Integrity And Guts: What It Takes To Make It As A Woman In CRE Finance

Starting out in the commercial real estate finance industry is never easy. For a woman in 1986, it was even harder.

That was when Rhonda Sands started a career that would eventually lead her to become a senior vice president of investments for Frost Bank. But she made a huge mistake early on that could have stopped it cold.


Bisnow/Maddy McCarty

JLL Capital Markets’ Cortney Cole, Quest Trust Co.’s Anne Marie Rogers, Greystar’s Kristin Burton, JPMorgan Chase Commercial Banking’s Danielle Davis, Frost Bank’s Rhonda Sands and WC Construction’s Summer Carter.

“I inherited a loan that was secured by a letter of credit … and I had a tickler that said it matured on one day, but it actually matured on a date that was two weeks earlier,” Sands said at Bisnow’s Houston Women Leading Real Estate event Thursday at the JW Marriott Houston Downtown. 

Sands’ mistake taught her an important lesson that has carried her through her career and she’s been quick to pass on to others: Be honest and own your mistakes. As a result of the miscue, she had to stand at the end of a long table full of men who made up the company’s committee and answer the president when he asked who mismanaged the loan, she said.

“Afterwards, people came up to me and said, ‘That really took guts,’” Sands said at the event honoring Houston women in the commercial real estate finance industry for their leadership and perseverance during a difficult time in the capital market.

“I said was, ‘All I did was tell the truth.’ I got farther because I did.” 

Sands always owns her mistakes, but doesn’t make the same mistakes twice, she said. And she no longer accepts letters of credit, she said, garnering a laugh from the audience.

Like the honorees, the panelists discussing pioneering the path in commercial real estate finance were quick to share what helped them in the early stages of their careers and how that knowledge can benefit women following in their footsteps.

The event came as the number of women in the C-suites of equity and finance firms stayed relatively flat but ticked up this year to 26.7% from just under 26% last year, according to Bisnow‘s diversity in CRE data series. Women now hold 35.9% of boardroom seats in the sector.

“Kindness goes a long way in this industry,” said Kristin Burton, the managing director of finance for Greystar

It’s important to treat everyone with respect and kindness, no matter if their position is below you or above you, she said.

“I always try to remember the mentors in my life who have shown respect and allowed me to come into the C-suites with them, and treated me the same as an analyst that they treated the CEO of a company,” Burton said.

Now is an apt time to use lessons learned from past downturns, including the Global Financial Crisis, she said.

“It’s difficult to ask a borrower to do something they might not have the capacity to do,” she said.

Women at the event said it’s vital to remember that the greater financial landscape might impact projects in unexpected ways, but it is not the fault of any certain individual or cause. Coming to terms with market conditions is key.

Some projects are not performing as Greystar anticipated since interest rates “ran away from us,” Burton said, but it provides the opportunity to come up with creative fixes and continue to build relationships.

“At the end of the day, there’s going to be a solution,” she said.

Even when you do everything right, you will still face trials. Danielle Davis, vice president and southwest head of diverse businesses for JPMorgan Chase Commercial Banking, said she learned this when she had her role eliminated.

“Twice, when I was at the top of my game,” Davis said.

This happened at times when the finance sector wasn’t doing well, she said, allowing her to think about the skill sets that she has and how they could transfer to other lines of business within the firms, she said. Though it was challenging, Davis found roles within the firm and has been with JPMorgan Chase for 22 years, she said.

Davis is no stranger to asking for what she wants out of a career, starting when she was in high school. She called INROADS, an organization that helps minority students get internships at Fortune 500 companies, and pitched herself as a champion.

“‘Hi, my name is Danielle Davis. I’m a rising senior. I’m in the top 10% of my class and I’d like an internship,’” Davis said. “The lady laughed at me on the phone. She said, ‘Honey, you’ve got to be in college.’”

After a week and a half, she tried again and secured an internship with Bank One — even though she had yet to start college.

“And 25 years later, I’m still here,” Davis said.

After years of experience in a field, the way you treated people along the way can come back to benefit you, Sands said. Integrity is something no one can take away from you, she said. 

“If you stay true to yourself, and you follow who you are, that will get you through your entire journey,” she said. “You’re going to fail at some things, and I failed at some things, but it’s how you’ve been treating people along the way and, and telling truths, that gets you there.” 

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