Voice your opinion. It took me several years to find the confidence to speak up, but once I found my voice, I realized a shift in our organization. When I presented my ideas like a leader, people started looking to me to make decisions.
As a part of my series about strong women leaders of the Real Estate industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Miller.
Sarah is the director of development at Orchestra Partners, a community development and real estate management firm based in Birmingham, Alabama whose mission is to transform cities through strategic redevelopment. As the most senior leader behind the company’s co-founders, Sarah is responsible for spearheading transformative redevelopment projects from conception to stabilization. Each project her team executes is playing a leading role in the rebirth of downtown Birmingham.
After several years in the development and property management industry, Sarah earned her real estate license. She knew she wanted to pursue a career in real estate development where she could help impact the future of Birmingham. She has a passion for project planning and organization and was named a “Rising Star in Real Estate” by the Birmingham Business Journal in 2018. Sarah lives in Birmingham with her husband Brandon. She enjoys trying new recipes in the kitchen, planting seasonal gardens and traveling.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Real Estate industry?
I fell into commercial real estate after college. I graduated in political science and government but somehow ended up taking a position at a development and property management company. It was there that I began to realize the impact buildings have on the activities of our day to day lives. Once I realized how a building can define a person’s experiences, I realized I was exactly where I wanted to be.
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?
While earning a bachelor’s degree in political science, I decided I did not want to pursue a career practicing law. I stuck with it until graduation but soon after found myself as a receptionist/accounts receivable clerk for a property management and development company. I eventually gained the opportunity to advance through the organization and be exposed to several aspects of the business. It was during this time that I discovered my passion for development. The idea of taking a concept through each stage from idea to reality was something I was instantly drawn to. When I had the chance to get my hands on a project, everything clicked. The key takeaway I learned from this experience is sometimes you end up exactly where you are supposed to be, as long as you are open to the journey that takes you there.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Right now, we are working on an exciting project in Birmingham’s rapidly growing Parkside neighborhood that will completely transform the downtown area by redeveloping one of the city’s most historic structures — Powell Avenue Steam Plant.
We are redeveloping this 85,000-square-foot steam plant, which was initially built in 1895 to provide steam and electricity for downtown businesses, into a mixed-use entertainment destination with retail, movies, music, restaurants and other amenities. Once completed, it will promote tourism, enhance walkability, improve the quality of life for our residents and pay tribute to Birmingham’s industrial past.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Ithink Orchestra Partners stands out as an organization because of our commitment to community. Our approach to each project is all about creating a long-term sustainable impact and improving the overall experience of community members and visitors. Additionally, we operate exclusively in opportunity zones and employ adaptive reuse to make old things new.
To cite a specific instance, our work on Birmingham’s historic, Morris Avenue is helping to revitalize an area that was once the food distribution center for the city. Leveraging the redevelopment of several existing buildings by transforming them into mixed-use entertainment destinations including local shops, restaurants, bars and condominiums has breathed new life into one of the most scenic and central parts of town that had been forgotten.
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’ve been lucky to have multiple mentors who have supported me throughout my career. I’ve found that having someone to challenge you to approach a problem from a different perspective can be a game changer. Don’t be afraid to ask for input! I will always remember receiving the support from a former supervisor to pursue an open position even if it meant leaving the company. Realizing and supporting growth opportunities for your employees or mentees is crucial.
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?
Fortunately, I work for an organization that works hard to create balance in our leadership team. I think there can be a sense of a “boys club” especially when it comes to smaller commercial real estate markets. Overcoming that requires persistence, showing up to the table and realizing you are just as capable.
What 3 things can be done by a) individuals b) companies and/or c) society to support greater gender balance going forward?
- Closing the pay gap. For as long as women are not being paid the same as men for the same job, it will be plainly untrue that we have gender equity.
- Providing opportunities for continuing education. Everyone, not just women, should participate in conversations surrounding gender parity in the workplace.
- Prioritizing a work-life balance for all employees. We need to move past the days of defaulting men as the breadwinners and women as the homemakers and make work-life balance a priority for everyone across the board.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
- Work-life balance is incredibly difficult to achieve. I have a tremendous amount of dedication to my work but also to my family, and it can be difficult to manage my responsibilities to both. I do not want my personal life to suffer from my professional life, but the fear of falling behind is real. For example, it is hard for me to disconnect when I’m on vacation, and sometimes it affects the quality time I have with my family.
- Finding and owning your voice. Even in an environment where I am encouraged to share my opinion, at times I battle with confidence — Is it appropriate for me to speak up? After years of battling with imposter syndrome, I’ve finally realized the fear of disagreement should not hold me back from sharing my thoughts. I’ve forced myself to be comfortable with the word no. At the end of the day, I sleep better knowing I spoke what was on my mind.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Real Estate industry?
- The planning phase of a project always excites me. It’s a time for dreaming. Envisioning a future where your building plays a vital role to experiences in a community can be a powerful and inspiring moment.
- The art of the deal. In most real estate transactions, there will be several parties involved. I enjoy working with new people and learning what drives them. Understanding what motivates a party early on increases the chances of a deal closing on time and with happy parties.
- Dealing with challenges. You can create the perfect plan to execute projects, but at some point, a curve ball will almost inevitably be thrown your way. The brainstorming sessions that take place around these issues always excite me. It gives your team members an opportunity to voice their ideas and play a part in the critical thinking process. Don’t be afraid to lean on your team. You never know what great ideas they may have.
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?
- Better utilizing technology — There are always ways to streamline processes by incorporating new technology. Not doing so is a good way to become irrelevant in such a quickly evolving industry.
- Avoiding tunnel vision — Working with financial institutions to better understand the changing landscape of commercial real estate and its tenants to achieve a holistic industry perspective.
- Approaching each project with intentionality — Developers should always ask: What is the best and highest use of the space? What features and details will enable this space to transform the surrounding community? Community impact should be one of the guiding lights of commercial real estate.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Stay engaged. The tone for the organization starts at the top. This industry can be tough and wear you down. While it is important to be transparent about success and failure with your team, it is equally important to keep them motivated and moving forward. If everyone has a clear vision of the path to success, it will keep attitudes positive even when roadblocks pop up.
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?
- Voice your opinion. It took me several years to find the confidence to speak up, but once I found my voice, I realized a shift in our organization. When I presented my ideas like a leader, people started looking to me to make decisions.
- Don’t be afraid to fail or be told no. Financing a deal is always complex. You might be told no six times before you finally hear a yes. Do not give up after one no.
- Self-promote and have the courage to put yourself out there. You have the ability to be your strongest supporter. There was an opening at our firm for a role in a different department. I was not being considered for the role, so I took the initiative to sit down with the hiring manager and express my interest. Two weeks later, the job was mine.
- Continue educating yourself about real estate trends and local and state laws. Putting yourself ahead of the curve in such a quickly changing industry is powerful. There is a wealth of information out there for you to stay competitive and up to date on changing rules and regulations. Call your mentors or experts if you don’t understand. You might be surprised by how people are willing to take time out of their day to help you.
- Be competitive. Know your strengths and be an ambassador for yourself and your organization. Realize what makes your firm and skillset different and use that to set yourself apart in the industry.
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 would love to see developers come together to push for policy change at the state and local level. It tends to feel like there is a lot of red tape in real estate, but working together I think the industry could shape policy to our advantage, in a way that is mutually beneficial for us and the cities we work in.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can find me on LinkedIn and stay updated on our exciting projects at Orchestra Partners by visiting our website and following us on social media.
Thank you for your time, and your excellent insights!