Chief Trailblazers Women Professionals in Real Estate

While other industries have been more difficult to penetrate, many areas of the fast-paced world of real estate have long been the professional domain of women. The past two decades have witnessed an influx of women as innovators in their fields, blazing a trail for women of today to follow in a competitive, high-stakes industry. The Cooperator spoke with a few of these industry pioneers about their roots, their work, and how they've successfully navigated the changing waters of New York real estate.

The Lure of the Law

"When I was in law school women made up only 20 percent of the incoming students," says Marcie Waterman Murray, a principal and founder of the Manhattan law firm of Deutsch Tane Waterman & Wurtzel. "Today they make up more than 50 percent of the class." In fact, says Murray, women represent 55 percent of attorneys working today.

"Originally, I wanted to be an archaeologist," remembers Murray. "Then I heard a lecture by a very old woman who said she spent 35 years as a secretary before anyone would finance her own expedition. I wasn't willing to wait that long." So Murray decided to pursue a master's degree in urban planning at Hunter College. A dean in the graduate department mentioned to her that a joint program was being offered with Brooklyn College and in 18 months less than it would normally take, Murray walked away with her master's, as well as a law degree.

After grad school, Murray completed a fellowship in Germany, which was instrumental in determining her career path. "My first job was with an attorney who had fled Germany in 1933. He did a lot of estates, trusts and real estate," relates Murray. "Then I went to work for one of the large firms as a real estate associate." After several years, she banded together with three other associates, who with an initial investment of $10,000 apiece founded their own firm specializing in real estate, litigation and German-related work.

On the decision to start her own business Murray says, "After my experience with a large corporation, I wanted to do something on a more human scale." While female attorneys are now commonplace, she says gender-bias does exist. "In the beginning, older male attorneys would call me "˜Honey'," says Murray. "You hardly ever hear that anymore." Murray does point out that women still often have to work harder to earn respect from their clients.

"Today, there is still some resistance to a female attorney," says Murray. "There is a different perception as to whether we are sufficiently "˜hooked into the system'." For example, outside specialists are often needed to consult on a case. "A male attorney would be more likely to say "˜I played golf with a good pension guy, I'll call him'," Murray explains.

A golf tournament was the venue for one of Murray's pioneering efforts. Murray tells the story, "When I was working at the large firm, a title rep called and invited all the boys to a golf outing. I called him and said, "˜You must not have known this, but I have joined the firm.' He scrambled and said he'd have to call me back." Murray went to the outing; in fact they had to hire extra personnel to open up the ladies locker room for the day. She won the award for best female golfer. "A no-brainer since I was the only female golfer, and it was the first time I'd ever played," jokes Murray. Afterwards, the title reps and the attorneys networked in the bar. Because Murray had broken the gender barrier, the female title reps were allowed into the clubhouse, for the first time ever at this event.

Asked what she brings to her job that is uniquely female, Murray answers, "The classic difference is a true difference. I bring empathy. I can have a quicker personal relationship with a client than my male counterparts, leading to repeat business. I see it building slower in my male colleagues."

"I've been working for 35 years," says Murray, "And I have seen women's rights and possibilities grow and grow. I think we'll be seeing more and more of an "˜old girl's' network in the future. Although it hasn't always been easy, I wouldn't trade the experience for anything."

A Power Broker

Nothing in Jacky Teplitzky's early years foreshadowed her rise to a position as one of New York City's prominent residential real estate brokers. Recently made executive vice president, residential sales at Douglas Elliman, New York's largest brokerage, Teplitzky's beginnings were as a teacher. "I was born in Chile and raised in Israel," explains Teplitzky. "My education was in travel and tourism. During her mandatory stint in the Israeli army, she became an instructor of new recruits. "After the army, I became a teacher in tourism in the high schools." Fluent in English, Spanish and Hebrew, Teplitzky moved to New York, and began working in the travel industry for an international company based in Spain.

"My first exposure to real estate came in 1993, when I was about to get married and was looking for my own apartment," Teplitzky recalls. "Most of the brokers were women, working part-time. I felt that they were very limited; they only knew their own neighborhoods. One of them said to me "˜Jacky, I think you would be good at real estate.' But I was working at a high-paying executive job in the travel industry. I had a lot of perks, free vacations. It was difficult to contemplate a move from a salary job to a commission."

Teplitzky says it took two years for her to finally take the real estate course. "I had reached the ceiling of where I could go in the travel industry. Even though my family and friends thought I was out of my mind, I resigned and took a big risk."

As the leader of a team that generates over $50 million dollars in annual sales, Teplitzky's risk paid off. Although women are not unusual in real estate brokerage - in fact, they make up over 50 percent of the work force - being taken seriously is still a challenge. "People assume you must be a Mom who works part-time, instead of [being] the primary breadwinner," says Teplitzky. "[As a woman], you have to be better and work harder and be more innovative."

Teplitzky credits her managerial and business experience for her success. "I have achieved this level of respect and perception in a very short time," says Teplitzky. "I know that if I want to expand the business, I have to build a team that I can count on to generate results."

Asked what she enjoys most about her career, Teplitzky replies, "Being the author of my own destiny. You build something; you create something, and get the rewards of your efforts for yourself."

Teaching the Next Wave

Esther Muller, master teacher and president of the Real Estate Academy was named by The Mann Report 2001 as one of the most influential women in real estate. Although she built a very successful career and personal portfolio of properties as a real estate broker, her passion is where she started out - in education.

"My parents were Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Israel," recalls Muller. "A few years later, they moved to Brooklyn with $500 in their pockets and in only two years, started their own business." Muller's parents not only started a business, they bought the building that housed it, and a two-family house where they could live and have a tenant pay the bills. Their entrepreneurial spirit rubbed off on their daughter. "My parents taught me three important things," Muller says. "Work for yourself. Don't pay rent, and have someone else pay the mortgage."

Still, Muller came of age in the time when most women's job options consisted of nursing, typing, or teaching. She chose the latter, earning a degree in early childhood education from Brooklyn College. Her introduction to real estate came quite by accident. "I was living in Connecticut and a friend of mine bought a rental building to convert to condominiums. He asked me to decorate the building," says Muller. "Suddenly, I have the tenants, many of them elderly, coming to me crying about the conversion. I found myself counseling them to buy their apartments, and build equity."

The impromptu advising led to a job offer with commission for each apartment sold. She became a full-time agent, moving to New York City in 1979. It was the golden era of co-op conversions, and Muller became an expert. She is quick to extol the benefits of working as a real estate broker. "This is an incredible profession for women," says Muller. "It is one of the few places that as you get older and wiser, you become more valuable. The smarter you are, the more you are needed." As the single mother of a young son, she also appreciated the flexible hours, and the money enabled her to put her son through private school, and buy income-producing properties for herself.

With the Real Estate Academy, Muller returns to her love of teaching. She started the program because, "I had to do 45 hours of continuing education every four years and I felt my teachers were not adequate practitioners," explains Muller. She wrote the curriculum, went through the process to get state approval and licensing, and now lectures weekly to full classrooms. "When I was starting as a broker, people would go to their mandatory classes every two years and eat, read the paper. The material was dry as dust and a lot of the teachers weren't even familiar with the New York market."

Muller introduced innovations like guest speakers who were working professionals at the peak of their careers, and held the classes in upscale environments like the St. Moritz hotel. The first class had 30 students, now the classes regularly draw 150 participants. "Today, all the programs are better, and I believe it is because they realized there was competition. My biggest challenge is to stay on top of the information and keep delivering a better program each year."

When asked if she had encountered the "old boy network" Muller laughed. "I love the old boy network," she says. "So much of what I learned, I got from watching men network. There's nothing wrong with networking. This is a business where you don't have to play politics and there's no ceiling to how high you can go. You can have no background, get 45 hours of training, and sell a million-dollar apartment the next week. I have the freedom to be exactly who I am."

Consult, Connect, and Conquer

Although she also had a successful career as a broker and manager at a leading real estate agency, Kathy Mayer Braddock is now utilizing her entrepreneurial gifts as a partner and co-owner of a brand new real estate consulting firm braddock + purcell.

"I started my first business 20 years ago when I was in graduate school doing Japanese Studies," says Braddock. A product of Brearly, an exclusive, all-girl's high school, and Vassar, which at the time was also all-female, Braddock says, "I always felt empowered as a woman to do whatever I set my mind to."

The business Braddock started - called The Intrepid New Yorker - was possibly the first of its kind in an industry that has now become popular - personal concierge service. "I started the business as a service to New Yorkers who didn't know what to do in the city, or where to find services," explains Braddock. "As a born-and-bred New Yorker, I knew I could use my intimate knowledge of the tri-state area to benefit others. I also realized that as much as I loved academia, I liked the real world more. So I left school to build the business."

One of the products The Intrepid New Yorker offered was complete relocation services for the employees of Fortune 100 and 500 companies and their families. According to Braddock, "There are over 500 viable suburban communities available [in the region] and I evaluated the whole family's needs in helping them decide where to move."

In 2000, Braddock was invited to join Douglas Elliman as executive managing director, general sales manager. "I did things backwards," notes Braddock. "I went from being a business owner to working for a large company." She says it was an interesting time to be a woman in senior management. "My entrepreneurial skills and knowledge enabled me to bring some fresh ideas to a business that hadn't changed in many years. Also, I benefited from the opportunity to reap others' knowledge, which you don't always have as an entrepreneur."

It wasn't long before Braddock's entrepreneurial instincts took her once again to her own business. She says, "The company president, Paul Purcell, came to me and suggested a new model for how clients could choose a broker that is right for them." And thus, braddock + purcell was born.

"For the single largest financial transaction in people's lives, there has to be a better way for the consumer to choose a broker," explains Braddock. "People put more energy into choosing a caterer." Braddock and Purcell consult on all aspects of the real estate transaction for buyers and sellers, from pricing the apartment to choosing the most knowledgeable broker for their type of apartment and location, to offering referrals for lawyers, mortgages, and even, contractors. The service is completely free to buyers and sellers, and the company receives fees from the service providers for making successful referrals.

When asked if anything about being a woman has contributed to her success, she says, "The business I have created is highly intuitive, which women naturally are. We also need to multi-task well, which women do very successfully." And has she experienced any challenges as a woman working within male-dominated environments? "When I sat at the board table [at Insignia Douglas Elliman], I felt valued as a business person. Of course there are differences between the sexes. You can either play with it, or rise above it."

(Wo)men at Work

While most of the women mentioned in this story have had some sisters to mentor them along the way, Patricia A. Leone, president of Dakota Consulting Corporation was usually walking alone. She is an architect, and her self-built business is an architectural, interior design and construction consultancy. Female architects account for only 22 percent of the field, and a mere 9 percent of the construction industry.

"I'd walk onto a project, and someone would whistle," remembers Leone. "Then somebody else would whisper "˜That's your boss'." Men on job sites would tell her "to go home and wash floors."

What they may not have known is that Leone was practically born with a toolbox in her hands. Growing up in Scarsdale, Leone was the granddaughter of a master stonemason. Her father also owns a masonry company. "I used to go down to building sites with him as little girl," remembers Leone. "He would sit me down with a trowel and a little cement. I always loved what he did, but he thought it was too hard an industry for a woman."

Leone earned a degree in architecture from the University of Denver in the early 1970s. Her class had perhaps 15 women in it. "I remember doing projects where the grading [for the women] seemed harder," she says. After graduating, she was unable to find work, so she took an interest in theater and set building and became a carpenter.

Some design work that she did on a local sandwich franchise called the Filling Station led Leone to purchase a sandwich shop of her own and do all the design and building herself. In 1983, she started her first business as a contractor, called Renovated Builders with $6,000 bankrolling the operation. The company did a lot of major construction with commercial clients, schools, and churches.

"Being a woman in the construction industry in the 1970s was next to unheard of," says Leone. And still, Leone went on to become vice-president of the Building Contractor's Association of Westchester, serving for 10 years. "I love the building. You get the plan, you create the space. It's similar to directing a play."

Eventually, Leone felt the call to again build her own designs, so she moved back to New York and started Dakota Consulting. "We take a project from design to completion," explains Leone. "It's a very personalized process of taking people's vision and making it a reality." While Leone does most of the design work, she has a dedicated core of foremen and project supervisors for day-to-day work during the construction. Not every client is comfortable with a female contractor. "It was better to let people know that a man was going to be on the job. Now, I get a lot of my business through referrals and word of mouth."

Leone describes the rewards of her profession. "It doesn't matter how big or small the project, I enjoy making people happy," she says. "And owning my own business means I get to say how much I make, when women in most professions don't make the same money as the men."

Self-sufficient and empowered, these women in real estate have followed their instincts and found a special niche in their own profession. Is there any advice for today's female entrepreneurs? Leone best sums it up. "Sometimes it intimidates people. But what can you do? Just be who you are. Just do the best that you can." For these five women, their best is very good indeed.

Rebekah D. Mulhare is a freelancer and frequent contributor to The Cooperator.

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