By Al Barbarino
Prior to becoming a real estate agent eight years ago, Keller Williams’ associate broker Jamella Swift was a graphic designer for major music labels like Universal and Motown, designing album covers, billboards and other marketing materials for the likes of Jada Kiss, Third Eye Blind, Lost Boyz, The Lox and DMX.
She had her share of celebrity encounters: A much younger — and even shorter — Lil Wayne used to scuttle around her offices, and she once laughed in the face, albeit unintentionally, of a then unknown rapper who liked to call himself “Eminem.”
“When he told me his name, I kind of chuckled, but I don’t think he liked me laughing about it,” Swift said, letting out what was perhaps a similar series of chuckles as those that rattled the now mega-famous rapper.
Real estate might not have seemed like the most likely career move given Swift’s background — and success — in graphic design and a slew of other creative roles.
She studied textile and fashion at Syracuse University and Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology, and in addition to her work with music labels, Swift designed greeting cards for Hallmark, and was a wardrobe dresser on Broadway shows like Cabaret, 42nd Street and Harlem Song.
She was even featured in Black Enterprise magazine as a creative entrepreneur and in ELLE Girl, American Photo and American Visions magazines for her work as a fashion stylist and designer.
But while real estate may not seem a creative job in the traditional sense, “It was time for me to do something new,” Swift said, calling it “liberating” to have stepped into a career where she acts mostly as her own boss.
She is certain that her creativity does in fact come into play, parlaying it effectively when meshing the right buyers with the right sellers. And for Swift, an empty home and a blank album cover have more in common than what initially meets the eye.
“It can be very challenging bringing people together and that process, in and of itself, is creative,” she said. “Being a creative person, I can help my clients visualize themselves living in a new home. I’m by no means an interior decorator, but I think I have some pretty good ideas, so I’ll give them some of those ideas and then take a step back.”
It was a fellow wardrobe dresser, also a practicing broker, who turned Swift onto the idea of becoming a broker eight years ago.
“When he gave me his card, it was like a light bulb went off in my head,” she said. “I went and got my license and I never looked back.”
The broker has built upon her successes proudly in the world of real estate. Prior to joining Keller Williams several weeks ago, she was a senior associate at Citi Habitats, where she was named the 2011 “Top Sales Individual of the Year” in the firm’s Union Square office.
“We are excited to welcome Jamella to Keller Williams,” said Eric Barron, CEO of the New York franchise. “Her vibrant energy and longtime expertise in handling luxury real estate in both Brooklyn and Manhattan will be a great asset to our company.”
“I feel recharged,” Swift said of her new role. “The brokers here are very hungry, and I like the fact that it’s a global company,” she added, pausing to note that “deep down inside” she likes the idea of one day moving to another country.
Swift specializes in luxury townhouse, co-op and new condominium sales throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan including Park Slope, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, DUMBO and Gramercy Park, with a particular affinity for helping first-time buyers.
“Sometimes, the money isn’t as great as someone looking for million dollar townhouse,” she said. “But it is very rewarding helping someone buy their first home.”
Perhaps her greatest reward comes as vice president and founder of Karama, a mentoring group for teenage girls between ages 10 and 14 at East New York Elementary School of Excellence.
Swift, who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, launched Karama — which stands for honor, respect and esteem in Swahili — in 2006, with the aim of giving young girls, mostly of color, inspiration.
For the group’s monthly meeting in October, she arranged for a range of artists, including an opera singer, an ad agency professional, a writer for BET, an embroidery designer and a producer at CBS, to speak with the girls.
“I can confidently say that none of them had seen a black opera singer before,” she said. “It’s very important to me to serve my community. It all started when I got the idea when I was walking through Brooklyn and just listening to young girls.
“Not to sound like a geezer, but I don’t really remember us being like that when we were in our teens.”