Commercial real estate is not for the faint of heart. Whether you’re selling an undeveloped parcel or a downtown skyscraper, these deals feature long timelines, millions of dollars, and many moving parts.

The barriers to entry for aspiring commercial sales agents can be daunting. Female agents and brokers report facing additional challenges in this predominantly male specialty. These challenges sometimes take the form of offensive comments and discrimination. Women in commercial real estate also often feel the pressure to prove themselves more capable than their male colleagues.

A 2017 NAR membership survey indicated that 4% of female respondents practiced commercial real estate exclusively, compared with 15% of male respondents. Among dual specialists, 26% of female respondents practiced residential and commercial, compared with 41% of male respondents.

Texas REALTOR® magazine asked three commercial experts to share their experiences as women in commercial real estate. They credit education—formal classes, mentors, and skill development—as instrumental in building thriving careers.

Commercial real estate deals have so much variety and creativity that there is no one ideal path to success, they say. Jump at interesting opportunities. Make strong connections and make the most of each transaction. In all things, act with integrity and authenticity.

Build Your Network

For Daphne Zollinger, real estate is about relationships. She was selling homes and apartment buildings when she connected with the owners of a 13-acre commercial property along I-35 in Denton. Those first commercial clients were early mentors, walking her through the purchase, infrastructure build out, subdivision, and sale.

That deal helped Zollinger land her next project. “Another developer said, ‘I like what you did over there, but if you want my listing, you have to go get your CCIM designation,’” she says.

She signed up for courses that afternoon. “I went back to him and said, ‘Hey, I’m in the queue. I’m starting my courses, and I want your listing.’” She sold that 14-acre commercial site to a large multi-family developer.

Zollinger has built her Denton-based brokerage, Daphne Real Estate, through referrals and repeat customers—a classic residential strategy that Zollinger adapted for her commercial real estate practice. She offers a high-touch approach she calls hometown service: getting to know clients as people while helping them achieve their investment and development goals.

“I know a lot of commercial brokers do a lot of cold calling. I don’t. I take care of my clients and I ask them to send over the people they know. And they do,” she says. “I don’t treat the transaction as a single transaction. I treat it as the first. If I treat this person well, they’re going to continue to do business with me.”

Zollinger maintains the relationships she builds. She says she is “a little bit old school”—she believes in business-to-business networking, client parties, and making introductions. Yes, the deals can be very interesting, she says, but the people are the best part of commercial real estate for her.

I am always surprised how many people are willing to help and share their knowledge
Daphne Zollinger

She has faced challenges in her career. Before she got her license, a male sales agent told her commercial real estate is not a business for a single mom. That only motivated her even more.

“As a woman, I feel I have to work harder, and I have to make sure my skillset is sharpened,” she says. “I’m sure many people feel like the underdog. I’ve been doing this for 17 years now. Especially a female working in what’s historically been a male-dominated world, I have to make sure I outwork my competitors. I bring things to the table that they might not bring.”

Daphne Real Estate sells residential properties in addition to its commercial investments and sales.

“I think the biggest challenge is that many commercial brokers think if you sell any house you aren’t qualified to be a commercial broker. I disagree with that. I’m not going to turn away my residential business because I do commercial,” she says.

Zollinger believes strongly in continuing education and encourages female agents to get their designations. She has earned her Accredited Land Consultant, Certified Commercial Investment Member, Certified International Property Specialist, and Certified Probate Real Estate Specialist designations.

Committee Promotes Commercial Real Estate in Texas

The Texas REALTORS® Commercial Committee serves members who practice commercial real estate and positively impacts the industry through education and advocacy.

The 2021 committee is led by Chairman Daphne Zollinger, Vice-Chairman Amber Gilbert, and Liaison Michica “Mish” Guillory. This year marks the first time in committee history in which women have held all of the committee’s leadership roles. The committee discusses ways to encourage REALTORS® to get involved in commercial real estate. It also reviews commercial real estate forms and contracts for possible improvements.

The committee proposed, developed, and approved the Texas Accredited Commercial Specialist certification, a Texas REALTORS® program that provides a steppingstone to more advanced commercial education. TACS courses have already begun with more on the way.

Committee members also stay up to date on developing issues, such as energy saving technologies, proptech, and innovations that help keep people safe during the coronavirus pandemic.

Members interested in serving on the 2022 Commercial Committee can apply when the Texas REALTORS® committee signup opens in late spring.

“I don’t get them just to get the letters. It’s for the knowledge and the networks. I recently got my Senior Real Estate Specialist designation. I have clients in that age group, and it’s good to have that knowledge.”

She also tries to stay humble and curious. She is never afraid to ask questions, even basic ones. “I am always surprised how many people are willing to help and share their knowledge,” she says. “Whether it is an ego or pride thing, many people don’t want to ask. I say ask.”

Create New Opportunities

It’s common to focus on economic development’s public side, such as government incentives for new projects. Amber Gilbert is interested in the collaboration between the public and private sector to consider how buying and selling well-planned real estate lead to job growth and value appreciation.

Gilbert is director of business development at Brooks, a political subdivision of the state of Texas created to redevelop the former Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio. The 1,308-acre mixed-use community is owned and managed by the Brooks Development Authority, which is governed by an 11-member board of directors appointed by the mayor and San Antonio City Council.

“In economic development, I get the opportunity to bring great jobs to my city through real estate,” she says. “In public-private partnerships, we can fill a community need while developing a financially rewarding project for the prospect.

“I love most the ability to use my skills to help others reach their financial goals or bring jobs or be part of helping the community. We get the opportunity to help others realize their vision through real estate.”

Gilbert got into commercial real estate as a landlord. She rented a room in her house to a friend, and that rent eventually paid her mortgage.

“During the real estate process, I thought I could provide better service to customers as an agent, and the benefit of a tenant paying my mortgage perked my interest in getting my license,” she says. She juggled three jobs—advertising, a retail sales job, and real estate on the weekends—before switching to real estate full time.

In economic development, I get the opportunity to bring great jobs to my city through real estate
Amber Gilbert

“I think as a female you can take the opportunity to market your unique differences to stand out,” she says. “The industry is competitive, so we need to find what gives us an edge. My advertising background showed me that authenticity is the best marketing.”

Gilbert faced many of the same setbacks new agents face. People wasted her time and resources without an intention to purchase property. She dealt with some dishonest people. “Starting in commercial, I was young and I looked even younger, so people were hesitant to want to invest significant funds with me,” she says.

A big moment came in her late 20s, when a client invested most of his retirement in a deal she put together. “I could acknowledge how much trust is required to be successful in the business,” she says.

She grew her commercial real estate firm, First Texan Realty, and was honored by the CCIM Institute and the North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. Her time in retail and advertising highly influenced her customer-first approach to real estate.

“Above all things, do what is right!” she says. “I don’t value being the broker who sells the most transactions per month or year. I am guided by the business and the client first. I’m reminded there will be plenty of deals, and integrity matters. It has to be a win-win, and I believe this mindset has attracted solid relationships.”

There is no one path to success, according to Gilbert. “There is so much opportunity in commercial real estate for a career path or to invest your personal funds to help your family and friends to have a better financial future.

“I highly recommend investing in education along with getting work experience. In my case, I was willing to work several jobs to get the experience. There seem to be easier paths than mine—like internships and other programs. Take advantage of these opportunities.”

Never Give Up

Michica “Mish” Guillory left work in radio to take a job assisting the marketing director of a shopping mall. She soon became fascinated with property management.

Preparing for a celebrity autograph signing at the mall meant cooling down the building beforehand and coordinating with housekeeping to keep the bathrooms and food court clean. It also meant staying within occupancy limits, as Guillory learned when the fire marshal threatened to shut down a Jay-Z and Roc-A-Fella Records event.

As the assistant and later the marketing director, Guillory absorbed as much as she could about how the mall functioned. “I really fell in love with buildings,” she says.

Guillory focused on commercial property management. She enjoyed solving mysteries and untangling problems. “You give me a building and tell me, ‘Mish, go figure it out.’ That has been the thing that gets me ramped up every single day,” she says.

One time she received a complaint that a commercial building smelled bad. After she ruled out housekeeping and pest control theories, she decided to call in plumbers, who performed a smoke test. They discovered cut pipes were releasing sewer gases. The problem was solved before the building lost tenants.

Guillory adopted a strategy of no excuses when working with tenants. “You accept the complaint. You thank them for the complaint. You even ask them if they have any thoughts or solutions if it’s a really big issue. And then you fix it.” Success meant the phone wasn’t ringing.

At the time I got into this business in 2000, I didn’t see anybody that looked like me
Michica “Mish” Guillory

She says while there are more women in commercial property management, the commercial real estate workforce in general is predominantly male.

“At the time I got into this business in 2000, I didn’t see anybody that looked like me. I weighed close to 300 pounds. I was a big girl, and I was African American. That never stopped me from doing a thing. But I also had to always be as good as, if not better.”

She faced slurs and offensive comments said to her face, being paid less than her peers, and being singled out without cause.

“Despite the bumps, I’ve enjoyed my career. All those things I went through are helping future generations of REALTORS®, and that makes every moment worth it,” she says.

Today, Guillory owns Houston-based boutique brokerage The Guillory Group Real Estate Firm and The Guillory Group School of Real Estate. She’s a licensed broker and CE educator.

“I am very happy every time a person of color takes one of my classes and says, ‘It’s really cool to see you because you look like me.’ I tell that person, ‘Promise me you’re going to move ahead and stick with it.’ It’s not like it’s some impenetrable club you can’t get into.

“Sometimes as minorities we have this preconceived idea that there’s no room for us in there. Oh, yes there is room for us! Yet, how do we break in? I tell people that maybe it isn’t the slow stroll you think it is.” You may have to be the trailblazer, she says.

Her advice to female agents and brokers is to never give up. Commercial real estate can be a tough business. Guillory says to be prepared for a less friendly experience—especially coming from residential real estate—and to know your business, data, and numbers inside and out.

“I am still very much a student,” she says. “I still do study air conditioning systems, fire systems. I can’t help it.”

Get Started in Commercial with the Texas Accredited Commercial Specialist Designation

If you want to start a career in commercial real estate, sign up for courses in the new Texas Accredited Commercial Specialist program. Texas REALTORS® developed the TACS program as a steppingstone to more advanced commercial education. TACS can help new agents, residential agents who want to switch to commercial, and less experienced commercial agents who want to sharpen their skills before seeking a higher designation.

To earn the certification, applicants must complete three 30-hour commercial courses; work as an agent with a broker-mentor and complete two original commercial real estate transactions; produce two professional references; and join a commercial information exchange.

The coursework includes the fundamentals of commercial real estate, development topics such as leasing and management, and marketing and negotiation training. The curriculum is eligible for CE and sales apprentice education (SAE) requirements. More experienced commercial agents can also earn the TACS. REALTORS® with a CCIM or SIOR designation may earn the certification with payment of the application fee. Those with five years of commercial experience, can apply for the certification after successfully passing the three TACS end-of-course exams. For more information, visit texasrealestate.com/tacs.