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Female-Led Development Initiative Brings Equity to the Table  

Group of multiracial businesswomen in casuals together at office desk and looking at camera. Female startup business team portrait.

In a male-dominated industry of real estate developers, the numbers speak for themselves – and it’s where women don’t always get their fair share.  

According to nationwide statistics, women make up 36.7 percent of the commercial real estate industry, figures that have stayed about the same since 2005. Also, the women in this industry make typically less on average than their male counterparts.   

Founding members of the Michigan-based Women’s Sustainable Development Initiative, WSDI, which helps empower women commercial real estate developers, don’t only see the numbers – they feel them, too and they’re hoping to bring some change to this old boys’ club.  

A group photo of the Women’s Sustainable Development Initiative (WSDI) Board of Directors (left to right): Jill Ferrari, vice president; Lisa Berden, board member; Karen A.D. Burton, president; Brinda Devine, treasurer, and Rachele Downs, secretary.    Photo courtesy of the WSDI

WSDI, a Michigan-based non-profit organization is dedicated to supporting emerging women commercial real estate developers who incorporate environmental, social and governance components into their projects in low-income communities. Also, the initiative’s priority focus is on women who are Black, Indigenous, or persons of color.  

Five Detroit women in the commercial real estate game with 150 years of collective experience joined forces to provide capital, educational resources and networking connections.  

WSDI Board of Directors include Karen A.D. Burton, president; Jill Ferrari, vice president; Lisa Berden, board member; Brinda Devine, treasurer, and Rachele Downs, secretary.   

With the nascent non-profit organization’s focus on breaking down barriers to capital and building a supportive ecosystem of industry experts, WSDI hopes to bring more women and donors on board during the process.  

WSDI spoke to the Michigan Chronicle about its efforts to change the development ecosystem with one woman in mind at a time.  

Burton said that she and the other board members noticed a consistent pattern of inequities in the commercial real estate field with many levels of overlap among one another.  

“[We created this] so we could support each other and talk out issues during the COVID pandemic,” Burton said. “We realized we had a lot in common and a lot of the same issues in commercial real estate – no matter what fields we chose.”  

Downs told the Michigan Chronicle that Devine was one of her very first clients when she got into real estate brokerage and they have an over 25-year history together It made sense to reconnect in this new way with an intentionality behind their synergy.   

 “The five of us shared a history together both personally and professionally,” Downs said. “That allowed us to go deep quickly and recognizing the barriers to entry for women in commercial real estate and barriers higher and harder to knock down for women of color. We recognized that we have collective power, and we could leverage our experience.”  

From providing financial support and education to giving more access to decision-makers for emerging women commercial real estate developers around the U.S. – this organization is poised to help their target market but they need capital to move intensive projects forward.   

Women and minority founders historically have not received investment capital for startups, according to statistics.   

According to Crunchbase, in 2019, 2.8 percent of funding went to women-led startups. That number fell to 2.3 percent in 2020 – the 2.8 percent figure was an all-time high. In commercial real estate, these investment numbers are even worse. In addition, a 2017 study by the Bella Research Group and the Knight Foundation reports that fewer than 1 percent of senior executives in commercial real estate are women.   

Devine knows all too well the struggles.  

She told the Michigan Chronicle that she is hoping to develop a store in the NW Goldberg neighborhood in Detroit (with a tentative launch date in the fall) through her P8 Real Estate Solutions company, which she founded. Aptly named the Kornr Store, 6224 16th St., the neighborhood marketplace would help bridge the gap for grocery stores while reigniting neighboring communities. The only problem is that she is lacking the capital to help get the ball rolling.  

“You have to be creative about stacking capital,” Devine said adding that she doesn’t “have the luxury” to mess up.  

Over the last eight months, WSDI has convened focus group conversations among women in similar situations as Devine — targeted participants — to learn about the obstacles they encounter as they navigate the commercial development space.  That conversation continues. 

“We will assist experienced women from across the spectrum of commercial real estate – contractors, attorneys, architects, those who have government experience, and others – who have solid ideas for development projects. Whether they are working to secure a site, assembling their professional team or putting together their capital stack, WSDI will help them get their project built,” Burton, also a co-owner of SpaceLab Detroit and a partner in A/E Collaborative, LLC, said.  

“Finding equity investors that believe in women developers is very difficult,” Ferrari said. “Investors don’t often equate women with commercial real estate development. WSDI will help women build their existing toolbox of skills and resources to be successful commercial real estate developers. Because women don’t just build buildings – they build communities.”   

More information about the Women’s Sustainable Development Initiative can be found at www.womendevelop.org.