Men have always dominated commercial real estate. But recently, women have made strides in growing their presence in the industry, and a recent occurrence at Walker & Dunlop serves as evidence of progress. The commercial real estate finance and advisory firm created its first all-women leadership team. Alison Williams, Angelica Dichoco, Stephanie Pratt, and Melissa Jahnke now head up Walker & Dunlop’s Small Balance Group.
Walker & Dunlop, which touts the diversity of its employees as an asset to its business, counts the creation of the group as a significant milestone for the firm. However, the company did not set out to break new ground internally. The company merely needed a squad to guide the strategic direction of its Small Balance Group (SBG) platform and, taking into account accomplishments, expertise, synergies, and a host of other factors that make for good leadership, the powers that be were left with four names—and those names just happened to be those of women. Now the executive group is tasked with growing SBG, which originates, underwrites, closes, and services loans of a minimum of $1 million for borrowers seeking to acquire, refinance or renovate multifamily properties.
“There is a need for diverse perspectives in commercial real estate. It is essential in this changing social and economic environment,” said Alison Williams, Senior Vice President and Group Head of SBG. “Our hope is that sharing real examples of women leaders in CRE promotes confidence and inspires women in the industry to continue to strive for excellence and achieve their aspirational goals.” Angelica Dichoco serves as Senior Vice President and Chief Underwriter of the group, Stephanie Pratt takes on the role of Senior Vice President of SBG Closing, and Melissa Jahnke is Head of Operations.
The creation of the new leadership team takes on even more significance in the post-pandemic environment. The COVID-19 health crisis spurred the Great Resignation. By early summer 2022, 29 percent of respondents to a CREW Network survey reported that there were women at their company who had departed voluntarily since the start of the pandemic. A whopping 95 percent of those respondents noted that the women had yet to return to the workforce.
Walker & Dunlop is committed to promoting equity in the workplace, particularly at the leadership level, and the CRE industry as a whole seems to support such change. The new SBG leadership team has welcomed celebratory comments from both men and women in the business, expressing excitement to see the formation of an empowered unit that will use its depth of experience and innovative ideas to enhance the CRE lending space further.
“My first thought was ‘bold.’ My second thought was ‘about time,’” Wendy Mann, CEO of CREW Network said of her response upon hearing the Walker & Dunlop news. “Women in finance and lending are doing amazing work, and it is way past time to see this.”
The fact that an all-women-led lending team is newsworthy in the commercial property industry is a sign of the times: women have come far in leadership but haven’t ventured far enough. Women occupy dominant roles across the industry, yet their numbers at the highest levels remain woefully low. According to CREW Network’s most recent five-year benchmark study, in 2020, women held just 9 percent of C-suite positions at commercial property firms. Women-led teams spearheading business lines are few and far between. Bolstering the numbers will take an ongoing and enhanced effort from inside companies.
The CREW Network’s action guide maintains that the steps companies can take to expand women’s opportunities to reach the top spots include prioritizing and financially supporting women’s professional development and learning. Companies can also help level the playing field by making formal mentoring and sponsorship programs available and encouraging interactions with various individuals within an organization. And pay equity is crucial in attracting women to top positions as well as keeping them in those positions. In general, awareness and action have yielded progress and will continue to do so.
“I’ve been a woman in the commercial development field for 30-plus years, and every year it gets better,” said Clare De Briere, Executive Vice President of Skanska USA Commercial Development. De Briere and her Skanska colleagues Jenny Walker and Lauren Acosta led the majority-women team behind developing and constructing the 9000 Wilshire office building in Beverly Hills, the New York-based company’s first development project in metropolitan Los Angeles.
“I think that with the increased recognition of the importance of having diversity on our teams and across all roles—development, leasing, legal, finance, innovation—we will start to see changes coming faster and faster,” De Briere added. So, the Walker & Dunlop announcement, the news that shouldn’t be news, serves a purpose in the bid to expand the footprint of women at the top of CRE.