The first realtor association was founded in 1980, men only. Women have been realtors since the 1920s and saw their rise in the 1940s for selling homes in the postwar period, just as single-family homes were being built as part of suburban sprawl. With women at the helm of households, they felt they could speak to suburban wives to garner sales.
Ebby Halliday became a residential realtor in Dallas in the late 1930s and became a mainstay in the industry for decades. Her namesake firm is over 75 years old today, and her team helps sell over 20,000 homes in north Texas every year. Halliday, who wrote an autobiography called “Ebby Halliday: The First Lady of Real Estate,” believed that above all else, one must: “Improve your life by improving the lives of those around you.”
More recently, there are dozens of women realtors running their own firms, winning awards and working with cities to build public transit. Here are some of the top women leaders in real estate, both commercial and residential.
1. Dorcas T. Helfant-Browning
She started her career in 1967. Only seven years later, she already owned her own realty firm. Helfant-Browning was the first female president of the National Association of Realtors back in 1992 and has since changed the real estate industry, which has seen a shift to accept more women in the field. During her time at the NAR, she fused forces with other realtors and had a meeting with the Bush administration to support tax reforms that relieve the credit crunch for commercial and investment properties. She also helped develop government affairs strategies as the chairman of Political Affairs at the NAR.
Now she is the principal broker and a managing partner with Coldwell Banker Professional Realtors in Virginia Beach. Her advice to young realtors is this: “Look for an office with a reputation for excellent training and support and ask the right questions, like, ‘how will you get me from Point A to Point B and Point C?’” It’s as important for you to interview the company, as it is for them to interview you.”
2. MaryAnne Gilmartin
After over 20 years at Forest City Ratner, Gilmartin co-founded L&L MAG, a renowned real estate firm. Some of her notable projects include the New York Times headquarters, a skyscraper in midtown that is over 2 million square feet, to the $4B Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn, which became the Barclays Arena. She is currently working on developing 241 West 28th Street, a through-block multifamily in Chelsea.
“I will no longer do a panel that’s all women, men need to be involved in the conversation and need to be participating, if we want to see change,” she said in a recent interview. “One of my hopes is the ‘she-building,’ I want to put together a building in New York where every part of the process is done with a woman in command. Just like the New York Times project did for me, who knows what that kind of building and process will launch for women starting their tenures today.”
3. Judith Kunoff
Kunoff recently won the Barrier Breaker Award as part of the 2019 Women in Real Estate Forum in New York. She has not only broken barriers for herself, but many women in the industry. As the senior vice president of East Side Access for MTA Capital Construction, she is overseeing the expansion of the Long Island Railroad into Grand Central Terminal, which is set to open next year.
4. Kim Roy
Since 2017 Roy has been the CEO of HITT, a construction operation firm. As one of the top women CEOs in the construction industry, which only has roughly 10% of women in leadership positions, she has mentored many women along the way, helping them into vice president and senior vice president roles (she also serves on the advisory board of the Virginia Tech Myers-Lawson School of Construction, where she once studied).
Her advice to those entering the industry today is to ask questions.
“The commercial real estate industry, specifically the building industry, is full of opportunity,” she recently said. “I encourage young talent to never stop learning and seeking new challenges. Find a great mentor and take risks.”
5. Cate Agnew
Agnew is the executive director and “chief real estate valuation officer” of Natixis CIB in New York, where she helps assist with the commercial acquisition process with a financial management system. She gives back by devoting her time to Commercial Real Estate Women, an organization in New York, and at the Counselor of Real Estate, offering outreach to women and minorities through the organization. Agnew co-founded Women in PropTech, an organization that aims to bring more visibility to women leaders in real estate.
6. Debra Cafaro
She’s the CEO of Ventas Inc, a real estate investment trust that owns over 1,200 healthcare properties across the U.S., U.K. and Canada. Since she took the reins at Ventas in 1999, Carfaro saved the company from bankruptcy (they were $1B in debt after a major tenant stopped paying rent, among other issues, so Cafaro restructured its assets and restructured its bank debt). It took years to recover, but she managed to negotiate some time with banks while maintaining liquidity.
Among the top CEOs recognized by Harvard Business Review and Forbes, Cafaro has not only thrived for herself, but managed to bring at least 30% of women onto Ventas’ board of directors. One key to her success has been risk-taking.
“Taking risks has been an important part of Ventas’ success,” she said in a recent interview. “Most people do not understand that, sometimes, the status quo is the riskiest approach. We all get comfortable with the idea that things we’re familiar with have less risk. And that is analytically false.”