Women Entrepreneurs Helping Shape the Future of Detroit
According to a 2015 estimate by industry group Commercial Real Estate Women, women make up just 32 percent of all real estate development jobs in the United States. But that number represents an increase of 60 percent since 2000.
A recent article in Crain’s Detroit Business explored the ways in which women in development in Michigan are making their mark on the industry and the state—including a number of revealing and informative quotes from women who are on the front lines in shifting demographics and outdated assumptions in this traditionally male-dominated space.
Shannon Morgan, a ULI member with 23 years of experience as a real estate executive and the chief development officer for Shelborne Development in Detroit, said that the emergence of female industry leaders taking on greater responsibility is inspiring more young women to consider careers in commercial real estate.
“I’m thrilled to see the real estate sector embrace diversity and promote respect for women who increasingly are taking the lead on development projects—not just in Michigan, but across the nation,” Morgan said. “The transformation of the real estate sector into a more inclusive workforce is long overdue and provides exciting new opportunities that didn’t exist for women a generation ago.”
One of those women, 34-year-old Jenifer Acosta, the founder and CEO of Jenifer Acosta Development, is a Michigan native who earned her master’s degree in international administration and sustainable development at the University of Miami and a graduate certificate in real estate development at New York University before returning home to start her business. Acosta has made a big impact in a relatively short amount of time, with an impressive portfolio for a company that is only three years old.
Acosta Development recently completed a $7.9 million redevelopment called the Times Lofts in Bay City, Michigan, transforming the 115-year-old former newspaper building into a residential property with 31 units, and is currently working on a proposed redevelopment of the Bearinger Building in Saginaw, Michigan, a $17.9 million project that would reinvent the historic commercial building as a 76-room boutique hotel complete with 4,000 square feet (372 sq m) of commercial and restaurant space.
But Acosta’s signature project is the Legacy, a $12 million redevelopment that is turning the five-story Crapo Building in Bay City into 26 apartments, office space, and a restaurant. Acosta says that the 1890 Romanesque Revival building went through a mid-century modern renovation that obscured its historic facade.
“No one had any idea that it was under there! Other developers thought it was too far gone, and a local bank wanted to tear it down. But there was this gorgeous historic building just waiting to be revealed.”
The project was also Acosta’s first opportunity to be an owner/operator and not just an owner’s representative or consultant, something that is important to her. She says that the Legacy is on track to finish on time and on budget this September.
All told, Acosta has completed or is currently developing $43.7 million worth of projects, and 225,000 square feet (20,900 sq m) of commercial real estate.
Acosta says that working in the Mid-Michigan/Bay City area has fueled her professional growth. “The number-one question I get, both from my peers and from aspiring professionals, is: ‘How do I access capital?’ Well, smaller markets come with smaller price tags! I’m able to buy buildings at a much more reasonable price point than if I was buying the same property in Grand Rapids or Detroit.”
The local impact is also extremely rewarding, she explains. “I feel privileged to make an impact and serve my hometown community by redeveloping historic buildings. I wouldn’t be able to do this in Miami, and it wouldn’t be as meaningful.”
Acosta says that, as a younger female developer, her advice to women looking to break into this traditionally male-dominated industry is to give yourself permission to have doubts—but then to put those aside and move forward with confidence. “It’s okay to feel intimated. But, ultimately, you just need to recognize that’s self-limiting behavior. If you know you’re qualified, be bold; push forward and take the initiative.” She emphasizes the importance of professional development—conferences, workshops, continuing educational opportunities—but also the value of personal and professional curiosity and a mix of humility and self-confidence. “I know there’s always more for me to learn, but I’m confident in my vision and my voice and I don’t hesitate to raise that voice and be heard.
“I’ve found that the Michigan developer community has a strong and collaborative professional culture. We look out for and advocate for one another–—the women especially. It’s truly been an incredible experience to have an opportunity to do what I love, where I’m from, and to be able to both help build and count on this growing network of supportive and inspiring fellow developers.”
She sees the increasing diversity—both in the state and in the industry as a whole—as a sign of welcome growth. “I find that women tend to bring a different perspective. They are more likely to be focused on long-term results, more likely to factor community and neighborhood context into their decision making, and—at least in my experience—more likely to take calculated risks to preserve a sense of history and a sense of place.”
That positive community impact is also something that resonates with Kelsey von Wormer, owner of Kelsey The Landlord in Detroit. Von Wormer, who modestly describes herself as “just a landlord,” shares the same passion for rehabilitating historic buildings and the same appreciation for community building as Acosta, but she came to real estate in a very different way. Frustrated with an unresponsive Detroit landlord in 2010, she took the initiative and started fixing things herself. It was not long before she realized that she could perform those duties better than her existing landlord ever could. Inspired to acquire and renovate her own investment property, she bought a 4,000-square-foot (372 sq m) 1890 Victorian mansion in Midtown and began a lengthy rehab process. Over the next three years, she worked to renovate the property, converting the building into five separate apartments—all while living there through the construction process.
The experience was not without challenges.
“When I first moved to the Cass Corridor, I didn’t exactly feel safe. After purchasing the house, my dad literally handed me my grandfather’s old shotgun and said, ‘Good luck, kid!’ I lived in it for months without heat or a working shower. I was studying at the College for Creative Studies at the time, and I’d regularly show up to class covered in dust and debris. It became a signature characteristic of mine on campus.
“I grew up in a 1926 stone home, so I’ve always appreciated the period detail, character, and unique imperfections of an older house. I’ve always been drawn to the sounds of those homes, like a radiator’s steam pipes or squeaky hardwood floors. It’s very nostalgic to me, which is why I love those qualities, and I try to preserve the history of these houses whenever possible.”
It turned out to be a labor of love, however one that would alter the course of von Wormer’s life. “I loved working on my first old house so much that I changed my major from advertising and photography to interdisciplinary furniture design and interiors.” Today, von Wormer owns four additional rental properties in the area, and is working on a commercial redevelopment and a ground-up construction of “tiny houses” in the North End.
At age 26, von Wormer is already a six-year industry veteran, but she says that regardless of her experience, having a strong network of trusted advisers around her is still important. “It may be cliché, but family is a great source of advice and inspiration. I regularly look to my dad as a source of wisdom for many decisions. I also think it’s important to have good mentors and trusted professionals you can reliably turn to. My former woodworking teacher, Alan Kaniarz at AK Services Inc., is still a mentor of mine. I go to him with all kinds of questions. Truly great mentors are people you still learn from even after leaving the classroom.”
As someone who was born and raised in Detroit, von Wormer says her work is especially meaningful to her. “I love this city and being a part of the current Detroit renaissance. It brings purpose to my life, and gives me the opportunity to improve some of the past stereotypes about Detroit with my own hands.” She says that Detroit can be challenging, but also filled with corresponding opportunities.
“There’s a distinctive Detroit mind-set that is really exciting. Small businesses here tend to have an entrepreneurial edge, and a real sense of community. I look around and see lots of people with motivation and the ability to make big things happen. People like Andy Didorosi with the Detroit Bus Company. It’s thrilling to be a part of this movement.”
Even her tenant makeup reflects that love for Detroit. Von Wormer’s tenants are an eclectic group: opera singers and GM employees, art directors and European expats. They all share one thing in common: “I make a concerted effort when considering tenants to prioritize people who are interested in making this city a better place.”
Her advice to aspiring female developers?
“Regardless of gender, my advice is the same. Anyone can do this! Look for an up-and-coming area, and do your research, but don’t overthink it. Don’t be afraid to jump in with both feet, and figure it out along the way. Be bold, but also smart. I must have looked at 200 properties before I settled on my first house. Ultimately, if you really want to do something, go do it and make it happen. That’s my best advice to anyone thinking about being a landlord, and it has served me well.”
She says that you might even discover something surprising about yourself in the process. “I’ve discovered that I really enjoy taking care of people and providing a unique and personalized space to call home. It’s incredibly rewarding. My initial motivation was my passion for architecture and old houses, but now I realize seeing happy tenants in spaces they love is truly what inspires me.”