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2 Wharton MBAs Hope To Pave Way For More Women In Real Estate

·13 min read

Kayla Weismuller (left) and Nicolle Lee are Class of ’22 MBAs at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Both will work in real estate investing and private equity after graduation. Courtesy photo

While women make up nearly 65% of residential realtors, women at the front end and investment side of the industry are much less visible. According to the Urban Land Institute, the oldest and largest network of real estate and land use experts in the world, women make up just 25% of its membership and only 14% of its CEOs. Further, 93% of female CEOS lead small firms with fewer than 100 employees.

Reaching gender parity in real estate investing, development, and private equity is not just about the numbers, say Nicolle Lee and Kayla Weismuller, two Wharton School MBAs who will work in real estate investing and private equity after graduating this month. It’s about impacting decisions at the very beginning of the real estate process.

“Getting more women into real estate is a social impact issue. I have a mission of making more women aware that there is a talent gap in real estate, and letting them know that there are these wonderful MBA programs that are pipelines into the industry,” Nicolle tells Poets&Quants.

Kayla agrees. “I think just seeing women do it in the industry empowers other women to follow. Highlighting the fact that there are women in construction engineering, real estate finance, and other areas shows other women that it is an industry they can break into,” says Kayla, president of Penn Student Women in Real Estate (PSWiRE).

The two young real estate professionals met through the various industry clubs, centers, and resources available at Wharton School, the top-ranked real estate MBA program in the country according to U.S. News & World Report. Those resources include PSWiRE, Wharton Real Estate Club, and the Zell Lurie Real Estate Center. The two also competed together in urban design and other real estate case competitions which introduced them to industry leaders along with fellow MBA real estate professionals.

Poets&Quants spoke with the two MBAs about why female representation matters in the male dominated industry. The pair also offered advice for women looking to pivot. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q&A WITH NICOLLE LEE AND KAYLA WEISMULLER

First, tell us a little about yourself and why you wanted to get an MBA?

Kayla Weismuller, MBA ’22

Kayla: I worked for seven years as a project manager in the construction industry in Washington, D.C., before coming to Wharton. I’m originally from Colorado and I’m actually moving back to Colorado after I graduate.

I wanted to get my MBA because after working in construction and kind of being on the tail end of the real estate life cycle, I wanted to get my finance degree and my business acumen dialed in and pivot to the front end of the cycle, more on the investing and private equity side of it.

Literally, what I wrote in my application is what I’ll be doing after grad school: Working for a real estate private equity company that’s based in Broomfield, Colorado. So the same industry but very different. function. I was a civil engineer, so the built environment has always been a passion of mine.

Nicolle: I’m kind of the opposite of Kayla in that I’m switching industries, but I started off in the same function. Prior to Wharton, I started my career in financial services and then I moved into a more management strategy type of role. 

So, coming from a functional background of management strategy, and a little bit of banking, I really wanted to move into real estate because I was involved with nonprofits in the real estate space in New York City. I just found that a lot of my spare time was spent in that, and so I applied to Wharton knowing I wanted to do real estate investment banking. So after school I’m going to Morgan Stanley in the real estate investment banking group.

Why real estate investing and private equity?

Kayla: I was a civil engineer in undergrad, and from an early age was pretty fascinated with cities and the built environment. I guess I was drawn to the construction industry because it’s pretty tangible and very hands on. Being on a project site was super exciting to me. As for my progression, I feel like you have more control over what’s being built and where it’s being built on the front end investing side, versus where I was in construction where you’re given a set of drawings and you just have to build it. 

Nicolle Lee, MBA ’22

Nicolle: My interest came through my involvement with Habitat for Humanity, which is a nonprofit, from the advocacy and fundraising perspective. I saw the other side and what it took to actually get the approvals in order to make it happen. I just really loved the industry and thought, “Where can I best use my skills to get involved?”

GENDER DISPARITY IN REAL ESTATE INDUSTRY

Were either of you really aware of the disparity of women in the industry, particularly in the leadership roles, before starting your MBAs? 

Nicolle: I personally was not aware prior to Wharton. Kayla might have had more insight because she was already in the industry. But it became a little apparent when I saw that there were very few women speakers that we could even ask for our events. I think that people are more than willing to give their time, it’s just there are very few women executives in real estate. So that was, I think, a little shocking, but it was also very motivating.

Kayla: I’d echo that. The women that we did get to speak, they’re so tapped out because they get asked by everybody. 

(The disparity) was very apparent in the construction industry, but that definitely translates more to the investment, private equity side too. I guess I knew it, but I was still surprised. I remember that when I was at my internship, I realized that there were not any women in leadership roles. 

Nicolle: I was in a similar situation where I think there was one woman VP, but all of the women were really in the junior levels. I wondered if we were not making young women aware of the opportunities in real estate, because even at the junior levels, I found it was hard to reach parity.

NEXT PAGE: Real estate resources at Wharton School + Advice for women who want to break into the industry

Women attending the Penn Real Estate cross-club mixer. Courtesy photo

What do you think are some of the reasons behind the gender disparity in real estate?

Kayla: I don’t know if old is the right word, but the industry has these roots where it feels like it’s kind of tied to the past. I do see it shifting, in my opinion, for the better. I know my company is really promoting women in the industry and very deliberately selecting women to join their board and hiring women out of the MBA. I’m hoping it’s not just them, but it’s a shift in the industry in general. 

Nicolle: I think there’s been that tradition in the industry, but I think that there are a lot of initiatives in finance and real estate to alleviate some of these issues. For example, forming boards that are just focused on creating a community for women in finance or women real estate. Finding those pockets of support has been crucial for me.

GENDER PARITY AND SOCIAL IMPACT

So, why do you think it matters? Why is seeing more women in real estate and real estate investing important in your opinion?

Kayla: For me, it’s helpful seeing someone that looks like me and has similar experiences in those roles. I think all my mentors have been males, but it would be nice to have a female that I could look up to. Hopefully having more women get their MBA and getting those opportunities, we can be that for the next generation.

Nicolle: I think when you’re running a business, diversity of thought really does translate into better management. So, if you’re just thinking of what’s good for society, the argument is that having a diverse board or management is important for running a business. My own personal perspective is similar to Kayla’s: I have personal goals–whether it’s raising a family or having a normal personal life–and having an example of a woman who’s successful in real estate banking is extremely important. I’ve found mentors in other groups–for example consumer packaged goods has a lot of women MDs–and so I know it’s possible. It’s just like, Is it also possible in my coverage group as well? So I want to be an example for other people.

Would having more women leaders at the front end of the real estate life cycle influence the type of projects that get funded, do you think? For example, more affordable housing projects or other socially conscious projects? 

Nicolle: In the nonprofit that I’m involved with, most of the families that receive help are women of color. Our CEO is an LGBTQ woman, and so it’s been very inspiring to see that type of leadership in the public sector. The private sector side, like at my full time job, we work on many IPOs, one of which was for a company that does single family and multifamily rentals. When you’re doing an IPO, you have a lot of input into how they market themselves to investors and what they put in their investor presentations. So I’ve found a lot of impact by voicing my opinion of what should be highlighted in the company. That’s where I’ve found it does matter that there’s diversity on the team because you are shaping investors’ perception and shareholders’ perception of the company.

REAL ESTATE RESOURCES AT WHARTON

The Wharton Real Estate Club on a tour of a project in New York City. Courtesy photo

Tell us about some of the support and community you found at Wharton School as women pivoting into real estate investing?

Kayla: Honestly, it’s been the best experience. Without Wharton and the resources that they have, I would never have gotten the job I have right now. I feel very fortunate to have these amazing opportunities that would not have been available to me otherwise. 

The list goes on: Penn Student Women in Real Estate (PSWiRE), the community, and the network which is so valuable, especially with real estate, because it’s such a people driven business. You can’t put a price on the relationships you form with people whom, down the road, you’ll be making deals or investing.  

Wharton is also home to the Zell Lurie Real Estate Center which has a great reputation for helping students. The education and knowledge about the industry you get at Wharton is amazing. It’s a good mix of institutional expertise, but also student-led speaker programs and getting to hear what people have done in the past. 

Nicolle: The professors themselves also have great advice. Sometimes I’ll go to talk to a professor about what I’m thinking or have a question about my career, and they’ll just throw something out that I had never thought of. For example, a professor asked if I had ever thought about real estate brokerage. I thought I would never want to do sales, but the question inspired me to get my sales license. These conversations with the professors are really helpful because it’s an open dialogue and they have great experience. I found that that’s also something you can’t put a price on.

ADVICE FOR BREAKING INTO THE INDUSTRY

What advice would you give to women looking to pivot into the industry who aren’t at Wharton?

Kayla: Get comfortable networking. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for 15 minutes or to grab a coffee. The relationships that you make at your school or in the community will benefit you long term. 

Nicolle: Keep an open mind. There are so many different ways to get involved in the industry. You might start in brokerage but then want to go into leasing or into development. In terms of building a skill set, whatever you learn becomes an asset in the next function because they’re all kind of interconnected.

Is there a piece of advice that someone gave you that has really stuck with you?

Nicolle: Someone told me to go see the buildings, just literally go and do it. If you’re interested in a project, go visit the site. 

Kayla: Someone told me to just be curious,  and ask questions. I think, especially when you’re new at a company or entering the industry for the first time, people really respect people who are curious and ask questions. It means you’re passionate about what you’re doing. 

What do you hope to do in your careers to help lift more women up through the ranks?

Kayla: For me, it’s about being a mentor. I get super jazzed and passionate about having those one or two women speakers that come into class, and I think giving back to the community–whether it’s being a speaker in the future or just being available to someone else–is really important. 

Nicolle: In the short term, I think Kayla and I have an opportunity to recruit women from Wharton into our roles. I know that (companies) often ask recent graduates to then take on the recruiting efforts for the incoming summer associates. That’s the short term goal of mine. 

Long term, it’s always to stay involved in the housing movement, because that’s just a passion area of mine. A lot of women of color, particularly in New York City, have the ability to own homes through economic empowerment. So, whether it’s serving on a board or eventually having a long term career in the space.

Any advice on what kinds of features of an MBA program women interested in real estate and real estate investing should look for?

Kayla: For an industry switcher like me, the curriculum was super important. Having the finance quant aspect for the core curriculum, but also offering very specific real estate courses. I think having the Zell Lurie Center tied to Wharton was a big reason why I chose the school, because it brings in these very renowned speakers and mentors that you can latch on to.

Nicolle: There are other great schools that have dedicated real estate resources attached to them, and I think having those centers is extremely important. But, you should also look at the broader resources of a program. For example, Oregon has the Stuart Weitzman School of Design, and so thinking about students who you could learn from and creating a more interdisciplinary program. You know, a lot of our time in the MBA was spent on electives, so I took a lot of social impact and design focused classes. So think not only about the MBA program itself, but the overall university and community that you’re joining.

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