FROM IMMIGRANTS TO REAL ESTATE EXECS: HOW TWO FRIENDS TRAILBLAZE TOGETHER
First generation immigrants Carolyn Inoa-Monje and Mae Klinger met as freshmen at Harvard and bonded on shared values such as family, education, and hard work. Fast forward two decades – their friendship remains strong, sincere, and anchored to those same values. Carolyn is Director of Portfolio Management at Nuveen Real Estate based in Washington DC. Mae is Vice President of Asset Management at Insight Property Group, also based in DC. As friends, mothers, and business executives, they have leaned on one another to develop into leaders who pursue excellence, but also never ignore the human element.
ON BEING FIRST GENERATION IMMIGRANTS
Carolyn: My parents shaped who I am. When we came to this country from the Dominican Republic, I was five years old. My parents were in their late 20s. My father is a mechanic and worked every day of his life even on weekends to provide for the family. My mother worked two jobs, going to night school to learn English and complete her college degree. She graduated from college when I graduated from high school. My parents were the ultimate examples for me and my sister.
Mae: I was born in the Philippines. My family immigrated to the US when I was 10, and I grew up in New Jersey. My parents worked incredibly hard – my mom is a nurse and my dad worked in sales, but just making ends meet, living paycheck to paycheck. They were always very supportive and told us education is your path to success or achieving more.
THEY WERE DETERMINED TO GO TO HARVARD, AND DID
Carolyn: My parents instilled this belief that if you work hard enough, there is really nothing that you can’t do. I say that, and it almost sounds cliché, but it really was something that I believed so incredibly wholeheartedly. When I was in sixth grade I decided, “Well, I can do anything if I work hard enough. So, what I want is to go to Harvard.” It wasn’t easy, and I’m obviously skipping all the details, but I made it happen. I went to Harvard.
Mae: I had sort of the same one-track mind, like Carolyn. Our first summer in the United States, we visited Cambridge and I saw Harvard. A family friend who was our “tour guide” told me Harvard was the best school. I really knew nothing about it, but decided, “Well, if it is the best school, I want to come here for college.” Then I rubbed the foot of the John Harvard Statue for luck, which we later found out I really shouldn’t have done, because people do gross things on that foot. But yes, I also made it into Harvard.
I AM FROM THE BRONX AND I DON’T LIKE PEOPLE TOUCHING MY STUFF
Carolyn: We met at Harvard through a mutual friend. When I filled out the application that pairs you with roommates, I wrote something along the lines of, “I am from the Bronx and I don’t like people touching my stuff.” I was used to living in an apartment with three deadbolts on the door and bars on the windows to prevent break-ins and thefts, so I was always worried about securing my belongings. It was no surprise when Harvard ended up placing me in a dormitory that was all singles. My next-door neighbor in the dorm became my first friend in college, and she was a friend of Mae’s. She introduced Mae and me, and we just hit it off. We’ve been really close ever since freshman year. Being first generation immigrants has really given us a lot in common. We have surmounted a lot of the same obstacles; we share a lot of the same values.
Mae: The central thing that connected us is where we came from, our shared values, and a commitment to our studies. Harvard is such a big place and people come from all sorts of backgrounds, especially socioeconomic experience. There was (and still is) a group of five of us that keep in touch very closely, all sharing the same type of backgrounds.
MAE’S PATH TO BEING A PARTNER
Mae: I thought I was going to be an immigration and labor attorney when I entered Harvard. When I graduated, I got a fellowship to work for a local non-profit that was serving Latino immigrants. I quickly realized that I couldn’t be a lawyer though, because I get too emotionally attached. Sometimes the law is just so rigid. You either came here legally or not. These are the rules for the path to legalization or citizenship – sometimes the answer is just no. I would get too personally attached to the people and couldn’t deal with the emotions when we couldn’t help them. Through that experience, I was exposed to community development and urban revitalization, and that’s how I started getting interested in real estate. I happened to stumble on an entry level consulting position with a group called RCLCO based in the DC area, and that was the start of my real estate career.
I have switched jobs every two years, which I really need to stop, but each one has been a step up. After RCLCO, Carlyle was hiring for an analyst position in their real estate group, and that was my transition from consulting to commercial real estate and finance. I started as an analyst at Carlyle’s Asset Management Group, and then an asset manager role at Federal Capital Partners, and then I went to AvalonBay for a very brief stint as a director. Now, I work for Insight Capital.
Carolyn: She is being modest – she just keeps getting poached by companies because she is so amazing. Now, she is a partner… she forgot to mention that.
Mae: Thank you. Yes, that was pretty great. I made Partner, so I’ll be staying here forever!
HOW CAROLYN FOUND HER DREAM JOB
Carolyn: I determined early on that I wanted to be in real estate. I realized networking and relationships were important in business, but I felt I was lacking in those areas. Coming from the Bronx and being thrust into networking happy hours at places like Goldman Sachs, where I had some of my early internships, felt uncomfortable. Honestly, I would look around at these successful professionals in their fancy suits and thought to myself, “What could we possibly have in common?” I knew this was something I had to overcome. Much to the chagrin of my counselors, who always, of course, encourage us to pursue areas that you are really good at, I opted to start my career in sales. It was my way of forcing myself to get proficient at building relationships – because I knew if I didn’t it, would cost me my job and hold me back in my career, and failure was not an option. I joined GE Healthcare’s Commercial Leadership Program, went on to successfully manage a sales territory in New York, and worked in healthcare for about five years. From there, I went on to get my MBA at the University of Chicago, which served as a launching pad for me to get into real estate. After I graduated, I worked at a large REIT called Host Hotels for three years, then transitioned to a middle market real estate private equity shop here in DC. Finally, I landed where I am today, at Nuveen Real Estate, where I am a director on the portfolio management team for one of the largest diversified real estate funds in the world. It really is a dream job. I look back at everything it took for me to get here, and it’s starting to really feel like it was all worth it.
HAS YOUR FRIENDSHIP IMPACTED YOUR CAREER?
Carolyn: 100%. Mae was in the industry before I was. I did five years in healthcare, then did my MBA, and then got into real estate, but Mae has been in real estate almost since we graduated. Once I started to make the transition, Mae was my first call when I was trying to prep for an interview or a case study. As our paths converged, we have different roles in real estate but we still call each other, whether about a career transition, compensation, or what is happening in certain sectors of the industry. For example, my fund has invested in student housing. Mae was starting to think about student housing and so she came to me to get some insight there. I always go to Mae for insight on multifamily and asset management related matters, and also because Mae has been investing in the DC area for most of her career. My fund is national, but whenever I am looking at properties in DC, Mae is an expert, so I always check with her.
Mae: Carolyn has a sales background, and it helps me. She gives really great advice on how to pitch messages. When there is a conversation about a role or compensation, I definitely go to her to ask how to message and who to approach. I love that our conversations are not sugarcoated. We are very honest with each other. I may not think I’m being unreasonable, but when I share it with Carolyn, she can point out, “Here is the other side of things. Here is a different perspective or vantage point.” That has been helpful in diffusing situations both at home and at work, and having a clear mind to process things and make decisions.
IF SHE CAN DO IT, I CAN DO IT
Carolyn: Mae is as close to a sister as my own biological sister. It is a blessing to be so close and to be in the same industry so that we can support each other. Now that we are growing our families, our responsibilities are getting bigger and bigger and we are busier and busier. It helps to have that person to text late at night when the kids just went to bed and you are sleep-deprived but firing the laptop back up to finish your work. You just want to tell somebody about it that can relate. It fills you up and energizes you, like, “Okay if Mae can do it, I can do it.”
Mae: I had guilt feelings of going back to work. Having friends who are in the same boat and to talk through the process of going back to work helps. It shows that you aren’t alone. It is cliché, but there is a lot of power to that.
ADVICE FOR OTHER WOMEN
Mae: There is a lot of fear right now, but remembering the human element – that we can all help each other right now – is so important. In real estate, we might be scared that we are not going to get rent from our apartment communities. We might be worried about returns to our investors. We are certainly worried about the people who actually live in our buildings and don’t have jobs to actually pay for their rent. But the world is not really coming to an end. You might feel like that sometimes right now, but take a step back – let’s appreciate this time we have with our families and kids. Normally, it isn’t there because we are so busy during the work day.
Carolyn: Women are just so powerful. Really just superheroes. The amount that we can do, the amount that we can take on in a day is amazing. We need to relish that. Take a little moment at the end of the day to revel in everything you did and that you were able to accomplish. Like Mae said, we are in this together.