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CAR panel features the women who are transforming Chicago real estate

by Emily Mack

Shaylyn Cullen, Collete English Dixon, Cherryl Thomas, Suzet McKinney and Antje Gehrken

On her first day of work in general contracting, Shaylyn Cullen, president of Cullen Construction Management, arrived on site to find she was the only woman on the job. It was the same story on most other job sites, she told an audience at Titans of Industry: Women in Real Estate, the Chicago Association of REALTORS®’ annual forum. “We want to give back to the women trying to make their own name … Sometimes this industry is not always open to women. But if we answer the phone and talk to each other and ask those questions, it helps,” Cullen said. 

Her commanding story shaped what was the first of many panels at the conference, which took place today in the West Loop. Following last year’s remote event, the occasion offered the exciting chance for women in the industry to connect and learn from one another in person.

Cullen took part in the day’s first panel, “Meet the Women Transforming Chicago Real Estate,” alongside Suzet McKinney, principal and director of life sciences at Sterling Bay, Cherryl Thomas, chief strategy officer at Ardmore Roderick and Collete English Dixon, executive director at the Marshall Bennett Institute of Real Estate. After an energetic welcome from public speaker Marki Lemons-Ryhal — encouraging attendees to snap a celebratory selfie alongside fellow professionals — all four women took to the stage, moderated by Antje Gehrken, president of the Chicago Association of REALTORS® (CAR).

With each introduction, the wide professional breadth of this panel was quickly evident. Coming from Ardmore Roderick, a construction management firm, Thomas offered a hands-on perspective to new development. As a full-service civil engineer in infrastructure and transportation, Thomas gives the go-ahead on so many real estate projects and formerly served as the building commissioner for the City of Chicago. Above all, Thomas shared, she wants to see Chicago neighborhoods preserved, rather than torn down completely. “No matter the sector, we want to find quarters with housing stock that can be redeveloped and repurposed,” she explained. Currently, Thomas is working on a project that will extend the CTA Red Line into the far south suburbs, helping to repurpose historic neighborhoods.

Dixon, entering the conversation from an educational background, discussed the importance of raising a new crop of socially conscious and equitably focused talent. From her position at the Marshall Bennett Institute of Real Estate, Dixon said she aims to spotlight inequities in the industry while finding opportunities for improvement. She spoke at length about the transformative power of real estate for the individual, as a tool for people to utilize what has historically been denied to them. “[We need to] make young people know that real estate is an industry that’s there for them to engage in … and to find economic pathways in,” she said.

McKinney, who leads her company’s life science division, impressed upon the audience the growing potential of the life science field — particularly in real estate. The discipline, which centers around health care innovation, offers developers a unique space to seize. As McKinney explained, combination laboratory-office buildings are on the rise, in addition to new health care institutions. In her position at Sterling Bay, McKinney said, she’s able to leverage real estate as a tool to improve health outcomes, particularly in vulnerable communities. “We want to not only build up life sciences but lift Chicago up as a center for life sciences, because of the significant economic benefits that life science brings to a city,” McKinney said.

Cullen was the final speaker on the panel, sharing her especially unique experience as a woman in construction. Now the president of her own firm, she reflected on the early days in engineering. Having faced the gender disparity in her field so directly, Cullen spent the following years working to fill that gap and eventually setting up a mentoring program for younger professionals. Now, she says, “Walking from my office, down Wacker and along the river, I look up and along buildings and I feel empowered. The city empowers me when I walk through it by myself.”

On that meaningful note, the first panel concluded, and the day continued — full of speeches, networking and enthusiastic real estate chatter.

The roster of scheduled seminars included:

“The Secrets of Negotiation Skills in Everyday Life,” featuring Grace Kaage, managing director at Compass

“Closing the Gender Pay Gap,” featuring Trish Gordon, vice president of program management at JLL, Dr. Jessica Lautz, vice president of demographics and behavioral insights at the National Association of REALTORS®, Dana O’Leary, chief of staff at the Illinois Department of Labor and Sylvia Seabolt, national president of the Women’s Council of REALTORS®, moderated by Rebecca Thomson, regional vice president at Coldwell Banker Realty

“A Fascinating, Behind-the-Scenes Look at Digital Brand Strategy,” featuring Kikora Mason, deputy director of digital strategy for Mayor Lori Lightfoot

Meet CAR’s All-Women Executive Leadership Team,” featuring CAR President Antje Gehrken, CAR President Elect-Sarah Ware, CAR Treasurer Drussy Hernandez, CAR Immediate Past-President Nykea Pippion McGriff, CAR Appointed Director Erika Villegas and CAR CEO Michelle Mills Clement

“Breaking Glass Ceilings in Politics,” featuring Josina Morita, commissioner for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, Evelyn Sanguinetti, executive director at HOPE for Fair Housing and former Illinois lieutenant governor and Karen Yarbrough, county clerk for Cook County, moderated by Erika Villegas, managing broker and partner at RE/MAX in the Village

“Not Recommended but Necessary: Tools to Successfully Manage Self-Employment, Family and Chronic Disease,” featuring Marki Lemons-Ryhal, real estate educator and ReMarkiTable, LLC founder

“Identifying the Power in Your Value Proposition,” featuring Rachel Scheid, vice president of agent development city central at Coldwell Banker Realty

“Managing Your Most Important Asset — Yourself,” featuring Ebony Scott, executive director at Spark Chicago, Amy Galvin, co-founder and chief culture officer at Luxury Living Chicago Realty and Tammy Hajjar Miller, regional senior vice president of Midwestern states at the Federal Savings Bank, moderated by CAR CEO Michelle Mills Clement

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