Women need to feel more comfortable referring business to other women, and hiring and mentoring other women. Most men did not make it to their positions alone. They had friends and mentors helping them along the way. As women, we need to stop feeling as if we have to prove we are not favoring other women. In addition, men in our society need to make it a priority to break out of their habits where they only feel comfortable hiring and referring business to their male buddies.
Betsy Karmin is a Partner in Morris, Manning & Martin, LLP’s Real Estate Practice where she concentrates on a broad range of commercial real estate transactions, including financing, development, restructuring, acquisitions, sales and leasing. Betsy represents landlords and tenants in office and retail leasing, including ground leases and multi-floor office leases, as well as lenders and borrowers for complex construction and permanent financing. She also represents a national franchiser in structuring complex air rights and redevelopment projects and has extensive experience in equity investing for institutional investors in senior living, hospitality, office and retail assets.
Betsy previously served as President of the Washington, D.C. chapter of Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW). She currently serves on the Board of Directors of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and on the Board of Directors of Goodwill of Greater Washington. Betsy is also a member of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) and D.C. Building Industry Association (DCBIA).
Thank you so much for joining us Betsy! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Real Estate industry?
I have a strong entrepreneurial spirit and I was drawn by the inherently entrepreneurial nature of the real estate industry. Real estate developers make something out of nothing. They often make a “place” or a “destination” where there was none, and they make a market where there was none. They take risks and often risk their entire financial well-being to make a project work. I enjoy being part of that spirit and creativity.
Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
Two stories in my career taught me two important lessons: (1) Always take every opportunity that presents itself to you — no matter how small it may seem, and (2) Always exhibit the highest excellence in your work — again no matter how small the task.
When I was working at another firm, there was a large client that gave a lot of business to the firm. However, the partner who brought the client to the firm left to go to another firm and took this client’s business with him. One of my partners was finishing up a transaction for that client after the overall client relationship had left the firm. I suspect he did not see much of a future in it and did not think he would get any more business from this client, so he asked me if I would finish up the transaction. I happily agreed to finish up the deal. While I was working on the deal, the in-house team from the client also changed, and the new client team did not know anyone at our firm other than me. They liked my work so much that they kept sending me deals even though the overall client relationship had gone to another firm. When I left my old firm, this client came with me to the new firm. I have now been working with this client for over ten years, and I am currently working on multiple transactions for them and they are one of my biggest clients. I always tell young associates that when someone gives you a small opportunity, even if it seems like it might be a dead end, take the opportunity and make the most of it.
For another story, over ten years ago, I was working on a small matter that was fairly routine and not particularly challenging. I was assisting another partner with a transaction for one of his clients. Even with routine matters, I always exhibit the highest standards of excellence in my work, and I try to form good working relationships with every client. Over ten years later, that client contact ended up advising Virginia Tech and Virginia Tech Foundation in connection with their development of a new Innovation Campus in Alexandria, Virginia. Virginia Tech needed to hire legal counsel and they had very specific requirements about the firms they could work with. They were about to embark on one of the largest projects to be developed in the Washington, DC area along with other developers. Because of the work I had done on a fairly routine matter over ten years ago, my former client recommended me and I was engaged to do the legal work for that project, and I am working on that project today.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am working on Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus in Alexandria, Virginia, which will include academic buildings and an innovation incubator campus including over 1 million square feet of office and academic space and student housing. The project is being developed in conjunction with a larger project at Potomac Yards being developed by JBG Smith. This project will include educational facilities for hundreds of graduate students in a new Northern Virginia campus. The campus also will include 250,000 square feet of office and research “incubator” space dedicated to corporate partners and start-up businesses.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
My firm stands out because of its ingrained corporate culture of valuing honesty and integrity. These values are not just aspirations or sales pitches. My firm truly values people who exhibit the highest character in everything they do. In some other law firms, for example, if a partner makes a lot of money for the firm, that partner can often get away with bad behavior toward colleagues and staff because the firm does not want to lose the revenues from that partner. In my firm, people like that are pushed out of the firm, and, by the way, our firm is still extremely successful financially.
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?
Of course there are numerous societal influences that cause this imbalance and we certainly could not cover all of them, including basic sexism in our society. However, one of the many factors that inhibit women from advancing is that I believe men are more comfortable referring business to their friends. While men often combine their personal and professional lives easily, women are less likely to do this. Women often feel uncomfortable referring business to their friends, or hiring their friends, as if there is something wrong with this, as if this were a “conflict of interest” of sorts. For this reason, men have an advantage in developing their professional achievements because their friends, and other men, are comfortable referring business to them and hiring them.
What 3 things can be done by a) individuals b) companies and/or c) society to support greater gender balance going forward?
- As individuals, women need to feel more comfortable referring business to other women, and hiring and mentoring other women. Most men did not make it to their positions alone. They had friends and mentors helping them along the way. As women, we need to stop feeling as if we have to prove we are not favoring other women. In addition, men in our society need to make it a priority to break out of their habits where they only feel comfortable hiring and referring business to their male buddies.
- Many companies have imposed requirements for diversity in hiring as an internal policy, but companies should also focus on hiring outside vendors and advisors, such as lawyers, architects, surveyors, title companies and others with an emphasis on promoting diversity.
- As for society, that takes time and generations to really change old patterns. It takes a lot of individuals making a lot of individual decisions to make an effort to break out of their standard pattern and hire, promote or engage someone with a conscious intent to promote diversity. If each individual who has a hiring or promoting decision would break out of their comfort zone just once this year to hire or engage someone who might not look exactly like them, then eventually society as a whole will change over a period of time.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
The biggest challenge is to strike a razor thin balance of being seen as “tough enough” and a “strong leader” but not to be accused of being the “B” word. It is a very difficult balance because often, if a female executive says the same words or exhibits the same behavior as a male executive, the man would be described as “tough” or “strong”, while a woman is denigrated as the B word and people don’t respect her.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Real Estate industry?
As I mentioned above, I enjoy the real estate industry because of the inherent entrepreneurial nature of the business. Each new project is building something out of nothing. Also, while the real estate industry has its ups and downs, it is never going to go away. There will never be a point where the commodity that we “sell” will be obsolete. Of course, it changes over time, but there will always be a real estate market. Finally, I do enjoy the fact that people with talent can rise quickly in real estate, and there are fewer barriers to women and people of color than in many other industries.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
I would advise other leaders to value honesty, professionalism and integrity in their team and quickly remove the “bad apples” who are back stabbers and manipulators regardless of the appearance of a short term cost. In the long term, your team with thrive and succeed far more than if you foster unprofessional behavior. Your team will work much harder for you if you do that. And that has to start from the top — it may sound trite, but you have to lead by example. My other advice would be to listen to, and carefully consider, ideas from others. To be a “leader” does not mean you should only listen to yourself. It is not a lack of “leadership” to listen to, and implement, ideas from others. Obviously, in the end, the leaders need to make decisions, but if you surround yourself with talented people and listen to them, not only will your whole company succeed more, but you will keep your talented colleagues.
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. Help other people in the industry, even your competitors. I have often helped out people who are my competitors find a job or a particular piece of business when I could not do the work myself. I have helped people by giving them free legal advice on a matter they are working on. Eventually, you will get a reputation in the industry for helping people and you will be rewarded with other work or business down the road.
2. Take the high road. Always. Exhibit professional behavior even when others are not being professional. When people are in the heat of negotiations, there are times when someone loses their cool and exhibits unprofessional behavior. If you keep your cool, rather than appearing “weak” to other participants, you will appear strong. Also, even if someone treats you badly or says things about you behind your back, do not lower yourself to their level. If you take the high road, you will be viewed as the better person and will be respected for that.
3. Never send an angry email. Even when you think you are fully in the right on something, you can type out the email and leave it in your “drafts” box for a while. But don’t send it. When anyone sends an angry email, I have found that, almost without exception, they always regret it.
4. Never burn any bridges. If you are leaving a job or a company, or parting ways with a consulting relationship, regardless of whether you believe you were badly treated, always take care of the details of what you were working on. Transition your work carefully so nothing gets dropped. This is true even if you think you will never work for that company or those individuals again. The real estate industry is actually a very small place and your professionalism will be remembered. I have left several law firms, and each time I transitioned my work extremely carefully and respectfully. When I left one law firm many years ago, I was leaving to serve as in-house counsel for a client. For a while I thought I would never return to law firm practice. However, when I did return to law firm practice, I ended up working with a group of lawyers from my former firm who had moved to a different firm. I worked with them for over nine years after returning to law firm practice. That would not have happened if I had left things in shambles when I changed jobs the first time.
5. In the real estate industry, when your competitors succeed, it often helps you and everyone else in the industry succeed. If someone builds a project that brings people to a new marketplace, it usually spawns a larger market around the project. It may attract more people to the general area, which creates more demand for real estate. Also, when your competitors succeed, the lenders and investors in the industry have more confidence in the industry and the marketplace as a whole. This will help you get the financing for your next project. Therefore, even when there is healthy competition between competitors, you should congratulate and celebrate the successes of your competitors.
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?
I would return a sense of civility, professionalism and integrity into our public, political and business discourse. Being abusive and unprofessional to others is not being “strong,” it is actually weakness. This includes civility to others even when they are your competitors or your subordinates. This does not mean we have to return to “old fashioned” values in many other respects. However, if our entire society would return to some of these basic values, it will help everyone in our entire society succeed more.
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