real estate who hold C-suite positions, as well as the approximately 36% of women in commercial real estate overall. To make it into this small faction, I had no choice but to thrive in this large, interconnected “boys’ club” — as a woman, an immigrant, a wife and a mother.
Having been born and raised in Belarus, I moved to the U.S. when I was 19 to continue my education. I began school at Belarusian State University, but came to the U.S. to attend Yeshiva University, where I majored in accounting and began interning at Ernst & Young before beginning my career there.
Oddly enough, my work in public accounting for EY did not feel as disproportionately male as the real estate industry at large — the real estate audit teams in which I worked were roughly 50/50 or 60/40, men to women. It was only when I went to a privately held company that I truly understood what it was like to be one of maybe two women in a room (or conference venue) of men.
I owe a lot of my success to perseverance and resilience, which afforded me amazing opportunities, such as taking Empire State Realty Trust public and working with industry leaders such as Tishman Speyer, Woodmont Properties and, of course, Greek Development. Those qualities alone, however, are only a small piece of what it takes to succeed as a woman in real estate. For those interested in or already pursuing a career in this notoriously male-driven industry, I offer the following words of wisdom.
Know what you bring to the table
Being in an environment that is more male-dominated has required me to develop a “thick skin,” yes — but having a thick skin doesn’t mean putting up with unfair treatment. It means knowing the difference between truly constructive criticism and someone’s personal issue with you, and taking everything with a grain of salt. In any situation — whether it be sitting in a meeting, presenting to a group of people or negotiating — I don’t feel that I need to prove myself as the only woman. I need to prove what I can bring to the table as a real estate professional. No matter what your background, color or gender is, it is your capabilities, skillset and expertise that move the needle for you.
Never stop learning
After graduating with a degree in accounting and working for EY for five years, I felt the best way for me to pursue my dream of working in the private sector was more education — so, I completed and received my master’s degree in real estate at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate. But, beyond that, I learn something new every day, even in my role as CFO. There is no “typical day” for me — my job is extremely dynamic because of my company’s growth, the movement of the commercial real estate industry at large and the nature of my responsibilities. I am challenged every day to stay nimble, absorb more information and learn how all the pieces of the real estate development puzzle fit together, which only makes me better at my job.
Don’t be afraid to challenge the system(s)
For example, changing the structure of crucial processes, however engrained, can make a large, growing firm that much more successful. When I arrived at Greek, the company was quickly outgrowing the capabilities of its accounting software — and so, I advocated for and led the implementation of property management and accounting platform Yardi. Something as “administrative” as integrating new technologies allows for more growth, more deals and better management across the entire portfolio. Streamlining the way departments communicate is also crucial. If you see an underlying disconnect between accounting and the property or project management teams, it’s imperative to find a system and establish processes that create a holistic understanding for and of each department and how they all work together. Pay attention to what’s going on around you, share your ideas and raise your voice — because you never know where it could create new efficiencies.
Base your leadership on empathy and trust
If you’re in a managerial position, you cannot overlook the human aspect of your job. Fostering open, trusting relationships and allowing your teams to be comfortable approaching you with honest mistakes, questions and solutions are the keys to organizational success. I pride myself on establishing relationships, and that has been integral to establishing trust with my team members and direct reports — for them to trust me and for me to trust them to produce the best work they possibly can. Don’t micromanage your people; empower them and give them the tools to succeed.
Every conversation is a networking opportunity
Networking is always key — but, especially in real estate. In such a specific market and industry, networking helped me land my first job out of my NYU master’s program, when one of my professors and mentors connected me to one of his clients. Networking was and continues to be critical to my success, and even a passing conversation could change the course of your life.
Know where your priorities lie
It’s obvious that it’s difficult to navigate being a mother and a wife while balancing your career. Maintaining your personal life, regardless of children, is always a challenge, and women at every level must deal with it in some way. This isn’t easy, but it does come down to knowing where your priorities are — and I appreciate that everyone at Greek knows that my family always takes priority. I’m always there for my kids’ games, events, and I’m even on the board of their school. Another key tool? When you’re not at work, train yourself to be mentally present. It will make those priorities that much clearer and worthwhile.
While being a woman in a male-dominated field is never simple or easy, it holds valuable lessons and can make success even more rewarding in the end. As we continue to work to level the playing field, following these principles — while continuing to support each other as our ranks grow — can help each and every woman grow and thrive as they pursue their individual careers.
Masha Sherman is the chief financial officer of Greek Development in East Brunswick.