Think of everything as an opportunity and continue to grow from experiences you have. Sometimes you don’t think of everything as a success, but usually you can find one thing from it that was useful. For instance, I worked on a project for a client where the strategy of using blockchain in real estate was discussed, but in the end it was not actually implemented
Asa part of my series about strong women leaders of the Real Estate industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Debbie Hoffman.
Debbie is known as a leading expert in the real estate finance industry through her working of bringing new technology advancements, specifically blockchain, to the forefront. By founding Symmetry Blockchain Advisors after a significant career in the mortgage industry as both an executive and attorney, Debbie has been able to provide a unique perspective to the topic of solutioning in the mortgage industry supply chain — both in the residential and commercial sectors. Debbie is also an educator and serves also as a Visiting Professor at Barry University School of Law. She is Education Chair on the Mortgage Bankers Assoc. MISMO Blockchain Community of Practice, is an advisor to a variety of tech startups, founded the Orlando-based Blockchain Technology Meetup and has been on the Cabinet of The Masters Conference, a legal tech platform. Debbie continues to receive many awards and accolades for her work in bringing forth blockchain technology into the mortgage industry. Debbie was previously the Chief Legal Officer at a financial services company and she spent a decade of her career as an attorney at Thacher Proffitt & Wood in New York. Debbie has also been a professor at the Florida A&M University College of Law and the University of Central Florida.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Real Estate industry?
Growing up, I was very close with my grandparents. Thus, as a result of this relationship, some of my academic studies were in subjects that related to the influence of my grandparents. For instance, in college I majored in psychology and became very interested in the psychology of older adults. When I went to law school, I became involved in my law school’s senior citizen law center. This led me to research and work on a subject matter of reverse mortgages, a type of mortgage which allows a senior citizen to live in his or her home for a lifetime, and sometimes obtaining annuity payments while doing so. I wrote an article for my law review, that was later published by Albany Law School’s Government Law Center, called Reverse Mortgages: Growing Older and Richer by Cashing in the House. This ultimately led me down the path to a legal career in real estate finance. First I represented real estate developers, then I served as outside counsel to large commercial lenders, and ultimately I became the General Counsel of a mortgage company that provided fulfillment, appraisal, and compliance related services in the residential industry. Thus, when I transitioned my work as an entrepreneur in the area of technology and blockchain, it was only natural for me to address the technology needs of the residentail finance industry.
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?
There are so many exciting, fun and challenging stories in my career! However, the most meaningful story in my career is about the networks of colleagues and people I have met along the way. I worked for a decade at the law firm of Thacher Proffitt & Wood that had its headquarters located in the South Tower of the World Trade Center in New York at the time of 9/11. The firm came together in a time of crisis in a manner that was incredible, humane and perseverant. After 9/11, the firm did not just close shop after the home was lost. It rebuilt. It was able to get files from opponents, recreate and reconstruct a home in downtown New York at 2 World Financial Center. We all came back together as a team, stronger than ever. During my time at this firm, I worked with a variety of people — from summer interns to partners — and cultivated relationships along the way. I cannot say I thought much about all of the wonderful people I worked with at the time. But after working there for a decade and now having more than a decade of a career since working at the firm, I have come to appreciate so many of the individuals at that firm. To this day we keep in touch, have reunions and reminisce about some of the more difficult deals. When I talk to people about career growth, I now make sure to tell people that it isn’t always about what particular project you are working on, but rather who you are working with, who is mentoring you and who are the colleagues around you that are helping you grow day to day.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am very lucky in that I work on many innovative projects that will help people! I serve on the advisory board of an extremely innovative company called Elphi. The company’s mission is to streamline the mortgage lifecycle and it does so by building a new loan origination system, leveraging state-of-the-art technology, and a fresh approach to solve old problems. Elphi’s solution helps lenders originate loans faster and more efficiently, thus improving both lenders and homebuyers’ experience.
I also work with another exciting company called DomiDocs, which has digital solutions to manage the documentation pertaining to our houses. Many people do not have a systematic way of saving documents pertaining to their homes, and DomiDocs fixes this. It has a user friendly platform that collects a homebuyer’s data and documents in one secure place. It then layers machine learning and AI to help the homeowner make informed and actionable decisions to protect the home value, manage it efficiently and reduce expenses. This solution fills a huge technology gap for homeowners, especially during the new quarantine era, where the home can toggle as both an office and classroom!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
My company is uniquely positioned to address the opportunity for technological growth in the mortgage industry. When the company was founded, we understood the significance of being able to have a complete digital mortgage process; blockchain was simply an enhanced part of this process. This year, the advancement of digital mortgage endeavors has skyrocketed. For instance, over the past few months, the flexibility in states permitting either e-notarizations or remote online notarizations has drastically increased due to need. This is just one example of how the mortgage industry is ripe for technological advancement. Symmetry is one of the very few industry experts that has the expertise in both mortgage and blockchain to be able to work with clients to advance these endeavors to the next level by including the blockchain component.
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?
So much about being successful is about being put in the right position to win. We see this in sports all the time, and the same works in business. When I was a mid-level attorney at the law firm, there was a partner who could see my role in developing young talent and organizing the due diligence teams. He put me in a winning role, working with our junior level attorneys to review hundreds of due diligence documents associated with large real estate portfolios. Thus, not only did I learn about the intricacies of what we were reviewing, I learned how to mentor and teach. I also realized how much I enjoyed teaching and the satisfaction it provides when you are able to see others grow in their careers. Ultimately this led me to become a professor, and still am today in addition to founding and operating Symmetry.
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?
The mortgage industry has historically been male dominated and there is no doubt that it is more difficult for women to become executive leaders. The imbalance is systemic; to have leaders, you need to grow leaders. This has not historically been done focusing on the development of women talent. Many companies state that they have a very large or majority women workforce, but if you look at the C-suite, you are lucky if you find one women executive — and usually she is in HR, marketing or legal and not on the business side. For women to enter the executive positions in this industry, they need to be smart and talented, of course, but they also need to have mentorship and supporters who recognize them and promote them when in competition with their male counterparts. The more women that raise to the C-suite, and the more men that take note of this needed change, the easier this will become.
What 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support greater gender balance going forward?
Over the course of the past few years, there has been a noticeable improvement in the way in which women have networked in their careers. The pendulum has swung from women being the “odd man out” in groups of men, to an overabundance of women’s networking events. These networking events, however, allow women to get to know one another and to have contacts with whom they can share best practices, communicate and to whom they can give business. They also provide for mentorship among each other and to professionals rising in their careers. Some of these networks are stronger than others, of course. There are a few notable ones that I think have hand a significant impact on the mortgage industry in recent years; among others, these groups include MBA’s MPower, Women of ALICE and NAWRB. Networking groups provide contacts, professional support, mentorship and colleagues who can help women, in all stages of their careers, in their professional growth.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
There is actually nothing “new” or specific to the real estate industry with regard to this question — it simply is that men more comfortable networking with men. Thus for a woman to break into leadership, she has to be conversant and natural with the boys’ conversation. Of course, I am not saying that women cannot have their own conversation, but we need to be versatile. I am not a sports fan per se, but if I walk in a meeting where the guys are talking about last night’s big game, I need to know what it is all about — or enough to be part of the conversation. I don’t often walk into a room where people are talking about the latest fashion trends, which might be the topic of conversation in a room dominated by women leaders. In any case, women need to be excellent at their jobs, not afraid to speak-up, and to be comfortable in male dominated environments.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Real Estate industry?
- The potential for incredible technological innovation and advancement.
- The fact that such advancement can significantly help the homeowner and consumer.
- The opportunity to develop talent in such an interesting “bricks & mortar” field.
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?
- The degree of difficulty it has been historically to make changes to current processes.
- The ability for the industry to work together to implement new standards.
- The non-predictable factors — like the economy that affects the housing market.
The way to reform or improve these concerns is being open to innovation through partnerships. There are organizations in our industry that help to collaborate among groups — whether the Mortgage Banker Association’s (MBA) MISMO, or co-op think tanks like The Mortgage Collaborative (TMC) — and these organizations allow for experimentation in processes. Mortgage industry players can “dip their toes” into new ways to do things, collaborate with partners and discuss changes on how to make the process better. Even with the “unpredictable” concerns — like COVID — these organizations have had tremendous success to hear the industry concerns and address them. For instance, MBA MISMO rolled out a certification program for RON (Remote Online Notarizations); this should certification be sought after by almost every business in the industry!
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Be nimble and open to change. Do not get stuck in old processes simply because they work now. Always think about the future, and ask yourself what could be better and how could the process be improved.
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?
- Look for alternative and innovative ways of doing things. For example, during these past few months, mortgage lenders who have embraced RON (remote on-line notaries) have been able to close loans more seamlessly that those who required in-person notarization.
- Educate yourself on different options and methods of doing things, even if you don’t know if it will be appropriate for your business. Blockchain was not on the top of my mind years ago when I worked in the mortgage industry, but when I began to understand it, I learned how much efficiency it allows for in the supply chain of almost any industry.
- Get involved in networks that allows for support in your professional development. As I noted earlier, these types of networks are particularly critical for women’s career growth and allow for both mentorship and the support of your colleagues.
- Make sure you are spending time to allow for your business to become more profitable and not just spinning your wheels; evaluate the ROI on what you do. As much as I encourage networking, there also is such a thing as too much networking. If I spent every day connecting with every referral or LinkedIn contact that asks to have a telephone conversation, I would never have enough time to complete work that needs to get done.
- Think of everything as an opportunity and continue to grow from experiences you have. Sometimes you don’t think of everything as a success, but usually you can find one thing from it that was useful. For instance, I worked on a project for a client where the strategy of using blockchain in real estate was discussed, but in the end it was not actually implemented. Nonetheless, it was a great project because it allowed us to understand that blockchain is not necessarily the best option for every business; sometimes you need to flush out options before you spend the money on implementation.
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. 🙂
Two things that motivate and inspire me: innovation with a positive attitude. I find that people who are innovative often are positive because they can understand how change can create something better and improved, instead of focusing on the negatives of why things aren’t work and going into a downward spiral. Thus, for example, in our current environment, what can we focus on to bring an innovative change that will result in a more positive atmosphere? Of course, we could look at this question globally, and there are an immense amount of options. However, when I boil it down to what I do every day, this is the time to look at our businesses (specifically mortgage related businesses) during a unique time and think about how new innovations can help them grow. If we can start to implement changes now, in a year or two we see an uptick in the way we make a profit, instead of focusing on how much things have changed to negatively affect our current business models.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you for your time, and your excellent insights!