While women make up nearly 65% of residential realtors, women at the front end and investment side of the industry are much less visible. According to the Urban Land Institute, the oldest and largest network of real estate and land use experts in the world, women make up just 25% of its membership and only 14% of its CEOs. Further, 93% of female CEOS lead small firms with fewer than 100 employees.
Reaching gender parity in real estate investing, development, and private equity is not just about the numbers, say Nicolle Lee and Kayla Weismuller, two Wharton School MBAs who will work in real estate investing and private equity after graduating this month. It’s about impacting decisions at the very beginning of the real estate process.
“Getting more women into real estate is a social impact issue. I have a mission of making more women aware that there is a talent gap in real estate, and letting them know that there are these wonderful MBA programs that are pipelines into the industry,” Nicolle tells Poets&Quants.
Kayla agrees. “I think just seeing women do it in the industry empowers other women to follow. Highlighting the fact that there are women in construction engineering, real estate finance, and other areas shows other women that it is an industry they can break into,” says Kayla, president of Penn Student Women in Real Estate (PSWiRE).
The two young real estate professionals met through the various industry clubs, centers, and resources available at Wharton School, the top-ranked real estate MBA program in the country according to U.S. News & World Report. Those resources include PSWiRE, Wharton Real Estate Club, and the Zell Lurie Real Estate Center. The two also competed together in urban design and other real estate case competitions which introduced them to industry leaders along with fellow MBA real estate professionals.
Poets&Quants spoke with the two MBAs about why female representation matters in the male dominated industry. The pair also offered advice for women looking to pivot. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q&A WITH NICOLLE LEE AND KAYLA WEISMULLER
First, tell us a little about yourself and why you wanted to get an MBA?
Kayla: I worked for seven years as a project manager in the construction industry in Washington, D.C., before coming to Wharton. I’m originally from Colorado and I’m actually moving back to Colorado after I graduate.
I wanted to get my MBA because after working in construction and kind of being on the tail end of the real estate life cycle, I wanted to get my finance degree and my business acumen dialed in and pivot to the front end of the cycle, more on the investing and private equity side of it.
Literally, what I wrote in my application is what I’ll be doing after grad school: Working for a real estate private equity company that’s based in Broomfield, Colorado. So the same industry but very different. function. I was a civil engineer, so the built environment has always been a passion of mine.
Nicolle: I’m kind of the opposite of Kayla in that I’m switching industries, but I started off in the same function. Prior to Wharton, I started my career in financial services and then I moved into a more management strategy type of role.
So, coming from a functional background of management strategy, and a little bit of banking, I really wanted to move into real estate because I was involved with nonprofits in the real estate space in New York City. I just found that a lot of my spare time was spent in that, and so I applied to Wharton knowing I wanted to do real estate investment banking. So after school I’m going to Morgan Stanley in the real estate investment banking group.
Why real estate investing and private equity?
Kayla: I was a civil engineer in undergrad, and from an early age was pretty fascinated with cities and the built environment. I guess I was drawn to the construction industry because it’s pretty tangible and very hands on. Being on a project site was super exciting to me. As for my progression, I feel like you have more control over what’s being built and where it’s being built on the front end investing side, versus where I was in construction where you’re given a set of drawings and you just have to build it.
Nicolle: My interest came through my involvement with Habitat for Humanity, which is a nonprofit, from the advocacy and fundraising perspective. I saw the other side and what it took to actually get the approvals in order to make it happen. I just really loved the industry and thought, “Where can I best use my skills to get involved?”
GENDER DISPARITY IN REAL ESTATE INDUSTRY
Were either of you really aware of the disparity of women in the industry, particularly in the leadership roles, before starting your MBAs?
Nicolle: I personally was not aware prior to Wharton. Kayla might have had more insight because she was already in the industry. But it became a little apparent when I saw that there were very few women speakers that we could even ask for our events. I think that people are more than willing to give their time, it’s just there are very few women executives in real estate. So that was, I think, a little shocking, but it was also very motivating.
Kayla: I’d echo that. The women that we did get to speak, they’re so tapped out because they get asked by everybody.
(The disparity) was very apparent in the construction industry, but that definitely translates more to the investment, private equity side too. I guess I knew it, but I was still surprised. I remember that when I was at my internship, I realized that there were not any women in leadership roles.
Nicolle: I was in a similar situation where I think there was one woman VP, but all of the women were really in the junior levels. I wondered if we were not making young women aware of the opportunities in real estate, because even at the junior levels, I found it was hard to reach parity.
NEXT PAGE: Real estate resources at Wharton School + Advice for women who want to break into the industry