• Women make up just 32 percent of real estate development jobs
  • Barriers include training, job stability and awareness of opportunity
  • We interviewed 10 women real estate developers about challenges and opportunities

Years after Susan Harvey was hired in the mid-1990s to lead the Canton Township office of Ashley Capital, a New York City-based industrial and warehouse space powerhouse, the man who had brought her on board confided the one concern he had at the time: That she was “too nice” to be successful in the male-dominated real estate development industry.

She’s proven him wrong.

“His only reservation was how was I going to stand up to these big tough men,” said Harvey, senior vice president of the office, the portfolio of which has gone from 3 million to 20 million square feet under her leadership.

Men still dominate the field of real estate development. It’s estimated that 68 percent of its positions are occupied by men. Yet women in Detroit, its suburbs and across the state have been making some inroads. Ten of them are featured in this section.

Most of them agree that there should be a broader conversation about bringing more women into the industry.

“There aren’t enough of us, point blank,” said Jenifer Acosta, a 34-year-old developer focused on projects in Bay City.

“Seven or eight years ago, it was the norm for me to be the only female in a room of 30 men,” said Heather Greene, president of the board of CREW Detroit, a regional women’s real estate trade organization. “It was fairly common to be the only woman at the table. It does need to change.”

Heather Greene, board president, CREW Detroit

Greene, a senior associate in the Berkley office of Chicago-based architecture firm Stantec Inc., said more “mentors or male champions of female developers” are needed.

“No one is really acknowledging there is a problem,” she said. “I believe there is probably a strong number of women that would be interested but don’t know how to get there.”

Acosta and others say the barriers to entry for women in development range from the how many fields the industry touches — finance, construction, politics, real estate, architecture, to name just a few — to the inherently risky nature of the profession.

“Real estate, in and of itself, as a career is volatile. I do think that’s going to be a factor,” Harvey said. “If you’re a young college graduate, (real estate can be) feast or famine … If you have a family or kids and you’re trying to have stable pay to pay the mortgage, it’s a tough career to break into and be successful.”

In addition, there are few real estate-specific college programs, so many don’t think of it as a career option as they would, say, accounting or biology, for example.

“Real estate is, for most people, something that you end up doing,” Harvey said.

“No one ever really told me about real estate development or that it was an option,” Acosta said. “It is perceived as an option if people have the chance to take courses on it, and they would find it earlier on.”

One study by the CREW Network, the national umbrella for CREW Detroit, estimated in 2015 that just 32 percent of the American positions in the field are held by women, compared to 41 percent in Canada. However, that figure has been improving. It was just 20 percent in 2000 and rose to 30 percent by 2010.

It’s not just the development sector of the broad real estate industry that’s dominated by men, the study says. Forty-four percent of property/asset managers are women, while only 29 percent of the brokerage positions are held by women. Real estate finance positions are also overwhelmingly held by men, with just 34 percent held by women. In all, 35 percent of real estate positions are held by women in the U.S.

“A lot of us women in real estate see that we need more,” Acosta said. “Women see real estate differently in how they invest in it, how they hold on to it.”

Shannon Morgan

Senior vice president

HRS Communities/Home Renewal Systems LLC

“I realize the importance of the connections I’ve made through various state and national organizations including women’s councils.”

Company: HRS Communities/Home Renewal Systems LLC

Title: Senior vice president

Age: 43

Years in development/real estate: 23

Education: Redford Union High School, Michigan State University

Developments completed:

▪ The Gateway, a $13 million adaptive reuse project in Fremont. Includes 36 affordable senior housing units in the former Fremont High School downtown at 204 E. Main St.

▪ Eton Street Station, a $38 million development in downtown Birmingham. The project includes 164 townhouse units with up to three bedrooms and attached garages. Roughly one-third of the units are residential/commercial and artisan commercial/residential.

▪ 600 Altamont in Marquette just outside of downtown, a $16 million adaptive reuse that includes 56 affordable rental units of workforce housing at the former Holy Family Orphanage. Fourteen of the units are reserved for formerly homeless people and their families.

Developments in the works:

▪ Clyde Smith Farms in Westland on Chestnut Drive, a $36 million infill development with 146 single-family homes.

▪ The $30 million Hotel Hayes project in Jackson, turning the historic property into a hotel and residences for Consumers Energy Co. employees and others on West Michigan Avenue.

▪ King Street School in Eaton Rapids, an $8.5 million redevelopment into 32 units of affordable senior housing.

What led you to get into real estate development in the first place?

I followed my family selling residential real estate (her parents own a Century 21 office in Canton), in which I was recruited by a local developer to sell and market new construction.

I have always been passionate and drawn to places and felt a passion to connect people to them, so they can call it their home. Transforming the built environment is exhilarating, and I feel that it was a special calling. As a single mother, I realize that home is the foundation of my family and life.

What sort of challenges, if any, have presented themselves as a woman developer?

Overcoming fear of showing weakness and being self-conscious (of being the only woman in the room), this is a barrier I continue to work on. Most of my colleagues are male.

I literally get asked on a weekly basis how I’ve gotten my job or if I’m related to the owner. My response is that I have many years of experience working from the trenches up.

I’ve always had to address the income disparity, fighting for pay equal to my male counterparts. Working in the real estate development business since the age of 20, I’ve had to fight the power struggle to be taken seriously with a chance to be heard. Also, as a single mother of two boys, one with special needs, the work-life balance is always challenging.

What advice do you have for women looking to get into the development industry in Detroit and/or the suburbs?

Recognizing many changes that have taken place, I realize the importance of the connections I’ve made through various state and national organizations including women’s councils. I’m now seeing an increased number of women in the industry that provide support in each other (power in numbers). Together, we are connecting with each other, enabling us to transform, build and develop.

Pick your battles wisely, know when the fight is worth the energy needed but never back down on something you believe in. Always stand up and speak for what is true. Have confidence, believe in yourself, trust your intuition — it will drive you. Persevere (on) the emotional roller coaster; strength is key in this business.