From young professionals to power brokers

by Emily Mack

Real estate can be an alienating industry. But what if Chicago agents were all on the same team? That’s the thought behind the Young Professionals Network (YPN), an organization through the Chicago Association of REALTORS® (CAR) which provides a point of connection for newer brokers. Think of YPN like a locker room for Chicago real estate … a lot of MVPs have passed through its ranks.

Chicago’s YPN chapter began in 2009 and before long, its board filled up with ambitious young agents. Among those early leaders: Tommy Choi, Matt Laricy, Scott Newman, Grigory Pekarsky, Lauren Mitrick Wood, Matt Farrell, Rebecca Thomson, Niko Apostal, Joel Holland, Deena Zimmerman, Mike McElroy, Nick NastosJessica Kern and Erin Mandel.

“Look at all the names,” says Laricy, who today is the managing broker of The Matt Laricy Group. He’s fond of the sports metaphor: “It’s like ’92 dream team.” And indeed, the list does read like a roster of Chicago real estate’s major players. But that’s no coincidence. Those agents successfully leveraged the relationships formed through YPN throughout their careers.

Mandel, now the principle of Mandel Residential, is so passionate when she describes the positive impact that YPN had on her growth in the industry. “There we were, this group of like-minded individuals, with different backgrounds working at different firms,” she says. “Essentially, we were competitors. But we didn’t think that it needed to be that way.” Through YPN, Mandel and her peers began hosting events, from fundraisers to breakfast panels, all so young agents could feel like they belonged somewhere.

Mandel joined YPN in 2010 after getting a call from Mitrick Wood, who served on its inaugural board the year before. Mitrick Wood, today a team lead at Olive Well, had been a rookie star in real estate, making Forbes’ prestigious 30 Under 30 list in 2011. At that time, Mitrick Wood also served on the board of the National Association of REALTORS®, where she was the only member in her 20s. “I was always the youngest at the table,” she said. “Then YPN came along and those were my people.”

For the first time in her fast-paced career, Mitrick Wood says, she’d found a place where she could bond with other Realtors — and even ask “dumb questions.” Almost immediately, education became a cornerstone of Chicago’s evolving YPN. Monthly networking breakfasts, which still take place at Manny’s Cafeteria & Delicatessen, featured top producers who would share their stories and take questions.

“It’s my favorite program, and I still go as much as I can,” says Tommy Choi, co-founder and owner of Weinberg Choi Residential who, more recently, was appointed the treasurer of Illinois REALTORS®. Back in the day, Choi recalled, “Maybe 15 people would show up. We only had enough money in the budget for one tray of Danishes.” Now, the Manny’s breakfasts regularly pull 100-plus attendees.

“Seeing 100 people there, ready to learn and being friendly … I truly believe this is why we started back then,” Choi says. Nowadays, there are many avenues for working agents to continue their training. But that was not always the case. Those YPN talks provided a space for curious minds when it was needed — desperately. “We were in a recession that was caused by the housing industry,” Choi said, reflecting on that period. “It was a really unique time … so, the industry was very dog-eat-dog. Everyone was trying to make ends meet.”

Frankly, for those first board members, the collaborative spirit of real estate was not felt outside of YPN. So, they created their own community. In addition to the breakfasts, the YPN class volunteered together and organized a variety of networking mixers and the annual RPAC fundraising gala, Casino Royale: a beloved black-tie tradition that continues today. As Mandel describes it, the goal was to build an organization focused on real estate in the macro sense, looking far beyond the specifics of any single deal.

But in doing so, lots (and lots) of deals were also made. Although YPN members hailed from different firms, they realized they could use their sphere of influence to lift each other up — and did. From client referrals to multiple-offer situations to simply asking for advice, their “cooperative brokerage,” as Mandel calls it, takes on many forms. In this business, it always helps to trust the agent on the other side of the negotiation.

“The best agents understand we are in a collaborative business, and that relationships open doors and secure contracts. People do business with people, and YPN made sure I knew all the right people at the right time in my career,” Farrell says. Now the managing partner at Corcoran Urban Real Estate, Farrell was the very first chair of YPN.

Laricy said that Farrell even let him work out of his downtown office, years ago, before Laricy had his own — “even though it was a totally competing company!”

Choi, too, remembers how surprising the YPN alliance could seem. “For a while, outsiders would look at us like we’re a bunch of weirdos. Like, ‘You’re each other’s competition. Why are you spending so much time together?” Now, he gets emotional just thinking about how far they’ve come. “I’m going to try not to get choked up,” Choi said when asked about how YPN changed the way he sees real estate.

It is a profound topic, considering how the connections forged were not just professional. They were, and are, intensely personal. Those early YPN members have spent years hanging out: meeting for catch-up lunches or drinks or working out at the Dave Barton gym. As Laricy proudly states, he turned Choi into a “wine snob.” (Choi also like to dish on Laricy: “He’s one of the biggest teddy bears.”)

But even more proud is Mandel when she shares that she’s been to all of her YPN friends’ weddings. One of those weddings was particularly special as two members from that original group tied the knot: Farrell and Thomson. Mitrick Wood introduced them.

Around that time, YPN was collaborating with the Women’s Council of REALTORS® (WCR) to plan the first-ever Casino Royale. Thomson was heavily involved with WCR, so she and Farrell worked together co-planning the event … and the rest is Chicago real estate history. Farrell and Thomson tied the knot in 2017. Meanwhile, Casino Royale went off without a hitch, raising more than $20,000 for RPAC.

At the time, it was a record-breaking sum. But the current YPN board shattered records again in 2022, raising more than $100,000 at their own Casino Royale. Clearly, the organization is still going strong. Though it may look different than it did 2010, the eager spirit is there — and in this evolving market, it’s more vital than ever.

“When homes are selling at a rapid pace, people can gallivant around the industry,” Mandel says. “But when a recession and inflation are part of the conversation … it’s important to cooperate so we can move through transactions with grace.” For any agent wondering how, YPN may be the perfect starting point.

If you’re interested in joining YPN:

The YPN advisory board is run by a new chair and vice-chair each year and has a total of 15 members, who are appointed by that chair and vice-chair. To apply to join the board, visit chicagorealtor.com/getinvolved. Applications for the upcoming year are due June 30. Members then serve for one fiscal year, beginning on Oct. 1.

Any interested CAR members can also get involved by attending YPN events. The breakfast series takes place at Manny’s Cafeteria & Delicatessen on the last Wednesday of every month. Other networking mixers and volunteer events take place throughout the year. These events are all free to CAR members.

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