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Former Vornado Exec Talks About His New PropTech Role

Mitchell Schear is one of those rare people that can maintain a sense of calm even when they are moving at an incredibly fast pace. I sat down with him in the corner of the busy exhibition hall at MIPIM PropTech NYC where it was just announced that he would be the newest advisor for PropTech venture capital firm MetaProp NYC. Even after hours of walking around the conference greeting old friends and meeting new acquaintances, he was able to unflappably answer my rapid-fire questions in a way that had me struggling to keep up.

It was there, at a small table at the edge of the bustling exhibit hall that he told me about how the arc of his long career in real estate had turned towards innovation as a way of navigating through inevitable economic cycles.

He began his career in real estate as an owner’s leasing representative in the early 80’s. “During the recession of the early 90’s, when capital was wiped out, the leasing guy was the person that the equity guys wanted to talk to about adding value” said Mitchell. “That was the fastest boost up the learning curve because in addition to leasing, it exposed me to a full range of operations, development, and creative financing structures that were necessary to get the deals done.”

From there, he was tapped to run top real estate firms in D.C., the last of which was
Vornado/Charles E. Smith. Again, Mitchell found himself nimbly adjusting to an economic slowdown. He told me that, “In 2012 we hit a point where there was no demand for office space, which is rare for D.C. where there is typically so much built-in demand from government agencies. So I went on a mission to create demand by changing the “face” of the real estate.”

“In 2012 we hit a point where there was no demand for office space, which is rare for D.C. where there is typically so much built-in demand from government agencies. So I went on a mission to create demand by changing the “face” of the real estate.”

In Crystal City, a submarket just outside D.C., Mitchell planted the seeds of a new innovation ecosystem inspired by projects like Tony Hseih’s Downtown North Vegas and 1871 in Chicago.

He said, “Crystal City has always been a very convenient location, largely occupied by government, but was considered to be a little past its “sell-by date”. The key to revitalizing was to change the energy by infusing fresh creative companies, that, in turn, would attract innovators from all kinds of industries.” He partnered with incubators, accelerators, and startups including a young, relatively unknown (at the time) company called WeWork. Crystal City became home to one of the two WeLive co-living locations thanks in part of Mitchell’s guidance. And now, just last week, Crystal City was named one of two new Amazon headquarters which will come with 25,000 new tech jobs and all the opportunities that comes along with that.

During his time at Vornado, Mitchell mentored a number of startups. One of those is WhyHotel, a company that rents out space in new apartment developments as short-term hotel rooms during the time it takes to get a building fully leased. I talked to WhyHotel co-founder and CEO Jason Fudin about his experience working with Mitchell. “He was integral to our early success,” Jason told me, “he helped us develop our product so it would appeal to the industry and help us find our product-market fit.”

In July of 2017, Vornado merged its D.C. portfolio with JBG to form JBGSmith. Mitchell currently serves on the board and is happy to “no longer be chained to a desk.” His new work arrangement allows him the freedom to pursue and cultivate new opportunities. In his “spare time”, he is an avid spinner and bike rider (when we met, he had on a wrist brace from a recent fall). He explained, “I am excited about my transition into a PropTech advisor spending time with real estate companies thinking about how to innovate. I also enjoy collaborating with VCs (both generalists and PropTech specific) to give them the perspective of a real estate operator. And, I work directly with a number of PropTech companies as well.” Mitchell seems like the type that wouldn’t sit still no matter how much you tried to chain him down.

He will expand these efforts thanks to his new role at MetaProp NYC. In his mind, the industry needs people to make good connections in order to increase collaboration. “It’s all about partnerships because the challenges are even more difficult and you are dealing with a lot more variables,” he explained. When I asked him why companies would want to do things like share data in an era when “data is the new oil” seems to be a collective ethos, he offered a really good rebuttal. “There is value in consolidation and collaboration. Look at what happened with VTS and Hightower. The industry got together and wanted a single solution. If you are going to put all of your data into a company, you need to know it will be around and sustainable.”

One of the roles that Mitchell sees himself playing in the industry is to help motivate established real estate firms to experiment with new technology. He knows from first-hand experience the positive benefits of innovating in a very traditional industry. His challenge now is to get fellow real estate executives as motivated to try new things as he has always been. If this trait is anywhere near as contagious as his energy, he should be highly successful in this endeavor.

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