The biggest challenge faced by women executives is that, more often than not, it’s assumed we play a supporting role. It’s rarely assumed we’re the owner or CEO. At times, I’ve had fun gathering information without anyone assuming I was competition, or I’ve surprised and caught someone off guard. I don’t get to start from a place where my identity is that of a leader and successful businessperson. When I travel to different parts of the country, I can often get excluded or feel uncomfortable networking with other executives after a program. As a result, I tend to like organized events for learning and networking. Asking a few guys to the bar to talk about business or playing a round of golf depending on their ages and region can be seen as inappropriate. This makes it more difficult to get into the rooms where it happens. Luckily I’ve also made some great deals through my beauty parlor connections and being a woman.
Asa part of my series about strong women leaders of the Real Estate industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jenelle Isaacson. Jenelle is the founder and CEO of Living Room Realty and co-founder of Department of Community, believes in the power of purpose-driven companies. She is committed to empowering leaders to pursue their passions wholeheartedly and to speak with their own unique, unapologetic voice. She believes that everything healthy grows — especially in business.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Real Estate industry?
Prior to starting a real estate career, I was a professional artist and musician. I had great concern about my long-term financial security and ability to retire. I had come from a single parent household where housing and financial instability was a constant challenge. I knew I wanted to own a home and create more security for myself than I’d grown up with. Buying a home seemed like it would be a difficult challenge until I saw a musician girlfriend of mine do it. She bought a home and rented out the rooms so she could tour, make music and live for free. Up until then, I hadn’t questioned my own narrative, which I’d absorbed through dominant culture about homeownership — that it came after marriage and a baby. Seeing someone like myself achieving homeownership turned on a light bulb. A year later, I bought my own home with a state bond program loan and my small savings. I got my real estate license and started helping every musician and artist I knew, do the same. My band would play a show and I’d hop off stage, head straight to the bar and set appointments to go look at homes.
Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occured to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
When I started Living Room Realty we didn’t have the advertising budget or marketing dollars of our competitors so I borrowed an idea from my punk rock days — guerrilla style marketing. We added a blog to the company website and asked our agents to, in their own words, tell their clients’ stories by focusing on the people not the property. Whichever agent had the most recent story appeared most prominently on the website. Social media was just becoming popular, and I could see the power of sharing stories with your community. I thought maybe if we shared our clients’ stories along with photos and details about their individual home buying or selling process, they might then share that story with their own community and, in the process, help grow ours. As a musician and artist, I have a firm belief that you don’t censor art so I gave my agents full license to share whatever they wanted about themselves and the people they were working with. In short, I turned the brand over to my agents and our community. That’s a scary thing to do because you have to trust the authenticity will outweigh the chances of alienating someone. I’d wake up and check the website and there would be stories with titles like “Brokeback Broker,” a story of two gay men and their queer Realtor who helped them move to the country; “Your First Time Doesn’t Have to be with Your Partner,” about two friends who bought a house to help each other build equity; or “Best Little Whorehouse in Portland” about clients who bought a home that was a former brothel. These were stories that raised eyebrows and caused the competition to warn agents about coming to Living Room and alienating the high-end market. Agents would tell me they had been warned to think twice before risking their business and moving to our firm because of our website. However these were also the stories that got shared hundreds of times on social media and within a few years helped our company build more likes and followers than any other Portland real estate company. In the end, we found that the stories we were telling did the opposite of alienating the high-end market. Our web leads had a higher average sales price than the market as a whole. in 2019, we sold more luxury homes than Sotheby’s. It turns out that when people visit our site and connect with a personal story — like that of the single mom who put herself through nursing school and was able to realize the dream of homeownership — they’re not thinking about the price point. There’s humanity and humor in these stories and they build a level of connection and trust you just don’t get while skimming listings on Zillow.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Two partners and I recently bought a building that housed a former Department of Community Corrections parole office in the heart of our Central Eastside business district. We’ll be relocating our central office there, enabling us to grow our maintenance company, which is currently comprised of all women, and offer more maintenance and property management services to our clients. Empowering more women in the trades has been the most exciting part of my work recently. I am incredibly proud of the diversity and talent of our teams. The head managers of each of our three divisions, Realty, Maintenance and Property Management are women of color. I also started offering business-consulting services under the name “Department of Community”, which alludes to the community corrections office that was once in our building. The idea is to help build our community, offer financial workshops, teach entrepreneurial skills and connect people to resources — especially women and people of color — to focus on solutions that hopefully minimize our community’s need for parole offices.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We’ve been a mirror of our community for 11 years. The Living Room brand was built on sharing the real stories of the people who live in our city. Our fearlessness in telling the real stories of our clients has helped build trust with our community. We aren’t trying to be anyone we aren’t. We were the first residential real estate company in the United States to become a certified B Corp. That distinction has been a foundation of trust and, additionally, shows we are taking the long-range view of the health of our community and people. We won Oregon’s Ethics in Business Award, and I felt like this was not only big for us as a company but for the industry. I don’t think real estate companies are often associated with the highest ethics in the public’s mind. It’s common for our agents and staff to be out in the world and hear “Living Room Realty, I love that company!” It makes me laugh with joy, because who says that about a real estate company?
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have a really long list of people who have rooted for me, mentored me and loved me along the way. Mike Hasson, the owner of Hasson Company, the real estate company I left to start Living Room was a great mentor to me. I didn’t have the maturity or experience when I left to see just how much I learned from him until I was three or four years into running my own brokerage. Once I saw the other side and realized the challenges and determination needed in this the business, it brought a whole new level of respect to our relationship. I hadn’t seen the level of skill, intelligence and mastery he possessed until I had to do some of these things on my own. And that goes both ways — I doubt he saw what I was capable of until I left as well. The other big one I’ll mention is the Entrepreneurs’ Organization EO. There is no way I’d be where I am without the resources and peer-to-peer network they offer. It’s been hands down the best investment in my business. I’m currently serving as the Portland chapter’s president to try to give back just a fraction of what the organization has given to me.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. The Real Estate industry, like the Veterinarian, Nursing and Public Relations fields, is a women dominated industry. Yet despite this, less than 20 percent of senior positions in Real Estate companies are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what do you think is the cause of this imbalance?
Ha! I actually got asked for the first three years in business if my brokerage was for women only. I would scratch my head and wonder why people thought that. We had lots of men on our roster, actually a higher percentage of men than most of our competitors, but I got this question a lot. It finally dawned on me. People are use to seeing women in real estate but not women owning the real estate company. I was the only female owned and managed company in our market and as a woman I hadn’t even realized this. I hadn’t experienced much sexism until starting my company, and the more success I experience, the more I’ve had to deal with it. I’m often the lone woman at the table. I think it really comes down to deep wiring and stories we hold that we are unaware of. When I started my company I had a toddler and was nursing a two-month-old baby. This isn’t the archetype of an entrepreneur. It’s the archetype of the mother or the feminine. Yet the fastest growing segment of our workplace is women with children under two years old. How do we change the way we think of work, raising families, motherhood, and leadership where we can all be more whole? How can we blend the masculine and feminine and honor and respect both? I think as a culture we would all benefit from embracing the feminine, not as a gender, but the idea of femininity being the focus on experience versus masculinity focusing on the results. More and more I see this paradigm emerging as people realize if you focus on the experience of work, of the service or product you offer, and even your relationships, you will actually drive better results. To me this is the “balance” we should be talking about when we talk about a balanced work place.
What 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support greater gender balance going forward?
More transparency and education on the studies that show that companies with more diversity perform better financially. Change is scary, and I’ve often noticed that when I start a conversation regarding diversity in white, male dominated settings, there’s fear that quality or performance will have to be sacrificed to bring women and people of color up the ranks. This is one of the more painful attitudes I’ve had to endure; that somehow we will be inferior to the white men at the table. Not to mention the extra strain put on women and people of color in leadership positions to serve on boards, to public speak, to help their communities. As a minority businessperson everyone wants to have you at their table as diversity becomes more of a focus for organizations.
Specifically supporting women breastfeeding at work and generally creating a culture at work that truly supports parents and families.
A small thing with a big impact that I’d love everyone to start doing right now is when they meet a young girl to comment on her brain, her cleverness, her choices — not how she looks. And, if you really want to remark on appearance, such as her hair cut, try telling her you think her decision making process to choose that cut was brilliant. It’s a small start, but even the awareness that we tend to remark on how girls and women look versus other traits they possess is a game changer in itself.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
The biggest challenge faced by women executives is that, more often than not, it’s assumed we play a supporting role. It’s rarely assumed we’re the owner or CEO. At times, I’ve had fun gathering information without anyone assuming I was competition, or I’ve surprised and caught someone off guard. I don’t get to start from a place where my identity is that of a leader and successful businessperson.
When I travel to different parts of the country, I can often get excluded or feel uncomfortable networking with other executives after a program. As a result, I tend to like organized events for learning and networking. Asking a few guys to the bar to talk about business or playing a round of golf depending on their ages and region can be seen as inappropriate. This makes it more difficult to get into the rooms where it happens. Luckily I’ve also made some great deals through my beauty parlor connections and being a woman.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Real Estate industry?
1. Building wealth for average Americans.
2. I’m proud of the oath I took when I became a Realtor and believe homeownership is one of the most important things we can do to preserve democracy. Getting more people in homes helps our country be stable and prosperous. The first paragraph of the Realtors preamble is;
“Under all is the land. Upon its wise utilization and widely allocated ownership depend the survival and growth of free institutions and of our civilization. REALTORS® should recognize that the interests of the nation and its citizens require the highest and best use of the land and the widest distribution of land ownership. They require the creation of adequate housing, the building of functioning cities, the development of productive industries and farms, and the preservation of a healthful environment.”
Every September, Living Room Realty celebrates the Realtor Code of Ethics by designing a new art poster with the full preamble on the back. We then go around the room at one of our weekly meetings that month and take turns reading sections. It’s the most beautiful preamble any industry could have. It’s a great reminder of what we stand for inside and outside the transaction. Connecting with the “why” of what we do prevents burnout and keeps our passions stoked to carry forward.
3. Watching communities and building practices move towards more environmentally sound practices, design and technology. We represent two different ADU builders who are trying to place more affordable homes on existing home lots and maximize resources and existing infrastructure to house growing urban populations. Ideas like this are exciting to see come to life.
Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?
I’m greatly worried about the decline of home ownership in African American communities. I’d implement down payment assistance for these families at a minimum, but ultimately I’d like to see our nation pay reparations. My experience as a Realtor in our market is that even if white and black professionals may make the same salaries and qualify for the same loan amounts, white families have more generational wealth to pull from. This puts black buyers at a disadvantage, especially in a market like ours where primarily white families are giving their children cash to buy homes in order to win bidding wars. Our country has to talk about reparations because this is the consequence of years of redlining and discrimination in our housing market that has kept black families from building wealth through home ownership. It’s painful to know much of this started after men returned from the war. The promise of the GI bill wasn’t the same for all soldiers. We owe a debt to many families that sacrificed and weren’t rewarded or acknowledged in the same way my own grandfather was. The official discriminatory policies may be gone in law, but the effects are still in place.
I am concerned about the rise of the iBuyer. I think handing over the local equity in our neighborhoods to large multinational corporations puts us at risk for many things. One, as I mentioned before, I believe homeownership is fundamental to our democratic system. What keeps iBuyers from buying up property and holding them as rentals? If rents return greater returns, then that will be the only consideration. If enough of a market is controlled by an iBuyer, what prevents them from setting prices and therefore depressing markets and inflating others with little regard to the living, breathing community within that market? They have also brought a lot of opportunity to light as well. For one, we see that clients are willing to pay much higher commissions than we ever guessed for ease and convenience and, most of all, for certainty. This helps us as service people to rethink our value proposition and improve upon it. It will also open up a lot of opportunity for brokerages to have portfolio divisions to purchase real estate directly from sellers and resale to our buyers.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Business is like a board game. Teach everyone the rules. Tell them how to win. Give everyone a scorecard and then play together. A good team will manage themselves if these things are in place. A team member who doesn’t want to fill their scorecard or who works on things off the scorecard isn’t the right fit. Empower and trust your people to solve your biggest challenges. If you’re transparent and they see how things come together and work, you’ll be amazed at the ingenuity and wisdom your team has.
Ok, here is the main question of our interview. You are a “Real Estate Insider”. If you had to advise someone about 5 non intuitive things one should know to succeed in the Real Estate industry, what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each?
1.) When everyone is scared, anxious and distracted, double down. During the housing crash I had my best sales year ever. I had a newborn baby and was too busy to engage in the gloom and excuses of why I wasn’t selling real estate. I had a new baby to support and needed to get to work. There was a ton of opportunity in the market. Prices came down for investors to start buying and not everyone had a stock portfolio they were crying over. Many of my clients had small savings and needed a place to live whether the Dow Jones was up or down. The lower prices helped them save on housing and get out of rentals.
2.) It’s better to specialize in one tiny market than be a generalist. Don’t be afraid to ‘wave your freak flag’ so to speak. Don’t say you do it all. No one is going to find you on an Internet search under “real estate broker,” but they might under a specific search for a neighborhood or a passion you have. My agents have had clients find them from bios that describe them as are long distance runners in Portland or that they bartend for lesbian arm wrestling night or from a blog series about pink bathrooms. The more specific you are, the more likely people will connect and think “this person gets me and what I’m looking for!”
3.) Lead with what makes you feel most vulnerable. When I first started the company we did a values exercise to determine our company’s brand and values. I kept coming to words like “integrity” because I felt that’s what a real estate company should represent. I would avoid words like “joy” and “balance” because they felt too soft. Finally one of my agents who was advocating for “joy” called me out, she said; “Damn it Jenelle. You are joy and that’s why we are here.” I realized I was avoiding the word joy because it felt too intimate, too vulnerable — but she is right, that is me, at my best and strongest. It takes courage to lead from your authentic heart. Anytime I’ve strayed from joy and done something because I thought I “should’ or times I let people who caused me grief remain, the business has suffered and so have I. Joy, I’ve come to learn, takes a type of courage and strength few of us allow ourselves, and when we see it in others we know we are in the presence of wholeness. I have to work at this every day.
4.) When you’re feeling disengaged and not into real estate, your firm or your relationships, you don’t need a break, you need to lean in. Give back, volunteer, find a way to engage. I see most people burn out then they lean out, not in. Our spirits need contribution. Find your way to contribute to feed yourself and your spirit.
5.) Surrender. Rather than fighting “what is,” try surrendering to it. Having faith and trusting things were supposed to happen this way is an exercise in faith and sanity. I went to tour my dream property after years of looking. It was the perfect building for the business and the growth we had planned. It has every last item on the dream list the team had made. I showed up and I was told there were already eight cash offers, all for over two million. I walked away somewhat defeated but kept faith to keep looking. Six months later I got a call from the buyer of the property telling me they bought it for $1.8 million cash and asked if I’d like to buy in as a partner. They said they got to thinking about the ideal use of the building and my business kept coming up as the perfect tenant. They wanted a partner that would be invested in the building, and I got a partner who had the cash and connections to handle a major renovation. Good partnerships come in a lot of different ways. Be open to what others may bring to the table.
Because of your position, you are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’ve actually been thinking about a New Year’s Resolution for myself a lot these past few weeks. I’m leaning toward a 2020 challenge to choose inconvenience, to slow down. I started e-biking to work two years ago and it’s really changed my life. If I were Oprah, everyone would have an e-bike under their chair. An e-bike, for those unfamiliar with them, is an electric assisted peddle bike that makes the 40-minute commute to work easy. I can wear heels and my skirt and not break a sweat and get wherever I’m going with a huge smile on my face. I’ve noticed I’m much more apt to hop off the bike and visit a friend or connect with strangers than when I’m in the car. The interactions on my commute are pleasant and the stress of driving is gone. When I see people’s face behind the wheel, it almost looks like a spell or mask of misery most of us wear that I know isn’t true to who we are outside the car. This experience got me thinking about other conveniences and whether they’re keeping me from joy in my life. Buying seasonal produce from the local farmers market and exploring new vegetables with each season is an incredible joy. Buying books from the local book shop rather than Amazon gives me a chance to see clerks’ recommendations and discover stories I’d never have found on my own. I recently ran out of spackle for a small project, and I knew I could just run to the store and buy a can for a few bucks, but it was only a small hole and I’d likely not need it again for a few years. I forced myself to knock on my neighbors’ doors until I found someone who was home and I asked to borrow spackle. It almost felt like a radical act of choosing to be a neighbor. What other ways can we all choose connection over convenience? Convenience seems to be the death of community on so many levels. Let’s be radical neighbors and community builders!
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Thank you for your time, and your excellent insights!