Commercial real estate may still be dominated by men, but that never stopped some of the industry’s top women from finding success. This month, we spoke to one such leading lady: Ms. Heidi Burkhart, president and owner of New York brokerage firm Dane Real Estate.
Burkhart started the company in 2008, at the age of 26. Today, she’s a leader in affordable housing brokerage as well as an emerging developer in the region.
We caught up with her to find out how she did it, from meeting the right mentors to hustling ’til it hurts. Here’s what we learned:
Sometimes, it’s better not to know what you’re getting into.
“I’m happy I was so naive,” Burkhart says of her early days as a broker. “I was twenty years old, and I don’t think I would have gone into commercial real estate knowing that with brokerage you can make $0 completely! I was making $0 for my first three years."
Burkhart's niche is affordable housing properties, which can take a while to close even after the contract is signed. "Everyone told me I was doing the wrong thing. The people I was working with at the time were kind of against the situation, because things weren’t closing on time like in the conventional market."
“But luckily, I didn’t listen,” she says. "I was stubborn and kept on going because I loved the people in affordable housing. It was such a niche industry, so I was lucky to stumble on it and build from it."
Learn from the masters.
Burkhart credits her success to the people who shared their knowledge and encouragement with her early on. Her first mentors included Brian Flaherty (then at Aimco) and Larry Gluck (of Stellar Management).
“Larry took me to every single meeting that he had and gave me chances to work with him,” Burkhart says. "Now he’s got one of the top residential firms in the city. From working with him, I got into working with very credible, distinguished individuals who became mentors as well."
Her advice to aspiring brokers? “Find those people you respect and try to work with them and just hustle your a** off. To master a craft or a career, you need to work with the masters. Having Larry and Brian give me their time and patience as well as their knowledge was everything."
Consider CRE an equal playing field—and treat everyone equally.
As for CRE being a male-dominated profession, Burkhart says she tries not to think of it that way. “It’s very male-dominated because there are more men doing it than women. But in regards to excelling, I see it as an equal playing field because I don’t like to see it any other way, personally."
“As a woman, my advice is to try not to think there are any lines, and try not to have any animosity about the supposed gender split and how you’re treated, because the more you don’t see that, the more you will prevail,” says Burkhart. "Everyone’s a person at the end of the day, and you need to treat everyone the same."
Ask for opportunities. (And the sooner you start, the better).
“It’s funny, because you always fear asking people for things, but once you start, it’s amazing how supportive you find them to be,” Burkhart says. "As I started asking for opportunities to work on ground-up developments, people were excited to say yes and to see me take the next step. It’s been cool seeing people’s reactions and thinking, ‘I should have done this a long time ago!’"
“I think that’s one difference between men and women. We women want to have a good base of knowledge before we act, whereas men will build confidence faster and express what they’d like a little bit more,” Burkhart says. "The guys go after it knowing they’re going to get to where they need to be quickly."
“Be sure to start asking people things,” she advises, "because you’ll be shocked what they'll actually do for you if you’re a good person."
Always be hustling.
“When I mentor people, I say, ‘You have to keep on hustling, you have to keep on looking for your next deal and doing calls and canvassing,” Burkhart says.
"It’s very tedious. People say no to you a lot, and people are rude a lot. When you get someone nice who’s willing to talk to you, you basically will do anything for them, because it’s such a breath of fresh air to get someone laughing and actually being cordial to you!”
“I get shocked by how people treat brokers, to be very honest. If you treat us nicely, we originate a lot of great deals for you, and we don’t cost anything. I think brokers get a bad rep, and a lot of people don’t really realize we’re doing things for free and are only as good as our last deal,” she says. "I give kudos to all the brokers out there, because it’s not for the faint of heart at all."
Set attainable goals.
Today, Burkhart’s whole team works together to originate deals. “I tried hiring other brokers but that didn’t work for me, because I cannot not pay someone. So we work together to get deals done and try to use everyone’s strengths. We do a lot of calls each week—I’d say about 100 a day per person—and we also do emails and a lot of marketing."
“For me, the goal is to get an offer a week, which I’ll probably do up to two to keep things moving. I try to set goals that are attainable for people, so you’re not out-goaling your team. You want to make sure you set goals that are achievable so people don’t get frustrated."
Consider the legacy you want to create.
Being a broker is hard, and not cashing a paycheck for several years can be even harder. But Burkhart says that making that initial sacrifice while learning from the best people in the field (often for free) can be the foundation of a lasting legacy.
"If you’re willing to sacrifice in the beginning, you’ll come out ahead and create an awesome legacy that will live on forever. Money can’t do that: you can’t take it with you to the grave. So what kind of legacy do you want to leave? What kind of career do you want to build? And who do you want to surround yourself with?"
“The commercial real estate world is such a dynamic industry with amazing individuals who have extensive knowledge. It’s an industry I’m so blessed to have fallen into serendipitously and rather blindly and naively, and I credit a lot to all those I have learned from: I’m blessed to have had the clients I’ve had and the partners I’ve worked with,” she says.