March 28, 2018 Maria Verdin

Profiling Three Women Succeeding in CRE: Colliers’ Summer Coulter, Cushman & Wakefield’s Julia Blakeley & JLL’s Dana Vargas

Today, as a new generation of commercial real estate brokers enter the workforce, change is clearly underway. Across the country, just about every brokerage firm is recruiting top talent, including women, in an effort to remain relevant and competitive. The process within the CRE industry now more closely resembles how major league sports franchises pursue free agents. Thus, it is not surprising to find women rising as leaders.

Three examples of women who have joined the commercial real estate brokerage business include Colliers International’s Summer Coulter, Cushman & Wakefield’s Julia Blakeley and JLL’s Dana Vargas. We will share a bit about their career path into the field, what they’ve learned, their mentors, what they like about the CRE industry, as well as why they believe CRE is a smart career choice.

Each entered the business from different perspectives – two who had no direct connections within the CRE industry, and one who followed in her father’s footsteps. Yet, all have achieved early success that’s being driven by a common approach of hard work and quest to accomplish more.

In the case of Colliers International’s Summer Coulter, a vice president in Ontario who partners with Tom Taylor and Steve Bellitti on the industrial side of the business, she got her CRE career start “by chance.” “I immediately loved the environment,” she said. “I appreciated that in order to be successful, you had to continually challenge yourself and get better every day. I found the competitive atmosphere extremely motivating, and I felt it was something I’d be good at. Any place where the rewards are commensurate with my own level of effort, is a place for me.”

She says there are a number of CRE leaders who have served as “great mentors and advocates for me along the way”. “This industry is so great that way. People like Susan Bloomfield with Colliers and Art Day with CBRE were big personal advocates of mine very early on. They encouraged me to pursue a career in industrial.”

Coulter also notes that the distinguished career of CBRE’s Darla Longo is hard not to use as a beacon for anyone thinking about entering the industry. “Around the time that I started, she really was virtually the only woman on the industrial brokerage side in the Inland Empire,” said Coulter. “I think many women, in all facets of our industry (construction, development, asset management, etc.), look to her as a proof point—that women can be successful in a male-dominated industry.”

The reason Coulter moved to Colliers in 2010 was “to do what I wanted to do, which was big-box institutional industrial, and I knew a team was key.” She notes it is a “trend in institutional-client preferences that I notice increasingly as time goes on.”

She has also been able to spread out into other facets of the industrial sector, by spending some of her time selling land/development deals. “I enjoy it and I think the team structure provides a lot of range as to what we can offer our clients,” said Coulter. “Being able to say that we all work on everything together, but have an established landlord, tenant and land business is unique. It’s more common to do only one thing, or to pool resources for specific assignments,” she added.

Cushman & Wakefield’s Julia Blakeley says she also fell into the commercial real estate industry. “I didn’t have any family in the business, nor really any personal connections in the industry. When I graduated from George Washington, I was unsure as to the type of career path that I wanted to take, and in the meantime I had the opportunity to work at my father’s bankruptcy law firm while I determined my next steps.”

That experience exposed Blakeley to entrepreneurial aspects of business that appealed to her. “I realized through watching my father’s business develop as well as be his own boss, that I ultimately wanted to be in an industry where I could really be in a position where I could procure my own client base and ultimately be the maker of my own destiny,” she said.

Blakeley leveraged contacts working as analysts at JLL’s Washington, D.C. office, who encouraged her to consider pursuing a career in brokerage. “I didn’t have any connections in the industry, so I cold-called all of the brokers listed in my university’s Alumni Directory at some of the larger firms,” recalls Blakeley. “The more conversations that I had with brokers, the more interested I became, and knew that brokerage was a career path that I ultimately wanted to pursue. A few months and a few interviews later, I landed my first gig as a junior broker in industrial brokerage at JLL’s OC office.”

JLL’s Dana Vargas had an ideal introduction to the CRE field through her father, Joe Vargas, who is one of the most highly-respected industry leaders, as well as a long-time AIR CRE Board Member. The younger Vargas, now a Vice President in JLL’s Los Angeles office, says, “Of course, my father played a role in piquing my interest to pursue this career. When I began looking to make an industry change from selling logistics, my dad and I were having dinner and he told me that I should think about getting my real estate license. He said that we need more women in the CRE industry, especially on the brokerage side of the business.” Vargas notes she was fortunate enough to have informational interviews with prominent people in the industry, such as John C. Cushman III, Andy Ratner, Jim Kruse, and Carl Muhlstein.

Ultimately, all three women say some similar things attracted them to the industry, and continue to play roles in making it a wise decision for them.

Blakeley says, “I think what makes brokerage so unique, is that it enables an individual to be the maker of their own destiny, and that one’s success is predicated on how hard they are willing to work.” The former Division I tennis player, fueled by a competitive sports background, coupled with a strong self-belief and insatiable desire to succeed, made commercial real estate a good fit for her. “I am constantly challenged on a daily basis, and my desire to learn and be the best at my craft is complemented well in brokerage,” said Blakeley. “Unlike most industries, there are few barriers when it comes to the type of success that one can achieve at a relatively young age. The only thing that bars you from achieving success in this industry is your mindset, accountability, work ethic and desire to succeed, and that’s what makes this industry so incredibly exciting, as a young person like myself, to be a part of.”

For JLL’s Vargas, some of the factors she says that drove her decision to get into real estate were the entrepreneurial nature of the business, the chance to learn and grow, and a desire to be part of a well-respected company that offers a large platform to win business and invests back into the company for continued success and growth. But she also notes, “I loved digging into the complexities of the CRE brokerage world – in which no transaction is exactly the same; every day is different with new experiences and the opportunity to get out and meet new people.”

Career Challenges: Achieving Success in CRE

The daily and career challenges for Vargas encompasses two things. The first is finding ways to bring value to her team at JLL and their clients. That often means driving value through utilizing new technology to streamline the leasing process and marketing efforts for clients, or establishing relationships across the brokerage community, digging out market intelligence, and being able to push a transaction through from the first tour to the signed lease.

The second challenge and milestone for Vargas has been building her own brand in the CRE industry with colleagues, brokers and clients. That means working hard and proactively to gain respect and trust, and following through to make her own name in the business. “I have been at JLL for four years now, and every year I feel like I have learned and grown as a broker, and most importantly, as an individual and person,” she said.

Coulter recommends that any person looking to get into the business leverage the wealth of knowledge from industry veterans that are willing to share freely what they’ve learned. “Most of them will tell you that there is no substitute for cold calls or meeting in person. You can’t do everything from behind a computer,” she said. “Implementing the fundamentals repeatedly is a great recipe for success. Additionally, the great brokers I’ve observed and learned from remember how small our business is, and know that it’s important to avoid making short-sided or dicey decisions for immediate financial gain. Good relationships and career longevity are paramount.”

Blakeley points out that career development for young brokers may involve the test of mental toughness, desire and self-reliance from a business development standpoint. “My whole career as a broker has been focused on office and industrial tenant representation, which constantly tests my endurance, accountability and determination,” she says. “I’m incredibly fortunate to be on a strong team in both my past and present roles, however, the tenant representation side is still highly individualized and competitive, which makes it challenging, but that much more rewarding when you achieve success.”

She has already learned the importance of becoming an expert at the craft, along with knowing the role you play on your respective team, while understanding how to utilize your expertise in order to add value to your client. For her, this expertise comes in layers. “First, it means understanding the market that you are working at the outset, which means having a working knowledge of the market characteristics, trends along with ownership and history of every building, anchor tenants, current lease rates for each project, and which projects compete against one another, among other things.” she said.

Second, Blakeley says it is key to understand industry trends from a macro and micro perspective, as well as acknowledging the trends that are impacting specific industry groups as a whole. “With this approach, I feel that I’m able distinguish myself and am seen by my client or prospect as a trusted advisor rather than just a broker,” she said. “In addition, being the junior partner on my respective team, it’s incredibly important to understand your respective role, and how you contribute to your team’s goals and objectives.”

In Blakeley’s case, it is a role primarily focused on business development for her team, in particular on the tenant advisory side of the business. Because she clearly understands her role, she can add value through new client relationships. She points out that knowing the role on the team is important “especially as a junior broker, because while you might not have the veteran experience of others in a meeting, but what you bring to the table to a prospective client is equally as valuable and you must be able to effectively convey this. For me personally, effectively communicating my role on my team is important because it ultimately impacts my brand and how I am perceived by my peers and prospective clients,” Blakeley concluded.

Coulter says she is often asked what it’s like to be a woman in the commercial real estate industry. “I think that’s purely because people are curious as to whether there is any discomfort in working with the opposite gender the vast majority of the time,” she said. “My answer—it’s surprisingly natural.” Coulter points out nearly all of her mentors have been men, and they have all rooted for her. “But there are a few things women should remember as they navigate this career path,” she said. “(1) Clearly define your role, as people may not understand it initially (2) advocate the value you bring to that role (3) Don’t be afraid to demonstrate your knowledge.”

Overall, many of the challenges faced in the CRE industry are essentially the same for women as they are for men, notes Coulter. “Any new broker wants to build a name, gain market share, establish credibility, etc. Those don’t differ based on gender, in my opinion,” she said.

Developing a Network

Going beyond the personal drive, hard work and connections these women have brought to their career development path, are a number of resources they’ve taken advantage of. To elevate their knowledge, skills and expertise in order to meet client demands, they say industry organizations like AIR CRE, CREW and others are vital to build a career, as are the networks within their own companies.

“AIR CRE is obviously a big one,” said Coulter. “It’s a great resource and a go-to for industrial brokers.” But, Colliers also has an extensive platform for growing knowledge as well; this includes specialty-focused practice groups and a strong brokerage presence across key markets. That connectivity is pivotal to keep in the know. By adopting best practices across the board, it allows us to consistently deliver an elevated level of service,” said Coulter. Lastly, she recommends getting involved with organizations, such as NAIOP, that allow you to network.

Blakeley recommends that anyone, regardless of their gender, have as many conversations as they can with people who have made a name for themselves in their respective sectors in commercial real estate. “I think that there are always valuable takeaways from these conversations, as it gives you exposure to a different aspect of the business and enables you to learn best practices from some of the best in the business,” she said. She also advocates finding at least one or two mentors in the business to rely on for advice. “Mentorship is incredibly important, and has had a huge impact on the growth and development in my career as a junior broker,” said Blakeley, who notes that’s how she picked up best practices, adopted “bits and pieces” from their “respective cold-calling styles and began integrating them into my own technique,” she said.

Another important part of this process for Blakeley involves the active participation in industry groups, both internally and externally. That helps her further refine her expertise, as well as continue to build her book of business.

Vargas says the resources she has tapped into have helped increase her knowledge, skills, and expertise. She is a member of CREW LA, which she says is a “great resource to meet other women in the business and build relationships, opportunities to attend workshops, and listen to industry influencers speak and learn how they paved their way.” She also advises other women seeking roles in commercial real estate to be open to different opportunities, and to be proactive. That may include finding a “mentor that you can trust and has your best interests at heart,” she says. “Put yourself out there and grow your network, be visible in the community and build your brand. Commercial real estate is not a completely intuitive business, so having a confidant that can help guide you will absolutely make a difference in your experiences and success,” Vargas added.


Contact: Summer Coulter Contact: Julia Blakeley Contact: Dana Vargas