Elevating Women in Commercial Real Estate
Three women from Canada ICI agree that campaigns aimed to empower women are largely ineffective if the initiatives do not bring about real change. All three were born into this 174-year long campaign, yet still find themselves among just a handful of women in the commercial real estate finance industry. In honour of International Women’s Day, we shine a light on not only the dynamic opportunities a career in commercial real estate can bring, but also share the personal experiences of these three leaders who are set on paving the way for other women in the industry.
Michelle Child, Mortgage Origination, Canada ICI, Vancouver
Michelle Child was recently recruited as a mortgage originator with Canada ICI’s brand new Vancouver office in the Waterfront District. Bringing her “big-swinging Toronto experience”, and stellar industry reputation, she has already secured several mandates during her first weeks in Vancouver. A natural advocate, she also brings with her a passion for actively recruiting more women into the industry, and more specifically, more women brokers at Canada ICI.
First exposed to the industry through her mother who was a broker, she completed a business degree at Sauder intending to specialize in finance, but when she took a real estate finance course Michelle discovered her passion and switched her specialization to real estate. Her first job out of university was as a commercial mortgage broker. She worked at Laurentian Bank, KingSett Capital, and Atrium before landing at Canada ICI.
Despite being shy into her twenties, growing up with three brothers and a father in construction, she is comfortable in the male-dominated industry and one of her favourite things is walking construction sites with her clients, but building her network of support has been key for Michelle, and female mentorship, crucial. Michelle first found mentorship and confidence through attending CREW Network events on her own and is now an active member of the group which supports the global advancement of women in the commercial real estate industry.
She believes to gain origination positions women need mentorship and self-assurance to advocate for themselves. And it’s not only more women that Michelle would like to see represented in Canadian commercial real estate. She acknowledges the need for more representation by minority groups in commercial real estate.
“We have to stop hiding behind misleading ratios that show a company’s equal representation when a closer look reveals that representation is small or nonexistent in certain departments and seniority. Representation must exist in all areas of the company.”
So how do women advance? Michelle believes it all comes from leadership and an increase of female representation in senior positions. “Promising young women are overlooked for senior positions because they don’t advocate for themselves the same way their male counterparts do.”
The resounding reason I hear from women is they don’t think they’re the right fit because they don’t see anyone like them in that role.
It’s important that leaders first recruit women and then champion them through promotions once they’re established within the organization.
April Li, Senior Mortgage Underwriter, Canada ICI, Calgary
April Li is a triple threat. Already one of the few women on the front lines of Canada’s commercial real estate industry, she not only paves the way for other women, but also as a minority, and mother. Her experience also spans three geographic locations: Alberta, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. April says there are far more women in commercial real estate in China and believes the main difference is that more women pursue higher education there versus here.
April comes across as shy, and humble, but she is not afraid of a challenge and her extensive experience has exposed her to many facets of the industry which includes investment sales, advisory services, and real estate financing. It makes her feel accomplished to get involved in the trading and financing of multi-million dollar commercial real estate properties and was part of the project team that completed the due diligence work for a multi-billion dollar mixed-use development project in China.
April enjoys working on big projects, and how dynamic, exciting, and nuanced commercial real estate is. Knowing what’s going on in a city before anybody else lends a sense of prestige.
She arrived at the University of Alberta from China in 2008 and received her bachelor’s degree in accounting and finance. After graduation, April worked as a financial analyst on the National Investment Services team at Colliers’ Edmonton office for over three years. After developing a true interest in the real estate industry, she attended the University of Hong Kong, where she earned a master of science degree in real estate investment and finance. Next, she worked as the assistant manager of Investment Advisory Services, Capital Markets at CBRE Shanghai office, and in 2018, April returned to Canada and joined Canada ICI, a firm she had worked with while at Colliers.
Her career in commercial real estate has had a number of shifts and so has her personal life. April became a mother three years ago. After returning from her maternity leave, April was given the opportunity to work remotely from Edmonton for Canada ICI’s Calgary office, which works perfectly because it allows her to maintain a work-life balance for her family while building her career — all over the course of the pandemic.
April sees progress being made for women in commercial real estate but sees it happening slowly. She is certain the industry would benefit from the recruitment of more women at the junior level and cultivating them into senior positions.
She believes increased systematic training would attract more women to the industry, along with more women in leadership roles serving as mentors to other women.
I would love the opportunity to train and support future new hires. We need to create an environment that retains women already in the industry and provide more opportunities and exposure to leadership roles to high-potential women.
Caitlyn Sommerville, Associate Director, Mortgage Origination, Canada ICI, Edmonton
Caitlyn Sommerville could say she found real estate by way of a junior accounting role straight out of university, or you could say that real estate found her. It’s not every day that the CEO of a company shoulder-taps a person to come work in their office, but that’s exactly what happened for Caitlyn. Dale Klein, CEO of Canada ICI invited Caitlyn to work alongside him at the firm, believing it would be better suited for her. The experience she gained under Dale’s wing, and in his office, proved invaluable, and the opportunities, plentiful.
Caitlyn loves the dynamic, fast-paced work environment at Canada ICI and enjoys the variety her work provides, a different deal every day. After spending some time as a mortgage broker, a new opportunity emerged for her as a director for Canada ICI’s new CMHC program. Caitlyn found success and confidence by participating in the inception of the CMHC program which is set to hit $1 billion in loans funded within its first year.
“Getting to be a part of something from the very start and building the structure of the program has been amazing.”
When given the choice between the two roles, she chose both. And she is successful in both, proving the effectiveness of active, ongoing mentorship, and the excellent “sky is the limit” opportunities and entrepreneurial-like paths available through working at Canada ICI.
Despite her success, she acknowledges that the commercial real estate industry is predominantly male and sees this as a challenge for women because it can be intimidating for a young person starting out and building professional relationships, as it was for her.
She would like more women to benefit from careers offered by the industry and to see an increase in the number of female developers and investors, and more female-owned brokerages, but like her female colleagues, Caitlyn sees progress happening slowly.
The way to see real progress is to actively recruit women to the industry.
Brandon Kot, Managing Partner, Canada ICI, Edmonton
Brandon Kot recognizes that there are too few women in commercial real estate and wants to take authentic, actionable steps toward elevating and recruiting more women in the industry.
He believes the impressive success and experience that Michelle, April, and Caitlyn have gained in their rightful careers speaks to the opportunities that the commercial real estate industry affords, and to the mentorship and platform that Canada ICI offers. He encourages more women to join the “sometimes tough but incredibly rewarding” commercial real estate industry.
Although Canada ICI’s Corporate Services department tends to skew more female, these female leaders tend to not sit at the forefront of the organization, but they are crucial to its success. Brandon recognizes that women are still underrepresented in client-facing and leadership roles, and Canada ICI has much work to do.
Brandon acknowledges that Michelle, April, and Caitlyn are trailblazers for the rest of the industry, and he recently started a women-led think tank where these leaders of industry provide their personal and female perspectives as it relates to recruitment and company culture. Their vision is supported by Canada ICI, and the firm has already changed its language and entry requirements to onboard more female leaders into the organization.
Canada ICI is developing an emerging leader onboarding program for women in partnership with various post-secondary institutions across the country to provide future female leaders with an opportunity to dip their toes into the industry and gain meaningful work experience while still pursuing their degrees.
Getting your foot in the door is the most challenging part of breaking into the industry as a new grad. It’s especially challenging for women in an industry that skews much more male. Our job is to open the door wide and provide a level playing field for women to learn about our industry and organization.
Brandon realizes that nothing is an overnight fix and in order to achieve more female advisors first the industry needs more female analysts, the starting point towards becoming a broker.
Opening the Canada ICI office in Vancouver has been a catalyst to putting action to what has been long known within the industry, not only because Michelle challenged Canada ICI to do so, but because it’s never been more obvious within the industry. “Advisors don’t grow on trees. We need to cultivate them from the ground up.”
Canada ICI is a dynamic place to work and has an aggressive growth trajectory as indicated by the doubling of the number of brokers hired by the Vancouver office this past year. “We are evolving, and we’re committed to developing a more durable organization through a focus on diversity and mentorship. Together, we can break those glass ceilings.”
It’s through authentic intention, setting a goal, and aiming for it, that change happens. In the next four to six years, Canada ICI aims to have women in 30 per cent of the firm’s principal roles by onboarding women into the business earlier in the career development cycle.
Women in commercial real estate need a positive environment that provides opportunities to grow and gain confidence in reaching their potential. I know we can be that place for women and other diverse people alike.