With all the talk of housing prices in the news lately, real estate is starting to become synonymous with residential. But in cities like New York, the industry is still very much dominated by the commercial sector.
Among those running around the skyscraper office buildings, signing contracts and calculating square footage is R0bin Fisher, senior managing director at the global CRE firm Newmark Knight Frank. She specializes in the tenant representation of financial service, legal, consumer and business consulting companies, along with domestic and international nonprofits.
Fisher joined the brokerage fresh out of Cornell University in 2004 and, in her first two years in the business, landed a record number of transactions with clients throughout the metro area. More recently, Fisher represented Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind the treasured show “Sesame Street,” in a deal that secured its 140,000-square-foot headquarters in 1 Lincoln Plaza. Also included in her roster of clients are Hale and Hearty Soups, Burger King, Mashable.com and the American Liver Foundation.
Meanwhile, Fisher is also the founder of BLACE, where she helps landlords rent out open space for corporate and private events. She also volunteers with several organizations fighting hunger and homelessness in New York and contributes to the Enterprise Foundation, which raises awareness for community development and affordable housing projects.
The power-broker’s hustle has not gone unnoticed, and Fisher is decorated with a long list of awards and recognition. She won NKF’s Rising Star Award in 2010, the Real Estate Board of New York’s Most Promising Commercial Salesperson of the Year Award in 2008 and its Young Professional of the Year Award in 2019.
But Fisher’s career hasn’t been without its own obstacles. Like many sectors of real estate, and arguably business in general, CRE is historically male-dominated. Thirty-five percent of its workforce was female as of 2015, and women earned 23% less than their male colleagues, CREW Network found. I caught up with Fisher to chat about her career and the challenges and opportunities that women encounter in her field.
Heather Senison: You majored in Spanish and American Studies at Cornell. How did you end up in commercial real estate?
Robin Fisher: I was fortunate to connect with a recruiter at Cushman & Wakefield who luckily set up a day of informational interviews during the winter break of my senior year. I was relentless in my follow up and within a few months, I had an internship in C&W’s research department. That experience afforded me a crash course in New York City office buildings and it showed me the dynamic of a brokerage firm. I also became friends with a few brokers that survived their first four years who encouraged me to get in the game since there were so few female brokers.
HS: What was the most difficult part of entering this business?
RF: Finding the right people to learn from and partner with was the biggest challenge. I’ve worked with many brokers over the years, and once I had the experience to close deals on my own, I started my own team in 2009.
HS: What was your first major deal?
I had the honor of representing Pete Peterson when he opened the Peterson Foundation in 2007. The foundation took approximately 20,000 square feet, spanning two floors at 712 Fifth Ave. It was an incredible experience that paved the way to me winning a 140,000-square-foot headquarters deal for Sesame Workshop. It was certainly a defining moment for so early in my career to be able to say I helped TV’s most cherished show find their new headquarters.
HS: Let’s talk about BLACE for a second. Why did you start the company?
RF: My favorite part about CRE has been helping clients grow and become successful in a space that suits their needs. I’m fascinated by the idea of the physical space around us and how it informs the way we live and work. To that end, as I was coming up in the business, I started to think of other creative ways landlords could utilize and monetize their vacant space in the short term. BLACE was born from that opportunity. Our goal at BLACE is to find creative and compelling ways to generate revenue for landlords that do not need to rely on finding the next office tenant, while simultaneously granting the event world access to space they wouldn’t normally be able to see. All parties benefit.
HS: The purpose of my column is to discuss women in real estate, particularly in New York City. What challenges are unique to women in CRE?
RF: The environment is the most intimidating part – the work itself isn’t. Women comprise a very small percentage of the brokerage business. Men occupy most leadership roles and represent the majority of high-profile clients, giving them the influence and confidence that reinforces the existing culture. What I’ve noticed is that as a result of this culture, women perceive that there is no place for them in CRE. We need to collectively work harder to break this cycle.
HS: What traits do women have that can make them great brokers?
RF: Well, this might seem a bit dated and may reinforce society’s gender roles and norms, but alas: Historically, women have been raised to be peacemakers, good listeners and doers. We have a long history of multitasking by juggling our partners, children, families, and event planning while being involved in professional committees or community groups. To be successful in this industry, you need to communicate clearly and help your clients find space that’s crucial for their continued success. As for multitasking, this job is all about juggling different forms of expectations, interactions, business contracts, events, research and market knowledge. It’s been my personal experience that leaning into, instead of fighting, those traits has proved effective.
HS: How can women be supported in CRE?
RF: Promoting other female talent has become so important to me. How else will we get more female participation in the industry if we aren’t willing to lift each other up and lend a hand? To do that, I have trained several female brokers and continue to give them opportunities to work on my deals where they can learn how to problem solve and make money. In my own business with BLACE, I’ve put a priority on hiring women into senior leadership positions. Both my chief operating officer and chief product officer are women, making BLACE both female-founded and female-led. I’m also incredibly proud to have a significant number of women participate in our Series A round of funding, making for a more representative cap table.
HS: Do you have any advice for women who are considering careers in CRE?
RF: I would say without hesitation that they should go for it. If you are a young woman entering the workforce or if you are thinking of changing careers and are good at problem-solving, have a strong work ethic, you’re able to learn new information on the fly and are confident in how you present yourself then this is a good career move for you. Also, it helps if you can maintain a good sense of humor as sometimes it’s the only way to deal with the 12- to 14-hour days.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.