Julie Whelan grew up with real estate in her blood, but she didn’t necessarily want it for her future.
Her father, William Whelan, was a longtime dealmaker at and eventual chairman of Spaulding & Slye, a prominent real estate service firm in Boston. But Julie had little interest in the family business.
Instead, she studied human resources at Providence College, landed a nice internship with a reputable firm and felt she’d found her calling. She continued down that path after graduation, securing a full-time position at the same firm as a generalist and before she knew it she … realized HR wasn’t for her.
“That was probably one of the first deliberate actions that I took in my career,” she said. “I left human resources, where I thought I was going to grow my career.”
Eventually, she found herself back in the real estate world once again but rather than fall back on family ties at Spaulding & Slye, she continued to forge a new path for the Whelan name, leading real estate research teams at not one,but two publically traded global enterprises.
Whelan, one of eight panelists who participated in Real Estate Weekly’s seventh-annual Women’s Forum last week, believes the real estate industry needs to be smart, agile and do more to attract and retain women.
“I’ve been in the banking world and now with a real estate company, both of which are very male-dominated fields,” she said.
“When I started my career, the conversation about women in the workplace was nowhere near where it is now, but as I’ve grown and had three children, I’ve come to understand how important it is to support women in the workplace.”
After her short stint in human resources, Whelan returned to school, earning a Master’s of Business Administration from Suffolk University then, through networking, found an analyst job at State Street Corporation and eventually worked her way up to a vice presidency at the multinational bank.
She oversaw the State Street’s property database, which included 7.5 million s/f throughout more than 100 buildings in 25 countries, and analyzed that data to create global strategies.
Shortly after starting at State Street, Whelan enrolled in Boston University’s commercial real estate program to bolster her credentials.
She credits her mentors at State Street for taking the time to show her the ropes in the industry and she praised the firm for its progressive policies toward working women, which, she said, enabled her to continue climbing the corporate ladder while also starting a family.
“They valued me and the work that I did,” she said. “When you’re in a large organization like that, champions are so important because hard work needs to be rewarded but it’s not always noticed. When you have a champion that’s invested in what you’re doing, it makes it a lot easier.”
Though Whelan said she could have easily stayed at State Street her whole career, she wanted a new challenge to avoid complacency. When the opportunity arose with CBRE in 2015, she jumped at the chance to get out from behind the scenes and work with outside clients.
“Sometimes, what may be the best real estate decisions may not always be the best corporate decisions, so at State Street I was always trying to strike that balance,” she said. “On the service provider side, you’re living and breathing real estate.”
In her two-plus years at CBRE, Whelan has been impressed with the firm’s commitment to empowering its female employees, through initiatives such as its annual women’s networking forum and by keeping a tally on hiring and advancement trends for women in the organization.
“That transparency is so incredibly important so that stats are out there and we can all see what’s going on,” she said. “Not all of the stats were great, but it’s important to see how the change is happening because it doesn’t happen overnight.”
Tracking statistics and discerning trends is something Whelan has become all too familiar with during the course of her career. Lately, much of her research has focused on the increased demand for flexibility in the office market, not only in terms of co-working outfits such as a WeWork but broadly, as well.
Whelan has faith in the longevity of co-working principles, such as the idea that landlords and tenants can work together as partners. However, she’s not sure if the business model can sustain its current level of growth.
“It’s growing like gangbusters right now and if we’re still having this conversation five years from now and WeWork is still adding office space like it is, that will really be something,” she said.
“It’s still in a testing period right now and if it’s successful it will have a lot of runway ahead, but it’s important to remember that, in Manhattan, co-working is still only 1.5 percent of the office stock.”