I often receive emails from college students and recent grads asking me about the best path to real estate success. Many aspire to work at large private equity shops like Blackstone or Carlyle and transition to working with seasoned and well-capitalized operators and when they have the right experience and Rolodex of contacts they hope to go off on their own and build extreme wealth. My response to them is usually twofold; while this is a great career path for some, in today’s environment you have to take what you can get and you must look at your existing skills and interests and see how they align with various sectors of the business.
What’s great about real estate is that there’s no one path, no one background that is key to entry. Often times the career path is dictated by the skills of the individuals: do you understand construction, design, or sales? If you look at most of the major developers, they started with a particular skill. Gerry Hines was a mechanical engineer, Trammel Crow was an accountant, and Stephen Ross was a tax attorney.
There was an interesting article in Crain’s New York this week about one of my favorite developers, Young Woo. Young Woo has thrived in New York City real estate despite his unusual background. He was born in Korea, lived in Paraguay and Argentina, and moved to New York in 1972 to study architecture. As a result, he doesn’t have the same background and contacts as typical developers. He attributes much of his success to his diverse background.
“We can’t play the same game as [big developers] because we haven’t got their networks,” said Margarette Lee, a principal at Youngwoo. “We have to do something special.”
A diverse background brings a unique way of thinking and a unique set of skills and contacts. Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures, a large Venture Capital fund, found that entrepreneurs usually come from outside the domain, yet are obsessed with the opportunity to disrupt the new field with a fresh perspective.
As a career-long real estate professional I’m cognizant of this and strive to mix it up with people outside the real estate business. Having a discussion with someone who’s working for a tech start-up or is creating a new product may challenge the way we think about pricing, marketing, or customer service. Don’t do something because that’s the way it’s always been done. Challenge assumptions and never accept the status quo.
When thinking about you career in real estate don’t worry about the perfect path to success and don’t be arrogant about your knowledge or degree – instead, put your head down and go do great work, wherever that may be.